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6.23 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Both the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) and the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) made an eloquent case for local decision making. The challenges faced in their constituencies are unique, and anyone who heard the account given on "Newsnight" of the problems on the estates in the hon. Lady's constituency will be in no doubt about Salford's difficulties. Nevertheless, it is entirely wrong to suggest that the same applies to the north-west as a whole--just as it is wrong to try to apply that template to current problems, as we have done for decades. We must change the culture involved in the way in which we tackle the general issue of development.

I am afraid that the Minister's speech does not enable me to take any reassurance back to my constituents. He said that he had paid close attention to the letter that I had signed, along with 69 of my colleagues. The attention cannot have been all that close: clearly the Minister cannot count to 70, as he suggested that only 67 had signed it. Moreover, rather than engaging with the arguments in the letter, he concentrated on point scoring, drawing attention to those who had or had not signed it.

We cannot underestimate the threat faced by, in particular, the south-east. The Minister tried to suggest that it was trite to talk about five cities the size of Southampton being built in the south-east. In fact, the Crow report recommends 12; five is simply the difference between Serplan's recommended figure of seven and 12, which amounts to 1.1 million houses. The Minister may sit there shaking his head, but we want to demonstrate the seriousness of the issue to our constituents, and this is a useful way of illustrating the scale of the building and

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infrastructure that will go into the south-east. It is equivalent to 20 per cent. more houses--about 10,000 more houses in each constituency.

Those calculations are based on the household growth figures, which have been debated before. We must find a way of ceasing to be tied to those figures. We are talking about a population whose size is not changing throughout the country: we are talking about migration. The Minister wrote off migration, claiming that it was of little importance, but that is not true. I am indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) for citing the Office for National Statistics figures which were given to Serplan, and which said that, over the last six years, the population of the south-east had increased--as a result of inward migration--by 196,200. That migration includes 39,500 from Merseyside, 50,900 from the West Midlands metropolitan area and 36,600 from the Greater Manchester area.

A problem has clearly been caused by migration from the north, the north-west, the midlands and other parts of the country to the south-east. Those are precisely the people whom the hon. Member for Salford is trying to retain, in order to build sustainable communities in her area. If, by our national policy, we encourage the building of houses down in the south-east to follow economic demand, we shall make the task of Government, and that of Members representing constituencies in more challenged regions, infinitely more difficult.

Mr. Bennett: Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to tell all local authorities in his area that they should stop trying to promote development by industry in their areas?

Mr. Blunt: No. The judgment must be made by local people. Local authorities are in the best position to judge whether their areas are in serious need of economic regeneration--in which case they should have a relaxed planning policy, encouraging firms to come in--or whether the major danger to those whom they represent is the destruction of their quality of life by the concreting of the countryside and the "levering" of vast numbers of houses into towns whose infrastructure is already overstretched, which would ruin the community, even if the result was a degree less of economic growth.

I believe that, in some respects, the Crow analysis is fundamentally flawed. It is based on the view that economic opportunities should be increased everywhere. The philosophy that a growth in gross domestic product comes first and foremost, and that every other consideration is secondary, is a disaster for the south-east of England--as is Crow's view that the south-east should be recognised as having a role as the gateway to the United Kingdom and

That philosophy will cause areas such as Salford to face an even greater challenge than they face now.

Reading the Crow report, I feel that we have interrupted a debate between planners of the 1960s and planners of the 1940s. I am not familiar with the history of planning, and had not previously encountered the views criticised by Professor Crow and his panel. According to them, the

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view that one should be more restrictive about supporting economic growth in the south-east in order to confer advantage to other parts of the country,

    "with its manifest overtones of post-war Barlow based industrial development policy, we were advised was not current Government thinking. Rather, it was a question of the economy being encouraged 'to go ahead at full speed on all engines'."

I had not come across Mr. Barlow before, but I must say that I am warming to him. I am not entirely sure, however, that trying to apply templates of the 1940s or the 1960s now is the answer. We have arrived, just about, at the new millennium, and we shall have to look at how we deal with all these issues in a completely new way.

Professor Crow goes on to say:

We cannot eliminate regional hot spots and congestion by house building: indeed, house building will make them worse because the need will arise to provide infrastructure--to provide schools and to ensure that people can take their children to school and get to work--in all those areas. We cannot assume that we can get rid of congestion by building houses. That seems an extraordinary suggestion.

Dr. Starkey: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a certain population density leads to congestion but is not enough to sustain a proper public transport system, and that, in those circumstances, it is precisely by intensifying development that we can allow public transport to develop and to relieve the congestion?

Mr. Blunt: There may be merit in the hon. Lady's case, but the position will vary from community to community. Communities are in the best position to come to those judgments, rather than the Government trying to impose a template on the whole country, which is the position that we are in. The Stephen Crow report says that Serplan was not allowed to advocate reducing the number of houses that should be built in the south-east. It considered that advocating changes in Government policy--diverting from the Government's target of 1.1 million houses in the south-east, which is what falls out of the household projection--was out of place in the regional planning guidance.

We will still be on predict and provide, unless Ministers are brave enough to reject the Crow numbers completely. The point has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). It is not possible for Surrey to accommodate even the Serplan totals, let alone the new total: the increase of 120 per cent. advocated by Professor Crow. If the Minister rejects the Crow numbers, he will reject--I would thoroughly welcome it--the total number for the whole country.

We have welcomed the rhetoric of the Government and the comments that were attributed to the Deputy Prime Minister in the debate in the House in February last year, but, when the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs examined Government policy, it found that the rhetoric was still not supported by detail.

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For example, the Committee found, at paragraph 14 of its report:

The Committee says that it received evidence that the system

    "now appears very similar to predict and provide".

It said:

    "We recommend that the final PPG outline how the plan, monitor and manage system will operate."

Obviously, that will be--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up.

6.33 pm

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): I am grateful to be called to make what will be, I suspect, one of my shortest contributions ever in the Chamber.

Having heard the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) expound the bizarre theory that is set out in the "Common Sense Revolution for Town and Country" document, I suspect that my constituents will be scared rigid at the prospect of his return to office. What on earth would happen if he ever got his hands on the planning system in England? I only wish that my constituents could have been in the public gallery to hear his speech.

My constituency is on the edge of the Bradford district. Like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), my constituents have seen the steady erosion of important and valuable greenfield sites over the past couple of decades, largely because of the rigid predict and provide approach that was taken by the Conservative Administration.

I am a keen supporter of the move towards a more flexible approach. Let us look at moving away from predict and provide towards a system where local needs can be met in more flexible local plans, taking into account local demands. I am also keen to see a real move towards the use of recycled land.

One of the things that scares me most about the Conservative policy document is its undertone--its subtext. If hon. Members read it carefully, they will see a variety of quotes that add up to an attack on northern greenfield sites in particular. The right hon. Member for Wokingham said again today that local authorities--not all; just those in well-developed areas that already have high employment--should be allowed to halt new damaging greenfield developments. I am glad to see the right hon. Gentleman nodding.

That means that, in constituencies such as mine, green fields are less important; they do not really matter. My constituents value their green open spaces just as much as the right hon. Gentleman's constituents do. They will be shocked and appalled at the new threat that the Conservatives will pose come the next general election. I hope that the move towards social engineering--[Interruption.]

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