§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]1.24 am
§ Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)
A matter of great concern to my Chelmsford constituents is the amount of housebuilding that is expected to take place during the next 11 years. They fear that whole swathes of greenfield sites—possibly even greenbelt land, if the Liberal Democrats have their way—in Margaretting and Battlesbridge will be concreted over and lost for ever, thus despoiling our environment.
The cause of that concern is the requirement for 69,600 houses to be built in the county of Essex and in Southend-on-Sea between 1996 and 2011. According to figures given by the Deputy Prime Minister, the total could be even higher. My constituents and I want that number to be reduced, as it is unacceptably high.
The current system for housing allocation and the computation of housing need is deeply flawed and unsatisfactory. It is based on a top-down approach—from the Government through county councils to borough and district councils—rather than on the bottom-up approach which would be a more satisfactory and sensible way of dealing with a highly contentious issue throughout the country.
Between 1996 and 2011, Essex and Southend must provide 69,600 new homes. Under the structure plan, they have been allocated throughout the county taking several factors into account—including locally generated needs; the economic potential to support further housing and population increases; and a range of environmental and planning constraints. That will have a bad impact on the town of Chelmsford in my constituency, especially as the land available for housebuilding is, in theory, restricted because the whole of an area in the southern part of the town is green belt—as is the land in Battlesbridge to the south-east of the district council area. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Dr. Clark) is extremely concerned about the impact of greenbelt changes on Battlesbridge in his constituency.
Chelmsford has been allocated the largest number of new dwellings in the area—11,950. That is wholly disproportionate and unfair for reasons that I shall outline.
First, building land available in Chelmsford is restricted by the fact that we have a significant amount of greenbelt land in the southern part of the town and in Battlesbridge. Secondly, we do not have the infrastructure to sustain the amount of housing that has already been imposed on us under the Essex county council structure plan.
Thirdly, I understand that 2,250 of the allocated dwellings are intended to meet the needs of people from outside the borough. Apparently that is because Chelmsfordhas a strategic role to play in relieving south Essex of housing pressures because of its close proximity to this area.I bitterly resent that. We are being made a dumping ground to meet the housing requirements of other people in the county. Indeed, I understand that one district authority has been allocated no extra housing.
Instead of trying to offload south Essex housing pressures on to Chelmsford, why not put the 2,250 houses—or some of them—in the Thames gateway? 881 As infrastructure improvements have already been carried out in that area and more are proposed, it is better suited to meet the Government's wider sustainability goals and objectives. Furthermore, the Thames gateway is nearer to that southern part of the county in which housing pressures are so great that Chelmsford is expected to bear them. I urge the Minister and the Government to ensure that the final guidance reflects the potential of the Thames gateway by ensuring that it takes higher levels of housing provision to stop Chelmsford having to shoulder the burden,
Fourthly, the Government have stated that 60 per cent. of the buildings should be on brownfield sites, and I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments and that policy decision by the Government. However, as I pointed out to the Deputy Prime Minister on 7 March, Chelmsford does not have enough brownfield sites to take 60 per cent. of the new buildings. When account is taken of the homes built since April 1996 and the housing land available at April 1999, the number of extra dwellings needed in Chelmsford before 2011 will be about 7,700. However, most of the brownfield sites have already been used or earmarked for redevelopment.
The Deputy Prime Minister extremely helpfully recognised the problem when, in answer to my question, he said:The 60 per cent. brownfield site that we have agreed is a national figure and will vary from area to area. In London it could be as much as 80 per cent., but areas outside London—such as Chelmsford—do not have that proportion of brownfield site available. That is why we have set a national figure.—[Official Report, 7 March 2000; Vol. 345, c. 880.]That answer suggested to me that he intends to use the 60 per cent. figure as a flexible guideline.
