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7 May 2008 : Column 299WH—continued

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done with the Environment Agency. He has chaired a number of local meetings with officials from the agency and the district and county councils in his area. I
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thank him for acknowledging on behalf of his constituents the severity of the rainfall that weekend last summer. It was an exceptional event, and I am grateful for his acknowledgement. He said that his constituents live in fear of repeat flooding, and I understand that.

I shall cut to the chase in the time available. As a Member of Parliament, the right hon. Gentleman wants answers for his constituents, so I shall try to give him some. On the crucial point about rural versus urban, it is true that during the past two decades there has been a deliberate shift in focus from the job of land drainage to the job of flood protection. That gives rise to the arguments heard by MPs—they are not old wives’ tales; they are often based in truth—that drains are not cleared as frequently as they used to be. That is because we focus on targeted flood prevention measures rather than simply land drainage. As he said, the two are of course interrelated, particularly where flood debris is carried into rivers. The central charge that there is a bias in favour of urban against rural is fuelled by that fact, but flood risk is the main criterion that we use among those that he listed.

The point-scoring that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned applies to new flood prevention schemes: physical schemes such as re-channelling rivers, improving the height of flood defences and so on. However, that does not mean that money is not spent nor action taken in constituencies such as his. For example, in his area, the major scheme to clear the silt between the Bridge street arches begins in the first week of June of this year, about which I think that he has been in correspondence with the EA.

As the right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out and the interim Pitt report highlighted, we need to co-ordinate the EA, as the strategic body, the resources, in some cases, of internal drainage boards—although I do not think that that is applicable in west Oxfordshire—and the district and county councils. A scheme is already under way for the removal of restrictions in the culvert of the Hailey road drain. We are examining whether we can create storage ponds at the top of the Hailey road drain, which has also been looked at by the agency. The district council is pursuing drainage improvements with the landowner—private landowners are part of the equation in many of these localised schemes—of the Aquarius development. Furthermore, the county council, with the EA acting on behalf of the Highways Agency, is clearing the Burwell meadow drain culvert beneath the A40. And there are a number of other schemes, details of which I can pass on to him after this debate. Although I understand where the accusation about the rural-urban divide comes from, in practice, the concentration on flood defence and targeted measures means that rural, or more sparsely populated, areas do not get overlooked. I give him that reassurance.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of other specific questions, which I shall answer before giving the outline picture. He can read yesterday’s Hansard on our very good debate that covered many of the national policy points. I say that having noticed that the press bench is especially full today—I cannot imagine why that is! This is just one of many debates that we have had on localised flooding. However, he is absolutely right: we intend to publish maps, so that the public know about schemes in their areas and can get the information that they need.

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As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the early warning system did not work last summer, as a result of two things: first, the sheer speed at which the events happened—there was no time to get the door-to-door information our there—and, secondly, frankly, because it was not expected. That last point is not a criticism. I have praised the district and county councils and the agency before, and, indeed, I visited the area in Oxford, further down the river basin, on that Sunday. None the less, flooding on that scale was not expected. We are putting in place the new telemetry systems in the Evenlode and Windrush to measure water flow in order to provide that early warning. I can give him that reassurance.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the severity of floods should be a criterion. It is indeed a criterion. He mentioned insurance and the OX28 postcode, which I shall certainly look into, because our statement of principles agreed with the Association of British Insurers attempts to ensure that every household can get insurance. On the operational points, the fact that the silt incurred landfill tax, which amounted to £900,000 of the £1 million, is clearly unsatisfactory. Following the public meetings and representations received on that matter, we are examining alternative ways in which to dispose of the waste. It is foolish to put it in a landfill site, although I expect that the Exchequer would like the revenue and, no doubt, his constituents would benefit from the landfill tax credit scheme introduced by the then Prime Minister, John Major—and a jolly good scheme it is in Saddleworth, I can tell you!

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Bellwin scheme and West Oxford district council. I think that he is right. Owing to the local knowledge of the district council, it can target its work very effectively. It was a very wise decision not to go ahead with the unitary authority in his area, because then that would not have been possible. I do not remember which Minister took that decision, but my goodness it was a wise one! The problems with Bellwin beset any scheme with a threshold. We take some pride in the speed in which we got the money out their. I know that it was not fast enough for his constituents’ requirements, but it was very fast compared with comparable efforts. Of course, we were boosted by the £30 million from the European Union solidarity fund announced yesterday by the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey).

