Previous Section Index Home Page

Let me say this, which should be helpful to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley): a point of order cannot be directed to the Minister. It can be directed only to the Chair, as I am
24 Nov 2008 : Column 534
sure that the right hon. Gentleman understands. He will know that the Chair cannot generally determine the House’s business. Mr. Speaker will always carefully consider any requests for consideration of an urgent question or for an emergency debate. Those are the procedures that right hon. and hon. Members may follow to establish whether what they want the House to debate can be debated in the immediate future.

Angela Browning: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to you, but the point raised in the debate was about the 2.5 per cent. reduction in VAT. The point of having a full debate on the pre-Budget statement is that when the Chancellor mentioned the change, he admitted that he had opted for the 2.5 per cent. VAT measure in preference to a general tax reduction because it was a quicker way of getting it through this House. Under those circumstances and given the importance of that very statement, surely Mr. Speaker could assist my two right hon. Friends who have suggested holding a proper debate on the pre-Budget statement.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am not sure that I can say anything fresh to the hon. Lady on that. Indeed, Mr. Speaker would consider any requests for a debate according to the usual criteria, but we cannot allow the egg to be greater than the chicken in this particular instance in that we are debating what we are debating and we have to conduct that debate against whatever the background of other circumstances we know about. We can have a debate about the effects of what the Chancellor announced in strict relation to the matter before the House now, which is what we should be doing now, rather than raising points of order. I have dealt on the point of order with the question whether a general debate should be held and I have tried to suggest a way forward for hon. Members.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I hope that the hon. Member is going to raise a fresh matter.

Mr. Tyrie: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish to add only that as far as I am aware—I would be grateful for your assistance—no statement of this magnitude has ever been made in the House without being followed by a full debate. The pre-Budget statement was without doubt the most important financial statement that I have ever heard since joining the House in 1997. I know of no autumn statement that has not been followed by a debate, so I would be grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on how we can gain an opportunity to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is expressing a point of view, which he is entitled to express. However, that does not alter my ruling on the point of order. I have tried to be helpful to hon. Members about how to proceed on the issue. We must now return to the debate.

John Healey: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I now return to back gardens.

24 Nov 2008 : Column 535

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and hope that we might gain some more time to debate planning. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the biggest problem is the unpredictability of decision making—by planning committees and inspectors at inquiries, for example? If he could issue guidance to ensure greater clarity of decision making, it could only help. The problem is that when a duff decision is made, precedent is everything; a whole series of other decisions are often taken subsequently that are grossly unfair to an area. I would be most grateful if my right hon. Friend looked further into that.

John Healey: The purpose of local planning frameworks is precisely to impart more certainty and predictability to the decisions that a planning authority must make. As for the concerns about development in back gardens, the evidence suggests that most authorities are still not taking advantage of the scope of the powers that they have under the guidance that we have already issued. However, I note what my hon. Friend has said, and if in the light of the review there is evidence to suggest that steps of that kind may be needed, we will certainly consider them.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): Given the apparently huge disparity between the experiences of Members throughout the House in their constituencies, and given the overall statistics that my right hon. Friend has cited, will he publish the methodology and definitions that he will employ in his review? Before that, will he provide more detailed guidance on how local authorities can address issues of garden grabbing in the way that he has described? For reasons best known to themselves, many are not doing so at present.

John Healey: I urge my hon. Friend—as I have already urged Opposition Members—to encourage his local authority to pay much more attention to the scope that already exists in PPS3. In the new year we will make clear and public how the review is to be conducted, so that Members in all parts of the House have an opportunity to contribute evidence and experience from their constituencies and local authority areas. That will enable us to ascertain whether it is possible to secure a better evidence base on which to make policy judgments of this kind in the future.

Julia Goldsworthy: The debate about the focus of the review has centred largely on garden grabbing. Will the Minister reassure me that he will consider not just back garden development but development on green spaces as defined in the amendment, including


John Healey: We have not yet made up our minds about the terms of the review, but I will take into account what the hon. Lady has said. A number of Members are clearly very interested in this issue, and if they wish to make their own contributions to the debate, I look forward to hearing them. Meanwhile, let me conclude my own opening remarks.

