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Column 1341their district council. Even if not approved, it can be used in evidence until something is approved, so that the inspector can refer to some aspect of local planning.
I have to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that his Department is immensely unpopular in the south-west. The Government are not seen to be bending over backwards to protect the environment. Ministers say that that is what they want, but their words are not borne out by what happens when inspectors deal with appeals. If Ministers do not quickly come to grips with the matter, it will become a serious problem not only for the Government but for the country.
Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare) : I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) on a most lucid exposition of the bare bones of this important case. I wish that at this extraordinary hour of the morning we could all put across a case so well.
I welcome the appearance of a new Minister on this subject and hope that he will appreciate that for years some of us have been seeking to pressurise the Government to take a different view. We are aware of his open-minded approach and I hope that he will feel able to take yet another look at the background to the difficulties raised by planning applications, not just in the south and south-east but around our urban conurbations,.
Among those who take an interest in these matters are colleagues from cities such as York, Chester, Manchester and Liverpool and from as far west as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). That shows that the problem is not confined to the south-east, although for obvious reasons the pressures on the home counties are greater.
Previous Ministers have sought to dodge the fact that central Government must take responsibility for deciding where planning applications should be accepted. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) hinted in his intervention, there is no point in a system in which the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys is required to produce a figure that is revised by an astonishing degree in a short time--such as 30 per cent. in two years. That is then cut by the Department when it suits the Department to do so. The south-eastern SERPLAN and the counties that belong to it are then required to share the number of houses and provide room for them. That is not planning. It is necessary for the Government to state the figures that they will approve for SERPLAN.
I commend the concept of planning regions and think that the Government are working on it in an attempt to extend the general thought of planning by region. I hope that the Government will start to take some responsibility for deciding total numbers because it is not good enough to do it in the way that it is being presently done. Some people understand that to mean telling people where to live, but that is not the case. It is saying where planning applications will be granted, and from that decision economic consequences will flow. At no time during discussion of such matters has our group ever moved from the acceptance of the fact that if planning applications are continually refused in areas of heavy pressure, it will have economic consequences.
Column 1342One has only to look at planning applications and house prices in the north to see that what we propose has a beneficial side effect. It is that parts of the country where there has been some economic neglect will begin to receive extra attention because of the relative cheapness of housing, better facilities, easier modes of transport and greater availability of labour. The Government should acknowledge that they have a role in planning the nation's population and location. If they did that, much of the problem would start to go away. I hope that the Minister will not shelter behind the excuse that he has a quasi-judicial capacity in such matters and is unable to comment on individual cases and applications. That has often happened in the past.
We have a very British system, in which the Government put themselves at arm's length from the initial application by allowing, quite correctly, the local authority to deal with it in the first place. Then there is an appeal, they appoint an inspector and do what they were going to do anyway. The whole process has become ludicrously expensive. A huge legal industry has arisen around it, with vast costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks mentioned the personal distress caused to many people during such a process. While I welcome a number of the decisions that have been taken recently against some of the activities of such organisations as consortium developments, the Foxley Wood decision stands out as an illogical extension of everything that the Government have said. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) is active in this case and has worked closely with us on it. He raised the matter this afternoon. The Foxley Wood application is contrary to the local plan and to the county structure plan. It takes in a large part of a site of special scientific interest, and the local inspector recommended that the application should be turned down. My right hon. Friend the previous Secretary of State for the Environment said that he was minded to overturn the inspector's decision. I suggest that my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State be unminded, and that he has a close look at this. Overturning the decision will do more than cause an enormous amount of anger in a part of the country where the Government still command a great deal of respect and support. I would not wish to make too much of this point, but it is a fair one. It will also establish an unfortunate precedent and will give a green light to those developers who believe that, by modestly decreasing or increasing numbers, they can establish new towns of 4,500 houses, with all the consequence that such a development produces. Such a development would be too small to develop much of the infrastructure that is needed, so the local hospitals and schools, special facilities and roads will be overloaded by up to 20,000 people. It is not so small that it will not have an effect. One could go on for a long time about the undesirability of such developments. People have said that the county accepted the figures, but it did not. It was told the figures by central Government and was allocated the figures by SERPLAN. If the Government insist on allowing substantial planning applications for housing developments in the home counties, including northern Hampshire, my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State will have a load of political trouble, and a great deal of support for our party will be used to prevent such precedents. I hope that Foxley Wood will be an example of the new view prevailing in Marsham street.
Mr. Steen : I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for raising two points in an intervention, but he makes an important point about infrastructure. Is not the problem in the south compounded by the Government's failure to provide the necessary infrastructure when they allow development--whether for 10 or 50 houses--by way of roads, police, schools, hospitals and lighting? People coming to an area are expected to be absorbed and the infrastructure is expected to cope, so Government funding is not made available to provide the facilities that those people rightly expect. Should not a criterion for planning in the future be that the Government should agree to give planning permission for the development of a village or two only if the public funds are available to maintain the existing high standard of facilities for those who move in?
