PROOF OF EVIDENCE OF DOMINIC GRIEVE QC MP
1. My name is Dominic Grieve. I have been the Member of Parliament for Beaconsfield since 1997. The site that is the subject of the present planning appeal is wholly located in my constituency. I know the area well and have been over the years a regular visitor to Iver Heath and the Pinewood Green area and to Pinewood Studios.
2. In making this statement I wish first of all to communicate to the inquiry the issues that have been raised with me by local residents. I will also seek to express my own views and concerns in relation to the appeal and to the development which is proposed.
3. In 2011, I previously submitted evidence to the planning inquiry when Pinewood Studios sought to develop the present site. Many of the issues in relation to the present planning inquiry also arose in relation to the earlier one. In the circumstances, therefore, I have followed the format of my earlier statement to that inquiry. There are, of course however, significant differences between the two planning applications which I will touch on in the course of this evidence.
4. The Beaconsfield constituency which I represent, situated as it is on the edge of the London conurbation, is a place where concerns over the environment and over inappropriate development are a frequent subject of debate and concern. Most of the area outside of settlements lies in the Green Belt. It has been the consistent policy of South Bucks District Council to protect the Green Belt from encroachment and this is reflected in the Core Strategy. This policy enjoys, from my experience, overwhelming support from local residents.
The strength of views on this subject has, if anything, increased since the last inquiry because of the wider public debate on the future of the Green Belt nationally.
5. The issue of the protection of the Green Belt and of anxiety over the progressive deterioration of the environment both rural, and in the settlements, is particularly marked in the South East of the constituency, including Iver Heath and Iver. This is because it has been under much more pressure, or threatened pressure, than elsewhere in the District. There are continuing anxieties about a Heathrow spur running through Iver Heath and Iver from the proposed HS2 line at Denham to reach the airport south of Colnbrook. There are also concerns about the possible impact of the decision to build a railway link from Crossrail into Heathrow, although this has attracted less opposition that some other infrastructure projects. But there is also a strong and, in my opinion, correct perception that the general environment in the Iver/Iver Heath area is deteriorating. This is seen in the progressive disappearance of good farmland maintenance and husbandry, as land is acquired by developers on a “hope” value despite being in the Green Belt and then being poorly looked after, and the continuing loss of land to mineral extraction. There is also a high volume of complaint and concern about traffic levels on all roads. This is a reflection not only of the high levels of domestic road users but also of the extensive use of the network of smaller roads by passing traffic to avoid traffic jams on the main roads and the M25. In addition Iver, in particular, has a concentration of industrial sites developed over the years which places heavy goods lorries, some of which are associated with “dirty” activities, onto an essentially rural road network for which they were not designed.
6. The consequence of all this is to leave local residents feeling beleaguered by the presence of changes that are seen as having an adverse impact on their quality of life. An area that has been regarded as a leafy and attractive place to live is felt in the widest sense to be under threat. This perception has increased in the last few years. It manifests itself in frequent representations from residents in Iver and Iver Heath raising their concerns about these issues, quite irrespective of the present Pinewood planning application.
7. Local residents do appreciate the need for commercial activity. As I stated in 2011, Pinewood Studios has enjoyed in my time as the MP extremely good relations with the local community and, after Pinewood’s appeal of its previous planning application was turned down, those good relations seem to me to have revived quite quickly after a period during the planning process when they deteriorated. There is great local pride from the presence of the Studios in Iver Heath and interest in the films being made there. Pinewood Studios have supported local community and charitable projects and have been accessible to residents and local schools. As the Member of Parliament I have visited Pinewood Studios on many occasions and I enjoy very good relations with the management. It is, in many ways, a model of how a local business can make a positive contribution to a locality.
THE NATURE AND STRENGTH OF THE OBJECTIONS
8. Prior to giving evidence I have reviewed the number of letters and emails of objection I have received from local residents in respect of the present planning application. These come to a total of 168. This places the level of objection to the present scheme at close to the level of objection to the previous scheme that was submitted by Pinewood and turned down in 2011. It also places it at the very highest end of all opposition to development in the constituency I have had in my 16 years as the Member of Parliament. The only comparable matters I can think of are the Gerrards Cross Tescos development, the Beaconsfield Motorway service area, and High Speed 2. I would add that as many people will write to the local council rather than to the MP on local planning matters. I would normally reckon that if I get more than dozen letters on single issue that are plainly individual and not part of mass lobby then the level of opposition is significant. In this case, the level of opposition is clearly very significant.
9. I have received 58 positive letters of support for the Pinewood proposals of which 22 originate within the constituency, but of these 10 come from persons employed on the existing Pinewood site.
10. The Inquiry will obviously be looking at a large number of issues, some of a technical nature. The purpose of this evidence is not to involve myself in these areas about which I am not qualified to comment. I will, however, try briefly to summarise the key areas of concern that have repeatedly been expressed to me in relation to the proposed development and which I hope will therefore receive close scrutiny.
11. Firstly, the proposal envisages, as with the previous one, the loss of Green Belt open landscape in the Colne Valley Park, in a location where, as I have previously mentioned, the Green Belt is seen as under exceptional pressure from degradation and fragmentation and constitutes a relatively narrow corridor keeping open the rural landscape round London and between existing settlements.
