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Andrew Mitchell leads Parliamentary debate on Royal Sutton Coldfield’s green belt


Andrew Mitchell leads an Adjournment Debate in Parliament on the threat to Royal Sutton Coldfield’s green belt by Birmingham City Council’s proposals to build 6,000 houses. (Photo: Parliamentlive.tv)

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I am most grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting me this debate on a matter of great importance to my constituents. My constituents will note and be honoured that you are in the Chair for this important debate.

The extraordinary and hugely controversial proposal to build 6,000 houses on Royal Sutton Coldfield’s green belt is as obnoxious to my constituents as it is unnecessary in the context of the overall Birmingham development plan. No comprehensive case has been made for this destruction of our green belt, and officials from Birmingham City Council have relied upon inertia and a feeling that resistance is futile as the best means of pursuing these ill-thought-through proposals. Nor, as the Minister will know, is this happening only in Royal Sutton Coldfield. Labour councils are pursuing similar ill-conceived proposals in Conservative constituencies outside Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham as well as outside Birmingham, in my constituency.

The people in Sutton Coldfield have spoken out in their thousands and are confident in the Government’s commitment to true localism, and in the fact that these plans run counter to the national planning policy framework as the Minister for Housing and Planning himself has confirmed in his statements about the green belt.

We have approached our various different community campaigns in Sutton with some confidence and a modest record of success. We fought the Boundary Commission’s plans to dismember our ancient royal town and ultimately secured for Sutton Coldfield one of the very few changes the Boundary Commission made in its national proposals anywhere in the country. We fought to reassert our royal status and thanks to the support of many, and most particularly the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr Clark), we successfully concluded this campaign here in Parliament on 12 June 2014.

Local campaigners fought successfully for our royal town council, which although not yet in perfect form will be set up before May this year. We also fought the disgraceful and destructive Labour Prescott law, which allowed in-filling and back-garden development in our royal town to be treated as brownfield land—something that the coalition Government mercifully overturned as soon as they were elected in 2010, not least following Sutton Coldfield’s trenchant campaign.

I must make it clear at this point, however, that we in Sutton Coldfield are not proponents of nimbyism. We fully understand and actively support the view that more homes must be built if future generations are to enjoy the housing opportunities that our generation has enjoyed. That is why Sutton Coldfield councillors have consistently accepted planning applications that have increased the density of housing in Sutton, most recently in the context of the vexed issue of Brassington Avenue. Indeed, we accept that were Aston Martin to choose to come to Peddimore in my constituency—which we ardently hope it will—development would take place in area D of the green belt under the current plan. We have always said that if area D were needed for economic development that would provide jobs and employment for the future, we would accept it in the greater local interest.

Equally, our green belt in Sutton Coldfield was bequeathed to us by past generations, and we should think with extraordinary care before allowing it to disappear forever under bricks and mortar. Once built on, it can never be restored for future generations. The Minister will also note that the west midlands region has less green belt than any other region of the country.

Wendy Morton (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con) rose—

Mr Mitchell: I happily give way to my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour.

Wendy Morton: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and, indeed, constituency neighbour. Is not the green belt an integral part of the beauty of our neighbouring constituencies and of all that they comprise? I know, and he knows, how much it is valued by our communities.

Mr Mitchell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Throughout our campaign, there have been significant campaigning events and marches over the green belt involving hundreds of my constituents. Indeed, I have addressed meetings attended by more than 1,000 people in my constituency. Royal Sutton’s Conservative councillors have campaigned vigorously against Birmingham’s proposals. I pay particular tribute to Project Fields, led so brilliantly by a local campaigner, Suzanne Webb, and to the three councillors in New Hall whose constituents are most directly affected by these proposals, Councillors Yip, Wood and Barrie. More than 6,000 people from our town have written directly opposing the proposals; all have been ignored. Consultation processes held in holiday periods, and ill-considered comments by Labour councillors that it was all “a done deal” and protest was futile, did nothing to deter the sense of local anger and injustice.

This campaigning of ours is localism writ large. It is the “big society” made flesh. However, my constituents have been wilfully ignored by council officials—ever courteous, of course—as officials have been dispatched to inform us of their political masters’ decisions rather than consulting us, and to advise us that resistance is hopeless as this Labour-inspired juggernaut bears down upon us all in Sutton Coldfield. We have been very constructive in advancing alternative ideas, propositions and compromises, none of which has even received the courtesy of a serious response.

There are huge opportunities to maximise brownfield sites in Birmingham, and examples, too, of how to build new and fulfilling inner-city communities featuring proper infrastructure and opportunity. Such developments could make a significant contribution to Birmingham in its emerging role as a key element of the midlands engine. There are between 40,000 and 50,000 existing brownfield opportunities in Birmingham, but alas, my calls for an independent audit of brownfield land in Birmingham fell on deaf Labour ears. There are also new areas covered by the local enterprise partnership which seek house building as part of their strategy for economic growth and new jobs, but again no comprehensive audit has been carried out. There is an enormous opportunity to build as many as 8,300 homes at Brookhay—more than the entire number with which our green belt in Sutton is threatened.

