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12.12 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): As an acknowledged non-expert, I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) rather than my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) or the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), both of whom obviously have great expertise in this subject area.

However, I am delighted to be named as a sponsor of the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). I share his antipathy to legislation and regulation, and I agreed entirely when he said that it would be infinitely better if we spent our Fridays repealing, rather than introducing, legislation. However, when it comes to pressure on the environment, I am guilty of standing on my head and abandoning my instincts, because I want the Bill to become law largely in the form in which my hon. Friend has proposed it to the House.

On one point in his opening remarks, I did disagree with my hon. Friend--when he seemed to take as a given the necessity to build 3.8 million houses by 2016. He then examined the theology of Kingsway, which had produced that information, and drew attention to the fact that the 3.8 million figure had been arrived at by a miraculous decrease from 4.4 million.

It seems to me that, ultimately, those figures are the product of sticking a wet finger in the air, and they are inevitably estimates--estimates about people's behaviour, trends that can change, and factors that can be influenced. This is where I have the most profound difficulty with the current approach to planning. The hon. Member for Warrington, North spoke about a strategic plan for her area--the north-west--and about the need to regenerate Liverpool so that the factors that are producing the rush from Liverpool to Warrington may be affected; yet ultimately, all our planning is decided by the one overwhelming decision that there will be 3.8 million new houses by 2016. Everything cascades from that.

Where I quibble with my hon. Friend is on the first principle. We should attack the factors that create the need for new houses. Why do we need 3.8 million more houses? Is it because our population is growing? No, it is not. We need many more houses because people separate and do not stay together for as long as they did. The House can take measures, through the tax and benefits

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system, to support marriage and to encourage people to stay together. We can deal with the factors that lead to the demand for more homes.

We can address the issue of people leaving home earlier and setting up homes on their own. We can put in place incentives through the tax and benefits system to encourage people to stay at home longer before they set up home away from their parents. We can examine the factors that mean that old people live on their own for longer without support from their children. We can start to get to work on the factors that drive the demand for so many houses. If we can do that, the problem that we all face will not be so dramatic as the challenge that we face now, particularly in the south-east and the south-west.

Mr. Gray: One way that we could achieve those useful social aims would be by restricting the availability of housing. If a house is not available in a local area, the children will not wish to leave home when they are 18. They will be forced to stay at home even if they do not want to. That might even help to keep families together.

Mr. Blunt: There is something in what my hon. Friend says. For example, in Italy, young men traditionally stay at home with mamma for much longer than young men do in the United Kingdom. One of the reasons for that are the planning regulations. In many parts of Italy, there are beautiful landscapes for which there are very restrictive planning regulations. In a sense, such regulations mean that people are encouraged to stay at home. If extra housing is not readily available, that factor falls out the equation.

Dr. Whitehead: I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Does he accept the concept of affordable housing? If houses are not available at prices that people can afford, that does not necessarily mean that people will stay at home with mother or father--they may not find a roof over their heads at all.

Mr. Blunt: We have to examine the position. The population of the United Kingdom is 59.2 million. Will the population be 68 million by the time that we have built all the extra houses? No, it will not, so do we have a homelessness problem in the sense that the hon. Gentleman suggests? We do not; we have a problem with where people live and the style of life that they choose to lead. We should address those factors, because they underlie the problems that we have debated today and on many previous occasions and that the Bill will help to address.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. The difference between predict and provide, and plan, monitor and manage is, in the end, almost meaningless. The whole policy is dictated by the numbers of extra houses set by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Those houses will be built, because the housing inspectors who sit in judgment on planning appeals will have at the back of their minds--whatever PPG3 says--the fact that the Government have said that they should be built and have provided the overall numbers.

That has happened in the south-east, where figures for extra houses have been provided. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) drew attention to the

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fact that we have not had such a debate about the south-west, because we have not got the numbers for the south-west yet. The south-east is the first part of the country for which figures have been provided. If we consider the patterns of migration from the south-east to the south-west, I agree that the south-west faces the problem on exactly the same scale as the south-east.

