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In announcing his review today, the Minister is being very helpful. The Minister in the other place, whom my
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colleagues there have said was helpful and courteous throughout, has used the excuse that there has not been time to consult on the implications of this amendment. The review is very welcome, but I am not clear why there has been no opportunity to initiate such a review before today, given that the Bill has been going through the House for 11 months and the issue has been raised on numerous occasions by Back Benchers. I would appreciate some comment from the Minister on why a decision has now been taken to carry out that review, given that it would perhaps have been more timely to have made such a decision earlier. It is a little frustrating, because Ministers in another place have been constructive on a number of other issues, so it would perhaps have been more sensible for the Government to have tabled their own amendment to reflect the concerns that residents all over Britain have about this issue. Such a provision could have been inserted in the Bill and perhaps made subject to regulation. That would have given a lot of people more confidence that this issue was being directly addressed.

Mrs. Spelman: To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), should not the review closely examine whether the Government’s failure to define gardens correctly as gardens, rather than as brownfield land, has thwarted their endeavour to ensure that a significant percentage of the new homes that are being built are affordable? As she has pointed out, the failure to define gardens correctly has thwarted the Government in their own objective, and that should form part of the review.

Julia Goldsworthy: The impact of the lack of classification should be considered in that review. In a way, the amendment would make it easier for the Department to conduct such a review, because a clear classification of green space and brownfield land would make it much easier to separate the differential impact of development in these different areas. The lack of such differentiation at present makes the review’s job more difficult.

The amendment involves a second principle that should be raised, and it places clear blue water between ourselves and the Government. The amendment says that guidance issued by the Secretary of State or the regional planning authorities cannot simply override local priorities, and we share that approach. The local authority and local views should take priority and precedence, yet this Government seem determined to subject communities to a litany of regional and national policies and targets that will necessarily trump local priorities in the pecking order and that, in many cases, will take a bulldozer not only to valued green spaces, but to local democracy. This is one example where the Government take that approach, but there are many others in the Bill. One need only look at the approach on national policy statements and on the Infrastructure Planning Commission to see that.

Lorely Burt: May I offer my hon. Friend another example? In Solihull, the Government have ignored our regional development plan and have commissioned another independent consultancy, Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners, which has come up with recommendations that treble the already agreed allocation of new housing for the borough of Solihull. Perhaps she might like to ask the Minister how that can be, and how it sits with the
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comments that he is making about putting decision making in the hands of the people who are elected in their local areas.

Julia Goldsworthy: In too many cases, it seems that the wishes of the local community are being undermined by the Bill, yet it is an opportunity to promote them. The Minister is in denial about the scale of the assault on back gardens and on small, but often highly valued, open spaces in urban areas. I welcome the door opening a crack, through the chance to examine this issue in the review, but before we are fully reassured we will need to hear much more detail on its terms and implications.

All too often, particularly in the Department for Communities and Local Government, excellent reports are commissioned but then, unfortunately, gather dust on top shelves once they have been completed. Members across the House are acutely aware of the need to build more housing, particularly social housing and affordable housing. We have suggested innovative ways to increase our social housing stock after a decade of failure in that area. As ever, the aim surely must be not only to build houses but to foster and maintain living, vibrant communities. It is not just about plonking people in rows of boxes; we must create places in which people want to live, work and grow up. We need places that are not just environmentally friendly but a friendly environment in which to live. Back gardens and open spaces in which to meet and play are essential to achieving that aim, so for those reasons, my hon. Friends and I will support the amendment.

Mrs. Spelman: I welcome the opportunity to speak, given my long-standing interest in back garden development, and I wish to pay tribute to the work of many hon. Members present who have taken up this cause. An interesting feature of the debate on the definition of gardens and how best to protect them is that it has elicited so much interest from Members from all parts of this House, as well in another place. That has come in the guise of an early-day motion signed by 179 Members representing all parties—not those whom one might call the usual suspects, but Members whose constituencies have been badly afflicted by this problem of back garden development—and in the guise of ten-minute Bills and private Members’ Bills tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) and me. Those things, in themselves, indicate how seriously Members in the House of Commons take this issue.

