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7 May 2008 : Column 305WH—continued

Members should consider what Purbeck is like. It has an enormous amount of valuable heathland. Natural
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England, of course, does not want development impinging on it or close to it. Purbeck has a world heritage coastline, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. With all those restrictions in quite a small area, many consider that it would be impossible to fit an extra 5,150 homes into Purbeck and protect the green belt. If the housing numbers are not cut, our green belt will be gone. A flexible, moveable green belt is a non-existent one.

Drilling down further, the 2,750 homes are basically an urban extension. Like the conurbation of Bournemouth and Poole, its tentacles will reach out to engulf the two villages of Lytchett Minster and Lytchett Matravers, yet the green belt is supposed to provide a band that enables distinct communities to survive. With that level of development, the character of the local area will be destroyed, and our close knit communities will lose their many advantages. The land, which is predominantly agricultural, is perhaps becoming rather more important as food prices rise. It supports valuable wildlife, including, I am told, nightjars.

One resident wrote:

The agricultural land provides vital carbon sinks. There has to be a balance between urban growth and policies to reduce our carbon footprint. I understand that peat bogs are most effective in capturing carbon dioxide but that agricultural land is better than heathland. There would be a significant loss of agricultural land on the urban fringe.

Interestingly, the principle of the urban extension is supported by Poole, whose pace of development is rapid and above its targets. It has outstanding opportunities to build on brownfield sites.

I appreciate that the Minister cannot reply today to the specific points that I have raised on the panel’s recommendations, but I would like some answers in respect of general policy. First, are the Government still committed to protecting the green belt? Secondly, do they agree that a key purpose of having green belt policy is to protect the countryside around towns and cities from urban sprawl? I hope that the Government share my opposition to large-scale, unsustainable developments that would absolutely smash green belt policy. I hope that central Government targets are not being pursued regardless of the impact on the green belt or local democratic accountability.

I also hope that the Government will support much-needed housing for local young people. We need small developments and incremental change, and we need some additions to our villages. Lytchett Matravers, for example, is a thriving village. It has two pubs, a post office and shops, and it has development—sometimes 100 units a year, sometimes 40 a year. That is the type of development that is needed. Otherwise, there will be more and more pressure from people buying second homes and moving in.

My final request to the Minister relates to our previous debate. I request a meeting with him or one of his colleagues, the chief executive of Synergy Housing Group, which is responsible for the main housing trust, and
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members of Purbeck district council to discuss funding for affordable housing. I appreciate that we cannot talk about the RSS, but there are things that we ought to be getting on with, and I shall give just one example. The council owns some land on which it wishes to build properties. Natural England has clocked that the land is within the 400 m limit, and its answer is for the council to buy land elsewhere. That is fine in theory, but it means that the local housing association via the Housing Corporation needs more money to provide much-needed social housing in my constituency.

I hope that the Minister can answer all my questions today.

5.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I am pleased to see you again so soon, Mr. Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate. She mentioned the debate in December last year about housing in her constituency, which touched on affordability pressures and the designation of land in her constituency. I enjoyed that debate, and I enjoyed her contribution on a similar theme today. The hon. Lady has provided hon. Members with a valuable and timely opportunity to consider the relationship between the protection of green belt land, the need for more housing, and the role of the regional spatial strategy.

Green belt policy is an important part of planning, and, as the hon. Lady said, it has served us well for many decades. As she did in her excellent contribution, I think that it would be useful to set the green belt policy into some sort of context. The idea of a green belt was introduced in the 1930s, primarily as a device to help planners to forestall inappropriate development and to avoid the piecemeal joining-up of discrete communities by means of unplanned, so-called ribbon development extending into the countryside. It also served to preserve the openness of that countryside, to which the hon. Lady referred. In essence, that remains its role today, when the pressures on land are even more intense.

Perhaps the key point in any discussion about green belt planning policy is to acknowledge that it is a planning designation, as opposed to some sort of assessment of the quality and biodiversity of the land. It was not intended or planned to be a nature or landscape conservation measure, although I fully recognise that biodiversity and the countryside benefit incidentally as a consequence of green belt designation.

The objectives of green belt policy remain similar to what they always have been: to check the unplanned and unrestricted sprawl of developed areas, to prevent neighbouring towns and urban areas from merging into one another—the hon. Lady mentioned that—to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment and to preserve the special character of our historic towns. Another objective, which is often overlooked in discussion of green belt policy, so I was pleased that the hon. Lady mentioned it, is to assist in the regeneration of our urban communities by encouraging the recycling of derelict brownfield and other urban land. The intention is strategic. If any other designation is required on a particular stretch of land, such as a site of special
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scientific interest or an area of outstanding natural beauty—that will interest the hon. Lady, given her constituency—that designation and whatever protection it confers would be imposed on top of green belt status, which does not override or compromise them.

This is a timely debate, and it is worth using the opportunity to dispel the myth that is often put about that this nation and its countryside are being concreted over by building on green belt land. As the hon. Lady said, it was mentioned in some parts of the media only this morning, so let me clarify the position. Some 13 per cent. of England’s land mass is designated green belt. Urban land, which is defined as any tract of land of more than 20 hectares with at least 1,000 inhabitants, amounts to 8.8 per cent. of England's land mass.

I want to take the opportunity to counter the notion that the green belt is somehow shrinking, as was reported today. On the contrary, as a result of active compliance with our planning policy framework, the amount of green belt land continues to increase. Since 1997, the amount of green belt land has increased by about 33,000 hectares. In the south-west alone, there is around 109,640 hectares of green belt, despite the reclassification of much green belt as national park land and, as the hon. Lady acknowledged, the adjustments made after the introduction of more accurate digital mapping. Let me be clear: the Government’s target is that we should sustain the area of designated green belt nationally, measured by region, during the period 2008-11.