People in the south-east feel so strongly because the numbers for extra houses in the south-east have been made known. Serplan recommended that there should be 668,500 extra houses and that figure was based on an accommodation with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Serplan did not want 668,500 houses to be built, but all the local authorities involved were trying to find a way to buy off central Government, who were trying to impose a number on them, and find a figure that would be acceptable for the whole of the south-east.

Professor Crow had a different mindset and said that the priority must be economic growth. He advocated a "let it rip" approach to housebuilding in the south-east to support unimpeded economic growth, so we ended up with the idea of 1.1 million new houses. The Deputy Prime Minister split the difference, and we now have a target of 860,000 houses to be built by 2016. That drives what will happen thereafter because I understand that on Monday--the Minister will correct me if I am wrong--we will be told the allocation per county. The counties will then have to make allocations for the planning authorities, which will have to make the best of a bad job.

In the end, although PPG3 and other guidance will set a sequential test and so on, it will not make a significant difference because it will not change the fact that those houses will be imposed on local people, whether or not they want them. Their representatives, in trying to raise people's quality of life, will not be in a position to make a proper judgment in the interests of all residents.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) mentioned affordable housing, and of course that is an important issue for local representatives, but they cannot afford to ignore the need to provide housing for people who have traditionally lived in that area and are priced out of the market. They will need to find houses for nurses and others working in public services, who are not as well rewarded as others. Those public services are essential, and if an area has only houses that cost a minimum of £500,000, nobody will be left to provide those vital services.

Those issues can be better decided by local people and their representatives, who are accountable to their electorate, than by central Government producing a number that cascades down through the system.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas: Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there is a particularly serious lack of affordable housing in London, where the average house costs £159,000 and first-time buyers have to pay an average of £120,000? On public services, will he acknowledge that London has the severest problems caused by the cost of housing and the need for more units of affordable housing?

Mr. Blunt: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the situation in London is patchy because some areas have enormous economic pressure and others are subject to

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serious economic and environmental challenge. That is a complicated picture, but my hon. Friend's Bill will help us to understand that by providing transparency.

Labour Members have criticised the approach taken by the Conservative Government in the 1980s, not least under the stewardship of the late Lord Ridley. To a degree, looking at the picture now, one has to agree that perhaps things went wrong. However, one of the joys of the Conservative party is that it contains two trends--it has a liberal wing and a Tory wing--and is able to respond to the changes required in the environment.

In the 1980s, people rightly aspired to the freedom of choice provided by out-of-town shopping centres, and that is what consumers were demanding. The sort of houses that were being built were what people wanted. At that stage, the debate about the environment was not as intense as it is now. That intensity is due to the fact that, as the environment has changed, people have begun to say, "Enough! There are enough out-of-town shopping centres and greenfield developments." That is why policy changed, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said, in 1992. That is why the trend of policy now is a continuation of what happened under the stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer).

The Bill comes at a time when the pressure for development in the south-east and the south-west is becoming intolerable. That is why the issue is at the front of our minds, and why the Bill deserves consideration.

The Government have failed to address the factors that drive the housing projections, and they have yet to get to grips with urban regeneration. There is a sort of schizophrenia in the Government, which one sees sometimes in the personality of Ministers. The instinct of the Minister for Housing and Planning, I believe, is to develop; he has a liberal approach to these matters. He believes that the south-east must be the economic motor of the UK, and that is why the numbers have been pushed up as far as they have been by the Deputy Prime Minister. I deplore that, but other Ministers see things differently.

The Government are trying to grope towards a solution. I do not doubt their good intentions, which are shown in PPG3 and the evidence given to the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. However, they have, so far, failed to deliver the instruments that will enable change to take place. That is what the Bill does.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough quite properly criticised the Budget as a missed opportunity in terms of VAT, stamp duty on brownfield sites and a special development tax on greenfield sites. These instruments were available, but the opportunity was lost.

