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Mr. Evans: I accept that. I would not argue, even at this stage, that we should introduce online voting in local authority and general elections. My biggest concern about referendums being carried out online is fraud. The public must have confidence in the voting method that they use, and until internet voting is improved, we have reservations about it. But we need to think outside the box, rather than assuming that a
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referendum needs to be a £250,000 exercise in which people turn out at polling stations and put crosses on pieces of paper. There are problems even with that system, with people being away, ballot papers going missing and so on.

No method is foolproof, but the concept that the hon. Lady proposes in her Bill could well be extended to other issues. Let us start somewhere. I am in favour of extending democracy. We all speak about devolution in this place, but we pay lip service to it. The best way to devolve any decision is to leave it to individuals to decide. If the public delegate the decision to their local authority, they have no more say about it. The issue in the hon. Lady’s constituency may never have been debated at the time of the last local election. All of a sudden it turns up and the public have had no say in it whatsoever. That is where a referendum would come in handy.

Lorely Burt: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. Another problem with local democracy arises when specific communities are represented by parties other than the party which has overall control in that area. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to hear that I am not seeking to make any more political points, but if the party that has control is carrying out some project in an area where opposition party members have been elected, that is not good for democracy. In the Shirley area, local people feel as though they have been forgotten, and that is potentially damaging.

Mr. Evans: I agree. That is why the Bill needs further attention in Committee and more detailed inspection. By its very nature, parkland sometimes sprawls over more than one local authority area. I have a great deal of open land in my area and people from all over Lancashire and the north-west come to visit it. They feel a sense of possession of that land and would feel aggrieved if a decision were taken in which they could have no say. I recognise that there would be a problem in extending a referendum to regular visitors to a parkland, but we need to ensure that everyone in the vicinity who would be affected has a vote.

I have sympathy with clause 4, which provides for a right to appeal against the granting of planning permission. One of my six private Members’ Bills dealt with that. I am in favour of the public being able to have a further say when local authorities are deemed to have given planning permission.

My final comment is about the trees, which have been mentioned time and again. The decision to fell a 350-year-old oak tree—if it was not dangerous or diseased—is appalling. It is shameful that something as historic and probably as beautiful—I have not seen it—as that grand oak has been felled. Has it been felled already?

Lorely Burt: No.

Mr. Evans: In that case, I hope the local authority will think again. If it goes ahead with the development, I hope that it will be imaginative and find a way of preserving the tree.

On suburban and urban issues, I have sympathy with the comments of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port
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and Neston. The provisions must allow for flexibility in areas that are exposed to gales and hurricanes, where trees may be endangered, even on farmers’ fields. They must be careful to ensure that anything dangerous is dealt with or they could become liable. Local authorities would be in the same position. Although it is subject to interpretation, any legislation must be flexible enough to allow them to deal with it.

We should be more imaginative about the ways in which we conserve and preserve trees. Where trees must be felled to make way for development, the developer should be obliged to replace a tree that is felled with a number of other trees, to ensure that the environment is not damaged. We can consider the Bill in detail upstairs in Committee. Clearly it needs further attention, and we will all want to table amendments, but at least let us give it the chance of going into Committee. I congratulate the hon. Lady.

11.6 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on bringing these important issues before the House. I do not think I have ever been to Solihull, I have no intention of going there, and I am not even sure exactly where it is, except somewhere in the middle, but like the hon. Lady, we in my area suffer from a Conservative council, which is not as robust as it should be on a number of planning issues, to put it mildly.

I welcome the broad thrust of the Bill. It aims to protect the green belt and tackle some of the problems of overdevelopment. It is wrong to say that people who care about their local environment and the character of their area are nimbys. They are not. They are people with genuine concerns. The task for Government—national Government or local government—is to find the right balance between protecting the character of an area and meeting the desperate housing need of people who live in the area and are not being provided for. That is a difficult balance to strike, whether at national strategic level, at city-wide level as we grapple with it through the Mayor of London’s pronouncements on what we should be doing about housing, or at local level. There are often tensions between the different levels of government in that respect.

In my area we are extremely concerned about the extent of development that is likely to be undertaken. In my constituency, for example, over the next 10 years or so, I am expecting 10,000 to 15,000 extra households. That is in just one constituency. In the borough as a whole, we face the prospect of three to four times that—a huge amount of development. It is the fastest-growing part of London in terms of housing development, which impacts significantly on the character of the area and on the level of public services being provided. One of my main concerns about our local authority’s approach is that it does not seem to be coming to grips with the demand on public services that that additional growth will create, yet it sometimes seems to adopt a “rabbit in the headlights” approach to some of the applications coming its way. We need to think ahead about education, health—not only primary care, but acute care—roads and more mundane things like sewerage, water, electricity and gas
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supplies. The hon. Lady has done a real service in bringing these issues before the House.