Mr. Wiggin : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It is worth saying that we are concerned about those who are our constituents now. We would, of course, be deeply interested if others were to move in. It is our duty, however, to protect those who are our constituents now. That is only right and proper. I have never flinched from the charge "Not in your back yard." So what? Surely that is my responsibility. I accept entirely what my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) said about the quality of life. I understand that a planning Bill is to be introduced during the next Session and that it will contain a proposal to alter the not yet well established procedure of structure plans. It has taken about 14 years to complete the first round of structure plans. When the procedure is just about beginning to work, it is somewhat precipitate to throw it overboard. We should bear in mind that housebuilders, who in these circumstances perhaps cannot be seen as our friends, believe that a firm structure plan is better from their point of view than too much flexibility. They need firmness. They need to know the amount of land that will be available so that they can plan their land banks, assess demand and establish their pricing and numbers. I understand that the Council for the Protection of Rural England will say that it does not believe that abolishing structure plans is likely to be helpful from its point of view. Many of my colleagues believe that the Government will be treading on delicate ground if they proceed with the abolition of structure plans as they propose. It is the rigidity of the structure plan that we want to see maintained.
We have come to find ourselves in an unholy mess with what I can describe only as planning by bribery. If a developer wants to erect a large number of houses, he need think only of an imaginative scheme to go alongside it. That can be a road, for example, or in a case--but perhaps it would be best not to go into my constituency problems. I am remaining somewhat neutral about one in particular. A developer can approach a local authority and say, "Wouldn't you like to have this and that? Incidentally, I want 1,500 houses." That leads to planning by bribery, and that is not the concept which those who drafted the original legislation 40 years ago had in mind. A way must be found of overcoming the problem.
The political reaction to all these matters originates in a deterioration in the quality of life when too many people come to live in too small an area, and here I take up the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams. If the quality of life can be maintained, the democratic objection to an increase in housing numbers in an area will
Column 1344be much reduced. Unless the Government can find ways of providing the necessary facilities--I have roads in mind especially, which are in a scandalous condition in constituences such as mine--the problem will continue as each housing application comes forward.
I hope that my colleague from the county of Avon, the hon. Member for South Hams, will establish himself as being extremely green minded. Those who speak on these matters and who take an active interest in them have been as green as it is possible to be. Accusations that the Conservative party is ignoring these matters should be set against an account of our activities. I hope that the deep feelings that are held by many of us will be respected. The number of us who are in the Chamber at this extraordinary hour should reveal the depth of feeling among the supporters of the Government. 3.14 am
Sir Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton) : I have been in this place for 15 years and in each of those years planning issues have formed the largest part of my constituency case load. If anything, the case load has increased in recent times.
I was playing a tape of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann the other day in my car. During the course of the tape Michael Flanders says that a friend of his has gone to live in a suburb of south London called Brighton. That is rather daunting as the tape was recorded in about 1963. I fear that we are well on the way to that kind of "megopolis", whereby it would be possible to drive from the south coast to north London, with all the communities between them joined together.
The centre of my own constituency of Chertsey and Walton is only 22 miles from Westminster. As it is so conveniently within commuting distance of London, many people want to live there and housing developments in the area have proliferated over the years. During my time in the House, motorways have also arrived in the form of the M25 and the M3, which bisect my constituency. One can add to that the proximity of Heathrow, helicopter routes, a small local airfield, and the most recent and sensationally grotesque proposal for a waste tip, which is to take the form not of landfill but of what I can only describe as "landbuild" as the waste to be disposed of by Cementation will reach a height of 70 m. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister and other right hon. and hon. Members will dwell on the prospect of a waste tip 70 m high in the rural heart of my constituency. My constituency is not helped topographically by having gravel deposits below the surface. There are constant battles over gravel extraction, and in recent years the local community has been successful in saving Chertsey Meads, where people can walk or exercise their horses, and Wey Manor Farm. Nevertheless, planning pressures lead my constituents to look for greater protection from planning laws, not less. They seek to avoid the joining of small communities, which is different from some of the problems described by my right hon. and hon. Friends. It is all part of the same picture, but one is not necessarily always talking in terms of lovely rural countryside which risks having a Foxley Wood dropped in the middle of it. For my constituents, it is important that their relatively small towns and communities are not joined together. Even if the individual areas of green land
Column 1345which separate them appear insignificant, they are the only lungs available to my constituents for recreation and exercise. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) said, planning expectations become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Developers take a long-term view and do not mind holding on to land for 10, 15 or 20 years. They continually make applications and wear down the local council. I should like to see an escalating tariff, which would make it more and more expensive for developers to continue submitting fresh planning applications. The local community often has to make great efforts to raise money to retain a Queen's Counsel, only to be certain that even if they win an appeal the chances are that the developer will soon be making a similar if not identical application. The developers do not need to worry as they have the time and the resources to continue relentlessly grinding down the local community. That is highly unsatisfactory.
