§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones.]2.35 pm
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
Order. Will hon. Members who are not staying for the Adjournment debate please leave quietly? Meanwhile, I will give the hon. Lady a bit of injury time.
§ Ms. Abbott
We have a new phenomenon—a green Prime Minister or "the green goddess" as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) calls her. Now that we have an environmentally minded Prime Minister and an environmentally conscious Government, I am confident that the case that I wish to make on a crucial environmental issue will be looked upon favourably. In the 29-acre Stoke Newington reservoir and filter beds site in my constituency we have what one might call a secret garden. My consitituency is one of the poorest areas of the country and is in one of the most built up parts of the inner city. Yet right in the middle of it we have a site the size of Regent's Park, which is an oasis—a green lung—for hundreds of thousands of people in Hackney, Haringey and Islington. Above all it serves as a green lung for thousands of my constituents who live on the huge council estate on Woodberry Down.
In addition to two large reservoirs, our secret garden contains four listed buildings, including our own castle—a pumping station built to look like a Scottish castle—and the reservoirs or man-made lakes provide a home for a host of wildlife, including 16 species of birds. Because the reservoirs are large and undisturbed—and because they do not freeze over in winter due to the movement of the water—they provide a unique home for wildlife, including smew and Bewick swans, tufted ducks, gulls and grebes, as well as a host of wild flowers and plants. Thousands of council tenants on the Woodberry Down estate overlook that secret garden and part of the complex—the New river—which goes all the way up to Hertfordshire.
Before I describe the threat to the site—our green lung—I remind the House that that expanse of water and open space is no ordinary site but has royal connections. The New river's royal connections go back to 1610, when the king bought an interest in it. From 1610 to 1954, the royal family received £500 a year from their investment in the New river. They were finally bought out for £8,234. That green space is unique-in its size, in the wildlife for which it provides a home, and in the service and pleasure that it provides for thousands of council tenants.
At this point, I make a plea to the Thames water authority to do more to allow public access to the site. We in Hackney and Islington have problems with access although there is access to the New river in Enfield, as there is in Hertfordshire. I wonder whether we in Hackney are thought so stupid that if we were allowed access to the site we might fall in and poison the water supply.
I have sketched for the benefit of the Minister the importance, significance and uniqueness of the Stoke Newington reservoir and filter bed site. Thames Water wants to destroy for profit that unique and marvellous site 1348 —that environmental treasure. Thames Water is poised to make £150 million from the development of the site—to fill in the site and squash into it no fewer than 1,100 houses, many in the form of blocks of flats, for sheer profit. Thames Water wants to destroy the site and drive away the wildlife, and thousands of my constituents will loose an environmental pleasure.
The scheme that Thames Water is bringing forward in conjunction with Countryside Properties plc refers to reserving a few units for community housing, but that community will not be our community. Single-parent mothers and people on the waiting list will not be housed in that community housing. Nobody in Hackney will be able to afford to buy or rent the bulk of the 1,100 units that Countryside Properties plc proposes. There is no question in my mind but that those flats and houses which will fetch £100,000 or £150,000 in the market, will be entirely out of the reach of ordinary people in Hackney.
The wildlife and the water on the site will be swept away. The site will be turned into a yuppie stockade in the middle of my constituency. All the possibilities of the site and all the community access to it will be lost for ever. I leave the social problems inherent in that yuppie stockade to the imagination of the House, but there will also be traffic problems and the divisiveness of creating an extremely expensive development in the middle of a poor area. What is more, the proposed development of the site endangers the New river, which has flowed for so many years.
I shall refer now to the possibilities of the site and to what the local community wants done with the site. Local people do not want it sold off to the highest bidder to make the highest possible profit for property speculators. The local community has campaigned and is campaigning for sporting facilities on the site. It would like the site to be used for angling, sailing, water sports or canoeing. I ask the Minister, with his professed interest in sport for all, to see that the site is used for some sporting purpose. I hope that he will do all that he can.
The local community would like the site to be used for sport, for nature conservation and for education. Local people believe that the site could house a garden centre or start-up workshops for small businesses. The local community has a whole range of ideas, revolving around the notions of making the site accessible to the community and maximising its potential for pleasure and education, and its usefulness. Basically however, local people want to keep it as a green lung. They want to keep the New river flowing and they want the two large reservoirs to continue in existence.