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The Minister for Local Government, the hon. Member for Wentworth led the House to believe that we will get £110 million for the country to spend on flood recovery, for exactly the reasons that my right hon. Friend set out. How will the Government make up the shortfall? We have actually received less than a third back from that. I understand that that formed part of the budget, because the Government rightly assumed that they were getting it.

Mr. Woolas: I am afraid that is not as simple as that. I am not trying to duck the question. I refer the hon. Lady to the written ministerial statement. For the purposes of this debate, I simply make the point that money has been made available in different forms through the Bellwin scheme and now through the solidarity scheme. West Oxfordshire district council received a total of
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£728,121—it always amazes me that we can be so accurate—which consisted of £663,500 from the flood recovery grant and £64,621 from the Bellwin scheme itself. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of future policy. As he knows, the interim report from Sir Michael Pitt has been accepted, and its key point is the strategic co-ordination with the Environment Agency in the various local authorities.

Mr. Cameron: I thank the Minister for giving a detailed reply rather than a boilerplate reply. May I push him one more time on the cost-benefit analysis? He was right when he mentioned the schemes being considered in and around Witney to help with the flooding. However, the concern remains—I completely understand this—that when the crunch comes, and we measure up against thousands of houses and £1 million being spent elsewhere, smaller towns and villages will find it difficult to compete. Will he consider how we can ensure that the cost-benefit analysis can advantage—or at least not leave out—the rural communities?

Mr. Woolas: I understand that point. Of course, we face a real policy dilemma, if not paradox. In part, the answer is geography. In order to protect downstream towns, one can provide flood storage areas in meadows and so on upstream. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is why our flood plans are not based on administrative district boundaries. The other part of the answer is that the risk of flooding is the main criterion. When one looks at surface-water flooding as well as river flooding, one will realise that the one in 20, one in 40 or one in 100 risk is weighed into the considerations, after which the other criteria then come into play.

I face a dilemma of how to balance the value of homes. The houses in one area might have significantly higher values—I always use Poole as an example, although it is probably unfair to stereotype it—than those in areas such as Leeds, for example. I do not want to stereotype Leeds either—if one looks, one can find an apartment in the centre of Leeds for £500,000. However, those criteria have to be balanced. I am keen to reassure hon. Members that that is well understood—that came up in yesterday’s debate as well. It is the land drainage as opposed to flood-risk prevention that gives rise to some of the concerns. My plans, which I have worked through with Pitt, are to smooth that out so that everybody, including the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents, will know what the assessment of risk is, where it is and what the Government, the agencies and the councils are doing, and what they plan to do, about it. That is in the context of increased public expenditure—rising to £800 million in the third year of the comprehensive spending review. Is it enough? That is an open question.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the debate and for the way in which he has conducted himself. I hope that I have given him answers that he can pass on. If I have not, I am sure that the Oxford Gazette—

Mr. Cameron: Mail

Mr. Woolas: Of course, the Oxford Mail.How could I forget? It will put me right—I have the article in front of me.

4.29 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Green Belt Policy

4.52 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Today, the Campaign to Protect Rural England issued a press statement headed, “Green Belt loss a daily reality despite government pledges.”

From my point of view, that is a timely coincidence with this debate, and I should like to place on record my thanks to the CPRE, both nationally and locally, for providing me with background material.

I want to put the debate in context. Green belt policy has existed formally for more than 50 years, and it has performed its functions well. Some of the most important purposes for designating land as green belt are to protect the countryside around towns and cities from urban sprawl, to encourage the regeneration of neglected sites within towns and cities and to prevent towns from merging into each other. Of course, the most important feature of green belt land is its openness.

People prize their local countryside, and the public see development and urban sprawl as the biggest threats to the countryside. The crucial element of green belts is the permanency of their boundaries. If boundaries are shifted, the incentive provided by a designated green belt is lost, because developers and land speculators have only to wait for more greenfield sites to be opened for development, rather than making better use of urban land.

