Here follows a debate in the House of Commons between Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury MP), Martin Horwood (Cheltenham MP) and Ian Wright (Hartlepool MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government) on the implications of building in the area to the NW of Cheltenham which is proposed in the South West Regional Spatial Strategy. Some good points are raised on flooding, whether houses might not be built in places that really need them, the consultation in the changes to the RSS and how the quasi-judicial nature of the RSS blocks the normal democratic processes.

Hansard 7 May 2008 : Column 816
South West Regional Spatial Strategy
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Watts.]
8.58 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I am pleased to have secured this debate. I am very grateful to the Minister for staying behind to reply, particularly as we did not know what time it would be when we got to this stage.
The subject of this debate—the implications for Tewkesbury of the south west regional spatial strategy—is especially important. Not only do we have green belt, green fields and beautiful areas in my constituency that we wish to protect, but, as the world knows, we have a problem with flooding. I say “as the world knows” because it is true. On recent trips to three countries in the far east and four countries in the Caribbean, my constituency of Tewkesbury was known about for the wrong reason—the terrible floods of July 2007. It is worth remembering that as a result of those floods, three people lost their lives and thousands had their homes and businesses flooded. Hundreds of thousands lost mains water supplies—some for up to three weeks—and power supplies were affected. The effects of the July 2007 floods remain with us. Even now, almost 10 months on, approximately 385 households in my constituency are still displaced from their homes, and some are probably still months from returning to them. Business in certain parts of my constituency remains depressed.
I have held two Adjournment debates on flooding and on each occasion—and on many other occasions—I have said the following. People in my constituency accept that living at the confluence of two rivers means that the area will flood every so often. Fields in the area flood a number of times each year. Although we all accept that the rainfall of 20 July 2007 was exceptional, we believe that certain factors made the flooding worse than it needed to be. One factor was the poor maintenance of the culverts, sewers, drains, ditches and waterways, but the other factor was that too many houses have been built in flood risk areas. People accept that the area will flood, but the one overriding message that people give to me, which they want me to pass on to the Minister, is that we should not be making the situation any worse than it needs to be. We should mitigate, rather than escalate, the problem. Imagine, then, the disappointment and anger at the contents of the regional spatial strategy, which proposes the building of thousands of houses in my constituency, in areas that have to be classed as at risk of flooding.
Before I go any further, let me state what should be the obvious. This is not just a matter of whether the new houses flood. Houses built in the wrong place take up field space that would otherwise have soaked up water, thereby preventing that water from resting on those fields. Water will be sent into other areas, causing terrible flooding. In other words, the run-off of water from one development causes other developments to flood. That fact should be obvious, but certain people just focus on whether the new houses flood. That is missing the point, either deliberately or otherwise. Those people also state that houses built in those areas should be flood-resilient. Again, that is missing the point, because the presence of these houses causes
other houses to flood. It is my submission, therefore, that to build thousands of houses in or around my constituency would be madness. What further evidence, other than three deaths, people still being out of their homes and business still being flat 10 months on, do those taking the decisions need to persuade them to build houses elsewhere?
In the RSS, the required number of houses for the whole housing market area is about 56,400, with 23 per cent. of these—a total of 13,100—proposed for the Tewkesbury district. If we want to talk about constituency boundaries, 27.7 per cent.—15,600 houses—would be within my constituency, much of which is a flood risk area. If we analyse those figures, we see that the RSS proposes the building of many houses at Longford and Innsworth, close to the Walham power station, which, as everyone knows, almost went under during the 2007 floods. If the water had risen much higher at that power station, hundreds of thousands of people would have lost their mains power supply, and that was almost the case. If that area is not at risk of flooding, what is? How can it make sense to propose to build houses in such an area?
Houses also flooded in Bishop’s Cleeve, but the RSS proposes the building of thousands of houses close to that village. Uckington floods, and flood alleviation schemes are being built to contain the River Chelt in that area. Yet again, thousands of houses are being proposed for that area, and 2,900 houses are proposed for the rest of the Tewkesbury district. From conversations that I have held with planners, it appears that those houses might have to be built close to Tewkesbury town, which was badly affected only last year, and remains so. No one can forget the television images of the town surrounded by water.
The evidence of the problems of excessive building is already there for all to see. For example, in Bredon road in Tewkesbury, houses in the process of being built flooded, and houses that were built in Noverton lane worsened the flooding in the village of Prestbury, where in June—never mind July—houses flooded for the first time in people’s 40-year memories. They flooded again in July of course, and the streets became like rivers. Who can say that those extra houses did not worsen matters?
The Government often say that they have strengthened the case against building in flood risk areas through planning policy statement 25. However, a glance at that document, which was published in December 2006—months before the terrible floods in 2007—shows that the guidance on building outside flood risk areas is qualified by “wider sustainability objectives”. The “exceptional test” allows building in flood risk areas.
So what is the principle that underpins PPS25? Is it avoiding inappropriate development in flood risk areas or ensuring that housing targets are met? In other words, the exceptional test undermines the principle of the whole document and disregards the dangers and major disruptions experienced by people who live in flood risk areas.
As Sir Michael Pitt says in his interim report:
“Some respondents felt that the introduction of this test could be interpreted as a get-out clause for local authorities”—