Most important of all, I have put forward a compromise proposal that there should be a moratorium of between eight and 10 years while the rest of Birmingham City Council’s building plans take shape before there is any question of building on our green belt in Sutton Coldfield. That will allow us to take account of updated figures and up-to-date developments, not least the inward immigration figures for Birmingham, which, each time they are examined, vary by a multiple of the 6,000 homes with which we are threatened. This compromise proposal will allow for further consultation in 2023 based on updated figures for housing needs throughout the wider area. That might arm officials in Birmingham with serious and credible arguments for building on the green belt, but such arguments are wholly absent today.

Royal Sutton Coldfield is an ancient royal town with more than 1,000 proud years of history, and the sheer scale of the proposed destruction of our green belt is not easy to describe.

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): My right hon. Friend is showing himself to be a strong advocate for his constituents and his community. I am disturbed by what I have heard in his speech but I am not surprised. Does he agree that these plans add fuel to the fire in regard to his proposal to break the city of Birmingham up into its constituent parts?

Mr Mitchell: That is perhaps a debate for another day, but I agree with my hon. Friend. He understands why such a proposal could make a considerable contribution to good local governance.

As I was saying, the sheer scale of the proposed destruction of our green belt is not easy to describe. The imposition of a colossal 6,000 homes adjacent to our town would be impossible for us to absorb. It would be a wholly inedible Labour dump of concrete, which would change forever the character of Sutton Coldfield and have huge infrastructure consequences, which have barely received the slightest official attention. For example, our local hospitals, which would undoubtedly be affected by these monstrous proposals, have not even been consulted on the plans. The effects on schools, healthcare and other amenities have hardly been considered, and the huge implications of the strain that would be imposed on our transportation systems, alongside the knock-on effect on other communities, are barely understood, let alone addressed.

The people of Sutton Coldfield have cried out against these proposals with an articulate, unanimous and mighty voice, and the Government have a commitment to hear them. We demand that the Government step in to resist these plans. We offer our compromise proposal for an eight-year moratorium on this aspect of the overall plan, and we do so in a spirit of good will for the sake our town and of future generations. We fully understand the importance of building more homes for the future, but those homes must be built in the right place. We ask the Minister and the Government to heed our cry today, and we ask the Government to accept the case that we have made and to take the necessary action forthwith.

6.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (James Wharton): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on securing this debate. I also note the presence in the Chamber of my hon. Friends the Members for Solihull (Julian Knight) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), which underlines the importance with which this matter is viewed. My right hon. Friend has painted a picture with a clarity that is rarely demonstrated to such effect in debates in this place, in describing his concerns and those of his constituents. The fact that we are having this debate tonight, that he has covered so many topics and that he has spoken so clearly and forcefully on the matter serves to underline the importance of the issue locally and the importance that the Government must attach to it in considering his concerns.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s strong campaigning for the interests of the royal town of Sutton Coldfield and of his constituents, and I note his clear concern that the nearby green belt should not be lost to housing development unnecessarily or needlessly. May I take this opportunity also to wish success to the new royal town council, due to be established later this year? As we again emphasised in the run-up to last year’s general election, this Government attach great importance to the green belt. It is the way to prevent the uncontrolled sprawl of conurbations, and the unwanted merging of towns and villages proud of their special, separate identity. At the same time, as my right hon. Friend recognises, we need to build new homes as well as making full use of existing dwellings and other buildings suitable for residential use. Our national planning policy framework makes it clear that local authorities should heed its safeguards for the environment. Strong restraints and protections are in place.

About 40% of England is protected against development by designations such as green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks. Since 2010, we have made significant progress in speeding up and simplifying the planning system, building the homes this country needs while protecting valued countryside and our historic environment.

We issued additional guidance in 2014 to remind local authorities—and indeed planning inspectors—that, in planning to meet objectively assessed local housing needs, they must still have regard to national policies such as those protecting the green belt. My right hon. Friend will appreciate that Ministers cannot comment on draft local plans that are still before the appointed inspector, but in response to his speech I would make the following general comments.

First, on housing, it is widely accepted that England has built too few homes for many years. The pace of housing development was bureaucratic and slow. This drove up prices and rents, and regional strategies imposed central Government targets. Our reforms are now delivering a substantial increase in housing provision: over 639,000 new homes built since April 2010; over 135,000 housing completions in the year to September 2015; planning permission for 242,000 homes granted in the year to June 2015, up 44% on the previous year; and the widening of permitted development to allow better use of existing buildings, which has allowed thousands of office-to-residential conversions.

The success of our reforms depends on getting up-to-date local plans in place. That includes assembling robust and objective evidence of housing needs in each area. So our framework asks each local authority to prepare a strategic housing market assessment to assess its full housing needs.

