Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (UKIP): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who I am sure speaks for the whole House in her moving and compelling contribution.
The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) spoke about Transport for London, and the ridiculous plans of the Mayor of London and Transport for London which no one could do anything about. He gave two examples, one of which was a Thames estuary airport. I am pleased to say that we could do something about that, following a fantastic campaign, which the Airports Commission said generated more representations than any other. I was privileged to lead that campaign with people from the Hoo peninsula and elsewhere in my constituency, but also with people from across the country and beyond, so that on 2 September this year, the Thames estuary airport pie-in-the-sky proposal promoted by the Mayor of London was categorically ruled out.
Unfortunately, two days later, Medway council’s own planning committee attacked the Hoo peninsula with its own threat—a very serious threat—to build approximately 5,000 houses at Lodge hill, a bird sanctuary in my constituency. Two days after we had had the dreadful threat of the Thames estuary airport ruled out, we had this other one to deal with. Five days later, Medway council had to refer the application to the Secretary of State to consider whether it should be called in.
The criteria used for planning application call-ins used to be called the Caborn criteria. Three of those criteria appear to be met very clearly by this application to the extent that a call-in is required. The first relates to conflicting with national policies on important matters, notably the protection of sites of special scientific interest—and, indeed, the whole integrity of our system of environmental protection.
The second relates to having significant effects beyond the immediate locality. It could even have an effect as far away as west Africa, where the nightingales that are the cause of this area becoming an SSSI spend the British winter. There could be an impact on Essex, because the planning committee of Medway council has, in its wisdom, accepted a proposal that the nightingales can be told to go to an alternative location somewhere in Essex. We do not have much in the way of detail, but this clearly suggests significant effects beyond the immediate locality. Perhaps most importantly, approving the proposal or failing to call it in and seeking to nod it through with a green light could have impacts on other SSSIs across the country.
The third criterion is where the development would give rise to substantial cross-border or national controversy. Having been at the centre of such controversy during the recent Rochester and Strood by-election, I can vouch for that.
On 25 September, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government recused himself from considering the application on the basis that he is a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Two days later, I recused myself from the Conservative party and was determined to fight a by-election partly on this issue. Since the Secretary of State recused himself, the matter has been considered by the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis). He wrote to me on 15 October, and I was glad to hear that no ministerial decision had been taken on whether the matter should be called in. He criticised what he described as my claim that such a decision had been taken.
Of course, that was not my claim. It was a claim made by the deputy leader of Medway council, Councillor Alan Jarrett, in a meeting of Conservative councillors. His statement was that it had apparently been communicated to him by the Government that the proposal would be green-lighted and would not be called in. That led to another councillor present at the meeting, Councillor Peter Rodberg, leaving the Conservative group and joining me in UKIP. He says—and this is borne out by another councillor who has spoken to me, and who remains a Conservative—that at the end of the meeting, after the councillors had been told that the Government would green-light the proposal, Councillor Peter Hicks, who represents Strood Rural, said that they should keep quiet about it until after the election.
It was a pleasure to learn from the Minister that he was dealing with the issue of the call-in properly. He clearly recognises that he is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, and—at least in terms of the time that he has already devoted to the issue and the correspondence that he has issued—he appears to be performing his duties with diligence. His most recent letter was written on 8 December to Councillor Rodney Chambers, the leader of Medway council. I understand that since this Government have been in office no more than a dozen applications have been called in each year, whereas under the last Government about 30 a year were called in, but I am not aware of any precedent for such a letter.
The Minister wrote asking for Medway council’s views, and in particular the views of the planning committee that had considered the application on 4 September, on a number of representations that had been received, including representations from the RSPB and Natural England. Unfortunately the Minister did not attach the representations that he said he had attached to the letter, and, as far as I know, they have not been published. The letter is peculiar, however. It is not clear whether Medway council’s views were being sought, or the views of the planning committee, or both, and it is not clear how any conflict between them should be resolved. The planning committee meeting was, of course, on the record, so the extent to which it has considered—or, one suspects, not considered—the matters that it should have considered should have been made clear either in its decision notice or in the record of that meeting. I therefore question the credibility and reliability of any ex post facto justifications that Medway council may now produce for its decision, and any statement in which it purports to have abided by the national planning policy framework.
Given that letter, given that at least three of the criteria for call-in were clearly met, and given the statement by the deputy leader of the council that the proposal would be green-lighted in the light of communications that he at least believed were taking place within the Government or among those who he thought could speak for them in respect of there not being a call-in, I think it is clear that the safest and, indeed, the only appropriate option is for the Government to call in the application, appoint an inspector, and give proper consideration to what is, in my view, an incredibly damaging application. This application would result in the pulling together of several villages into a single conglomeration, and would cause a site of special scientific interest to be almost completely built over, which would undermine the whole system of environmental protection in this country. It should now be considered by an inspector and then by the Secretary of State, and, hopefully, turned down as a result.