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1.35 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): It is always a daunting experience to follow the learned doctor, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), as I have done so often in Select Committees. He used terms like "stakhanovite"to describe the tendencies of previous speakers. I am sure that he knows what a stakhanovite tendency is, but I certainly do not. Most of the rest of his

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speech was extraordinarily learned and reasonably well argued, if a little beyond the immediate ken of some of my constituents.

Dr. Whitehead: The word "stakhanovite" comes from the Soviet coal miner Stakhanov, who hewed more coal in one day than any other Soviet miner in history and, as a result, was given the Order of Lenin.

Mr. Gray: I am grateful to the learned hon. Gentleman for putting me right on that subject. My contribution will be less elevated and perhaps less elegant than his.

I wish to speak on behalf of my constituents and others across England who are concerned about this issue--people such as those in Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, who showed their concern last night by throwing out the Labour-controlled council and replacing it with a Conservative council on a 13 per cent. swing, which, if replicated in a general election, would return the constituency to Conservative control.

I broadly accept and welcome the principles of PPG3, which follows the principles laid down by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who put in place the original PPG3 and changed Conservative policy on planning. We who first put the principles in place are preserving the countryside. I am pleased that the Government have followed those principles.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for choosing this subject for his Bill. It is good that he opened up the debate, and I hope that the Government will listen carefully today and then, I hope, in Committee.

What we do in the next 20 years in terms of building in England will be with us for 1,000 years. Truly, this is a millennium issue. Archaeologists and town planners will look back 1,000 years from now and will talk about what we are doing in terms of planning today, in the same way that we very often talk critically about our predecessors in the 19th century and earlier.

Mr. Tom King: People talk as though this is the final plan, but this is the plan until 2011 or 2016. The indication is that the plan thereafter is to do it all again. When one reflects on that, one realises how critical this issue is. My hon. Friend was a little dismissive of PPG3, which failed to mention more about affordable housing and infrastructure provision--two key elements that must be taken into account in any further planning and development.

Mr. Gray: My right hon. Friend makes some powerful points. We are discussing not simply a process that will stop in 2011, but what will happen thereafter. Unless we get the principles right now and lay down the way in which we want to live on this small island of ours, future generations will not thank us.

It is worth reflecting on some of the correct principles that the Bill attempts to address. First, it is right that there should be equality of economic prosperity across the United Kingdom--it is not right that there should be economic prosperity here in the south-east, in my own area towards the south-west and in other parts of England, while we remain perfectly content to allow less prosperity, or greater poverty, in the north of England and in Scotland

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and Wales. Our planning policies must lay down ways to establish equality of opportunity across the country. I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides would agree.

Secondly, we must find ways to revive our inner cities. The Bill goes some way toward achieving that. In Paris, the inner city is elegant, well-built and prosperous, whereas the outer city is less prosperous. We have generally done it the other way around and allowed our inner cities to decline. That must be reversed. I suspect that there is agreement on that principle as well.

Thirdly, we must preserve the nature of our small market towns. I am concerned that towns in Wiltshire such as Chippenham, Malmesbury, Wootton Bassett and Corsham may be engulfed by new housing--often homes in the "executive style", which is an expression I dislike intensely--almost all occupied by commuters into Swindon, Bath and Bristol. We must find ways to preserve the character and nature of market towns while accommodating economic prosperity.

Fourthly, we must save the countryside, both as the primary area of food production and for its amenity value. Just about everyone would agree with those four principles of development. However, my fifth principle of planning policy is more controversial--deliberately so. The presumption is made that it is the nation's duty to provide the quality and the type of housing that people want, in the place that they want it and at a price that they can afford to pay for it. The first part of that statement is fair enough, but I question whether the rest is a reasonable aim of planning policy.

