Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): When I said that I would not like my constituency to resemble that of the hon. Lady, I meant that my constituency contains large areas of countryside, which the Crow report would concrete over. Will the hon. Lady reject the Crow report? I hope that she will.

Dr. Starkey: I want to say that Milton Keynes has been an incredible success and that it has given a much better quality of life to those who have moved to it. It was built on a greenfield site, but on low-quality agricultural land. Milton Keynes has many more trees and animals than there were on that low-grade agricultural land.

People in Milton Keynes want their children to be able to live and work in their city. There is already a shortage of affordable housing and, because of the strength of the local economy, substantial in-commuting takes place and that is beginning to cause pollution and congestion.

I welcome that part of Professor Crow's report that relates to Milton Keynes. In particular, I welcome his proposals that state clearly that the eastern side of Milton

2 Nov 1999 : Column 137

Keynes needs plan-led growth. Such growth would retain the high quality that Milton Keynes has come to expect, would be linked to sustainable public transport and would provide a balanced community that included more affordable housing. That positive way forward contrasts hugely with the inchoate rants that we heard from Conservative Members.

5.31 pm

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): In contrast to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), I want to congratulate my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on their contributions to the debate. I also wish to congratulate the Minister for Housing and Planning on his promotion. I fully recognise his deep experience and expertise in housing and planning matters. I wish him well in his new responsibilities.

I agreed with the hon. Members for Milton Keynes, South-West and for Castle Point (Mrs. Butler) when they stressed the importance of the quality of the landscapes around housing and the quality of the housing itself. I therefore congratulate the Government on their choice of Mr. Stuart Lipton as the chairman of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which will take over the responsibilities of the former Royal Fine Arts Commission and, I hope, will consider how to encourage design in housing at a more parochial level.

I hope to make three constructive points in the debate about greenfield and brownfield site developments. We are in danger of getting bogged down in a competition as to who can promise the most housing development on brownfield sites. Figures of 42 per cent., 50 per cent., 60 per cent. and two thirds have been mentioned, and I understand that the Liberal Democrats now say that three quarters of developments should be on brownfield sites. The figures will vary in different regions of the country, but the important thing is to ensure that we have a policy of not releasing greenfield sites for development until all brownfield sites that can practically be developed are developed.

Therefore, we must consider development on under-used, unused and derelict brownfield sites. It is not unreasonable for the Secretary of State to insist that each local planning authority develops all available brownfield sites before it allows developers to build in the countryside. Only when the Secretary of State is satisfied that that has been done should he allow greenfield sites to be developed. He can control such matters, because he can use his call-in powers. It may sound simplistic--perhaps it is not a bad thing to have an easily expressed policy--but the Government's policy should simply be to encourage brownfield development wherever possible, to allow development sparingly on greenfield sites and never to build on greenbelt land.

If I have a particular criticism of the Government and the Prime Minister, it relates to the developments that will take place on the greenbelt land to the west of Stevenage and outside Newcastle. It is a shade disingenuous of the Prime Minister to say that the Government have increased

2 Nov 1999 : Column 138

the amount of greenbelt land by adding to it undevelopable agriculture land. The whole purpose of a greenbelt policy is not to build on the green belt.

Mr. Steen: On this business of sequential development under planning policy guidance note 3 on brownfield and greenfield sites, does my hon. Friend agree that planning policy guidance would be even more helpful it if allowed local authorities to cross boundaries, so that rural authorities could meet their brownfield requirement in the urban area next door?

Sir Sydney Chapman: That is a fair suggestion; it is a matter for consideration, and will vary from one part of the country to the other.

Secondly, having said that we must encourage brownfield development, how can it be done? I shall make two suggestions, which I hope are constructive. The first relates to section 106 agreements. It may be prudent to declare that I am a non-practising architect and a non-practising town and country planning consultant. In fact, I have not practised for many years and have been completely unremunerated for even longer. Section 106 agreements are the section 52 agreements of yesteryear.

I am very uneasy about 106 agreements because, at best, they build in taxation: they stipulate that one may build on one site only if more money is put towards another project elsewhere. Given that, these days, we must be very careful to ensure open government and transparent decisions, I am deeply concerned about many 106 agreements. I would far rather there be an open taxation system, under which, in return for--one hopes--exceptional development on greenfield sites, a tax would help subsidise the cleaning up or decontamination of many brownfield sites. I ask the Government seriously to consider that proposal.

My third point--and my second suggestion--refers to something that the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) has already mentioned. There is a good taxation adage, which goes like this: "If you make an exception for any tax, you create an anomaly." Nowhere is that more true than for value added tax in the construction industry.

The House will know that new dwellings are zero-rated, but that repair, renovation and refurbishment are rated at 17.5 per cent. There has been a trend in London, although I cannot speak for other areas of the country--the Minister may be totally conversant with it, and say that the trend is coming to an end, but I do not think that it is--for converting warehouses and offices to dwellings. In such cases, developers--whether public or private sector--are playing on an uneven field. I realise that there is a problem, and shall spend the couple of minutes left to me to describe it as I understand it.

My argument is that the refurbishment of empty properties and renovation of houses should be zero-rated, in line with new dwellings. However, I understand that that would fall foul of European Community law. The European Court of Justice ruled in 1988, I think, that the scope of our zero rates was too wide, but it accepted that the construction of all buildings for residential use had always been VAT-free and should therefore continue to be treated as such. I do not want to get into an argument about the European issue, but I believe that to be so.

2 Nov 1999 : Column 139

Nevertheless, VAT on renovation or alteration of housing could be reduced to 5 per cent., but only as

I conclude that that means social housing, not privately owned homes.

