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5 Feb 2003 : Column 281—continued

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Unlike the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who speaks for part of the Conservative party, I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his important statement. I welcome the fact that housing, especially affordable housing, is at last getting the attention that it deserves. The proposed new build on brownfield sites in the Thames gateway is long overdue.

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In proposing measures that go beyond tackling the problem of affordable housing in the south-east, is not there a danger of going too far and fuelling the flames of economic overheating in the south-east that caused the difficulties? Does the Deputy Prime Minister realise that many other parts of the country, including rural England, have similar affordable housing crises? Is he convinced that he has got the regional balance right, with the south set to receive more than four times the housing cash of England's five northern regions? Where is the strong regional policy that is rightly beloved by the Deputy Prime Minister? Why is he taking the slow train to regional devolution when that could help rebalance growth? Does not the statement show that the Government have given in to the north-south divide?

Although some development will be on brownfield land, much of the proposed new housing is on greenfield land. Why have the Government maintained the Conservative Administration's perverse VAT system, which penalises the repair and renovation of old housing stock and encourages greenfield development? How many more acres of countryside must be concreted over before the incentive for environmental vandalism is removed? Why does not the Deputy Prime Minister increase the target of 60 per cent. new build on brownfield land?

We agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that any new house-building programme must take account of the mistakes of the past. We must build communities and involve all Departments. Why is there so little evidence of joined-up government in the statement? Where is the related transport infrastructure around London and for the regions to support our communities? Why has the decision on Crossrail been shelved when it is central to the viability of development in the Thames gateway? Will the new Cabinet Committee, which the Prime Minister chairs and reports by May, specifically consider funding Crossrail and the Olympic bid?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister guarantee that the social infrastructure, for example, schools and hospitals, for proposed developments in other places such as Milton Keynes will be there in time to serve the new communities? Will he enter into a contract with the people of Milton Keynes, Ashford and south Essex so that they will not have to accept the homes unless the Government provide the cash for schools, hospitals and public transport?

The Deputy Prime Minister called his proposals "the communities plan". Will he assure us that it will be community led, not quango driven? Why are the Government so focused on the undemocratic Conservative model of urban development corporations, which the right hon. Gentleman rejected when in opposition?

The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned empty homes. Surely far more urgent action is needed. There are empty homes and homeless people in every region of the country. Why did not he announce the largest campaign ever to end the scandal of empty homes? Would not we make an impact more quickly on the affordable housing crisis, with much smaller environmental costs, by using the homes that already exist? Why does not the Local

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Government Bill allow local councils to keep the cash from ending council tax discounts on empty homes? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I cannot hear the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Davey: Although the statement was ambitious, it was also a holding statement. The Government clearly have much more work to do. The jury is therefore still out. The affordable housing crisis continues almost six years into a new Labour Government. It is time for a timetable to end it.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I gave up after two pages of notes but I shall try to answer some of the hon. Gentleman's questions.

First, I welcome his comments that the statement is ambitious. That is true. He is also right that the plan is not completed. As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) also pointed out, sustainable communities include many elements, such as transport, education and health. They must be brought together. We achieved that in the millennium village at Greenwich by working across government.

Other Departments are responsible for most of the expenditure on, for example, education and transport. I have to argue my case for any extra money. The Prime Minister is taking charge of the Cabinet Committee because we have to work across the Government to ensure that we have the infrastructure for community investment and thereby sustainable communities. It is therefore true that other documents and statements will follow.

However, I remind the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) that when I spoke in the House about the review of the Budget statement for the next three years, I emphasised that I would tell hon. Members how the money would be spent. That is why I have made a statement today. The amount was announced at the time, and I now have to apportion it.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether money would go into a balance of affordable houses and key homes. I have allowed the regions to determine the balance. When I receive their views, we can ascertain the total effect, which the 2004 expenditure plans will set out. I shall therefore have to come back to the House to report on those matters. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that much work remains to be done, but I have been trying to plan where the money should go.

The hon. Gentleman referred to brownfield sites. Many are in the Thames gateway, which is an important area that we can use. When we consider sustainable development, we are talking about people and families. Sons and daughters are being told that they cannot live near their mothers and fathers and that they must move elsewhere. I note that those who are firmly ensconced in their areas demand that the others should move.

We have a responsibility in sustainable communities to try to keep people together where they want to be. That is important. It has been suggested that keeping people together can lead to more land being taken.

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However, greater density can lead to more houses with the same land take. That is a fair point that I have made previously.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we would take more greenfield space for housing. The Council for the Protection of Rural England has been critical and almost suggested that all building could be done on brownfield sites. A representative said on the "Today" programme that 75 per cent. should be built on brownfield sites. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman supports that figure. He should consider the difficulties of achieving of that. Some areas of the United Kingdom do not have brownfield sites and I therefore have to strike a balance.

Nick Scone of the CPRE said on the "Today" programme:

[Interruption.] That was on the "Today" programme. I have the exact quote. I know that the CPRE also seems to be sending other messages. It is headed by the former editor of the Standard, whose name I cannot recall. I agree with the statement that I quoted.

Building on greenfield sites happened even under the Tory Administration. They gave us no extra green-belt land. Conservative Members' rhetoric is not consistent with the facts. However, those who are critical must realise that although many hon. Members said that a target of 60 per cent. was impossible, we achieved it seven years ahead of time. Even if the target was 75 per cent., 25 per cent. would have to be built on greenfield sites. Let us show a bit of intelligence, and recognise reality.

As for joined-up government and transport policy, let me point out that the Thames gateway depends greatly on the channel tunnel rail link. We renegotiated the arrangements because we were spending so much. A modern transport system is crucial—and we rescued the system imposed by the last Administration from bankruptcy. We think that our approach is fair. As for the need for a proper balance, I agree that it is a matter of judgment, and I am here to answer for mine.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I ask Back Benchers to put only one question each to the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South): I warmly congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on his statement, while acknowledging the challenges that it issues to communities such as mine, just north of Milton Keynes. Does he accept that such challenges are best met through innovative projects such as Lifespace in my constituency, which I know he has seen? The aim is to develop eco-friendly "green" housing on brownfield sites, while providing funds for the release of green space for local communities.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure those who say that we are destroying our green belt that English Partnerships will do all it can to support projects such as Lifespace, which are trying to set the Government's agenda and to make it work?

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