When talking about what could be done with the site, I stress that it is in the middle of a built-up area with special needs. The area in which the Stoke Newington reservoir and filter bed site is situated is one of particularly high density. Few people have back gardens. Many of the local people—as many as one in four—are unemployed. There are many elderly people and many children but a shortage of parks and of play and sporting facilities. Where there is a built-up area with so few gardens and a shortage of open air facilities, it is nothing short of criminal for Thames Water to consider, for sheer greed and profit, redeveloping the area and filling it with housing.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way as this also concerns my constituency, which is just a few yards away from the New river, the reservoirs and the filter bed site.
The borough of Islington has the smallest amount of open space of any metropolitan district in the country and values dearly the little open space that it has. The people of Islington are horrified to hear that the reservoirs, which have been a source of pleasure for many years, could be lost through a development which would be of no benefit to people on the housing waiting lists in Islington and Hackney. The filter bed site provides a unique opportunity for recreational-type development. We would be horrified if supermarkets and hypermarkets were built on it, or if the reservoirs were filled in for exclusive housing development, to which my hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention.
The people of Islington want more open space. It improves the quality of life of the people who live in a densely-populated urban area. It provides a real opportunity for their children to develop a love and an understanding of wildlife which would otherwise be denied them. We need to keep green lungs such as this.
§ Ms. Abbott
I thank my hon. Friend for his constructive intervention. In a sense, I am using Parliament as a platform on which to make a plea for several groups of people. I plead with Thames Water, and its successor authority after privatisation, to keep the New river flowing and to provide information that it has so far refused to provide about exactly how much water is needed to keep it flowing, to keep the reservoirs full and to maintain the existing level of wildlife. Although Thames Water pays lip service to keeping the New river flowing, it is not prepared to say how much water needs to flow down it to keep the wildlife there. My constituents fear that the authority will maintain only a derisory trickle of water in the river, which will result in the wildlife disappearing and the reservoirs being drained. The authority will then say, "who needs the site, anyway?" It will then get its way and develop the site for sheer profit. I plead with the authority to allow controlled access to the site. I have walked around the reservoirs. Local people—particularly children and the schools education service—should be able to have controlled access to it.
Hackney council has adopted the excellent policy of preserving the whole area as open space for recreational use, the preservation of wildlife and other environmental purposes. Despite the recent report, which undermines Hackney's wish to preserve the New river and the filter bids for environmental and leisure purposes, I am anxious that the council should stick to its policy and defend the site against greedy developers and Thames Water. The people of Hackney want the council to stick by its policies. They do not want the council to give way to pressure from developers who are not interested in the people of Hackney or Islington but only in making money.
Above all, I ask the Government to recognise the strength of local feeling, particularly the strength of feeling among people who live adjacent to the site—especially on the Woodberry Down estate.
§ Ms. Abbott
Yes. I ask the Government to respect the wishes of the people who live on estates in Islington, Hackney and Haringey. Because of its size and its environmental value, this is a unique open space in inner 1350 London. We are most anxious that the site should be preserved for environmental purposes. It is in response to local feeling that I have asked for the debate.
The site will be redundant to Thames Water's needs in 1990. The opportunity to develop the site for community use and for the benefit of ordinary people will never return if the site is covered with houses to feed the greed of developers. Hackney will lose its secret garden and it will lose the New river which flows through Hackney—our green corridor to the fields of Hertfordshire.
Are the Minister and his colleagues aware of the Thames water authority's responsibility to the New river as set out in the royal charter? There was originally a New River Company, incorporated in 1619 by the royal charter. The charter ordainsthat the said Governor and Company of the New River and their successors at all and every tyme and tymes hereafter shall well and sufficiently maintains repayre preserve and scou re the said New River and streame and all the Bankes and Bridges of and belonging to the same.That royal charter is ordained to the governor of the New River Company and its successors. We have established legally that its successor is the Thames water authority. Will the terms of that royal charter apply to any private company? If not, why not? My constituents and the ordinary people around the reservoirs argue that the royal charter puts an obligation on Thames Water to maintain and preserve the river. We want to see that obligation fulfilled by the authority at its own expense and we want the same to be done by any successor authority. I am sorry that I did not give the Minister notice of that question and I appreciate that he may wish to return to it at a later date.
The water privatisation Bill is not about water but about land, particularly in view of what may happen to the Stoke Newington reservoirs and the filter bed site. Is the Minister aware that in London alone Thames Water has sites with a book value of £1,000 million? The privatisation of Thames Water is thus a potential £1 billion bonanza for private property speculators and people who live around Thames Water sites are concerned about that potential bonanza which might occur after privatisation.
