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6.7 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): The hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) raised some serious points and then trivialised them by a ludicrous painting of the previous Conservative Government. She should see things as they really were. When I was a Minister, I had regional responsibility for the north-east. The hon. Lady should go to the north-east and see the transformation that has occurred in both the housing estates and the infrastructure, among other things. She would then understand that Conservatives care deeply about social problems and urban regeneration. I cannot speak for the problems in Salford, but I can for the north-east, which is not known as a Conservative area and is a very long way from my constituency. My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) did amazing things to encourage regeneration and the injection of private capital alongside public capital.

In his opening speech, the Minister used the phrase "one nation". My late father-in-law was a founder member of One Nation in this House in the early 1950s. It is often forgotten that that group was founded because of dissatisfaction with the then Conservative Government's housing policy. Housing is deeply engrained in Conservative policy because it is important for social stability. This debate, however, is about more than housing; it is about the Government's approach to the whole policy not only of urban regeneration, but of the protection of the countryside and greenbelt land.

I wish that the Minister had spent a little more time clarifying Government policy. Some of the policies that he mentioned could attract cross-party support. There is a continuing need for urban regeneration and a desire on the Opposition Benches, as well as on the Government Benches, for a bottom-up approach. Both sides of the House understand that housing must be put in the much wider context of infrastructure. All that is important. The problem is that the Crow report undermines many of the Government's better objectives.

The report issued this week by the Council for the Protection of Rural England says:

Why did not the Minister say that? I understand that he cannot anticipate the planning process and that there are all sorts of hearings, but as a former Minister, I did not

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always take cover from that. I made my views clear when I disagreed with a report. The Crow report seems to undermine Government policy, but the Minister did not acknowledge that. He should have had the courage to do so, because in my judgment, that will leave him open to criticism from people across the country. We do not know where he stands on some of these crucial issues.

Genuine problems in Surrey need to be addressed. For the reasons that I gave in an earlier intervention, unless clear signals are given, developers will build up land banks in areas where they previously thought it was not worth doing so because they were never going to get planning permission. The Labour Government have not made their policy reaction clear. They could give planning permission on appeal and overrule the wishes of local authorities.

I noticed one critical comment from the Minister--either he was showing courage or I misunderstood him. He said that he would examine closely the Crow report's 50 per cent. target for brownfield sites, and he implied that he wanted the brownfield site target to be higher. Perhaps the Minister who winds up the debate will clarify that point.

Mr. Bennett: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Ministers are in extreme difficulty in this area because of the possibility of judicial review? Before they make a pronouncement, they must consider all the detail. It is perhaps simplistic to want the Minister to make a pronouncement now. He has a duty to examine the detail before he makes a statement.

Mr. Taylor: I am familiar with the problems of judicial review, but that argument is a slight exaggeration in these circumstances. The Government set up the panel, and they have a policy. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we have a vacuum and that, until the Government make a formal pronouncement on the Crow report, they should have nothing more to say about these critical issues? That cannot please Labour Members any more than it pleases Conservative Members, or even the Liberal Democrats when they have a consistent policy to put forward.

The position in Surrey is becoming untenable. The recent Surrey Local Government Association report says:

The green belt is crucial to the quality of life in all respects in counties such as Surrey. In my borough of Elmbridge, the effects would be severe. According to the Crow report, Surrey has the highest increase over the draft regional planning guidance figure--an 87 per cent. increase in housing allocation from 48,300 to 90,363. It is difficult to understand how we will go about accommodating that increase.

My borough council officers say that even the draft regional planning guidance figure of 48,300 would be difficult to manage. With local residents keen to protect the environment and character of their communities, the council will be put in a very difficult position. I endorse my local council's concern, and that is on the original target, not the increased allocation announced in the Crow report. That is the extent of the difficulty.

It is not that the south-east does not want to take its share of housing. Figures show that we have always planned for that, and have tried to attain sites. I know

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from my constituency that we need a mix of social housing. The difficulty is that many of the people who need to buy a house in my area cannot afford to do so. Increasing the number of houses will not make that much difference: it will merely reduce the quality of life.

I urge the Government to produce their integrated transport policy about which we have heard so much. By these targets in the south-east, they are encouraging more people to use cars. Moreover, last week, the Secretary of State overrode an inspector's decision and announced that there would be an M25 service station on land at Cobham Downside in my constituency, which will have considerable and justified local opposition. It is not clear where the Government stand on these issues.

There is a need to plan, monitor and provide for our housing, infrastructure and environmental needs--not the predict and provide elements that the Government, if they encourage the Crow process, are likely to follow. The Government should produce ideas on how to integrate some of the social criteria. It is not clear that mixed estates actually work. In parts of my constituency, social housing is integrated with other housing. We need to think these things through. I am not against the principle, but I want to see it work in practice.

