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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): What guarantees can the Secretary of State give about the integrity of the green belt?

Mr. Prescott: We have always made it clear that a Labour Government introduced the principle of the green belt. We have considerably increased the green belt since we came into office. That is a good indication of our desire to maintain it.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, and the fact that he has rejected the Crow report, and so will many of my constituents. He is aware that in West Sussex, which borders my constituency, there have been 10 years of commercial and retail store building--none of those projects involved house building. That is why we need to build more affordable housing in Sussex so that people can have proper and effective places to live.

Hon. Members: Rubbish.

Mr. Prescott: I note that Opposition Members are shouting "Rubbish" at my hon. Friend's claim that there should be affordable housing. That is precisely the point. The Opposition seem to be more concerned about executive housing than about homes for ordinary people. Affordable housing is our priority. The land should be provided and there should be decent communities. That is what we intend to do; it is fundamentally different from the record of the previous Conservative Administration and from the intentions of the Opposition.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): The Deputy Prime Minister should not hear imaginary voices. In West Sussex, he has increased by 30 per cent. the number of homes that the inquiry recommended. Will he increase further the figures that he managed by legal tricks to get through judicial review, and will he protect the Goring gap?

Mr. Prescott: It is amazing that a former Minister should talk about legal tricks when he must have received legal advice and acted on it. I know that lawyers cannot always be trusted, but Ministers must take the legal advice that is given to them.

In the new approach to the matter, local authorities should consider our proposals carefully and enter into co-operation. That will provide a better housing solution than the one that we have at present.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): I welcome the positive news in my right hon. Friend's statement that there is a

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possibility that there will be an area of plan-led expansion in the Bedford, Northampton and Milton Keynes triangle. That is potentially the most sustainable approach to this issue. Will he assure me that there will be thorough local consultation on how the plans are developed and that there will be an attempt at all times to match jobs with new housing to achieve the sustainable outcome that we all need?

Mr. Prescott: It is important to identify growth, prosperity and jobs along with the developments in housing. We established the regional development bodies to consider precisely how we can develop indigenous assets in the regions and, at the same time, reduce the differentials in growth that exist within regions. The development agencies, the planned reports and the studies that we are conducting will, I hope, bring all those matters together. We cannot have a happy community with high levels of unemployment. Jobs, prosperity and community development go hand in hand.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): In east Kent in general and in Herne Bay in particular, water supplies are scarce, primary and secondary schools are full, doctors' surgeries are full, the secondary road system is inadequate and police services are at full stretch. We are trying to reduce housing density, but the Deputy Prime Minister has just announced that he intends to increase it. Has he discussed that with the Secretaries of State for Education and Employment and for Health, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Home Secretary? Has he got their consent to go ahead with this ludicrous plan?

Mr. Prescott: Clearly, all the problems that the hon. Gentleman described did not start on 1 May 1997 when the Government came to power. He knows that it takes a considerable time to solve the problems that we inherited from the previous Administration.

Mr. Gale: Two years, and 10,000 asylum seekers.

Mr. Prescott: In two years, we have made considerable advances in investment in public services, transport and in the channel tunnel rail link, the plans for which collapsed under the previous Administration. To that extent, we will take into account regeneration aspects and growth factors. As I said earlier, we have to take account of the growth in school numbers and we have an obligation to do so. Indeed, much of our money has been provided to reduce class sizes. All those factors are an important part of community development. The hon. Gentleman referred to the problems of growth. I want more balanced growth and our proposals will help to achieve that.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition's argument is unsustainable? If the health service were under pressure and suffered from a lack of nurses because they could not move to the south-east, it would be unsustainable to make a stark argument about further development. My right hon. Friend's proposals will be a means of achieving mixed communities with affordable housing and will help to contribute to a health service of which we can be proud.

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Mr. Prescott: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The connection between the health service and other public services will determine the character of the communities in which our people live. I said that key workers will have to be provided for in areas such as the south-east, and I would like to see that point covered in the housing plans that are brought before me. The local mix in communities is important, and I made that clear in the statement. We will require communities to attempt to achieve that, because we must avoid the mistakes that were made in the past. There were huge estates for one class and other estates for another class and the different communities never came together.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Some of the 43,000 homes in the south-east will, sadly, be lost each year because of the increase in the ownership of second homes. What is the Secretary of State doing to end the peculiar anomaly under which it is rather easier to buy a home as a second home than it is to buy it as a first home? Second homes have half the council tax that is charged on the same house if it is used as a first home.

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about housing finance. We are looking at many issues, including housing benefit and the differential in council tax on second homes to which he referred. Those are matters for serious consideration. My statement today deals with how we can provide sufficient homes for people, and statements will be made later about those other matters.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on dumping the Crow report. May I ask him--

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): Get on with it.

Madam Speaker: Order.

Fiona Mactaggart: Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in densely populated areas such as mine--the most densely populated constituency in Berkshire--there will be sufficient flexibility to meet local needs? One important local need is for large houses for poor families, and a second need was highlighted just yesterday in a letter to me from the chief constable of the Thames Valley police, who said that he is unable to maintain a full-strength force in Slough because of the cost of housing.

Mr. Prescott: My hon. Friend raises the issue of affordable houses, whether for key workers or for those who do not have much choice and are forced to live in greater density in their existing home. Our policy is designed to try to find affordable homes for more people, and it will hopefully reduce the problems that she has mentioned.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain how, when those numbers are disaggregated down to the level of planning authorities such as that in Reigate and Banstead, the policy behind the figures is anything other than impose and deliver?

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Mr. Prescott: As in the old plan, the local authorities represented in Serplan will in discussion with us. One of the fundamental differences is that we have replaced predict and build with the monitor and manage approach, and the programme will last only five years. Local authorities feared that they were being forced to accept figures and build houses according to a 20-year prediction about which they could not be accurate. The five-year approach will give greater flexibility, and we will discuss it in the normal way with local authorities through Serplan.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the housing situation in the centre of Ellesmere Port, but he may not be aware that there are 800 empty privately owned properties. Will he, as part of the strategy for the reuse of property, encourage the Housing Corporation to look for imaginative solutions for bringing those homes back into use? They would make ideal starter homes and take some of the pressures off counties such as Cheshire.

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