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Mrs. Spelman: Like the hon. Lady, I think rather wistfully of my gardening days, which seem a long way off. Despite all the protective measures that she refers to, there has been a significant further erosion of garden and green space. The statistics from the local authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) show that 60 per cent. of the brownfield land that was used for development was gardens, which demonstrates clearly the problem that exists. Since she states that local councils have the power to defend urban green space and gardens, I point her to the fact that, since the new Secretary of
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State took office, one in six planning decisions has been overturned, so the rate of local council decisions being overruled is higher than ever before.

One of the hon. Lady’s colleagues, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), spoke very eloquently the last time that we debated this matter, saying:

There is an aggressive strategy of seeking out those very vulnerable green spaces.

In short, the ready supply of suburban gardens has removed the incentive for developers to regenerate genuine brownfield sites and that is to everyone’s cost. Clause 2 addresses the issue of getting genuine brownfield land, as in former industrial and commercial land, brought on stream for housing. It would require public bodies to publish reports on the extent to which their land can accommodate residential development. That is needed because there is a great deal of land held by the public sector that would be viable for residential development. The concept of land banking is, I am sure, not unfamiliar to Members. The duty to report is confined to developed land, that is to say land comprising buildings or hard surfaces. Reporting would make transparent the whereabouts of development opportunities and, in turn, require explanations if development was not forthcoming.

In particular, reporting would encourage public bodies to consider creating residential development as part of a mix with commercial development. The planning process is bad at that. It fails to deliver new development where housing and employment exist within walking distance of each other, yet it makes much sense to strive for housing that is near commercial hubs where people can work, where children can go to school and where there are recreational facilities. That has the obvious environmental benefit of reducing commuting while family life benefits from living near one’s work. I know how vital it is to live near work if one is to have any hope of balancing a job and seeing the children after school. For that matter, one needs a hospital with an accident and emergency department nearby. Today, of all days, I need to take my son to see the orthopaedic surgeon as he has broken his knee. I hope that the House will grant me a little grace at 2 pm to make that appointment.

Clause 1 also obliges planners to have regard for the benefits of bringing commercial and residential development together. Too often, development is concentrated in dormitory estates or garden suburbs that are not equipped with sufficient transport links. Then there is not the space for people to park their cars because of the need for density targets, so they end up congesting the sides of streets and parking on verges and pavements, creating a hazard for mothers with pushchairs, who have to go out into the road to get round them.

I hope that the Bill will reverse the present distortion in the planning system. This is not about being nimby—— [Interruption.] It is about getting the right mix of new homes built in strong, cohesive and sustainable communities. One of the main obstacles to getting
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more new housing built is public opposition and the Government have no one to blame but themselves for that. I heard from the Government Benches a rumble about my not wanting development in my backyard. Just for the record, my local authority is regenerating a council estate, Chelmsley Wood, that was built in the 1960s and has 29,500 houses, and will, as part of that regeneration, supply 5,000 extra affordable homes without any public money, as the borough of Solihull does not qualify for public money for housing regeneration.

Local councils and, de facto, local communities, have been enfeebled when it comes to planning decisions. Local opinion is overruled by central planning guidance and the effect is that the Government have to force unpopular housing decisions on hostile communities via unaccountable regional quangos. That situation is absurd. Communities should be given more say in the planning decisions that will have such an impact on their lives. If communities could have a say in the location and shape of the housing that we need, the chances are that they would be a great deal more receptive to it. What are the Government so afraid of? I want far more houses built, but I do not think that the best way of doing that is for Whitehall to impose them on communities.

That brings me to clause 3, which would give force to localism. The Government like to talk about localism, but this Bill, like the Sustainable Communities Bill so ably presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), is about delivering real localism. Clause 3 would enable planning authorities to decide themselves the density and proportions of new housing and set their own policies regarding residential development and gardens and urban green spaces. In short, it would give planning authorities the right to make their own policies and decisions in line with local opinion, without being enslaved by planning guidance from Whitehall.

Planning is the Government’s Achilles heel when it comes to localism. Unelected regional government in tandem with centrally imposed planning targets and guidance have reduced planning authorities to the role of hand-wringing bystanders. This clause would simply tip the scales back in favour of planning authorities and the communities that they serve. If the Government are genuine in their enthusiasm for localism, this is a measure that they should welcome.

