Hertfordshire Structure Plan
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate proposals to alter Hertfordshire‘s structure plan so that it is possible to build 10,000 houses in the green belt in my constituency.
Throughout my parliamentary career, I have been a passionate defender of the green belt. I raised the issue in my maiden speech. I have always believed that it is essential to defend the sanctity of the green belt to maintain the environment and character of my constituency. At public inquiries, I have opposed plans to build on green belt land in my constituency.
I am pleased to say that in the past 15 years in which I have had the privilege to represent a Hertfordshire seat, there has been no significant incursion into the green belt in the area that I represent. Several proposals to do so have been successfully seen off, but not one acre has been lost.
I have invariably had cross-party support in standing up for the green belt, and I have usually had the local authorities on my side, so I am appalled that Hertfordshire county council, through its structure plan, proposes to build 10,000 houses in the green belt on nearly 2,000 acres in my constituency. I was horrified when that plan was endorsed by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
I make it absolutely clear to the House that I am not talking simply about building on a green-field site. The plan involves building within the green belt itself; in short, on land that is most safeguarded against such developments. As far as I can discover, the proposal would be the largest incursion into the green belt in living memory, so it is not only a local, but a national, issue.
Locally, the opposition to the plan is overwhelming, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) has said. In a single morning, 3,500 people signed the petition in the marketplace in Hitchin in my constituency. Many thousands more have done so since. The sheer volume of papers containing the names of people who have signed the petition is apparent to the House.
The site involved is especially beautiful. Few people live in it. It is a purely rural area, but it is much cherished by people in the rest of the constituency. How deeply it is cherished was brought home to me by an especially poignant ceremony, in which I participated, on the borders of the area concerned. I was invited to unveil a new footpath map in the village of St. Ippollitts. The map, which is especially beautiful, illustrates the terrain, the flora and fauna of the area, as well as showing the footpaths covering the area between St. Ippollitts and Langley. Each footpath is maintained and cared for by a team of volunteers.
Tragically, only two months after the map was unveiled, a large part of the area that it shows is to be bulldozed and covered with concrete. One of the most beautiful stretches of countryside will become a high-profile housing estate, and all the care and devotion that people have put into maintaining that area of countryside in its natural beauty are to be laid to waste.
This is a national, as well as a local, issue. Planning proceeds by precedent, so the decision to allow building on that scale in such a location will be potent ammunition for those wishing to develop in green belt areas elsewhere in the countryside. Green belt status will have been devalued by that dangerous decision and the appalling precedent that it sets.
The legal basis for the green belt is spelt out clearly in planning policy guidance note 2, issued in 1995. It spells out five purposes for the green belt. The first is
“to check unrestricted sprawl of large built up areas”.
The green belt round Stevenage has achieved precisely that, by ensuring that Stevenage had a clear-cut western boundary along the motorway, to the west of which was green belt land; but with this precedent to overrule that green belt protection, how can urban sprawl be contained elsewhere in the country around towns with even less defensible boundaries?
The second purpose of green belts laid down in PPG2 is
“to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another.”
In this case, the green belt has, above all, prevented Stevenage merging into Hitchin. In practice, the new settlement, although said to be west of Stevenage, is divided from Stevenage by a motorway, an industrial zone and a railway, so the inhabitants will naturally gravitate to Hitchin, and the tendency will be for that settlement to expand toward Hitchin and undermine the thin stretch of remaining green belt between itself and Hitchin. In any case, the precedent has been created that green belts elsewhere in the country cannot be relied on to separate two closely adjoining towns.
The third purpose of green belts laid down in PPG2 is
“to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment”.
That the green belt has done, for the best part of 50 years in this part of the country, but now a couple of thousand beautiful acres are being abandoned. With that precedent, why should any countryside elsewhere be sacrosanct as a result of green belt protection?
The fourth purpose of green belts laid down in PPG2 is
“to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns.”
Hitchin is an historic market town–a beautiful one. It has retained its character and setting precisely because the green belt has restricted its size and kept Stevenage at bay. But with this precedent, how can any historic town be kept safe by relying on the green belt?
