Examination of witnesses (Questions 1-19)
WEDNESDAY 13 DECEMBER 2000
MP AND MR
1. Can I welcome you back to the full Committee
today. Could I ask you to identify yourself and your colleague
for the record, please?
(Mr Meacher) Yes, indeed, Chairman. Still, since yesterday,
Michael Meacher, Minister for the Environment and on my left Henry
Cleary, who is Head of the Rural Development Division of the DETR.
2. Now I know you normally do not want to make
an opening statement. Do you want to on this occasion?
(Mr Meacher) I think opening statements are a way
of distracting essentially from your priorities, which I prefer
to concentrate on. I will make one sentence though which I think
I should perhaps put up front. We intend to publish an implementation
plan for the delivery of the White Paper early in the New Year.
3. Can I press you as to what "early in
the New Year" is?
(Mr Meacher) We did have a lengthy discussion at the
beginning on the word "soon" yesterday.
4. I assumed you picked that with care from
this lexicon of words.
(Mr Meacher) I think you exaggerate my solicitude
for terminology. I would hope in January. Is there any reason
why we should not?
(Mr Cleary) We need to consult with partners. It is
going to be shared with a number of partners who are going to
(Mr Meacher) It is other departments.
Mr Blunt: That is May.
5. So "soon" is not a very accurate
(Mr Meacher) I think soon remains pretty accurate.
6. Your hope is January?
(Mr Meacher) My hope is January, yes.
Dr Ladyman: He has not said which New Year.
7. Minister, why does the White Paper assume
that a considerable number of "executive homes" will
continue to be built in villages? How many new executive homes
do you expect to be built in villages over the next 20 years?
(Mr Meacher) The thrust of the Rural White Paper is
to increase the number of affordable homes that are being built.
We propose to double the Housing Corporation Approved Development
Programme which will increase the affordable home build from 800
to 1,600 a year. It increases under that Approved Development
Programme the percentage of affordable homes from 3.4 to 6.4 per
cent. In addition, there is the increase in local authority social
housing grants which we estimate will provide, also, something
of the order of another thousand a year. We will continue with
the Rural Exceptions Policy. We believe, also, that the exercise
of existing planning powers should increase something of the order
perhaps of another 500 affordable homes, a total of around 3,000
homes. Now, combined with that, there can be some increase in
executive homes. I think it will be small. We are drawing attention
of local authorities, to the fact that the exercise of planning
powers is in their hands. It is perfectly possible in the light
of need in their area to have a one for one policy, namely for
each market or executive home, if you call it that, there could
be one affordable home.
8. Does that not lead then to rather more the
incentive to grant planning permission for executive homes? If
you are doing one for one then that means every time you put up
an executive home, you need one of them to get an affordable home.
(Mr Meacher) Against the background where in the past,
in the last couple of decades we have sometimes had 25 executive
homes for every affordable home, if it is one for one that is
a dramatic change in the other direction. We do not believe that
in the light of housing deprivation the numbers are very large
that need to be met but we believe that a build in small communities
of less than 3,000 population, very small communities, doubling
the number and getting it to a total of about 3,000, or if you
look at all rural districts about 9,000 a year, that will meet
the need. In addition, if there is some demand for executive homes,
we believe that can be met consistent with our overriding objective
for affordable homes.
9. What impact do you expect your proposed house
building rates firstly in villages and secondly in market towns
to have on outward migration of households from urban to rural
(Mr Meacher) The aim is to concentrate the build of
affordable homes in market towns. Increasingly, we believe it
should be concentrated in market towns. They are intended to be
the focus for regeneration, the provider for services within the
10. That is what you mean, is it? You say in
Chapter 9 of the Rural White Paper that it should be market towns,
as you have just said. Of course what you say in Chapter 5 on
affordable housing is significant numbers of affordable houses
can be built in villages specifically in association with at least
as many private houses. Which do you mean?
(Mr Meacher) You did not give me a chance to finish
my sentence. I am saying that it should increasingly be concentrated
in market towns but we do recognise that there is a particular
need in some areas for some increase in build in small villages.
It would be in small numbers and only compatible with the characterisation
of the village. There is some need, some young people growing
up, marrying, wanting a house, at the moment not able to buy one.
Now we do intend to try and meet that need.
11. If these houses go on being built in the
countryside, in the South East of England the Government signed
up to these huge numbers in opposition to local authorities and
local authorities collectively, surely all you are going to do
is continue the motion we have had before, the migration from
towns and cities into the countryside? This policy will not stop
that, will it?
(Mr Meacher) There are several points there, very
political issues about this question of build on the countryside.
First of all, we are not increasing the build in the countryside
at all as a result of the Rural White Paper, we are simply concentrating
on a greater proportion of the build being affordable homes. That
is the thrust of the paper. You raise also the wider question
of what you call, I cannot remember your adjective but extensive
build on the countryside in the South East.
12. Concreting over the countryside.
(Mr Meacher) We have made repeatedly clear that as
a result of using increased density we are not using any more
land than under the SERPLAN proposal. There is not, contrary to
what you say, an increased concreting over or building on the
countryside, that is not the case. The Rural White Paper is not
about that more general issue, it is about meeting specific and
targeted need in specific areas, mainly in market towns but also
in some villages.
