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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am afraid that the right hon. Lady's time is up.

5.2 pm

Mrs. Christine Butler (Castle Point): One cannot begin to discuss this subject sensibly without focusing on existing urban areas and cities. It is lamentable that in the central region of London we have only 500,000 residents, compared with 2 million in cities such as Paris. I welcome Government initiatives on planning policy guidance, regional development agencies and regional planning.

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They are targeting need, deprivation, health, education and housing. There are 750,000 empty properties in urban areas, and that problem needs to be addressed.

What are the causes? The first is the prevailing ideology of the past that was linked to market forces regardless of the environmental, social or economic consequences. Thoughtlessness and a willingness to pander to vested interests led to piecemeal planning that resulted in rundown areas in cities and conurbations standing cheek by jowl with up-market, expensive housing. That is true not just of the south-east, but of northern and midland areas. In some of those areas it is hardly possible to buy a house for less than £100,000, yet a quarter of a mile away they are practically being given away.

The potential of previously developed land has often been disregarded. The problems were made worse by the old predict and provide system that encouraged development on greenfield sites as an easy way out. Local planning authorities have often been unable to withstand applications for greenfield site development; they can only temper the situation by section 106 agreements. That has been uncomfortable for many districts who have had applications for large developments of hundreds--sometimes thousands--of homes and have had to negotiate a section 106 agreement for schools and roads. All that has added to the existing problems without any real focus on a sequential test, which will now be introduced. I am pleased that local authorities will be able to apply that sequential test and discuss need to a greater extent than ever before.

Authorities will be able to expect better design principles. We have always paid regard to design, but not nearly enough. I welcome the urban task force report, under Lord Rogers, that has put design at the top of the agenda. Without really good design, nothing can work. Local authorities should be able to describe they types of housing needed and local planning authorities should have development briefs for parcels of land. They should be able to scrutinise and criticise design, and to expect higher standards.

I would argue for changes to punitive VAT rates on conversions and against the present zero rate on new build. That cannot go on. There are problems, but the Government must look closely at what they can do to militate against the over-willingness of developers who want greenfield site development.

Empty property should not attract concessions--it should attract penalties. At present, local authorities can allow reductions in rates demands and so on for an empty property, but we should introduce penalties. I am not certain of the rate--that is up to the Government--but the penalties should be substantial, so that we can get empty properties into use. Often, housing associations are ready and willing to buy up those properties and convert them for social housing, which would benefit the sons and daughters of people living in those areas.

We must look to the development of the five regions in England. For the life of me, I cannot understand the Opposition's destructive attitude towards regionalism. If they support local interests, why do they want everything to depend on Whitehall? Why will they not give significance and credit to people living within the regions, or allow them to determine their own futures--to know, for instance, what skills are needed so that they can match

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education, skills and new industry? Why will the Opposition not accept that that is a good way forward? That is what we intend to do.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mrs. Butler: I will not give way, as I have only a few minutes.

It is far more desirable for regional planning guidance and regional development agencies to come to some broad conclusions on spatial development, such as where best to locate employment and housing. These should be close together, and we must have no more of the 30 to 40-mile journey to work. We cannot get rid of that situation over night, and we are depending on new Government initiatives to tackle these problems. At the moment, these are mostly in draft form and will take time. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) may not agree, but he should remember that it takes years to establish section 106 agreements. The new way forward would help, and we would not have to go through all those long and involved planning applications, or try to resolve matters through complicated section 106 and other unhelpful legal agreements. We could get on with considering Lord Rogers's task force's report, and all the new initiatives for creating regeneration on brownfield sites.

I do not want to take up too much of the time of the House, because I realise that many Members are keen to contribute to the debate. However, I want to stress the fact that the best way forward involves integrated policies, which should derive from local needs and be delivered through a regional approach, instead of the old predict and provide system, with its over-reliance on remote Whitehall decisions.

5.11 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): We welcome this debate on the crucial issue of how we respond to the challenge of housing the growing number of households that it is predicted will be formed over the next few years. The subject is important, and we must get our answers right for the sake of the hundreds of thousands of inadequately housed families in this country and for the future of our precious green spaces.

To understand the consequences of getting the matter wrong, we need look no further than the record of the previous Government. With that in mind, I draw the attention of the House to the amendment tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself. We welcomethe Conservatives' new-found conversion to environmentalism and the protection of green fields in the south-east, but we question whether their concern may be due to the fact that the south-east is where almost all their seats are held. We cannot let them get away with ignoring their record of 18 years of neglect of those green places.

The Tory legacy is one of

That is the situation that the Labour Government found when they took office in 1997. They have been slow and unadventurous in dealing with it, but we should make no mistake about the fact that it was the Tories who put this country in that situation.

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The previous Government's predict and provide policy resulted in record numbers of homeless and inadequately housed people. Only 42 per cent. of the new houses built were sited on brownfield land, which means that six out of 10 new homes were built on greenfield sites. That Government's sale of council houses without replacement reduced the availability of affordable housing for rent--which was a significant factor in bringing about the present situation--with record numbers of people unable to obtain such housing.

The Labour party promised a change of policy, saying that there would be an end to predict and provide and that the new housing requirement would be reduced from 4.4 million to 3.8 million homes. Labour also promised that there would be a new commitment to urban regeneration. We have heard plenty of fine words, but we have not yet seen much change on the ground. Too many greenfield sites are still being built on, and the urban task force estimated in its report that at the current rate of progress, the Government would not meet their 60 per cent. target for development on brownfield sites, but would achieve only 55 per cent.

Liberal Democrats believe that we need to work much harder to use the existing housing infrastructure. Our aim is environmental sustainability, and our target is for 75 per cent. of development to take place on brownfield sites.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The hon. Gentleman clearly feels on safe ground attacking the only two parties that have ever been in power or are ever likely to be in power. However, two exceptions to that rule are district councils and county councils, many of which have been controlled by the Liberal Democrats. He has only to consider North Wiltshire council, or Wiltshire county council, which used to be Liberal Democrat-controlled, to see what happens when his party is in power. Its councillors give planning permission for out-of-town shopping centres and housing all over our beautiful greenfield sites.

Mr. Sanders: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the system. Local authorities have to work within a national framework that sets a national target. They are duty bound to identify sites; they have no choice in the matter. That is true of Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat councils.

We should levy a greenfield tax.

Mr. Steen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sanders: I shall certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is my constituency neighbour.

Mr. Steen: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy and kindness. Our constituencies share Torbay, although he has a little more of it than I do.

The hon. Gentleman is after a figure of 70 per cent. for brownfield sites--I do not disagree with him on that. However, in Torbay the problem is that brownfield sites do not reach a figure of 70 per cent.--at present, the figure is not even 30 per cent. In view of that, where does the hon. Gentleman propose to put the houses?--not in the South Hams, the other part of my constituency.

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