I dispute the Minister’s view that the most recent changes to planning guidance provide adequate protection for gardens. Patently, they do not. I detect a degree of complacency in the attitude of a Government who are prepared to wait even until next year for a review to take place. Plenty of evidence is available to show that the existing guidance simply does not work. That is because of a deadly combination when these cases go to appeal: the definition of brownfield land extending to gardens, housing targets, and density targets. The combination of those three things takes precedence in the hierarchy of decision making when the planning inspector reviews a case where planning consent has been refused. There is plenty of evidence to show that since the introduction of that change to planning guidance in 2006, the defence that the Minister cites is simply not working. Local planning authorities know that, developers know that and communities know that—to their cost.

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The fact that the change to planning guidance has now been in force for more than 18 months flies in the face of people’s experience. As recently as last week, I was contacted by a local action group called the Friends of Middleton Conservation Area. Its local council, Darlington borough council, had refused a controversial application for garden development, not least because the application related to a conservation area. The application went to appeal, and despite strong representations from the council, the decision was overturned.

I raise that example—there are many more such examples—not only because it crossed my desk last week, 18 months after the introduction of the change in guidance to which the Minister referred, but because the application was for development in a conservation area. If a local council is overruled when trying to prevent inappropriate development in a conservation area, surely something is drastically wrong with the planning system.

I urge hon. Members to think long and hard about the legacy of the prioritisation of brownfield land, including gardens. The legacy is significant in terms of the environment and infrastructure. I have seen at first hand the environmental legacy in areas where inappropriate garden development has been permitted. Neighbourhoods that were once a finely balanced mix of green spaces and homes have been changed beyond recognition. Family homes have been demolished, trees have been felled and hedges have been uprooted. Gardens that were a rich source of urban biodiversity have been stripped back and buried under concrete, with all the environmental implications that follow.

Not only is the natural environment under assault, but the architectural environment is too. In some cases, old family houses have been bulldozed to make way for high-density, multi-storey apartment blocks. Likewise, bungalows are in developers’ sights in a rush to create high-density housing.

Susan Kramer: Does the hon. Lady know that in one development on a suburban street in south-west London the developers have proposed—because there is no street parking—a subterranean garage with a hydraulic lift to take the cars down, as if it were in the middle of Manhattan?

Mrs. Spelman: I thank the hon. Lady for that example, and I am happy to trade another horrifying example from this past year—a year after the changes in planning guidance were made that were supposed to be the salvation of back gardens. Two bungalows in Marston Green in my constituency were proposed for demolition to make way for 71 apartments. And that was on a narrow, tree-lined lane with difficult access.

As politicians, we have to ask ourselves where we are going with this. We know that there is a shortage of family-sized homes, especially with gardens. That was acknowledged by the Chief Secretary, when she was Housing Minister. We know that our country has an ageing population. People are living longer and the evidence is that they will want to live longer in their own homes, which makes the rush to demolish bungalows—the very type of home that will be vital to many older people’s ability to sustain themselves at home for longer—such nonsense. We know that there is a chronic shortage of affordable homes, so it is perverse that developers are almost directed to build high-density housing on areas
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with a high land value, with the consequences that we have all seen: large numbers of luxury apartments while housing lists grow in our constituencies, and those who desperately need housing not able to attain the affordable housing that the Government set out to achieve.

We also know that flood risk will dominate over the coming years, so why on earth are we relying on a planning system that says it is a good idea to concrete over urban green spaces, thereby reducing the drainage capacity? I have seen a particularly bad case of that in Cheltenham, which is prone to flooding and severely affected by the phenomenon of garden grabbing. Sir Michael Pitt, who led the Government’s review of last summer’s floods, told the BBC that garden grabbing had increased the risk of further flooding. He said:

It would be a mistake for the Government to ignore that advice.

