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Mr. Fisher: I make it clear that the Government's proper concern is the fulfilment of the charter and the charter agreement, which is what we are debating today. It is a complicated matter and I shall turn to it precisely.

Do the changes satisfy the obligation in the charter and the agreement? Does the way in which the BBC has proposed the changes satisfy the obligation to be accountable to Parliament? The answer to the first question must be yes. The programmes fulfil the obligation to transmit an impartial account day by day--even if that account is consciously scheduled so as to attract a smaller audience. The wording of the charter is about whether there is reporting day by day; that obligation is fulfilled. However, it is a matter of the spirit as well as the letter of the agreement, and that is what we are debating today.

Tomorrow, Sir Christopher Bland will hear in person the views that have been expressed today. In the next two weeks, before the Radio Times schedule is printed for6 April--when the new programming is due to commence--he will have the opportunity to listen to the clearly expressed views of Parliament.

11 Mar 1998 : Column 511

Broadclyst New Town

12.30 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): My constituents who live in the district of East Devon have for some time faced the prospect of a new town being built immediately adjacent to the village of Broadclyst, which is quite close to the Exeter city boundary. When the Devon county structure plan first review deposit version was published in 1996, I sent--as the Member of Parliament representing the area--a written submission in response to that plan. In the main, I supported the views of East Devon district council. In my letter to the county environment director in December 1996, I said that my views reflected those of the district council in that I felt that a new town would be highly inappropriate, and I expressed some sympathy with the proposal for a limited village.

We all accept that there must be new housing--I do not approach the debate from the point of view that we do not need new housing. However, I hope that the debate will identify what is appropriate in terms of the number and location of houses. I said in my submission that the decision to build a new town in my constituency should be deferred for five years while a full audit of brown-field sites throughout the county of Devon was conducted. The term "brown-field sites"--which is common parlance these days--refers to disused land that was used for domestic or commercial purposes and can be recycled.

My view remained unchanged in September last year when the examination in public met at county hall for three weeks. I spent three days giving evidence to the public inquiry on behalf of my constituents about the overall number of new houses proposed in the county structure plan for Devon, and specifically about the proposed new town at Broadclyst. I repeated to the inquiry my request for a deferment of the decision to build the town until a full audit of brown-field sites throughout Devon was completed.

The inquiry heard evidence from many representatives, including some from the city of Exeter and from Torbay--I see that the hon. Members for Exeter(Mr. Bradshaw) and for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) are both in their places. Perhaps not surprisingly, the representatives of the two local authorities declared that they had virtually no brown-field sites within their boroughs and that there was no alternative but to begin to encroach on the green-field sites in my constituency.

We must address two key questions when identifying housing need in Devon. The first is the assessment of total future numbers. An imperfect science seems to determine how many houses will be needed well into the future--in this case, we are looking beyond 2011. The Liberal Democrat-controlled county council has used inward migration figures of 7,330 a year to support its claim. In fact, the average over the past seven years has been just 5,000 a year, so there is already a difference of opinion in anticipating housing need.

At the examination in public, all parties around the table spent a great deal of time examining changes in social patterns within the region and discussing why we now needed more, and a greater variety of, housing. The inquiry engaged in constructive discussion, but there is always a thorny issue. Devon is a popular part of the country, where I am fortunate to have lived for 30 years.

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Other hon. Members will know Devon through their visits to that county. Devon is the sort of place where people from other parts of the country want to live. They often cannot fulfil that ambition until they retire, so Devon is known as a retirement area.

I do not wish the House to suppose for a moment that I am one of those who think that we should "keep those foreigners out" or that I am not receptive to the idea that others would like to enjoy the Devon life style. I do not want anyone to misinterpret the case that I am making. However, there is a difference between natural inward migration by people who choose to live in Devon and what I would describe as an out-and-out marketing campaign by those who have a vested interest in persuading people to move to Devon. As I said at the examination in public, I believe that such action distorts the figures.

