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3 Feb 2009 : Column 188WH—continued

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I apologise to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members for not being present at the start of the debate, but I was attending a Public Bill Committee sitting that has only now ended. He is drawing attention to the fact that his constituents, and many others across the country, may be misled into
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believing that there has been a firm commitment and policy to act in a certain way. Individual cases might lead people to believe that things were done differently. The issue is not about the planning application, but about people seeking to make political capital out of a particular planning point. There is then a failure to address that at a local level

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Member for St. Ives has been very generous in giving way and has accepted nine interventions, but I remind hon. Members who wish to speak that I will call the first of the Front-Bench spokesmen at 12 o’clock.

Andrew George: I am grateful to you, Mr. Olner, for pointing that out to me and I apologise, but I have been attempting to be generous to hon. Members who wish to make points. I will now bring my remarks to a close.

It is all very well going through a rebranding process—I fear that the Conservatives see the world of politics merely as a marketing exercise—but politicians need genuinely to understand and accept the basis of the political claims they make. If they claim to be the saviours of garden land, they cannot at the same time be engaged in the type of activities I have just described. That example is not the only such incident. I do not know about London politics, but last night’s Evening Standard reported:

which I understand is Conservative controlled,

I look forward to the winding-up speeches and to hearing the views of all parties on the debate. There are issues of significant substance that I hope the Minister will address, particularly the review and the need to back up those local authorities that try to protect the integrity of their garden spaces, many of which are still under threat, even in the current market downturn. I hope that he will take those remarks on board.

11.38 am

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate and thank you, Mr. Olner, for allowing me to take part. We have to take a step back and remember what has been in place historically. People could always build in gardens and pieces of land within urban areas have been used for development. That historical agreement has always been in place and part of planning permissions, and local authorities took the ultimate decision on whether a piece of land was or was not appropriate for development. Of course, we all know that things changed when the Government began looking for more brownfield land to stop encroachment on greenfield areas. It was a difficult balance to strike, but in the end those decisions were taken.

In Chorley, we never had a worry: when the Labour authority gave up control, there was a complete moratorium. We did not have any building in gardens because we had so much planning development already agreed. In fact, we had one of the biggest brownfield sites to become available—1,200 acres of Royal Ordnance land. One
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can imagine what it does to an area when so much building land becomes available for development. We had all this building land and we knew that new town planning permissions would be granted, because Chorley was part of the old central Lancashire new town and there was historical planning consent on the land. The last thing we wanted was for more developers to come in and pick out land all over the place; that was why the moratorium was put in place.

What then happened was that the Labour-controlled council in Chorley left office and the Conservatives came in. The first thing they did was to lift the moratorium, which allowed a free-for-all. Any land in Chorley could be developed. Not only did we have an oversupply of building land, but it was being added to. Of course, cheap politics comes into it. I do not usually get into the gutter politics that seems to be happening in Chorley, but the candidate opposing me, Alan Cullens, put out a letter saying that I had allowed garden development in Chorley. What that Conservative candidate failed to do was even to state that he is a councillor, and a member of the council that has allowed development in gardens in Chorley. In his own area, developers have come along and bought up to seven gardens in order to create a large site for development. That will create 40 houses in back gardens and is a major development, but as it is in a good area that should be protected, even under the new legislation, I suggested to the council—through Labour councillors—that it should be a conservation area. That is still allowed, and it would not stop development in gardens, but the Conservative council said that it did not want to do that as it might cost money. What I would say about Councillor Cullens is that he is without doubt duplicitous—hypocrisy is the ultimate word for him—and that sending out a letter and not admitting that you are part of the problem that has been created in Chorley is very low politics.

We can do better, and we can do more. There is no doubt that the Conservative-led Chorley council has let the people of Chorley down. In the beautiful village of Mawdsley, two constituents wish to develop in their gardens for good reasons: they can no longer keep horses there and there is a tax on the animals. Yet the same council refuses them permission. The council has many questions to answer. My constituents in Mawdsley believe, rightly, that the council is being vindictive towards them. When it suits them, the council will support and allow developers to have free access to land, but in other areas they will not. This is a complete botch; it is hypocrisy. Chorley used to be the best-protected authority in the country, but all that was thrown out.

Councillor Cullens, and other councillors around the country who are making cheap points against Members of Parliament should be factual, truthful and honest.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: It is your Government.

