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Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
Lord Stallard rose to ask Her Majesty's Government why, contrary to their previous opinion, they now consider that appropriate institutional development in extensive grounds would conflict with "the fundamental green belt aim of keeping land permanently open" [H.L. Deb., 5th December, 1994 col. 794].
The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I should say at the outset that it is not my intention to criticise the concept of the green belt, the "girdle of open space" as it was once known. As a former chairman of an inner London borough planning committee during the 1950s, I know something of the background and the workings of the policies relating to green belts. I recognise too the great importance which all governments have attached to green belts and the part they have played as an essential element of planning policy since their inception.
It is significant also that the purposes of green belt policy have remained pretty intact with very little change for some decadesuntil now. Twelve months ago, the Department of the Environment published a consultative paper relating to planning policy on green belts. It proposed revision of current Planning Policy Guidance Note 2 (Green Belts). Among the changes proposed was the deletion of the general provision for institutional use in green belt planning policy which was introduced by Circular 42/55 of 1955. Paragraph 5 of the circular stated that,
That policy has been little used and appears nowhere in land use statistics. However, where it has been used the imprecise expression "institutions" and "extensive grounds" have created difficulties due to lack of clarity. In November 1992 following a case affecting the borough of Barnet on which Mr. Justice Auld commented, the Department of the Environment issued a letter to clarify the position. It states that,
In 1993 a DOE report, Effectiveness of Green Belts, recommended deletion of the category without any factual reason or justification. It was followed by a draft PPG2 in February 1994 which, in paragraph 3.2 recommended,
In the consultation that followed, representations were made by 674 organisations or individuals. Of those, 100 supported removal of the category and 249 made representations that the category be retained. Among those who supported the category's retentionI shall not bore the House by reading them at lengththe Church Commissioners said:
Following that, on 5th December 1994 a Question was tabled in your Lordships' House. In reply the Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, gave two reasons for the removal of the category. He said, first, that
The first reason given is contrary to the Government's clarification issued in November 1992 and to the more recent decision issued in February 1994. No reason is given for that about turn. On the second reason, everyone agrees that the policy is unclear. I said so in the Question I asked in December. The 1992 clarification helped a little. However, the Government have said that the clarification did not prevent the arguments continuing. That means that there is need for greater clarity. It does not mean that we have to delete the provision altogether. It means that there is need for greater clarity, and, according to the reports I have just read, that is not a problem.
The question of "provoked litigation" is covered in the Effectiveness of Green Belts report; three specific cases are referred to. In each case permission was given finally on the basis that the proposed development was appropriate in the green belt. The fact that local authorities and the Secretary of State have not accepted or applied their own policies cannot be laid at the applicant's door.
The Government went on to suggest that development could nevertheless take place if very special circumstances existed. That is unacceptable because "very special circumstances" is no clearer than the previous description. There may still be difficulties in clarifying and explaining what are "very special circumstances". They are not defined, so it is even less clear than before. Such an application is contrary to policy. It would have to be referred to the Secretary of State. Experience shows that local authorities refuse such applications, forcing an appeal, with its uncertainty, expense and delaythe litigation to which the Minister referred.
With regard to the specific instances where "very special circumstances" may exist, mention is made in PPG2 of motorway service areas and places of higher education which may qualify if there is a need which cannot be met elsewhere. Supermarkets and such places
Where developments have been allowed, they have provided an opportunity to clear up derelict sites. Most of the applications that have been approved have received approval on the basis that they were on derelict sites. Those derelict sites have been improved environmentally and the landscaping has been improved. Everyone who has known and seen them has said that. What is needed is a clear national policy presumption for places of worship. Their unsuitability in many urban areas means that some carefully guarded provision for green belt use is essential where no other suitable site is available. I hope that it is the Government's intention to issue a circular of guidance to local authorities which will include the points I have tried to make in reference to places of worship.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, has raised an interesting aspect of the revised green belt guidelines. He showed me some of his notes before the debate, and it was obvious that he was concerned in particular about places of religious worship. I am sorry that I did not consult him earlier because I might have been able to make a more accurate response to what he has said.
The 1955 green belt circular allowed for institutional development in extensive grounds as appropriate in the green belt. Perhaps that reflected the reality of the existing situation where large hospitalsfor instance, those in Epsom, Redhill and so forthhad long existed on land which was subsequently included in the green belt.
I am advised that when a year ago the revised guidance note was circulated, the ACC, for example, made no response. As the noble Lord suggested, there was among the counties a certain amount of disagreement as to what the response should be.
My understanding of the guidance is that if applicants wish to place an institution in the green belt they must make a special justification for that application. No matter what happens, it is likely to be called in by the Secretary of State rather than there being a presumption that all other aspects of green belt policyfor instance, visual impact, disturbance and causation of traffichave been satisfied. Under the old guidance, the presumption would be that such an application would be granted.
Prior to speaking in today's debate, I contacted a number of people. My contacts suggest that the new approach is generally welcomed among many planners and conservationists because it represents a stronger protection for the green belt. As such, I welcome it. The
It is worth noting that green belts around other cities are far less substantial than that around London. Therefore, one might suppose that they are even were more fragile and that the additional protection is welcome.