Should we provide the desired quantity and type of housing that people want where they want it and at the price they can afford? We do not do so at present--one only has to look at Mayfair. We think it perfectly acceptable that the smallest property--a bedsit--in Mayfair costs £1 million; no one says that we should change planning policy to ensure that housing is available in Mayfair for all who want it. However, when we discuss the rest of the south-east of England, we appear to accept the necessity of providing the type and quality of housing that people want, where they want it and at the price they can afford. That presumption is exactly what leads to the trickle-down effect currently seen in planning: we state how many houses we need and where we need them.

Dr. Whitehead: The difference between Mayfair and south-east England is that one can still afford to live relatively close to Mayfair, whereas commuting distances in south-east England, were the entire region to become unaffordable, would mean that no one was able to get where they needed to go, whether to work or for some other reason.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman is correct. I was using Mayfair as an extreme example of a general principle, which is that, if we accept that it is right to provide affordable housing, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We in the south-east are prosperous, so we build more factories; we find that we have not enough houses for the people who work in those factories, so we build more houses. Then, we have lots of people, but some of those factories disappear, so more businesses have to be brought in to employ the people. In the meantime, huge factories lie empty in other parts of England, such as the north-east and north-west, poverty increases in such areas and they have a housing surplus.

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We must ask ourselves whether it is right to provide the number of houses people want at a price that they can afford to pay. Perhaps it is not right. Perhaps we should engage to a greater extent in social engineering--an unpleasant expression, but apt--in an effort to spread prosperity throughout the nation and to reduce congestion in the south-east.

Mr. Letwin: My hon. Friend has identified the kernel of the issue, but does he agree that the problem is even more severe than he describes because, as prosperity grows, there could be an almost limitless demand for second homes? On the thesis that he correctly exposes as that which underlies the Government's present policies, we could presumably build 20 million second homes all over the countryside.

Mr. Gray: The problem that my hon. Friend describes is particularly potent in his area, Dorset, and mine--

Mr. Tom King: And in Somerset.

Mr. Gray: And, as my right hon. Friend reminds me, in Somerset, where there are large numbers of second homes. In-comers seeking second homes, particularly in the west of England, create huge pressure. That problem must be addressed.

On the question whether we must give people the sort of homes that they need in the place that they need them, and the suggestion that that may not be a moral obligation, I would make an exception in the case of the sons and daughters of local people who wish to continue to live in the same area. That is perfectly reasonable. There should be affordable lower-cost housing, for which the exceptions policy in PPG3 allows, so that local people can live in those areas. That does not mean executive-style homes for commuters to move into.

Mr. Letwin: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a problem with such affordable housing? We do not live in a totalitarian state, thank goodness, and once houses are built, it is not easy to ensure that they are always occupied by the people for whom they were designed.

Mr. Gray: It is by no means easy to ensure that that is the case, but if that were a principle underlying the planning system, there would at least be a presumption that local authorities might find a way of doing it.

To some extent, when the Conservatives were in government we put that idea in place by ensuring that the right to buy would not apply to housing associations in settlements of less than a certain size, to make sure that we maintained affordable rented housing in some of our smaller villages. That is a worthwhile principle, although my hon. Friend is right.

In Malmesbury, a highly desirable Cotswold stone town in my constituency, for example, there are so many outsiders coming in that the smallest house costs a fortune, so local people must move a long way away. We must get away from that phenomenon, and one way of doing so would be by writing a principle relating to affordable housing into the planning policy, although I accept my hon. Friend's point that it may be difficult to work out how to do that.

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That brings me to a more general point. Under our present planning system, some faceless bureaucrats somewhere come up with the number of houses that we will need. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes questioned the basis for those projections and he is right to do so. Nevertheless, the figure produced by the faceless bureaucrats is divided, broadly speaking, by the number of counties in England. Each county is told that it must take X number of houses, the county then divides them up among the district councils, and it ends up with North Wiltshire district council being told that it must take 12,000 houses.

That takes no account whatever of the need in North Wiltshire, the economic prosperity in North Wiltshire, or the land available in North Wiltshire. It takes no account of anything at all, apart from some central stakhanovite civil servant who says that, by a process of arithmetic that is always too complicated for him to understand, North Wiltshire will take 12,000 houses. The fact that those houses might be needed more elsewhere is ignored.

