Previous Section Index Home Page

Our constituents want their elected members to be able to take a view on whether a development will spoil the character of the area, but PPS3 and its predecessors do not give elected members that discretion. They give the discretion to inspectors in Bristol, who, as hon. Members have pointed out, can swoop down for half a day, take a cursory look and fail to appreciate the depth of local attachment to the character of areas. Clearly, Ministers do not understand that those refusals undermine and corrode local democracy at a time when, with declining faith in democracy—at least in terms of participation in elections—we should be doing everything that we can to increase participation. We are going the wrong way with our planning law.

Let me conclude with a point that is surely within the grasp of Ministers: the environmental importance of gardens. The debate is about not just the character of the building that takes place, but the vital role that urban and suburban gardens play in protecting and promoting biodiversity. Nation wide, urban gardens cover a greater area than all our nature reserves put together. It is the larger, longer gardens that provide the most valuable habitat for wildlife. Unfortunately, they are also the most tempting targets for that urban predator, the developer. Large blocks of space, especially those on which trees grow, play a vital role in countering the urban heat island effect in our towns. Thus they help to adapt our cities to climate change. Of course, climate change is not just a matter of higher temperatures. We are seeing changes in weather patterns, including a greater propensity to flash flooding. If we have flash floods, it is important that the drainage in our towns and suburbs copes. Gardens reabsorb rainwater into the ground and are an ideal way to preserve our supplies of water.

Angela E. Smith: The hon. Gentleman mentioned climate change. Clause 1(2) would insert section 71B into the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Section 71B would state:

2 Feb 2007 : Column 531

That special regard would elevate gardens and green spaces over any other considerations, so climate change would come second to preserving gardens and urban green spaces. All the other issues that he has mentioned would move down the list, because the first priority would be special regard for preserving gardens and urban green spaces.

Greg Clark: The hon. Lady has entirely missed the point of the debate, which is that gardens make a fantastic contribution to the environment. Giving local authorities the ability to exercise discretion over garden-grab locations is one of the best and most practical things that we can do to help the environment. It is an example of joined-up government that I commend to Ministers. It would be a good way of uniting the different Departments. If the Government want to be green, a practical way of doing so would be to support a measure to help local authorities to protect gardens.

Garden-grab Bills are a bit like garden-grab developments, Mr. Deputy Speaker: just when you think that you have seen off one, another one comes along—that will certainly be our intention throughout this Parliament. In that regard, I wish to take this opportunity to announce a competition to find the worst garden-grab development in Britain. I expect the competition to be stiff. Entries will be judged on the loss of green space, the damage done to local character, the lack of architectural merit, the non-provision of affordable housing and the inappropriate density of the development. The political complexion of the local authority will not be taken into account because the ultimate responsibility lies with the Government.

By way of a prize, I am willing to pay for a new brass nameplate for the winning building. The only condition is that I get to choose the name. I have been toying with “Yvette Cooper Villas” or “Ruth Kelly Mansions”, but I have decided on a name that is truly worthy of the worst garden-grab development in the land: “John Prescott House”. It might seem unfair to give credit to someone who is no longer a Minister in the relevant Whitehall Department, but perhaps other garden-grab developments will choose spontaneously to honour the Ministers who continue to make them possible.

Let us make no mistake: Labour Members are leaving behind a legacy that will outlast their ministerial careers. In the interest of all our constituents throughout the country, they should take seriously the intentions behind the Bill, which have been supported by Members on both sides of the House through various Bills and early-day motions. They should support the Bill and let it go into Committee so that several of the suggestions made today may be advanced. They should let communities throughout the country have some hope of regaining the discretion over such developments that they desperately need.

1.41 pm

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on bringing her Bill this far.

2 Feb 2007 : Column 532

I am sure that most hon. Members in the Chamber have, like me, met many young people in their advice surgeries who are desperate to get a home of their own, as well as people who, as a result of family breakdown, are looking for single-person dwellings. We know that we must build more homes throughout the country. For too long, the housing market has not responded sufficiently to housing demand. Over the past 30 years, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of households, yet a 50 per cent. drop in house building.

There has been a vast increase in the number of new homes being built in my constituency over the past 10 years or so. For the most part, those homes have been built on brownfield land, usually in previously industrial areas, such as foundry sites and the sites of disused factories and warehousing. Indeed, a new development has recently been completed on the site of the old gasworks in my constituency, and a planning application has been submitted to develop a vast area of derelict land around Stourbridge canal basin and Wharf road. If that development is agreed to, we will have the prospect that a huge area of the town will be transformed and regenerated.

In recent years, concern has been expressed about the trend of building on garden sites, which was why I wanted to take a closer look at the Bill and determine whether it would be helpful. Although I agree with the thrust of the Bill, such closer inspection has given rise to several points on which I would like clarification or assistance.

