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Mr. Phil Sawford (Kettering): Clause 2 provides that

Clause 8 provides that such documents should be available at reasonable cost. Has anyone tried to put a figure on that? With the shifting patterns of ownership--shared ownerships, corporate ownerships and even disputed or contested ownerships--it is a huge task to impose on a local authority to determine the exact ownership of the land and to publish it at reasonable cost. At what cost to the local taxpayer? How much will the glossy brochures in local garages cost? That cost should be carefully examined when considering the Bill.

Mr. Stinchcombe: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It would be a hugely expensive exercise to pursue the Maoist tendency of the Conservative party, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome identified. There are more practical ways to achieve the desirable objectives. Through the national land use database, PPG3 and the urban capacity studies, we will be able to do the job more quickly, more cheaply and better. However, as I have said, I still want us to make best use of the information that we then gather.

The Government should introduce three additional measures. First, the tax regime needs to be altered so that we can better fulfil the laudable objectives of new PPG3. At the moment, that regime stands in the way of achieving those objectives. Good though the Budget was, there were a couple of omissions. It is crazy that there is no VAT on building new homes on green fields but that it costs 17.5 per cent. in VAT to refurbish empty homes.

All hon. Members know that it is more expensive to build on previously developed land in any event. We do not want economic tools to put a further obstacle in the

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way of recycling land. We want them to encourage the recycling of land. Therefore, I urge the Government to look swiftly at that issue.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) rose--

Mr. Gray rose--

Mr. Stinchcombe: I give way for the last time.

Mr. Gray: I thank the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) for allowing me to intervene.

I must correct the hon. Gentleman slightly. There is no suggestion that VAT is charged on building on brownfield land. VAT is charged only where there is refurbishment of existing buildings. That is what Lord Rogers seeks equivalence on. Does he agree with him that that equivalence should be at 0 per cent., or does he propose that the Chancellor should impose a 5 or 10 per cent. tax on new housing?

Mr. Stinchcombe: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's first point. I am aware of what VAT is attached to, but I welcome the clarification that he gives and the chance to correct the record to that end. Personally--it is dictated in many respects by European law in any event--I think that we should have equivalence of VAT at between 5 and 7 per cent. However, we must get rid of the existing disparity, whereby there are tax incentives to build new houses on green fields and tax disincentives to refurbish existing buildings in urban areas.

Secondly, at the risk of looking like another stealth taxer, I think that local authorities should be empowered to charge double council tax on homes that have been empty for more than a year for no good reason. It is acceptable for people to say that they have a good reason for a property being empty and to demonstrate it, but if they are sitting on empty homes for no good reason, when there are homeless people and when we are building in the countryside, something should be done.

Thirdly, I believe that every local authority should be required to develop its own empty homes strategy. Many already do, but not all. Wellingborough borough council is developing one--East Northamptonshire district council has established its strategy--but many local authorities have not gone even that far. As they are often the housing authority and the planning authority, that is lamentable, especially when so many of their homes still stand empty. As long as they stand empty, we should not stand idly by.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my contribution.

11.44 am

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe). He has warm feelings towards aspects of the Bill. In the best traditions of Friday debates and private Member's Bills, I find myself sharing his approbation of the Bill and, indeed, many of his reservations.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on coming high in the ballot and on, after 25 years, having the opportunity to ride his hobby-horse, which he has been riding throughout that time. He was one of my mentors when I came into the House in 1979. I remember him coming to my then constituency, Hemel Hempstead, to talk about this subject.

I hope that the key point of the Bill--perhaps only the key point--will find its way on to the statute book. Unless the Minister can satisfy me that that is not necessary, we need a little statutory prod to get the key point home. I hope that the Bill will be narrowed to that focus and that, in about three or four clauses, it will find its way on to the statute book.

What is the fundamental point? As Disraeli said--no doubt other people said it, too--what people want in politics is information. That is what we need with regard to the wide political problem of housing development, urban regeneration and protection of the countryside.

The Bill's fundamental point is that information should be ascertained and published. That is what clause 2 asks for. It says:

I do not want to quibble about the precise wording. The clause may be a little too prescriptive, but I should like such a study to be carried out. I would like the local authority to publish it, although not necessarily every 12 months; that may be a bit too much. Those who are responsible for the public utilities, which used to be in public ownership, but which now for good reasons are in private ownership, should be expected to rally round and to provide information about the land and buildings in their ownership so that the register can be built up.

Clause 8 says that local planning authorities should make that information available for inspection at reasonable cost. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Sawford), who I know has local authority experience because I have heard him speak before on the matter, talked about excessive cost. Private Members' Bills should not impose such costs on local authorities or anyone else. They should make simple suggestions that will do good. That is at the heart of the Bill.

I do not know the answer to my next question, but I raise it for the Minister in the hope that it will be noted by her officials and that she will be given the answer. Once we have identified where the land is, information on its ownership will be available probably through the Land Registry. I do not know to what extent the information on the registry is publicly available, but I have always thought that there was a case for some wider availability. I do not want to break too many barriers of private information, but that might provide a way in which to obtain information for those who were seriously interested in such developments at a reasonable cost.

Mr. Gray: I am slightly concerned about the part of the Bill on information. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are, I think, of one mind on the aim of saving the countryside, but surely the production of lists and information of the type that the Bill describes and that my

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right hon. and learned Friend praises is an excessively bureaucratic and costly way in which to cure the problem. Providing a list does not necessarily provide a solution.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I normally agree with my hon. Friend. I think that it is just that I do not understand exactly what he is saying. If we do not have a list with a map attached that shows what land we are talking about, it will not be of any help to anyone.