I referred to the huge problem in my constituency. However, density is not necessarily a bad thing. I am not sure whether this is apocryphal or not, but the most densely developed area in Britain is the Royal crescent in Bath. That shows that with good design, density does not have to look horrible or make the area an unpleasant place to live. The challenge is how we can create the mixed communities that we need, using good design and making better use of land.

One of my main concerns with the Bill is that it appears to be facing two ways at once. It is somewhat dirigiste, centralising powers and taking them away from local authorities, yet other aspects of the Bill try to devolve powers down to the lowest possible level. As such, it may fall between two stools. I shall develop the point later.

We must be careful not to interfere too much with the powers of local planning authorities. Indeed, we should give them more powers. I am one of the signatories to the early-day motion which suggests that local authorities should be able to impose stronger requirements, for example in relation to energy efficiency in buildings to tackle climate change, going beyond the existing building regulations, which they are not allowed to do at present. In fact, local authorities should be encouraged to do that, rather than discouraged as they are at present.

I take issue with suggestions by the Opposition, as expressed by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who is reported to have made proposals to his leader, under the “quality of life” heading, to scrap building regulations and abolish the need for planning permission for alterations to non-listed, non-conservation area housing built after 1945. That would be a disastrous policy. The policy area “quality of life” also provokes a wry smile from me, because that was the name of the policy adopted by Lady Porter and Westminster city council—most hon. Members will know that I was the leader of the Labour group on the council during her evil regime—to mask her abuse of the planning policies of the council to gerrymander the area for her own political ends. Part of the gerrymandering scheme was never actually brought to light because the district auditor drew stumps after examining the housing allocation policy and did not examine the wider policies adopted. In any case, it is interesting to note that the phrase “quality of life” has been resurrected in Tory party policy.

Having said that I welcome the broad thrust of the hon. Lady’s intentions, I turn to the Bill itself. She has admitted, with reason, that the Bill is poorly drafted. Unfortunately, we have to address the Bill as it is before us today, not as she would like it to be. If the late Eric Forth had been here, he would have had little trouble in taking the Bill apart, and I shall seek to emulate him in expressing my concerns about it, as it is something of a curate’s egg.

On introducing a private Member’s Bill, hon. Members should apply some basic principles if they wish it to make progress. It should be relatively modest, it should attract cross-party support, and it should cost
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nothing or very little. My concern is that although the Bill has a degree of cross-party support for its objectives it is not very modest, as the hon. Lady has tried to pack too many aims into it. Each of the separate clauses of the Bill could be a private Member’s Bill in its own right. Perhaps she has been a little ambitious. The more issues in a Bill, the more likely it is that someone will object to one of them, leading to the downfall of the Bill.

I am also concerned that the Bill has no price tag. I raised that point in an intervention in the hon. Lady’s speech earlier, and it is incumbent on the House to have a rough idea of how much legislation will cost before passing it. We also need to know where the costs will fall, be it on the Government or local government, and on the respective taxpayers. People in my constituency are very concerned about the level of their local taxes, and the Bill contains no provision for the costs to be defrayed.

My main concern crops up in the first line of the long title, which reads:

I take exception to the word “sale”, which means disposing of land permanently, in this case presumably to a developer. But how does that address the problem of the multifarious ways of developing land that may not involve sale? For example, in my constituency, the local authority is engaged in three major regeneration schemes of council estates—Spur Road/Stonegrove, West Hendon and Grahame Park—and it has come up with all sorts of complicated arrangements and partnership deals. It is arguable whether the land is being sold, leased or is still partly in the council’s ownership. One could argue that it had been sold for £1, but a case could also be made for the opposite view. By restricting the Bill to sale of land, the hon. Lady would create a series of loopholes for local authorities to use, if they were so minded.

The Grahame Park estate is a major regeneration scheme designed to create a large number of additional homes in the area. I take grave exception to the scheme because it will provide no additional social housing. Indeed, it will result in the net loss of social housing units, which is bizarre. It is funded by a large growth of properties for sale, but part of the scheme involves building on a significant area of green land around the pond. It is a dense scheme and it will eat into the green land on the estate. One of the key issues is the way in which the local authority has consulted people, and it has not had a ballot of those living in the area affected, as the hon. Lady suggests should happen. It would have given the scheme more credibility if proper ballots had been held, focused on the area. I agree with the hon. Lady on that point, and it has certainly been a controversial issue on the estate and more widely.

