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I completely disagree with the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush about developments in gardens. He tried to blame the problems on laws that date back to the mid-1980s when
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the issue was not a problem. I wish that Labour Members would look to the future rather than the past, and deal with current issues rather than blaming everything on previous Governments, which gets us nowhere. We are where we are in terms of planning— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Slaughter: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Philip Davies: I notice that the Minister was asking the hon. Gentleman to intervene on his behalf.

Mr. Woolas: It was my hon. Friend’s point.

Philip Davies: I shall be interested to hear what the Minister wanted said by proxy.

Mr. Slaughter: Although I have known my hon. Friend the Minister for many years, I cannot read his mind. I think his comment to me, rather than asking for an intervention, was probably not repeatable. In fact, I wanted to repeat a point that I have already made, but which the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) may have missed. The number of new dwellings on previously residential land, which includes gardens, as a proportion of all new dwellings is lower than in the late 1980s. The figures I gave were 26 per cent. in 1986 and 15 per cent. in 2004. I agree that we should not go over history, except when it is appropriate as it is in this case.

Philip Davies: I am grateful to the Minister for his intervention by proxy. I am in this place to represent my constituency of Shipley, where building in gardens has become an issue only in the last few years; it was not a problem back in the 1980s, nor even in the 1990s. Our responsibility is to deal with the issues that arise now, not those from the past.

Lorely Burt: Because there is such a wide definition of what constitutes building on previously residential land, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we cannot know what proportion of such land relates to back gardens? It is therefore difficult to work out whether the phenomenon is recent, although I agree that it has happened only recently in my constituency.

Philip Davies: I am grateful to the hon. Lady and endorse what she says. As many Members know, building on gardens is a recent, not a long-standing, problem. Such garden developments are a blight on many villages: not only do they overlook people’s property, they change the nature of villages in which people have lived for many years. Few people would think of a nice green stretch of garden as a brownfield site. For people in the country, a brownfield site would be land that was derelict or had been used industrially.

It is essential that the Government do something about the problem and I wholeheartedly endorse the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) to deal with it. At the time, the Government said that they would draw up their own proposals, so I hope that the Minister will enlighten us about how they plan to deal with the problem.

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The point that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush did not make is that many Labour Members signed my hon. Friend’s early-day motion on the subject, yet when there was an Opposition debate on a motion with exactly the same wording, they voted against it. Labour Members should have realised that they were voting against what they had signed; some of them certainly showed a degree of inconsistency.

In the villages of Baildon and Eldwick in my constituency in particular, the building of houses on gardens is a disturbing, major trend that is blighting large parts of those villages and others. I know that the local residents in Eldwick and Baildon in particular expect action. If the Government will not support this Bill or that introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells, I urge them to do something to curb this blight on many of our communities, because it is a big problem.

I would much prefer that such issues were decided by the local council, free from the threat of being taken to a planning inspector or the Secretary of State. One big disadvantage of our system generally is that local authorities often do not make the decision that they want to make but make a decision with the threat of an appeal to a planning inspector permanently hanging over them. They often approve planning applications unwillingly because they feel that they have no choice because of all the centralised planning guidance and the threat of the huge cost of an appeal hanging over them. I would much prefer that, particularly on residential developments, local authorities were given the freedom to make such decisions on the basis of what was best for their local area rather than according to the reams of planning guidance handed down to them, along with the threat of an appeal. I find some aspects of the Bill worrying, because in many respects that threat of appeal would still be hanging over them.

Mr. Slaughter: I am delighted to hear what the hon. Gentleman says about removing regulation. Does he then agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) said that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has proposed, which is the abolition of the need for planning consents on properties built after 1945?

Philip Davies: My point relates to appeals. As I think I have made clear, I want a proper process for the local authority to be the body responsible for deciding planning matters in a local area. At the moment, local authorities are blighted by the threat of a planning inspector and the Secretary of State overturning that decision. Residential developments in many constituencies are happening not necessarily because the local public want them, and not even because the local planning authority wants them, but because of all the planning guidance that comes down from central Government and the threat of an inspector and an appeal. That is the part of the planning process that I should like to tackle and I would much prefer the Bill to be far more robust in tackling the problem of central Government control over local planning decisions.