The people of the south-east are crying out for restraint in development, yet they will be told to get on with building more new homes which they know they cannot cope with. The context in which the House considers the Bill is so important. When central Government instruct one region to meet its share of the national housing projections, the message is simple--in the end, it will have to build those houses, pay the environmental price and suffer a reduction in the quality of life.

If the Government continue to pursue that policy, the House will owe it to future generations to do everything that we possibly can to alleviate the worst effects of the

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overall policy that is driven by the housing projections. The Bill could play a key role in that, and ought to command support from both sides of the House. The criticisms so far have been about the detail, and I hope sincerely that hon. Members will support the Bill, so that those criticisms can be debated properly in Committee. There seems to be agreement on the overall objective.

The Bill could put power in the hands of people in the form of information. That information could then condition the attitudes of their local representatives. We need transparency.

Ministers have been stubborn in their insistence that 60 per cent. of all new building should be on brownfield sites. I commend them for that; it is not enough, but at least they have upped the target and said that they intend to stick to it. However, that target does not change the reality on the ground. Local authorities, particularly in the south-east and the south-west, will struggle immensely to meet that target with the development required of them by Ministers.

The urban capacity studies that the Bill would require local authorities to undertake would inform the debate. If Ministers are to ensure that even the 60 per cent. target is met, it is essential to ensure that each and every brownfield site is meticulously considered and no area left undisturbed before the all-too-easy option of greenfield development is allowed.

We have a duty to protect our green fields from development. However, all too often, our planning controls are insufficient to cope with the ever-increasing strains on the infrastructure, and the threats to our green fields and the environment.

I raised with the Minister the issue of telecommunications masts; one example where the planning process permits the environmentally friendly option--that of base stations being forced to go on existing structures and buildings--to be too readily overlooked. The powers in that respect have not been explored adequately, with the result that there has been an explosion in the number of masts. I am sure that we have all received complaints from constituents about the associated health risks and the impact on their visual enjoyment of the environment. The Bill would ensure that all environmentally friendly options to preserve our environment are explored and every effort is made to spare greenfield sites before construction commences.

I conclude with an example drawn from the area on the boundary between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). The previous household projection numbers cascaded down through the county and on to the borough of Reigate and Banstead. That borough, already the most congested and developed part of Surrey, had a higher housing target imposed on it than any other borough in Surrey. Regrettably, there was a Liberal-Labour coalition running the borough council at the time. The borough now had to find room for those houses. The Horley masterplan was produced, whereby half of the houses were to be built on the boundary of Horley on farm land and green fields partly owned by the county council.

Local people took up the issue. Douglas Simpson of the Meath Green Protection Society carried out his own brownfield audit of Horley as it stands. Through imaginative schemes, including building on existing car parks and moving the car parking spaces to areas above

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the railway, Mr. Simpson found in Horley--a small town--room for 2,000 houses on previously developed land. It is wrong that such a study of brownfield sites in Horley had to be undertaken by a member of the public. With that exercise, Mr. Simpson has triggered an interesting debate about the Horley masterplan and the alternatives to building 2,600 houses on greenfield land extending right to the boundary of the green belt on the A23 corridor--the narrowest part of the green belt around London. It should not have taken a member of the public to initiate that debate.

The information that Douglas Simpson had to find should have been available when the development plan was drawn up. The Bill would make such information available to all members of the public. It would enable the debate that every community must have to be properly informed and the planning process to be transparent. The Bill would provide the necessary statutory power to make the commitment to maximise the reuse of previously developed land and empty properties work locally. The Bill is proactive, although my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes might not like that description, given his attitude to regulation. It will make information available.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) described development as a jigsaw, and the Government face the challenge of putting together a huge number of pieces of policy. The Bill addresses only one piece of the jigsaw: the provision of information--knowing what is there so that we can make use of it. We cannot simply rely on PPG3 and good intentions. We must put information into public domain through statute.

The Bill changes "should"--a word that appears repeatedly in PPG3--into "will". It is in the interests of future generations, who will inherit the environment that we create, that we place on local authorities a duty to provide information to their constituents. I am delighted to support the Bill and I hope that it reaches Committee.

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