If the Minister requires evidence of whether his planning guidance is working, he need look no further than GardenOrganic, a website set up by people who want to protect gardens. Every week, examples of garden grabbing are cited on that website, from Ballyrobert in Northern Ireland, from Cardiff in Wales—where it is proposed to develop a reservoir site for housing—and from Forest Hill in London. It is happening all over the country, which is why it excites the interest of so many Members, here and in the other place.

It was Members in the other place who voted in favour of this amendment. Clearly, they saw that the law is not strong enough to provide the necessary protection for gardens. It boils down to the fundamental question of whether Ministers in Whitehall know better about local planning applications than the communities that will be affected and the people whom those communities elect to represent them. Members of Parliament can argue about the rights and wrongs of various planning applications, but the basic question must surely be who is best placed to make the decisions—town hall or Whitehall? If we have really reached the stage where the Government do not even trust councils to determine which residential gardens are suitable for development and which are not, the lip service that the Government pay to decentralisation is risible.

I shall now turn my attention to the way in which the Government have changed their response to the issue of garden grabbing, which may help to explain why they object to the amendment. I cannot help but notice, because I have been campaigning on this issue for so long, that the Government’s various attempts to stonewall have been built on shifting sands. When garden grabbing was debated first, it came under the remit of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minster, and the objection from the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was that the need for house building was such that gardens were a legitimate source of development. When the baton was passed to the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), she moved the Government’s position and instead maintained that councils already had powers at their disposal to prevent garden grabbing. Now the issue rests with the current Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and I note that there has been another change of tack.

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6.45 pm

When this amendment was debated in the other place, the Government insisted that they could not support it because they needed to consult local government first. Far be it from me, or any other hon. Member, to second-guess the view of local government, but I think that it is safe to say that giving local councils more power over local planning decisions could only be welcomed by local government. Are Ministers honestly trying to tell us that giving councils the power to protect gardens where they think that appropriate will be controversial, and that for that reason we should oppose this amendment? If that is their last line of defence, the argument has certainly been won, even if the vote is not.

Sadly, the fact that we are debating an amendment to remove a clause to give councils the power to protect gardens shows how hostile to local communities this Government have now become. There is a stark contrast in how this issue has been approached. The Government have been inconsistent in their reasons for seeking to prevent gardens from having greater protection in planning law. They have gone from defending garden development to blaming local councils for not using what powers they do have. When it came to my own private Member’s Bill, Labour Members talked it out rather than pressing it to a Division, but hon. Members from both sides of the House who have campaigned for more protection for gardens have put forward a reasoned, consistent and common-sense case for tightening the loophole. Hon. Members who signed the early-day motion on the issue might wish to think long and hard about the consistency of that signature with how they vote on the issue tonight.

Clause 194 offers an historic opportunity for us to change planning law in a way that will strengthen local communities, and safeguard the environment and infrastructure that underpin where people live. Members in the other place have shown that they are willing to speak up for the growing body of people who want to see their neighbourhoods and communities protected. If at the end of today’s debate this clause is removed, the public will judge this Government very harshly.

John Healey: I recognise and respect what the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) called the long track record of several hon. Members, on both sides of the House—not least the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)—in raising concerns about garden grabbing, or development in back gardens. However, it is curious, given that long track record of campaigning, that the evidence is so thin and anecdotal —[ Interruption. ] Well, the hon. Member for Beckenham protests from a sedentary position, but the six towns study does not count. She cited some figures from her local authority area, but she did not cite any wider study, rigorous evidence or independent research that would provide good grounds for the Government to adjust their policy now or amend the legislation.

Mrs. Lait: The Minister has agreed that Members have a long track record in raising these issues. Most of us do not raise such issues for trivial reasons. There is therefore a clear indication that there is great concern about this issue. Some 21 per cent. of all new houses
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built in Bromley are on back gardens, and that is one fifth of all planning applications. I cannot believe that the Minister thinks that one fifth of all planning applications are not important.

