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18 Mar 2008 : Column 752

Land Use (Garden Protection)

3.31 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I beg to move,

Hon. Members may recall that last year I sought to close a loophole in planning law that has led to gardens up and down the country being prioritised for building. My private Member’s Bill last year followed the extensive work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I am delighted that he is a sponsor of my current Bill. Despite having support from hon. Members from all parties in the House, my Bill last year was talked out by the Government, who have so far failed to solve the problem. How I wish that they had listened more carefully to the impassioned, eloquent contributions from Government Members on the subject.

In my current Bill, I am once again asking for a simple provision to be made in planning law so that local councils can, where they feel it appropriate, protect gardens from being built on. Ministers claim that such a power already exists in changes that they have made to planning guidance, but the evidence from my constituency since the introduction of that and other guidance shows that the problem continues. In my constituency, 43 per cent. of all applications made have been to build on a garden site. In other areas, the situation is even worse. A survey of six local authorities—Bradford, Chelmsford, Guildford, Nottingham, Oxford and Tunbridge Wells—found that 72 per cent. of all brownfield site development was on gardens.

The impact on the environment, infrastructure and people’s quality of life has been disastrous. Gardens are a valuable source of biodiversity. They are a haven for wildlife and play a critical role in getting the balance right between the built and the natural environments. The gardens being concreted over are leaving a malign environmental legacy.

Just a few weeks ago, Sir Michael Pitt, who led the Government’s review of last summer’s floods, told the BBC that the garden grabbing surge had increased the risk of further flooding. He said:

It would be a mistake for the Government to ignore Sir Michael and an even greater one to underestimate the strength of public feeling on the issue.

I ask colleagues simply to Google “garden grabbing” and see the fury that the issue is creating. Garden Organic has a powerful online campaign, to which people have sent their pictures and testimonials about the damage that has been wrought by current planning policy. The people contributing are not mindless nimbies; they are raising concerns about the environment and infrastructure, which is plain common sense. Neighbourhoods with roads, parking spaces and drainage systems originally designed to serve a handful of properties are buckling under the unsustainable number of flats being built in back gardens.

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In my constituency, there is an application to demolish two family homes on Elmdon lane in Marston Green and to replace them with 71 new dwellings. Just think about the impact of that development. I am talking about a narrow, tree-lined avenue with a hump-backed bridge, where garden grabbing could lead to traffic levels increasing by 3,400 per cent.

Ironically, the changes that Ministers have made to planning legislation actually favour garden development. The combination of centrally imposed housing and density targets has left elected, accountable local authorities with little scope to defend their refusal at appeal. The Government repeatedly point to a “brownfield first” policy but, ironically, they themselves define “brownfield” for planning purposes, rather than for statistical purposes only, as they did originally. That has meant that the correct preference for genuine brownfield land to be given priority in the planning system is fatally undermined, because gardens are rich pickings for developers, who will favour gardens over a gasworks any day. This is borne out by the words of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who memorably told the House of developers flying over the back gardens of Sunderland in helicopters, looking for sites to develop and neglecting the genuine brownfield sites in the process.

The logic for developers is that garden sites tend to be in areas of higher real-estate value. The end result is that two-bedroom flats are created at a price that is way beyond the pocket of first-time buyers. Also, small developments built in back gardens frequently fall below the threshold for providing affordable homes. The preference for blocks of flats on garden sites has meant that the genuine need for affordable family homes is simply not being met., a major property search engine, states that

So why are the Government repeatedly turning a deaf ear to this issue? Are they unaware of the environmental legacy that we are leaving? Do they have an innate wish to see gardens and green spaces being built on? Or is it simply that defining gardens as brownfield land was a drafting error that has given rise to an unintended consequence? I am a generous-minded sort of person, and I would like to believe that this last explanation is the correct one. If it is not, those involved in this planning legislation are guilty of environmental vandalism on a vast scale.

I implore the Minister—on behalf of the 179 MPs on both sides of the House who signed early-day motion 2130 in the last Session, and on behalf of all those living in the shadow of inappropriate garden development—to add a minor provision to the planning guidance that would simply allow councils to give a garden protection against development where they felt that it had a particular value or function in a neighbourhood. That would be a proportionate and reasonable way of addressing the growing problem. It would rely on the Government’s trust in elected councillors correctly to judge where and when it was in the interests
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of a particular neighbourhood to safeguard certain gardens. It would not be a blanket veto on garden development. If an application were appropriate, there would be no reason for it to be declined. If, however, it were inappropriate or detrimental to a neighbourhood, the council would be empowered to stop it.

