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22 Jan 2008 : Column 384WH—continued

I suggested that in the relevant paragraph on development in south-east Dorset, all the words after “urban renewal” be deleted and the following words be added:

A regional strategy should be a regional strategy; it should not involve the Government or unelected regional bodies imposing on small communities requirements about how they should manage their own affairs.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): My hon. Friend touches on a signal point. Does he agree that there is all the difference in the world between targets that descend on smaller communities, forcing them either to fight against them or to accept the unwanted, and what might have been, which is an effort to encourage people locally in small communities to accept more housing in sensitive ways that relate to the community and fit its culture and life?

Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was the policy and philosophy that the previous Conservative Government tried to promote. I can remember when I was a Minister in the Department of the Environment, and the issue of Foxley wood came up, when the then Secretary of State and his officials tried to second-guess the wishes of people living in Hampshire and impose a new settlement there. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) will remember that an effigy of Nicholas Ridley was burned at Foxley wood, and it led to a complete change in policy. He said that policy should be bottom-up, with local people being able to decide what was best for their own communities and their own future.

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Mr. Letwin: Does my hon. Friend agree that in place of burning effigies of the Secretary of State, or of the Minister for Housing, we could have small statues to her if the plan were to do what it will signally fail to do, which is to encourage, for example, community land trusts? In my constituency, the villagers of Buckland Newton have clubbed together to support extra housing for local young people, precisely because those villagers are able to control it through the community land trust and its shared equity arrangements.

Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right again. Other areas are trying to emulate the achievements regarding community land trusts in his constituency. They have struck a chord with local people, and they are an example of truly sustainable development.

I shall provide my own example of the way in which a small community is being imposed upon by the panel’s report and the strategy. There are 1,350 households in the parish of West Parley, and the parish and its residents association conducted a survey of all residents. They did not go door to door trying to get them to answer yes or no, they sent them survey forms and invited residents to return them. Some 65 per cent. of households did so, representing 1,755 people on the electoral register, and 97.78 per cent. of those residents said that they wanted to preserve their green belt in West Parley. They were also concerned about the lack of infrastructure, and about other issues relating to the proposal to build over the green belt there.

The EIP heard evidence from West Parley, but there is no reference to it in the report, save to say that the opposition to the development on the green belt arose because of a change of political control. That is, however, a completely wrong assertion. It was not a change of political control that caused people to become so angry about the removal of the green belt in that area. It was, however, material that if the local councillors did not go along with the wishes of the people, they certainly would have lost political control, and quite right, too, because surely that is what local democracy should be all about. Instead, the panel has chosen to re-impose through that process a requirement that West Parley should have its green belt taken away to provide 900 high-density houses right on the edge of the River Stour. West Parley parish council is seething, as indeed is East Dorset district council, which realises that the decision is completely at odds with local people’s wishes. The recommendations are totally undemocratic, and they fly in the face of localism. Almost everybody recognises that we need more houses in East Dorset, but surely locally elected representatives should be able to decide on their location.

The next point that I sought to raise with the panel, by giving written evidence, related to policy reference SR29. I said:

That point has not been followed through in the spatial strategy. There is a desire to increase the densities in urban and suburban areas to as much as 50 habitable houses per hectare, which will be absolutely oppressive in the current East Dorset environment. It will mean
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that almost every tree has to be removed from any given site, that there will be no local recreational facilities for the people who are forced to live in those high-density dwellings, and that they will be forced to travel to other recreational hot spots at a time when Natural England says that it wants to reduce the amount of people using heathland in order to protect that valuable habitat.

My next representation, again on policy reference SR29, stated:

I sought to delete any expressions relating to “maximum densities”, but the Government still require an urban extension to be accompanied by a maximum density. That is an enormous threat to the future well-being of our countryside.

I then wrote:

that that key infrastructure be put in place before the development proposed can be implemented. I am horrified to say that not only was my recommendation rejected by the panel, but that it removed all reference to key infrastructure requirements on the basis that it did not know what that key infrastructure was. That is an absurd situation. I hope that, when the Minister examines the panel report, she will also examine a further recommendation that I made to the panel: that any development should depend on the required infrastructure being in place before it starts. A problem in our planning system in the past 10 or 15 years has been that developers, and sometimes public authorities, have promised to put in infrastructure after the event, but the developments have taken place and the infrastructure has never been put in place. The result has been the pressures that we see every day: increased congestion and pressure on sewerage, waste facilities and water. That is all because the Government refuse to recognise that there must be a link between infrastructure and development.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend touches on the crucial matter in the debate—the fact that infrastructure is so inadequate. We share the Wessex way, which is almost at gridlock, and Castle lane is completely inadequate. We also have an airport served by a country bumpkin road. That is not the backdrop to which 48,000 houses should be built.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that it is suggested that there should be development on the green belt in north Bournemouth, in the northern part of his constituency. To enable access to that land, an enormous amount needs to be spent on infrastructure improvement, but there is no way in which that money can ever be afforded. The proposal in the original report that there should be a proper infrastructure link between the A338 and the airport, to enable new employment, has been rejected in the panel report.

