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I do not see why they should not already do so. Independent elected officials do not need to wait for
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me or any other Member of the House—or the Secretary of State—to give them permission to establish such an association. Clause 2 also says:

I believe, however, that the House already gives Secretaries of State far too much power to regulate, and to give them the power to regulate parkland associations that are, at the moment, rather ill-defined would be very unwise.

I enjoyed reading clause 3, and I support most of its provisions. However, I have already mentioned that the Bill covers too many issues—indeed, the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) deals with the development of private gardens in a lot more detail. I recognise, however, that including clause 3 has given us another opportunity to support the move to make building on the back gardens of private houses slightly more difficult.

Clause 4 is about the right to appeal against planning permission granted by local government. Again, that is a laudable provision, but I am not sure that it fits particularly well in the Bill. In Southend, some of the ugliest buildings were built by the local authority. Certainly, the civic centre, which was built in the 1950s and ’60s, would benefit from demolition. If one went around any town centre pointing out the worst buildings, one would find that they were usually built by the local authority or by Government. The same duty of care, and the same protections in respect of quality of architecture, should apply to local government and Government buildings, and to private sector buildings.

Clause 6 on the protection of trees is interesting but, again, the subject is very complicated, and I suspect that any measure that could do it justice would run to many pages. A number of hon. Members expressed concern about the phrase “urban or suburban”, and the hon. Member for Solihull responded on that point. I suggest exempting agricultural land—that would do the job, and it seems that it would not present any further problems. Several hon. Members spoke about problems arising from different species of tree, and the lack of a definition of large and mature trees. Certainly, that needs to be sorted out.

There has been a lot of emotive talk about the 350-year-old oak tree. I do not want to go into detail because I do not know the specifics of the situation, but we should be careful about making broad, sweeping statements. There are cases in which one could imagine cutting down even the oldest of trees to build something, even if the building were something as lowly as a supermarket. If the whole community has to travel 30 miles in polluting cars to get to a supermarket; if an extra road, which would cause further pollution, is needed so that people can get to that supermarket; and if, as part of the developer’s proposal, 100 new oak trees were to be planted, perhaps the equation does balance. Often, when we oppose a development, we pick on certain features of the case because they sound good; a lesser spotted butterfly or a very rare oak is good for PR, but that does not necessarily make for good legislation.

I share the concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber about the lack of detail
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about expenditure in the Bill. It occurs to me that it does not make sense for the Crown to pay for all of the measures. If a supermarket is looking to build in an area, and the local authority, or indeed this House, decides that a referendum is needed, surely it is for the supermarket to pay for that referendum as part of its costs. I remind hon. Members that I do not agree with holding such referendums, but if the Bill were enacted, and referendums were required, surely it would be for the supermarket or the developer to pay for them.

On clause 9, it is a personal bugbear of mine that unitary authorities never seem to be mentioned in legislation. I represent a constituency in which there is a unitary authority, and we feel a little left out. The Minister for Local Government looks at me quizzically. I have raised the subject before, and I understand that unitary authorities are covered by the terms “county council” and “district council”, but we do feel like the poor relation. In addition, it strikes me that, simply to avoid wasting paper, it would be much more efficient if we set out a definition of local authorities in one piece of legislation, rather than having to do so in every Bill, which makes no sense whatever.

I am sure that the hon. Lady will want to reflect on clause 10, and the good points made by the hon. Member for Hendon about the two-month period and what will happen to existing applications. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) made some good suggestions, too. Perhaps we could block new sales, if the Bill were made law.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull on the Bill, but because of the number of problems with it, I will not support it in its current state. However, it has provided a great opportunity to discuss a number of important issues.

12.20 pm

Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I fear that I shall be less complimentary about the Bill than some of my hon. Friends. There is nothing wrong with its principle. Indeed, I applaud it, and there is not an hon. Member who would fail to approve the principle of maintaining public open space. Conservative Members have characterised their party as one of low taxation—I would argue that it is therefore a party of poor services—and I hope that our party is one of minimal, light-touch legislation. I therefore believe that the Bill which, for the most part, is fussy and nannyish, is largely unnecessary.