or, in this case, the RSS. Crucially, he continues:

A decision to permit development should not be taken lightly by the planning authority, not least because a prospective purchaser will generally assume that the granting of planning permission signals that the local authority does not perceive there to be a problem with flood risk”.


That is a good point. Who will buy those houses if they are perceived to be likely to flood, and if there are problems with insuring them? Earlier today, the Association of British Insurers told me:
“We want to ensure that wherever possible new homes are not built in high flood risk areas. If they are, then insurers cannot guarantee to offer cover.”


Planning policy statement 25 calls for flood risk assessments to be made at all levels of the planning process. However, what flood risk assessments were made during the compilation of the RSS, a document that was largely drawn up before the floods of July 2007? Does not that in itself make it incumbent on the Secretary of State to require the authors to go back to the drawing board on their housing proposals?
What constitutes a flood risk area? If the definition is based on annual likelihood of flooding, how can that be assessed if we accept that climate change is taking place? In other words, a place with a one in a 100 chance of flooding in the past can no longer be assumed to be in that category if the climate is changing as the Government tell us it is.
We are, of course, supposed to be protected from inappropriate development by the Environment Agency. However, an appeal to build 600 houses near Longford in my constituency, close to Walham sub-station, is currently being considered by the Secretary of State. I have submitted photographs of at least part of that site when flooded, yet the Environment Agency did not even submit an objection to the application. Even worse, the Environment Agency said that the area did not have a monitoring station on the site, but it does. That station indicated flooding, so I hope that the Secretary of State will take that error into account when assessing the appeal.
I suggest that the fact that the Environment Agency has not objected to the proposed building at Longford is evidence that, as currently constituted, it is simply not up to the job and its role should be reviewed. How can the Environment Agency, when it has seen the effects of the flooding in my area, fail to object to the proposals to build thousands more houses there? It defies belief. Of course, some might describe my objection to those houses as an example of nimbyism—but if it is, so be it. I am paid to represent the people of my constituency, and I do not believe it to be in their best interests to have those houses.
Let us consider the situation somewhat more widely. Village post offices are closing, including a further six in my constituency, pubs are closing at the rate of an estimated 27 a week, and village shops are struggling. So why not top up the housing stock in villages throughout the country? Many villages are calling for such development, partly so that their own people can continue to live in the villages where they were born.
Why is the concentration on principal urban areas? Why are so many houses needed in the first place? What is the science used to calculate the need for such housing stock? It cannot be that the divorce rate and the life expectancy figures are still accelerating to such a degree. However, I accept that the net immigration figures are a worry, with a total of 1.62 million more people coming to this country than leaving it over the past 10 years, which puts pressure on housing. That perhaps needs tackling as a separate problem. The method of calculation, immigration, the dispersal of houses and the planning process are all underlying issues that the Government should tackle, rather than allowing unelected regional bureaucrats to make crude calculations about the number of houses that we are supposed to need in each constituency.
The Government have made two promises that are relevant to this debate. One, which they made before being elected to office, was to end the predict-and-provide approach to housing. That has not happened; in fact that approach has been entrenched, and on a regional basis, which is why we are in the current predicament. The second promise, made after last week’s election results, was that the Prime Minister would listen to people’s concerns.
The Prime Minister paid a welcome visit to my constituency during the flooding. I now call on him, the Secretary of State and the Minister to listen to what the people of Tewkesbury are saying: that building extra housing to the level proposed by the RSS would make the risk of flooding in the area significantly worse, with the risk to life, property, business and possessions being greatly heightened.
When he visited Tewkesbury, the Prime Minister saw for himself the water, the bowsers, the problems at Walham and the Mythe, and the enormous efforts that people were making to help each other. I know that he would not want us to go through that again. So through his Secretary of State and the Minister who is here tonight, the Prime Minister needs to reject the proposals in the RSS to which I have referred, in order to reduce that likelihood. To refuse to do so will be to fail to respond to the situation in which we found ourselves last year, and will also represent a failure to listen. As only the changes that the Minister makes to the RSS will be open to further public consultation, this is our last chance to affect the outcome of what, to us, is a crucial process.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on securing this debate. I am aware that he raised similar issues during a debate on the south west regional spatial strategy in January, to which my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury responded, when she was Minister for Housing. The hon. Gentleman has this evening reiterated how important the regional spatial strategy for the south-west is to him and his constituents, and I commend him on that.
However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that I shall have to disappoint him tonight. Like my right hon. Friend in January, I am unable to respond to many of his concerns. The RSS process is a quasi-judicial one involving plans and planning decisions, and I do not wish in any way to prejudice the impartiality of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in coming to a decision. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for that, but I hope that he will accept it.