There is enormous concern about the site, and if a planning application goes to the Department we hope that the Minister will be aware of that concern. Will the Minister ensure that the obligations enshrined in the royal charter are passed on to successor authorities? We ask him to ensure that the sporting, leisure and environmental needs of the population are maintained and that water privatisation does not simply become a profit-making extraganza for property speculators who care little for the community.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) on securing time for a debate on the future of the Stoke Newington reservoirs and filter bed and on the admirable way in which she has put her case on the conservation and recreational aspects of the proposed development. I listened with care to the speech. I was unaware of the details of the royal charter obligations with which she enlightened the House, but it is my understanding that those obligations will be passed on to successor authorities. She will no doubt accept that I should like to take further advice on that to establish 1351 whether the general principles that would usually apply in such circumstances apply in this case. I will write to her in due course.
I will draw to the attention of the regional Council for Sport and Recreation the points made by both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), with regard to access not just for the enjoyment of sport but bearing in mind the important role it plays, together with councils of all political persuasions, in ensuring that there is good recreational access to open land. Any aspect of development that changes that should be a matter of concern to the regional councils. I will draw the hon. Lady's speech to the council's attention and ask it to respond directly to her.
§ Mr. Corbyn
I am sure that the Minister is aware that when open reservoir sites are used for recreation, there is often a conflict between the conservation of wildlife and the interests of sports people. This is almost a unique opportunity to separate the two. One of the reservoirs could become a sanctuary for wildlife, particularly wading birds and migratory birds, and the other could be developed as a sports facility, which is sorely needed in that part of north London. It would be welcomed if the Minister can ensure that that can happen. We should use this unique opportunity and that provided by the filter bed sites to think of the recreational and natural needs of people, rather than allow yet another potentially lovely open site to be concreted over in the interests of the developers.
§ Mr. Moynihan
I shall come to that specific site later, but I wish to answer the general critical point raised by the hon. Gentleman. Regrettably, even between recreation and conservation groups, acrimonious local discussions sometimes result in court action. I can immediately think of the problems that arise between canoeists and anglers.
I can assist the hon. Member for Islington, North on two important points. I have long held the view that the Government should bring forward a code of practice which has teeth to assist on such matters. The Water Bill will provide such a code. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome—as have hon. Members on both sides of the House—the contents of that code of practice. It is important to ensure that it bites.
In the attempt to reconcile differences among groups, I believe that more use should be made of phasing. Some areas are fortunate enough to have the use of two sites and recreational interests may be met on one and conservation interests on the other. However, in many parts of the country, people do not benefit from two sites and phasing on one site can be helpful in mitigating the problems that would otherwise occur. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman drew that point to the attention of the House.
I shall now turn to the specific points raised by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. Over the years, water authorities have, from time to time, found themselves with land holdings which they do not require for carrying out their many functions such as gathering and supplying water and treating and disposing of sewage. That regularly happens when any major industry seeks to keep abreast of technological use. It releases land for sale for development and other purposes. The Government encourage that, and it is right that they should do so.
1352 Where a development is proposed, it is, of course, the planning system which has to reconcile conflicting interests and to ensure that the use to which the land is put is proper and beneficial, and take account of the wider public interest. It is in this context that the proposed development at Stoke Newington must be seen. It is one of five reservoir sites that has been rendered redundant for water service operations as a result of the new London tunnel ring main, with which all London Members are acquainted, and is an important development of great potential benefit to water services in London.
This issue therefore comes for consideration as a natural consequence of the process of technical change in the water industry. The point that I should emphasise is that the site has not come up for development as a consequence of any aspect of our proposals for the restructuring of the water industry.
The hon. Lady has raised a number of points about our proposals for the water industry in the future. If time permits I shall comment on them later but I shall now address myself to the specific issue that she raised.
I must make it clear that I am necessarily constrained in what I say about proposals to develop the land, because I must be careful not to prejudice the considerations of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on any planning applications that he may decide to call in or that may come before him on appeal. Similarly, I am constrained from expressing any views on the London borough of Hackney's local plan, which was the subject of a public inquiry last summer.
The hon. Lady referred to the significance of a sizeable area of open land in an urban area and briefly outlined the recent history of the site and the state of play on the local plan. The London borough of Hackney deposited its local plan in June 1987. It included proposals for the Stoke Newington reservoirs and filter beds and the New river and its banks eastwards from the Green Lanes bridge to be defined for metropolitan open land purposes. I gather that the New river was included in order to secure an open space link between the east reservoir and the Finsbury park, which is designated as metropolitan open land in the Islington borough plan. I understand that at the inquiry the Thames water authority objected to the local plan on the grounds that the inclusion of the reservoir and filter beds for metropolitan open land conflicted with its proposals as the hon. Lady ably demonstrated. It had submitted planning applications for residential development of about 1,100 units with water areas, open spaces and landscaping. However the council regards the planning applications as incomplete and has asked the applicants for more information. I understand that meanwhile the council has received from local residents a number of representations about the planning applications, and the points made today back that up.
