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29 Jul 1998 : Column 429

Rural Areas

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): At the outset, I should say that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.14 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I beg to move,

I congratulate the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), on surviving this week's reshuffle. I do not know whether he was helped by the scorn poured on his head by a disgraced lobbyist a few weeks ago; he may care to enlighten us later. Even if the Prime Minister shared the lobbyist's view, he may have been reluctant to show it by moving the Minister from his post. I wondered whether the new Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), would attend the debate, but, apparently, he is not present. We may at least be relieved that the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), will not reply to the debate; he is famous for his comments that the green belt was up for grabs and that the green belt west of London was a tip.

It is six months and two days since the House debated the protection of the countryside, and that debate--like today's--took place in Opposition time. In that debate, the motion deplored the Government's decisions to allow large-scale development in the countryside. It expressed concern that the protection of the green belt and green spaces was being weakened. It urged the Government to increase the share of new housing built on previously development land. Such is the cynicism of the Government's approach that those concerns are as relevant today as they were six months ago. On that issue, as on so many others, the Government's rhetoric is not matched by substance; actions do not follow words.

Sadly, we are getting used to the fact that new Labour breaks its promises on a huge scale--on taxes, on NHS waiting lists and on school class sizes. I suppose that we can at least say that those promises were all made before the Government took office. What is so disgraceful about Labour's approach to the countryside is the fact that it cannot even honour the pledges that it made six months ago.

Today's debate, however, is about more than broken promises. It is about the damage being done, week in, week out, to the countryside and to rural communities throughout England--damage to environments that have been cherished for generations, environments that Labour is destroying with a ruthlessness that no previous Labour Government, however left wing, ever showed. [Laughter.]

The debate is about the destruction of the green belt, a subject that Labour Back Benchers--this will not be recorded in Hansard unless I say it, so it needs to be said--find hilariously funny. The cornerstone of the protection that the planning system has offered the country for half a century is being destroyed by the Government and laughed at by Labour Back Benchers.

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The debate is about the development on green fields that should be protected; about the erosion of the role of local authorities; about the transfer of power to remote and bureaucratic regional quangos; about how the rural areas are being starved of cash; about the record increases in council tax; about housing and transport policies that ignore the needs of the countryside; and about tenants who want to buy their own homes and who are now being penalised. The tragedy is that so much of that damage is irreversible.

All that is made worse by the collapse of farm incomes--a collapse caused by new Labour and overseen by a Minister now promoted to the role of great enforcer. "Great executioner" would be a more apt title, after what he did to British farmers.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): I have frequently heard the hon. Gentleman, in Committee and elsewhere, mention the Government's damaging actions on the green belt. Does he agree that, considering the area of land on brown-field sites that has been built on since Labour came to power, our track record has been better--as have our targets for the next two or three years--than the last five years of the Government of which he was a member?

Mr. Yeo: I did my best to follow the hon. Gentleman's point. With regard to the target, under the previous Government, the proportion of houses built on previously developed sites rose from 38 to 50 per cent. and was steadily rising, year on year. That is a record of which the previous Government could rightly be proud. It was only under pressure from the Opposition that the Labour party accepted that the target should continue to be set at a higher level.

The Secretary of State--who is absent from his place today, as he was at the end of January when we debated protecting the countryside--made a statement in the House, on 23 February 1998, Official Report, columns 21-25, about planning for the communities of the future. He described the introduction of a sequential approach to the location of new housing and a phased approach to the release of land as "an important element" in his proposals. Recycled land in urban areas should be built on first, he said, before green-field sites were bulldozed. I agree.

What has the Secretary of State done to carry out that pledge? What has he done to take forward that important Government policy? Nothing. Six months later, we are still waiting for a single action to be taken in support of the policy. No new planning policy guidance has been issued. Not a single county has been allowed to revise its structure plan. There is no sign whatever that the Secretary of State has the remotest intention of altering his policy of forcing more and more development on to green-field sites--a policy that he pursues regardless of local opinion and the damage that his decisions cause.

On 23 February, the Secretary of State identified the first key element, as he called it, of the Government's new approach as "increased flexibility." Despite that, he has persisted in a totally inflexible manner with his legal battle to impose an extra 12,800 new homes on West Sussex, in defiance of the wishes of all three political parties on the county council. Even at this 11th hour, with the decision of the court expected any

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day, the Secretary of State could repent. His refusal to do so makes it clear that the Labour group leader on West Sussex county council spoke the truth when he said:

    "This is the starkest possible illustration that the Government has no intention of trying to provide a greater share of the new homes said to be required by 2016 on brown field sites, rather than on green field sites in the countryside."

Next door, in Hampshire, the county council has made clear its wish, in the light of the Government's February statement, to reduce the total of 56,000 houses in its draft structure plan to 42,000. As the leader of Hampshire county council said:

    "The people of Hampshire expect us to do this."

What will the Minister tell the people of Hampshire tonight? Does he accept their view, or is new Labour's claim that the top-down system of fixing the number of new homes needed in a county would be abolished just another empty promise--a promise given to get through an awkward debate and then consigned to the rubbish bin?

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): I have the report of Somerset county council's consideration of the examination in public panel report. The county council is fighting against the proposal for more than 50,000 houses to be built in Somerset. It is as though the welcome statement from the Secretary of State those many months ago had never been made. The entire policy and process continue, with no move by the Secretary of State or the Department to draw up new rules and arrangements. Is not the situation grave? Pressure on green-field sites will not change, given the appalling crisis that agriculture faces, with farm incomes in the south-west--the worst affected region--predicted to be 80 per cent. below those of the previous year. The temptation for many farmers facing no prospect of a future in farming will be to sell their land for development.

Mr. Yeo: My right hon. Friend is right. The words that the Secretary of State spoke in February and when he replied to our debate in January were empty phrases, devoid of meaning and lacking any follow-up action. As my right hon. Friend points out, this is a crisis of particularly serious proportions because of the difficulty faced by farmers throughout the country.

The damage that results from the crisis and directly from the Government's failure to act on their previous statement is irreversible. In some senses, it is even more serious than the problem of someone who may be made redundant. It takes a week or two to get another job, but he does find another job. Once a green field has been built on, it practically never reverts to its original use. The damage that results, which my right hon. Friend correctly identified, is serious and permanent. It makes a mockery of the Government's claim in their amendment to tonight's motion that they are in favour of sustainable development. There is nothing sustainable about their present policy.

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