Developers often denigrate the political process by their comments in local newspapers or at public inquiries. To them the process of local democracy is somewhat inconvenient--a rather tedious formality which stands in the way of the inevitable, ongoing process of joining up all the communities in a constituency such as mine until only a vast outer London sprawl remains.
As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to try to protect for future generations something resembling a decent environment and a decent quality of life. We therefore look to the Government to operate the planning laws in a way that is certain and tough and that shows that some things will not be allowed. The message will finally reach some developers that there are some activities in which they will be able to engage. We need development in some parts of the country in the controlled and careful manner that my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) described when he introduced the debate in such an admirable manner. Our fundamental duty as Members of Parliament is to do all that we can to prevent any further erosion of the standard of living and quality of life of our constituents, and so much of that depends on how the planning laws are operated. 3.20 am
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : It is always a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) at any time of the day or night. Even at 3.20 in the morning it is a great delight to see him here.
My hon. Friend will agree that the group of hon. Members here tonight are the advance party. The Minister is undergoing a small test of how he will respond to what is in fact an army of about 100 Members of Parliament, whose force he should not underestimate, representing Conservative Members from all over the country, who feel that the Government have got their planning policy hopelessley wrong.
We are delighted to see my hon. Friend the new Minister on the Front Bench. We hope that he will take back to his Department what is being said by the advance party. I feel sure that the new team in the Department of the Environment, including the Secretary of State, would wish to come to terms and to grips with what to us is probably the most serious problem in our constituencies--the unrestrained and tasteless growth of the population
Column 1346with a consequent increase in housing on a scale that has never been seen before and that is destroying the quality of life and the beauty of the countryside in our constituencies on a scale and at a rate which is utterly unacceptable to many of my hon. Friends. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to realise that, although there is a small team of comparatively senior and influential Members here tonight, it is nothing to what he may see if the Government do not get this right and start having a meaningful discussion with the Back-Bench groups who feel that something has gone wrong and needs to be put right.
We welcome my hon. Friend the Minister on the Front Bench tonight, but we have seen a great number of Ministers in that place. No sooner does a Minister get to grips with the problem than he is moved on again. It is rather like Dante's "Inferno". As soon as they get a grasp of the problem my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister moves them on again. I do not know how many Ministers have preceded my hon. Friend or how many Back Benchers have tried to explain the problem to those Ministers. As soon as they understand the point, off they go again.
I hope that my hon. Friend will dig his heels in and say, "I am not moving on. I am staying right here until I have dealt with this tremendous problem." We know of my hon. Friend's conviction in planning matters. We know that this is new to him and we know that Lewisham does not have the green fields that he would like it to have, but we feel sure that he would not wish all our constituencies south of Watford to be an unrestrained growth of concrete. That is what we are here to discuss.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, who is known to be balanced in his judgment and approach, introduced the debate in the most measured tones. We are not saying that there should be no development in the south. We are not saying that there should be no growth, no new homes, no starter homes for people in low-income groups. We are desperately keen on more homes for indigenous local people, who are being driven out of the rural constituencies in the south-west because of the great demand, especially among the retired population, to come to live in these beautiful areas.
We want more starter homes and more growth, but it must be restrained, it must be indigenous and it must be controlled to ensure that the necessary infrastructure exists. It is no good building more and more homes if there are not sufficient schools to which the children of families who live in them can go. Ivybridge in my constituency, just south of the Dartmoor national park, is one of the fastest growing towns in Europe ; the county council has allowed so much growth that the schools have 30, 40 or even 50 children to a class. That is quite scandalous.
As one builds more and more houses, one places greater demand on hospitals. The Government should not allow areas to expand if there are not enough hospital places. Similarly, the police say that they do not have sufficient manpower to protect all those people and that the population is growing too fast. That, to my mind, is unrestrained and irresponsible planning. Any amendment of the structure plan must include a relationship between growth and infrastructure, and we must spell out what infrastructure is required per thousand people before allowing any further growth.
Our first message to the Minister is that we do not oppose expansion and development, but we oppose pure
Column 1347market force development which pays no regard to the quality of life of those who live in our areas. There is nothing wrong in Conservative Members saying that, and we know that it will have considerable support from the new regime at the Department of the Environment. I hope that, as a starting point, the Minister will convey our belief and our concern about that.