The inspector who held the public inquiry into the plan reports to Hackney council. It is for the council to consider the inspector's report and to publish it, together with the modifications it considers are appropriate. There will then be a six-week period during which objections may be made. At the end of that period the council may decide to hold an inquiry into those objections.
My right hon. Friend does of course have the power to call-in a local plan. While he may use his power to call-in a plan at any time before its adoption, he would be unlikely to do so until the planning authority has completed its consideration of objections and given firm 1353 notice of its disposition to adopt the plan. He would use this power only in a limited range of circumstances where central Government intervention was clearly justified—for example where a plan raises issues of national or regional importance or where the plan gives rise to substantial controversy. An example would be where a plan extends beyond the area of the plan-making authority.
The hon. Lady has alluded to the question of the planning authority's process, and I hope that that clarifies the position on that specific point. I believe that it is relevant to the point that the hon. Lady made, not least with regard to her argument that this is of wider than local significance in its environmental impact.
The hon. Lady has spoken about the importance of the site for wildlife and the enjoyment that people derive from it. My right hon. Friend's policy is set out in the Department's Circular 27/87. The circular emphasises to all local authorities the importance of wildlife and the need to take it into account when considering development proposals such as this. I was interested to learn whether the Secretary of State had considered the possibility of recognising this site as one of special scientific interest under the Wild Life and Countryside Act 1981. In that respect, he relies on his advisers in the Nature Conservancy Council. The hon. Lady may wish to speak to the Nature Conservancy Council about the important points she has mentioned today. As I understand it, at present the Nature Conservancy Council is not of the view that this site is of sufficient wildlife interest to merit its designation, but, as it is there specifically to consider such matters in detail, it may benefit the hon. Lady to talk to it further.
So much for the particular local planning issue, which I hope I have dealt with as fully as observance of the planning procedures allows at this stage.
I said at the beginning that if I had time I would seek to respond to the more general comments raised by the hon. Member about the development of land and the assets of the water industry. No doubt, the hon. lady will forgive me if I speak rather rapidly in responding to a number of points that she has made.
I said earlier that some water authority land is released from time to time, because it is no longer required for the industry's purpose. That is of course the case and it is important. But the key fact is that, according to the industry's estimates at present, the great majority of land is required for operational purposes and will continue to be required for those purposes.
The extent of disposals may well increase in due course, reflecting technological changes and positive management, 1354 but members would be wholly misleading themselves if they assumed that there was scope for the wholesale disposal of water industry land assets.
The fact is that it is now, and will in future be, properly protected land in the public interest. Proper protection is essential. After privatisation the new water companies, like the authorities now, will be subject to the important duties in respect of conservation, providing for public access and putting their rights to land and water to the best use for recreation.
On conservation, the Bill provides that after privatisation the companies will continue to be under a duty of further conservation in the performance of their functions. Indeed, in our water Bill the duties are strengthened by enforcement powers given to the Secretary of State, and by the code of practice which we published in draft recently.
On recreation, the Bill provides that both the private companies and the NRA will inherit the duty of the water authorities to put the water and lands to best use for recreation. That will be particularly important in relation to the companies which will inherit most of the reservoirs and land assets. But it will nevertheless apply to the NRA in respect of locks, weirs, stretches of river beds or other assets it may acquire.
In addition, the Bill places a general duty on the NRA to provide recreation on inland waters. Under this power it could for instance enter arrangements with riparian owners to facilitate recreational use of rivers; or to sponsor and support local bodies which help to manage recreational use of particular stretches of water.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasise three points. First, as I have said, there is no evidence that any great proportion of water authority land is in fact surplus to operational requirements. Secondly, the very fact that the land is released from water uses will mean that the special protective measures related to the effect of water industry operations will no longer be required. Thirdly, and most importantly, ordinary planning and environmental controls will, as I have emphasised, continue to protect the land.
All those are important factors. I have every confidence that they will be considered in detail not just by the House, in Committee on the Water Bill, but in the future, too. I undertake to consider in yet further detail the points made by the hon. Lady and if I can come back with any positive suggestions—while recognising the sensitive position I am in with regard to the Secretary of State's role on planning matters—I will do so.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Three o'clock.