Mr. Hoyle: Of course, it is my Government and my constituency. The hon. Gentleman obviously is not listening, so I will say it again and see whether he can understand this time. If there is a complete moratorium on building, no one can build in gardens. If the council lifts that moratorium, any developer can come in. Developers have always been allowed to build in gardens. That is the problem. Local authorities have to make decisions, but in Chorley there was no decision to make
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because of the moratorium. Once it was lifted, weakness was introduced. There is over-provision in Chorley, and the moratorium should never have been lifted.

I hope that the Minister will think long and hard about the position in Chorley. I agree with other hon. Members that we should have more social housing, but four and five-bedroomed houses are being built. There are crocodile tears from the local councillor and Conservative candidate, but he was part of the council that lifted the moratorium. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on the hypocrisy of Councillor Cullens and the council in Chorley.

11.44 am

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate on a very important issue. I understand his concerns about garden-grabbing in Penzance. However, I take with a slight pinch of salt his claim that he did not want to spark a great party political dogfight in raising this issue. It seems to me that if he had wanted a party political dogfight, he could barely have done so more effectively. However, he raised some important concerns—I do not disagree with that.

On the substance of the issue, it is a question about quality of life, as the hon. Gentleman said, and the day-to-day enjoyment of residential areas, whether urban or rural, whether market towns or cities. In Oxford, it is difficult to build on the edge of our city, because the green belt is drawn too tightly and needs revising. There is also the economic and academic vitality of the city, which sucks in lots of jobs and students. The coupling of those two factors creates a pressure-cooker effect, so that there is enormous demand for housing within the city and buy-to-let has been a one-way bet for landlords for some time.

Residential areas that were originally planned with generous gardens and pleasant open spaces, inspired by garden city principles, have been under remorseless attack from infill, conversions to multiple occupation and even the exploitation of permitted development for ancillary buildings, such as garages and sheds, which then sprout windows, curtains and even bathrooms.

The presumption of higher densities within existing residential areas, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is something that Governments of both main parties have been responsible for, can end up destroying those residential areas, as gardens are concreted over, corner plots are turned into flats and parking and refuse collection services are put under enormous strain, which the landlords who are carrying out the conversions are not making payments towards, as the hon. Gentleman also said.

I want to express warm thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister for coming to my constituency exactly a week ago to meet councillors and residents’ representatives, and to go round for himself to see a neighbourhood that has been transformed from one with good-quality housing, much of it social housing, into what is largely a student dormitory, with the most extraordinary extensions to properties. We looked at those extensions, which had been squeezed in, and also at neglected gardens, discarded rubbish and all the detritus of bad landlords, sitting cheek by jowl with the minority of original residents who take a pride in their property.

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The purpose of that visit was to ensure that the Minister understood the overwhelming strength of the case for a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation to run right across Oxford—I think that he is getting the message from Oxford on this subject. As I said, I am grateful to him for coming and listening to us. However, there is a parallel need for stricter planning control and for councils to have more discretion to respond to the demands of their residents that they should be able to shape the nature of the residential community in which they live.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. This issue is about local discretion for local councils. Under the current system local councillors’ hands are tied, whereas we should give those local decision-making powers back to local councils. If in some areas the council, for whatever reason, considers that garden developments are appropriate, it can go for them. Personally, I hope that in my area that would not be the view. However, if the decision-making powers are given back to local authorities, at least they can make the decisions locally about what is good for their area.

Mr. Smith: That is the point that I am making. These days, we all pretty much subscribe to the rhetoric of community empowerment; but if that rhetoric is to mean something on the issues that matter most to people, it must mean that they and their elected representatives should have more say on policies and planning decisions affecting their area, and that the inspectorate in Bristol, as an agent of the Secretary of State, should have less say. Of course, local authorities have to draw up those policies in a proper way, consulting with all relevant interests, and the policies must be applied consistently. That is not always easy with planning decisions. I used to chair a planning committee, many years ago, and I know that there are finely balanced judgments to be made.

Incidentally, I do not think that anybody is saying that no infill is ever acceptable or that no garden can be developed. The decision depends on the merits of the case. Indeed, I can point to some instances in my own constituency where development has been carried forward well and properly. The problem, when the planning system is too permissive and the overall policy is too centralised, is that it is too easy for developers and bad landlords to get away with too much. That is why we need regulation that is sensitive to the needs of the community.

The gardens, open spaces and trees in our urban areas act as lungs, and make areas look nice, so that people want to live there. They sustain ecological diversity and contribute something distinctive and positive to the quality of life of individuals and whole communities. The Government would do themselves and the country a great deal of good if they embraced the idea of giving stronger protection to gardens, as well as giving councils more power to decide when conversions to multiple occupation are appropriate, but with a comprehensive licensing system to police them where necessary, as it most certainly is in Oxford.