12. This is particularly the case because the scale of the development in relation to the site is so massive. Pinewood’s previous proposals for building housing and film sets on the site envisaged at least an attempt at minimising the visual impact. The nature of the present proposals and the scale of the eight large warehouses proposed, along with the ancillary and other buildings, are of a major industrial development and its visual impact seems to be proportionally greater.
13. Secondly, there is a continuing lack of trust in Pinewood Studios’ arguments for the exceptional need for this development. In 2011, the then proposal to develop this site was presented to the local community on the basis that it was essential to Pinewood’s commercial future as a film studio through the use of the permanent film sets that would be erected there. The housing that was then proposed on the site was seen as an ingenious ancillary use that was “Green” because it maximised the use of land that would be needed for film industry development in any event. It was argued by Pinewood at the time that the development of the site exclusively for use as film studios and sets could not be justified from the point view of financial cost and likely usage.
14. Local residents now consider that they are being told something rather different. In particular, the scale of this development intended exclusively for use as part of the film industry is seen as a turnaround from the stated position in 2011. Local residents have represented to me on numerous occasions their doubts about this analysis and its justification for the development. One of the frequently repeated fears expressed to me is that the site, if developed, will never be used entirely by the film industry and that there will therefore come a point when alternative uses for the site will be sought along with the planning permissions that would allow it. The presence of warehouse buildings on the scale proposed raises fears that the site will be put to other industrial use which will be even more damaging to the local environment through traffic movements. As it is the understanding of the local community that Pinewood are justifying seeking planning permission on the basis of an exceptional need by the film industry which should override Green Belt policy and protection this is a source of particular disquiet. There is a belief that the Green Belt, Colne Park and the Core Strategy along with the visual attractiveness of the landscape will all be sacrificed on a flawed basis.
15. Thirdly, serious concerns have also centred on the infrastructure impact of the proposal. Notwithstanding the County Council’s highway authority’s conclusions that the scheme is viable, local residents believe it will have a serious adverse impact on the locality. The changes to the highway at the Five Points roundabout and at the entrance to the site reflect, in their view, the need to accommodate substantial traffic movements. The consequences in visual terms are clearly going to be a suburbanisation of these junctions, but there is also anxiety that the volume of extra traffic which it is designed to accommodate will have serious adverse consequences for the surrounding road network. Even if that network is able to cope with the numbers, it will be at the cost of more noise, pollution and occasional traffic jams outside their homes. These concerns have been especially marked in the Pinewood Green area where local residents have long complained of the extent to which their road network is used as a rat run between the Denham Road and Pinewood Road. An attempt was made over a decade ago to resolve this problem by preventing a through route at this location but this caused such inconvenience to local residents that it was removed. One issue that the Inquiry may wish to consider is whether or not there is local demand for the through route to be blocked up again if this development were to go ahead.
MY OWN VIEWS
16. As the MP for the constituency I have always been supportive of the District Council in relation both to its implementation of its Core Strategy and its policy of protecting the Green Belt, precisely because it is under such threat from many quarters. I have also been supportive in respect of the efforts that have been made to slowly develop the assets of the Colne Valley Park as a key environmental and recreational corridor along the western edge of London. But I am very mindful of the importance of business which alone generates the wealth on which we depend and which I try to support wherever possible.
17. While I am understanding of the arguments that have been put forward by Pinewood on the importance of their existing site to the British film industry, and their desire to expand and create a global hub for film making of economic advantage to the country, I do view the present proposals with considerable misgiving. Quite apart from the loss of open landscape, the adverse visual impact and the traffic that will be generated, I fear, in particular, that this development will set a precedent for further applications that will eventually undermine the Green Belt in this part of my constituency altogether. It is noteworthy that since Pinewood’s original proposals were submitted I have received a number of representations from local land owners with agricultural Green Belt land adjacent to the site indicating their desire to develop their land along similar lines. A desire to maximise the value of one’s property is, of course, perfectly natural, but the fragility of the Green Belt locally means that I have real concern that it could be eroded irreparably, and in quite a short time, if further development in the area were to be allowed based on Pinewood as a precedent.
18. While I set out in paragraph 13 and 14 the frequently repeated concerns of my constituents about the motives behind the planning application, I would want to stress that I am not seeking to express a personal opinion on that aspect of the matter. As I have indicated, I have always had a good relationship and contact with Pinewood which has maintained to me that the development is essential to its future as a place in which films can be made and justifies the “very special circumstances for development in the Green Belt” which it is arguing. I do however hope that this issue will be fully explored so that whatever the outcome of this inquiry local residents will be satisfied on this key issue.
19. I note that it is stated that the development would generate employment. This is obviously a factor to be taken into account, but there is no evidence that this has carried any weight in the local community and I do not find this surprising as local rates of unemployment are low.
20. For the reasons already given, I have serious concerns on the impact on traffic that this development would generate.
21. While mindful of the arguments put forward by the Appellant, it does seem to me that there is going to be a very substantial cost in relation to environment and quality of life for the neighbourhood if this development were to go ahead and that it raises possible precedents that could progressively undermine the Green Belt and the Core Strategy. I would ask the Inquiry to consider carefully whether the alleged benefits advanced for this development clearly outweigh this obvious harm that it is going to result from it. There is an overwhelming sense locally that the harm levels are unacceptable and that assessment appears to be accurate to me.
23 October 2013