The fifth and final purpose laid down for green belts in PPG2 is
“to assist in urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.”
It is always easier, and often cheaper, to build on green-field sites than to recycle urban land. While the green belt protected the countryside, planners and developers had to focus on previously built-up land, and that often meant finding many small sites, and it meant that planners had to agree to changes, for example, from employment use to building use. Why should they bother, once this precedent has established, since the easy and profitable solution of building on green-belt land is available if one pushes hard enough? In short, this decision offends every single purpose for which green-belt status was established.
I welcome the presence in the Chamber tonight, not only of my hon. Friends, but of the hon. Members for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard) and for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), both of whom I had the privilege of defeating in previous elections. I am sure that they will reflect the concerns of their constituents about the damage that has been done to the sanctity of the green belt that has protected the character of their constituencies as faithfully as it protects the new boundaries of my constituency.
Hon. Members can imagine my delight when, after building was proposed in the area, I persuaded my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to launch the Conservative countryside campaign on that very site west of Stevenage in my constituency on 2 February this year. I was even more pleased when it seemed that that campaign had persuaded the Government to do a U-turn on the issue of developing in the countryside and on green-belt sites. The Deputy Prime Minister signalled his intention to restore the 60 per cent. target for building in built-up areas upon which we had consulted and which we had included in our manifesto. He declared his determination to protect the countryside.
I welcomed the Deputy Prime Minister‘s apparent change of heart, as did my hon. Friends. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that, although the rhetoric had changed, the substance of policy had not. West of Stevenage was the litmus test and, on that test, the Government resolutely refused to turn blue. The Deputy Prime Minister reaffirmed his consent for the biggest incursion into the green belt since the new towns were established.
Several reasons have been given for sticking to that decision despite the Government‘s alleged change of policy. When I asked the Deputy Prime Minister how he could claim that the Government‘s policy had changed if he was not prepared to alter his position on that key decision regarding the biggest and worst incursion into the green belt since the war, he replied that it was a question of local democracy. He claimed that all the local authorities were in favour of the decision. That is simply incorrect. The decision affects land in North Hertfordshire district council area and, although the council is Labour controlled, it resolutely opposes the decision.
It is true that Hertfordshire county council has led the proposal for building on the site, but I believe that that decision is a travesty of local democracy rather than a reflection of it. The county council is controlled by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. It has formed a joint party called the administration group, which has a majority of just one over the Conservatives. The group knew that it could not get a decision this unpopular through the full council without risking its defeat by one of its members siding with the Conservative opposition. So it took the decision in a planning committee which was packed with trustees, tightly whipped.
The decision was taken by just 14 council members out of 77, and only 14 county councillors supported the final plan. When the Conservative opposition put down a motion in full council that the issue should be considered by the full council before it went ahead, the ruling Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition changed the standing orders so that it could throw out the motion, even though a majority of county councillors voted in favour of that decision being taken by the full council. It is a travesty of democracy and it is appalling that the Deputy Prime Minister should have cited local democracy as a reason to allow the green belt to be built on.
It is sad that no Liberal Democrat Members are present. They have claimed often enough to be supporters of the environment and to be a green party. Taking them at their word, I wrote to the Leader of the Liberal party asking him to urge his supporters on Hertfordshire county council to abandon their anti-democratic and anti- environmental support of the plan to build on the green belt. He has never replied. I have subsequently spoken to him and he said that he had no intention of replying and that it was beneath his dignity to involve himself in this, the most important decision affecting the future of the green belt and the whole country since the war. Far from being a matter for local democracy, it has been an abuse of local democracy by those running Hertfordshire county council.
The Government‘s second line of defence was to argue that, although a couple of thousand acres of green belt land have been lost in the front line, they have designated an even larger area of countryside as green belt in the rear. That is fatuous. There is no defence at all if the green belt is mobile. It is meant to be rigid. It is effective only if it is rigid. If it simply moves back like a piece of elastic every time there is pressure on it, it is of no use in preventing the encroachment of urban areas on the countryside.