If that is a correct assumption of how the Government will implement the policy, I urge them to intervene to implement it as quickly as possible so that we can start reallocating on a national average basis to take into account those areas that have more brownfield sites than others. If we do not take such a course of action sooner rather than later, district councils will have to plan for and implement the housing allocation numbers that they have been given. The flexibility that the Deputy Prime Minister envisaged will pass them by, because it will be too late. I urge speed in trying to put the flexible system into place.
Finally, I come to the question of what Chelmsford borough council seeks to do in allocating the 11,900 houses that it must find room for within its boundaries unless the figures are revised downwards, as I desperately hope that they will be in the not too distant future. I certainly do not envy the council or its planning department. They will have to try to find reasonable sites in which to place that housing. That will be difficult for the reasons that I have mentioned—the lack of brownfield land and the complication caused by the fact that greenbelt land lies within the council's boundaries.
I have been surprised by some of the ways in which the Liberal Democrat-controlled council have come up with recommendations. To be fair, I accept that the recommendations are for consultation and that no decisions have been made. I also accept that it would place the Minister in an invidious and impossible position 882 if I were to ask her to make any decisions on the suggestions that have been put forward. She is not able to do that. Decisions on greenbelt land may ultimately come before her and her colleagues, so she cannot compromise her position.
In May last year, the whole council came up for re-election. The Liberal Democrats, who formed the majority before the elections, fought them on a pledge to the people of Chelmsford that, if they were re-elected to power, they would increase the southern band of the green belt in Chelmsford the whole way round the limits of the town in order to seek to prevent housebuilding in our suburbs. I could quite happily have signed up to and supported that policy, which is the one that the Liberal Democrats fought the election on.
The Conservative party did significantly well by noticeably increasing its number of borough councillors and the Liberal Democrats lost overall control of the council. However, within four months of the election, they suddenly announced to the people of Chelmsford, out of the blue, that it was not possible to implement such a policy. It surprised me that they could not find that out before the election, but they did not.
It could be assumed from that that the Liberal Democrats are deeply committed to the green belt, but their consultation document that has gone out for the people of Chelmsford to respond to—it deals with where the housing should go—refers to the village of Margaretting, to the amazement of my constituents, and to the considerable anger of most of them. Margaretting, which is to the south of Chelmsford, has no transport infrastructure worth talking about except that the A12 rather noisily passes by it. It has no education infrastructure apart from a very good primary school and, with a population of about 800, it has very few houses. It is entirely within greenbelt land. However, the preferred option of the Liberal Democrats is to have 2,500 houses placed in the village.
The villagers of Margaretting are outraged, as is anyone in Chelmsford who cares for our environment. If the borough council, in the light of its consultation, is to disregard the representations that it receives and press forward with the proposal, I can assure the Minister that I will be knocking on her door with many of my constituents to try to ensure that the Government do not relax the green belt in that part of Chelmsford.
There is a problem in the north-east of the town. The proposals that have gone out for consultation contain the idea that north of the Boreham interchange there will be an additional 1,000 dwellings. In the village of Boreham, or on the outskirts, between 1,500 and 2,100 dwellings could be placed.
Boreham is a relatively small village and local community. To impose suddenly such a significant amount of housing upon it would destroy the nature and character of the village. With the possibility of 1,000 houses north of the Boreham interchange, the village—it is about three or four miles from the outskirts of Chelmsford—could become a suburb of the town, which is not acceptable.
These examples demonstrate the difficulties caused by placing a significant amount of housing in a relatively small geographical area. The county council should certainly reconsider the way in which it has carved up the county, giving Chelmsford the largest proportion of 883 additional houses when that is unwarranted, unrealistic and unsustainable. The preferred option of Margaretting in the borough council's consultation document is unacceptable. I do not accept that what it is planning for Boreham and other parts of the borough is the most sensible way of proceeding.
I would hope that, even at this stage, we could see a reduction in the number of houses that the county is expected to have built between now and the year 2011. We do not want our environment to be destroyed by the bulldozer, the brick and concrete. We want our villages to remain villages and our green belt to remain green belt. We want our open spaces and countryside to be just that, rather than a mass of urban sprawl.
§ Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on obtaining the debate on an issue that is of enormous concern both to his and my constituents in Chelmsford. I thank him for allowing me to make a brief contribution to his debate.
I do not want to repeat the arguments that he has advanced so powerfully and cogently. I merely say that I strongly endorse everything that he has said. He has spelled out some of the history of the proposal for considerable extra development in Essex, especially in Chelmsford. Suffice it for me to add that the original target contained in the Serplan—south-east regional planning committee—recommendation that Essex should take almost an extra 4,200 houses every year was regarded by many people in the county as far too high, and the new target of 5,420 new houses each year, which the county has been given as a result of the Deputy Prime Minister's actions, is impossible to achieve. I do not believe that the county infrastructure is capable of sustaining such a level of development, so I strongly urge Ministers to think again.
My hon. Friend and I are principally concerned about the extra housing that is to be built in and around Chelmsford—the borough council has been told that it is required to find space for 7,700 new properties. The three preferred locations identified in the plan lie outside my constituency, but several of the others mentioned lie in my constituency—one in Galleywood, one in Great Baddow and one just north of Sandon—and all have substantial drawbacks, as is made clear in the borough council's document. However, my real concern is less about the specific locations under discussion within the borough of Chelmsford than about the principle involved, because, whatever the location, so much extra housing will place intolerable strain on our local infrastructure.
Our area has already had a huge amount of development in recent years. As a result, schools are at capacity: two secondary schools in my constituency are full and are turning away parents who want to send their children there. Waiting lists for hospitals in north Essex are lengthening. As my hon. Friend knows only too well, north Essex has the worst waiting times in the whole country, and those times have lengthened dramatically in the past three years.
The road system is already clogged, with the A12—the main route between Chelmsford and London—often at a standstill. The water supply is under tremendous strain; although, given the rainfall of the past few weeks, it might 884 not be immediately apparent, Essex has been one of the driest counties—if not the driest county—in England, and the Essex and Suffolk water company is having considerable difficulty meeting existing demand. In addition, it is already proving difficult to find sufficient space to dispose of the waste generated in the county. None of those problems have apparently been considered by those who have made the proposal, yet all will be made far worse if the proposal goes ahead.
My message to the Minister is: think again. Such a large amount of housing will cause havoc in the county, especially in the borough of Chelmsford. I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks and urge the Minister to look at the matter afresh.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on securing this debate, in which he has expressed concern about the additional housing that Chelmsford will have to accommodate in the next few years.
For our part, the Government are keen to ensure that, in acting to meet the need for housing, the local planning authority adheres to our policies on housing provision. However, it is important to remember that the planning system is designed so that once the overall scale and distribution has been determined through regional planning guidance and the county structure plan—about which both the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) are concerned—decisions on the precise location of development have to be taken locally. I shall speak later about the procedure governing that decision, but I am sure that both hon. Gentlemen would agree that it must be for the people of Chelmsford to make their views known and for Chelmsford borough council to take account of those views and justify its proposals through the local plan process. I shall say a little more later about the policies that must be observed. I hope that that will be helpful.
On the main point made by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford, I do not accept that a top-down process is involved in overall allocations through RPG, and there is a requirement for distribution decisions to be taken at local level.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the council has embarked on a review of the current borough local plan, which expires next year. The new plan will need to include policies and proposals for accommodating the significant amount of new development required in the borough up to 2011, as he said. In preparing the new plan, the council must ensure that it conforms with the replacement structure plan which is simultaneously being prepared by the county council and Southend-on-Sea borough council.
Clearly, the replacement structure plan has major land use implications for the borough, particularly in relation to new housing and employment use. It was the subject of an examination in public last summer and, as a result of that process, Chelmsford borough's share of the overall amount of housing judged to be needed will be 11,650, which is 300 fewer than the number identified by the panel. I am informed that 9,200 of those houses are 885 required to meet locally determined need. The hon. Gentleman implicitly acknowledged that by saying that the remaining 2,450 houses were in addition to locally determined need.
