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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) on securing the debate. He has raised an important subject that is of concern to the Government and to local people. However, the trend is quite the reverse of what he says. Our planning regime and our policies allow for maximum local flexibility and careful consideration of local population trends. Also, they ensure that decisions can be taken by the local planning authority. We shall produce a planning Green Paper towards the end of the year and that too will consider further ways to improve the planning process.

The hon. Gentleman raised concerns about several recent cases being dealt with by the Secretary of State. It is important that we do not prejudice the decision-making process and what I have to say should not be taken to imply any particular views on those cases. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that the intention of our policy is to protect the countryside, which he says is also important to his constituents in Hampshire.

Our planning guidance on housing—PPG 3—contains a clearly stated presumption that previously developed land and existing buildings will be reused for housing before consideration is given to developing greenfield sites. Research undertaken by local authorities, particularly in Hampshire, shows that they have considerably underestimated urban capacities.

That is further confirmed by research which shows that authorities ignore key sources of capacity and use capacity studies more as a constraint than considering what could occur under conditions of greater demand. Many thus reinforce existing restrictive planning policies rather than contribute to urban renaissance.

We recognise that not all housing development can be accommodated in urban areas. How much development should take place outside existing urban areas will depend on the overall need for housing land, the capacity of existing urban areas to accommodate additional housing and the efficiency with which land is developed. Where development has to take place outside urban areas, we look to local planning authorities to utilise the most sustainable option.

In the south-east, we have been building at some of the lowest densities throughout the country. Many people are saying that the land is so precious that we cannot build on it as many houses as are needed, and the hon. Gentleman raised that issue. However, authorities and developers often make little attempt to build more economically. That means that meeting the housing requirements uses more land than is strictly necessary. We need to plan for a wider range of housing, more smaller units and less lavish provision for the car in residential layouts. We need to examine more sustainable patterns of development and movement generally so that people do not have to travel miles by car.

We have also made available guidance on how to manage the release of land in such a way as to minimise unnecessary loss of greenfields to development. That is a sequential approach that is set out in PPG 3, to which the hon. Gentleman did not refer, which provides a great deal of discretion for the local authority. It enables it to decide how best to release land for development to ensure that the interests of greenfield areas are properly protected.

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In regional planning guidance, we have moved away from the predict-and-provide model. The hon. Gentleman said that the Government, like all others, have implemented it. We follow a system that is more about monitoring and managing the planning process. The Government do not impose housing targets or quotas on local authorities. It is wrong to say that everything will be decided centrally.

Mr. Hoban: The Minister used a similar explanation in answer to one of my written questions. The covering letter that was sent out with RPG 9 makes it clear that the Government's proposals were being published, along with the Government's targets for housing development in Hampshire and other counties in south-east England. It is not quite right to say that we are not dealing with Government targets. Government targets are being imposed.

Ms Keeble: The figures have been reached after much consultation and discussion. There is a proposed rate of growth outside London for the south-east of 39,000 additional dwellings a year. That is an ongoing rate of development, which will be reviewed within five years. It is for local authorities appropriately to monitor and manage the housebuilding programme in their areas.

There are those who say that we are proposing to concrete over the south-east, but the Government are not putting the south-east under development pressure. Of course, there are some pressures because of population growth, and the important question is how they are best managed. Housing needs in the south-east outside London derive in a large part from the needs of people who are already in the region and of those who are migrating into it from London.

We have asked Hampshire to provide for 6,030 additional dwellings a year. We look to the structure plan authorities to distribute these figures in the provisions to the districts, which are best placed to undertake the task with their knowledge of the local area. They must take into account the principles of sustainable development, as set out in our planning policy guidance notes, and ensure that greenfield development takes place only where it is absolutely necessary. If Fareham objects to the distribution set out in the structure plan, it is for the local council to take up the matter with the county council directly. We think that these decisions should be taken locally and that it is not for the Government to make decisions at that level of detail.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of delay in certain planning cases, and in one proposal in Fareham in particular that has been called in. Unfortunately, as he said, we have not been able to issue a decision within our target period. However, that case is not straightforward and we needed further information from the parties concerned. We are currently considering that information, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the delay is not deliberate. I am sure that he would agree that we should consider the issues very carefully before allowing the development of a greenfield site. Indeed, that has been, to a great extent, the drift of his argument this evening.

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The hon. Gentleman raised two issues relating to infrastructure; one was transport and the other was schools. As he rightly said, in both cases it is, to a great extent, the responsibility of the local authority—the local education authority in the case of schools—to ensure that there is proper provision for the population growth. The local authorities have their structure plans and their studies, and they can examine the kind of population growth that is expected.

Mr. Hoban: I raised this question directly with Hampshire county council. It would like to provide additional schools, and it has dealt with the issue of school places by expanding Brookfield school. However, there is no capacity in the capital programme—and the amount that it is allowed to borrow from the Government—for building a new secondary school. There is a real problem there that is not addressed simply by expanding existing schools.

Ms Keeble: In other local education authority areas, including areas in which the population is growing, the LEA is able to make proper provision for the education of the children by providing new schools. Obviously, it is not up to my Department to determine those matters, but there is a whole range of measures that local authorities can use to consider options for financing. It is well within the means of a local education authority to plan for the proper education of the children and to ensure that the proper facilities are there. Understandably, in some areas the population grows and in others it shrinks, so that the LEAs have to make arrangements for taking out surplus school places, but that is up to the discretion and the proper decision making of the local education authority.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of transport infrastructure. As he will know, we have introduced local transport plans that take a broader, more holistic view of planning for transport. These plans are expected to be consistent with land-use planning policies and should take account of new development. A major element of the Hampshire local transport plan is the proposed light rapid transit system linking Portsmouth with Fareham, via Gosport. Earlier this year, the Government announced local transport plan funding and Transport and Works Act 1992 powers for the scheme. This will reduce traffic congestion, improve access to the Gosport and Portsmouth peninsulas, and boost the regeneration of those areas.

As part of our review of the planning system we will be looking at planning agreements. These are often used to enable improvements to local infrastructure. We will ask whether they should cover a wider range of benefits for the community or whether they should incorporate a system of impact fees designed to reflect the full environmental costs that a development generates.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): We are happy that the light rapid transit system was announced immediately before the election. However, there is widespread suspicion that, having been delayed for some time—and the announcement having been made just before the election—the plans may drift sideways and that nothing much will happen until just before the next election, when perhaps the LRT will be reannounced. Can the Minister give me some reassurance on this point?

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