There are other traffic and local infrastructure problems in my constituency. Several substantial developments around Portsmouth road were opposed in principle because of density problems, but they have now been built and are fitting into the environment. However, the traffic implications for Portsmouth road are considerable, and that is creating other tensions. It is not that we do not want development: we want development to be thought through, and we want to give primacy to local opinion. That is the crucial element.

Elmbridge borough council and its councillors deserve the right to state clearly how they can accommodate reasonable expectations, and not have unreasonable demands imposed on them. The Government should take a stand on that, because until they do, there will be deep distrust in my constituency about their true intentions.

6.16 pm

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford): I congratulate the Opposition on choosing this topic for debate, because it is of great importance. Dartford is in the middle of the Thames gateway, which is one of the fastest expanding areas of Europe, let alone the United Kingdom, so planning and development are of particular interest to me.

Unfortunately, the thrust of the Opposition's argument has been that planning is a threat. It is a way of frightening the public. The Conservatives frighten the public over Europe and health, and now they are frightening the public over planning. I take the opposite view. I see sensible planning as a significant opportunity to improve living conditions and the fabric of our society. There are good reasons for saying that. Great demographic changes are taking place in this country. Families are getting smaller and more people are choosing to live alone. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the number of households. Short of telling people not to live so long, it is difficult for the Government to do anything other than respond to the way in which society is going.

Great industrial changes are occurring. Heavy industry in Dartford has completely gone. The quarrying that made Dartford famous for 100 years has almost come to an end,

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and most of the large quarrying has finished. Most of the cement works in Dartford are moving to other places and changing their operation altogether. That has left Dartford with a number of opportunities: for one thing, it has left some large holes in the ground, one of which is now Bluewater Park, the largest and most prestigious shopping centre in Europe which employs 9,000 people and has been an enormous success. That is an example of how planning can be used imaginatively to change the shape of society in the area and to bring investment as never before. The inward investment in that development is truly massive, and has solved many of the local problems. It has brought many jobs and opportunities to the area, which is to be welcomed.

Dartford has many other holes in the ground: many brownfield sites previously used for industry--some of them polluted--which need regeneration. That should not be regarded as a threat: it represents an opportunity to put right what has gone wrong in the past 100 years--to give something back to the community and to sort out some of the great difficulties that were left behind by a bygone age.

The Government must respond. I am pleased that their target is to have 60 per cent. of housing built on recycled land. The previous Government's target was 50 per cent., and they managed only 42 per cent. In Kent Thameside, which is my side of the river in the Thames gateway,80 per cent. of new housing is being built on brownfield, recycled land. The target for Kent Thameside is 86 per cent. Over the next 20 years, 30,000 houses are to be built in Kent Thameside, 86 per cent. of which will be on recycled land. How can that be done without causing damage to existing communities? The Government must rise to that challenge, because such massive developments and such great changes can pose a threat to neighbourhoods and communities in the area.

We must ensure that we have sustainable development. If we bung houses on greenfield sites in the middle of nowhere, it is bound to lead to problems, which is why that is exactly what we shall not be doing in Kent Thameside. Our approach is simple. Dartford has a local plan-led system. The local authority produces planning briefs which it sends out to prospective developers telling them what its requirements are for housing density, social housing, infrastructure, section 106 agreements involving community developments and so on. The local authority is therefore very much in control of the way in which land in Dartford and surrounding areas is developed, ensuring that we get the development that we want in the areas in which we want it, at the density that we want.

An exciting feature of my area is the fact that planners are trying to increase planning density. Again, that might be seen as a threat, but it could equally be seen as an opportunity. The planners are currently considering densities 50 per cent. higher than normal densities in suburban areas, and that is leading to some exciting spin-offs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) said earlier that if we were not careful we would get the density calculations wrong, and would end up with land that was not viable for development. In my area some land was so polluted and so damaged, and it cost so much to restore it, that its eventual value was virtually nil. That means that there is no great incentive for development.

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We should, however, take into account increasing housing densities. It is possible to fit more houses on to the land, and the development of that land thus becomes more viable for the good of the local community.

Another advantage of increased densities is the creation of sustainable neighbourhoods, and the viability of public transport. It is difficult for public transport systems to provide reasonable, affordable services in low-density areas: if they cannot fill the buses and trains, they will lose money. If densities are increased, public transport systems start to make a profit, and to become workable. The same applies to the building of schools and leisure developments.

Kent Thameside has another big advantage: we are able to create the necessary jobs. I am particularly interested in ensuring that, where possible, communities sustain their own employment, so that people need not travel so far and can live, work and play in the same area. If we use the current planning system properly--as I think Labour is doing: we are taking a responsible view--we can create sustainable, workable developments that will meet the demographic needs of the future.

I support what the Government are trying to do. They are increasing the use of brownfield land; they are employing the planning mechanism to ensure that sustainable development occurs wherever possible; and they are ensuring that recycled land is at the forefront of development. They are making certain that as little pressure as possible is put on greenfield land, so that we can preserve the best of what we have and make people's lives better in the future.

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