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5 Feb 2003 : Column 284—continued

The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree with what my hon. Friend says, and I am grateful for his welcome. As

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he says, the issues can be different in different areas. We want to see eco-friendly greenfield development, as we say in our report: my hon. Friend should read it. As the Select Committee has also said, energy efficiency and water resource efficiency are also crucial. That has already been achieved with the millennium village. I am not merely advocating a development; the development has already taken place. I initiated it back in 1997. I wanted to build something that we could remember—a village rather than a dome, perhaps. The village remains, representing an important step towards achieving the desired standards.

As for the green space argument, as I have said, more green-belt areas are available. We are ensuring that we can do more and more building on brownfield sites. Increasing the density of housing on such sites will take the pressure off demand for greenfield areas. Meanwhile, we shall see an increasing number of green spaces in our urban areas. Empty spaces will be turned into places that we can enjoy.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): My constituents will find the phrase "sustainable communities" a little ironic coming from the Deputy Prime Minister's lips. Already, with current growth levels, Ashford is short of GPs and school places. Its road network cannot cope, and it is building more houses than jobs are being created. Will the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledge that, in the real world, his statement means creating dormitory towns and condemning tens of thousands of people to a lower quality of life than they deserve because of an apparent bizarre obsession with crude house-building numbers?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about his constituency—although I think he advocated the building of the channel tunnel rail link, which has brought more and more housing to his area. In such cases, infrastructure is often slow to follow the development of sustainable communities: if we want sustainable communities, we have to invest. We are talking to Kent county council, and also working through the bodies that we have set up, to see how we can achieve what we want.

I was pleased that Kent county council endorsed our approach in growth areas, including Ashford. It is important to secure the co-operation of local people. Those in areas such as Ashford, however, must recognise that others also want to live in nice communities. We must create the necessary infrastructure and bring in more people in a sensitive way. We think Ashford is an excellent place—it is connected to the channel tunnel rail link—and we will do our best to allay the fears of people there.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. He obviously listened to our representations, and learnt the lesson that infrastructure needs to be built alongside housing. He said that housing would be provided on a regional basis. The south midlands and Milton Keynes cover three regions. Can he assure us that cross-regional issues will also be dealt with?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his support. As he knows, I visited Milton Keynes quite recently. It had become a dormitory town for the

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London area because we had been taking people out of the slums and into greenfield areas, which was right at the time. There were about 12 houses per hectare. If we want to develop we will have to change the density levels, which will pose a challenge. As my hon. Friend knows from our dinner with local authority and regional development agency representatives, that involves two or three regional bodies. The same applies to the Thames gateway, which also covers two or three regions. We need all the co-operation of those bodies, so that they can help in the making of strategic decisions that affect them in the development of new growth areas and sustainable communities.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): Many of my constituents in Bishops Stortford and east Hertfordshire will regard this plan, if it is imposed, as highly destructive. At the beginning of his statement the Deputy Prime Minister made a promise about the green belt. Can he confirm that no new houses will be built on the green belt in Hertfordshire—yes or no?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that if the hon. Gentleman had asked the same question of his party's Administration he would have received a very dusty answer. The guarantee referred to the regions, and I think that it is necessary. It is like the commitment involving brownfield and greenfield sites. In some areas there is no brownfield, so there can be no 60:40 ratio. The calculation must therefore be made on a national or regional basis, and the guarantee about green belt was regionally based. There was no such guarantee under the last Administration. I know that the hon. Gentleman is fixated on a county issue, but we must take regional issues into account as well.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I congratulate my right hon. Friend both on his statement and on listening so carefully to the Select Committee. Notwithstanding all the whinges from Opposition Members and the "nimby", or rather "not in my constituency" attitudes, can he give us a time scale for the conversion of all these fine words into bricks and mortar? Could he also have another go at the Chancellor, and try to persuade him to come up with fiscal incentives to encourage people to move from the south-east and occupy many of the good empty homes that exist in the north?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful not only for my hon. Friend's support, but for the Select Committee's constructive and informed comments. I had a happier experience with that Committee than I had with the Transport Committee, and I look forward to a happy relationship with my colleague in the future.

We have committed ourselves to a three-year programme of expenditure. As my hon. Friend will see if he looks at regional planning guidance note 9, he will see some longer time scales for some housing projects—20 or 30 years on some growth areas. Once we have discussed the details with the stakeholders I will make another statement, but I expect to address the Select Committee before then, and I shall be open to examination then.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): My constituency, next door to that of my hon. Friend the

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Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), contains 12 local pressure groups which are campaigning and complaining about the amount of traffic already on Kent's roads. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give the people of Kent an undertaking that the infrastructure improvements will be made before any new homes are built; otherwise a bad situation will be made immeasurably worse?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The commitments in regard to that area are already covered by transport expenditure, and Ashford's connection to the motorway is included in the plan. There are also other infrastructure investments for the area, which are quite considerable. We are discussing the plan with Kent county council, for whose support I am grateful. The council makes the point that I have been making: an increase in the number of schools and hospitals, more transport and indeed more river crossings are critical to the population increase that is being envisaged. That is why we have had discussions with the Prime Minister to ensure that resources follow our commitments to housing and growth.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): In Burnley empty homes are no longer a problem; they are a living nightmare. Many people will feel that the £500 million announced by my right hon. Friend, although welcome, may well not prove sufficient for the nine pathfinder projects. Will more money be made available, and does my right hon. Friend recognise that all the problems in those nine areas cannot possibly be solved in three years?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend. Having visited his constituency, I was left with a powerful impression of the way in which such problem areas scar the whole community and give rise to economic and political problems. That is why we designed the pathfinder programmes. As he knows, we have already advanced £10 million in order to begin the preparations. We want to give comfort to those communities, but these things take time. He is right—we cannot solve all the problems in three years. We are making a start with £500 million for the three-year programme, which will concentrate attention. The problems in the areas in the north that he mentions are entirely different from those in the south-east, which is why we have had to design a separate programme. We hope to learn a great deal from it and to expand it, but it certainly will not be limited to three years.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): What would the Deputy Prime Minister say to the hundreds of my constituents who packed into Willingdon school hall last night, and who are concerned at the fact that their local council is being forced by him to find space for 950 new houses in that area—an area in which schools, the health service and roads are already under enormous pressure?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I assume that those people have children who, quite properly, want to live in that area. Before we arrived at those figures, considerable discussion revealed the level of housing

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demand. I told the House some years ago that we would not simply order people to predict and provide—there was some controversy about the figures—but that we would plan, monitor and manage, and see how things were going and whether demand was increasing. A number of local authorities decided not to accept the figure that they were given, and said that they could meet the demand. It became clear that they could not, and we are now telling them that they are behind with those targets, and that they must act to meet them. Of course, what they can do is to use the density figures that I require of them, and which I referred to. That way, they can meet demand—provided that they do not build four-bedroom executive houses, and instead make better designed, higher density accommodation available to people.

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