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Obviously, there needs to be some central control over planning issues such as prisons, and perhaps the building of nuclear power stations, for which a local authority may never want to give planning permission, but I would much prefer to see local authorities given far more power to make decisions on residential developments for themselves, and far less central Government interference and far less of a threat from a planning inspector.

Getting back to the gardens issue, if local authorities were given the freedom to decide these things for themselves without Government guidance and the threat of an appeal hanging over them, they would be much more likely to turn down applications for houses to be built in gardens than they are at the moment because of the current planning laws. As somebody who strongly believes in localism, that must mean giving local authorities, and even parish councils, much more say over planning matters in their locality. They surely must know best what is right for their area—certainly better than the Secretary of State or a planning inspector.

I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) about trees. The issue raised by the hon. Member for Solihull is clearly an important local one, but I would not want us to start legislating simply on the basis of one local issue in one constituency. When we are setting the laws of the land, we need to look at a wider picture than that. The issue of gardens affects almost every constituency; some of the other issues may be more parochial. I am sure they are important in Solihull, but they may be less important elsewhere.

I welcome the thrust of the Bill. It takes us in the right direction, although I have some concerns about the detail, as I have outlined. I hope the Government will support the Bill, but if not, I hope they will introduce proposals to give local authorities more powers and local residents more control over what goes on in their locality. We must get rid of the nanny state mentality whereby the Government want to interfere in every aspect of everyone’s life and every aspect of every local decision. They should give up some of their power and control, and trust local councils and local people to make the right decision for their area.

12.51 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on her success in introducing the Bill. I also congratulate its drafters, who have allowed us to hold such a wide-ranging debate on so many subjects that give rise to some controversy. Every contributor has disagreed with practically every other on the detail, if not the principle, of all the subjects discussed. That shows that Fridays are useful for stretching the brain, if nothing else.

I thank my hon. Friends who contributed to the debate. The wide range of points on referendums adds substance to my earlier comment about the wide range of ideas expressed. If the Bill proceeds, all these matters will doubtless be covered in greater detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made a key point when he said that the Bill was an object lesson demonstrating how legislation should not
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be drafted to generalise from a particular case in the hon. Lady’s constituency. I do not know the details, other than what she told us. One can sympathise with the difficulty that she faces, but one is left with various questions that I hope she will be able to answer when she sums up.

For example, have the local authority or the developers provided any other open and amenable space to replace that which may disappear? Without being too party political, perhaps I could ask the hon. Lady to tell us whether and at what stage in the saga—I assume it is a saga—the Liberal Democrats supported or made no comment on the proposal, or whether it is merely a bandwagon that she has been able to use in recent months. It would be helpful to have that information.

I promise not to take as much time as some other seasoned Friday contributors, for which everybody will be enormously grateful. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is clearly working hard to take over from my sadly missed colleague, Eric Forth. Almost all the contributions on clause 1 dealing with the sale of parkland indicated the scale of the opposition that there could be, unless the hon. Lady was able to amend the Bill so significantly that the result would be a totally different provision on the sale of parkland by any public or even private body.

We have talked at great length about the pleasures and difficulties of local referendums. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) pointed out that many local authorities—including my own—already hold the equivalent of referendums when they wish to gauge local people’s views on issues such as parking schemes. Inevitably, 50 per cent. are for and 50 per cent. are against, so it comes back to the local authority making a decision, as they are elected to do. Leaving aside the costs and other technicalities, I am not sure that we would be much further forward if we were to have such referendums.

My husband is the leader of East Sussex county council, which recently had a parish referendum on whether a village should remain part of the parish. The residents of the village voted to leave the parish, and the rest of the parish voted for the village to remain. That left the matter no further forward and indicates some of the difficulties with local referendums.

I was taken aback by clause 2 on parkland associations, because in my constituency and the wider London borough of Bromley there are many local people who are friends of the parks. They attract much support and do much good work, encouraged by the council. The clause is redundant, because there is nothing to stop concerned people setting up parkland associations. I cannot believe that a local authority would be anything other than delighted, because many parkland associations do the work that local councils cannot do because of the miserly Government settlement.

Like many of my hon. Friends, I support in principle what the hon. Lady is trying to achieve in clause 3, and I was a sponsor of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), which would have dealt with the issue much more effectively. At least we have had a chance to debate the hon. Lady’s Bill.

