Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's statement and I thank him for

7 Mar 2000 : Column 866

the advance copy, which I received just before Question Time. We have come to learn that when he has bad news to announce, it is briefed to the newspapers first and to the House last. It is therefore no surprise that we have already read what the Government would like us to believe in Saturday's and Sunday's papers. The Deputy Prime Minister says that he regrets the leaks, but the Minister for Housing and Planning was on the airwaves on Sunday and this morning briefing with the gist of the statement.

The statement will be greeted with dismay across the south-east. No matter how hard the Deputy Prime Minister tries to scramble the arithmetic, nothing can disguise the volume of housing being imposed against the wishes of local authorities on towns, villages and countryside in the most congested part of the country.

Of course we welcome the changes in planning guidance designed to encourage building on brownfield sites--although we do not believe that the proposals go far enough--and to give local authorities greater control over the type and character of the housing built locally.

I must however remind the House of the facts that lie behind the announcement. In response to pressure from the Government, Serplan recommended a total of 668,000 houses--not the figure that the Deputy Prime Minister has just quoted--to be built over 20 years. That is the equivalent of 33,000 a year. Professor Crow--the inspector appointed by the Deputy Prime Minister--then produced an alternative report recommending a total of 1.1 million houses, which is the equivalent of 54,000 a year. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that, although he talks about 43,000 houses a year and a five-year time horizon, the reality is that over 20 years that will add up to 900,000 houses--equivalent to the building of eight towns the size of Slough? That is substantially ahead of Serplan and will absorb green fields all over the south-east.

Is it not an inevitable consequence of building on such a scale that a large proportion of green fields will be lost for ever? How does the Deputy Prime Minister conclude that no extra green fields will be used up when he is planning to build 200,000 more houses than Serplan recommended? As housing is one issue that remains his direct area of responsibility, I have some specific questions for him.

Since the right hon. Gentleman states that emigration from London is one of the problems that he is trying to address, can he explain how much emigration from London and the town centres in the south-east is implied by his new target? What evidence does he have for his incredible claim that there is no implied migration at all from the cities of the north?

What are the implications of the right hon. Gentleman's projections for congestion in the south-east? In particular, how many extra miles of road will be needed? How many extra school places will be needed? How will the cost of that infrastructure be met? Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us--since it was leaked to The Observer on Sunday--what representations he has made to the Treasury regarding the possibility of lowering the rate of VAT on brownfield conversions, or is this yet another issue where he has been rolled over by the Treasury?

7 Mar 2000 : Column 867

What advice does the Deputy Prime Minister have for local authorities which are now preparing local plans that will have an effect far beyond the five-year period, or is this five-year review a gimmick to avoid focusing on the real target of 900,000 houses over 20 years?

What proportion of the new housing will be suitable for single people and elderly people living alone? Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the majority of houses will be multi-occupational, and that virtually all the houses built on greenfield sites will be multi-occupational? Is that not totally at odds with the Government's own household projections, resulting in the wrong houses in the wrong places?

Does the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledge that, with this announcement, he has given the lie to his own statement to this House on 23 February 1998, when he said in relation to housing that

Is not the fact that he has come down from his castle in Hull to tell people in Sussex, Kent and Surrey exactly how many houses will be built, despite the wishes of local councils, a vivid illustration that the system is actually more centralised than ever?

Is it not the truth that this is a black day for the south-east, a disaster for the countryside and a disaster for the inner cities? Is not the real truth that, with this announcement, the Deputy Prime Minister is forcing local authorities in the south-east of England to build the wrong houses in the wrong places against the wishes of almost all local authorities? Is not this truly the end of the Deputy Prime Minister's claim that this Government are the greenest ever?

Mr. Prescott: That is clearly pathetic. Also, the hon. Gentleman has taken no account of the statement I made, in which most of his questions were answered.

The hon. Gentleman seems to doubt that we can achieve the target figure and use less land or the same amount of land as in the Serplan report. It is an argument of density. In the south-east, there are approximately 24 houses per hectare. We are saying clearly that density can be increased to between 30 or 50 houses in urban areas where people want to live. We want to encourage people to live in better-quality communities in better-designed houses, and in urban areas and brownfield, rather than greenfield, sites. It is a simple calculation that the hon. Gentleman will have made in business, where he made most of his money. However, he needs to do it now in the political sense.

It is a bit much for the hon. Gentleman to criticise me and the Government on greenfield sites. We have increased the amount of greenfield and greenbelt land in this country since we came to power. He was a director of a company involved in the encouragement by the previous Administration of the growth of out-of-town shopping centres. There were 190 such centres in 1979, and 1,100 when the Conservatives left office. More greenbelt land was used by Asda and the rest of the out-of-town shopping centres than by any other developments in this country. At least the hon. Gentleman had the decency, when he was a director of Railtrack, not to speak on safety. It would have been better if he had had the decency

7 Mar 2000 : Column 868

not to talk about greenfield sites as a member of Asda's board, which was involved in the rush to build on greenfield sites.

The figures can be achieved through the monitoring and planning process that I have outlined. The hon. Gentleman made another mistake because he clearly had not listened to the statement. Under the old predict and provide policy, the figures were set for 20 years and then disaggregated down for a figure for every local authority to observe. That is wrong; it is much more sensible to set the figures for five years, monitor progress and review the results, and then make any necessary changes. That is better than imposing figures based on a 20-year prediction.

I liked the bit in which the hon. Gentleman said that I would be centrally commanding the situation and directing local authorities. The hon. Gentleman was not a member of the previous Government, but I shall give him some more information about what happened when the Tories were in power. In 1995-96, the Berkshire structure plan proposed 37,000 additional homes, but the Tories imposed 40,000 on the area. Kent county council proposed 113,000 additional homes, but the Tories imposed 116,000 on it. Bedfordshire proposed 47,200 additional homes, but the Tories imposed 49,300 on it.

In fairness, I shall also give the hon. Gentleman some information about our record. When 33,000 dwellings were proposed for Cheshire, the Labour Government allowed it only 31,000. Devon was faced with 83,000 dwellings, but we allowed only 79,000. Gloucester was faced with 53,000, but we agreed a reduction to only 50,000. That is the comparison with the previous Administration both in the establishment of targets and in flexibility when dealing with local authorities. We seek to work towards a solution, in contrast to the ideological requirements that the Tories imposed on local government.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that people in counties such as Berkshire--which, as he has pointed out, had 3,000 extra homes imposed on it over and above the Tory-controlled county council's allocation--will welcome the end of the discredited predict and provide policies? Does he recognise that we need affordable housing in the south-east, especially for first-time buyers and key workers in essential industries? For the south-east to survive and to be the engine room of our economy, we need a sustainable housing policy and an end to the absurd situation in my constituency, where two fire-fighters cannot afford to buy properties, because of lack of supply in the Thames valley, and have to commute from Lincolnshire and Dorset. We need to provide houses and homes at affordable prices for workers to sustain our essential public services, whatever area of the country we may live in.

Mr. Prescott: I agree with my hon. Friend and indeed we do wish to end the predict and provide model. In the plan and monitor guidance that we will give local authorities, we will make it clear that affordable housing must be given considerable priority, especially in mixed-use development, to ensure that it happens. That allows the Government to make a judgment about the

7 Mar 2000 : Column 869

plans and to work with the local authorities to ensure that the needs of all the people are met, not just those who want executive houses in the south-east.

Next Section

IndexHome Page