The county believes that we must accommodate inward migration of 7,330 a year, but the historic figure is 5,000 a year. The difference equates to about 1,000 homes a year. If we apply the 5,000-a-year formula, we see that we would not need a new town in numerical terms--and certainly not one at Broadclyst. The second factor that comes into play is location. The East Devon district has no indigenous need for new housing on this scale. The location, which is adjacent to the Exeter city border, is an important reason why Broadclyst has been chosen: it is intended to accommodate the growth and overspill of the city of Exeter.

I have every sympathy with Exeter's need for housing. My constituency shares services and facilities supplied by Exeter, including the general hospital, and the city provides employment opportunities. We understand the importance of Exeter to our part of Devon. I am very fond of Exeter: both of my sons were born there, so what more can a mother say? I can pay no greater compliment to the city of Exeter. However, I do not believe that it is in the interests of my constituents in neighbouring East Devon to accommodate Exeter's problems on such a large scale. It is proposed that 3,000 homes be built in the new town to accommodate 8,000 people eventually.

The Liberal Democrat county council and the examination in public have ignored what local people want and the views that they reflect through me, their democratically elected representative. Before the examination in public response was published recently, I was advised by the county council that the lobby groups would not be pleased by the result of the inquiry. I was obliged to inform the council that I am the lobby group in my area, so I have no problem with the Council for the Protection of Rural England or any other lobby group approaching me and saying, "Look at this terrible result from the examination in public". I argued against the new town during that hearing, and I shall continue to lobby against it.

In the Western Morning News on Monday, deputy leader of the town council Rod Ruffle said:

a second town is planned for Devon--

    "will create less damage to the countryside than expanding existing towns and villages."

Let us examine that claim. If he meant that the way forward was to expand on to green-field sites around and within existing towns and villages, he might have a point.

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However, I and others have called for an independent audit of brown-field or recycled land to identify land suitable to accommodate new houses. If, at the end of such an audit, it was found that those sites would not accommodate a sufficient number, there might be a case for saying that we should consider having a bigger settlement. Areas of land in my constituency would then need to be considered, as would land in other constituencies.

However, that is not what has happened. At the EIP, we heard that Exeter city council had carried out an audit. Indeed, certain developers attended the EIP and said that they had also carried out an audit of brown-field sites. I am asking the Minister for an audit carried out, or certainly scrutinised, by a body that does not have a vested interest in the outcome. Clearly, if developers have their eye on a certain piece of land, they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by carrying out an audit that does not really reflect the full potential of brown-field sites elsewhere. I and many of my constituents are not convinced that a proper independent audit to determine potential brown-field sites has been carried out in Exeter or around it--certainly not in the county of Devon.

Surprisingly, and probably for the first time in my life, I found myself agreeing with the Deputy Prime Minister, when he said in a recent statement to the House:

When the right hon. Gentleman tells us at the Dispatch Box that that has never been done before and is an important change, it begs the question of what sort of audit was carried out in the evidence to the EIP last September at county hall, Exeter. I welcome that news from the Deputy Prime Minister. He continued:

    "it will sharpen the focus of policy and action on the ground",

and that is exactly what this debate is about. He went on to say:

    "Last week, I asked my Department to work with English Partnerships and local government to create a national database of land use, which will give local authorities reliable information on the amount of recycled land available for housing."--[Official Report, 23 February 1998; Vol. 306, c. 23.]

Clearly, since the Devon county structure plan was laid and we all took part in that examination in public in September, certain things have changed. In that spirit, I ask the Minister to intervene by giving me his support today for my original request. I am asking him to give guidance in cases such as that of Broadclyst, where we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The county structure plan has been laid, we have had the examination in public and yet a useful policy is about to come forward that could affect the outcome. I repeat my request to the Minister to give guidance and to intervene, and to support what I asked for in 1996, which was a moratorium while the exercise is carried out. When we have examined fully exactly how much brown-field land there is in Devon and whether it is appropriate for the new housing need, a decision can be taken about whether to proceed with a new town.

Many people may think that no real decisions are taken until the democratic process--whereby all those different stages in the county structure plan invite people such as myself and others to participate, to make proposals

11 Mar 1998 : Column 514

reflecting our local views and to explain what residents think--is completed. I will, therefore, now turn to the examination in public held at county hall last September. Just after the first deposit version of the county structure plan was laid, a company called Wilcon Homes--

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