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2.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) that this has been an interesting and informative debate. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for presenting his Bill, and I thank my hon. Friends, and Opposition Members, for their contributions. The hon. Member for Totnes said that this was the first time that he had presented a private Member's Bill. It is a particular pity, therefore, that on this occasion the Government cannot support it. I shall clarify why that is so.

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Some of the reasons for our response became apparent in the debate. I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's expertise and long-term interest in the subject. Indeed, it has been referred to as his hobby-horse. However, some of the speeches by Conservative Members showed that this was not so much a hobby horse for them as a Trojan horse--something through which to bring in their own, not very well hidden, agenda of clothing in statute the "not in my backyard" mentality that some of them support. They are using the Bill not as a way of dealing seriously with the complex and multi-faceted issues that are inherent in the question of how to provide housing for our people in the future, but as a mechanism to prevent any further building of homes in their own areas, irrespective of the needs of local people.

Conservative Members also showed a failure to comprehend the difference between plan, monitor and manage and predict and provide. That is a crucial issue, because they fail to take into account the real world in which people's behaviour over time does not necessarily conform to the science of prediction--which, as many hon. Members have said, is in any case an inexact science. The plan, monitor and manage process is designed to take the real world, changing circumstances and changing behaviour, into account.

We also saw the failure of Conservative Members to understand planning law and the role of planning guidance, which was so ably explained to them by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe).

Mr. Letwin: Does the Minister think that there are, from a national rather than a NIMBY point of view, limits on the amount of house building in the countryside? If so, what are they?

Ms Hughes: The limits are constraints imposed by physical structure and by all the issues that hon. Members have mentioned, including infrastructure. The planning process has to take those constraints into account. That is the purpose of the plan-led approach to housing development that the previous Government failed to develop when they had the opportunity, but that this Government are serious about strengthening. It is the only way to have a consistent, relevant and coherent approach to the many difficult and complex issues that are inherent in the question of how to provide housing for our people in the future.

On a superficial reading, the Bill might seem reasonable. Indeed, I accept that many of its underlying objectives are reasonable. They are consistent with Government policy, which already covers many of the objectives that the Bill sets out.

I am not unsympathetic to the Bill's objectives, but some of our objections to it have been outlined ably by my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) and for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). First, the Bill duplicates the policy that the Government are implementing through PPG3. Secondly, it would confuse local authorities because it is imprecise and some of its requirements are too general. Thirdly, that imprecision results in proposals that would be impossible to put into operation.

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The fourth objection is the most important. As the hon. Member for Totnes has said, other issues could be dealt with by redrafting, but we object to the Bill in principle. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) identified a fundamental disagreement about the need for legislation on those matters. It is ironic that Opposition Members contorted their principled opposition to legislation in general to argue that statute is necessary in this case. We feel that legislation is not necessary and that it would not be the most efficient and effective way to achieve objectives that we share with the hon. Member for Totnes.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Does the Minister agree that one of the Bill's central objectives, detailed in clause 2, is that each local planning authority should


Can she assure us that PPG3 will achieve that?

Ms Hughes: I shall come to clause 2 in a moment. I shall not have time to deal with every clause, but shall discuss the major clauses addressed by hon. Members.

Clause 1 relates to urban housing capacity studies. The Government are in favour of such studies by local planning authorities. PPG3, which is already in force, requires authorities to undertake urban housing capacity studies as part of their development plan reviews. Some authorities have already undertaken studies. I agree that authorities need to be proactive if they are fully to implement the policy framework of PPG3.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) made clear, local planning authorities already have general powers under the Town and Country Planning Acts to undertake surveys for development plans. No further enabling power is needed. The difference between Government policy and the Bill is that the hon. Member for Totnes wants such studies to be a statutory requirement. The Local Government Association and the Planning Officers Society have demonstrated to our satisfaction that that is not necessary, not because we can trust them, but because planning law does not require it. The guidance in PPG3 is sufficient because it requires planning authorities to produce urban housing capacity studies and to release sites for housing sequentially. We do not support the use of statute when we can achieve our objectives through partnerships between local regional planning bodies and central Government.

Clause 2 proposes audits of


That has already happened. English local planning authorities have already made returns for the national land use database, which gathers information annually. The database is the most comprehensive audit of previously used land and buildings ever undertaken in England. Conservative Members make protestations and express concern but now, when we came into power, it was an enormous shock to find that the previous Government, who had stressed their concern, in theory, for greenbelt land--although they did not deliver it in practice--had no way of knowing about the potential for building on brownfield, previously used land. They kept no record of that information, either nationally or locally.

Although NLUD is compiled on a voluntary basis, the response rate and co-operation of local authorities has been remarkable--more than 95 per cent. That impressive

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record shows the commitment of local planning authorities to making progress on identifying the potential for using brownfield land.

Mr. Steen: I am extremely sorry that the Minister will not support the Bill. That is a terrible mistake; it makes me very upset. We have put much work into the Bill; it is the right way to proceed. As the years go by, we shall see whether she is right.

The important point was made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell): will local authorities publish the records that they produce for NLUD?

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): The Domesday book.

Mr. Steen: Indeed. Will that information about derelict, vacant, dormant land be available locally--in service stations or libraries? That is the important issue.

Ms Hughes: I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question in a moment. I do not agree that that is the important issue. What is important is that we have a national picture, which is as complete and as accurate as possible, of the location of previously used buildings and land that can be built on. If local authorities want to publish such information locally, they can do so, but the true imperative is that the national picture is as complete as possible.

The hon. Gentleman said that he wants every local authority to feel responsible for identifying and releasing such land. We agree. However, the mechanism that he wants to introduce--making it a requirement for individual local authorities to do so--would have several disadvantages.

It would not produce the quality of information that we receive from the national register; nor would it produce information with the consistency that we can ask for through the register. The quality of information acquired

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simply through the summation of those local publications would be fundamentally different from that in a nationally co-ordinated register.

In response to some of the questions from Opposition Members, let me say that the national register will indeed produce details of ownership. That will not constrain publication. The information will be available on a website; each site will include an address, land-use decisions--including outstanding permissions, the area and size of the land and details of whether the ownership is private or public. The website will not name the owner, but it will designate the ownership.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) said that we needed a nice, straightforward register--that is what we shall have. This is the first year in which we have used the process; it is still developing. We shall extend our requirements for information so that we create a complete and effective national database.

That is the way forward. We neither want nor need piecemeal information that local authorities produce for themselves. We want a comprehensive national picture of the potential for building on brownfield land. That is what NLUD does. Every local authority has participated, exhibiting an unprecedented degree of co-operation. That is a good example of local authorities and Government working together. To get local authorities on side is the only way to produce an effective database.

Several Members referred to infrastructure. Opposition Members will not find infrastructure in PPG3, because it is in PPG12, issued in December 1999. PPG12 explicitly recognises that the provision of infrastructure is very important in development, especially major new developments, and explicitly says that by "infrastructure" we do mean all those issues that the hon. Member for Totnes raised--education, health, community facilities--

It being after half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 19 May.

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