My remarks will be on a slightly different tack from those of other hon. Members. I have had one concern for more than 10 years, and I am getting nearly as bored with it as are Ministers who hear me make almost identical speeches every time they are here to answer a debate, but the point is worth making again because it remains just as relevant. The pressure on the green fields around our cities is aggravated by the fact that the Government have repeatedly failed to use the vacant, dormant, under- utilised land in public ownership that exists throughout the country, which is allowed to continue to grow in quantity in spite of the register set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the then Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend rightly said, "We do not have to continue to build on green field sites at the present rate if we can release some of the land that exists amid our urban sprawls. It is vacant, dormant and derelict ; it is surplus to requirement and it is in public ownership." As many of my hon. Friends will know, that is a matter on which I have majored. I have been driven almost to the point of distraction in my search to discover how much land there is, where it is, what is happening to it and why it is not being used. In this short debate it might be worth refreshing the Minister's memory of what we are talking about and why there is a correlation between the continued demand for green field development and the Government's continued failure to do anything about the amount of public vacant land which continues to increase and continues not to be used.
Between 1982 and 1986, on a broad-brush approach, there were more than 100,000 acres of public unusedand underutilised land on the Department of the Environment's register. That figure is fairly accurate because there are 39 full-time officials in the Department of the Environment dealing with the register and the Minister may like to talk to them about it. The register is like an A to Z telephone directory. It contains the lists of all the lands that are vacant, dormant and underutilised in the country. It is enormous and lists thousands of sites. It is the job of those civil servants constantly to update the register and to put down a marker as more and more land becomes available.
It is true to say that, whereas there were more than 100,000 acres on the register until 1986, that figure has been reduced. There are now about 85,200 acres. However, that comprises 8,134 sites. We could build an awful lot of homes, hospitals, schools and industrial and office buildings on 8,134 sites. The Minister should not be mistaken about this. Those sites are of one acre and over because my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, insisted on the exclusion of great tracts of land. Therefore, those 85,200 acres are only land that fits the criteria laid down by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley.
Professor Alice Coleman of Kings college, the famous lady who deals with land use, says that the true figure is
Column 1348nearer double the 85,200 acres if we ignore the exclusions. Whether it is 85,000 or 170,000 acres, the important point for the House to consider is that that figure is not static.
The most fascinating result of my research into these matters is that each year the Minister will claim that an enormous number of acres have come off the register, but an equal number have been added. The planning process is creating more and more land. It is like a food machine : more meat is put into the mincer, and understandably more comes out.
In February 1989, in reply to a parliamentary question to the former Minister, before he moved into his next phase of Dante's "Inferno," I was told that, while in 1984 some 6,800 acres of vacant land were removed from the register, the Minister had to admit that 7,700 acres came on to it. In 1985, although 12,300 acres were removed, 10,800 acres were added. In 1986, some 6,300 acres were added, and 7, 700 acres were added in 1987. In 1988, 4,800 acres were added. However many acres come off the register at one end, the very planning process produces more vacant, dormant and derelict land in public ownership at the other end. However many acres the Government say they have got off the register, we can be sure that more and more will be coming on to it. The Government should not feel complacent about the fact that land is coming off the register when so much continues to go on to it.
Since 1982, a total of 37,805 acres have become vacant, dormant and underutilised. That means that 37,805 acres could and should have been used, and could still be used, for housing before green field sites have to be used. Also, much public vacant land will become private vacant land when nationalised industries are privatised. For example, 2,231 acres are in electricity industry ownership, and 2,952 acres are in water authority ownership. I am sure that my hon. Friends would like to know that the Minister's own Property Services Agency has 936 acres of vacant land. Surely the Minister should set an example to the country and get rid of some of that land before he starts to poach green field sites belonging to local authorities and other developers.
The point that I have been making tirelessly and tiresomely for many years is that nearly 49,000 acres of land were in local authority ownership on 31 May 1989. Also, 7,900 sites are on the land register, and we are being pressed to use more green field sites in preference to public vacant land in unused or underutilised areas. That is my first contention. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friends know, I can go on for a day and a night. This matter is so important that the House would like to hear more about it at any time of the day or night.
The planning process is creating and developing more public vacant land, and the Minister's Department is doing nothing to use it first. He may wish to be reminded of a splendid publication called "PLUMS--Public Land Utilisation Management Schemes", which I must admit that I wrote. That book offers a solution to public vacant land problems. At this time of the night, I do not wish my hon. Friend the Minister to think that he can get off lightly by being told the plot and the way in which the story unfolds. I am told that the book is better than Horlicks. If he takes the book home tonight, it will give him an insight into how he can tackle the problem.
It would be quite wrong to continue any further. I told the Minister about chapter one. There are another nine chapters, and they should be brought to successive debates
Column 1349that the Minister has the good fortune to hear. At the moment, all he should know is that he has seen the advance party approaching. If another 90 colleagues were present, he would find himself in the Chamber for a considerably longer time. I urge him to stress to the Secretary of State that not an idle group but a cross-section of our great party is deeply concerned that the Government have failed in their responsibility to tackle the problem of tasteful development and to preserve our green and pleasant land.
Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North) : This has been an excellent debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) on his introduction and I congratulate my hon. Friends on the variety of points that they have made. I shall try not to repeat any of those points, but I strongly agree with the force of the arguments. The surroundings that we enjoy are far more important to people than politicians yet seem to realise. We have a duty to leave to our children and grandchildren an environment of which we are leaseholders and not freeholders. The point of my hon. Friend's case is right and I hope that the Minister will recognise that. I say to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) that we are right to say what should happen in our back yards. We are concerned about green fields, more particularly in the debate this evening because of our constituents who live in or near them, but also because those green fields are there for people from Hammersmith to come and enjoy. They are, therefore, an asset to the people of Hammersmith. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) mentioned that we are committed to making inner cities places in which people want to live and work. That is the other half of our debate.
The former Secretary of State for the Environment was certainly a strong protector of the green belt. His decision on the Grange estate, just outside my constituency, was especially welcome to the people in Dorset and to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), who would have liked to have been present for this debate. That illustrates that we are concerned not about the green belt over which the former Secretary of State was resolute, for which I praise him, but about the other green fields, where bodies such as Consortium Developments--the bulls in the delicate china shop of our environment--behave in a co-ordinated and over-powering way in launching their attacks to try to establish new towns in a completely inappropriate manner. I hope that the new Secretary of State will resist new towns in Foxley Wood and elsewhere.
On many occasions I have said that our planning system is out of date and needs to be changed because it does not meet today's needs. I shall make two general points which I do not think have been mentioned before. First, I believe that our planning law should recognise environmental capacities. By that I mean that a place's capacity to absorb new development is finite. That should be a factor in planning law. Developers argue all the time that any number of new developments could be fitted in. Our planning law should look at the matter from the other perspective and say, "What developments can a place and its infrastructure take on?" That will give us some different answers.
Column 1350My second point, which has been mentioned by some of my hon. Friends already, concerns numbers. I want to see assessments of numbers based upon need and not the demands of the developers. Indeed, one of my concerns about the White Paper is that I understand that its assessment of numbers is based upon the SERPLAN system of producing anticipated numbers. The SERPLAN system of numbers is really developer based and driven out of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. I do not believe that is good enough. We should not be trying to assess numbers in that way. It is based not on need, but on demand, which is developer driven.
We shall be discussing the White Paper in the next Session of Parliament. The Government put out proposals in 1986 to try to simplify and speed up the planning process. That is an aim that I share and applaud, but I believe that that aim can be achieved only by tightening up the planning system, so that at every level, national, regional and local, it is made clear--certainly more clear than it is at present--how the land is to be used. It is proposed that county structure plans should be abolished and replaced by district development plans, accompanied by a statement of county planning policies.
At first glance, the White Paper seems to share some of the objectives that some of my colleagues and I put forward in a pamphlet entitled "This Pleasant Land", which has already been mentioned.
Having read the White Paper closely, I am concerned that the Department of the Environment will produce the figures on which, at every stage, the plans are to be based. The figures will be provided not by local authorities or determined with their agreement but by the Department under the SERPLAN system.
My grounds for fearing that the White Paper proposals will involve the Secretary of State at a lower level of the planning process appear in paragraph 2.13 of the White Paper. The Secretary of State will have to agree that a statement of county planning policies shall cover any matters other than those set out in the six-point core of strategic issues. The paragraph continues by saying that county planning statements must be updated and, indeed, altered following the issue of planning guidance by the Secretary of State. Under the White Paper's proposals, the Secretary of State's powers will increase considerably, which gives me--and should give many other people--considerable cause for concern.
In the past week, I have put forward some proposals for low-cost housing in rural areas. Rural towns and villages have become affluent and prices have risen more rapidly than elsewhere. Migration of people from cities, movement on retirement, inadequate planning policies and lower-than-average incomes have restricted access to low-cost housing for local people. In many rural areas--especially, though not exclusively, in southern England-- the problem is acute. Inadequate attention is being given to the housing needs of people on lower incomes, whose contribution to community life is essential, and they are being squeezed out of the villages in which their families have lived, often for hundreds of years.
To deal with that problem, housing surveys should be carried out locally. The Department should support the process of carrying out surveys and should give advice on
Column 1351how they should be done. Parish meetings should be given powers to conduct the operation and to require local authorities to carry out surveys in the absence of parish or town councils. The cost should be met by district councils with help from the Treasury.
Having identified sites in a parish or town, parish councils should be encouraged to propose to their annual meetings that village housing trusts should be formed for the provision of low-cost accommodation to meet local needs. I should like to see a more consistent approach to the provision of low-cost housing. I advocate, in this and in many other ways, greater powers of responsibility being given to parish councils in planning policy. They are generally aware of the parish's needs, including the need for more jobs to replace those that agriculture no longer provides and the need for local housing. They are exactly the bodies which should oversee planning. I no longer believe that council-owned housing is the way to deal with problems in rural areas.