I was going to confine myself to clause 3, but I shall illustrate my point with brief reference to other clauses. How widespread, for example, is the evil that clause 1 is designed to address? I applaud the wording of clause 1(1)(a), which refers to

That is pastoral if not Arcadian language, and I compliment the hon. Member for Solihull on her drafting skills. I do not have a great deal of pastoral land in my constituency, with the exception of the area around Wormwood Scrubs, which enjoys the protection of statute and, more importantly the Army, which exercises there, but there is some open space. Because my constituency is densely populated, such
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space is rare, so it is even more precious than it is to the constituents of hon. Members who have large areas of open space in their constituencies. In the past 30 years, I can recall only one successful attempt to build on parkland. Inevitably, it was a Conservative council that decided for reasons that are now lost in the mists of time to construct town houses on the edge of the beautiful Victorian Ravenscourt park just outside my constituency. It was a sin and a crime, and the council were soon thrown out for that and many other offences. The case for legislation is debatable, because over the years I have discovered that popular opposition to such schemes is easily mobilised, particularly with the advent of better means of communication such as the net.

Like a number of hon. Members, I am not a fan of referendums, partly because the public are not fans, and turnout is often lamentably low. If referendums are to be part of our constitutional structure, they should be reserved for major constitutional issues, as has been the case in the past. We have held referendums on the then common market and on devolution, and we may hold one on the euro in future. A referendum on the sale of land is, however, too specialised. Unfortunately, for the first time in 20 years, there is a Conservative council in one of the boroughs in my constituency. In the past four weeks, it has decided to close one of the largest schools in the borough without proper consultation, to sack every home help and to tear up the affordable rented housing programme. All those issues are as important to my constituents as the issue raised by the hon. Lady.

Are we to have referendums on every issue that comes up locally? Is that not something that we are all familiar with the Liberal Democrats doing—changing their mind about deciding when they want to use one route and when they want to use another? Having elected a local authority, for good or ill, there are other ways to put pressure on it than constant resort to referendums, which might not have a great deal of validity, as we have seen from some voluntary referendums on raising tax levels.

Equally, in relation to clause 5 and the points made about trees, which featured a lot earlier in the debate, there are tree preservation orders as well as well-laid-down regulations and local authority powers to protect trees. I agree that those are abused—often, if not by local authorities, then by developers—but it is my submission that the remedy, again, is in process, not corrective legislation.

To come to clause 3, which is perhaps the clearest in the Bill, I fear that the hon. Member for Solihull is being led up the garden path by the Conservative party. Before the long recess, I took part in an Opposition day debate—I do not know whether she did so too—but I found that debate quite surreal. If I recall correctly, only the day before the debate was held the subject was changed from general housing policy to the narrow and specific issue of, as it is put, building on back gardens.

I found that a peculiar choice of subject for a reason that might inform and help the hon. Lady in considering whether she wants to proceed with the Bill. Contrary to what the Conservative party has said, the classification of back gardens as brownfield land originated in 1985, under a Conservative Administration. Indeed, as late as 1992, planning guidance said:

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Since the Labour Government were elected in 1997, development on previously residential land—that, of course, is not back gardens, but could be the footprint of a house or another property—has dropped dramatically. In 1986, the proportion of ordinary dwellings built on previously residential land stood at 26 per cent., whereas it was down to 15 per cent. in 2004. The hare has been set running, but by the people responsible for the original offence, and that offence has been largely addressed.

If the hon. Member for Solihull intends to pursue the clause, I must return to the point that I made during an intervention. There is a well tried and trusted planning process in this country, although it is not always reliable because organisations and human beings are fallible. It is largely delegated to local authority level and subject to checks—not principally at Secretary of State level, but at planning inspectorate level. Any scheme that flies in the face of what the locally elected representatives and local residents want has a poor chance of succeeding.

It is a myth that, willy-nilly, any developer or householder can make a quick buck without any reference to the planning authority. Of course, that would not be the case if the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) had his way and Conservative party policy changed to allow that untrammelled development, but only untrammelled development for post-1945 properties, because, presumably, that does not matter. I do not know how many post-1945 properties there are in some of the leafier and coastal constituencies around the country, but there are quite a lot in my constituency, such as the South Acton estate, the largest housing estate in west London, which is subject to substantial redevelopment plans. The incoming Conservative council in Ealing seems intent on pursuing a substantial intensification of density and use of that estate, including taking away much of the green land. The estate is unique in the sense that although many people live there and it is large, it has some very pleasant green areas. Those are likely to disappear if the Conservative council has its way with its development plan.