I want to talk about pressure on green belt, particularly from housing. The Government’s policy on planning for housing, as set out in planning policy statement 3, is extraordinarily clear in my view. Priority should be given to bringing previously developed land back into development if it is in a suitable location. The national target is that 60 per cent. of housing should be built on brownfield land. Current performance against that target is 74 per cent. The target is delivered by local authorities through the planning system, reflecting the particular circumstances of regions and local areas, so different localities may establish different targets. The judgment on what is appropriate in the hon. Lady’s constituency in the south-west will be different in my constituency in the north-east.

In May last year, the planning White Paper, “Planning for a sustainable future”, reinforced the Government’s commitment to the key principles of green belt, which are set out in planning policy guidance note 2 on green belts. The hon. Lady mentioned the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and it is important to reiterate them. He said:

We have no intention of making fundamental changes to green belt policy. As the hon. Lady said, green belt policy has served us well for around half a century, and will continue to do so.

As the hon. Lady is aware, regional spatial strategies prepared by regional planning bodies set the framework for green belt policy and settlement policy for each region, forming the strategic context for local plan making. However, I want to clarify matters. Policies in local plans—not the decision of any regional planning body—establish the detailed boundary of green belt areas. Moreover, as the hon. Lady is aware, under our
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plan-led system, when a local planning authority's development plan documents contain relevant policies, planning applications must be determined in accordance with that plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

In the context of development control, PPG2 explains the key policy, which is a presumption against inappropriate development on green belt land. PPG2 allows for some development within green belts—for example, to support agriculture or forestry, or to allow for limited development in existing villages. The hon. Lady mentioned those themes. Other development should not be approved, except in very special circumstances. The strength of the criterion has been confirmed in a number of recent legal cases. In practice, very little green belt has been lost. In 2003, the latest year for which we have figures, less than 0.1 per cent. of land designated as green belt was developed for residential use.

I hope that I have painted for the Chamber and particularly the hon. Lady an accurate picture, which is not often portrayed, of a country that has more green belt land than urban developed land, where the amount of green belt land is increasing year on year, and where the subsequent development of green belt land is minuscule. Only in exceptional circumstances may green belt boundaries be amended through the development plan process, and only after public consultation and independent examination.

I know that that is a matter that greatly interests the hon. Lady, who spoke eloquently about it during her Adjournment debate in December, as well as today, so I want to spend the time available considering that, bearing in mind the constraints that she has acknowledged—that I will not discuss specific circumstances in the south-west regional spatial strategy.

Annette Brooke: My constituents’ concerns are that the examination in public has come up with 2,750 houses, and that that is a Government diktat from Westminster because of the overall target for the number of new homes. If the Minister could dispel my constituents’ fear that the new homes will be imposed because of Westminster diktat, I think they would be much less concerned.

Mr. Wright: The hon. Lady is tempting me, but I will not be drawn into specific circumstances. The end-of-sitting Adjournment debate in the House tonight is about the south-west regional spatial strategy and she may be able to intervene on the hon. Gentleman who has secured the debate. However, I will not be drawn on the specifics.

The examination in public is the mechanism by which regional spatial strategies prepared by the regional planning body are submitted in report form for assessment and, if necessary, revision. The examinations are formal events, not a forum for hearing representations, which
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should have been made by that stage. They comprise consideration of the report by an appointed panel, which invites a range of people to speak, but only those whose participation is, in its view, necessary to secure an effective examination of the strategic issues. As my noble Friend Baroness Andrews explained to the hon. Member in her letter of 19 February, the aim is to select participants who, between them, represent a broad range of viewpoints, thereby enabling an equitable balance of opinions in a discussion of the soundness of the draft regional spatial strategy. I know that that has worried the hon. Lady, and I hope that the point that Baroness Andrews and I have made reassures her.

All in all, any proposal to change the boundary of a green belt and any development proposal for land in the green belt, whatever its scale, is subject to stringent tests. The Government fully recognise the pressure on green belt land from development. Sufficient housing to meet our needs has not been built for something like a generation. As a result, there is a fundamental mismatch between the supply of housing and the demand for housing. That is having an impact on affordability; not least, in the hon. Lady’s constituency, as she mentioned in her debate in December, and the south-west region as a whole. That has the effect of putting home ownership out of the reach of many and we need to address that.

I have already mentioned that PPS3 includes the notion that housing development should be prioritised towards previously developed land. However, national planning policy recognises that some greenfield land—undeveloped land that may or may not be needed for green belt—may be needed for some development. PPS3 puts the responsibility on local authorities to decide where to locate housing, to identify sites and to manage brownfield sites back into development where possible to minimise the call on greenfield and designated green belt land.

Green belt policy has served the country for well over half a century and has helped to prevent or minimise urban sprawl. It has protected the countryside from inappropriate, speculative and unplanned development. In the past decade, we have seen an increase in the amount of land designated as green belt. The leakage from development on green belt is extremely small, and there is a growing and accelerating trend towards development on previously developed land. Despite the pressures on land as a result of our need for more housing, I am convinced that the planning policies and framework that we currently have in place serve us well in relation to the retention and extension of the green belt.

In closing, let me reassure the hon. Lady by categorically stating that green belt land will continue to be protected in an extremely robust manner by this Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Five o’clock.

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