I support my hon. Friends' remarks about the urgent need to change our planning legislation and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider carefully the speeches that have been made.
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith) : The Labour party shares the concerns expressed by Conservative Members about what is happening to the countryside and the villages of England, particularly in the south. About a year and a half ago, I spoke to the Royal Town Planning Institute and said that the south of England was no longer the countryside that we remembered, but a form of urban parkland, because it was managed countryside with an increasing amount of building.
Conservative Members have brought this onthemselves. In the 1960s and 1970s, increasing overdevelopment was a serious problem in the south of England. The last thing it needed was what it got in 1979, when the new Secretary of State for the Environment boasted of having a bonfire of planning controls. He has had the audacity to complain because the now recently departed and little lamented Secretary of State for the Environment poured petrol on the flames.
The Conservative party destroyed planning as we had known it. It handed planning on a platter to the developers. Now it complains because developers are reaping the benefits. The Government's other fatal mistake was to undermine and devalue local government to the extent that it no longer controls its area. Those are the reasons why so many Conservative Members are saying, "Please give some power back to my local authority, the planners and my local community." The Conservative Government took that power away.
The Government then fell back on the daft argument about market forces. I could hardly believe my ears when the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), first looking round to see that no Whip was present to report him to the Prime Minister, said that market forces could undermine the quality of life. Of course they can. The Government have made it much easier for market forces to operate, although there can never be a free market for housing. By trying to pretend that there is a free market, they opened up the worst aspects of ordinary development which are on green field sites.
Column 1352The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) complains about green field site building. It makes much more sense to build on green field sites than on derelict land, because it is cheaper and easier, and provides more flexibility in development. When he opens a debate about ending green field site development and using derelict land, he should make it clear that there are only two ways to achieve that : by introducing more planning legislation for local authorities, not by undermining and destroying them, or by subsidising builders to develop derelict land.
The "not in my back yard" syndrome is caused by Government policies. Either people build on a green field site or not at all. It is worth examining the building figures for the past 12 months. The Government expect the free market to provide the housing that is necessary. The new build figures this year are 20 per cent. down on last year's figures. Why? Because of interest rates. Who is being provided for? The hon. Member for Sevenoaks believes that there is choice in housing. What is there for his constituents--not just those on average or below average income but above average income--to buy or rent? There is a catastrophic shortage of low-cost accommodation for rent or sale in southern Britain.
Whenever I make a speech on this, I receive letters and phone calls from people who live in areas such as the hon. Member's, saying, "I live in a £200,000 house but there is nowhere for my son or daughter to rent or buy. There is nowhere for the village postman, the nurse, the driver or teacher." What used to be regarded as an inner-city problem is developing in rural areas. Communities are being torn apart, just as they were in inner-city areas. Unless we address that through planning, we shall have the same problems in rural areas as we have in the cities.
It is daft to suggest that we use docklands as an example. It is an appalling example of the Government pouring taxpayers' money into massive subsidies which result in developments occurring in the opposite way to the way they occur in every other developed country. Other countries put the infrastructure in first, subsidised by the public sector, and then the private sector is allowed to complete the development.
In docklands, where it is happening the other way round, the money is pouring into the pockets of the developers out of the pockets of the taxpayers, and we are getting the wrong type of development. How can people who need low-cost housing find homes in docklands? I warn the hon. Member for Sevenoaks that it will happen in his constituency in the same way as it is happening in London.
The answer is to give local authorities back their planning powers, to cease to undermine and demoralise local councillors and planning officers and to make sure that the planning rules put the ball in the court of the community and councillors and not in the court of the developers.
Developers are at present setting the pace, not just because of the appeals system but because of the way in which the Government have structured the market. It can never be a free market, because the supply of land and buildings is too inelastic ; because the subsidy system works against it being a free market, particularly mortgage income tax relief, which destroys the concept of a free market ; and because, although the Government have destroyed many of the planning regulations, there are sufficient regulations left to ensure that a free market cannot operate.
