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25 Mar 2008 : Column 56WH—continued

The Indian Government have warmly praised DFID’s substantial contribution to rural development. Our support comprises five major livelihoods programmes in four states, with a total budget of more than £150 million. Our support in Andhra Pradesh has helped to lift more than 1 million people above the poverty line. Access to safe drinking water has improved; the number of children enrolled in education has increased; and people are choosing to use higher incomes to send their children to school, building for their future. In southern Orissa,
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farmers have been given the skills to enable them to abandon destructive slash-and-burn systems of agriculture and to take up sustainable small-scale farming.

In Bangladesh, the programme has supported communities in raising more than 30,000 homesteads above the flood level and in raising the earth plinths, and that figure will increase to 100,000 by 2011. The programme has also provided more than 20,000 latrines and 750 tube wells, which have brought substantial health gains. Under the programme, more than 30,000 households have already received productive assets, such as cattle and goats. Close monitoring of the programme shows real success in helping to lift destitute and landless households out of chronic poverty.

In the context of the alliance, the hon. Gentleman talked about the green revolution in Africa. We are considering increasing support for agriculture, supporting the alliance and providing additional support through the rural development forum. Climate change will potentially have dire consequences for the rural poor, and it will make agriculture increasingly unreliable. Glacial melting in the Himalayas will compromise water flows into the nine major river systems of Asia, and it will reduce an already stressed water supply that goes to more than 1 billion people. In Asia alone, more than 50 million people who live in coastal areas are expected to be displaced by rising sea levels. That is why we have put together £800 million for an environmental transformation fund that will hopefully provide some of the answers to the difficult questions that the hon. Gentleman has asked—such questions are also asked every day across the world.

The gloomy prognosis adds to the urgency and priority of making rural livelihoods more resilient. It is encouraging that developing countries are recognising the importance of rural development. For example, in 2003 African Governments committed themselves to spending 10 per cent. of their national budgets on agriculture and rural development by 2009 from a baseline of just 4 per cent. DFID supports the “Comprehensive African Agriculture Development” programme, which is a major initiative by the African Union and is strongly backed by African political leaders. As I have mentioned, we are working closely with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the alliance for a green revolution in Africa, which was recently launched by Kofi Annan.

Policy reform is delivering results—especially in Africa. In Malawi, DFID supports an innovative targeted fertiliser subsidy programme which has enabled the country to move quickly from dependency on maize imports to an export surplus at a time when the region as a whole has been experiencing a serious food crisis. In Uganda, reforms implemented in the 1990s have significantly increased the share of export prices received by farmers, which has contributed to a large reduction in rural poverty.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about rights. In all our work throughout the world, we try to embed a rights culture into programmes to ensure that the rights of many people from across a wide spectrum—irrespective of whether they are rural or urban—are protected, respected and enhanced. More focus has been put on rural and social transfer programmes for smallholder farmers and on giving cash, food and farming inputs to the poorest farmers in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.


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Martin Horwood: I am sure that many of the examples that the Minister is giving are positive, but in the time remaining, I hope that he will address some of the questions about the proportion and emphasis of aid. As I have said, that has legitimately been criticised by a series of non-governmental organisations, Select Committees and the National Audit Office. Although there may be successful rural development projects in DFID’s portfolio, the focus of those projects is too small for the vast numbers of rural poor who need our help.

Mr. Malik: I shall certainly come to that point. The hon. Gentleman talked about the review that we undertook in January 2007 and asked about the proportion of time spent in rural areas as opposed to capital cities. We are looking at that matter, but it should not be assumed that because staff are in capital cities they are not working on rural issues. Many Government decision makers are based in those cities and to obtain positive changes in rural areas it is necessary to engage in those cities and with those individuals. However, of course, we need to be at the coal face and to be in rural areas to get an understanding of the day-to-day challenges that people face.

