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Mr. Jenkins: I applaud my hon. Friend for his understanding of the issue, and he would be right but for the fact that planning officers do not believe that they can advise planning committees to turn down applications. They believe that there is an overriding requirement to provide accommodation. I do not believe—I shall word this very carefully—that elected members have the resolve to take on cases and to fight
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because they know that decisions can be overturned easily on appeal and the costs are reflected back on their local council tax payers. So they do not have the will to take on such cases, particularly if the council is pressed to provide other services because it has not got the money—perhaps it is looking after a growing number of old people—and councillors have to consider very carefully every action that they take. That has curtailed such action, when they should be pushing harder to justify what I consider to be the guidance that we had from the Minister.

I have got a problem with the town. I shall give the example of two planning applications, both for—surprise, surprise—14 apartments. The application that relates to an area of intensive old development was turned down because the inspector said that it did not have enough utility space—the occupants could not erect a rotary dryer on their property. A quarter of a mile away, another application for—surprise, surprise—14 apartments got through. Presumably, the occupants could erect a rotary dryer at that location.

Both locations are not half a mile from junction 10 of the M42. They have nothing to do with sustainable development in my town or in my constituency. They are merely for people who now live and work in the west midlands who will come out to live in Tamworth. The development is inappropriate in that part of the town, where it sticks out like a sore thumb. But of course, developers do not care about that; all that they want is the money, the profit. The people who come to live there will think that it is marvellous because they will be 20 minutes from the centre of Birmingham but outside the west midlands in quite a nice area, but it does nothing to meet our local housing need. That is the problem. Of course, it is not affordable housing.

I have a more pressing problem in Little Aston, outside Sutton Coldfield. I assure hon. Members that it is not like Glascote Heath. House prices start at £2 million and food parcels are sent to the pensioners in Four Oaks at Christmas. One side of the road is in leafy Staffordshire and the other is in the west midlands conurbation. If the people at No. 1 on my side of the road make an application to knock down a building and put apartments on the site, it has to go before Lichfield district council, which will consider whether the development should be allowed. An application on the other side of the road is certainly met with different consideration, because the area is far more urban and more used to the development of apartments.

We talk about local communities, but we now have—I must watch this very carefully—the possibility of a postcode lottery in planning. My constituents would not be consulted by the planning authority on the other side of the road when it decides on its policy for the area, although the effect would be just as great on my constituents as on the people on the opposite side of the road. We must consider carefully how to retain the sense of the community, because it is the same community, but it is divided by a man-made boundary in so far as Staffordshire is divorced from the west midlands. We have to draw the line somewhere.

In Lichfield district council, if an application is made to build 14 apartments or a higher density development in Stonnall, the village and the people of Stonnall may very well say, “Yes, this is our only chance to keep our youngsters with us. We do not want the
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high density, first-time buyer properties to be built in Burntwood, many miles away,” because it is a large rural planning authority, whereas Tamworth planning authority covers a town that is four miles across. If someone’s son or daughter lives in a first-time property, it may be a mile away. In each location I have different problems and a different community to look after. How do I get the planning authority to consider the wishes and needs of the community in each location? I strongly believe that that should happen. That is our difficulty at present. The guidance is not as clear as I would like. Certainly, the duty on the planning authority to take on board the wishes and needs of the settled community is not as clear as I would like.

Another thing springs to mind with regard to planning applications. This has always been a personal bugbear of mine. Hon. Members may not believe that this is true. Say there are 100 large, nice properties with big back gardens. No. 1 comes along and says, “I want to sell my property, knock it down and build 14 apartments on the back garden.” The planning authority looks at it and says, “That looks all right. No problem there. The traffic will be all right.” No. 2 says, “I want to do the same.” There is not a problem there. The traffic flows will be all right. No. 3 comes along and does the same. If the traffic gets to the point where it can no longer be accommodated on the road, what does the planning authority say to No. 48, No. 49 or No. 99? They are not going to get the same judgment as No. 1, because No. 1 got in first. What appals me and always has done is that every application is taken on its own merits, in isolation, without recognising that a precedent is being created and that there is a roll-on effect, and without saying, “Those are the reasons and rationale as to why we don’t think that that should happen in this location.”