The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) mentioned two organisations that are in favour of the Bill, but I am sure that he has received the letter to hon. Members from the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Although it, like me, is sympathetic to the broad aims of the Bill, it believes that existing planning provision is sufficient to address the situation and, furthermore, that the changes proposed in the Bill are unnecessary and would add a further layer of complexity to the planning process. That is a sticking point for me because if there is one complaint that I hear over and over again from residents, developers and planners, it is that planning is already time-consuming enough. Indeed, the Barker review made several recommendations on freeing up the process.

Further research has led me to wonder whether the time for the Bill has passed and whether it would actually be necessary, following the Government’s publication of PPS3 in November last year. PPS3 gives local planning authorities more flexibility over where housing is delivered, including back gardens. In addition, PPS3 rewords the definition of “previously-developed land” making it more concise and clearer. As the hon. Member for Meriden admitted, should her Bill go further, another new definition would be required, to exclude gardens and to explain why other parts of the plot, such as patios or similar hard standing, were included.

I understand that PPS3 gives local planning authorities more flexibility to determine how and where new homes should be built, and gives them greater powers to determine policies particular to their area, which could include setting out the circumstances in which back-garden developments may be permitted. It seems as though the job of the Bill has been done without its being enacted. PPS3 makes it clear that
2 Feb 2007 : Column 533
design that is inappropriate or that fails to improve the character or quality of an area should not be accepted. It will be for the authority to decide how much reliance it places on residential sites, including gardens, as opposed to vacant or derelict sites. Sites will need to be suitable for housing development as well as contributing to the creation of sustainable and mixed communities.

Like the hon. Member for Meriden, I am keen to protect urban green spaces. However, PPG17, on open space, sport and recreation, specifies that existing open spaces and land should not be built on without an assessment by the local authority showing that the land is surplus to the requirements of the community after taking into account all the functions that open space performs for the community. Why is that not a sufficient basis for the decisions of planning officers and authorities?

PPS3 moves away from what were seen as prescriptive housing density targets and gives local authorities more flexibility to take account of local circumstances and set their own density standards. The guidance allows a range of densities across the plan area rather than relying on one broad density range. Will not that safeguard achieve similar outcomes to the provisions in the Bill?

Most of the points that I wanted to make have been covered, so this has been a short speech. In conclusion, although I am in broad agreement with the aims of the Bill, PPS3, which was published only last November, takes into account many of the issues the hon. Lady attempts to remedy. PPS3 will improve the quality of design in housing and neighbourhoods. It will continue the focus on brownfield land and allow authorities the flexibility to set their own targets and density standards and to reflect the number of sites available while supporting a national target. In short, has not the job already been done?

The hon. Lady should not try to upset and frighten people with the sort of scurrilous nonsense on her website—material that Tory candidates are being asked to use. Rather than frightening people, she should be encouraging her authority to make the existing guidance work, because she is obviously not doing so.

1.48 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on promoting the Bill and, in her absence from the Chamber, thank her for allowing me to be one of its sponsors. The subject is hugely important to my constituents, as well as to people throughout much of suburban England—in London, the south-east and beyond. It is a serious matter and deserves consistently serious debate.

I want to deal with some of the criticisms of the Bill. It is nonsense to suggest that the measure will make it harder to protect gardens or that it will in any way restrict the delivery of affordable housing. One of the key things about back-garden development is that it generally—indeed, overwhelmingly—makes no contribution to affordable housing, for all the reasons that have already been given relating to the perverse incentives that arise from the current planning regime. Affordable housing seldom comes into garden
2 Feb 2007 : Column 534
development. The problem is that the mixture of nationally and regionally set minimum densities and housing targets, together with the artificial threshold, frequently cause the developer deliberately to go for a smaller site where they can accommodate fewer than 14 units. Such sites are most easily assembled by buying up a couple of back gardens and building on them.

That has certainly been our consistent experience in the London borough of Bromley, a borough that is more than happy to give approvals for high density housing in the right place—for example, Ringers road in the town centre, where we have allowed a substantial high-density development because it is close to the town centre and a transport centre. However, that does not help our constituents in established and settled suburban areas.

I am also surprised by the suggestion that the Bill would increase climate change. Perhaps that was a misunderstanding—I am glad if it was on the Minister’s part—but let me make it clear for the record that we all know that gardens and urban open spaces contribute to the battle against climate change. The Bill would specifically assist them to do that. Anything that seeks to protect gardens and urban open spaces is a good thing in that fight. I cannot for the life of me see how placing a duty to have “special regard” to the desirability of protecting gardens and open urban spaces can be anything other than an environmentally positive measure.

It has also been suggested that PPS3, in its new incarnation, will solve the problem. I am afraid that it will not, and the Minister concedes that it will not on its own. Let me make two points about that. First, the definition in PPS3 still goes nowhere near enough to protect back gardens. In fact, the definition of previously developed land, even under the new wording, includes land that has had a dwelling house on it before and the curtilage of that dwelling. The gardens, because they are part of the curtilage, still fall within the definition of previously developed land. Furthermore, it is apparent that any garden other than allotment gardens still falls within the brownfield definition. Gardens are still caught by the perverse situation in which it suits people to develop on brownfield land.

