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2 Feb 2000 : Column 1104

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): I must inform the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.28 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I beg to move,

Hon. Members: Where is Archie?

Mr. Green: I should apologise to the many Government Members who are admirers of my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). I advise them all to book early for Environment questions next Tuesday.

We have brought the debate to the House because the Government stand condemned on two counts: first, they have shown themselves to be completely uninterested in protecting the countryside; and, secondly, they have shown themselves to be neglectful of the interests of city centres that need regeneration. The combination of those two failures of Government policy has led to despair in the countryside and anger in the cities.

Let me start with the ignorance and neglect that the Government have shown toward the countryside, which will for ever be symbolised by the now notorious remark made by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions:

That is perhaps the only example of the right hon. Gentleman speaking with complete clarity and accuracy since he took office. The only charitable course of action in respect of his use of language is to laugh, but there is far more serious hypocrisy afoot. His deputy, the Minister for the Environment, said before the general election:

    "we will make the next Labour Government the first truly green Government that Britain has ever seen."

That is the standard that the Government set themselves. Let us investigate their performance on the Crow report against that standard.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman reminded his hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) that, according to the conventions of the House, we would give him an easy ride first time round.

Does the hon. Gentleman consider it appropriate to table a motion with the title "Northern Cities and Southern Green Fields"? Does he realise that there are many acres of beautiful countryside in the north of the country? Does he ever visit the north? Will he dissociate himself from the title?

Mr. Green: If that is the best that the special advisers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the

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Regions can come up with as a handout, I shall not take any more interventions. If the hon. Gentleman had bothered to investigate the subject of the debate, he might know that the Crow report is specifically about the south-east of England. It blithely proposes to put 1.1 million extra homes in the south-east.

The report is one of the shoddiest, least-well-argued and anti-environmental documents ever produced by the planning profession. It takes us straight back to the 1960s, when planners looked at the demographic trends, thought of a housing number, added a bit for luck and insisted that those houses be built, whatever the consequences for the environment.

A really green Government who meant to stick to their principles would have thrown the report out at the first opportunity. Regardless of those principles, the report cuts across the Government's declared policy.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Conservative Opposition will move to a policy whereby, instead of housing numbers being imposed on local authorities from above, leaving them no control, local authorities will in future have a much greater say in the housing numbers that they must provide in their areas?

Mr. Green: My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is what we have proposed. We want to give more planning power to local people and take away the Government's centralising tendencies.

The Government should have thrown out the Crow report. Instead, they have proceeded to play their usual game of nods, winks, nudges, leaks and half-truths, leaving no one knowing where they stand, and leaving many people angry--not just people in the south-east of England but a much wider coalition, who will never trust the Government again.

Serplan--the south-east regional planning committee--has pointed out a large number of deficiencies in Crow, not least that it brushes aside the problems of congestion and pressure on services. That does not seem to have moved the Government, nor does the Council for the Protection of Rural England's response to Crow. The CPRE said:

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Green: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward), then I must make some progress.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford): The hon. Gentleman is setting out the views of a range of organisations, yet before that he said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should have rejected the Crow report's proposals immediately. Is not the point to listen, consider and consult, and to ensure that such responses are forthcoming so that the Secretary of State is well informed when he finally makes his decision?

Mr. Green: The response to Crow has been universally negative, and I would expect the hon. Lady, whose own

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constituency is under threat, to share that view. I shall stop complaining if the Government this evening reject Crow hook, line and sinker, but they have not done so. They have deliberately been sending out leaks, nods and winks for the past six months, without letting us know what they think. That is creating widespread anger across the south-east, not least in my constituency, which is particularly targeted for the bulldozers by Crow.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Does my hon. Friend recall that practically the first action of the Deputy Prime Minister, without listening to anyone, was to agree to 10,000 houses on the green belt outside the new town of Stevenage? In that, he was supported by the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), who is not in her place.

Mr. Green: My right hon. Friend is characteristically correct and points out one of the betrayals of the green fields that the Deputy Prime Minister has committed.

Ms Ward: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Green: Not again; once is enough for the hon. Lady.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Green: I shall make progress. The only support for the Crow report comes from Professor Christine Whitehead, who is an adviser to the Government and who believes that we need 10 new towns the size of Basingstoke in the south-east of England.

Professor Whitehead, with commendable honesty that has so far failed to grip those on the Government Front Bench, said to The Times:

At least she is honest. By contrast, the Government's response has been to dither and dodge the issue ever since it came up.

Two weeks ago the Government leaked to a Sunday newspaper the prospect of what they call "millennium towns", new settlements of 50,000 people, one of which they wanted to plonk down on the green fields in my constituency. I asked the Department a number of questions to elucidate the truth behind that leak.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), replied that proposals for a new town had been put forward and that the Secretary of State would shortly consult on draft changes to the draft regional planning guidance. We are to be consulted, are we? Do not believe it for a minute.

Yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister revealed to a Fabian Society and SERA--Socialist Environmental Resources Association--conference that he has taken the decision already. He claimed that the Government would not be concreting over the south-east. He went on to say:

weasel words which show that he believes in a bit of concrete over the south-east, just like Professor Whitehead.

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The Deputy Prime Minister went on to say:

Those are real weasel words. The benefit that he wants to bring is a large pile of concrete all over the green fields of east Kent.

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