That brings me back to the economic equality argument. Here, I risk trespassing on a number of very worthwhile businesses, which want to develop in areas such as mine, where there is already low unemployment. I would argue that that is not necessarily helpful. We do not necessarily need the Showell industrial park just south of Chippenham, because Chippenham has almost zero unemployment.

By building a huge new business park, we invite lots of new entrepreneurial businesses, which is great economically, and bring in lots more people. Meanwhile, in the north of England and elsewhere, large areas of factory space and housing are empty and there is general economic decline. Only by being more controlling through the planning system can we encourage businesses to go to areas that need the business more. That brings me back to the Bill.

The planning system is centrally controlled. The Government run it, and decisions trickle down to the people who have to live with the consequences. We should reverse the process and tell local people that their representatives--district, county and parish councillors--will determine their economic necessities; that they will decide what land they have available; and that they will know the sort of people who look for housing and will therefore know the sort of housing that is needed in the area. If the result of that democratic process is fewer houses in, for example, North Wiltshire, than the faceless bureaucrats in Whitehall tell us that we need, so be it. We can force business and housing into the areas that have the requisite capacity only by such means.

I fear that I have one or two minor worries about the Bill. I have warned my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes about that. It is a good Bill, because it focuses attention on crucial matters. However, I am worried about the production of the register of vacant land. It is important to know the location of vacant land, but I am concerned that it would be easy to believe that a list and a map of vacant land would solve the problem. The problem could be solved by other means, which I shall describe, but the mere production of a register would not resolve it. Indeed, it might make matters worse, because many civil servants might tell themselves that producing the register, keeping it up to date and making it available to the public would somehow make life better. That is not necessarily the case.

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We do not need to make registers--that is the old Stalinist, centralised way. We must give people incentives to build on vacant land and provide disincentives for not building on it. Other suggestions occur. We have discussed the differential in VAT between new build and refurbishment. We must correct that; I believe that it should be zero, the figure that Lord Rogers proposed. Otherwise we are considering a tax on housing, which I could not contemplate supporting. We must find a way of equalising the VAT.

A vacant land tax is worth considering. If someone chooses to keep land vacant for no particular reason, perhaps he should be taxed on it. We could consider a council tax on empty homes. It is possibly right to pay a little extra on a house that is kept empty for lengthy periods for no particular reason. In that context, I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who talked about flats above shops and the Empty Homes Agency. Both were initiatives of the previous Conservative Government.

I do not support a greenfield tax, but we could possibly consider a tax on building on greenfield sites. However, my inclination is that that is not the best policy because it would give the builders an incentive to build larger and more expensive homes to eat up the tax that was charged on them.

Compulsory purchase orders on brownfield sites in inner-city areas were mentioned. We must find ways to improve the CPO system so that developers can lay their hands on large parcels of land owned by a variety of owners, many of whom will have disappeared.

We should restrict greenfield development. If we do that, we are not following the slightly bureaucratic route that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes proposes in the Bill, but harnessing the natural instincts and strengths of the private sector. We should tell developers that we have proposals that will help them to make a profit by making use of vacant land. We should encourage businesses to go to areas where they are needed, not to areas such as mine where they are not needed as much. We should harness the energies of the private sector, encourage development where it ought to happen in our great nation and discourage it where it should not, namely on greenfield sites.

I welcome the broad thrust and principles of the Bill. It is a fine measure. I hope that the Government will give good time for its consideration in Committee and that they do not try to talk it out today. We shall note carefully the amount of time that the Minister takes to reply. We hope that she sits down at twenty-nine and a half minutes past two o'clock. We look forward to that. The Government must not talk out such a valuable Bill.

Some serious work needs to be done to improve the aspects that I have described. By and large, the principles behind the Bill are sound. The Conservative party has always subscribed to them. I am sure that an incoming Conservative Government--the result in Broxtowe last night encouraged me to believe that that may be around the corner--will give effect to those principles.

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