11.51 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this extremely important debate. The key
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issue is whether back gardens are designated as brownfield or greenfield areas. The Government have, to a degree, attempted to address that problem, and I welcome that. Following PPG3, the Government introduced PPS3, which gives local authorities some powers to separate gardens from wider brownfield development targets, but that does not stop developers, because local authorities can be overridden by external inspectors who do not have sympathy with or understanding of local areas, feelings and circumstances.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has kindly stayed to tell us that he is introducing a private Member’s Bill on this matter. I look forward to that, and I hope that it has more success than mine did in 2005. My neighbour, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), introduced a similar Bill in 2007, as did the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) in 2006. I am encouraged to hear that Members of all three main parties are introducing such Bills. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives has discussed, although my private Member’s Bill encompassed parkland, the hon. Member for Meriden has declined to do the same with hers, because her local authority of Solihull, which we share, has sold off parkland for development in two parks—Tudor Grange and Shirley parks. That development involves the, to my mind, near criminal destruction of a 350-year-old ring of oaks.

The problem is holistic. The whole nature of areas is being changed by overdevelopment. The forthcoming Bill is very welcome, because in previous debates on this issue Labour Members have criticised attempts to change the designation, saying rightly that people need homes, including affordable homes, but selling off large back gardens in reasonably wealthy areas does not help to resolve that problem. Indeed, hon. Members have mentioned the careful building of particular numbers of dwellings so that the threshold at which affordable housing must be built is not exceeded.

Valuable wildlife corridors are being lost, and there is increased pressure on local amenities and increased flooding in many areas. Back gardens provide natural drainage, and having more houses puts too much pressure on sewerage and drainage systems that were never designed to service the number of families and properties that they now service. Hon. Members have mentioned the problems that are being created with roads and parking. Above all, perhaps, the whole character of local areas is being changed.

Is all that a big problem? The Government have stated that 72 per cent. of new homes are built on brownfield sites. Those welcome statistics show how that figure has increased over time. However, we need to look underneath them to see how much of that 72 per cent. is back garden development. The Government’s figures state that just less than a quarter of such properties are built on previously residential land, but that could be just the tip of the iceberg. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells carried out a study on this matter. According to the Government’s statistics, 40 per cent. of new housing is on existing residential sites and garden plots, but on investigation he found that the figure is closer to 70 per cent. That is a cause for great concern.

The picture is stark over many areas of the country. In my own area of Solihull we have just re-fought an application that keeps being made on Streetsbrook road for 10 apartments on two properties. We lost an appeal
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over Fowgay hall—admittedly, it was an unlovely property—on the site of which now stand 14 flats. It is a 0.17 acre plot, every inch of which has been built on, with the car park having to go underground. It is so out of kilter with the area that it beggars belief that it was approved on appeal. Builders wear down local communities by persistently reapplying. They make an application knowing that it will not be accepted. They then re-submit and re-submit, causing tremendous stress and worry in local communities, and in the end they slip in just under the bar. And that is the end of a happy residential area and, often, of its character.

The current economic situation might well have some bearing. The demand for flats has been slowing for a considerable period. However, more important, the construction industry is not on its knees but on its back. If the Minister were to introduce good, properly planned developments—not back garden grabs, but shovel-ready planning applications to build homes, especially affordable homes—he would certainly hear no objections from the Liberal Democrat Benches. PPS17 requires local authorities to provide all types of open spaces, including parks and gardens. We need properly planned communities. The Government should consider strengthening legislation to facilitate a much more holistic approach to our planning system. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said, local communities need a much greater say in decisions affecting the character of their area.

I have three suggestions that I hope the Government will consider. On the ability of developers to continue re-submitting applications, should we not have a “three strikes and you’re out” system to prevent the constant worry?

Mr. Hoyle: Two!

Lorely Burt: I do not know; I leave that to the Government. For many communities, three will be a very welcome change. On one occasion, we had 19 in Solihull.

Could local authorities have more power to make a final determination? There is a problem with appeal officers looking at an area and going against the will of a large body of local opinion. We are not talking about nimbyism; what we really want is power to the people: subsidiarity—decision-making at the lowest point for the people who are affected. We understand that local authorities may make inappropriate decisions, but could the conditions for overturning those appeals be looked at again to take into consideration local people’s desire to have some say about the local environment in which they live?

12 noon

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate and on his comprehensive remarks—only soured somewhat at the end by a rather churlish coda, to which I shall return later.

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