We have acted upon the review through a submission to the Development Committee that contains a number of recommendations to improve the quality and quantity of our engagement in agriculture by addressing the poor policy and institutional environment. In Africa, improvements can be made by working regionally to influence donor approaches to agriculture, and in Asia we can build on our country networks to support regional advocacy. There should be active engagement in promoting agriculture-related policy reform in a number of focused countries and in direct budget support countries. Other donors should be worked with collectively to ensure that Government spending on agriculture and related sectors is adequate to meet national priorities. Funding for agriculture should be based on a harmonised approach and should use aid instruments appropriate to the country.

Rural development has received increased parliamentary attention in recent months, as has been mentioned, most notably by the International Development Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. That resonates with the latest world development report from the World Bank, which argues strongly that donors and partner countries have given insufficient attention to agriculture and rural development in the past decade. Does that concern us? Yes. Will that help to focus further attention in this area of work? Yes, it certainly will.

Martin Horwood: The Minister has mentioned the World Bank report. Does he accept the World Bank’s definition of agriculture as something that does not simply contribute to economic growth but is a provider and sustainer of natural resources? That is a broader definition than the one that DFID is now adopting.

Mr. Malik: Common sense suggests that the wider definition that he has cited would be equally applicable.

Although DFID does not seek to distinguish rural from urban poverty in the pursuit of the millennium development goals, a good deal of DFID’s work is directed to rural areas, and that is having a substantial impact. DFID remains strongly committed to tackling
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rural poverty, both in relation to food security and rural growth. The Committees’ reports have made a number of recommendations about how DFID might improve its effectiveness. We have carefully considered those and responded appropriately.

Will the Government reject a one-size-fits-all approach? We do not agree that we have such an approach. Each of our country programmes works with that country’s Government to agree how our support can best fit with the needs, challenges and priorities in that country. It is critical that we continue to work in that format. DFID will continue to seek to strengthen the effectiveness of the agriculture policies and programmes of multilateral donors, particularly the World Bank and the EU. We will develop joint policy programmes and engage in debate and dialogue around main strategies and policies. We will support reforms within the consultative group on international agricultural research and will continue to press for the urgently needed reform of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. At country level, we will seek to strengthen our engagement in agriculture and rural development—particularly in key countries in Africa and Asia, including Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Malawi, Uganda and Rwanda.

There is still much to do. We welcome the feedback that we receive from partners, NGOs, members of the public and parliamentary Committees. DFID will evaluate its agriculture policy later this year, and we will consult widely and listen carefully to what such groups have to say in determining the future direction of our programme. I am happy to receive the Concern Worldwide report, about which the hon. Gentleman has spoken. In the spirit of reciprocation, I was going to give him our report, “Growth and poverty reduction: the role of agriculture”, but it is obvious that he has scanned through it and had a good read.

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. We must move on.


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Town and Village Greens (Planning)

1.30 pm

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): It is a pleasure to introduce the debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings, and to seek a response from my hon. and good Friend the Minister.

Let me start by saying that I am in favour of there being public open spaces where people, especially those in urban environments, can relax, play and enjoy leisure time. Town and village greens have a long history of being well used and appreciated by their communities. They allow, almost literally, a breath of fresh air to enter our urban environments. I have no problem, in principle, with areas of land that might be considered as town and village greens in all but name being legally recognised and registered and protected as such. That right has been recognised in law for many years and was reinforced by the Commons Act 2006. I served on the Standing Committee that considered that legislation, but I have to say that the changes that we made did not fully address the problematic issues that I shall raise today.

My worry is that over the years, we have established a body of legislation that allows the law to be used in ways that were not intended by Parliament. That misuse is tantamount to abuse when it is used deliberately to thwart an otherwise legitimate planning permission. In High Peak, that has now produced a crisis in the planning process. Although the 2006 Act gave the authorities that decide on town and village green applications the power to reject repeat applications and those that are clearly vexatious, neither of those criteria has been sufficient to prevent misuse entirely, and many pre-2006 applications continue to wreak havoc with the planning process.