The third justification is that the west of Stevenage development would be particularly sustainable in transport terms because it is near a railway and an existing town. On that basis, any town with a railway is not safe from expansion into the surrounding green belt. In any case, virtually every town in the west of Hertfordshire has good railways and very few people are far from those railway centres. In my constituency, it is possible to be a maximum of only six miles distant from a railway station.
The fourth justification is that no alternative locations are available on which to build. The inquiry considered a few alternative large sites and it rather strangely turned down proposals for building a similar development on a non-green belt site elsewhere in the county. However, it gave no consideration at all to building on the largest area of recyclable land, the former Hatfield airfield which has recently been closed following the move of British Aerospace to the north.
It is in any case nonsense to suppose that it is essential to find large sites in order to meet the target for building new homes in the county. The target for the 20-year period between 1991 and 2011 is set at 65,000 houses. Already, some six or seven years into the period, 44,000 houses have been built or allocated planning permission. Almost all of that has been achieved by finding many small sites, by urban regeneration and by a limited amount of peripheral development. A further 21,000 houses are required over the remaining period, which is almost twice as long as the part that has elapsed.
The structure plan states:
“There is a fair prospect of meeting the whole of that extra requirement in the same manner”
as for the first 44,000 houses, by urban regeneration and limited peripheral development. It continues:
“However, against the possibility of this not proving practicable, strategic provision is made on a contingency basis for up to 6,000 dwellings to be located on Green Field sites . . . of which 5,000 are at Stevenage (with a prospect of 5,000 more after 2011).”
On the council‘s own admission, the incursion into the green belt may not be necessary to meet the council‘s targets. It would be extraordinary if that beautiful stretch of countryside were sacrificed–which would create a damaging precedent for the country as a whole–and it all turned out to have been unnecessary.
The final blow to the insistence of the Government and the county council that it was all necessary to meet the targets was dealt this week by Serplan itself. On 3 June, it issued a press release giving revised forecasts for the period between 1991 and 2016, stating:
“The figures are less than the Government‘s household projections for the same period. That is because national research now shows that 40 to 50 per cent. of the projected extra single person households may not form without some sort of subsidy. The evidence suggests that even if the Government commits extra resources to giving people a home, 20 to 25 per cent. fewer single person households will form than previously projected.”
The whole basis of the original targets is now undermined by the planning body that does the forecasting on which the Government have relied.
Earlier this year, I–along with many of my hon. Friends who represent Hertfordshire–went to see the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning. We were grateful to him for allowing us time to express our concerns, and our passionate opposition to what is proposed for the area west of Stevenage. He said that the Government had genuinely changed their policy–that they now wanted more development outside the south-east and less within it. He said that they were moving from “predict and provide” to a more flexible system, and that they would be reviewing previous predictions. All that was music to our ears; yet the Minister still insisted that the decision should not be revised or reconsidered in the light of the policy changes that he proposed.
If the Government are raising the national average target for the amount of building on recycled land from 50 to 60 per cent., that must mean scaling down plans to build on green-field sites. If the Government are to reduce the amount of building on green-field sites, where will the reductions be made? Why are the Government not beginning by axing plans to build on the green belt–particularly this most offensive and largest plan? If they are genuinely keen for less building to take place on green-field sites and more on recycled land, where will the reduction take place, and why will it not be made in the area to which I refer?
I have a further question. If more powers are being devolved to the regions and to Serplan, which now says that the requirement for houses in the south-east is less than the Government predicted, why are the regions not being given authority–indeed, encouraged–to reflect that decentralised planning decision in the way that the new planning structures were said to allow? If the Government are serious about their proposals to shift more housing development out of the south-east and up to the north, and to less populous parts of the country, why is that not yet being reflected in decisions such as that involving Hertfordshire county council? Above all, how can the Government say that the policy has changed if they will not alter the single most offensive planning decision that they have allowed: the decision to build 10,000 houses on green-belt land in my constituency?
If the Government are prepared to reverse that decision, they will gain the respect and sympathy of people not just in Hertfordshire, but throughout the country who are concerned at the damage that this decision will do to the sanctity of the green belt. If the Government are not, their credit will be zero among all those who care for the environment and believe that it can be satisfactorily maintained only if we uphold the sanctity of the green belt.