Probably the only good thing in the whole panel report is the suggestion that the A31 should be made a dual carriageway towards the west. The panel regards
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that road as an “urban road”, although it is currently a single carriageway through heathland. That is how it justifies the requirement that it should be a dual carriageway. There is not yet any suggestion as to whether the Highways Agency is in favour of that, and if so, how it will be afforded, but it is about the only crumb of comfort that I could find in the whole 500-plus-page report.

The report mentions the number of houses to be built. I was in the position that you are in today, Mr. Olner, chairing a debate here on the north-east regional strategy last June. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who is now the Deputy Leader of the House, complained that the north-east was not being allowed to build enough houses. The north-east regional spatial strategy stated that there should be a net increase of 6,500 new properties a year, compared with the requirement of 28,500 in the south-west. She said that only 19,000 were proposed in Durham for the whole 15-year planning period, which compares with 48,000 in Dorset. She said that she knew of Members of the House who had complained about lack of infrastructure, congestion and declining quality of life because of development in the south, and that she wanted more of that in the north. If the Government were to say, “Our strategy is to spread the demand for housing and the provision of housing across the country,” we would be talking the same language. That would truly be a strategy led by the Government. Instead, we have the fall-back position of the predict and provide policy.

Serious matters were raised in the report, and the result of the loss of green belt in Christchurch and particularly East Dorset will be dramatic. East Dorset district council has described the panel’s proposals as

In other words, every part of East Dorset that is not already developed will be a prime target for developers, and the district council is being deprived of the means of controlling the destiny of its area. I hope that the Minister will examine carefully the proposal to increase housing provision in East Dorset by 1,000 properties, with the implications spelled out succinctly by the council.

The report states:

That is a pretty meaningless statement. How will that ever be delivered? When I was the Roads Minister, the policy was to transfer as much traffic as possible on to the strategic trunk road network, rather than the reverse. Now it seems that we are not going to be doing that. There is a reference in the panel report to restricting the use of the motorway around the Bristol conurbation. What implications does that have for the alternative route into the west country, the A303? It should go via Stonehenge, but the Government have abandoned that project and the panel report states that we should have a gentle approach to developing a second thoroughfare into the west country. The matter has not been thought through, and even the Highways
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Agency’s proposals for investment to ensure that we have reduced congestion in the west country seem to have been rejected.

I hope that this will be the first of many debates on the subject. The Leader of the House ducked the second part of my question last Thursday about further opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that the Minister will assure us of her willingness to receive deputations from our constituencies on the subject matter of this important report. I do not wish to give an autobiography, but I can remember, when I was a Planning Minister, receiving deputations from Members of Parliament who had concerns about proposed changes to county structure plans. Those plans were much closer to the people than these regional monstrosities that we have now, and the public examination of them was much more thorough, albeit long-winded, than that of the regional spatial strategy. In those days, Ministers recognised that the most important stakeholders in local communities were the Members of Parliament elected by them.

We must balance the interests of a parish threatened with losing some of its green belt, people saying that they want more affordable housing for young people and firms that say that they need to expand and want larger areas in which to do so. We must bring a balanced and rational approach to that, which is why it is unforgivable that until now we, the MPs representing the west country, have been excluded from the process.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. I have the names of only two Members who wish to participate in the debate, and I intend to call them first. I intend also that the Liberal Democrat spokesman will start the winding-up speeches at 11.55 am. I am delighted to see so many Back Benchers here to participate in the debate, but it will be down to your discipline as to how many of your colleagues are called.

11.31 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing this debate. For once, we have a great deal in common, and I shall reiterate some of the important points that he made. I shall be fairly brief because, having had the general introduction, it is appropriate that I refer to specific constituency points.

I begin with a basic point about the report’s lack of democratic accountability. Like many other MPs, I asked to attend the examination in public. In fact, I requested that three times. I tried to get beyond the secretariat to the examination in public, but that person seemed to have all the power at their elbow. I could not get beyond them.

What concerns me particularly is that we frequently have statements from the Government that the green belt is safe, that it is Government policy not to encroach on it, but that of course local authorities might make adjustments. So where does an unelected regional body that is proposing massive changes to the green belt, regardless of what local councils and elected representatives might say, come into the equation?