I understand that the Government are looking into the matter, and that they believe that unifying rates would help to provide a more level playing field--to use their words. However, they also recognise that other economic and technical issues are involved, including European law. I suggest that the Government sort out that inconsistency and, if necessary, lobby very hard for a change in Brussels. As they boast of wanting to ensure that our country is at the heart of Europe, that will be one of my litmus tests to gauge how successful they are in that campaign.

My simple propositions are, first, that there should be open, transparent, but not prohibitive taxation on any greenbelt development, with back-up powers for the Secretary of State to prevent greenfield development where he believes that brownfield sites could be redeveloped. Secondly, there should be subsidy, or at least tax incentives, to defray the extra costs of building on brownfield sites, to encourage building on such sites, for, in most cases, it is the extra costs that make them uneconomic at present. Finally, there should be a comprehensive review with the purpose of unifying VAT on construction.

5.41 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): I thank the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) for his constructive and straightforward contribution--in contrast to those of his colleagues.

I shall speak about the erosion of the green belt and green fields in my constituency. However, first I congratulate the Conservative party on being brave enough to call for the debate, because it really has a great deal to answer for. As I remember, for much of the 18 years of Conservative Government, it seemed to be the prevailing view that manufacturing industry did not count for much, and that the future of wealth creation lay with the service sector. Therefore, the only way to create jobs in the north was for local authorities to make increasing amounts of land available for housing on greenfield or greenbelt sites, enabling developers to build so-called executive houses with four or five bedrooms, garages for two cars, and even the odd swimming pool.

The more beautiful the location, the greater the likelihood of attracting service sector entrepreneurs to get into their BMWs and drive up the M1 to expand their empires and convert the natives in areas that they would otherwise have found inhospitable. That view, and consequent Government pressures, led many local authorities, such as Bradford, to release more land for housing in the rural areas to satisfy the Government's demands, based ostensibly on projected household growth.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions still regards the estimate of 4.4 million new households over the 25 years from 1991 to 2016 as the best that there is. However, the Secretary of State, in last year's policy document "Planning for the Communities of the Future", sets out his commitment

2 Nov 1999 : Column 140

to ensuring that 60 per cent. of that growth is on brownfield sites--a move very much in the right direction.

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, in its report "A Brown and Pleasant Land", claims that 39.6 per cent. of the 4.4 million projected new households are expected to be formed in London and the south-east, whereas only 8.8 per cent. are projected for Yorkshire and Humberside. In the same table, based on DETR figures, we learn that the area of derelict land in London and the south-east amounts to only 11.4 per cent. of the national total, whereas the Yorkshire and Humberside region contains 13.8 per cent. Could it be that Bradford was pushed by the previous Government into putting too much greenbelt land and too many greenfield sites into the last unitary development plan?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning and I have exchanged many letters on the subject. I initiated an Adjournment debate last year, and spoke in the debate on the tenth report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. My argument, now as then, is that parts of the Bradford UDP should never have been allocated for housing.

The largest proposed site in my constituency, with a possible 1,500 dwellings, is in what is still a very rural and quite beautiful part of the Aire valley. Yorkshire Water cannot as yet say that the main sewer has the capacity to cope with that development and the many other smaller developments in the valley. That suggests that Yorkshire Water was never consulted before the last UDP was drawn up, or that it was and gave unreliable assurances.

The original insistence, agreed by the inspector, that the main access road, including a crossing of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, should be funded by the developers is now becoming increasingly vague.

May I repeat my often-made grouse about outline planning permission given by the UDP inspector for housing at Manor Garth at Addingham in the Wharfe valley and in a field at Leeming, a hamlet above Oxenhope--two of the many attractive rural villages in my constituency? Both Manor Garth and Leeming were changed by the previous Government's inspector from village green space to housing land, in the teeth of opposition by Bradford council and the local communities, for no other reason than that the owners wanted to make money out of the land, which, since allocation for housing, has changed hands several times.

These three aspects of the unitary development plan, which I oppose, were introduced under pressure from the previous Government and approved by their inspector--so much for the Conservative party's commitment to retaining our green and pleasant land. I am saddened that this erosion of the green belt and greenfield sites is to remain in the UDP unchallenged, as though handed down on the proverbial tablets of stone.

Much that is good for urban regeneration is going on in my constituency, mainly through Bradford council's single regeneration budget. Following protracted negotiations, the green light was recently given for the rebuilding and refurbishment of the now near-derelict but once elegant Royal arcade. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions visited us last year and saw other imaginative schemes creating homes in the town centre through the SRB.

2 Nov 1999 : Column 141

I recognise and applaud the fact that the Government are moving away from the predict-and-provide mentality, and that their urban task force has examined ways of finding incentives to move the gaze of developers away from the rich pickings of greenfield sites and towards reclaimed sites. I look forward to the transformation of redundant industrial buildings into apartments, and more living-over-the-shop schemes. If we raise our eyes above the often garish shop windows of our older towns, we find lovely, large Victorian buildings, many unused, whereas in France such town centre assets are put to good use as attractive apartments.

It is good to know that the Government are introducing a regional element into the planning process. I hope that that will stop local authorities competing with one another for developments with their yield of council tax and planning gain, by making yet more greenfield sites available.

With 9,000 empty, mainly older dwellings in the Bradford district, this may be a good time to examine the aggressive selling techniques of developers, which leave the private vendor of an older terraced house at a disadvantage.

Too many assumptions in planning law are in favour of the developer, but the Government are doing much that I applaud in this regard. However, if we are to achieve the much desired 60:40 split, we may have to resort to much more of the carrot and stick through taxation and planning guidelines for developers and local authorities alike.

Next Section

IndexHome Page