Mr. Gray rose--

Sir Nicholas Lyell: May I continue? I am sure that my hon. Friend will develop his reservations in his speech, which I hope that he will make shortly. We must have something that people can look at so that they know what they are talking about in any particular area.

I suppose that I should declare some sort of interest. I have done nothing like as much planning work at the Bar as the hon. Member for Wellingborough, but I have done planning work in the past. It is possible that I might do so in future. I and my family own, or in future, may own small or modest amounts of property, which might be affected by the Bill. I make that clear. What I am asking for probably militates against my immediate interests, but that does not absolve me from declaring the interest, so I do so.

Let me come back to the reasons for having a nice, straightforward register indicating these areas of land. We should not necessarily let the best be the enemy of the good. Something that covered 80 or 90 per cent. would be a real help. It would give an opportunity for smaller developers to be involved, and for competition. Excessive bureaucratisation and over-elaborate planning guidance mean that developers have to be bigger and bigger to succeed in this area. The smaller developers find it more difficult to obtain the information and more expensive--or too expensive--to carry out the necessary studies that the Bill would add to. That is disadvantageous.

As areas develop and small towns are provided with bypasses--rightly, under the previous Government--the land between the outside perimeter of the town and the bypass tends to get infilled. That is sensible, but, sadly, it is often badly done. The quality of the planning is not good enough, partly because it tends to be done by big developers who do not have the time and energy to concentrate on the detailed planning. Information means opportunity, opportunity means competition, competition means higher standards. Those are all thoroughly Tory principles, which I hope will find an echo throughout the House. I know that other parties will say, "Don't claim these good ideas just for yourselves", and I am very happy to spread them around. They are wise principles.

I want to say a word about how this may help Bedfordshire, part of which I represent, and the scale of the problem there. Many hon. Members have talked about the Crow report and the problems that the Deputy Prime Minister is having to tackle--which we would have to tackle if we were in power--about how to place all these homes. We are deceiving ourselves by saying that we are likely to achieve 60 per cent. of building on brownfield sites in many areas. The Government would be deceiving themselves if they seriously believed that that could be

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achieved in Bedfordshire. Even with the greater intensity of building that is permissible under PPG3 in relation to the housing development projected for Bedfordshire--which is an increase under the Crow report from 43,000 to 64,000 dwellings--it would be only just possible to get the 43,000 dwellings on 50 per cent. brownfield sites. The figure of 60 per cent. is pie in the sky in Bedfordshire.

When I asked the Deputy Prime Minister about this when he made his statement the other day, he said that the Government were modifying the Crow recommendations and that I was exaggerating. I hope that I am. Crow suggested an extra 21,000 dwellings. The Government have not published their figures, but the newspapers suggested 15,500. If the increase is anything like as much, the figure for what can be built on brownfield sites will reduce to nearer 30 per cent. I did not make these figures up--I got them from our non-political experts on Bedfordshire county council. That is the sad fact. That is why it is so desirable to know that brownfield land really is available across the country, and to have it published, as the Bill suggests.

Knowledge of this nature will be valuable with regard to urban regeneration in the inner city. I used to live in Lambeth, and people did not know what was available. There were also old political battles--dragons that are now slain--and the desire for huge municipalisation clogged up the proper development of Lambeth for 10 or 15 years. I am glad that that is no longer the case. None the less, knowledge of what derelict and brownfield sites are available in an inner-city area such as Lambeth or in a country market town such as Biggleswade will be helpful in enabling the greater densities of building and the better development of either of those communities.

Urban communities, large or small, have a head start with regard to the local transport infrastructure. In a town such as Biggleswade, one can pretty well walk from many of the sites to the centre, and vice versa. There must be a great deal of under-used property, sometimes on the first or second floors of buildings, which nobody has thought of using but which could provide high-quality residential development, particularly for older people. I am pushing in that direction myself--I was brought up in London until I was about 16, and then lived in the country, where I have remained for most of my life except for the 10 years when I had a house in Lambeth. I can quite see that in later life it might be more pleasant to live in London. There are parts of London that could be developed to house far more people, not just in the centre, but out in areas such as Brent. The Bill would help, by making it clear where places, which are at present unattractive but have huge potential, could be developed by a whole host of small, largely private, developers doing good things and allowing a thousand flowers to bloom.

I hope that the Bill will be considered in Committee. I would be very sad if it were talked out, although I have no reason to believe that the Government wish to do so. I hope that there are 100 of us here, if necessary, to see that it gets through. However, I want to see the Bill narrowed down in Committee. Without being precise, I want it narrowed down to roughly clauses 1, 2, 3 and 8. I simply want it to result in the register. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes put the idea in his book in 1981. It was a good idea then, and it is a good idea now.

I was grateful to follow the hon. Member for Wellingborough. It is one of the strengths of the House when hon. Members, from whatever party, bring with

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them a deep knowledge of a particular subject. He did so, and illuminated the debate. However, I think that his answers to my questions show that, although PPG3 is benign, it will not do the trick. There should be a statutory requirement for local authorities to obtain the information for the registers and publish them. It would take too long, it would be too diffuse and it would not work, without the prod that the Bill provides.

In summary, I support my hon. Friend's Bill. I hope that it will get into Committee, and that, when it does, he will wipe away all the dross, the over-prescriptive material, the extra burdens on would-be developers and on local authorities that some of the clauses would provide. I hope that the Bill will be focused on its central issue, and that the Government will accept it. There is a great deal of cross-party support for the Bill's central notion, and I wish it well.

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