Mr. Slaughter: I am more interested in what the hon. Lady is saying now, but of course what she is saying is covered very thoroughly in PPS3. The effect of her Bill could be the exact opposite. It would enable, say, Conservative local authorities to do what they did in the 1980s and sell off greenfield land such as school playing fields.

Mrs. Spelman: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman finds this section of my speech more interesting. I have read the new guidance from cover to cover and in fact it makes very few references to gardens and urban green spaces. It says that development should ensure good access to residential outdoor space, such as residential gardens, and the only other reference to gardens is in relation to new build. As far as I can see, it does very
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little to deal with the present situation, which I have described at length, with the development of the back land surrounding existing properties.

I talked at length to planning officers up and down the land before drafting my Bill. They make this point about the guidance: for them, there is a hierarchy of considerations before they give a recommendation to elected members on whether to pass or reject a planning application, but still the absolute nature of regional housing targets, which in the case of the borough of Solihull mean that we must move from building 400 homes a year to 470, or of the minimum density target of 30 units of accommodation per hectare, take precedence in that hierarchy over the more subjective criterion of suitability, which by definition is more difficult to measure and ascertain.

Opponents of the Bill will seek to characterise it as a measure that will create obstacles to new housing, but that analysis totally misses the point. I want more housing and I have said so repeatedly. We need more houses. I do not buy the argument that we can build fast enough to get a rapid reduction in house prices, but I do believe that demographics have outstripped supply and we need to catch up. The Bill is about getting the right kind of homes built in the right places. It is about taking a sophisticated look at the sorts of communities that we want to create for the future and the attributes that we want to protect in existing communities. It is about admitting that Whitehall does not always know best and that communities should have a strong say in how neighbourhoods evolve. This Bill is not about preventing people from extending their houses or even about the blanket prevention of building in garden sites. To present it in that way is not helpful to the debate.

This Bill is about acknowledging the crucial part that gardens and urban green spaces play in creating balanced and rewarding places to live. It is about bringing forward new housing that is less reliant on commuting and more compliant with families and flexible working. Above all, it is about giving planning authorities and the communities they represent a real say in the shape of their neighbourhoods. I commend it to the House.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. It is very helpful to the Chair if letters are written to Mr. Speaker indicating a desire to participate in a debate on a Friday, just as on any other day. Although we do not wish to suppress spontaneity in any way, it does help to have some idea of how many hon. Members are seeking to take part.

10.20 pm

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). The proposals pushed in the Bill provide a service that will put you in good stead, in respect of planning authorities, up and down the country. When I say “you”, I mean the hon. Lady rather than you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, I may need to spend some time in order to go through a lot of the detail. I want to put on the record exactly what is happening in this country today.

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The hon. Lady referred to the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who also brought a private Member’s Bill before the House, but the Government spokesperson and I said that more clarity was required. In planning policy statement 3, we managed to achieve a lot of clarity, but I still think that more is required. As it stands, the Bill does not really have a chance of getting through. The more pressure and spotlighting that can be brought on the problem here in the House, the greater the benefit to the people of this country.

It is important to clarify the balance between the individual’s rights, the community’s rights and the need to continue to provide accommodation—and which one carries the greatest weight. That is very important. I will provide some examples from our community, particularly from an area that I know well. Indeed, for a number of years I used to sit on a planning committee that dealt with that area, so I know all about the difficulties faced by planning committees over the years.

We should not think that this problem has come about only now under this Government. The problem has been here for a long time, and it is just that the pressure has increased in more recent times. The rules were worse years ago than they are today, but that is not to say that we should not try and improve the rules to achieve what the House requires. That is one point that I want to bring right to the centre of the debate right at the beginning.

When I sit in Committee and we make representations and force Ministers to read into the record, we do so because we know that some judge in four or five years’ time may be sitting down and looking at the Act. He is likely to ask what the House’s intent was—or the spirit of its intent—when a piece of legislation was passed. I do not believe that when an inspectorate is called into a local authority it ever reads about the House’s intent or even what the intent of the Department was. I can provide examples of how, on occasions, two very similar applications were assessed, yet one was accepted and the other turned down, so there is no consistency whatever.

My local authority, Tamworth, is an overspill town. It is an ancient borough that entered into an overspill agreement, so my borough went from having a population of 16,000 in 1965 to 32,000 overnight as some rural and local areas became part of the borough of Tamworth in my constituency. It now has a population of nearly 80,000. We can all imagine the tremendous growth and pressure that that placed on our community. Our current net density is 24 a hectare. Some may feel that 24 is not too bad, but when I say net density, all that I have taken out is the rivers and the flood plain—and some of the flood plain was built on. It includes and leaves in all the retail areas, all the schools, and all the roads, so looking at net density in this case is deceptive. In some more recent applications, the density has been a bit higher—as much as 90 a hectare. Now that really is dense living. This is a market town in middle England, part of a commuter area for Birmingham.