Column 1353One of the tragedies of the philosophy that has been rammed down our throats for the last 10 years is the belief that a free market is the best of all possible options for most people. In fact, it is a short-term policy, and for the quality of the environment in areas such as the south of Britain, where 20 million people live, it is a disaster. That is why the Conservatives are getting into so much trouble in this part of Britain.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan) : I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset,North (Mr. Baker) that this has been an excellent debate. I fully respect the clear strength of feeling that exists on this issue, as evidenced by the speeches of a number of my senior hon. Friends who, among them, have decades of much-valued experience and whose views have provided a helpful and thought-provoking debate and an excellent start to my work on this subject.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) that we will listen carefully and attempt to match our words with deeds, an objective which was sought by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). I became somewhat concerned when my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams said that as soon as a Minister said, "I understand", he was moved on. After just 18 hours in the job, I face that prospect with some trepidation. I have listened carefully and I am beginning to understand, and I hope that when I wake up later in the day I shall not be moved on because a number of important and challenging issues have been raised.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) for raising an issue that is of fundamental importance to the future character of the nation's towns, cities and countryside. Underlying all the policies has been concern that the pressure of development poses a threat to the environment. At at a time of unparalleled economic prosperity, that pressure and those concerns are heightened, particularly in the south-east of England, but--as my hon. Friends the Members for Honiton and for Weston- super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) said--in other parts of the country as well.
The debate, therefore, is about how to accommodate economic growth in ways that enhance the quality of life in urban and rural communities and conserve our
Column 1354countryside heritage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks said, it is a question of balancing the demand for homes against the existing environment. That process cannot ignore the changes that are taking place in society and in people's expectations.
Population growth is critical in this area, and I am grateful to hon. Members for assisting my learning curve by highlighting a number of important matters, not least the numbers question, an issue at which I shall look closely.
I shall, in the short time left to me, reflect on what I consider to be an essential matter that was raised by my hon. Friends. I refer to the availability of land in towns and cities and the need to ensure that such land is used in preference to green field sites. I agree with my hon. Friends on this point. I represent an area at the heart of the inner city-- Lewisham--and I know that it is important that full and effective use is made of land within existing urban areas. My experience has shown that there are many opportunities arising from conversions, improvement and redevelopment, the bringing into use of neglected, unused or derelict land, including sites on land registers--I take on board the points made on that issue--and sites suitable for small-scale housing schemes in inner-city areas such as my constituency.
The important point is to put the land that is available in areas such as my constituency to good use. It is also important to make every effort to ensure that such land is placed as a priority over green field sites so that we can retain green field sites and the green belt. I appreciate that the debate has not dealt primarily with the green belts and I appreciate also my hon. Friends' comments on the success of that policy. I believe strongly that green belt policy should not allow for flexibility about what is or is not green belt land. However, that is another point and I hope that we can consider it carefully on other occasions. Many important points have been raised, not least the need to respond to local people and to ensure that their needs are met and that there is a mechanism to facilitate listening to and implementing their wishes more fully.
Those are only some of the issues that were raised. I have listened to all the issues discussed. I hope that my hon. Friends will forgive me for not responding to all their points because of the time constraint, but I look forward to a constructive and--I
hope--long-standing debate on this issue which will enable us to work constructively to achieve many of the goals that my hon. Friends have set for the Government in this constructive debate.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : I hope that hon. Members will forgive the pun, but as I came into the Chamber it dawned on me that on the last morning before the summer recess last year I had a slot at about the same time. On that occasion, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), replied on behalf of the Government in her maiden speech as a Minister.
My debate on that occasion was on the global environmental crisis. Little did I anticipate that the subject that I aired then would take off politically in the way that it did in the ensuing 12 months. It not only became the dominant issue at my party's conference in September, but it became the subject of the Prime Minister's now famous September speech and the major new issue on the political agenda. I hope that the issue that I raise today will become an issue of equal importance on the political agenda in this country and in our capital city, although I do not pretend that it has significance beyond that.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the draft strategic planning guidance for London. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and other hon. Members who do not represent London constituencies benefit from the tradition of having a strategic plan for your areas as part of the general planning system. Indeed, that is something that we had in London. Such strategic plans were prepared by local government until the abolition of the Greater London council.
During the passage of the Act abolishing the GLC, we had substantial debates about what should happen in relation to the planning of the capital city and the metropolitan area once the GLC was abolished. The debate concluded that a body to be called the London planning advisory committee should be set up, to be made up of the planning committee chairs or other representatives from all the London boroughs and the City of London. The committee's task was to advise the Secretary of State on all London-wide planning matters. It was agreed that its first task was to advise on the content of strategic guidance for the capital city. So it was that the London planning advisory committee was set up. It worked extremely hard and, on 25 October last year, produced the document "Strategic planning advice for London : Policies for the 1990s" as its advice to the Secretary of State.
One of the special things about the document is that it received unanimous support from the three parties which were represented on the committee. It was signed by the three party leaders. I think that everyone will pay tribute to the chairman, who happens to be a party colleague of mine-- Councillor Sally Hanwee of Richmond. She and her committee and their officers produced a very worthwhile document. The document presents some uplifting thoughts. The committee identified four themes which have made London what it has been at its best : London as a civilised city, London as a world city of trade, London as a city of residential neighbourhoods and communities, and London as a city which offers opportunities for all.
