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Green Belt (Morley and Rothwell)

12.30 pm

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me the opportunity to raise this important local subject? The debate comes at a timely moment.

According to the latest issue of the House of Commons research paper "Social Indicators", there are now about 120,000 homeless people in England, despite the fact that there are 750,000 empty dwellings. That telling comparison confirms the old estate agents' adage, "It's all about location, location, location." That is because many such empty dwellings are in places in which people do not want to live.

I am sure that a similar pattern exists in the district covered by Leeds city council. There are many people who want to move elsewhere and there are unpopular estates. Such a shift of population, together with different lifestyles and, most importantly, the economic success of Leeds, has placed almost intolerable burdens on the green belt. That has led to parts of my constituency becoming overburdened with new housing.

I have been given figures that suggest that over one quarter of the population growth in the Leeds district over the next five years will occur in Morley and Rothwell. I suggest that much of that population will be accommodated on greenfield sites. Indeed, my rough estimate is that, because half the projected population growth in Leeds is destined for the Leeds, Central constituency and my constituency, and because Leeds, Central contains little, if any, green belt, my area seems destined to take a disproportionate hit on the green belt.

Such growth is unsustainable. The problem is not only that large, new housing estates are being built without extra infrastructure, which forces more people to drive to shops or to make other small journeys by car, but that several communities face the prospect of being joined up. I fear that, if we are not careful, small communities on the edge of the city will lose their identity entirely. There are several examples of that happening in my constituency, and further erosion of green belt must be resisted. One only needs to look at a map of Leeds to see the danger to the south of the city.

People often mix up green belt with greenfield, which is understandable. I draw the Minister's attention to a case about which we have corresponded: a planning application to build on greenfield on Haigh Moor road, West Ardsley. Plans were submitted to build houses on a field that had never been developed. However, it was adjacent to a former slaughterhouse and, decades ago, livestock were kept in the field prior to slaughter. After a few misfires, the council eventually approved a planning application for housing on that site on the ground that the land was brownfield because it had been associated with the slaughterhouse and there was a consequent, but highly unlikely, possibility that it could be used for that purpose again.

Local people have been left scratching their heads about how a green field, which had always been a green field, could be described as brownfield. It seemed to

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them—it certainly seemed to me—that the definition of brownfield had been stretched beyond reason. What if a farmer had a vegetable freezing plant of some description next to a field in which he grew peas? We all know how we like our fresh, frozen produce. Would that make such a field brownfield?

A further 30-odd houses are to spring up. I wrote to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister about the decision, which had been upheld on appeal. I asked whether the decision could be called in, in the light of decisions taken elsewhere throughout the country. I was told that the regional government office had considered the matter carefully. In what context, I wonder? Perhaps by meeting the recommendations of the regional policy guidance on housing under which Leeds city council has agreed to take a large share. I am not happy that we have a system that can produce glaring inconsistencies, and I could quote other examples from my constituency.

When inconsistency arises, it is clear that local people cannot see the transparency in planning decisions and they are the ones that must live with the consequences. It is possible that, in the wake of PPG 3, every council will want windfall sites to fall into their laps to relieve the pressures arising from brownfield capacity reviews.

Leeds city council has done an excellent job in encouraging a housing renaissance in the centre of Leeds—the population in the constituency of Leeds, Central is growing again. That is healthy and should be encouraged. It relieves pressure on the green belt, puts a brake on traffic congestion and has the potential to protect inner-city schools, for example.

The urban renaissance would be even more vibrant, however, if the Government ended the incentive of charging value added tax on brownfield but not on greenfield developments. Surely, PPG 3 demands the reversal of such a perverse incentive, but, in Treasury-speak, the matter remains "under review". The Treasury does have some useful measures, such as targeted tax credits for cleaning up contaminated land and enhanced capital allowances for the creation of flats over shops. Indeed, there are reduced VAT rates for renovating old buildings. However, somebody wanting to build new houses on sites that do not qualify is at a great disadvantage compared with somebody building on virgin land. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees with my assessment and will press the Chancellor to change the VAT rate. That would do much to assist the successful impact of PPG 3.

The Leeds unitary development plan, which was confirmed only last August after 10 years in the making, is up for review. Because of the impact of PPG 3, we will hopefully see a lot of former greenbelt land returned to that status. That is land currently classified as PAS—protected area of search. Those are often sites to which I have already alluded, which lie between villages or provide essential green lungs in developed areas. After PPG 3 and its brownfield capacity study, the council accepts that PAS sites should be returned to greenbelt status.