Many Members who have spoken today have professed to believe in the proper power of elected local authorities. Imposing a blanket duty of this nature would take from elected local representatives the power to make proper,
24 Nov 2008 : Column 536
balanced judgments based on their knowledge of the overall needs of their areas. I believe that such decisions are best made by democratically elected councillors, working with local planners, who are much closer to the needs of local people and who will be better acquainted with the particular characteristics of any piece of land that may or may not be suitable for housing.

It is not right to tie the hands of local councils and planning authorities. It is not currently necessary for councils to protect gardens, and such action would distort planning decisions and the scope for appeals. Above all, there is as yet no systematic evidence that there is a problem in need of this solution. However, we have not closed our minds to the concerns that have been expressed, and we are prepared to review the evidence in the new year. If there is a clear problem, we will act. In the meantime, I hope that the House will accept that ours is a reasonable response which constitutes a sensible next step, and that until the review has been completed it makes no sense to pre-empt its findings and jump to policy conclusions, let alone amendments to legislation. I therefore hope that the House will support me in rejecting Lords amendment No. 115.

6.15 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson). It is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), but the hon. Gentleman is a stalwart of our proceedings on the Bill, and it would have been nice to see him here. Of course, he might have preferred to be present in a week or two, when the baby starts squalling!

I am grateful to Earl Cathcart for tabling the amendment, which follows a long tradition. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) tried desperately, through the medium of private Members’ Bills, to persuade the Government to recognise that garden grabbing was an issue; and it is possible that I was the first person to raise the whole issue of overdevelopment, in a Westminster Hall debate. There is a long history of battling with the Government on this issue.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Lait: Briefly.

Lorely Burt: I fully acknowledge the hard work done by all Members, especially Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. I tabled a private Member’s Bill in 2005, six weeks after my election. I do not know whether that gives me precedence, but it certainly demonstrates that Members in all part of the House are deeply concerned about the issue.

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Lady is right—and that concern is felt not just throughout the House, but throughout the country. The Minister mentioned a survey which, according to Earl Cathcart, refers to Bradford, Chelmsford and Tunbridge Wells. Those three towns, or cities, are very different, but they have similar problems. We in the
24 Nov 2008 : Column 537
outer-London boroughs have those problems too, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer).

I am glad that the Government have promised us a review after all these years. I shall keep my remarks relatively brief, although there is much in regard to the Lords amendments that I want to put on record because the Bill is so undemocratic and badly thought through.

There can be no substantive vote in Parliament for the national policy statements, which, in my view, means that they will go straight into the courts. That completely negates our basic reason for supporting them. The Infrastructure Planning Commission is equally undemocratic in removing Ministers’ responsibility for making final decisions. The right to be heard in planning inquiries is still substantive, and the whole issue of the community infrastructure levy—with which I hope we will deal today—is unlikely to be considered in full.

We want to discuss the subject of garden grabbing, even if we must do so relatively briefly. It is not just a case of the number of houses built on gardens, and it is not just a question of the number of planning applications for development in back gardens that succeed. According to the latest statistics, 21 per cent. of new dwellings in Bromley were built on former back gardens. The main point is that the nature of an area and a neighbourhood is changed by an increase in the density of housing. Areas are changed from—in my case—broad suburban streets with one house on a decent-sized garden to blocks of flats containing 48 people. That puts huge pressure on train services, health services, education services and roads, all because, sadly, the Planning Inspectorate has been bullied by the Government into making the decisions.

Mr. Drew: I do not disagree with what the hon. Lady has said about the Planning Inspectorate, but does she accept that part of the unfairness of the system is the way in which it differentiates within areas? Changes may not be contemplated in one part of a district or borough, but in another part, once agreement has been reached the process of gradual degradation continues.

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Gentleman does not go far enough. I quite agree that as soon as a planning application is agreed in a street, there is a gradual change in that location, but there is nothing, even in conservation areas, to stop the Planning Inspectorate granting planning permission on appeal. That has happened on a very nice street in my constituency, where there has been appeal after appeal after appeal, and eventually the Planning Inspectorate gave permission. As a result, like a series of collapsing dominoes, the nature of that street will change. That is what everybody finds so objectionable.

The Government try hard to play the innocent in all this by saying that PPS3 is no different from what went before, but it is very different. As Baroness Andrews identified in the other place, this started in 1985 when there was a need to categorise land use. That was when the category “residential R” was used to include

This was a convenient way of grouping statistical information, and nothing more than that.

