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11.20 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): I had not intended to speak in this debate, so I shall be brief. However, I was struck by the Minister's lack of international awareness, even though my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) hinted that he had a warm and golden heart.

I used to be abroad for about a third of the year, and my international experience is that there are no hang-ups in other countries about the unit of measure that is used. As I said earlier, three different types of square foot are used as measures in Italy: in descending order, they are the Lombard, the Tuscan and the Neapolitan square foot. Those measures are trusted in some countries, but others--especially Germany--insist that Italian products are bought in square metres. The choice is entirely up to customers and suppliers. Nearly all exports to Asian countries are measured in square feet, and no Italian supplier would think twice about that.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) listed a number of what he considered to be arcane measurements, including the bushel. However, when I visited the international corn exchange in Chicago--the largest such exchange in the world--with the Select Committee on Agriculture last year, I found that it dealt entirely in bushels. The choice is up to the traders there, and they are all relaxed about it. When they go home in the evening, I am sure that they are happy to deal in imperial measurements.

I do not see why British citizens cannot work in international business and deal in metric measurements one week, then go off the next week and deal in 3½ inch floppy disks. The matter is entirely one of individual choice. It is not for the state to be prescriptive and try to impose uniform units of measure.

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The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare mentioned the Saxons. The Old Testament states that it is an abomination in the eye of the Lord to give false measure, and I accept that it has long been the role of the state to ensure accurate measurement. However, it is not the role of the state to enforce a uniform unit of measurement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) rightly said that a vast amount of trade in this country is carried out using imperial measurements. People are used to dealing in certain units, especially when buying common consumer goods and confectionery. They have suffered quite sharp product inflation because, although an item's packaging may look familiar, the actual measure sold in that packaging is considerably less than what people are used to.

The Government should look into that problem with some intensity. By uniformly imposing metric measure, we are not safeguarding consumers, many of whom, all unawares, are being ripped off quite sharply. For that reason, I oppose the regulations.

Question put:--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till Wednesday 21 March, pursuant to Order [7 November 2000].


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),


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Question agreed to.



(1) the proposals for a draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001 and a draft Financial Investigations (Northern Ireland) Order 2001, being legislative proposals relating exclusively to Northern Ireland, be referred to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee;
(2) the Committee shall meet at Westminster on Thursday 22nd March at 9.15 a.m. to consider the proposal for a draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001, referred to it under paragraph (1) above, and the Chairman shall interrupt proceedings at that meeting at 11.15 a.m.; and
(3) the Committee shall meet at Westminster on Thursday 22nd March at 2.30 p.m. to consider the proposal for a draft Financial Investigations (Northern Ireland) Order 2001, referred to it under paragraph (1) above, and the Chairman shall interrupt proceedings at that meeting at 4.30 p.m.--[Mr. Betts.]



Motion made,

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Hon. Members: Object.


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [31 January],

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Line 40, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 50, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 52, at the end insert the words:--
'(4A) notwithstanding paragraphs (2) and (4) above, where more than two committees or sub-committees appointed under this order meet concurrently in accordance with paragraph (4)(e) above, the quorum of each such committee or sub-committee shall be two.'--[Mr. Betts.]

Hon. Members: Object.

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Planning (Oxfordshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Betts.]

11.25 pm

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): My purpose in seeking the Adjournment debate tonight is twofold. First, I want to draw attention once again to the rising tide of concrete, bricks and mortar that is flowing over Oxfordshire. Secondly, I want to draw attention to the Opposition's proposals for dealing with this problem and securing a measure of relief.

Lest it be thought that I am exaggerating when I speak of a rising tide of concrete, bricks and mortar, let me simply state the bald figures. Over the past decade, Oxfordshire has been the construction site for some 23,000 new houses, and over the period immediately ahead, until 2006, it will be required to accommodate a further 14,000, with another 11,700 to come by 2011. The two decades between 1990 and 2010, in other words, have seen the equivalent of the construction in Oxfordshire of a new city the size of Corby, with some 50,000 new inhabitants.

I said that I was seeking to draw attention once again to this problem, not only because I have been an active member of the parliamentary campaign against overdevelopment in the south-east led by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and because I have supported my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) in this campaign, but because I raised this matter in the House only a month ago. That was when I undertook the delicate parliamentary task of presenting two contradictory petitions at the same time, without backing either. The two petitions neatly illustrate the very difficult situation facing Oxfordshire and, in particular, the town of Didcot in my constituency and its surrounding villages.

Over the years immediately ahead, Didcot faces a requirement to build another 3,200 houses, over and above the 5,000 that have been built there over the past decade. One of the petitions that I presented was from residents to the west of Didcot, urging the Deputy Prime Minister to call in for ministerial decision the proposals to build the new houses on Didcot's western fringe. The other was from residents to the north of Didcot urging the right hon. Gentleman to do no such thing, but to uphold the county council's decision to go west rather than north.

On both sides, strong passions have been generated, friendships sundered and once cohesive local communities sharply divided. Each side passionately believes that the development must go to the other side. Neither side seriously asks why there should be development on this scale. All regard it as a kind of visitation, and every eye is directed to Whitehall, some with trembling hope and others with frowning apprehension, to see which way the ministerial juju-man will jump. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us. This will not be the end of the story, of course. Whatever the Deputy Prime Minister decides, we can be sure that a flurry of actions for judicial review will be unleashed.

