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The accusation that is sometimes made that the number of sports fields and facilities in our schools has gone down is therefore unfair, because it does not take into account the net position. Those tough criteria applied to schools, through the requirement to show
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that there is a surplus of facilities in the community, apply also—through planning policy guidance note 17 —to public parks and open spaces.

Clause 2 would give local authorities a new power to establish parkland associations, and it would require those authorities to ensure that such associations were representative of the local community. As the hon. Member for Solihull explained, the clause would also allow the Secretary of State to make regulations about parkland associations. Although we want to encourage community engagement, creating a new, specific regulatory structure for parks is neither necessary nor desirable, and I shall try to persuade hon. Members of that.

It is not necessary to give local authorities new powers to create parkland associations, because in many areas local authorities and communities are already implementing such arrangements—for example, through the creation of trusts and through the “friends of” groups that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and I mentioned. Furthermore, I am not sure that it is clear from the Bill how the creation of parkland associations would give parklands more protection from development pressures—and increased protection is, of course, the main intention behind the Bill.

The Bill does not suggest to whom such associations would be accountable, and it does not make clear whether they could represent and protect the interests of the local community better than the elected council. Requiring local communities to manage all council green space would impose a financial and resource burden that many communities may not have the capacity to handle. That would, in turn, threaten the renaissance of parks and green spaces. The proposal goes against the idea of giving local authorities greater flexibility to act as leaders in carrying out such strategies in their communities, and it goes against the idea of working in partnership with other bodies and community organisations. In short, although the provision is well intended, I fear that it could impose another layer of bureaucracy.

Proposals for community management of urban green spaces should instead continue to be considered and developed as part of a wider strategy on neighbourhood and citizen engagement. I hope that that encourages the hon. Member for Solihull. I can tell her that her Bill has influenced policy development on the matter, as her suggestions made a great deal of sense. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, as it then was, worked in partnership with the Home Office to establish the community and management work group, which involves experts from the voluntary and community sector. It has commissioned research on the benefits of community ownership and/or management of local assets. In addition, it has considered: the scope of current community ownership and management of physical assets; the legal and financial parameters; the costs and risks involved; and the resultant funding and capacity-building needs and provision. The work group published two reports on the topic earlier this year. One was entitled “Communities Taking Control”, and the other was called “Community Assets—the benefits and costs of community management and ownership.”

In my experience, Members of Parliament of all parties and none understand the desirability of
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community ownership and management of assets, but they also understand the dangers and risks that can be involved in it, as issues of propriety and ensuring fairness across communities must be dealt with.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The valuable initiative to which the Minister refers is, presumably, helpful not only in the case of parks, but in the case of museums, too. In my constituency, the Conservative-controlled borough council wants to close the borough museum, but community initiatives such as those that he describes might be an avenue that we can take in order to save the museum, just as they might be used to save a park.

Mr. Woolas: Indeed, that is the intention. I have some more, even better, news for the right hon. Gentleman: in September this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced a community ownership and management review, to consider how we can take such issues forward in practice. The review is headed by one of our country’s most senior and respected chief executives, Mr. Barry Quirk of the London borough of Lewisham. That group will work closely with the Office of the Third Sector, within the Cabinet Office, and it will report in spring, or after Christmas, with an action plan setting out workable proposals for implementation. It looks at assets across the piece. I cannot give any commitments, as I am not familiar with the museum in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but knowing his part of the world, the measure probably offers a nice fit. In case there is mischievous reporting—I suspect, however, that journalists are probably in another building for Friday lunchtime—that does not mean that the Government propose to remove assets from local councils.

The review will take as its starting point the two working group reports to which I referred, and existing powers and policies that facilitate the transfer of the ownership or management of local public assets to community groups. It will consider how those powers can be better used, what unnecessary barriers remain and whether further powers and policy changes are required to overcome them. The review offers an opportunity to share existing good practice in the field of regeneration, and it underlines our commitment both to community-led regeneration and to joined-up work between community groups and local authorities—it is wrong to think that there is conflict between the two. The outcomes of the review will feed into the 2007 comprehensive spending review, so it is a win-win situation for public bodies and the community sector; both will benefit from our approach.