At the moment, councils are enfeebled when it comes to planning. The revised planning guidance in planning policy statement 3 has not given the protection that we hoped for. It focuses on gardens for new build, rather than conserving existing gardens. Any discretion that councils have over development is so compromised by the hierarchy of housing and density targets as to be meaningless. I asked the chief planning officer of my own local authority why the new planning guidance was so ineffective, and he made it quite plain that, in the hierarchy of different planning considerations, the absolutes of the number of homes needing to be built and the need to increase density had priority over the more subjective consideration of appropriateness. That is the fundamental reason why the new guidance is so ineffective.

Surely we have to do better. Ministers cannot bury their heads in the sand on this issue. All over the country—in places like Derby, Stockton, Crawley, Cheltenham and Eastleigh, for example—powerful local campaigns against inappropriate garden development are being mobilised, and the London mayoral candidate, Boris Johnson has promised to take the issue up in his campaign. I know that legislators in the House of Commons will show similar strength by amending the planning guidance so that local authorities can exercise a right to protect gardens from development, where it is inappropriate. If they refuse, they will be judged very harshly. I support the Bill.

3.40 pm

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) made her case in the way we have come to appreciate when she speaks moderately to a well-argued case, with statistics and facts marshalled in support. As she rightly said, this is a cross-party issue, and I have discussed it with my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who is one of her supporters. I believe, however, that the hon. Lady is profoundly mistaken and that behind her modest Bill lies a very serious rejection of our obligation to provide new homes for the new generation.

I genuinely ask the hon. Lady to reflect on what Harold Macmillan, who built 300,000 houses a year in the 1950s, would have thought to be told that what was built then on gardens, green fields and people’s private land—he was right to build up British housing after the war—should be blocked by legislation such as this. [Interruption.] I hear from a sedentary intervention on the Opposition side that some Conservative Members seem to think that nothing had been built on a garden—in the sense of the land behind a house—until the last few years. They really need to examine the facts.

The key figure is very simple. Since the 1970s, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of households, but a 50 per cent. drop in house building. Current figures suggest that we will see 210,000 new households in Britain each year over the next 20 years, but we are not building more than 150,000 to 180,000
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new homes a year. The main blockage remains land and the refusal of planners to allocate it for housing. I regret to say that the arguments in the Bill will make matters worse.

All or most of our homes were built on what was once someone’s garden or field and filled up a very pleasant view. In my own constituency of Rotherham, the house I live in was built under Harold Macmillan in the 1950s in what was previously someone’s back garden. I can think of many other areas that used to be someone’s big back garden, but that now provide homes for the people of Rotherham. Furthermore, if we look at any map of Victorian or Edwardian—or even early Elizabethan, by which I mean Elizabeth II—London, we will find that it used to be covered with gardens and fields, but people now live there. In the 1930s, when the population of Britain was half what it is today, those opposed to immigrants or asylum seekers said that we were full up, just as the racists in the BNP and Migration Watch say today, yet 90 per cent. of the surface land in the UK has no building on it at all.

We use land in a far less efficient way than other countries. In Greater Paris, for example, there are 8,649 people living in each square kilometre compared to close to half that number—4,779—in Greater London. If we compare Manhattan and inner London, we see three times as many people living in New York as in London—28,000 in each square kilometre in Manhattan as opposed to 9,000 in the same space in inner London.

Indeed, we have actually seen a decline in building on gardens—the hon. Member for Meriden did not refer to it—as new dwellings on previously developed residential land fell from 20 per cent. in 1990 to 15 per cent. today. In other words, it was the last Conservative Administration who permitted more garden grabbing—not the slogan used at the time—because Mrs. Thatcher understood that a property-owning democracy was good for Britain. Now we seem to want a garden protectionist oligarchy, which will deny to our children a right that all hon. Members have long taken for granted—the right to own our own home.

I think that it is also a matter of equity. As the famous jurist, Sir Edward Coke said,

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but part of our freedom as a property-owning democracy is also to be a property-selling democracy.

An owner might wish to sell his or her house and garden, or part thereof, for many reasons. Money must be released from being tied up in property for all sorts of reasons, one of which, as we all live longer, is the cost of care. The Bill will deny to many of our constituents the freedom to buy and sell their land as they think best.

The Bill is also centralising, making a Whitehall-Westminster diktat out of what should be a decision taken locally by local planners and democratically elected local councillors, who are much closer to the needs of their constituents than the ladies and gentleman of Whitehall. They will know better than us whether this or that garden, or other greenfield site, is suitable for housing.