It would be helpful to start by giving some background to the regional spatial strategy. A regional spatial strategy is a requirement of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. That piece of legislation, and the role of the RSS in particular, helped to strengthen the role and importance of regional planning. A regional spatial strategy’s purpose is to set out a broad development strategy for a 20-year period. I acknowledge that the process undertaken in the preparation of a regional spatial strategy is often described as, at best, laborious. However, the regional spatial strategy is a vital document. The length of the process rightly reflects the need for extensive dialogue in its preparation.
A regional spatial strategy is a key component in achieving more sustainable development and provides a spatial context for local development frameworks and other strategies and spending frameworks. Regional spatial strategies include issues such as how much housing is needed, the general location where it should be built, the priorities for new infrastructure and economic development, the strategy for protecting countryside and biodiversity and the policy for reducing carbon emissions and safeguarding natural resources—for example, water and minerals.
It might also assist the hon. Member for Tewkesbury if I mentioned something about the history of the regional spatial strategy in his area of the south-west. As he will be aware, responsibility for the initial drafting of the regional spatial strategy rested with the regional assembly, which submitted its draft to the Government on 24 April 2006. A 12-week public consultation gave the opportunity to put comments to an independent panel, which was appointed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to test the soundness of the draft regional spatial strategy. Following that, an examination in public was held between April and July 2007 to discuss and test the draft regional spatial strategy before the panel. The length of the examination in the public stage reflected the level of interest in the draft RSS, with the panel reviewing comments from almost 2,000 different parties. I understand that 191 organisations and individuals took part in public hearings held in Exeter. The panel’s report was submitted to the Government on 10 December 2007 and was published for information on 10 January 2008. It contains recommendations to the Secretary of State on all aspects of the draft regional spatial strategy.
I have now set out the background to the draft RSS, but I reiterate what I said in my opening remarks—that I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that on account of the quasi-judicial nature of the process, I am very much constrained in what I am able to say at this stage about the detailed proposals contained within the RSS. I must point out that in taking quasi-judicial decisions under the Planning Acts, there is clear guidance for Ministers, which is based on advice from the Law Officers and First Treasury Counsel. A copy of the guidance can be found on the website of the Department for Communities and Local Government and is entitled “Guidance on propriety issues in handling planning casework in Communities and Local Government”. If it would assist the hon. Gentleman, I can certainly provide him with a copy of it. That guidance outlines that Ministers should not enter into discussions with interested parties on the changes that might be made to a draft regional spatial strategy while consideration is being given to the panel’s report.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Wright: I certainly will, even though the hon. Gentleman was not in his place at the start of the debate.
Martin Horwood: I am very grateful; I was listening to the debate from another location. The Minister says that the examination in public took account of many hundreds of submissions. However, in an area called Leckhampton, which straddles the boundary between the constituency of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and my own, potentially up to 1,300 extra homes have been approved for building on land that is waterlogged as we speak. That development, which will increase flooding in parts of both my and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency downhill, has been approved despite hundreds of objections from local people. In effect, those unelected inspectors have made this decision with no democratic accountability. If the Minister will not answer questions on this strategy, where are we to ask them and how are we to challenge this decision making?
Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman has made his case, but I am not that tempted to respond to it. As I have tried to explain, the whole process regarding the regional spatial strategy is a quasi-judicial one and I do not want to be tempted to make any comment that would prejudice in any way the Secretary of State’s ability to come to an impartial view about the figures and the detail contained within the RSS. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that point.