Local people should be able to air their views about such matters and see change happen as a result, but there has been such a top-down approach to planning in the past that we will have to wait and see. I have a high regard for the professional expertise of planners, but I sometimes wonder whether they genuinely want to open

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up their decision making to the non-qualified general public. For example, I have a paper that outlines the planner's approach in Leeds. With regard to the unitary development plan it states:

To help to limit the period for consultation, it will start just six shopping days before Christmas and is due to end on some unstated day in February. The period allowed for public engagement, excluding holidays, could last barely more than one month, in a process that goes on for 18 months. That is not good enough. Nobody wants to tear down the carefully crafted edifice of the urban development programme, but the strength of feeling about the seemingly unchecked growth of new housing developments must be addressed or the impact of PPG 3 will be blunted and Government guidance will be seen as toothless and meaningless.

I want new housing, but it must be sensitive to the needs of the people who live in and around it. I want the old buildings in my constituency to be brought back into use, and estates to be refurbished and brought back to life. On that last point, council tenants were consulted at length about the creation of ALMOs—arm's length management organisations—and whether they should have more democratic control over their areas. I urged council tenants to agree to that new approach, as I believe in local democracy. I now want there to be a similar approach to planning. We no longer live in the discredited era of predict and provide, but we must make better use of what we have. The Government's approach is right, and I expect PPG 3 to bring tangible benefits to my constituents by being fully incorporated into the UDP after proper local consultation.

12.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty) : I very much welcome the opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Challen) on this important matter, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I share his view that, in the main, Leeds city council is at the forefront of urban renaissance, and much of what it has done to secure the future and sustainability of Leeds city centre is to be praised.

Leeds, Central will, I am sure, be considerably different and better off in the future. I spent a rainy weekend there just before a particular by-election that was responsible for the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), taking his place in the House.

I shall first set out the planning framework for the protection of the green belt. The framework is well established and it applies as much to the green belt in Morley and Rothwell as it does to the rest of the country. National policy and guidance on the green belt

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is set out in planning policy guidance note 2, which was published in January 1995. Its fundamental aim, which underpins much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell said, is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. The green belt's most important attribute is its openness, but it can also assist in moving towards more sustainable patterns of development.

There are five key reasons for including land in the green belt: to stop the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas; to prevent neighbouring towns from merging with one another, which my hon. Friend mentioned; to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and to assist urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

Those aims are paramount and they take precedence over the six key objectives of the green belt, which are: to provide the urban population with opportunities for access to the open countryside; to provide opportunities for outdoor sport and outdoor recreation near urban areas; to retain attractive landscapes and to enhance landscapes near to where people live; to improve damaged and derelict land in and around towns; to secure nature conservation interests; and to retain land for agriculture, forestry and related uses. I agree with my hon. Friend that there is not much of that in Leeds, Central.

The green belt is designated in development plans in accordance with PPG 2 and regional planning guidance. The detailed boundary should be altered exceptionally only once it has been defined in an adopted local plan or UDP. To help to achieve that, local authorities must consider the need to safeguard land between the urban area and the green belt that may be required to meet longer-term development needs.

Mr. Challen : Does my hon. Friend agree that windfall sites could become significant after the introduction of PPG 3, if it puts pressure on councils actively to encourage them? Has he had many representations on that?

Mr. McNulty : To be perfectly honest, I have not, although I take the point. That is part of what we seek to address with the reform of the planning system, which also aims to tackle the time it takes some authorities to develop, deposit and get approval for their plan. If that process has taken a decade or more, as in the case of Leeds, any windfall is very sudden once the plan is adopted in the context of PPG. There will be a much sharper focus on rapidity and flexibility in developing plans and continually updating them more responsively.

I stress the importance that the Government attach to green belt policy. There are no plans to change it, and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that, since 1997, the green belt in England has increased by some 30,000 hectares. Guidance on control of development in the green belt is clearly set out in PPG 2. The presumption is against inappropriate development—inappropriate is defined as outside the curtilage of the criteria and objectives that I have already mentioned. Most

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development in the green belt is inappropriate and should not be approved except in special circumstances. Those circumstances are not defined in PPG 2, but are up to the applicant to prove. They vary from case to case.