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, with which I completely agree. The imposition of increased housing density on an area with a large
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amount of green belt means that housing density can be much higher than is acceptable. Why does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Bill would not help to address some part of that particular problem?

Mr. Jenkins: I understand where the hon. Lady is coming from, but I live in the particular town of Tamworth, which has 80,000 people and is four miles across—I repeat, four miles across. It has no large green open spaces. Although I agree with the sentiments behind the Bill, it will be difficult to get it through. However, do not give up on the Bill. Pursue the Bill, because it may mean that the Government have to justify some of their stands in the past. That is why I recommend keeping up the pressure.

I was saying that the town is four miles across and that it saw developments in the 60s and 70s. I could mention the ward of Glascote, which is the only green space that we have got. It has long, thin parks running alongside the roads. We call them grass verges. I know about living in areas like that. I want to say that this is not a nimby town. The difficulty is that this town has taken on its duty and met its commitment in taking housing on board, but a certain type of housing is being forced on it. We need to think about how it feels to be forced to take that type of housing on board. That is the difficulty.

I have asked for clarification and received clarification that local authorities are empowered and can turn down any application that does not meet local requirements or fit into the local scene. In reality out there, however, planning officers do not believe it. They will often not make a recommendation to refuse a plan, because they feel that it is pointless. If they do make a recommendation to refuse, it will be taken to appeal. The appeal will send in the inspectorate.

I can provide an example of what happens when the inspectorate comes along. One year, we had a planning application relating to a new supermarket outlet, which wanted to be placed in a position on the road between two islands. The islands were just over a quarter of a mile apart and we thought that it would be quite reasonable to have a “left-in, left-out” approach towards it. Cars had to go around the islands to come in. The applicant thought that that was wrong and lodged an appeal. I was not there when the inspector visited, but apparently she walked up and down the road—at an off-peak time, of course—and said, “I see no problem here with putting traffic lights in this location”. Much against our advice, she put the traffic lights in. The following weekend, when the traffic lights were on red, the traffic built all the way back to the first island and totally blocked the system up. We had real experience of that sort of situation. We did not just visit the town from somewhere else. The planning committee’s recommendation was overruled, as I have explained, when the woman said, “I see no problem here”—and she did not see it, because by then she had gone back to Bristol!

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that another reason why local people feel disempowered is that central Government have control not only over the local plans, but over the regional
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spatial strategy, so when local people want to reject an appeal, it is already on the basis of central Government guidance?

Mr. Jenkins: I understand where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from. Of course, in any representative democracy, we have different levels. We have a regional participant to make representations on what development each area can stand and what each area requires. It is incumbent on the local authority to pass up the system its requirements and what it can deal with. So it should not come as a great surprise to discover, for instance, that in the west midlands, with which I am more familiar, we require an extra 55,000 units and some of them can be allocated in the west midlands and some of them outside the west midlands. We continue to take overspill from the west midlands, although we no longer have an overspill agreement. We know what each area in the ring around the north of Birmingham is capable of absorbing.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I understand the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I put it to him that they reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)—that local people should have more of a say. Exactly as he says, local people know their area and its infrastructure a lot better than someone who comes from outside—from Bristol, in his instance—can understand just on one short visit.

Mr. Jenkins: As I have said, I am not opposed to the Bill. I do not think that it will get through, but it is a good vehicle for putting the spotlight on and drawing attention to issues that the Government must face up to. Yes, local people should have a greater say. Local planning officers believe that the obligation to build overrides all other considerations. I do not think that we have got the balance right. I should like the Minister to assure us that she will send out clarification to all local planning authorities to say that there is no overriding obligation on them to accept every planning application and that they must consider how any proposal fits in with their community. That would be a move forward—and in this game, we sometimes have to make small advances very often, rather than trying to take one large chunk.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): One of the weaknesses of the Bill—I do not think that a lot of attention has been paid to this—is that it has been made to look as though planning authorities have not got the power to do certain things. In fact, anyone who has got an idea about local government knows that, with things such as housing, we submit a structure plan to the Minister, and that structure plan is where we make our proposals. So local planning authorities have such powers, and I have just given an example of what happens.

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