I am also concerned that the long title states that the Bill applies only to local authorities—an issue that I took up in an intervention in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who helpfully raised the issue of land owned by the Ministry of Defence. My constituency contains a lot of MOD land, much of which is called Inglis Barracks and will probably be sold off next year when the British Forces Post Office moves from the site to its brand new premises elsewhere in London. That will release an enormous site for housing development,
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most of which is green, but will probably be classed as brownfield land under any normal assessment. That disposal would not be covered by the Bill.

My constituency also contains the old Hendon airfield, which was the first in the country and a major second world war airfield. It has been nibbled away and built on over the years, and the MOD disposed of the last big chunk about 10 years ago. It was called the RAF East Camp site and it is now a major housing development. Although it was technically a brownfield site, before construction started it certainly looked like a greenfield site. There are difficulties of definition of brownfield, greenfield and parkland, and the land in question would certainly have fallen within the scope of clause 1(1)(e). While it may have been a brownfield site, it had certainly contributed to biodiversity in the area. The Bill is broadly drawn, and would probably have caught that site.

Large NHS sites are also disposed of, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The new Edgware hospital, opened by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last spring, was in large part financed against the sale of land no longer required on the site. It was a brownfield site that will be redeveloped for housing, and that was a beneficial land disposal. In the not too distant future, the Colindale hospital site will be disposed of, after the elderly residential patients are moved out. The land around the hospital is mostly parkland.

Andrew Miller: My hon. Friend’s remarks highlight the point that I made about referendums. In that instance, a referendum of those living in the area covered by the hospital trust might have produced one result, and a referendum of the immediate residents another. A referendum of my hon. Friend’s constituents might have produced yet another result. That shows the difficulties with the definitions in the Bill.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I shall develop later in my remarks. The Edgware hospital site is actually on the frontier of my constituency, and of the London borough of Barnet with the London borough of Harrow. People on the Harrow side—and the Brent side, which is a little further south—would have had a large say in whether the hospital should be redeveloped as it has been, to create the brand new community hospital. Under the phraseology in the Bill, they would have been excluded from that decision-making process. Therefore my hon. Friend makes an important point, and I shall later give a few further examples of the possible impact of it.

I have concerns about the disposal of land by other bodies. We have mentioned the MOD and the NHS, but there are many other public authorities that perhaps ought to have been caught—especially as, if the disposal is being done by central Government, that is far more democratically remote than if it is done by a local authority. Even if the Bill is not enacted, if a decision is made to dispose of land, the local authority can, in theory at least, be voted out by the local people, whereas the decision-making processes at national level are far more remote. Although individual Members might jump up and down about particular disposals, they will obviously be relatively less influential than
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members of local authorities at local level. In that context, the point is stronger.

Clause 1(1)(a) refers to

I am concerned that there is no definition of how big that area is. Is it the whole county? If we were to look at any county, we would probably find that there are

dotted around it. There is no definition of how dense that scattering may be. In fact, “scattering” implies the opposite of dense; it implies a less dense spread of trees than the hon. Member for Solihull might wish.

Lorely Burt: It means the area that is being sold; that is what falls within that definition.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that clarification, but it will not do. It could be an area with one tree on it—or perhaps two trees—that was being sold, and that could be part of a much bigger piece of parkland. In such circumstances, the hon. Lady might like to think about whether this provision might allow development “bite and hold”, nibbling away a bit at a time. Therefore, I wonder whether the hon. Lady ought to be looking at this matter a little more broadly—although perhaps not as broadly as my more extreme suggestion. There is a problem in that regard.

The second provision in the clause is otiose. Why does subsection (1)(b) state,

That either is or is not a relevant factor, and if it is neither, it should not be in the Bill, because if it is included, that will simply create money for members of my former profession, who will argue about what those words mean. They are otiose. The hon. Lady either wants this provision included or she does not, but she cannot have it both in and out at the same time, which effectively is what the subsection proposes.

To move on, the phrases “public garden” and “purposes of public recreation” are relatively straightforward, but what exactly does “a disused burial ground” mean? Often, large parts of burial grounds are disused while other parts some distance away are used. In that context, let me refer back to my experience on Westminster city council. Most people are aware of the appalling scandal of the Lady Porter regime—one of its first scandals—when it sold three cemeteries for 5p each, and the asset stripping that came with that. Coincidentally, although Westminster city council owned the cemeteries, two of them were situated in the London borough of Barnet—one of them in my constituency, and another in the neighbouring constituency of Finchley and Golders Green.

If we are to dispose of such cemeteries, this question arises: who will be consulted as part of a referendum? Will it be the relatives of people buried in the cemetery; Westminster council tax payers, who own the cemeteries that are being disposed of or London borough of Barnet residents, where the cemeteries are situated? I would have been happy with any of those options, if they had been in force at the time when Lady Porter decided to sell off the cemeteries.

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