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5 Feb 2003 : Column 277—continued

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I usually begin by thanking the Deputy Prime Minister for making a statement and for advance sight of it. But today's statement is characterised by the amount of it that had already been briefed, leaked and spun to the press before the House saw it. That that strategy is deliberate is clear from the leaked letter from the Deputy Prime Minister to the Prime Minister about the

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communities plan and his right-to-buy proposals. [Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister asks for examples. He said in his letter:

So what did the Government do? They smuggled out the vindictive, punish-the-poor policy cutting right-to-buy discounts in a written statement so that they could not be challenged in the Chamber, then spent the intervening time briefing favoured journalists on a selective view of the communities plan policy.

The Deputy Prime Minister's biased view of the right to buy was even demonstrated today when he misread his speech, the printed version of which said that right-to-buy raised £44 billion, not, as he said, cost £44 billion.

The communities plan has enormous implications for our constituents throughout England, and the House therefore has the right to hear about the policy first in the Chamber, and nowhere else.

We have already had the headlines, but good headlines are not the same as good policy, and there are some serious questions to be answered today. The Government's record in this area is five years of failure. In that time, we have had the new deal for communities, the urban taskforce, the urban White Paper, the rural White Paper and the active communities unit, to name a few. Yet if anything we are worse off than when we started.

The Deputy Prime Minister has told the House that he wants to build more homes, and to make communities grow and become sustainable. If that is the case, why has the number of newly built social houses fallen by a third since Labour came to power? That is some 35,000 extra homes that could have been available now—enough to house the families currently living in bed and breakfast three times over. Why, during the right hon. Gentleman's time in power, have the fewest houses been built since 1926, despite his claims about so-called legacy? Today's announcement of a dramatic increase in house building, particularly social housing, must be seen in that context. A cruel but accurate description of the right hon. Gentleman's plans seems to be that he intends to bulldoze the north and concrete the south. What he proposes amounts to concreting an area the size of Hull every year.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister now answer some questions? The Council for the Protection of Rural England claims that the Government's grand plan means that a total of 500,000 new homes will be built on green fields. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether that figure is correct, and will he say how much of that greenfield land will be green belt? Will he set out the full extent of greenbelt and greenfield development under this Government to date and say how much he expects to take place in future years, including under the plans that he has outlined today? His guarantee of greenbelt land is meaningless if all that he is doing is removing the green belt designed to protect our cities and declaring as green belt a field somewhere else.

It seems, although the Deputy Prime Minister did not say so, that his plans rely heavily on urban development corporations—a Conservative idea that has proved successful, not least in the London docklands where Michael Heseltine oversaw the development of 25,000 new homes and 100 miles of new road links. I am very

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happy to see newspaper headlines saying, "Prezza copies Hezza", but I will withhold any further compliments until we have seen the plans in detail. We will want to look very carefully at the operation of such corporations, and I warn the Deputy Prime Minister that Ashford and Milton Keynes are not the London docklands. Will he guarantee to the House that he will use such corporations properly, as an instrument to release brownfield land, and not as an instrument for compulsory purchase of greenfield land?

What effect does the Deputy Prime Minister envisage that the expansion to the Thames gateway will have on the growing problem of flooding? I thought that I heard a Labour Member call out "floodplains". Just a few weeks ago we saw the problems caused by that issue for people who are trying to get insurance for their houses. What discussions have Ministers had with the insurance industry about those problems, particularly in light of the increase risk as a result of today's announcement?

The Deputy Prime Minister says that he wants to improve transport infrastructure, but the truth is that he himself cut the roads budget, cutting more than 70 important road projects from Government plans. He cut spending by more than £2 billion in the first five years of this Government. Last year, not one extra mile of major road was built. What is more, the financial pressure that he is putting on southern local authorities today will force them to protect vital services such as education by cutting back on transport services, compounding the problem that the right hon. Gentleman has created. The Government are five years behind the game, and if the Deputy Prime Minister's five and 10-year plans do not work, how are we meant to trust his 20 and 30-year plans? With that in mind, he will forgive the House for judging him by his actions, not his words.

Overall, employment growth east of London and in Kent is only 1 per cent. a year, compared with 5 per cent. in the west of London. The Deputy Prime Minister claims that he will not create dormitory towns. How will he ensure that? Will not people in the east of London and in Kent have to travel to get to their jobs?

I have asked specific questions of the Deputy Prime Minister, and I shall be interested to see whether he answers any of them. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will be able to unite in the desire behind his plan, which is to improve the quality of life in Britain for this generation and the next, but there are inevitable differences in approach.