Mr. Challen : The Council for the Protection of Rural England sent me a paper before today's debate to say that those exceptional circumstances are becoming more like the norm. Is there any way to monitor whether that is true?

Mr. McNulty : As far as I know, we monitor exceptional circumstances. I happily undertake to inform my hon. Friend of whether we do and, if so, of some exceptional circumstances from particular cases. I disagree with the CPRE view and say that, in quantity if not quality, no more exceptional circumstances are granted now than at any other stage. I shall happily write to my hon. Friend on that.

My hon. Friend will also appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details of current cases. We have exchanged correspondence on Haigh Moor road in West Ardsley. That issue is back with the authority, if not determined, and it would be inappropriate for me to refer to that or any of the numerous other sites in the Morley and Rothwell area about which my hon. Friend is concerned.

As my hon. Friend said, not all greenfield land is green belt. The protection of greenfield sites is provided for in several Government policies, in particular those relating to new housing development and PPG 3, which was published in March 2000. The Government's commitment to promoting more sustainable patterns of development will be achieved by concentrating most new housing developments in urban areas, making more efficient use of land by maximising the re-use of previously developed land, assessing the capacity of urban areas to accommodate more housing, adopting a sequential approach to the allocation of land for housing development, managing the release of housing land and reviewing existing allocations of housing land in plans and planning permissions when they come up for renewal.

The key is that the words "brownfield" and "greenfield" are essentially shorthand. Brownfield sites are previously developed land. The history of uses of a site, rather than whether it is brown and mucky, determines whether it is previously developed and therefore brownfield. That might explain the position to which my hon. Friend alluded.

The Government's national target for the additional housing to be provided by re-use of previously developed land is 60 per cent. by 2008. Success in attaining that will clearly vary from region to region. In Greater London, that figure is already some 91 per cent, and I am sure that it will be significantly over the 60 per cent. mark in parts of the urban core of Leeds. Regional planning guidance for Yorkshire and the Humber—RPG 12—sets the same target for the region for 1998–2016, and the target for Leeds at the slightly higher figure of 66 per cent., considering the preponderance of urban areas.

PPG 3 defines the previously developed land and, with associated better practice guidance, sets out how urban capacity can be assessed and how land release

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should be managed. PPG 3 and RPG provide guidance on the location of new housing developments. The search sequence should start with the re-use of previously developed land and buildings in urban areas. The presumption will be that previously developed sites should be developed before greenfield, except where previously developed sites performed so poorly in relation to the criteria in paragraph 31 of PPG 3 as to preclude their use for housing.

Of course, many plans that are not up to date are likely to include greenfield allocations. To ensure that PPG 3 policies were put into practice, we introduced a direction in October 2000, which required referral of large housing proposals on greenfield allocations to the Secretary of State if the local planning authority were minded to grant planning permission. That is a halfway house or a transition between a fully developed and deposited plan and the notion of windfall to which my hon. Friend referred. The Government are keen to ensure that where, as in Leeds, development plans do not fully accord with PPG 3, they are reviewed as quickly as possible.

I shall now consider the local planning policy for the protection of green belt and greenfield sites as set out in the Leeds UDP. After a lengthy preparation of more than 10 years, to which my hon. Friend alluded, it was adopted on 1 August 2001. The plan designates extensive areas of green belt around the built up area of the city and sets up policies for the protection of this land, including Morley and Rothwell. It also designates land as

some of which is former green belt. Those protected areas of search form a buffer between the urban area and the green belt. As my hon. Friend said, such sites exist in the Morley and Rothwell area.

Preparation of the current UDP and the public inquiry into objections pre-dated PPG 3 and, before its adoption, the Secretary of State made representations that the housing policies did not reflect PPG 3. In particular, the Secretary of State was concerned that insufficient priority had been given to re-using previously developed land in urban areas, which is my hon. Friend's anxiety, and that the plan would not provide a policy framework to bring forward the development of previously developed sites before that of greenfield sites—the sequential test in PPG 3.

In response to the Secretary of State's representations, the council modified the plan to reflect a broader commitment to follow PPG 3 principles. It was also committed to the plan's early review. It is also worth noting that if the council wanted to approve a large housing development on a greenfield allocation, the application would have to be referred to the Secretary of State under the greenfield housing direction while the UDP is being reviewed. On that basis, and in view of how long it took to prepare the plan, the Secretary of State did not intervene further in the plan's adoption.