I fully accept that not every claim to build in a garden is justified. Although, as a whole, I have made it a rule as an MP to stay out of planning rows and disputes, there may be a time when I side with constituents on a proposed development. But it is not right to tie the hands of local councillors, home and garden owners, other landowners and house builders with this over-regulation. If we are honest, we all know that the pressure to stop development is huge, as today’s generation wants to kick away the housing ladder that we have climbed up and lessen the chance of our children to live in their own home.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Caroline Spelman, Greg Clark, Michael Fabricant, Mr. Frank Field, Andrew George, Stephen Hammond, Mr. Greg Hands, Mr. Jeremy Hunt, Miss Julie Kirkbride, Mrs. Eleanor Laing, Ms Gisela Stuart and Ms Dari Taylor.

Land Use (Garden Protection)

Mrs. Caroline Spelman accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the protection of gardens and urban green spaces; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 13 June, and to be printed [Bill 88].

18 Mar 2008 : Column 757

Orders of the Day

Ways and Means

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [12 March.]

Amendment of the law

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Question again proposed.

Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

3.47 pm

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): I am pleased to have the opportunity to open our last day’s debate on my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s Budget, which deals with the very important issues of business and enterprise.

The Budget will help the United Kingdom tackle some of the biggest economic issues that we now face: uncertainty in international financial markets; intensified global competition; and the need to promote and support Britain’s strong pro-enterprise culture. To steer the right course, Governments must listen and respond to the needs of British businesses. That is what we are doing.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has brought forward a Budget designed to ensure that Britain’s economy remains strong in uncertain economic times. These are such times. In every respect, the Budget also stands in stark contrast to the measures that others have proposed, which would weaken our economy by compromising economic stability, threatening the public finances in the process. That would be a real double whammy for our country.

My argument today is that we should take no risks with our hard-earned stability. That is why this Budget sets a course for continued macro-economic stability, rather than putting it at risk with the unfunded spending pledges and tax cuts proposed by the Opposition parties. It promotes enterprise across the economy, rather than undermining key sectors such as manufacturing with huge cuts in capital allowances for investors, which the Conservative party has also proposed. That change would penalise investment at a time when we should instead support it. The Budget will help to deliver sustainable economic growth through greater business
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certainty, rather than confusing businesses with half-baked policy initiatives designed merely to last as long as it takes to generate a headline or two.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Given that money market conditions are very tense and tight on both sides of the Atlantic, will the Secretary of State comment on why the United States authorities are cutting interest rates, taking the position very seriously and pumping money in, while the United Kingdom authorities are not?

Mr. Hutton: Every country must respond in a way that is appropriate to its own market conditions, and I believe that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England have taken appropriate action to support the United Kingdom economy as it enters an uncertain period.

The Budget’s foundations, and indeed its ambitions, lie in the UK’s strong and stable economic record since 1997. In the past 10 years, we have achieved unmatched economic growth. The UK is the only country among the G7 to have experienced no quarters of negative GDP growth since 1997. There have been 62 quarters of unbroken GDP growth in the UK, which constitutes the longest economic expansion on record in this country.

We have helped more people to progress through work. The UK’s employment rate at the end of 2007 was also the highest in the G7. A record 29.39 million people are in employment, over 2.7 million more than in 1997. We have also kept inflation and interest rates low. In case we have all forgotten, I remind the House that before 1997 the UK had one of the worst inflation records in the G7. Now we have one of the best. As a result, interest rates have averaged 5.4 per cent. since 1997, about half the rate between 1979 and 1997, which has helped home owners and businesses to plan for the long term in a much more sensible way. So we enter this period of uncertainty, caused by upheavals in international financial markets, with our economy performing strongly and with growth forecast for each of the next three years.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Secretary of State concerned about our trade deficit, which is the worst since records began, and about our worsening competitive position? Am I right in saying that we have fallen in the World Economic Forum chart from fourth in 1998 to about 11th now? Will he comment on those two very concerning factors?

Mr. Hutton: I think that the UK remains a very competitive economy. That is borne out by the record levels of foreign direct investment in what is one of the most preferred locations for inward investment, which I think tells its own story. We have worked to provide a positive climate for business investment, raising national and international investment in our economy. Business investment has grown in nine of the last 10 years, averaging 5.3 per cent. since 1997—compared, I am afraid, with an average of just 3.5 per cent. between 1979 and 1996.

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