We cannot overlook the failures of this Government which have brought us to this point. It is all very well the Deputy Prime Minister talking about housing shortages, but has not his direct failure contributed to them? It all very well for him to talk about transport infrastructure, but has not his direct failure led to a standstill on road-building and a standstill on our roads? I could not believe it, but in his statement today he yet again boasted that Labour created the green belt. This is the man who famously said,"The greenbelt is a Labour achievement and we mean to build on it." We have teased him about that before. Some thought that he had made a mistake; some thought it a joke; some

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thought it yet another "Prescottism". Sadly, however, today's announcement proves that that is one of the few promises that the Government have set in concrete.

The Deputy Prime Minister: That was another pitiful contribution from the right hon. Gentleman in his attempt to become the leader of his party. He does not have much to beat, I agree, but I do not think that he will do it with contributions like that.

First, I shall deal with the right hon. Gentleman's complaint, because I take these matters very seriously. I did not leak any of these proposals to the press. I have said that to the House time and time again. I make great efforts to come to the House to make announcements. No evidence was given to back up the right hon. Gentleman's claim. He quoted a Cabinet letter, which was leaked—a problem that plagues all Governments from time to time.

I heard that the right hon. Gentleman had made a complaint about information being given to the press, so I looked into the matter. I found that the only paper with any information about today's statement was The Daily Telegraph, where it appeared in an article by Charles Clover. I went through that article, and I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that every fact was wrong, except those concerning housing numbers, which I announced last year. Hon. Members may think that I have briefed on the wrong facts, but I like to think that as I know what is in the statement, they would have been the right facts. The right hon. Gentleman's allegation is untrue, and I hope that he will withdraw it or provide evidence of anything in the press today which shows that I leaked anything in this report. I give him the chance to intervene—does he want to withdraw or to provide evidence?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Deputy Prime Minister cannot do that.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I get used to allegations without substance, and I hope that people will note what I have said. I have the relevant quotes, and the answers to them, but I will not go into that.

The right hon. Gentleman made great play of my being vindictive about the right-to-buy policy. My point about that policy, which has continued under this Government, is that the £36 billion of subsidies, which is the cost of the discounts to promote home ownership, is an awful lot of money. If one wanted to extend the right to buy, there are other schemes that are less expensive and, much more importantly, they reserve the public housing for people who cannot afford to buy. Perhaps Conservative Members are not familiar with those schemes. A number of them give people money to subsidise a house purchase but they also return their previous property to the local authority, so they do not reduce public housing. Hon. Members may disagree with that, but it happens to be a fact. That is a difference of choice in our housing policy.

The right hon. Gentleman complained about other such differences. It is true that the provision of social housing has gone down 1 per cent. every year since 1980; that happened under our Government as it did under other Administrations. [Interruption.] Hon. Members can go and look at the figures. I admit that social

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housing has declined during my time in office, but in defence I would say, first, that we have spent a lot of time dealing with economic problems to bring about stability.

Secondly, we decided to put money that was lying idle in the banks into refurbishing houses that had been allowed to decline. All the time the Conservatives were promoting right to buy, they were forcing down standards in our public housing. I chose to make a difference. I chose to use that money to ensure decent housing for people who were living in deplorable conditions. Those conditions had declined not because the money was not available but because it was being used to reduce the debts caused by the failure of central Government at the time. That, I readily agree, is a difference of choice in our housing policy.

The right hon. Gentleman said that no improvements had taken place. He should visit the new deal areas and the coalfield communities. We gave them the money after the previous Administration implemented a vicious policy to destroy the coalfield communities. We invested nearly £400 million in developing them. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman might live near them but he obviously has not got his eyes open. If he visits the new deal communities, he will see the improvements.

It is important to take refurbishment and changes in finances into account. The right hon. Gentleman accused us of being five years behind the previous Administration. Yet we are spending £22 billion, which is double the amount that was invested in housing when we came to power. If the right hon. Gentleman believes that that constitutes being five years behind, he takes a "Back to the Future" approach to analysing figures.

We could argue money for transport, but we have invested £180 billion in it—far more than at any other time. As for transport failure, I inherited the failure of the financing of the channel tunnel link. We had to refinance it, and many of the areas that are affected by the announcement depend on the new transport link. I am therefore happy to compare our record with that of the previous Administration.

Let us consider the record on brownfield sites. Under the Tories, there were fewer such sites. We increased them because that was our policy. Hon. Members may well move their hands. Raising them means "up" and lowering them means "down". Brownfield sites decreased under the previous Administration and increased under Labour. Again, our record stands against the rhetoric of the previous Administration. I am proud of what we are doing.

As I said earlier, the right hon. Gentleman's speech will not help him in his leadership bid. He should ensure that his statements match the facts. Today, it did not.

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