Although High Peak borough council is Conservative controlled, we speak with one voice on this matter. The leader of the local Liberal Democrats, the former leader of the council, also agrees. In a story in the local paper entitled “New Law to Stop Nimbys”, he said that the vast majority of people should not be denied what they want because one or two people thought that a TVG application was a good way of stopping development. That problem is not unknown elsewhere, but it is rife in High Peak.

In my area, Derbyshire county council is the authority charged with processing TVG applications. It is currently dealing with about 20, of which half relate to High Peak. All but two of those relate to Buxton, with more believed to be in the pipeline. From that authority’s discussions with specialist lawyers and other registration authorities, it seems that no other registration authority in the country has as many TVG applications as Derbyshire. It has recently increased the number of staff working on TVG applications in order to try to address the backlog of casework. I shall explain what is happening through the use of several examples.

First, High Peak borough council, like every other local authority, has a house building programme that has been consulted on and endorsed by the local plan. The building of affordable and social rented housing has become more important than ever, as local authorities and Government together strive to reach ambitious targets to cope with Britain’s demographic challenges.


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The largest single planned housing development in High Peak is off Dale lane, in Buxton. That would be a mixed development of about 300 homes, a substantial proportion of which would be affordable or rented. It would be adjacent to a large council estate in Fairfield and its access would be from an area known as Fairfield common. That name is a bit of a giveaway: Fairfield common is a genuine area of common land on the edge of Buxton, between the town and the golf course. From a new roundabout on the A6, a small access road needs to be built to make the Dale lane site accessible both to future residents and, in the shorter term, to construction vehicles, but today not a single brick has been laid, nor a sod turned.

Three of the TVG applications—those submitted way back in 2002—have been processed. In April 2007, the High Court ordered that the town and village green register should be amended by the deletion of a previously recorded town green entry. At present, Fairfield common is free of town green status, which should allow the access road and therefore the homes to be built. A fourth application, registered in March 2003, does not directly affect the site of the proposed development, but a fifth, called VG86, was held in abeyance until that High Court action was completed. That happened almost a year ago, but VG86 remains unresolved.

Last week, a sixth application affecting the proposed development was made. It is known as VG101. I am pleased that Derbyshire now regards this as a priority site for the determination of TVG applications and will be taking that one together with the outstanding VG86. However, I am not optimistic about a rapid solution, as VG86 has remained unresolved since it was lodged in October 2003.

There are 2,732 people waiting for homes in High Peak, and the Fairfield development of 300 mixed homes could have made a significant hole in that backlog. It is my contention that the targets of the TVG applications were picked so as to thwart the building of the access road to the proposed Dale lane estate, as the site of the development itself continues to be free of town green applications. Although that was the largest housing development proposed in the local plan, would it not have been sensible to have identified other sites around the town of Buxton where housing development could take place? Indeed it would.

My second example is Hogshaw field in Buxton, which is reclaimed land. It was once a tip and therefore was never a village green. It is also earmarked for housing development in the local plan. In December 2003, a town green application was lodged—again, not in respect of the site itself, but of the land that would be needed to provide access to it. The application has yet to be resolved and will not be addressed until the Fairfield cases are over. In 2004, High Peak borough council’s report on objections to the local plan stated:

The third example is at the other end of the constituency, in Glossop, where 25 new homes, including eight classed as affordable, are planned on an infill site at Sumners place. In March 2006, a town green application was lodged, and a public inquiry will be held this summer, as that, too, is now regarded as a priority case.


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It is not only housing developments that are being thwarted by the use of TVG applications. My fourth example is High Peak magistrates court. The 650 square miles of High Peak were, until recently, served by two magistrates courts—at Glossop and Buxton, 18 miles apart. In May 2002, planning permission was given for a new courthouse to be built adjacent to New Mills town hall, in the centre of the borough, on the site of a burned-out and derelict former Methodist church. It was planned that that new facility would replace both existing courts and the local county court.

Planning permission is but the start of the process, and a campaign led by residents living close to the proposed site gathered pace. Building had not commenced when, in March 2004, a TVG application was made. Clearly, a burned-out shell of a building to which there is no public access cannot be reclassified as a town green, but the campaign focused on a tiny patch of land to the rear of the premises that would be required for access purposes. Four years on, that application remains unresolved.