Mr. Challen : I am not sure exactly what counts as a large-scale development—perhaps 100 or 150 houses—but large developments can occur sequentially. Another 30 houses will encroach on previously green land and, a few years later, another 30 are built. Eventually, perhaps

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over a decade, the developer's objective is met when 100 houses are in place on a site, but, because it has developed sequentially, nobody can refer to a particular right.

Mr. McNulty : I take my hon. Friend's point and I shall write to him about the number of houses that count as a large development. After 11 years on a planning committee, all this is not exactly new to me. I know that, under the current framework and policy, councils can view the piecemeal development of a larger site as a material planning consideration in any determination of whether to develop that site further.

That may not apply in every instance, or in a silly and ridiculous way, but if 30 houses on part of a site are clearly a bridgehead for subsequent development, provision is made in the framework to deal with it. When I was on the other side of the table—I am not sure whether I was or am now the poacher or the gamekeeper—we could use available policies in the context of an urban fringe such as that described by my hon. Friend.

I am pleased to hear about the speedy review of the Leeds UDP—that is good news. I am also aware that work on an urban capacity study has started, which must also be welcomed. I hope that the results of that inform the review and perhaps overcome the non-PPG 3-specific aspects of the current UDP.

I am mindful of what my hon. Friend said about the review process, and I certainly exhort Leeds, within the framework that it needs to work in, to suggest a process that engages local communities as much as possible and that works for all of Leeds. I am aware of the strength of feeling that he suggests is abundant in the city. That needs to be addressed, however narrow and limited the planning process, not only by the people of Leeds but, crucially, by their public representatives—MPs and councillors—to ensure that the review process is exploited as fully as possible, given that it has taken so long for the review to come.

I understand that it is proposed that the review will be selective and focus on issues where change is necessary—exactly those that my hon. Friend mentioned. One is housing strategy. Guidance in PPG 3, including the sequential approach to site selection, should be taken into account. The council proposes that the review will also consider the role of land designated as protected areas of search, to which I have referred. There is a possibility of returning some of that land to the green belt, but it is not for me to pre-empt the review.

I understand that, as part of the review, the council proposes to undertake an extensive, far-reaching and inclusive pre-deposit consultation programme. It says that that is planned to start this winter; it does not say that it is to start six shopping days before Christmas, but I take the point. I welcome what has been said, so long as the pre-deposit phase is followed by a wider deposit phase, and the early phase is merely the start of proper consultation and engagement. I take on board my hon. Friend's point that it is no longer sufficient for planning as a wider process and the development plan specifically to be all top-down and imposed on communities that have to live with the consequences.

Concerns were raised about VAT. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that taxation decisions are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the

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Exchequer, although the Government have reduced VAT to encourage conversions of existing property to residential dwellings and the re-use of long-term empty homes. That is part of a package that will help to make better use of existing housing stock and encourage re-use of previously developed land, but, as my hon. Friend said, the Treasury has other fiscal instruments under review. He might like to consult this month's Inside Housing for a wider view from me.

Mr. Challen : I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he has been generous with his time. I read today that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is considering a range of green taxes—not least, perhaps, on landfill—before the pre-Budget statement. Will the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister make representations on VAT?

Mr. McNulty : The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has been in extensive discussions with the Chancellor on a range of fiscal instruments that impact on it and its responsibilities.

In December 2001, we issued a Green Paper, "Planning: Delivering a Fundamental Change". We seek the earliest possible opportunity to legislate where needed. The paper recognises the need to enable local communities to be involved much more positively, including in the development plan process.

We look forward to the review of the Leeds UDP with great interest, not least in the context of how it will fully take on board all that is in PPG 3 and the sequential release and use of land, which is the crux of everything my hon. Friend said. The sequence involving brownfield and greenfield land and the green belt is crucial to the long-term future and sustainability of urban centres such as Leeds, and central to all that we are doing on future urban renaissance and the advance of such areas.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on raising these important issues. I am mindful that I have said on at least two or three occasions that I shall write to him about particular matters, and I shall ensure that I do so in the coming weeks. I exhort him to stay in touch with me about the pre-deposit consultation and the consultation on the review, so that, in the end, the people of Leeds get the UDP that they deserve to move forward.

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