24 Nov 2008 : Column 538

Then, in 1992? Chris Patten issued a new version of planning policy guidance note 3, which did not include any such definition of gardens as brownfield, nor did it contain density targets. Indeed, the guidance discouraged residential infill where inappropriate and gave a broad discretion to councils to protect the character of their locality.

In 2000, there was a revised PPG3, and in 2006, the then Minister for Housing, the right hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), stated in a written answer that the PPG3 of 2000

That is the difference—the Government introduced the change in the PPG3 of 2000. Although I welcome the Minister’s announcement today of a review, it would be helpful if he examined the history, recognised what happened in 2000 and accepted that it is the Government’s fault that we are where we are.

The excuses have changed as this debate has gone on, and the next excuse, which is relatively new and has been expressed today, relates to the local development frameworks. Those of us who have been watching the progress of LDFs have been astounded by how slowly they have come through, how often they have been sent back for revision and change, and how few have gained permission and agreement. It is, to say the least, disingenuous for the Government to claim that, under the LDF, councils have the right to set out their views on garden grabbing. Theoretically, the Planning Inspectorate has the final say on LDFs, of course, but if there is an instruction under the PPG3 of 2000 to include gardens, councils have very little chance of getting things through. Additionally, just recently we all thought the LDFs represented a binding decision in relation to the Planning Inspectorate, but they were recently challenged—in the High Court, I believe, in the case of the Crawley LDF—and the judge found against the inspectorate. So, the LDF is no longer binding, which decisively shoots any protection offered out of the water.

Much of what we are talking about—such as the difficulties involved in a local authority retaining control over the identity of its own area—has been challenged and changed by this Government. I suppose it is some comfort that, from a very quick reading, the Killian Pretty review seems to be suggesting that most of what the Government have introduced should be altered so that local authorities regain their ability to be much more in control of their own planning. We hope that the Government accept the review findings, and we will be looking out for what happens to that review. However, in order to ensure that as much pressure as possible remains on the Government to amend the Bill so we have an end to garden grabbing, I shall advise my hon. Friends to vote with the Lords and against the Government motion to disagree.

Julia Goldsworthy: I will be sure to pass on the many congratulations from all parts of the House on the arrival of Elowen Ruby Rose Rogerson, and I can safely say that, although my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) has committed a huge amount of time to this Bill, he would prefer to be with his family and their new arrival at this very special time.

24 Nov 2008 : Column 539

A series of important issues arise in connection with the groups of amendments that we are discussing, so I shall speak only briefly. The Liberal Democrats support Lords amendment No. 115, which is the culmination of concern from Members in all parts of the House. As the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) said, the hon. Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) introduced private Members’ Bills to protect back gardens and public open spaces, particularly in suburban areas, where there seems to be a greater problem than in other areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) first raised this issue just six weeks after being elected to Parliament, and the proposal in her excellent Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill would have gone further than this amendment, by allowing for local referendums to decide when public open spaces can and cannot be sold off. That was an interesting and innovative proposal which would have handed real power back to communities, who are rightly concerned that the character of their areas is being adversely and irreparably affected by developments in gardens and open spaces.

It is a travesty that much-needed green space in urban areas is lumped into the category of brownfield land, and that the Government are insisting that there is not a problem when eminently developable, genuinely brownfield public sector land lies largely unused. Earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) received a ministerial response stating that 70 per cent. of the land owned by the Department of Health is not being used. Ministers cannot insist that communities accept unquestioningly new development on their public open spaces without at least putting their own houses, and the land on which houses could be built, in order. There is a large amount of brownfield land in my constituency, but it is highly contaminated by heavy metals from mining. Even in such areas, there is a hierarchy of brownfield sites, and often back gardens are the most attractive and most affordable to develop.

I hope that the review will look into such concerns and that it will be forward-looking in scope as well as backward-looking. There are great concerns in my constituency that the housing targets set by the regional spatial strategy can be fulfilled only by developing every available space in the entire constituency.

Susan Kramer: Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the attractions of garden grabbing is that developers are usually in a position to build a small development? They always build nine units in my constituency, because at 10 they would have to provide one social housing unit. If they take on much larger plots of brownfield land, they have to put in significant amounts of social housing. I have two local authorities that are desperately trying to increase social housing in our area, but they are finding that the whole interest of the development community is in using gardens for luxury housing.

Julia Goldsworthy: My hon. Friend makes a good point about how the incentives are skewed towards development on gardens in too many cases.

6.30 pm

Next Section Index Home Page