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The sad thing about the tenor of the debate is that there is so much consensus on the main issues, and to be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he generously alluded to the role that my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)
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have played in promoting private Members’ Bills and ten-minute Bills, and notwithstanding the efforts of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). We will hold the Government to account on their decision to instigate a review of garden grabbing. The Minister for Local Government said on 14 January in Hansard at column 768W that, following the Planning Bill, it would be undertaken and concluded shortly.

We concede that the Government have made some progress on the specific issues that Members have raised over the past few years, and that they have talked about the importance of local development plans and the issuance of supplementary planning guidance to protect gardens from overdevelopment and separate them from other types of brownfield land. It would be churlish not to support that. They also brought in PPS3 on housing in April 2007 and referred to the powers under part 2 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 in respect of local development documents. The Government’s attempt to strengthen strategic housing market assessments for local planning authorities is right, at least in theory, but as I shall make clear later, it is all very well doing that, but the reality is that planning applications are effectively decided by the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol, and under forthcoming legislation, by the regional development agencies.

Mr. Hoyle: I have two quick points. First, applications have always been decided in Bristol, and everyone already has the right to appeal on planning, whatever the planning issue is. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we take that away? It is an historic process. Secondly, does he not agree that we could always have used conservation areas to protect land?

Mr. Jackson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s second point. I was going to say that the situation is exacerbated by the new proposals in legislation that will put unprecedented planning powers and other powers into the hands of regional development agencies. I hope that he will take his customarily robust attitude towards that legislation in Committee and on the Floor of the House.

It would be wise to refer to my colleagues’ commitment to the issue. It is fair to say that the Conservative party has had a strong and principled commitment to the issue over a significant period. The hon. Gentleman referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells and his Protection of Private Gardens (Housing Development) ten-minute Bill in 2006, which sought to remove front and back gardens from the Government’s definition of brownfield sites of previous development. He made the point that if the idea of brownfield sites was to mean anything, it should be about improving the condition of our towns and villages and contributing to environmental progress, not about changing and destroying the character of areas for ever. I think that there is general cross-party agreement on that.

Andrew George: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that that change in definition took place in 1985? Would he like to put on record the Conservative party’s regret at having made that error?

Mr. Jackson: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who has strenuously denied a wish to be party political and claims merely to represent his constituents—[Interruption.]
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The point on which all parties agree is that there is insufficient local autonomy and authority for planning committees to make decisions in the best interests of their local communities. One has only to look at density and other targets effectively imposed by central Government through regional development agencies and regional spatial strategies. That is the key issue.

Andrew George: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jackson: I will make some progress and let the hon. Gentleman intervene later.

The hon. Gentleman also made some generous comments about the Opposition day debate on garden development in June 2006, during which my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden argued for the reclassification of gardens under PPS3. She made the point that very little backland garden development results in affordable housing becoming available, because such development tends to take place in larger gardens in better areas of higher value.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden argued for greater planning powers to be devolved to local councils, especially in respect of density levels, and said that powers of reclassification should be given to local councils. That would not necessarily fetter planning authorities’ discretion to decide what was best for their local areas. Reference has also been made to her Land Use (Gardens Protection etc.) Bill of February 2007, and her ten-minute Bill, the Land Use (Garden Protection) Bill of February 2008. When speaking to the latter, she made the point that PPS3 focused on new-building gardens rather than conserving existing ones, and that housing and density targets rendered PPS3, in its new incarnation, effectively meaningless when set against local community planning policies. I think that we all agree with that—there is consensus between the Conservative Front Bench and the Liberal Democrats.

It is important to consider the lack of progress made by this Government in respect of the remediation of brownfield sites. If I am a little harsh on the Liberal Democrats, as I will be shortly, it is because they are quick to complain about homelessness, lack of housing stock and other issues, but when anyone proposes development of land for residential use, they are first in the queue against it. They cannot develop any arguments more complicated than can be put on an A4 “Focus” leaflet. The Minister has great experience of those with his erstwhile opponent in Hartlepool, Jody Dunn—whatever happened to her, one may ask.

To cut to the chase on the issue of Penwith district council, the hon. Gentleman either believes in local democracy and accountability or he does not. I made the point that Penwith’s planning committee has 15 members, and only six of them are Conservatives. All of them will declare any prejudicial interest in any planning application, and none of them will vote or take part in that debate, so is he really saying that the one Labour member, three independents and five Liberal Democrats are so stupid, so unable to consider the facts in front of them and so prone to making irregular decisions that they will not seek advice from officers or do the right thing for their local community, which is what they were elected to do? I ask that for a specific reason. In a press release issued on 30 January, the hon. Member for St. Ives commented:

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He does not name the individuals, and I would suggest that his insinuation is possibly libellous, given that he knows full well that they will not be voting or speaking.