I find it difficult to understand why places of worship should be treated differently from, say, hospitals or old people's homes run by charities. I believe that all those institutions should be obliged to make their justification in the same way, rather than giving a list of specific uses which have a presumption in their favour and a list which do not have a presumption or have a presumption against them. I believe that that is a better way of proceeding.
I am not sure why people would wish to establish places of worship out in the country. I can see the financial attraction of such an approach but there are disadvantages; for instance, those who wish to go to such places of worship must travel longer distances. That would be against my understanding of protecting the countryside, reducing air pollution and so forth.
I am waiting for the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, to explain that matter in his response. I apologise; I understand that the noble Lord cannot respond to the debate. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, will do so. I believe that a special plea on behalf of places of religious worship needs to be justified.
The issue of traffic leads me to the only problem that I can see in the present regulations. Let us suppose, for example, that with the amalgamation of hospitals, which is almost bound to happen during the next few years, it were found necessary to bring together two large institutions. It would be extremely unlikely that they could be developed on existing sites, unless those sites were large. That may be one of the problems of any given hospital. Let us suppose that they cannot be developed on the green belt. In fact, during the past 15 or 20 years two hospitals have been developed on the green belt in Surrey. The implication is that they must go beyond the green belt into the countryside or rural areas. Again, that would increase the length of journey time, pose difficulty in access and so forth. We are all trying to avoid such difficulties.
Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Stallard for tabling this Question. I wish, first, to ask the Minister a number of questions about the status of policy planning guidance notes. PPG2 has been issued by the Department of the Environment but we are not entirely certain whether PPGs are meant to be policy statements, which was the original intention, or procedural statements. They appear
Perhaps I may give the example of Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales has been pruning Welsh PPGs down to their policy content and I understand that the Department of the Environment has employed consultants to review PPGs. If that is the case, will the Minister tell us when the consultants are to report? If they report in the way in which I hope, and recommend that PPGs should become policy statements and that procedures are handled by local authorities, will there be a proper statement from the Government of their intent?
I understand that the legal status of PPGs is that they are a material consideration when deciding planning applications or proposing development plans. They are not therefore determinant; in other words, a local planning authority can disregard the PPG. I should be grateful if the noble Viscount will tell me whether I am right or wrong. If they are more than a material considerationthat is to say, if they are binding on local planning authoritieswhat is the point of having local authority planning committees going through the whole procedure of planning applications? They are simply processing something which central government have handed down.
As regards the Question asked by my noble friend, we believe that PPG2 has, in its new version, some awkward problems. What are "very special circumstances"? If we take the instruction to local authorities that they are to have regard only to very special circumstances when giving planning permission to, say, motorway service areas or places of higher education, would it not be the case that on the whole local authorities will be negative about any application? If one is sitting on a planning committee and is told to give authorisation only under very special circumstances, one would naturally be reluctant to do so. One starts off by saying, "This is not very good and we will have a substantial bias against it".
As regards places of worship, the churches are being closed down in the centres of towns and in the inner cities because of the movements of population. That is certainly true of the Church of England. In answer to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, it has been shown that, although places of worship are not large institutions, such as supermarkets, where developments have been allowed in the green belt, they have provided an opportunity to clear up derelict sites and considerably improve the environment and the landscape. That is a fact of life which is reasonable. If we had an arrangement under which, on derelict sites and on sites that need clearing up, there could be some clarification of "very special circumstances", then all sides would probably be satisfied.
It is no use saying that existing buildings should be reused or that development plans should have regard to PPG12 in allowing for places of worship unless we are allowing local authorities to make specific decisions on a fairly specific basis. With my noble friend, I very
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater): My Lords, the Question on the Order Paper is concerned with one of the changes to green belt policy made in the revision of PPG2 published last month. Before I respond specifically to the Question and the debate, it may be useful to the House if I indicate the statutory basis of PPGs, because that was one of the questions which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, asked me.
Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, local planning authorities must have regard to current national policies. That is the wording in the legislation. Planning policy guidance is current national policy. That is how the PPGs must be taken into consideration by local planning authorities in formulating general policies in relation to unitary development plans (Section 12(6)) and structure plans (Section 31). And local plans, which are what we are talking about in this instance, must conform generally with structure plans. That is provided in Section 36(4).
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, seemed to say that that is all very well; but he asks whether there is a basis on which the Secretary of State can enforce what he sees to be the policy statement. Of course, it is no good having a policy statement and saying that the authorities must have regard to it unless there is some force behind it. Therefore, the Secretary of State is a statutory consultee in the preparation of development plans. He examines them carefully to identify whether they appear to conflict with national policy guidance and PPGs. He normally draws the attention of local authorities to those conflicts which do not appear to be justified by local circumstances. If necessary, he will make a formal intervention by objecting to a draft plan deposit, and by directing that a draft plan should be modified or, ultimately, by calling in all or part of a draft plan for his determination. That is under various sectionsand I shall not weary the House with themof the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. That gives him authority to move planning policy guidance into areas to which local authorities must have regard when formulating their development plans.