I do not hold the hon. Lady responsible for the Conservative party facing two ways. I am simply asking her to be careful. As my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) illustrated, although on the one hand the Conservatives appear to be fully in support of the Bill, on the other the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal is in favour of unrestricted planning. Presumably, to trump that, we have the proposal by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) for cities in the sea. In fairness to him, I read the report on that in the Financial Times, and although my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon correctly gave the right hon. Gentleman’s view that the country could solve its flooding and housing shortage
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problems by building Venice-style “cities in the sea” along the Thames estuary and the fens, according to the report

The right hon. Gentleman calls that a “bold vision”, which encompasses a

I began to get visions of Ozymandias at that point—

homes. He stressed that

which may or may not be right.

I referred to that article for two reasons. First, as a warning to the hon. Lady—although I am sure that she does not need a warning from me—to be careful with whom she shares her platform. Secondly, because there may be more roguish elements of overdevelopment to which she could turn her attention. I do not seek to associate her with the unrestricted-development wing of the Conservative party, but I fear that there is a danger not only of encumbering the statute book with overwrought legislation, but also of tarring her party with the same brush that has blotted the record of the Conservative party.

I do not want to repeat what I said in the debate before the summer recess, but when I thought about and puzzled over why, at the last moment, the Conservative party changed from a general debate on housing policy, on which there is much to be said, to a narrow debate about back gardens, I concluded that it was because of, for want of a better term, dog-whistle politics. When there is such a degree of housing need, which I am sure is as true in the hon. Lady’s constituency as it is in my own, of all types—including the intermediate market and, in particular, affordable and social rented housing—we need to consider the signal that is sent on that, whether by the Conservative party or the Liberal party. The central and crucial issue is, in fact, a non-issue, and the Labour Government have addressed the possible designation of back gardens as brownfield sites. If we say, however wrongly, that that is the key issue in housing policy, what that says to me and my constituents who are living in overcrowded conditions, who are on housing waiting lists or who cannot get their first foot on the property ladder is: we do not want to build; we want to stop building, wherever possible.

I am not saying that that was the hon. Lady’s intention in drafting the Bill or that particular clause, but I highlight the danger of her and her party becoming tarred with the same brush—one of accelerated nimby-ism and a callous disregard for those who are in housing need. I acknowledge that that is not the hon. Lady’s intention and I applaud the principle of the Bill, but I believe that we do not need it.

12.35 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): We have had an interesting and worthwhile debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on introducing
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a Bill on an important issue. I come largely to praise the Bill, not to bury it, but I have a few concerns about the detail. I am happy to support the Bill on the ground that, if it were introduced, even in its present state, it would leave us in a better position than we are in now. I would like to improve it in Committee, but we should not lose sight of the Bill’s considerable merit in moving us in the right direction. We should support the Bill’s general thrust.

I, too, have many concerns about referendums. My main criticism of the Bill would be that it seeks at all levels to bypass the local authority. In some ways, a referendum would bypass the local authority and in others we would still end up with central Government control over the planning system. I would rather see us move in the direction of giving much more responsibility to local authorities for planning matters in their areas rather than relying on either a referendum or on central Government control over planning. That is my main criticism, but the Bill still moves us in a better direction.

I genuinely believe in local democracy. I believe in localism and I am delighted that the Conservative party under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is moving in that direction. I support it wholeheartedly. If we really believe in localism, local democracy is what we should support. There is no more emotive issue for local authorities to discuss and decide than planning. It raises people’s hackles and it is the issue that most people living in a local area are concerned about. If local democracy and local councils are to mean anything, we must give those councils responsibility over local planning decisions.

Local council elections are a key feature of local democracy, but if we take planning issues away from councils and put them to a referendum, we will get even lower turnouts than in many local elections. I prefer decisions on planning to be taken mainly by the local authority, and in particular in respect of residential developments, by local authorities alone. I do not accept that central Government or a planning inspector from Bristol can know better than the local democratically elected council what is best for a local area. I thus prefer moving away from the idea of referendums towards giving local authorities the responsibility for taking decisions.

I hasten to add that I am not against referendums per se and there are sometimes circumstances in which a referendum is appropriate, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said. On issues of constitutional importance, referendums are very important. I greatly favour a referendum on our continuing membership of the European Union. I suspect that it may be a while before we get one, but referendums should be confined to such issues of national importance rather than being conducted willy-nilly for every planning application. Once we start down the track of holding local referendums for some planning applications, there will be a clamour to extend the process to all of them. The whole system could get out of hand.

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