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

One possible outcome, I should remind hon. Members, is provided for in the commons legislation, which says that if that land were to be designated a town green—a claim that is by no means certain to be agreed—the authority could resolve the issue by identifying an appropriate alternative piece of land to fulfil the same function elsewhere in order to allow the development to take place.

In January 2007, the Court Service, quite rightly, closed Glossop court because of its inadequate access and security. All its cases and those of the county court, which closed at the same time, were transferred to Buxton magistrates court. That court has slightly better facilities than Glossop had, but even so, the court is up two flights of spiral stairs with no lift, security is so poor that prisoners on remand have to be tried elsewhere, privacy for solicitors and clients is limited to two booths constructed within the waiting room, prosecution and defence witnesses share the same waiting facilities, and the staff accommodation and facilities for magistrates are simply appalling.

The TVG application lodged in 2004 has yet to be decided, but the Court Service has made a decision. Because of the protracted delay in the commencement of the development of the new courthouse caused by the TVG application, the plans fell out of the 2005-08 spending round and are now, effectively, scrapped. There are no plans in the 2008-11 spending round to provide High Peak with a courthouse that meets the demands and standards of the 21st century. That is a tragedy caused by the action of nimbys who used town green legislation in a cavalier manner outwith the purposes for which it was designed.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Although I do not want to interfere in the grief of High Peak, will my hon. Friend accept that the obverse also exists? In my constituency, our commons are subject to land grabs because people want vehicular access. Although we have made various attempts to clarify the position, it is still very muddy. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we may well have to revisit the problem.


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Tom Levitt: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He also served with me on the Standing Committee that considered the Commons Bill a couple of years ago. I will make some suggestions towards the end of my speech as to how we might address that situation.

The fifth example is at St. Thomas More secondary school, which announced plans to build a new sports hall within its existing footprint in Buxton. A large proportion of the funding of the building was to come from the sale of a piece of unused and waterlogged farmland, which was owned by Derbyshire county council and is situated about half a mile from the school. Although I understand that the schoolchildren used the land for cross-country running, it is not a sports field and not technically part of the school. The land was on the fringe of the built-up area of Buxton and has potential for development. However, houses would have spoiled the view from one or two large private homes, so what did the residents do? They submitted a TVG application. The field could not be sold for development and the funding stream for the sports hall dried up, which threatened to derail the project.

I met representatives of the county council, the school, the borough council and the diocesan education board and together we expressed our determination to press ahead with the project. Fortunately, a different financial arrangement was found, which resulted in a mere six-month delay, and the hall is now being built, but the TVG issue on the site off Brown Edge road remains unresolved. As there is no planning application involved, that application is not being treated as a priority, and there is, as yet, no timetable for resolving it. That resolution would have to be made by a body other than Derbyshire county council because, as owners of the land, it cannot pass a judgment.

My last example involves Buxton leisure centre. Two weeks ago, two sisters called Dorothy and Margaret came to see me. They own a very small farm on the outskirts of Buxton. The farm includes a field that is bounded on one side by a wooded hillside owned by the Civic Association, on another side by private housing and on a third by a school playing field. Buxton community school is a sports specialist school and it is therefore not surprising that High Peak borough council is considering using this site, adjacent to the school land, to relocate its swimming pool and develop a leisure centre. Development can be sniffed in the air, so what happens? Someone who may have once flown a kite on this field or walked their dog there—albeit while trespassing—puts in a town green application to protect the land from yet another socially valuable development. Whatever the merits of the case, we know that it will be years before this application is considered. Meanwhile, the sisters have to live with uncertainty, and the council has to look for another piece of land that is potentially more viable to develop.

Dorothy and Margaret were close to tears in my office. They are ladies of mature years and the field represents their retirement fund. A successful town green application would make the land next to worthless, effectively leaving them destitute and unable to plan for their retirement. That is not something the authorities can take into account when deciding on the merits of the case for a TVG.


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