Robert Neill: I have great sympathy with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes and I absolutely agree with it. Does he accept that we have exactly the same situation in Bromley? Unscrupulous developers go around touting for business. They sometimes approach elderly and vulnerable people, who might be coming up to retirement, who live in such houses and seek to persuade them to sell so that the developers can get the first foot in the door and then make subsequent applications to change the whole nature of a small development. The current rules do not protect against that. The hierarchy of planning considerations means that the suggestions that the Minister makes for protection are overridden by the national targets. Surely the Bill, by reclassifying back gardens as previously developed land, is the best means of giving support to people in that situation?

Mr. Jenkins rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for mentioning the Bill. I should say to the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) that this is not a platform for a general colloquium on planning. He should relate his remarks to the Bill.

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Mr. Jenkins: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I sometimes get a little carried away on planning, because I have spent so much time on the issue. Looking at the Bill, I understand what is being said. I must be careful not to be dragged down another route. You are right.

The Bill highlights an example of where planning regulations need to be tightened and redefined to allow the local community to have much more power to decide what it needs. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) brought up the fact that it is developers who knock on doors and persuade people. He may not know—I will tell him this in secret—but in my part of the world the Deputy Prime Minister is knocking on doors and telling people that they must sell their houses and back gardens. It is Labour’s back garden grab, or that is what the local Tories and local press are saying anyway. It has nothing to do with greedy developers and people who want to make a killing out of their back garden and who see that as their pension plan. I am glad that he has clarified that point.

There is also the fact that, when it comes to the development of back gardens, local councils classify the land as brownfield. That is crazy. I always thought that we knew what brownfield was. I thought that it was either industrial land or non-residential land that had been utilised or built on and that it was coming back into use and being redeveloped and redesigned. We all know what green land is. It is where green grass and crops once grew, and there were cattle. We have developed on green land to a large extent. However, when we have a developed area, the definition becomes quite difficult. Houses have gone up. So how do we reclassify that land? Well, I suggest that if one mixes brown and green, one will probably get grey. We will probably have a greyfield site.

I am talking about something that is seriously needed and I will give an example of why. Many years ago, there was a plan to knock down some concrete houses. The bolts that had held them together were going rusty and forcing the concrete apart. The plan involved knocking down fewer than 20 houses, but they were built in the 40s and had a large amount of land. It would have been possible to build 48 properties, including bungalows for elderly people, and to redesign and redevelop the site. That did not happen in the end, because we could not afford it. However, I am worried that if the Bill says that we cannot build on back gardens, it would prohibit that type of development. Such development must be allowed to continue because it is good for the community. There are other examples. There are three separate locations in my constituency that I would love to be redeveloped. There are derelict and eyesore properties with large areas of ground behind them. I do not want the Bill to stop the development of that land.

Mrs. Spelman: Just to set the hon. Gentleman’s mind at rest, the Bill would give complete discretion to his local council to decide—in the way in which he would like—whether a genuine brownfield site, perhaps with some backland attached to it, would be appropriate for development. The point is that his local councillors, who have been democratically elected, would get that decision-making power.

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Mr. Jenkins: Local councillors have the power now to deal with that. As I keep saying, the difficulty arises because of the drafting and terminology of the documents, and, more importantly, because of the culture that has been allowed to develop whereby inspectors overturn planning decisions. Local councillors do not feel that they can risk turning down the application because of the cost involved to council tax payers. That is the point that I keep pressing. We should press the Minister to give an assurance that rewriting will take place, an explanatory document will be sent out and planners will be told, “There is no presumption for you to allow development if it doesn’t fit in with your requirements.”

