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Mr. John M. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman may find me an extraordinarily unlikely ally, and may ask himself whether he has it right after all. Does he agree that, in addition to compulsory purchase--I am not quite sure

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about at no price--it would be constructive for the local authority to be able to grant more or less omnibus planning permission and then auction the property?

Dr. Ladyman: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am pleased that I have an ally on the other side of the House. I am not quite as Stalinist as I thought I was on the issue.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I offer the hon. Gentleman the support of the Opposition Front Bench as well. It is a waste, whether the properties are owned by the local authority, by registered social landlords or privately, as most of them are. Would he extend the premise to council-owned properties that lie unoccupied and dormant for whatever period, and force authorities to take them over and give them especially to young couples who need to get on the housing ladder, perhaps with homesteading grants?

Dr. Ladyman: I would. I am happy to say that local authorities that neglect their housing stock should answer to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for why they are doing that. They should have to put in place a strategy for dealing with the problem as expeditiously as possible. If they are not capable of doing that, somebody else should be found who is.

Mr. Don Foster: May I embarrass the hon. Gentleman still further by offering full support from the Liberal Democrats for his proposition? However, like the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), I am not entirely convinced by a no-cost approach. Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to go further, bearing in mind the scandal that there are 750,000 empty homes and 150,000 homeless households? Something must be done. Is he prepared to go as far as equalisation of value added tax for renovation, and reducing it to a much lower level? That, too, would help.

Dr. Ladyman: I agree. There should be a clear tax advantage in regenerating existing properties and developing brownfield sites. I think that I signed an early-day motion to that effect.

Now that we have established cross-party consensus, we have a perfect opportunity for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Ministers to leap to their feet to announce that they will introduce strong powers for local authorities to engage in the compulsory purchase of empty properties.

I agree with something else that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said earlier. He talked about the amount of council officer time that has to be spent on preparing bids, working through regeneration programmes and other administrative work. It takes a significant amount of councils' time, and the councils tend to be the poorest and the least able to afford the quality of officers that are needed to generate the work. Until programmes are under way, whether they are assisted area, single regeneration budget or objective 2 programmes, and until it is possible to claim back the percentage that will cover administrative costs, it is difficult to get officers in place to design the projects in the first place. It would help councils that are becoming regeneration areas for the first time to receive some seedcorn to help them set up the necessary departments before they can begin claiming back money.

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Occasionally, I have found English Partnerships too rigid with its policy of being the funder of last resort. It was often difficult to get an exciting project started until contracts could be signed. English Partnerships would not sign the contracts because it was always hoping that a private individual would step in. As a result, programmes have often been delayed and thereafter fallen through. The Government should consider that.

I am immensely proud of being involved in the regeneration of Thanet. It has given me much satisfaction and a great deal has been achieved. The seafront has been modernised and we have started to recover some streets to regenerate them. We have three business parks and we have got businesses into them. Thanks to the Labour council donating land and the Labour Government donating money, we have our own university campus in Thanet, which is the greatest achievement that any politician has been able to announce for Thanet for a generation. We can succeed, but we would do so much better if obstacles were not put in our way. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to address these issues this evening and when considering how the White Paper will be implemented in the coming years.

8.40 pm

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Urban regeneration and preservation of the countryside are two sides of the same coin. Both those who live in towns and those who live in the country want their green fields preserved, and everyone wants more housing. We can have both, as long as we ensure that we build primarily in built-up areas or on built-up land, not on green fields. That will be a major concern of the public in the coming months, and it will be a major issue in the coming election.

I draw the attention of the House to four very recent events that have a bearing on those issues. The first occurred yesterday, when the Minister for Housing and Planning sneaked out in a written answer the figures for the number of houses to be built in the south-east by the Government. He tried to give the impression that the target number had been reduced. In fact, the target is higher than that proposed by the south-east regional planning committee--39,000, instead of 33,000. The target is only for five years. The Government propose then to raise the level to 43,000 houses a year, or possibly even higher. That is a fudge to get the Government through the election next May. They hope that they can obscure the burden that they are imposing with the demand for new houses in the south-east.

The second event occurred today, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the leader of the Conservative party, launched the Conservative campaign to save our green fields. He launched it, I am happy to say, in Hertfordshire, on a piece of greenbelt land threatened by planning development under this Government.

The campaign proclaims my party's commitment to protect green fields and to promote urban regeneration. It spells out our policies and highlights the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties' hypocrisy on the matter. They say one thing, but they do another--[Interruption.] As I think the Minister for Housing and Planning is saying, no doubt echoing the words of his boss, the green belt is a Labour achievement and the Government are building on it.

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Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. After the consensus of the past hour, I am pleased that we are back to good old-fashioned party politics. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the net impact of what he suggests will be higher house prices, when they are already going through the roof, and more homelessness in the south-east?

Mr. Lilley: I am saying that house building should be focused on the already built-up areas. I am simply pointing out what the Government are doing, as opposed to what they are saying, and the discrepancy between the two. The hon. Gentleman is rather more open than those on his Front Bench, and I give him credit for that.

The third event to which I draw the attention of the House is occurring simultaneously with this debate. It illustrates the Government's attempt to do one thing and say another, and the problems that are caused as a result. While we are engaged in the debate in the House, the North Hertfordshire district council in my constituency is considering advice from its officers to withdraw its local district structure plan. That advice is based on legal opinion delivered to the council by Queen's Counsel, who has pointed out that the Government's own policy planning guidance note 3 requires the council to do that. He spelled out the fact that the Government have created a dilemma for local authorities. The origins of that dilemma lie in an earlier period when Hertfordshire county council--under the control of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with a majority of one--steamrollered through a proposal to build 10,000 houses on greenbelt land west of Stevenage.

The council did that using an undemocratic procedure, which prevented the full council from voting on the issue. Only 14 councillors--Liberal Democrat and Labour, of course--voted for the measure. The Conservatives tried to take the issue in full council, and a majority of councillors voted to do so, but the standing orders were then changed so that abstentions counted as votes against taking the matter to full council. By that undemocratic procedure, the measure was steamrollered through.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Conservative party came to my constituency to highlight the proposal, because it was the biggest incursion into the green belt ever approved by the Secretary of State, who is not in the House today. The resulting uproar at what the Government were authorising, and at the precedent that it would create throughout the country--planning proceeds by precedent, after all--led the Secretary of State to come to the House in a panic with a proposal to try to cover up what the Government were doing and to pretend that they were changing direction. As a result of that, they introduced the new planning policy guidance.

The Secretary of State said that the Government would never in future authorise massive incursions into the green belt or on green land, but would instead give priority to development on brown fields. I said that, if the Government were genuine about that, I would salute what they were doing.

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