John Healey: I heard what the hon. Lady said earlier, and I have just referred to what she said about Bromley. In a way, the point partly applies to the remarks of the hon. Member for Meriden, who seemed to be arguing that we should move away from not only the question of development in gardens but the priority of brownfield sites per se.

Let me pick up on the point about blanket directions at a national level. They are simply unlikely to suit all circumstances. The hon. Member for Beckenham cites figures that are apparently from Bromley. In 2005, for instance, Basildon council informed us that not 20-odd per cent.—as was the case in Bromley—but 72 per cent. of such developments were on previously developed or residential land. The reason for that was that during that period in Basildon there was, quite rightly, a large programme of demolitions, as the town had a lot of pressure on it for housing and a lot of previously developed land. There was a large programme of demolitions, in particular the demolition of the old Five Links estate, and of replacing the demolished areas with new housing and new estates with private gardens. In short, it involved the redevelopment of land that had previously been residential—the sort of areas that, in blanket terms, hon. Members are concerned about. It resulted in more houses with gardens for more families. That is exactly the sort of development the hon. Member for Meriden wants to see and that hon. Members are keen to encourage.

The hon. Member for Beckenham, as well as one or two other hon. Members in their many interventions, tried to argue that the Planning Inspectorate’s—PINS’s—decisions are one of the sources of the problems and the reasons for the increase in garden development. There is no serious evidence of PINS’s overturning local authority decisions on brownfield development just because the developments are on garden land. Figures that have been provided to us by the PINS service show that, in the couple of years up to the early autumn of 2007, 28.5 per cent. of appeals were granted on minor dwellings—on fewer than 10 dwellings. In other words, in more than 70 per cent. of the cases, PINS supported the local authority decision. I therefore think that it is an inconclusive argument, at best, to say that the problems are somehow created by the Planning Inspectorate and its series of decisions.

The sort of approach that we are confronted with, as a House, is not merely about pre-empting the sort of proper evidence base needed to make such decisions. It is worth stressing now a point that I touched on earlier but did not develop. Such an approach would prevent the Secretary of State from setting aside decisions made in accordance with the adopted local policies of a planning authority for the protection of gardens or green space, effectively removing the discretion to take account of other considerations, such as the design or suitability of transport links, in determining appeals.

If the Lords amendment is not rejected, and we do not have the opportunity to assemble the evidence, debate the policy options that might be appropriate or consult on any potential legal changes—as the
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Conservative-led Local Government Association made clear in a briefing on the Bill this afternoon that it would rightly wish to happen—we risk distorting the planning process and also the scope for appeals. Such a provision would place restrictions on the right of appeal of ordinary home and garden owners against the decision of a planning authority and could also touch on human rights issues.

I have confirmed that, in the new year, we will undertake a review of the evidence. The debate, I have to say, has not added to the evidence base. It has added to the list of individual examples and anecdotes and has reinforced the understandable sense of concern that hon. Members say that they have about what goes on in their area. I tell those Members who are concerned that one useful step that they might consider is that of asking their local authority what use it makes of the scope available under PPS3. Furthermore, although in general I am not one to promote the views of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), they might want to consult him on the approach that his local authority has taken. In our experience, it is one of the few local authorities to have in place the sort of planning policies that make distinctions that are locally justified, locally rooted and locally determined within the category of brownfield land for priority development.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) said that she regards the confirmation of a review that I announced today as helpful. I welcome the welcome that the hon. Member for Beckenham gave to that review. I hope that she considers it as a new step, which is sensible and reasonable in the circumstances. I hope that she and other hon. Members will reflect on the fact that jumping beyond that approach to a conclusion that the policy and the legislation require change is not sensible or reasonable. There is a proper order for such things. We intend to undertake that review and will then establish whether there is systematic evidence that would warrant the changes for which some have argued this afternoon.

I hope that the hon. Member for Beckenham will not press the amendment to a Division. If she does, I shall have to ask my hon. Friends to stick with the view that the House should disagree with the Lords on amendment No. 115.

Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—

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