Back gardens, whether they are classified as brown sites, green sites, or grey sites, must come before the committee. Say it is a town centre location and we are talking about redeveloping some of the older properties that long ago ceased to be family homes—some have become businesses and gone through that cycle—and have come on the market. A developer could come in and decide to take a property down and put 14 apartments smack in the centre of town. I have no problem with that. If the council has a thought-out policy that involves an inner ring, a middle ring and outer ring and can say, “This is the type of property, development and density that we are looking for in these rings,” I have no problem with that. Things might become a bit more difficult owing to out-of-town shopping. However, if a council has a well-thought-out planning document in which the criteria are clearly laid out— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The Minister really must restrain herself from conducting a debate from a sedentary position. She should ask her hon. Friend to give way so that the whole House can hear what she has to say.

Angela E. Smith: I had actually turned around to hear more clearly what my hon. Friend had to say, rather than to comment on what he said, even though I am pleased to have the opportunity to do so.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case for clarity in the local plan that a council develops. I am unclear from what he is saying whether, in the cases to which he refers, planning officers have not put in a good local plan, or they are not aware of what is in the plan.

Mr. Jenkins: That is the point that I am making. We have the problem that we seem to blame everything on such things as national targets. It is time to press the Minister for clarification on PPS3.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. May I confirm to him that this is not a misperception on the part of planning authorities? The House of Commons Library, which takes on objective view on such things, says clearly:

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It is thus no great surprise that local authorities are advised to refuse because they are in line for the costs when the matter reaches appeal. We need more than clarification. We need additional statutory protection for committees that exercise their discretion.

Mr. Jenkins: I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says. However, the rules were laid down in a different era when a soft touch was more in keeping with the time. Additionally, they were laid down as guidance, and they were accompanied by a note explaining that A did not mean B, which allowed the document to be used to justify a case. I am saying that the gentle approach does not work, so we must have more rigid and stricter regulations regarding planning guidance. I am gently pushing the Minister to make certain statements to reinforce the guidance. I say as nicely as possible to the hon. Member for Meriden that she should be careful about what she does with regard to the Bill because for every regulation that you bring in, there is someone looking for a loophole and twist. The Bill thus might create as many problems as she hopes to solve. She should instead pressure the Minister to give assurances that the new guidance will achieve what she wants and cure the problem. If you can solve the problem, you will have the gratitude of many planning authorities throughout the country and local elected representatives, who strive to try to serve their communities in the best possible way. They should be sent a message that that does not mean, as opposed to not-in-my-back-yard legislation, not-in-his-back-yard legislation.

10.54 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on introducing the Bill. We share the borough of Solihull, so I am aware of the circumstances that have led her to do so. She was kind enough to mention the Bill that I introduced in July 2005, two months after I was elected: the Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill. At that time, there were requests for some of the detail in the Bill to be further developed. I am delighted that some of the excellent suggestions in the hon. Lady’s Bill have come about as a result of not only my Bill, but that introduced by the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman today. The Bill has also been informed by the Conservative-led debate that took place last year.

I welcome the development of the definition of a brownfield site. I also welcome the fact that the Bill would give local authorities more powers to determine planning applications. I support strengthening the ability of local authorities to use true brownfield commercial sites more imaginatively than they can at present. However, the Bill does not give powers of appeal against local authorities that cannot, or will not, stand up to developers. My Bill would have enabled local people to lodge an appeal in such circumstances. When people feel strongly about a planning decision that will affect the quality of their life, it is important that they have a say.

The Bill would not protect parkland from being sold off without a referendum. There have been two notable examples of such sales in my constituency. Tudor
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Grange parkland was sold to facilitate the rebuilding of a local leisure centre, despite opposition in the form of a petition with 14,000 signatures. In addition, Shirley parkland was sold to facilitate new commercial building, including the building of a huge, oversized new Asda, even though there is a lot of dispute about how many people would have supported that development. I will not go into detail about the consultations that took place, but Liberal Democrats certainly feel that we should be striving to give local people more of a say and following the principle of subsidiarity, which is reflected in the Bill, thus allowing decisions to be made at the lowest possible level so that the views of people who are directly affected are taken into account.