13. SERPLAN are only responding to the central
government's own figures. It is a complicated negotiation. The
local authorities in the South East and so on are just seeing
how low they can get this figure to have some form of agreement
with you and your Department. These are not the numbers the people
in the South East want that SERPLAN represent, so to then say
we are going to represent no more land than SERPLAN are allocating,
if you are trying to say that represents the views of local people,
it does not. You know it does not because you know how the system
(Mr Meacher) Chairman, this is going rather wider
than the Rural White Paper. I am perfectly prepared to go down
this avenue but I think this is a broader issue. The fact is the
Government is requiredall governments are requiredto
take account of the demographic demand for new house build. That
is a figure which is regularly updated every five years. Once
we have that figure, and we try to make it as reliable as possible,
we then have to allocate that across different regions of the
country and through local authorities or through regional planning
guidance. That is exactly what we have done. The fact is there
is a demand for new housing and one cannot get away from that.
There are changes in demographic structures, more elderly people,
more young people preferring to live alone for longer periods
before they may marry or live together. The fact is there are
more refugees from marriages. All of those are true and they increase
the demand for housing.
14. There are not more people. It would seem
rather sensible to look at some of the social issues which underlie
that in order to address the household arrangements. How will
you ensure that the affordable homes, the executive homes and
everything else are going to be primarily for people from that
region, from the countryside, rather than at the end incomers
perhaps who may buy them and be the second owners of those homes?
(Mr Meacher) Yes. This is, of course, a matter primarily
for local authorities. They are building in response to evidence
of local need. The properties are intended for people who have
lived in the area for a long time and who can demonstrate that.
With regard to the right to buy, of course, which has in the past
substantially reduced the availability of affordable homes, we
have new rules now which require a right to buy which is not restricted.
We are not proposing to restrict it in rural areas but the right
to resell is restricted in the sense that it has to go back to
the local authorities and registered social landlord within ten
years or if it is being sold on after that period it has to go
to someone who has lived and worked in the area for at least three
years. The main point is we are building more houses. The pressure,
the reduction in the availability of affordable homes, was mainly
because of the effect of very little build over the last decade,
in conjunction with the cumulative impact of the right to buy.
15. Can I just ask you, are you sure you are
not pressing for more executive homes to pay for the social housing?
(Mr Meacher) No, we are not doing that. I think there
is a demand for executive homes. I think many people would like
to live in the countryside. Although we are trying to address
that by reducing that demand by making living in urban areas more
attractive. Of course the whole of the Urban White Paper is about
trying to produce the conditions: better quality services, better
transport, less crime. Now these things are not easy to deliver,
as we all know, but the intention is to improve quality in urban
areas to reduce the flight to the countryside.
16. On farm diversification, Minister, are you
happy that the planning system that you are going to put in is
robust enough or are we just playing with minor tweaks at it?
(Mr Meacher) This is a major issue. There is no doubt
that the interface between the planning system and the farming
community has not always worked well in the past. We have looked
at this very carefully. Nick Raynsford, my colleague, has certainly
discussed this. He has had major meetings with the various stakeholders.
The general view which we share is that it is not the planning
system as such which has to bring together conflicting interests
which is always difficult to reconcile but it is the manner in
which it is managed and delivered which is at fault. First of
all, the planning system often appears unduly rigid and bureaucratic.
17. But is that not always the case? If you
do not get what you want it is rigid and bureaucratic, if it gives
you what you want it is nice and flexible?
(Mr Meacher) That is true. That does influence perceptions,
of course. The point I am making is that even when you are saying
no to someone, which you have to do, for good reasons that are
set down, there are ways of doing it. You either just say "no"
in a forbidding and prohibitive manner or you say "Well,
we cannot provide what you want in that location for these reasons
but have you actually thought about alternatives at another location
or in a different way or modified in a certain way which if you
were to look at we might be able to take a different view?".
That is a much more consumer friendly planning system. I think
on the other side, farmers who are notoriously rugged and individualistic
people who do not brook much interference with what is a pretty
tough life for them and do not easily react to officialdom, I
think we can do more to assist them, either for the small business
service providing more assistance, perhaps someone to hold their
hand, if you like, in their relations with the planning system.
18. Is not the planning system a soft target
in the Rural White Paper? We are looking at the Rural White Paper
to give more financial assistance and advice and training to farmers.
(Mr Meacher) I am not sure the problem with the planning
system is a question of money. We are looking at the question
of agricultural permitted development rights, but only after discussion
with the interested parties, and now is not the best time in view
of the state of the agricultural community. We are proposing to
update planning guidance. If there is a need for more financial
support in this area I think we will look at it. I do not think
that is the real problem, it is a relational issue and the manner
in which farmers, when they need to diversify, perfectly properly,
we are encouraging them to do so.
19. How do we measure the environmental impact
of some of these changes within the farming community, Minister?
(Mr Meacher) That, of course, is exactly what the
duty of planning officers is to do. The planning department does
have to look at farm diversification because we are issuing new
planning guidance to encourage more farm diversification but in
a manner which does not undermine the basic character of the countryside.
You can only make that judgment on the merits of each case. It
is a judgment which can be made, I think.