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7 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): I want to pick up the theme of quality of life and the environment. I shall restrict my comments to the counties around London. In the context of the south-east regional planning committee—this may surprise you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—Essex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire are considered to be part of the south-east rather than the eastern region. For the purposes of my speech, that is exceptionally convenient and useful.

Everyone seeks to have the best quality of life that they can enjoy, particularly with regard to their housing. Over the last few years, the way in which Serplan, the Crow report and the Government have sought to establish

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figures to dictate to the home counties and beyond the number of houses that they must build over the next decade and up to 2021 has been nothing more than a shambles. No reasonable person would deny the responsibility of local communities, through local authorities and, up to a point, through central Government, to consider demographic changes. As a result of those changes, there is a need to provide extra housing for young people and others, because more and more people in society are living in single-parent households or on their own. However, because the process is statistically flawed, I question the way in which central Government seek to dictate to local authorities what they are expected to do with regard to house building.

After a series of false starts—and of taking two steps forward, and one step back—the regional planning guidance of December 2001 stated, in effect, that until 2006, 39,000 houses a year must be built, and, thereafter, 43,000 houses a year. If my mathematics are correct, the counties concerned must therefore build a total of just under 880,000 houses over a relatively short period of time. I question whether the way in which those figures have been arrived at, and the basis for the calculations, is correct. The sad fact of life is that if the figures are wrong, and the houses have been built, it will be too late to get that land back.

The Government have continued the policy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) when he was Secretary of State for the Environment in insisting on 60 per cent. brownfield build. I applaud that. However, there is a problem in certain areas, which I am sure that the Minister, with his experience, will accept. Some areas do not have 60 per cent. brownfield sites on which to build. My local authority in Chelmsford is one such authority. The Deputy Prime Minister, in a previous incarnation, said that that figure should be flexible, so that it could be traded around the country. Therefore, theoretically, if an area had 80 per cent. brownfield sites, it would be able to build more, whereas an area that had a figure of less than 60 per cent. would be able to build less. I do not disagree with that at all. It is a sensible approach. In reality, however, it seems that nothing is being done to bring that policy, and the mechanisms for it to work, into force. Therefore, a rigid target of 60 per cent. must still be met, even though some areas do not have 60 per cent. brownfield sites to meet it.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): On my hon. Friend's point about the target, is it not extraordinary that that target has been fixed so early in the cycle, before information is available from the national census? The results of that census, which clearly identify housing formation and housing need, will not be available until next year.

Mr. Burns: My hon. Friend makes a telling point. It is characteristic of the cock-eyed way in which the system has operated in the past five years that something as crucial as the census report will not be included in the basis for the figures.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns: I shall make some progress.

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Another problem is that in almost all of these areas—there have been examples in West Sussex, around Stevenage in Hertfordshire and in Hampshire—the local population are being ignored. If the Government paid more than lip service to their rhetoric, that local population should be empowered. However, the building programme is being forced on them with the full arm and might of the law. No account is being taken of local views. Even more disturbingly, if the Government's White Paper proposals for reform of the planning laws go ahead in their current form, the viewpoint and wishes of local communities will be reduced even more by the diktat of this Government and their control freakery.

As I said, that has caused considerable problems in West Sussex, around Stevenage in Hertfordshire and in Hampshire. It has also caused problems further afield, but I shall not test your patience on that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as that is beyond the Serplan area. However, that policy is causing particular problems in my county of Essex, where we are expected to build 112,000 houses by 2011. In my local authority area, we must build just under 12,000 houses, but we do not have 60 per cent. brownfield land for that. Therefore, there will be more and more encroachment on the greenfield sites that everyone wants to maintain as far as realistically possible. That is a worrying problem, and my local authority is having to deal with it.

Mr. Cameron: Will my hon. Friend remind us who controls Chelmsford borough council and what their view is on this matter?

Mr. Burns: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, as he raises a highly relevant point. Although—for reasons that will become apparent shortly—my local authority is a hung council, it is controlled by the Liberal Democrats. The performance of Liberal Democrats in Chelmsford over the past three or four years has been extraordinary. If one were sad enough to read Liberal Democrat press releases and the ghastly dishonest issues of Focus that Liberal Democrats spew around our constituencies in the run-up to elections, one would conclude that they believe that the green belt is crucially important and should be sacrosanct, and that greenfield sites should be protected where possible.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) had the audacity at the beginning of his speech to say something that Labour and Conservative Members have heard frequently over many years. He said that the Liberal Democrats are not like the other parties and that they do not like nasty bickering. They want to consider the truth and come up with a sensible argument. However, as we all know, the one party that descends first and quickest into the gutter is the Liberal Democrats. We know that they have the audacity—I suppose one has to say also the skill—to go down a row of 30 houses where 30 different opinions are held and give 30 different answers to satisfy all 30 households. We have faced that problem in buckets in Chelmsford.

Liberal Democrats claim to represent the party that believes in the green belt, to be the party of the environment and to be the greens of this Parliament. However, they wanted to put housing on green belt land in the small village of Margaretting in my constituency. Naturally, the proposal caused uproar, but they saw no contradiction between their views on the green belt and

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plonking 1,500 houses in a village with a population of just more than 1,000 that is totally surrounded by green belt land.

The Liberal Democrats' chairman of planning made the mistake of turning up to a public meeting. The meeting had to be abandoned after 15 minutes. I am told that he was last seen being separated from a member of the public by another member of the public as he got involved in a heated discussion. At that point, even the Liberal Democrats had the common sense to back off.

The Liberal Democrats then had to look round the rest of the borough to find somewhere for the housing, and what happened was breathtaking. Unfortunately for them, as I heard on the grapevine, their councillor for the seat of Boreham in Chelmsford was dissatisfied with the Liberal council, so he decided—inconveniently for the Liberal Democrats—to resign his seat and force a by-election. In July 2000, we had an interesting by-election campaign in which the Conservative candidate was, ironically, the only one who lived in the village.

The Liberal Democrats brought in a high flier who had been defeated in the previous borough elections in the town of Chelmsford and they fought the campaign by pledging that there would be no house building on greenfield land around Boreham. They were so insistent on protecting the environment and the quality of life of the people of Boreham that even the Liberal Democrat leader of the council turned up. There was a photo opportunity that appeared in Focus and they claimed that they would protect Boreham. They said, "Vote Liberal Democrat, return this councillor and Boreham will be saved from the house building that all the people of the village loathe."

Amazingly, there was a 30 per cent. swing from the Liberal Democrat to the Conservative candidate, who also fought the election by opposing the house building. However, within six months of polling, the Liberal Democrats produced their master plan of where the houses would be built in the Chelmsford local authority area. [Hon. Members: "Boreham."] My hon. Friends and the Minister know the Liberals only too well. Surprise, surprise: 2,000 houses are being inflicted on the village of Boreham despite all the Liberal Democrats' promises—at least, that is where they hope they will be built. A process must be gone through and the people of Boreham have united and set up a committee to fight the proposal. They look forward to the public inquiry that will take place next year.

I have a final remark on the Boreham story. Despite what the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) might have thought about her general election campaign, it was a pleasure to canvass as a Conservative candidate in Boreham in June last year.

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