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14. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Under what circumstances he would make available public subsidy to support Eurostar services north of London. [112186]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): The British Railways Board has a statutory duty to prepare a plan for international through-services. It can consider whether such services should receive subsidy. The board is reviewing its plan for international through-services, which I understand it expects to complete in the summer. Subject to the passage of the Transport Bill, the Strategic Rail Authority will have a duty to produce a strategy for rail services from various parts of Great Britain using the channel tunnel. It will also have powers to subsidise any such service if it decides that is appropriate.

Mr. Kidney: I thank my hon. Friend for that rather subdued answer.

North of London, many strong views are expressed about the positive contribution that Eurostar services would make to economic activity and new jobs. How firm is the Government's commitment to the establishment of Eurostar services north of London?

Mr. Hill: We have made clear our belief that those living beyond London should have convenient and effective access to channel tunnel rail services. As the matter is subject to a BRB review, however, it would be wrong for Ministers to prejudice that review and its outcome at this stage.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Is not the Minister really just trying to disguise a rowing back of what the Government have previously said? It was apparent that the plan was for Eurostar services to run out of a newly

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redeveloped terminal at King's Cross and St. Pancras. Does the Minister accept that, if such services are not introduced in due course, people in the north and the midlands will rightly blame the Government?

Mr. Hill: We are fully aware of the strength of feeling about this matter. That is why we commissioned the A.D. Little review, which has reported. The BRB is reviewing that report, and we anxiously await the results of its review, which is to be published in the summer.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Has Richard Branson's Virgin Trains made any offer to run Eurostar north of London? I have no objection to that, but I think that many people throughout the country would object if the company were given the east coast franchise. That would mean no competition from north to south; fares would go sky-high, and we would receive a much poorer service in Cumbria.

Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend, who is a great expert on all matters relating to the west coast main line, will know that we asked A.D. Little to consider the Virgin group's proposals as part of its review. He also knows that Virgin subsequently withdrew its proposals. All the rail franchises are clearly due to be considered in the near future, and again I think it would be inappropriate at this point for the Government to make any public pronouncement on the desirability or otherwise of potential bidders and operators of those franchises.

Regional Government

15. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): If he will make a statement on his plans for regional government. [112187]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): We are committed to moving to directly elected regional government in England where there is a demand for it expressed in a referendum.

Mr. Brady: Now that the Government's initiative for regional government in London has descended into utter farce, is it not time for them to abandon their other experiments in regional government, realising that they are expensive and unwanted? Would not the proper way of giving the regions a strong voice be for Members to

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speak out for the interests of their regions, rather than wasting hundreds of millions of pounds on unnecessary bureaucracy?

Ms Armstrong: The true centralising features of the Opposition are coming out. We know that there are significant differences between regions, and that regions express their differences in very different ways. Far from regional government being hugely unpopular, many Conservative councillors and normally Conservative-supporting business people are involved in both regional development agencies and regional assemblies. If the hon. Gentleman is not aware of that, perhaps he would like to meet some of those people, and try to explain the Tory centralising policy of abolishing RDAs and abandoning the regions yet again.

South Downs National Park

16. Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): If he will make a statement on the progress towards the establishment of a national park in the south downs. [112188]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): Following my request last September, the Countryside Agency has reviewed the interpretation of the statutory criteria for designation of national parks, taking into account modern needs for open-air recreation close to where people live. Following that review, the agency board is expected to decide at its April meeting how to proceed in respect of a national park in the south downs.

Dr. Turner: As I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware, there are those who have still not accepted the principle of the protection of national park status for areas in the south downs. The area to be circumscribed by the new national park is therefore critically important, and the intention of establishing such a park will be entirely subverted if too many--or, indeed, any--significant areas are excluded from the existing area of outstanding natural beauty. Does my right hon. Friend accept that, to protect an area and to defend it against pressures, whatever they are--there are many on the south downs--protection should start at the margins?

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend is right to identify the two particular issues that have to be determined by the Countryside Agency. The first is the identification of the boundary. The agency is starting with the south downs and with the east Hampshire AONBs, but, as I have said, it has reviewed the criteria and will have to decide on the boundaries that are appropriate in accordance with the new criteria. The other issues that remain to be determined are planning and financial arrangements. I also expect the agency to deal with those as a matter of priority.

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3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): With permission, I should like to make a statement about national planning guidance for housing and my regional planning guidance for the south-east.

Over the weekend, hon. Members will have seen press reports relating to the statement. Much of what was reported had already been announced to the House in earlier statements, but I regret and denounce the leaks, as I have said before in the House, and I am doing all that I can to prevent them.

Today I am putting in place policies that will radically alter the way in which we build new homes in this country. I want an end to the wasteful, badly located and poorly designed house building that has gone on for the past 20 years. New housing developments can be well-designed, attractive, well-located and in sustainable places to live. They do not have to take up endless acres of our beautiful countryside.

In February 1998, I set out clear principles in my statement to the House on "Planning for the Communities of the Future". Let me remind the House of them. Everyone should have the opportunity of a decent home. We want to see thriving communities in our towns and cities--what Lord Rogers called an urban renaissance. Our housing plans should support sustainable economic growth in all regions. There is a need to use land efficiently. Land is a finite and precious resource which we must conserve wherever possible.

We must have greater respect for our countryside. That is why we have set a national target that 60 per cent. of new homes should use recycled land or buildings. That compares with the previous Government's target of 50 per cent. Finally, we must seek to reduce car dependence by facilitating more walking and cycling, and improve access between housing, jobs, local services and local amenities by planning for mixed use.