Chelmsford borough council must now decide, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, where in the borough those 11,650 new dwellings should be located. The council must reach that decision in conjunction with local people, taking into account local views and national policy.
On the hon. Gentleman's point about the 2,450 houses, the county as a whole, and perhaps Chelmsford as well, needs key workers from outside. Therefore, the argument that Chelmsford should meet only its locally determined need cannot necessarily be sustained.
I return to the point about policy, on which I hope to be helpful. We will expect Chelmsford borough council, in deciding where the new dwellings should be built, to have regard to the policies on the location of new housing and the form of residential development that are included in the emerging replacement structure plan. Those policies must in turn reflect PPG3, about which there has recently been much discussion in the House.
A particular requirement of PPG3 is that a sequential approach be adopted to the identification of housing sites, so as to deliver brownfield land for development before greenfield sites. That means that the council must seek to maximise the use of brownfield sites, previously occupied buildings, and so on. I note the hon. Gentleman's reference to the Deputy Prime Minister's response to him, which I believe he has interpreted correctly, so it may provide some comfort.
I realise that Chelmsford probably cannot meet the target of 60 per cent. development on brownfield sites. In cases where not all development in urban areas can take place on brownfield or previously developed sites, as PPG3 requires, the Government look to local planning authorities to find the most sustainable option.
There are priorities governing the way in which the sequential approach should be applied. The most sustainable option is likely to be planned extensions or peripheral development on the edge of existing large urban areas, especially where it is possible to utilise existing physical and social infrastructure, good access to public transport, shops, jobs, leisure facilities, and so on.
That is the first priority. The policy on the sequential approach in the replacement plan also states that where new housing cannot be provided within or on the periphery of large urban areas it should be provided in the form of expanded settlements. These should be large enough to provide a range of employment, shopping, educational and other community facilities, with a capability for providing a choice of means of transport.
The plan also allows for small-scale housing to be provided in small towns and villages, in line with policy, on a scale sufficient to meet local needs. So in terms of 886 overall housing provision only a limited amount of housing can normally be expected to be accommodated in expanding villages, although the Government are concerned that there should be adequate housing provision in rural areas to meet the needs of local people, and we expect Chelmsford borough council to make sufficient land available either within or adjoining villages to enable local requirements to be met.
There is clearly set out in policy a priority order of application of the sequential approach. Indeed, the document produced by the council acknowledges that sequence of priorities on page 6, although, for reasons that it argues, its proposals do not necessarily conform to it at this stage. But the council may have a valid argument about that, and I am in no way making any judgment.
In recent months, Chelmsford borough council has been consulting residents about the land use planning issues that need to be covered in its local plan. In particular, the council has published a report containing a number of options and stating a preference. The important point to recognise is that, in taking that process forward and in going through the various stages of consultation, the council will be required to demonstrate the reasons for its preferences, and particularly how far it has been able to adopt the sequential approach, as I have outlined it and as policy in terms of the priority stages of that approach would require.
The onus is on the council to justify its proposed housing policies through the local plan process. The council has made it clear, as it is required to, that, at this stage, it is only seeking comments on the possible choices put forward, and not all the locations suggested might be developed.
The next stage is for the council to place on deposit a draft version of the new plan, which will be open to formal objection. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, when that happens, the Secretary of State will look closely at the extent to which the proposals are in conformity with all our national planning policies, including those on housing.
After a second draft deposit stage, about four months later, outstanding objections to the plan will be considered before an independent inspector at a local public inquiry, probably late next year or early the year after. It is at the inquiry, in particular, that the merits of the council's proposals will be thoroughly examined and the sustainability of the options for locating new housing, tested against the Government's policies in PPG3, will be examined alongside the views of objectors.
I hope that I have clarified the detail of the policy for the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that he will be assisting his constituents to make their views known at the appropriate time, and I assure him that the Secretary of State will also give the matter careful consideration, if and when it comes to him.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Two o'clock.