Green belts are a cornerstone of our town and country planning system. The revised PPG2 reaffirms the Government's resolute commitment to them. Since 1979 their extent has more than doubled. They now cover 12 per cent. of England. Research which we published in 1993 confirmed their effectiveness in preventing urban sprawl.
The 1995 edition of PPG2 is the first significant revision of national green belt policy in its 40 years of existence. Much of the policy, including its key elements, is rightly unchanged. The amended PPG takes account both of recommendations in our published research for making policy still more effective, and of extensive public consultation. The thrust of the revision is to buttress the strict controls over development which are fundamental to the long-term protection of green belts, and to boost the contribution they make to the quality of life. This should ensure that green belts are valued even more highly in future.
Within a framework of continuity, the revised PPG makes six main amendments: it reinforces the aims of green belt policy; it sets positive objectives for the use of green belt land; it encourages proper consideration of the long-term direction of development; it provides for the future of existing major developed sites; it fits policy on the re-use of buildings better to the circumstances of the green belt; and it applies the same rules to "institutions" as to other developers.
The final version has been widely and warmly welcomed, by, for example, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Countryside Commission, and the CPRE. According to an editorial in the property press, it provides:
In a nutshell, the revised PPG permits new building on previously undeveloped sites only for uses of land which preserve the openness of the green belt and do not conflict with the purposes of including land in it; for example, agriculture or essential facilities for outdoor sport.
I now turn to the specific issue of institutions. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, asks how the Government have come to the conclusion that institutional development in extensive grounds would conflict with the openness of the green belt.
In recent years the institutional provision has increasingly been used to press for wholly new development on a scale that is inappropriate in the green belt. Such development damages the openness of the green belt. The fact that the developer is an institution does not lessen the effect on the green belt. Nor is the green belt intended to be parcelled up into a series of developments in "extensive grounds". It is meant, as PPG2 says, to be kept permanently open. Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, indicated, and understood, the concept of "institutions in extensive grounds" caused such difficulties of interpretation in recent years that it became effectively unworkable. That was evidenced by many planning appeals and extensive litigation. There was great confusion over what was and what was not an "institution"; and, still more, over what constituted "extensive grounds". I believe that the concept was tested to destruction.
In the revised PPG2 published last month, development by institutions is subject to the same controls as other development in the green belt. That was recommended in the research report we published in 1993, and proposed in the draft revision of PPG2 which we published for public consultation a year ago. That does not downgrade the value of religious institutions. As the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, said, they are important to the well-being of the individual and society and to the life of the nation. Planning policy rightly recognises religious needs.
The Town and Country Planning (Development Plan) Regulations 1991 require planning authorities to have regard to social considerations. Planning Policy Guidance Note 12, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, advises that they should consider the likely impact of their policies and proposals on religious groups. It states that development plans should make provision for land for places of worship and other community facilities.
The development plan process provides full opportunities for public consultation. Religious groups should involve themselves in plan preparation where they consider it necessary to seek provision for places of worship. I turn now to the query made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. As regards the concerns of the bodies that he mentioned, I believe that that is the right place that those bodies should have in the development process; namely, to go in where there is opportunity for consultation.
However, there is no basis for giving religious institutions special treatment in green belt policy. Many interests might see themselves as equally deserving; for example, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, pointed out, charities.
The revised PPG2 does not rule out all possibility of development in the green belt in any circumstances. For the first time, it creates scope for the limited infilling, or the partial or complete redevelopment of major existing developed sites. It provides for the suitable re-use of existing buildings, and drops the former requirement for them to be redundant. It clarifies the leeway for development in existing villages. That applies both to villages which are inset into the green belt to allow limited development or expansion, and to those villages washed over by the green belt where infill development is permitted. Finally, essential facilities are allowed for uses of land which preserve the openness of the green belt and do not conflict with the purposes of including land in it.
Those provisions apply to religious institutions just as much as to any other group. They should use the opportunities to the full. They also have the same scope as anyone else to plead very special circumstances to justify development which is normally inappropriate in the green belt.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, posed a question regarding two hospitals amalgamating or requiring the concept of leap-frogging over the green belt. In those circumstances, I believe that those concerned could argue "very special circumstances" if one of the institutions within the green belt needed to develop in order to create the facilities for the amalgamation of the two. I believe that the concept of "very special circumstances" gives local authorities flexibility whereas, if there was no concept of very special circumstances, a local authority might say, "It's green belt and you can't develop". It could draw on this flexibility which allows authorities to consider such matters very carefully. In paragraph 3.2 of PPG2 there is extra guidance on the meaning of "very special circumstances". The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked me about the research on the effectiveness of the PPGs. We expect to publish it later this year.
In conclusion, I should like to leave the House with two points. First, planning policy does give due weight to the need to plan for land for places of worship and other community facilities. It is for the groups concerned to make full use of the opportunities available to them.
Secondly, as we approach the 21st century, it is more important than ever to protect green belts from growing development pressures, and to enable them to make an even fuller contribution to the quality of life. That is why we have strengthened the policy, learning from previous experience. Over the years, the provision for institutions came to mean something with far greater effects on the green belt than were originally envisaged. In modern circumstances, there was no proper justification for continuing it.
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