I am today publishing our new planning policy guidance note 3 on housing and our response to the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs on the draft guidance note.

Today's new planning guidance for England is not just for individuals, but for thriving communities. Important changes in life styles are taking place in England and throughout Europe, which are leading to an increase in households greater than the population growth. No one is asking members of the public to change their existing home, but new homes for additional households must provide the variety and choice to meet the needs of the future. I emphasise that 70 per cent. of new households over the next 20 years will be single person households.

Some will be youngsters setting up home. Some will be people living independently of their families. Some will be elderly people living longer. They will not all want, or be able to afford, executive houses in the countryside. Many will need well-designed, well-located homes for rent or to buy that are affordable and that give them a range of choice and a better quality of life. We must therefore plan for those changes.

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First, the new sequential approach that is central to our new guidance means that planning authorities must in future give preference to recycling previously developed sites and empty properties--brownfield first, greenfield last.

Secondly, if we are to preserve our countryside and make the best use of spare capacity in our towns, we must make more efficient use of land.

Thirdly, housing must be more affordable. Too many developments make no provision for people on modest incomes. We shall enable local authorities to secure a proportion of affordable housing in larger housing developments, both in urban and in rural areas. That will benefit many single people, low-income families and key workers, such as nurses, teachers and others.

Finally, we must promote mixed-use developments, which integrate housing with shops, local services, transport and jobs. We need sustainable communities, not simply bricks and mortar.

These policies will apply across all the regions of England. Regional planning guidance will put them into practice. The first regional planning guidance will be for the south-east of England, but others will follow in due course.

The south-east is relatively well off, but it lags behind the most prosperous European regions. Moreover, just as in other regions, there are significant areas of unemployment and deprivation within London and the south-east itself. This Government, unlike the previous one, are determined to see fairer sharing in the benefits of growth both between and within regions. One of the reasons why we have established regional development agencies in England's regions is to tackle such disparities.

As I am on that subject, may I just lay to rest one myth perpetuated by the Opposition today, and repeated by the BBC? Let there be no doubt that demand for additional housing in the south-east is not the result of massive north-south migration, but mainly the result of migration within the south-east, particularly from London to surrounding towns and villages.

In deciding how many additional homes need to be provided, I have had to weigh very carefully the different views presented to me. Local authorities in the south-east--known collectively as Serplan, the south-east regional planning committee--proposed that, over 20 years, there should be up to 718,000 additional homes outside London. The proposals were examined in public by a panel led by Professor Stephen Crow, which concluded that provision should be made for 1.1 million additional homes outside London.

All Governments have to make judgments on such strategic issues. Serplan was understandably concerned about the number of new homes to be built in the south-east. However, it failed to take account of future housing needs; did not make provision for affordable housing or account for the growth of single person households; and assumed that there would be the same wasteful use of land as there has been in the recent past.

The Crow panel, for its part, applied a rigid predict and provide approach, and it did not pay sufficient attention to the capacity of London and the south-east to absorb and plan for growth sustainably.

I believe that we must take a different approach. I shall consult local authorities in the south-east on the basis that they should plan, monitor and manage housing provision in their region.

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Local authorities should plan to provide 43,000 additional dwellings a year outside London, subject to regular review not less than every five years. It is clear that, using the old 20-year predict and provide system, 43,000 homes annually would add up to 860,000 new homes in total. However, we have moved away from a 20-year plan to our new approach of plan, monitor and manage. No one can with certainty predict how many extra households will exist in 20 years. Our benchmark of 43,000 homes annually is approximately 10 per cent. more than the current rate of construction in the south-east. Professor Crow's recommendations implied a 40 per cent. increase.

Based on the advice of the London Planning Advisory Committee, London should plan to provide 23,000 new homes a year, the vast majority of which will be on brownfield sites. That is a 22 per cent. increase on current build rates and is accepted both by me and, I believe, by all parties. Local authorities should, therefore, plan for that amount of building.

Planning authorities should monitor against a series of indicators, such as house prices and changes in housing stock and vacancies. They should manage and, if necessary, adjust the rate of development in the light of such monitoring.

Additionally, I propose that 60 per cent. of all new homes in the south-east should be provided on brownfield sites. I am determined that we should take as little greenfield land as is necessary to provide the new homes that will be needed. Our proposals will save 42 square miles of countryside compared with Professor Crow's--enough to build a city the size of Manchester.

Our proposals will provide homes for more people, but because of our policies for less land take, they will use no more land than the Serplan proposals. Our new guidance makes it clear that the Thames gateway will remain a focus for development. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) for his vision of a thriving Thames gateway. Under our plans, which will include an extension of the Thames gateway area and new delivery mechanisms, the area will become a hub for development and regeneration, with fast links to London and Europe.

After brownfield development, the most sustainable greenfield option is to build town extensions. In the south-east I propose that we should investigate the potential for high-quality, well-planned development in two main areas: Milton Keynes and Ashford in Kent. That will all be subject to further studies, which will be taken into account in the next review of planning guidance. For the longer term, consideration will also be given to the possibility of growth in the M11 corridor, including Stansted.

My statement strikes the right balance between competing demands. We are proposing the most radical changes since Labour's Town and Country Planning Act 1947. The old predict and provide approach to housing, which under the Tories gave us urban sprawl, out-of-town shopping and pepper-pot development, is dead. We have adopted a new, more flexible approach that will conserve greenfield land and improve the quality and design of housing developments. It provides for good-quality housing, good design and a range of choice that meets people's needs. I commend the proposals to the House.

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