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Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking to the House this afternoon that no further planning of houses will be allowed in West Sussex without the incremental improvement in infrastructure that is so long overdue?

Mr. Prescott: In sustainable communities, matters other than houses have to be considered, such as transport, housing design, and density of housing. I am trying to bring a more flexible approach to bear on them. One authority in West Sussex was proposing to reduce development by 25 per cent., which was totally unacceptable. I hope that these new proposals will be more acceptable to the local authority and that it can achieve the kind of housing development in the area that it wants.

Mrs. Christine Butler (Castle Point): Which constituencies or local authorities will be in the extended Thames gateway? I thought that I heard my right hon. Friend say that he was committed to an extension of the Thames gateway area. As a person from south Essex, I would be delighted if south Essex were to be part of it.

Mr. Prescott: It is right that we said that we will extend the Thames gateway area. We wish to change the rather loose arrangements for its development, and I shall be making an announcement shortly about the new development body for that area.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I welcome the reduction from the Crow proposals, but the Secretary of State's statement will be taken badly in my area because it seems as if there will be many more houses than under the previous Government's plans. Will he confirm that Berkshire will be able to say no to any new settlement south of the M4, although I think that he will say the opposite? Does not his statement mean that he will drive not just his two Jags and one Rover, but a bulldozer across the face of rural England, deeply scarring the countryside?

Mr. Prescott: Welcome back.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) is not cheering.

Mr. Prescott: At least we can laugh at what the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) says.

In reality, all authorities in the south-east will take account of my guidance, which is more flexible and better than the predict-and-build approach previously taken. I think that it will help local authorities, and I hope that they will approach development more co-operatively than they did in the past. The right hon. Gentleman's local paper, the Wokingham Times made it clear that it is crucial to have

The present plan does not provide that, but we intend to do so.

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Mr. Paul Clark (Gillingham): Most level-headed people in the Thames gateway area of north Kent will welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and recognise the opportunities that it presents. Does he agree that many brownfield sites that we want to see developed to their full potential require substantial investment on infrastructure and on opening up before major development can occur? What robust bodies and mechanisms does my right hon. Friend envisage to provide that within the Thames gateway?

Mr. Prescott: It is indeed important to secure proper investment for the Thames gateway. The previous Government took a good initiative, and we are supporting and extending it. The connection of any major investment in development with transport communications is important. Ashford and the Thames gateway are closely connected with the channel tunnel rail link, which we had to rescue following its collapse under the previous Government. The link is now on budget and on time, and that will allow it to play a major role in development of the Thames gateway and Ashford. Regional development agencies will also have a major role to play, and they have already begun to plan development, a process that will be helped by my statement.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): Will the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions look again at the potential damage that his proposals are likely to cause to the green fields of Bedfordshire? Does he recognise that, to achieve a mere 50 per cent. of development on brownfield sites, the present figures already take his density increases into account? If the extra 21,000 houses proposed by the Crow report were built, the figures would be closer to 30 per cent. brownfield development and 70 per cent. greenfield.

Mr. Prescott: I think that I made it clear--most people heard me--that I do not accept the Crow report's recommendations. I have given my reasons for that. The numbers that I have accepted are compatible with the land take of Serplan, and are a good compromise, which should be welcome to all concerned. Brownfield sites have a higher priority than greenfield sites but, even under the previous Government, something like 50 per cent. of households were built on greenfield sites--the inevitable implication of having a target of 50 per cent. on brownfield sites. We are attempting to improve the position and have moved from 50 to 52 per cent. We have set a target to 2008, and we are going in the right direction. My statement will provide a major impetus for development on brownfield sites.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): While my right hon. Friend's first regional planning guidance has been on the south-east, will he confirm that the criteria announced in his statement are national, and that the principle of brown field first, green field last and a rejection of overdue reliance on increased traffic density will be in his mind when any case comes before him?

Mr. Prescott: Yes, I can confirm that. I made a national statement about the principles that will apply to housing. My right hon. Friend knows that each region sets its own plans, and those will be produced presently and

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publicly discussed. When each one comes to me, I shall take the same approach to it as I do to plans for the south-east region.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): As Southend-on-Sea is outside the Thames gateway, we will be exempt from this massive house-building programme. However, if the Secretary of State decides to include us, will he give us a guarantee that extra cash will be provided for secondary schools, bearing in mind that there is not one spare space in any secondary school in my constituency? Will he make extra cash available to provide the necessary facilities if Southend is included?

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the support of essential infrastructure such as education. As he must be aware, we have put a considerable amount of money into education. As we implement the plans, we shall continue to take into account the problem that he describes.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford): In Dartford, in the Thames gateway, 80 per cent. of housing is being built on brownfield sites. Our target is 86 per cent.--20 per cent. will be for social housing. When we build new communities, as we are doing, can we ensure that the character of existing communities is protected and enhanced?

Mr. Prescott: It is important that we do that. Indeed, the essence of sustainable communities is that we maintain and build on their existing life. I want to see greater community spirit in some of our housing areas. We have built many soulless estates--with more concern for the construction of houses than for the construction of communities. The emphasis in this plan is on building communities.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): How can the Secretary of State pretend that his policy is brown field first, green field last, when his first major action was to approve the largest-ever house-building programme on greenbelt land--10,000 houses in my constituency? As the electorate have turfed out the Lib-Lab coalition of concrete merchants from Hertfordshire county council, why does the right hon. Gentleman persist in giving approval to this plan? Does that not discredit his pretence that he does not believe in central direction? Until he changes his mind, he will not be believed on planning matters--in Hertfordshire or anywhere else in the country.

Mr. Prescott: I appreciate the point made by the right hon. Gentleman. He has made it on several occasions. However, it was his authority that recommended the programme; the planning inspector endorsed it and I endorsed the principles that they set before me. The programme also involves a major transport corridor--like the channel tunnel rail link and Ashford. It forms part of the attempt to ensure that there is growth and development around transport corridors.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford): Given my right hon. Friend's support for affordable housing, can he assure us that any new homes that are built will have the support of local authorities, so that the authorities can rent them out

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and we do not have to rely on housing associations? In many cases, council rents are considerably lower than those of housing associations. That is real affordability.

Mr. Prescott: Those are important points--we are most concerned about such matters. We want to work in partnership with local authorities to provide affordable homes. Indeed, we shall shortly produce a housing Green Paper which will deal with the very real problems that my hon. Friend has mentioned.

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