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5.48 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): It is unfortunate that the Minister for Housing and Planning is not present. He has attended all the other debates in which I have spoken over the past year, and I am sorry that he will miss what I shall say, but perhaps he will read it in the morning.

The Labour party spends its time blaming us, and we spend much of our time blaming the Labour party. The only difference between the two sides is that the Labour party is in government and must accept responsibility. Even if we may have contributed to part of the problem, the Government's job now is to deal with it. There is not much point in their complaining that they are running the country now.

I shall deal with three aspects of Government policy: the number of houses that they believe should be built; planning policy guidance note 3; and local plans. There is a household time-bomb waiting to explode. From the time that the world began until 1990, the population grew to5 billion. Between 1990 and 2050, it will increase by another 5 billion, making 10 billion--5 billion more people in 60 years. However, the problem with housing is not analogous.

In Britain, the population is not increasing, but massive numbers of additional housing units are required, largely because of increased levels of divorce, the fact that elderly people are living longer, and the movement of young people out of the parental household at an earlier age. In the south-west, about a third of the new households requiring housing results from in-migration.

The previous Secretary of State believed that 4.4 million new households were required by 2011. He based that on the famous predict and provide formula. The current

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Secretary of State, though, has managed to spirit away 600,000 households from that figure--with a magician-like quality, they have disappeared into thin air. The figure is now 3.8 million and I say to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) that the Government have agreed to it. It is no good the Secretary of State mouthing the right words in Whitehall if his voice does not reach the regions. Although he has spirited away all those households, that has not affected the south-west or the regional planning committee, which insists that 438,000 extra households need to be built in Devon by 2011. Devon county council, which is Liberal Democrat run, is locked into the figure of 90,000 and South Hams district council feels obliged to find land for 12,000 new houses.

Although the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) has taken a little break, it is worth mentioning that the council is expected to build 6,200 new houses. Where will it build them, because it has used up all its brownfield land and there is not much greenfield land? If Torbay's population growth over the past 20 years is projected forward, the indication is that the total population would increase by a factor of only 0.08 per cent., or 983 new dwellings, not the 6,200 quoted under the predict and provide formula.

In March, the Government issued the consultative draft of planning policy guidance note 3, setting out a sequential approach to planning that suggested that local authorities would have the power to prevent greenfield development if they had undeveloped brownfield sites in their area. That was a positive step and I supported it. It seemed even more positive when, during an Adjournment debate on Lord Rogers's report, the Minister stated:

The problem is that, in practice, local authorities will not put PPG3 into effect until it has legal standing. I asked the Minister when it would be published; he replied that it would be published in the relatively near future. That was nearly four months ago. Indeed, in response to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), stated:

    "The final version of PPG3 should be published very shortly."--[Official Report, 1 November 1999; Vol. 337, c. 8.]

When will PPG3 become law and what is meant by "shortly"?

Let us deal with the sequential approach. The Government say that 60 per cent. of new households should be built on previously developed land. What will happen if, as in Torbay, 60 per cent. of new households cannot be built on brownfield sites? The figure is nearer 30 per cent. What will happen to the other 30 per cent? South Hams contains many categories of land under environmental protection, areas of outstanding natural beauty and landscape value, national park land and conservation areas. What is the council supposed to do if the area does not have enough brownfield sites?

That consideration causes me to raise the question whether PPG3 will allow local authorities in a country area to jump over the boundaries into an urban area where there are spare brownfield sites. The local authority in a country area could provide some of that housing

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allocation in the next-door area--in my case, cities such as Plymouth or Exeter, which have a lot of brownfield sites. That proposal would accelerate their use and the Government must take that important point on board. If they are to insist on a sequential approach in a country area, they will have to ban building on greenfield sites until all the brownfield sites are filled. However, there will still be a requirement for more households. We have to consider PPG3 to be more than a list of the Government's favourite options and I believe that the ability to jump over neighbourhood boundaries is an essential requirement if it is to have real meaning. PPG3 may become a lame duck or a white elephant.

Dr. Starkey: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steen: Not at the moment, if the hon. Lady does not mind. If I have time, I shall give way later.

Local authorities have either produced their local plans or are about to do so and those are based on the national figure of 4.4 million new households. That is wrong to start with: if the Government are to reduce the figure to 3.8 million, that has to be fed into the local plans now or they will be based on a false figure and more land than necessary will be taken up for household development.

When developers have not received consent to build on a greenfield site because brownfield sites remain undeveloped, will the inspector say, "You cannot have planning permission to develop an estate because you have not finished up the brownfield sites yet"? Can the Minister explain whether it will it be a Government direction that brownfield sites have to be filled first and that development will be allowed on no greenfield sites until then? Will inspectors support that approach on appeal?

How will the Government cope, even with the figure of 3.8 million new households? Will the planning inspectors pay any regard to infrastructure? If we are to have 3.8 million new households, we will need endless new schools, new shops, new leisure centres, new roads and new water and sewerage pipes for them. Will the Government fund that? If they are to rely on the developers to put in the necessary infrastructure, they can do so only if a development is so massive that the developers will be able to make a big enough profit to install all those facilities. I believe that the household time-bomb has not been spirited away by this new approach. On the contrary, it is ticking away merrily and the Government must address it.

5.57 pm

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): I listened to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) open the debate and began to wonder which planet he was on. He clearly inhabits a world very different from that inhabited by most of my constituents. The motion refers to a divided Britain, the dereliction of the inner cities and the need for urban regeneration. I am absolutely stunned that Conservative Members have the cheek to talk about a divided Britain and the problems of the inner cities when the people I represent live with the Tory legacy day after day. There are absolutely horrendous problems in towns and cities across the nation.

