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12.33 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) as the third non-expert in a row. That is all to the good and what Parliament is all about--the more non-experts, the better. I have a great deal of sympathy with his opening remarks about his suspicions about the global housing figure. My gut instinct tells me that it is far too large; it does not accord with common sense, population growth, population mobility, or changes in family composition.

I cannot say that I go along with the hon. Gentleman in his touching faith in keeping marriages together through tax incentives. Most marriages that I have witnessed breaking up would not be kept together with manacles, never mind tax incentives.

I am also not convinced by the hon. Gentleman's generalisation--I hope that I quote him correctly--that people in the south-east are crying out for restraint in housebuilding. That is only partly true. It would apply only to those who were content with their current housing. Part of the problem in the south-east and elsewhere--I shall speak mainly about elsewhere--is precisely the number of people who, for one reason or another, are not content with their present housing, whether they have a house or not, and want to move out into the sort of areas that the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) seeks to protect.

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I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Totnes and agreed with much of it. I noted his statement that he wished he were in the Chamber on Fridays repealing legislation, which was echoed by the hon. Member for Reigate. If they proposed the repeal of section 28, they would receive a great deal of support from Government Members.

Although I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Totnes and support many of his aims, I cannot support the Bill, for the reasons already stated by my hon. Friends. It would duplicate much of what the Government are doing through PPG3 and the national land use database. It would overlay and confuse the work already being done by many local authorities--not all, no doubt, but many.

Some clauses would be unworkable, and most of the Bill is otiose. There is little in it that has not been addressed elsewhere. I shall not go through the Bill in enormous detail, except to say that the Government are already committed to doing much of what is set out in clause 1.

The hon. Member for Totnes was rightly worried about the dense and meaningless wording of many of the documents to which he referred. I share those concerns, but paragraph 22 of PPG3, which states that

could not be clearer as a central commitment by the Government.

Clause 2 is already under way. Clause 3 goes without saying. Without it, clauses 1 and 2 would be pointless. That applies also to subsection (2) of clause 3. Clause 4 is already being done.

Clause 5 is already being done, but I shall comment on the wording

which also appears in clause 3(2). Why does the clause not simply state "shall maximise"? The words "seek to" significantly weaken it. I advise the hon. Gentleman to reconsider that, if the Bill goes any further. I can hear the voice of my local senior planning officer saying, "Well, Col, we sought to maximise it. Unfortunately, we couldn't quite do it, but we assure you we tried."

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that I was out of the Chamber when he dealt with clause 6, which would require a local planning authority to go through the hoops

The hon. Gentleman is right. Like many hon. Members representing rural areas, I have bitter memories of the old days when an agricultural worker's dwelling got planning permission in the green belt, and one suddenly found that it had 12 bedrooms, two stables, garage room for six cars and so on. Five dwellings with gardens of an acre apiece and 10 bedrooms are different from five sheltered accommodation bungalows or a row of five terraced houses, which are built to fulfil specific needs. Clause 6 is therefore nonsense.

I am also worried about clause 7. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that the existing infrastructure would have to be adequate for any development of greenfield sites.

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That would preclude any deal between a local authority and a developer to introduce a development that had its own infrastructure. That happens all the time. I appreciate that schools present difficulties, but developers almost always provide physical infrastructure such as sewers and roads. If such a development were necessary in a small part of the green belt, the Bill would prevent it.

The provisions of clause 8 are already under way, especially through the scrutiny of local authority development plans. However, I support clause 9, which covers interpretation. If the hon. Member for Totnes removed the other clauses and left clause 9, I would support the Bill.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to discuss one of the crucial problems of the new century. It has given rise to a briefing from the Country Landowners Association, with which--probably for the first time--I mostly agree. However, the CLA makes one statement, which, if not silly, is mistaken. It states:

The Government have to base their policy on the simple and obvious truth that the needs of rural areas depend on urban renaissance. The Deputy Prime Minister recognised that years ago; the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) has talked about it for years; and the hon. Member for Totnes also acknowledges that.

Unless the population of the United Kingdom--the majority of whom live in urban areas--are content with the quality of life in those areas, people will strive to move out. That is human nature. Most of them will want to move not to isolated rural areas--they will not move to the middle of the Pennines or central Wales--but to the green areas that surround major conurbations. They often want to do that to retain their jobs and the richness of leisure services that exists in cities. We all want it both ways.

That trend vastly increases commuter transport. That other major problem is intimately related to the subject of our discussion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made clear. Unless we can encourage urban renaissance in all our cities and urban areas--not only London or Manchester, wonderful though the metro is--the pressures for emigration to rural areas will become irresistible. Perhaps they already are.

I appreciate that I am stating the obvious. However, it bears endless repetition. The problem will not be tackled by those who have already moved to a rural area trying to pull up the drawbridge behind them to prevent others from getting in. It will not be solved by the persistent efforts to create division between rural and urban communities. That can do nothing but damage to our overall social infrastructure. We live in a small country, not Canada. Its rural and urban communities intermesh in many different ways.

A simple thesis underlies the Bill of the hon. Member for Totnes. He wants to prevent more people from moving to the countryside. He realises that, to do that, he must prevent the building of the homes that are necessary to house them there. He knows that more homes are needed. His proposed solution is to compel local authorities and developers to use brownfield sites in urban areas. The Bill specifies "previously developed urban land".

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The CLA briefing points out that there are many previously developed sites in rural areas. That is true of my constituency. The Bill does not include them.

Mr. Steen: An amendment in Committee would solve that problem.

Mr. Pickthall: If the Bill gets that far and if such an amendment can be drafted, simply removing the word "urban" would solve the problem. There is much previously developed land in rural areas such as Ministry of Defence sites, old Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions sites, old countryside works of all kinds and old railway works, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Houses have been built inside a former quarry in my constituency. Although that sounds terrible, the development is very attractive.

I do not know the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I presume that his local council would not be greatly burdened by the responsibilities that the Bill would entail. However, his former constituency in Liverpool would be mightily burdened and those responsibilities, which most authorities already undertake in one way or another, would be enormous for a city the size of Manchester. Having said all that, his basic thesis is not far wrong, with the exception of the word "urban". However, the Government are seeking to achieve what the Bill describes. Why do we need to duplicate that?

In essence, the Bill says that urban local authorities will have to undertake huge extra activities at substantial expense to themselves to protect the countryside. The towns and cities would pay, through work and expenditure, for the benefit of the countryside, although I am not saying that that is entirely wrong as a philosophy.

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