The committee says that it has attempted to set forth the planning policies necessary to ensure London's success
Column 1356into the next century. It also says that the complexity of considering strategic planning matters for London, which accommodates 15 per cent. of the nation's population and work force and accounts for nearly one fifth of the gross domestic product, made it difficult to produce the advice. The need to provide a co-ordinated context for 33 separate planning authorities presented a greater problem than in the other metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, the committee did so unanimously. The document went to the Secretary of State and he issued, in March this year, draft strategic planning guidance for London, which is a much shorter document, mainly because it omits many of the important matters on which he was given advice and which I--and, I believe, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Soley)--will argue should have been included.
The debate is timely because it could not have happened later. We always knew that the Secretary of State planned to issue his guidance before the end of July. I understand that it is no secret that the Secretary of State may issue his guidance today--by which I mean Friday, not Thursday which is where we still are in the parliamentary time warp of an all-night sitting. I ask the Minister to agree, and to ask the Secretary of State to agree, not to issue the guidance today, but to have further consultation on it, especially on the matters about which there is still anxiety. The new Secretary of State, who I welcome, has an opportunity here to apply his mind to the document.
It was obvious from his time as Minister for Overseas Development that the Secretary of State is particularly concerned about environmental matters worldwide. He has been shown a good deal on our television screens this week padding around the Brazilian rain forests--and all credit to him for that--but I hope and believe that he is no less concerned about environmental matters closer to home. In many people's experience the environment is in pretty poor shape in our capital city, and I hope that I can persuade the Minister to agree that there is no need to insist dogmatically on publication today. I believe that the Secretary of State and his Ministers must be willing not to go ahead and issue a final strategic planning guidance that would show little change from the draft document. Once produced, the document will effectively act as the strategic plan for London, and as a basis on which the local authorities will then draw up their unitary development plans. I know that that process should not be put off for months, with the whole exercise being repeated, but I believe that there are good reasons for delaying it somewhat. As the Minister probably knows, there has been widespread criticism of the draft guidance by those who have been consulted. Perhaps the most important criticism has come from the London advisory committee itself, again on an all-party basis. Other critics have been the London Boroughs Association, the Association of London Authorities, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Town and Country Planning Association and the Association of London Borough Planning Officers.
Along with the hon. Member for Hammersmith and the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire)--who apologised to me some hours ago for not being able to attend the debate as he had a prior engagement to spend the evening with his family--and the three other Members of the group equally representative of the party groupings in the House, I am a member of the parliamentary cross-party London housing group of MPs, who are linked with a body called the Campaign for Homes in Central
Column 1357London. We, too, have looked at the draft guidance, which was the subject of a conference held in county hall, and share the view that there is sufficient criticism and cause for concern for the document to be revised.
I have another reason for suggesting that the Minister should think again. Given the importance of the document, there has been inadequate consultation and debate. This is the first time that it has been debated in Parliament, the only other public debate being the one at county hall which took place in the middle of May. The consultation period was only 10 weeks.
It is important to delay if necessary because it is important to get things right. It has now become almost a cliche that London is grinding to a halt. Our transport system is increasingly clogged, and not just when there are rail, tube or bus strikes. It is generally more difficult to get around the capital, even without the additional influx which will result from Channel tunnel rail termini. Increasingly, there are staff shortages in key jobs and it is often impossible for people to acquire affordable homes. Those problems are not raised by people with a partisan political view. For example, Coopers and Lybrand was commissioned by ELPAC to carry out an independent survey, the result of which appeared in May. The survey report was called "Access to Housing in London" and confirmed the matters that I have mentioned.
The problems are so serious that it is imperative for us to get things right. I shall concentrate on one or two of the most significant matters and mention some others that are also important. The most significant matter in terms of immediacy and importance to the people affected is that we must strive to make London successful not just economically but in a way that will make it pleasant and satisfactory for Londoners to live in and for people to move around and work in.
To do that we must deal strategically with housing and housing policy. We need affordable housing and it must be continually available in our capital city. The Minister is a London Member and knows the pressures in his borough, as do the other London Members who are present. Unless there is a change to enable planning powers to intervene and influence the provision of housing, the market forces at work in London will continue ineluctably to drive up house prices. That is because London is a capital city and an international city to which people come. That produces additional forces which are not applied to our other towns and cities. Those factors price out people who have always lived here or less well paid people who need to live here because of their work.
We need a planning use class that enables land to be zoned specifically for low-cost or affordable housing. That idea has been considered in the Department because our all-party group has had discussions with Ministers responsible for housing and planning. Escalating amounts of public subsidy are spent on acquisitions in competition with the private sector in order to provide a decreasing number of new homes. Cost limits, which were developed to limit expenditure on, for example, housing association acquisition costs, mean that central London is getting fewer affordable homes. I have as many constituency pressures as any hon. Member, not least because in the docklands there are expensive developments while on the other side of the road