As I said earlier, the panel’s report was submitted to the Government on 10 December and was published for information the following month. I am sure that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury would like me to explain, following the publication of the report for information, what the next step is. The Secretary of State is now considering the panel’s report, along with all the representations previously submitted, and aims to publish her proposed changes as soon as possible. I must stress that at this stage no conclusions have been reached on any of the panel’s recommendations. There will then be a 12-week period of public consultation when the proposed changes are published. That will be the opportunity for those interested in the content of the regional spatial strategy to make their comments known. Following consideration of comments and views arising from that consultation, the Secretary of State expects to publish the final regional spatial strategy before the end of 2008.
Mr. Laurence Robertson: Am I right in thinking that only the changes the Secretary of State proposes will go out to public consultation—in other words, the whole lot does not go out again, but only the changes?
Mr. Wright: Yes, that is my understanding: the proposed changes will be put out for the 12-week consultation.
The hon. Gentleman raised important points on flooding in his area. Again, I will not be drawn into talking about specific details, or about specific housing developments
and planning permissions on floodplains. I should, however, point out that the Government believe that effective flood defences are a vital component of new infrastructure, and that they will be an integral part of development. Also, it is for councils to take key decisions on individual developments, but we have put in place the toughest planning rules ever through planning policy statement 25. For the first time, all councils must now consult the Environment Agency on their housing plans, to ensure that all new homes are safe from flooding and properly sustainable for the future. Those new rules have been praised by Sir Michael Pitt and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report on flooding, and they have been backed by the Association of British Insurers. I am pleased that we have put in place the toughest planning rules ever with regard to development on flood risk areas.
Martin Horwood: The Minister might be interested to know that not all the environmental organisations accept that the new planning guidance is sufficient, partly because it is only site-specific, so it does not take into account the overall landscape. If a site is entirely inundated with water, it does not really matter where the drainage goes. If the overall landscape has been allowed to develop in such a way that there is too much urbanisation, increasing run-off or increasing surface-water flooding, the local site-specific consultation will not be sufficient. Does the Minister not see the problem with that?
Mr. Wright: To some extent, the hon. Gentleman is making the argument for a regional spatial strategy. These matters sometimes transcend local boundaries, so it is important that we have a regional overview. Essentially, however, it is up to local authorities to carry out developments in a plan-led process, in order to make sure that the whole environment is considered when deciding where development should take place. I am sure that—not for the first time—I will have disappointed the hon. Member for Tewkesbury that I have been unable to enter into a debate on the content of the south west regional spatial strategy. However, I am sure he will continue to represent his constituents’ views energetically when the proposed changes are published shortly. He has done that tonight, and he did it in the debate in January.
Mr. Laurence Robertson: I am not satisfied with planning policy statement 25 as it is inadequate in that it compromises itself. My main point, however, is this: although I understand that the Minister is in a difficult position with regard to the process, all I am asking him to do is consider the serious points I have made about the difficulties the RSS will cause us in Tewkesbury. Will he have a serious discussion with the Secretary of State about the points I have made? That is all I expect of him tonight.
Mr. Wright: As I said, I will not do anything that will compromise the ability of the Secretary of State to be able to come to an impartial decision, based on the report that is put on their desk, with regard to the RSS. The hon. Gentleman has made his case on behalf of his constituents most eloquently tonight, as he has in previous debates, and I would expect nothing less from him.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Nine o’clock.

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