Andrew George: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the point. This is not a debate about the merits of the case, which is clearly a matter for the local planning committee. The relevance of the chairman and vice-chairman of the planning committee is simply that the residents want reassurance that the application will be considered on its merits. That is what I, as their MP, am seeking on their behalf. I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman is getting into the nitty-gritty of the make-up of the local planning committee. I agree that the matter will be determined at local authority level. What we are debating is the contrast between what the Conservatives have been saying in this Chamber and what they are doing on the ground with their headquarters and garden.

Mr. Jackson: The hon. Gentleman raised a specific planning application in this Chamber, which I would say is inappropriate. It is certainly not a campaigning issue for Liberal Democrats locally. If he wishes to discuss garden and backland development in general, he will find that there is some cross-party consensus, but he has sought to politicise the issue for his own local reasons. I am simply drawing to hon. Members’ attention the fact that he is saying—I have no reason to disbelieve him; indeed, I believe it myself—that the autonomy and authority of the local planning authority are paramount and that the elected district councils in west Cornwall will make the right decisions for their communities. I deprecate the fact that he raised the issue and has even issued press releases about it.

Andrew George: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jackson indicated assent.

Mr. Hancock (in the Chair): Order. Please make it a short intervention.

Andrew George: I will certainly do that, Mr. Hancock.

I made it clear that I did not wish to politicise this debate. In 2007, I made it clear that I was prepared to overlook the fact that there was an application for development in the back garden of the Conservative headquarters. It was because the Conservatives changed their mind, having reassured the local community, that I am quite happy to see a political element in today’s debate. That is right and proper, given what has been said in recent years.

Mr. Jackson: I will bring my remarks to a close, although I find it a bit rich being lectured on transparency and clean politics by a party that took £2 million from an impermissible donor and refuses to give it back.

Mr. Hancock (in the Chair): Order. The debate is on back garden development, Mr. Jackson.

Mr. Jackson: I accept your admonition, Mr. Hancock.

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I think the hon. Member for St. Ives and the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench team have missed an opportunity to focus on what we have worked together on, certainly since 2006. We have worked together sensibly, and he has sponsored a Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. We both believe that garden development needs to be re-examined so that we can protect gardens, and, which is more important, that there needs to be much stronger local control.

I can assure hon. Members that we have taken a principled stance. A Conservative Government will give stronger powers to local communities, and we look forward to the support of the diminished numbers of Liberal Democrats in the next Parliament. I look forward to the Minister’s remarks, and hope that he addresses the pertinent issues that have been raised today.

12.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. Although I have enjoyed today’s debate, I have, at times, felt slightly uncomfortable. Watching the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats sparring was rather akin to watching a man and wife have a fierce row.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate. He said at the start how lucky he was to secure the debate. I have to say that he seems to be incredibly successful in securing Adjournment debates. I recall responding to his debates on at least half a dozen occasions in respect of housing, planning and development. He serves his constituents extremely well and is extraordinarily knowledgeable about the situation. I also enjoyed the meeting that we had a week or two ago about second homes, which is an issue that really concerns him. I hope that we can have a follow-up meeting on that.

The issues raised today have been very well rehearsed, not least in Opposition day debates, on private Members’ Bills and during the passage of the Planning Act 2008. As has been mentioned several times, the debate is also very timely. We are shortly to make clear how we propose to begin a review of the evidence of the extent to which development of gardens is taking place. Today has been a good opportunity to hear views before we take our final decisions.

In the time that I have, I should like to do two things. First, I want to set out the existing policy and planning framework, which local authorities can deploy to restrict developments in gardens. Secondly, as I have alluded to, I want to outline our plans to review this matter to ascertain the precise nature, scale and incidence of the problem.

Let me start by talking about the existing policy framework. We have a robust planning framework in place to address so-called garden grabbing when it is considered to be a problem. The hon. Gentleman—because he is very knowledgeable about the matter—rightly put PPS3 at the heart of his argument. That guidance, which we published about two years ago, strengthened local authorities’ hand on the quality and design of their buildings and their effect on the neighbouring environment, and reinforced the need for all development to be in suitable locations. Let me cite a number of the parts of PPS3, which are very relevant to today’s debate.

