Peter Lilley, MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, made an impassioned plea to Labour?s Planning Minister to clear up the legal confusion over plans to build 10,000 houses between Hitchin and Stevenage.
Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, he said: “My constituency is blighted by a plan to build 10,000 houses on prime green belt land between Hitchin and Stevenage. In a sense, every constituency with green belt land is blighted by that proposal, because it is the biggest ever proposal to build on the green belt.
“As we know, planning is based on precedent so the creation of such a precedent could threaten the integrity of green belts throughout the country. That proposal was such an important issue that it provoked a national row, which prompted the Deputy Prime Minister to come to Parliament to announce a change in his planning policies. We were told that the new policy would require counties and councils, when developing new structure plans, to establish all the brownfield sites first, before moving on to less brown or Greenfield sites, and it was hoped that that would obviate the need to build on the green belt.
“When the Deputy Prime Minister made that announcement, I welcomed it provisionally, but I said that the litmus test would be whether the new proposals were merely spin, or whether they would alter things on the ground ? whether they would influence and impinge on the proposal to build 10,000 houses in the green belt between Hitchin and Stevenage.
“Sadly, the Minister acknowledged, in subsequent correspondence, that the government did not intend that the new planning policy guidance note 3 should apply to structure plans that were already in the pipeline. However, the consequence of the change had been seen on the ground ? the Conservatives had regained control of North Hertfordshire district council and Hertfordshire county council, partly because of the reaction to the proposal among the electorate, who resented the way in which it had been rammed through by the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party on Hertfordshire country council. The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Mr George) was right to say that such matters should not be party political. Sadly, however, that was not the case in my area, where the proposal had been carried through for largely party political reasons by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, who saw advantage for themselves in building up Stevenage.
“The consequence of the change in the composition of North Hertfordshire district council was that it took legal advice from a leading Queen?s Counsel on whether PPG3 should apply to structure plans that were in the process of being determined. He ruled that, despite the government?s intention, and with specific reference to the Minister?s letter to me, the Government were misadvised and that PPG3 does apply to such structure plans which must fulfil the requirements. The structure plan in question had not fulfilled those requirements, so there was a duty to reject it, which has been done. That has created an extraordinary situation. It has cast in doubt the whole planning process established by the government, as well as what will happen in North Hertfordshire district council and Hertfordshire country council.
“I call on the Minister to clarify the position by revising and reconsidering her advice. Will she accept that if the government?s policy is right for the future, it must be right for plans that are currently in the process of being implemented? If the policy can be put into effect, thereby preventing the blight on the green belt ? not only in my constituency but, because of its precedential effect, throughout the country ? that must be in the interests of the country as well as my constituents. I call on the Minister to think again.?
The Minister refused to clarify the situation claiming that it was sub judice. Peter Lilley responded: “The Minister is playing for time. Labour Ministers issued this ambiguous guidance. They can clarify it. They could save a lot of time and money wasted on lawyers? fees by coming down on the side of the Green Belt. They won?t do so because Labour want to expand Stevenage for political reasons ? so the Minister is hiding behind this costly law case until after the election. We won?t let them get away with it?.