Stuart Andrew: Green belt under threat from housing targets

MY constituency has seen many significant changes over the past 20 years. It was renowned for its cloth and woollen mills, and other industries, but as those industries declined, their sites became redundant and places such as Pudsey, Farsley and Guiseley saw those employment sites turned into residential areas.

During the first decade of the this century, we were inundated with application after application to build even more houses, and consequently our roads are congested beyond belief at weekends and during weekdays and evenings. Our surgeries have more and more patients and our schools are so busy that children living just across the road from their local school may struggle to get into them.

Most of all, people were exasperated and frustrated that the planning system was something that happened to them, and that they had little say in it. Sometimes, even when the council said no and that enough was enough, an appeal was allowed. I cannot express strongly enough the anger and resentment that that created.

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When the Government talked about planning reform, I thought “Hallelujah”. Many of the changes have been welcome and in the right direction. Reducing the guidance and advice to a more manageable document is making life a lot less complex. The ability to create neighbourhood forums to offer real engagement is hugely welcome.

Despite the Government’s work, a problem threatens the intentions of localism and people’s trust that we will have a real bottom-up approach to planning.

Localism is about local communities deciding what, where and when development should take place. There has been a real appetite and interest in my constituency in being involved in the planning process.

Groups such as Wharfedale and Airedale Review Development and Aireborough Civic Society have campaigned long and hard on the issue. In addition, residents have turned up in their hundreds at public meetings when these issues were discussed. Organisations such as Horsforth Town Council, Rawdon Parish Council and Aireborough Neighbourhood Forum have all worked incredibly hard to engage with the whole community, bringing residents, schools and businesses together to develop a vision of future development that is sustainable, realistic and seeks to preserve our natural surroundings.

I am talking not just about building houses but about creating places that people want to live in, work in and play in: real place-making. Something is jeopardising all that work, and is still seen by my constituents as a top-down major influence: housing targets.

We all know that the original regional spatial strategy placed huge burdens on local authorities, but despite abolition of the RSS, little has changed with the targets. In my constituency, the core strategy of Leeds City Council is being examined. It includes a plan to build 74,000 homes over the next 14 years, and it arrived at that figure with a host of scenarios ranging from 27,500 to 92,000. That means that the council has gone for the high end because it believes that the Government expect it to be far more ambitious than can reliably be achieved.

What is the consequence? The council then has to prove that it has the land to supply such high targets. Even with the existing permissions of 20,000 dwellings, there is still not enough land, so the council is now looking at greenfield and green belt, meaning that in my constituency up to 80 per cent of all new homes will be built on green-belt or greenfield sites.

The precious places that are the lungs of our communities, the natural barriers between the towns and villages, and the green borders between the cities of Leeds and Bradford, will all be gone.

Even in the best of the boom years, we never managed to build so many houses, and developers want to go even higher, saying that the brownfield sites in the city centre are not viable. That is because they are lazy and do not want to be ambitious about creating places where people want to live in our city centres.

The other day, I asked what happens if the planning inspector, in the process of looking at these figures, agrees to such a high amount. If it is approved, I fear that the brownfield sites in city centres will be abandoned, that the developers will cherry-pick the green belt and that residents will be stuck between the Government saying that local councils can set high targets and the council saying that the Government expect high targets.

However, if we are saddled with those housing targets, our green belt will be ravaged, and future residents will not be able to do anything, because the period will already have been set in stone.

Worst of all, however, it will send a message that some already believe: localism goes only so far, but not far enough where it matters.

• Stuart Andrew is the Conservative MP for Pudsey who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on planning. This is an edited version.