Julian Knight: My hon. Friend the Minister is making a powerful case in terms of the success of this Government’s housing policy, but will he also think upon the fact that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said, Birmingham council has not even consulted the local hospital trust, which covers hospitals in my constituency as well? That trust, the Heart of England trust, is currently suffering severe financial difficulties, and this measure may well add to them. Surely that shows that the local plan was inept?

James Wharton: My hon. Friend tempts me to repeat what I said earlier about not wanting to comment on individual plans, but there is a process through which they need to be considered. His views are very important as part of that process. He is articulating them clearly and I am sure they will be heard not just by me and all of us present in the Chamber for this debate, but much wider than that.

Mr Mitchell: Of course the Minister cannot comment on the substance of what our hon. Friend has said, but I am sure he will agree that, were it to be the case that the hospitals, already very challenged, had not even been consulted by the authority, that would indeed be very remiss and would suggest that the full duty had not been exercised by the local authority and planning inspector in their researches.

James Wharton: Articulate and nimble in his use of language as my right hon. Friend is, he tempts me to go further than I am going to on the specifics, but he makes a very important point with which I can agree in the general. Where a local body charged with delivering a public service, particularly one as important as health, has a strong view, that view should of course be made known and be part of any consultation and consideration, and if it is a view that has a particular planning impact, it should be considered as part of that process. My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull have made their concerns in that area very clear and I will take that away from this debate, along with much else that has been said.

We expect local authorities to prepare strategic housing land availability assessments. In so doing, they have to take account of any planning constraints that indicate that development should be restricted and which may restrain the ability of an authority to meet its need. One of those constraints is the green belt.

The Government continue to attach great importance to green-belt land, which covers 13% of England—a level that has remained constant for many years now. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills eloquently set out the importance that her constituents attach to green-belt land, the difference that it makes to communities and how it makes the constituencies of my right hon. and hon. Friends such special places. I welcome her helpful contribution.

Our national planning policy framework is clear that a green-belt boundary can be altered only in exceptional circumstances after local consultation, using the local plan process. That should concentrate the minds of local authorities on ensuring that any brownfield land is put to good use first.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the unidentified number of brownfield sites that are likely to be found in Birmingham. From the outset, the NPPF has been clear that local authorities should encourage redevelopment on brownfield land. Our supporting guidance also advises that local plan policies should reflect the desirability of reusing brownfield land. If desired locally, a local authority can propose for adoption in the local plan its own policy to increase the take-up and prioritisation of brownfield sites. Under our plan-led system, that could be very influential locally.

Following the general election, we made the major commitment to ensure that 90% of brownfield land suitable for housing will have planning permissions for new homes in place by 2020. My right hon. Friend is right to underline the need to find out where any suitable redevelopment sites are and to study the reasons if a potentially useful site is not currently available. The Minister for Housing and Planning is keen to work with areas to develop those too. Brownfield sites differ greatly and local authorities are in a good place to assess their suitability, viability and availability, and that is something that they should do. That is why we are introducing the requirement for local authorities to compile registers of suitable, viable and available brownfield land.

This Government, while stressing the major contribution that brownfield sites can make, are clear about the priority: getting a local plan in place. Indeed, in areas where no local plan has been produced by early 2017, we have said that we will intervene to arrange for the plan to be written, in consultation with local people. That drive to complete the modernisation of the plan-led system, with all its implications for securing sustainable growth and meeting the need for homes, is a top-level commitment, which was reaffirmed when we were re-elected.

Birmingham began to review its 2005 plan in 2007, and recommenced after we abolished the top-down regional housing targets, and brought in the streamlined locally led NPPF. The current draft plan was submitted in July 2014. I note my right hon. Friend’s comments and concerns and his hope that the plan can be stopped. The Secretary of State though found it appropriate to appoint an independent person to examine Birmingham’s plan on his behalf, with power to call for more or better evidence if necessary, and to delay a decision if that proved essential.

Inspectors have a vital role in scrutinising plans impartially and publicly to ensure that they are legally compliant and sound. Only in very rare circumstances will Ministers intervene in the process. A plan will be found sound only if it is properly prepared, justified, effective and consistent with national policy in the framework. If the plan contains proposals to adjust a green-belt boundary—as here—it must demonstrate exceptional circumstances, and I hope that this debate will make it clear to Birmingham that local people want to see brownfield first, as national policy supports.

Assuming that a local plan will eventually be adopted, in whatever form it takes, may I remind hon. Members and their constituents that that does not give anyone planning permission? The plan reflects the current best estimate of how much development needs to take place, if a particular level of need is to be met. Moreover, the people of Sutton Coldfield would still have their statutory opportunities to comment and criticise whenever a planning application is made. Even if land is allocated in a local plan, planning applications can still be refused permission in response to evidenced and well-argued objections,

I can tell my right hon. Friend that the Government have heard his case loud and clear, and I would expect others with an interest in this process to have heard the comments that I and my hon. and right hon. Friends have made this evening loud and clear as well. I recognise the importance of this matter, the quality of the well-considered contributions that have been made, and I hope that, at the end of this process, we will reach a place that pleases rather more people than appears to be the case at present.

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