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The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) tried to blame the Conservatives for the problems with garden grabbing, but he condemned the Government’s actions from his own lips when he cited the planning guidance that we introduced in the 1980s on developments “in character”. Those of us who were involved in politics at that time, although not necessarily as Members of Parliament, will remember that the thinking behind that was to allow elderly people living in big family houses to build a house in the garden, in keeping with the rest of the property. We have tiptoed round the difficulty that has emerged since this Government promulgated the view that there should be greater density of housing. That gave developers the green light to apply to build blocks of 48 flats in back gardens. It is that policy of increasing density, not the development of back gardens as such or our original planning guidance, that is at fault. About two years ago, I had the privilege of raising that issue in an Adjournment debate, when I pointed out—and the Minister cheerfully agreed—that in my constituency the Government wished to increase density from 30 houses an acre to 50. That would, of course, completely change the nature of my constituency, by turning it into an area of inner-city density. People do not live in the outer suburbs of London because they wish to live in the inner city. If they wished to live in the inner city, they would move to the inner city.

That is the underlying pressure that is causing the problem that is reported in this afternoon’s Evening Standard. The headline reads:

and the article begins by stating:

It states that 62 per cent. of new homes in Croydon are built on previously developed land, and that the figure for Islington is 60 per cent. and for Bromley, my borough, it is 46 per cent. That highlights the pressure that there is, and why our constituents are so concerned. Throughout England and Wales, there is revulsion about blocks of flats inappropriately being built in back gardens.

I have huge sympathy with clause 4 on the right to appeal against grants of planning permission, because the developers go on and on and on, until, through attrition, the local residents die from frustration if not old age. However, like so much else of the Bill, the clause needs to be much better thought through to ensure that a balance is maintained so that some development can go ahead, because Members in all parts of the House agree that there is a need for more housing. A blanket provision such as this would not create the best balance in the planning system.

On the guidance on protection of trees, I do not think that any one—including the Conservative party, with its brave new logo—would be against the idea of ensuring that venerable trees are saved as much as possible. It is part of the negotiation that a good planning department will have with a developer that trees should be retained where they have some value. However, the proposal of the hon. Member for Solihull would be yet another expense to the taxpayer, because part of the reason why local authorities cannot give as much protection to trees as they might like is that it
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costs money, and there is a taxpayers’ revolt against council tax——indeed, against paying any more tax, given how highly taxed the country now is.

I do not wish to say anything more, which will allow the Minister and the hon. Member for Solihull time to respond. We broadly agree with the drift of the Bill, but, in common with every Member who has spoken, we have serious reservations about how effectively it would deal with the problem that the hon. Lady highlights.

1.4 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on achieving this debate on her Bill on the Floor of the House, especially as she has only recently become a Member. I had huge differences with her predecessor, but he too was a champion for her constituents, and I am glad to see that he has been succeeded by another such Member.

The debate has been good, important and timely. It airs issues that are being debated around the country. It is such a shame that the British media choose not to report what is of interest to the public; if they did, perhaps they would find their sales going up rather than down.

We have had some very good contributions from all parts of the House, in a genuine debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller)—he has offered his apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker, for having to leave early on constituency business—spoke comprehensively. He discussed his own constituency and office, and asked whether buildings within designated parks and open spaces would be included in the guidelines. The answer is that where such buildings are associated with the sporting or recreational use of the open space, they would be covered, and where they are not, they would not. In lay person’s language, that means that an outbuilding used for lawnmowers and suchlike, or a tea room that is part of the recreational facilities, would be included as part of the park. However, a house that is completely separate from the park land—and, indeed, from my hon. Friend’s office—would not be covered. I am not sure whether that was the answer that he wanted regarding the implications for his office, but it does at least confirm that he was right in his assumption.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) spoke comprehensively and with great knowledge. He pointed out that in his view, the Bill faces two ways: it tries to empower, but it also tries to impose. He had some strong criticisms of the policy proposals from the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), which I will come to in a moment. My hon. Friend gave the example of cemeteries that are owned by Westminster council, but are in the borough of Barnet, pointing out the potential difficulty, therefore, in knowing whom to approach. I can also envisage circumstances in which a park is within one borough but its users are mainly from another borough or area. That of course raises the age-old problem of how far one devolves such powers.

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