Conservative Members do not like to be reminded of what they did, but they presided over the biggest ever increase in the gap between rich and poor in this country,

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destroyed manufacturing industry in the two biggest recessions we have ever experienced and threw hundreds of thousands of people on the scrap heap, consigning them to a future without jobs, hope or any kind of prospects for themselves and their families. I wonder how they dare sit in the Chamber today mouthing platitudes about division and regeneration.

I am perhaps the first Member representing a hard-pressed inner-city area to speak in the debate. The House needs to know the truth about what it is like to try to pick up the pieces after 18 years of Tory misrule. There is still huge unemployment in inner cities throughout the country. The national rate might be down to 5 or 6 per cent., but many inner-city wards still have more than 20 per cent. long-term hard, structural unemployment and generations that have not worked and have no prospect of doing so. There are huge problems of poverty, with 85 to 100 per cent. of children on free school meals in some schools in my constituency. Many of the poorest wards in the country are concentrated in inner-city areas and there are huge problems with health, teenage pregnancy, low birth rate and crime and disorder. Communities are fragmenting.

Hon. Members must realise that we do not all live in the lovely green Britain that we should like to see through our windows, but that many of us live in extremely difficult circumstances. Years of poverty, neglect and deprivation have led to unbalanced communities. Many inner-city areas have either elderly populations or lots of young people and students. There are few families or middle-class people and the communities are completely unbalanced. The challenge for this Government is to try to build sustainable communities with a mix of income, age and skills--people in work and people with something to contribute to their community.

What we have seen, however, is communities falling apart through crime, drugs and poor housing. The challenge to us is to build communities where people have skills and confidence, and to make our cities places where people want to live, work and bring up their families. It is no easy task.

I have a couple of practical suggestions to make to the Government. Unlike Conservative Members, Labour Members genuinely care about people who live in difficult conditions. We do not just shed crocodile tears to take cheap political advantage. First, jobs are absolutely crucial to regeneration. We need to draw investment into areas to create long-term, sustainable employment. To do that, we need to provide land. In many inner-city areas, the cost of reclaiming land and providing services far outstrips the ultimate value of that land. We must ensure that the regional development agencies are sufficiently well resourced to invest in the land needed to provide jobs for the future. It is not a matter of subsidies; it is about long-term investment, and we must recognise that land in inner-city areas is often not worth developing unless the RDA can reclaim it, install the services and make it in a fit state to attract investment.

Secondly, we must ensure that local people have the skills necessary to take up the jobs on offer. The North West regional development agency has just produced its economic and skills strategy, and the document was presented to the Deputy Prime Minister last week. It was prepared in the region, by the region, for the region. I am appalled that the Conservative party wants to abolish regional development agencies. It does not want local

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decision making, but wants to exercise power from the centre. Conservative Members talk about decentralisation, but they passed 106 pieces of local government legislation designed to draw power to themselves. It was government by diktat. This Government believe in decentralisation, sharing power and ensuring that decisions are taken locally.

We also need to tackle the housing crisis. We must recognise that housing problems differ from place to place. Many northern conurbations have a huge surplus of property; there are not thousands of people desperate for homes. In my area, one borough alone has 6,000 empty properties and one of my inner-city wards, which has huge problems, is losing a voter a day. People are simply upping sticks and walking away to look for work and opportunities because they cannot find them close to home, which is where we should be making the investment.

Some housing stock is simply no longer wanted. People want homes with gardens, somewhere to park their car and somewhere for children to play. Swathes of pre-1919, small terraced housing do not meet the needs of a modern society. Regeneration is not just about bricks and mortar, or about building homes and creating a shell for people to live in; if we are serious about sustainable regeneration, it must be about rebuilding families and communities, and giving people confidence and skills so that they want to live in their areas. That is not an easy task.

The Government are beginning to take action. We have £25 million from the single regeneration budget to deal with some of those deep-seated, long-term problems. Had we taken action 10 or 15 years ago, however, we would not have faced the massive problems that we now face. We would not have to spend millions of pounds to reinvigorate those communities, because they would not have been destroyed in the first place by the heartless, uncaring policies of the previous Government.

May I make a plea to the Government? We need long-term regeneration. We cannot have projects that last a couple of years and then finish; we must have sustainable projects to make those improvements. We need regeneration for the next 10 to 20 years if we are to ensure that our inner cities are vibrant places where people want to live. We also need to tackle crime in the inner cities, otherwise all the money that we invest might as well be poured down a black hole. Unless people feel safe in their communities, they will not want to live there. People will not come back to the cities and will not make them the exciting and vibrant places that we know they can be. People need to feel safe.

May I make another plea? In many northern areas, one of the biggest problems is that of private rented property. In one small area in the centre of my city, of 3,000 homes, 200 have private landlords. Many of them are good, decent landlords, but many others do not care what kind of tenants they have and are simply interested in getting their housing benefit. Unless there is a system of licensing and regulation of private rented property, those houses will continue to become derelict, empty and a blight on many of our communities.

The Government say that they do not want to regulate the private rented sector because that would depress the housing market in London. I am sorry, but many northern

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regions do not have the problem of excess demand; we have excess supply, which we need to regulate to ensure that landlords run their properties properly so that the communities improve. Will the Government look at the matter again and approach it flexibly? We need local solutions to local problems, which is what the Government believe in. Will they apply that to housing as well as everything else?

This debate is not simply about whether homes are needed in the south east, although some undoubtedly will be; it is about the deeper, underlying problems. I am grateful to the Opposition for initiating this debate because it has given us the chance to expose their hypocrisy, their complete rejection of their own policies, the failure of the free market and, above all, the desperate need of the poorest people in this country to be able to rely on the help of a Labour Government for a generation to come. We had the common-sense revolution in May 1997. Long may it continue.

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