I agree with the Government that housing development on brownfield land is a laudable aim. My party has always supported the idea that housing development should be on brownfield land. That is not the problem. The definition of brownfield land is at fault, so the definition needs to be changed. That is best done not by regulation, but by primary legislation, and that is what we seek to introduce. Tinkering round the edges with regulations, however well intended, will not achieve the desired objective.

My second point about relying on planning guidance is that we all know that there is a hierarchy of planning considerations. Even in the planning documents of the London borough of Bromley and the Major’s London plan, consideration is supposed to be given to the context of a development, which is another way of taking account of local character. However, a series of planning decisions in my area have made it apparent that that aspect comes a lot lower down the planning
2 Feb 2007 : Column 535
inspectorate’s hierarchy of considerations than meeting the minimum densities numbers game. That is not an adequate safeguard.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) make the point that areas vary, which is exactly right——of course they vary. That is precisely why the imposition of nationally, or even regionally, set minimum densities is not sensible in terms of environmental protection. Densities that are appropriate in inner London are not appropriate in outer London, and densities that are appropriate in the town centre of Bromley are not appropriate in established suburban areas, such as Bickley, that have little social infrastructure. The perverse incentive resulting from the mixture of regulations drives developers to the small suburban sites, because they are the easiest to use.

Natascha Engel: The flexibility is in PPS3, and that is why planning authority is at local authority level. The planning authority is not at national Government level, but the hon. Gentleman seems to have missed that point.

Robert Neill: The trouble is that the planning authority is so constrained by nationally set targets that its ability to act as a local planning authority is almost emasculated. A London borough has to contend not only with national guidance and policy—the minimum density that is imposed on it—but with regional policies imposed by the Mayor of London. That does not produce the results that the community wants.

Recently, a development at Ravensbourne college in Chislehurst of a significantly higher density than the surrounding area was proposed. It was not a back-garden site, but the principle that the hon. Lady mentioned is demonstrated by the case. Some 500 people turned up at the public meeting to protest that that was overdevelopment of the site—not that there should not be development, because the site was right for housing, but that what was proposed was overdevelopment.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Was there affordable housing?

Robert Neill: There was affordable housing, but that was not the problem. The density was the problem. What happened was that, although it was accepted that there might be damage to the context, the inspector regarded that as a lesser consideration than the Mayor’s insistence on a minimum density on a site that he himself concluded had a low public transport accessibility score—almost at the bottom of the scale. The Mayor wanted to go even further than the national guidance and press for yet higher densities than even the developer was trying to get away with.

People in that part of Chislehurst do not feel that the planning system gave them any ability to protect their local community, or that their local councillors were given a fair hand in fighting to defend their local interests. Reliance on the current system does not work, which brings us back to the fundamental point that a
2 Feb 2007 : Column 536
change in the definition of brownfield land, with a specific protection for back gardens, is the only way to achieve those objectives.

Back gardens make a real contribution to the urban, particularly the suburban, landscape. I speak from direct experience of London, but I am sure that that is true of all our great cities. Great cities do not depend solely on their urban core; they depend on their suburbs as well, because that is where the people who are the engine room of all our cities live. In London, people are prepared to undergo long and sometimes unpleasant journeys commuting from the suburbs on overcrowded trains, as anyone who reads the Evening Standard, which is running an excellent campaign, knows. They put up with that commute because they want to live in an area that is green, has a bit of space and is laid out. They are prepared to pay for the privilege of doing so, both financially and in terms of wear and tear.

We should not try to solve our housing problems by destroying established, settled suburban environments. If we are sensible about making use of real brownfield land, there is more than enough capacity to build the housing that we need without trespassing on back gardens in the way that we see throughout suburban London. Once we start to undermine the quality of the suburban environment, we push some of the most valuable people for our cities—the people who work in the middle ranks of our public and private sectors—into moving further and further out, away from the suburbs. The result is a general flight of the economically active, which is damaging to everyone, the poorest and the most vulnerable included, because it reduces the city’s economic viability.

Mr. Pelling: My hon. Friend’s point is important, given that public infrastructure investment in our suburbs is often weak. It is not the Government’s priority to invest in the suburbs. Additional strain is put on the infrastructure when there is no planning for all the additional residents who will live in an area as a result of all the planning applications. What is needed is an holistic approach, determined locally.

Robert Neill: My hon. Friend is correct. His experience is the same as mine. The concerns about the planning application I mentioned included the lack of transport and sewerage infrastructure and the lack of social infrastructure, such as health and dental care facilities. People were also concerned about pressure on local primary and secondary schools. None of that was adequately taken into account under the present system. Such matters are not best determined from the top down but at local level. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The Government use the rhetoric of localism, but are clearly doing their best to obstruct a Bill that is thoroughly localist in character. It is by their actions, not their words, that they will be judged.

Mr. Slaughter: I thought that I was about to agree with the hon. Gentleman because he made a good point about infrastructure. Does he therefore support the Government’s proposals for planning gain supplement, which will address those problems, especially with major developments?

Next Section Index Home Page