I notice, for example, that the Government office for the south-west indicated that an approved green belt should be altered only in exceptional circumstances.
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The examination in public panel concluded that the scale of demand and the application of the principles of sustainable locations provide the exceptional circumstances to justify alterations to the green belt in the region. At what point can locally elected representatives challenge that conclusion?

There is a further conclusion that I find unsatisfactory. The strategic authority suggested that greenfield development in my area needs to be phased in to ensure that it does not prejudice the rate of development within the area, particularly the Poole regeneration area. That is a large brownfield site on which people would support the building of 2,000 dwellings, if they could be secured—it is proving to be difficult—a high proportion of which would be affordable housing. Development on that old power station site is supported by all. Surely that should be attended to before this development comes forth, but the panel’s view was that no evidence had been provided to demonstrate that there was a need for phasing.

Without phasing, how will our existing infrastructure cope? Any Members who have visited Dorset or attempted to travel through it will be aware that it is beautiful but that there is not even a tiny bit of motorway within it, that it has incredibly poor public transport and that it is difficult to travel westward in general. The county lacks infrastructure, yet the thrust of the report is build, build, build, everything will follow. I do not have confidence in that strategy.

I would like to mention the situation in east Dorset, to which the hon. Member for Christchurch also referred. Corfe Mullen is a large village in my constituency. It was proposed that the authorities working together should undertake a large development in the green belt. An interest group was formed, and it produced a massive petition. The parish council did not just go along with the interest group; as in West Parley, it did a detailed house-to-house survey on the right balance between building and tackling the serious local problem of the lack of affordable local accommodation for our young people. As soon as the results were in—the survey was very well done—they were presented to East Dorset district council. There was hard evidence from local people, and it is absolute nonsense, as the report suggests, to say that East Dorset had a change of political control. That is just one example of the many flaws in the report, and a very obvious one.

I want to refer particularly to the western extension, which is a location around a village called Lytchett Minster. It is true that, originally, the concept of a new town was explored. Natural England objected to that, and, for all sorts of reasons, the whole thing was thrown out. The south-east Dorset joint study area group commissioned a study to consider a reduced scale of development from a transport perspective. The study concluded that substantial highway infrastructure costs would be associated with the development. As a consequence, in evidence to the examination in public, Dorset county council, Purbeck district council, and Lytchett Minster and Upton town council all objected to any development in the area. Lytchett Matravers parish council would have been included, if it had been invited. There was no local support for any development in that green belt and flood plain area.

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However, evidence was submitted on behalf of the developer. It is interesting that such evidence could be submitted, whereas I as an MP was told that my viewpoint would not be strategic enough. The person who appeared on behalf of the developer challenged the finding of the study commissioned by our local authorities and said that a development of that scale could be accommodated without the need for additional lanes on the A35. In due course, the examination in public supported an extra 2,750 dwellings.

At the start, Purbeck was asked to provide 2,100 extra dwellings. That has gone up to 5,150, which is an increase of 3,050 and half the increase for the whole of the Bournemouth-Poole conurbation. That is absolutely phenomenal. Purbeck has a wonderful world heritage coastline, it is in an area of outstanding beauty and it has an enormous proportion of heathland. Highly concentrated housing would be quite alien to the nature of the place.

I understand how the statistics might look from the outside. Purbeck has one of the highest ratios of house prices to earnings. Well, perhaps one should just build houses to bring house prices down. That may be the view from outside, but if one also considers the proportion of second homes, one begins to realise that building more and more houses and trying to build a way out of the situation is not the way to tackle the problem.

What is needed is a proper approach to providing affordable housing for local young people. It will involve working with local councils and communities. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) gave some examples of how we should tackle the problem at local level. We need to protect the quality of life.

At present, my constituency has a rich diversity of rural and urban areas. It is fascinating to see how the two sectors come together. They are dependent on one another, and it is a delight to live in the area. The proposals will turn it into one large urban sprawl, apart from the land on which Natural England would object to any development whatsoever.

Martin Horwood: I am struck by the similarities between the opposition in Dorset and the opposition to urban extension around Cheltenham, where all elected and community representatives opposed the extension and only planners and developers supported it. Does my hon. Friend agree that a possible explanation for the way in which extensions are happening is that they are simply more profitable for developers than urban regeneration, development in counties such as Cornwall that need and want more housing, or smaller developments around villages with shops and schools that are dying for lack of smaller-scale development?

Annette Brooke: I agree entirely, and think that we should return to that issue.

Finally, if the Government really believe in localism, let us have a local response.

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