Unlike my Bill, the hon. Lady’s Bill does not address repeated planning applications. However, I accept her point, which she made when she was challenged on that matter, that the Bill would free up local authorities to exercise more discretion on the refusal of planning applications.

During our debate in June 2006, which the hon. Lady led, she said that the affordable housing quota that applies to larger developments of 25 or more dwellings was

That is a key problem regarding back-garden development. If the performance of Solihull council in creating affordable homes is anything to go by, the quota must play a part. When, in 2006, Labour Members challenged the hon. Lady about affordable homes, she referred specifically to a “ring of dereliction” surrounding many of our town centres that could, with a little imagination, be used to site attractive new builds. In fact, the Bill covers mixed commercial and residential developments that would enable people to live close to their work, which has sustainability implications. Many people—young people, for example—find the prospect of living close to a town centre attractive, so anything we can do to facilitate development in such areas would be extremely helpful.

Members of all parties strongly agree that people need new homes and that the Government have a pivotal role in that process. The structure of households is changing; there are more small households as well as many households where grown-up children live with their parents. The electoral register shows how large the proportion of such households is. In Solihull, there are many households of three, four or five members and, speaking as someone who frequently stands at people’s doorsteps, I find that the person who answers the door is often a grown-up child who probably wants to move out of the nest to affordable housing, but that does not exist in Solihull.

Mr. Arbuthnot: Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems with garden development is that it often takes place in areas where gardens are large, which are often areas of higher house prices, so it does not
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produce the affordable housing we need? Although we agree with affordable housing, garden development does not produce it.

Lorely Burt: I completely agree. The situation that the right hon. Gentleman describes occurs frequently in Solihull. We cannot blame developers for wanting to maximise their profits—they are in business to make a profit. However, their desire to cram as many properties as possible on to a plot of land, especially luxury properties because they attract a higher price, means that people who move to such developments are purchasing their second, third or even fourth home. As he rightly says, that does nothing at all to relieve the pressure for affordable housing.

Mr. Slaughter: I cannot agree entirely with the hon. Lady that one cannot blame developers. I thought that Liberal Democrats believed in corporate social responsibility, even if the Conservatives do not. Developments of 14 units to avoid the inclusion of affordable housing can take place only because there is collusion between developers and local authorities, and that includes Liberal Democrat local authorities such as Islington.

Lorely Burt: I am rather shocked by the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I imagine that he is alluding to the fact that some local authorities do not really want to build affordable housing so they come to some sort of agreement with developers about their planning application. However, I find it strange that he puts the blame and responsibility for that situation on to local authorities, when it is the developers who determine the nature of the application. They are not told what plans to submit. They are driven by the requirements of their shareholders to maximise the profitability of their investment. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. However, he makes an important point in suggesting that it is incumbent on local authorities to utilise the planning rules as much as possible to facilitate affordable housing.

Councils are under pressure to meet Government targets for brownfield developments. Planning policy guidelines define all the land within the curtilage of a dwelling as brownfield. I was intrigued by the comments of the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) about the colour of back gardens. When we think about back gardens, the colour grey does not necessarily spring to mind. Back gardens are green—[Hon. Members: “Not always.”] They are green in the main. The point made by the hon. Member for Meriden is that the environmental quality of an area is determined by how much green there is. Green space is important not only to the quality of the area, but also for the quality of life of the people who live there.

In Solihull, luxury apartments are springing up. Obviously, the market is economically driven and developers respond to demand. They have exploited many back gardens in Solihull and flats—sorry, apartments—are springing up all over the place and the character of some areas has been seriously threatened. However, the market for such apartments seems to be dying down and there are more applications for family homes, which is much to be welcomed.

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