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Paragraph 38 gives local planning authorities more flexibility to determine how and where new homes should be built in their area. They also have greater responsibility to ensure that the homes are built. Paragraphs 14 and 16 make it clear that local authorities can put strong emphasis on urban and green space—those very much welcomed green lungs—which includes gardens, parks and play areas. Crucially, paragraph 43 also gives local planning authorities greater powers to have particular policies in their area, such as setting out the circumstances in which the proposed development on back-garden land may or may not be permitted. If I have time, I might cite a number of local authorities that have just done that and taken advantage of PPS3.

I also want to mention annexe B of PPS3, which gives local authorities a key power. It says:

and this is the crucial bit—

In a nutshell, that demonstrates that local authorities are very much in the driving seat. Within their overall policy for the location of housing, they can decide how much reliance to place on previous residential sites, including gardens, as opposed to vacant and derelict sites.

The idea that has been hinted at today—that central Government are dictating to local authorities and telling them to consider infill on gardens—is simply wrong and misleading. As the hon. Member for St. Ives said, it is cheap party political point scoring of the lowest order, and it should be stopped. Central Government are not saying that; they are saying that local authorities have considerable autonomy and discretion to decide the plans and the framework that are suitable for their particular area.

Mr. Jackson: Will the Minister concede that, if developers are making a value judgment on where to build a new development of houses and flats, it is easier for them to take the path of least resistance and build on green belt, rather than navigate the difficulties of remediation of brownfield which, as he will know, is divided between the Treasury, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? That difficulty predisposes developers to go for greenfield sites.

Mr. Wright: I will respond to that question in two ways. First, as I was going to say, back gardens are considered brownfield, not greenfield. Secondly, we have been extraordinarily successful in the past decade in ensuring that the brownfield first policy works. I think that the hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned our target of ensuring that 60 per cent. of all new development is on brownfield sites, but as the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said, we are in the high 70s: about 76 or 77 per cent. of all new development is on those sites, so it has been a huge success.

I understand the hon. Gentleman when he talks about the line of least resistance, but all the evidence suggests that we have been successful in ensuring that previously developed land—brownfield land—is used first by developers.

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Andrew George: Notwithstanding that, does the Minister agree that if the Government followed the proposal made by the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Front-Bench spokespersons and redefined gardens as greenfield rather than brownfield, they would provide local authorities with a mechanism by which to provide greater protection for gardens?

Mr. Wright: That brings me nicely to my next point about brownfield development. However, before I refer to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)—he has a Second Reading of a private Member’s Bill on 8 May, I believe—I will give way to my hon. Friend, who wishes to intervene.

Mr. Hoyle: Does the Minister agree that money would be better spent on creating conservation areas to protect gardens rather than investing in Iceland, where Chorley has lost £2 million? The Minister may not believe this, but it is the truth: the councillor in charge of finance is Councillor Cullens, who intends to stand against me at the next election. On the one hand, he will not support conservation areas, but on the other he is happy to waste council tax payers’ money that was invested in Iceland in September. What does my hon. Friend think of that?

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I do not think that that was a point for this debate.

Mr. Wright: I am led by your direction on that, Mr. Hancock, but my hon. Friend made a strong point about conservation areas.

We had a debate in the House last night about parliamentary standards, and the idea that there is a lack of faith in our political process in this country concerns me. Certain parties, far from being do-nothing parties, say one thing when it suits them, and do another when that suits them, but that does not strengthen the political hand for any of us. Hypocrisy, which my hon. Friend’s opponent seems to be guilty of, should be avoided. It is wrong that we have such petty, small-minded, misleading and disingenuous campaigns, which the hon. Member for St. Ives highlighted.

I am sure that you want me to talk about brownfield land, Mr. Hancock, and how it could be defined. As I said, PPS3 makes it clear that the status of a site as brownfield brings no presumption that it must be developed for housing. Local planning authorities should prioritise brownfield land wherever possible, as I said, by identifying suitable sites. However, if sites cannot be identified, there is still no obligation to grant applications for development in back gardens. Local authorities can set local brownfield targets to reflect available sites, and to support and enhance the national target to build at least 60 per cent. of new homes on brownfield land. This is important in the context of what we have been debating today. Local planning authorities can set separate targets for different sorts of brownfield land, where appropriate, to give them more flexibility to shape new developments to meet the needs of their local area—including addressing the point about development in gardens where that is considered to be a local problem.

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