There is even more good news, as the Government-funded public space champion—CABE Space—recently published research on a range of management and funding models for urban green space, including trusts and partnerships with the voluntary and community sector. My Department will review those findings and consider what more needs to be done to support communities and local authorities in managing their spaces. A broad and deep strategy is therefore in place, and it points in the direction of travel sought by the
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hon. Member for Solihull. I hope that that will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Clause 3 would require the Secretary of State to issue guidance to local planning authorities to the effect that the gardens of private houses should be regarded for development control purposes as greenfield sites, and that applications for planning permission for significant developments in such locations should normally be refused. The hon. Lady and other hon. Members have bemoaned the use of back gardens for housing development. I am familiar with the issue, having grappled with it in my constituency. I shall be non-partisan in setting out the background, as it is important that we base our debate on facts. The classification of gardens as brownfield sites is not new. Residential land is classified as a developed land use, and the classification covers all the land associated with a house or flat, including any garden. The same applies to industrial land, where the classification covers all the land associated with a factory or industrial premises, including any landscaped areas. Those classifications have been used for land use change statistics—LUCS—since 1985.

Current policy appears in planning policy guidance note 3 and in draft planning policy statement 3, on which the hon. Member for Shipley asked me to comment and which, when finalised, will replace PPG3. The policy defines previously developed land, which is referred to more loosely as brownfield land, on a basis consistent with the long-established definition in LUCS. The principle that gardens are brownfield is therefore not new. Hon. Members have pointed to the impact of planning guidance on back gardens. Planning policy guidance states:

I emphasise the word, “may”—

The hon. Member for Beckenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush referred to that, so it is worth concentrating on the fact that there is agreement across the House, and probably between the parties, on the wisdom of that statement, which was made some time ago.

That quotation is not from the present guidance, but from that introduced in 1992, so it has long been acknowledged that sometimes it may be acceptable to develop back gardens for new housing, where it is in keeping with the character and quality of the local environment. It was helpful of the hon. Member for Beckenham to enlighten the House as to the intention of the policy at the time, which she said was to do with pressure in relation to particular housing—to build extensions and so on, I assume.

The current PPG3, introduced in 2000, stated that there should be a clear priority for brownfield development over greenfield. At the time, that statement was welcomed by all, and I hope and expect that it is still a policy that is welcomed by all. However, it also included safeguards for quality and said that

It continued:

Mrs. Lait: I reiterate the point that the interplay of that guidance and the Government’s desire to increase housing density has put the pressure on. If I might say so, also involved is the loose wording of the planning guidance, which allows developers to produce blocks of one and two-bedroom flats that, for instance, are at the same tree level and have a pitched roof, and that can be said to be sort of in character because the other houses round about have pitched roofs. The problem is that a house for a family is replaced by one and two-bedroom flats. That is the cause of the pressure.

Mr. Woolas: I thank the hon. Lady for explaining why this is such a hot issue. I understand that, and I have constituents who have said it to me, but if she will allow me to finish my argument we might have a better understanding of the situation.

The Government’s intention, when they publish the final PPS3 later this year, is that the new policy will strengthen the emphasis in current policy on the quality and design of buildings and their neighbouring environment, and reinforce the need for all development to be in suitable locations.

Selective small-scale redevelopment of houses and back gardens, carefully planned, can contribute—I emphasise, can contribute—to achieving a better housing mix and help to meet housing needs, so long as the new development, for example, complements the neighbouring and wider locality in terms of nature and scale, is suitable, and is of good-quality design. However, that does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that all back gardens are suitable for development. Defining a garden as brownfield does not bring with it in planning policy a presumption that the garden should be developed.

As well as local planning authorities being able to turn down inappropriate back garden development because it is of poor design or inappropriate to the local area, a wide range of other matters need to be considered in deciding whether to allocate land for housing and whether to grant planning approvals. The range of matters includes the location and accessibility of the sites and the capacity of existing and potential infrastructure—a point made by many hon. Members many times. That includes social infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, which residents often raise with us.

We also need to be clear about the facts. It is certainly true that the Government have increased the emphasis on the use of brownfield land. Environment groups and Members of Parliament on both sides of the House welcomed that policy. It clearly makes sense to develop on brownfield sites instead of greenfield sites. We believe—there is strong evidence for this—that as a result of those policies, in part, there has been a renaissance in our towns and cities, with the regeneration of many abandoned industrial sites and a substantial reduction in the amount of greenfield land needed for development.