I do not know what it would take to prove to the Under-Secretary that Oxfordshire, like many other areas in the south-east of England, faces a crisis of suburban

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overdevelopment. Certainly, that is what local people believe, but perhaps their subjective feelings will cut no ice in the eyries of Whitehall.

Let me suggest three objective reasons for believing that what is happening in my part of the world is excessive and unnecessary. First, there is the fact that Oxfordshire simply cannot meet both the Government's target for new housing and their target for new build on so-called "brown" land in built-up areas. The latter target is supposed to determine the location of at least 60 per cent. of new housing. However, between 1996 and 2000, only 48 per cent of new development in Oxfordshire was on brown sites. This was not, I assure the Under-Secretary, for want of trying on the part of local planning committees. The problem is simply that Oxfordshire is not a long-standing urban area, it has relatively little built-up brown land and over recent decades the pressures of development have been such that almost all the brown land that has been available has already been built over.

That is just one piece of evidence that shows that Oxfordshire is being overdeveloped. Let me suggest another. Between 1991 and 1999, the county's population increased by 45,000. Some 41 per cent. of that increase can be attributed to natural change, or the normal demographic development of the local population. However, a striking 59 per cent. of that additional population represented net civilian migration. Oxford city, which accounts for roughly two fifths of the county's population, cannot expand further because of its green belt, so the bulk of the substantial growth in the number of incomers is being channelled by the planning system into three or four primary areas of development, one of which is Didcot. The effects of overdevelopment are experienced not only by existing populations, but by new residents. Too much has been happening too quickly. The new developments are too crowded and too lacking in necessary infrastructure.

Where do the incomers come from? It is sometimes suggested that counties such as Oxfordshire and towns such as Didcot have a duty to expand as they are the new growth points of the national economy. Last year, however, no more than 12 per cent. of Oxfordshire's new residents came from what might be termed the declining industrial north. In contrast, some 42 per cent. came from elsewhere in the expanding, post-industrial south-east. The overdevelopment of Oxfordshire occurs only partially at the expense of draining away active workers and the stunting of growth prospects in the north and the midlands. It is occurring mainly to reduce the pressure for better housing in the inner cities and other areas in the south-east.

The Government are proposing to build thousands of houses in the wrong places. I should like to stress that point to the Under-Secretary. The Minister for Housing and Planning said last February that

He went on to say that

In the light of those comments, will the Under-Secretary explain how building thousands of houses on green fields in my constituency will fulfil such needs?

The situation that I have been describing, which exists in Didcot and Oxfordshire, is, of course, not untypical of many other parts of the south-east. It suggests that there

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is something fundamentally wrong with the processes and procedures that have brought it about. The Government carried out their own review of those procedures in their first couple of years in office. They decided to maintain and take forward, with some minor changes, the planning arrangements that are at the root of the problem. Radical new thought has come not from new Labour and its Liberal allies, but from those on the Opposition Front Bench. That development is creating for the people of my constituency a clear choice at the forthcoming general election. I hope that this debate will help to underline that choice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) is to be congratulated on his far-reaching proposals for the reform of our over-centralised planning system. On behalf of the Opposition, he proposes to act within a few months of the return of a Conservative Government to abolish the procedures that impose national housebuilding targets such as those that have driven the overdevelopment of Oxfordshire.

Discretion on local development will be given to local authorities, which will decide how much new housing there should be, where it should be located and what sort of houses should be built. They will be required to secure sufficient new accommodation for forecasted local population growth, but incremental building to support economic development will be a matter for local people to decide. The district councils will be in the lead, while the county councils will have a strategic co-ordinating role. At the same time, the views of town and parish councils will be given greater weight and local residents will be given a right of counter appeal when a proposed development breaches due process or a duly adopted comprehensive local plan.

I have no doubt that such a radical departure from the half century-long tradition of centralised planning, which goes back to the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, will attract some scepticism. Indeed, we may hear something of that from the Under-Secretary. Such scepticism about the radical decentralisation of the planning process expresses the conviction that local people and their local representatives cannot be trusted to make planning decisions from a perspective that transcends their own narrow self-interest. The underlying thought is that decentralisation will be a charter for nimbyism. My retort is that nimbyism is a product of the existing, over-centralised system, in which responsibility has been transferred from the local level to the distant centre.

In such a system, everyone feels that they must fight as hard as they possibly can for their own immediate interest--nimbyism--because that is what everyone else will do, but in the end the decision will be taken from on high. Nimbyism is an expression of powerlessness. If we learn once again to trust the people, we will, I believe, be surprised by the level of responsibility for wider interests that they will show when they have real power in relation to those interests.

Meanwhile, I hope it will not escape the notice of my constituents and electors in the Wantage constituency--at Didcot and its surrounding villages in particular--and in Banbury, represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), who is in the Chamber with me tonight, that the Conservative party's policy will give an opportunity for a fundamental rethink of all large-scale

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planning proposals that have not yet been decided by the time my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) kisses hands at Buckingham palace.

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