The Government have repeatedly stated their commitment to protecting the green belt. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) pledged to Parliament on 5 February 2003 that he would

On 11 July 2007, the new Prime Minister announced that the Government would:

There have also been supportive statements in the Government’s White Paper on planning, “Planning for a Sustainable Future”, which was published in May 2007. For example, recommendation No. 9, “Green Belt/Green Space”, states:

On 2 May 2007, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who was then Minister for Housing and Planning, wrote me a letter stating:

In an earlier letter, she stated:

In the same letter, the Chief Secretary also stated:

During the Radio 4 programme, “Any Questions”, on July 13 2007, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was quizzed very closely by Jonathan Dimbleby. She said:

Jonathan Dimbleby pressed her further and asked whether

The Secretary of State replied:

Jonathan Dimbleby pressed her even further, and the Secretary of State replied:

So why do I , the CPRE and my constituents have such great concerns?

I accept that the section of the 2007 White Paper that I have quoted refers to reviewing green belt boundaries. For example, regional planning bodies and local planning authorities should review green belt boundaries as part of their regional spatial strategy and local development framework processes to ensure that they remain relevant and appropriate, given the need to ensure that any planned development takes place in the most sustainable locations. Also, there are recommendations to local authorities in drawing up their development plans.

On the positive side, it is possible to identify green belt gain. A large area—47,300 hectares—of green belt in the south-east has been re-designated as the New Forest national park, which has been widely welcomed. The most recent green belt statistical release from the Department for Communities and Local Government, which was issued in January 2008, shows that since 2004 the total green belt area has grown in the north-east, north-west, south-west and Yorkshire and the Humber. Significant new areas of green belt have been created in Durham and to the west of Newcastle since 1997. Otherwise, most of the increase appears to be due to more reliable mapping by local authorities of green belt land. The statistics also show, however, that since 2004 the total green belt area has shrunk in East Anglia and in the east and west Midlands.

On the negative side, there is also a more worrying trend of significant losses of green belt land to development. Between 1997 and 2003, an average of 1,100 hectares—nearly 4 square miles—was lost each year. From 1997 to 2005, 45,240 new dwellings were permitted on green belt land. The Government approved development involving the loss of 1,300 hectares between 1997 and 2001.

Since the creation of the DCLG in May 2006, the Secretary of State has decided 48 planning applications involving development in the green belt. From those, 16 significant developments have been allowed. The loss of green belt land raises serious questions about the
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Government’s commitment to green belt policy in practice, despite overall gains on green belt in some regions. Great concerns are emerging that regional plans will lead to further significant losses of green belt land in years to come, and that they will particularly affect those parts of the green belt that are nearest to our major towns and cities, which are the ones that we need the most.

My specific interest is, of course, the south-west. The draft regional spatial strategy for the south-west was submitted to the Government in April 2006. The Secretary of State is expected to publish proposed changes for consultation this summer, following the panel report in January 2008. Both the draft RSS and the panel report proposed amending the general extent of all three green belts in the south-west to allow a number of urban extensions to accommodate housing development.

The RSS also proposed several extensions to the green belt to compensate for land lost to urban extensions, but the panel report rejected that proposal due to lack of justification. That was despite its being clear that the report’s recommendations and the RSS will lead to significant losses of green belt land. Was it not a Government promise that replacement land would be added to the green belt in the event of development on green belt land?

I would like to focus further on the south-east Dorset green belt. Up to 8,550 dwellings could be built on it. The RSS proposes urban extensions, with 2,400 dwellings spread over sites at Corfe Mullen, Wimborne, Ferndown and Christchurch, and there will be further losses of green belt around Bournemouth. In addition to supporting the RSS proposals, the panel report went further and added another urban extension of 1,500 homes to north Bournemouth and one of 2,750 dwellings to Poole, which is of particular interest to me as it is in my constituency. A further 1,000 dwellings are also recommended for green belt land in semi-rural east Dorset.

A major concern that I have previously raised with Ministers is the democratic deficit. For example, the democratic East Dorset district council, which is the relevant planning authority, voted to reject the proposals for development on green belt around Corfe Mullen and Wimborne. On the 700 homes for Corfe Mullen, the parish council, separately but in conjunction with an interest group called Keep Corfe Mullen Green, did a survey of the whole parish. There has been a total disregard of the value that people place on their local green belt.

The panel report recommends that Purbeck as a whole should have an increased housing allocation of 5,150 homes—above the 2,100 already agreed, and including 2,750 homes on a site that happens to be in my constituency. No democratically elected council asked for the latter recommendation—the inspector responded to a landowner’s desire to build. Indeed, the proposal was opposed by all democratically elected councils. Three action groups have recently been set up. Sustainable Matravers held a public meeting that more than 400 people attended, and Lytchett Minster has an action group, as does Upton. The strength of feeling is enormous.

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