According to the urban taskforce, 90 people lived in Manchester city centre in 1990. That figure today is
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25,000. That is a direct and indirect result of planning policy changes. There are other examples, and I am sorry if I am being Mancunian-selfish. I should, of course, talk about Britain’s third city, Birmingham, where a similar story could be described. [Interruption.] I move quickly on as the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Steve McCabe), heard what I said.

I want to draw attention to the serious fact mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush. I do so not just to show the historical importance of the figures, but to ensure that the debate is informed. The proportion of homes built on greenfield land has fallen from 44 per cent. in 1997 to 26 per cent. today. That is linked to what the hon. Member for Beckenham said about density and increasing the density of population in non-greenfield areas.

For the benefit of the House, let me emphasise that the pressure on housing development is almost entirely due to demographic changes rather than population changes. The policies of the Conservative party are contradictory. On the one hand, at a macro level, it recognises the need for housing supply based on demographic changes such as people living longer, higher levels of divorce and people getting married later in life. Those pressures are real, and at a macro level the Conservatives seem to welcome the need to increase housing, just as the Conservative Governments of 1955 and the early 1960s did. However, when it comes to the rub, they object to it at a local level.

Philip Davies: In the Minister’s list of things that are causing pressures on housing, such as divorce and demographics, he missed out immigration. I am sure that that was a casual slip. In an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) a while ago, the Government said, if I remember rightly, that virtually a third of all new housing was going to be required because of immigration. Perhaps they should tackle the problem of all this legal and illegal immigration, because then we would not need all these houses—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. A significant matter it might be, but the matter before us is one of housing and parkland spaces.

Mr. Woolas: We seem to have gone from a beautiful oak tree, which we all wish to protect, to perhaps the most contentious subject of debate in the House. The evidence does not back up the hon. Gentleman’s point in respect of pressure on housing. It is the wheres, whens and hows of that pressure that informed the policy that we pursue, although I understand his point.

Let me put on record another important set of statistics in order to set the debate into context. The proportion of homes built on previously residential land is lower now than it was in the 1980s. In 1990, for example, 20 per cent. of homes were built on land that was previously residential. The proportion in 2005 was 16 per cent.—a figure that includes homes built on the footprint of previous buildings and which is not confined to homes built on drives or back gardens.

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Mrs. Lait: Can the Minister reconcile those figures with the ones just published about the percentage of gardens built on in various London boroughs, which I mentioned in my earlier remarks?

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Lady is trying to hold me and the Government responsible for the decisions of local authorities. There are many examples of local authorities turning down proposals to develop gardens on the basis of existing planning guidance, let alone the future planning guidance to which I referred.

The Government believe that more homes need to be built to meet the needs of future generations. National planning policy in PPS3 sets a framework for regional and local planning, but it is very much the role of local planning authorities to decide the approach and strategy for the location of housing development in their particular areas. The issue should not be about blocking whole categories of development as either greenfield or brownfield, but about quality and appropriateness. In the end, new homes need to be built somewhere and local authorities need to take sensible decisions about the most suitable location for the new homes that we need. I also ask the House to consider another serious point. If the Bill were passed, hon. Members would be quick to bemoan to Ministers the fall in the value of the houses affected. It is much better to get the balance right.

Clause 4 would introduce a third-party right of appeal where councils are unwilling to oppose an application that contravenes the local plan, so that local people could appeal directly to the Secretary of State. As hon. Members know, third parties do not have the right of appeal against planning decisions as do applicants, because it is the responsibility of local planning authorities to act in the general public interest when determining planning applications. Local authorities must determine planning applications in accordance with the development plan for the area unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Those can include views expressed by local residents and other third parties—a point that all Members would do well to take note of for their advice surgeries.

A right for third parties to appeal to the Secretary of State against a decision by a local authority to grant planning permission would not be consistent with our democratically accountable system of planning. Elected councillors represent their communities and they must take account of the views of local people on planning matters before decisions are made and subsequently justify their decisions to their electorate.

Overall, the hon. Member for Solihull makes an important point in her Bill, but it has to be balanced against the rights and responsibilities of elected councillors. I hope that I have been able to provide convincing arguments to explain the Government’s problems with the Bill’s implications rather than its intent. I have not had time to go into all the details, but I believe that I have answered all the specific questions raised in the debate. I therefore invite the House carefully to reflect on my arguments.

1.59 pm

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