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5 Feb 2003 : Column 288—continued

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): There are thousands of rotten, empty, decaying, blighted properties in my constituency, and next door in Burnley. The Deputy Prime Minister has just told us that the £500 million over three years will be a first tranche. Can he give us some estimate of how much it would cost to bring properties in east Lancashire that are the worst in the entire United Kingdom up to a decent standard?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I believe that approximately 1 million homes in those areas are in various states of disrepair. Assessments are being made as to the exact cost of such repairs, but I do not want to have to wait for the consultant's report. If possible, I want to find some money now and start the programme, but I must establish the money with the Chancellor. He has given me £500 million, and I am very grateful. My hon. Friend's description of those areas is exactly right—the situation is desperate and something needs to be done. That is precisely why £10 million has been advanced: to begin the proposals and the planning, and to hold meetings with people to whom promises have been made. One factor characterises most of these homes. They have undergone various refurbishment schemes over the years, and people have become completely disheartened with those schemes. Many of those schemes were good at the time, but they did not last long, and something much more fundamental needs to be done. We are making a start with the £500 million. I know that this is a difficult problem, but if I can find more resources and the project proves successful, our efforts will have been worth while.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): People who live in the Epping Forest area will be very alarmed at what the Deputy Prime Minister has said today about green belt. In my constituency, it is simply is not possible to increase, or even to maintain, the existing green belt while also undertaking the amount of building that he said is likely to go ahead. Will he give an undertaking now to my constituents that he will not allow plans to build on the ancient forest of Epping forest to go ahead?

The Deputy Prime Minister: There in no plan to build on Epping forest. The hon. Lady must know that it is because of the very difficulty in finding housing land that she mentions that we have moved to a regional requirement, so that those at a regional level can decide that their housing demand be met on a regional basis.

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If we simply leave the decision to local authorities, every one of them will give a reason why building cannot take place in their area. I hear such reasons from Members all the time, and no doubt I will hear more. They want houses for their constituents, but not built near them. It is a common problem, and it is called nimbyism.

Mrs. Laing: I am talking about a forest.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes, I know it is a forest. The regions themselves will advise on these matters, but we should be clear: the demand from existing residents to live in the south-east needs to be met, and it can be met in an intelligent way without closing down all building in that region. I have given some indication of the Government's priorities, and they will guide our policies.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the shortage of affordable housing in London is holding back its economy, undermining our capacity to recruit to the public services, and blighting the lives of the soaring number of my constituents who are trapped in overcrowded housing. Unlike apparently every member of the Conservative party, I would very much welcome my right hon. Friend's building some more housing in my constituency. Can he assure me that, in addition to prioritising the key areas set out in his statement, he will ensure that resources are available to build and to maintain sustainable communities right across London, including in areas such as mine?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that everyone wants to deal with the problems in the inner-city areas that she talks about, and it is clear that housing is needed in both the private and public sectors. My statement referred to the renovation of houses and to new forms of purchase, and more resources have been made available for that. I have reduced the discount on the right to buy in order to deal with precisely the problems that my hon. Friend mentions. All too often, the right to buy leads to the purchasing of more public housing than can actually be replaced. The question is one of balance: the problems in her constituency differ considerably from those in areas outside London. On identifying those areas with very high prices and levels of homelessness, it was noticeable that most are in London, and we intend to deal with that problem.

Bob Russell (Colchester): Will the Deputy Prime Minister give an assurance that he will persuade his Government colleagues to offload surplus land and properties as part of the release of land? At the same time, can he assure us that the definition of brownfield development does not include landscaped grounds and sports fields such as those in a former psychiatric hospital?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am not sure about the last point—I do not think that they are included, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on this issue, as there are some peculiar definitions. His first point is a serious one that has concerned me for some time. Many Government Departments have a considerable amount

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of land available, and to be absolutely truthful, the Treasury always require that such land be sold at the highest market price.

Mr. Edward Davey rose—

The Deputy Prime Minister: Don't get too excited. The market price is calculated in the Chancellor's settlements. I have argued that we are being rather silly, in that we are putting up house prices and giving bigger discounts so that people can buy. Surely it would be better to establish a priority policy for available Government land, so that it can be used as one element in contributing to a reduction in the cost of housing, including even the purchasing of housing. We could use land more intelligently than we currently do. I am having some success with certain Departments and less with others, but we are getting on with it.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): The Deputy Prime Minister announced a portion of funding to be spent in the north. The former mining communities in my constituency have old and poor housing stock, and the people there have difficulty finding jobs. Will those communities benefit from today's announcement?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes, in the sense that the area will get a share of the funds to meet its priority housing needs. My hon. Friend has pressed me before on what we can do for the coalfield communities that were greatly affected by the collapse of the coal industry. Some £350 million is working its way through, but I think that they will still get their share of the normal national programmes. Such funding is distributed north and south, and none of the housing programmes in the northern areas are cut to pay for any sale: they still get that money, and more. However, as I explained in my statement, I have directed some resources towards the greater priorities.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): If the sustainable communities strategy represents a genuine step change in the amount of building on brownfield sites, will the Deputy Prime Minister take this opportunity to revise downwards the wholly unsustainable, massive house-building targets forced on East Sussex, which has neither the transport infrastructure nor the environmentally suitable sites to meet those targets?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I suspect that, if the infrastructure were provided, the hon. Gentleman would still complain about extra houses in his area. If his point were simply about infrastructure expenditure, I could accept it. However, his comments and many others that are made outside this House are more along the lines of, "We do not want any building in this area." I cannot make the promise that asks for, because I have a greater commitment to the homeless, and to the sons and daughters of families who already live in such areas.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): First, we in Thurrock welcome every unit of affordable housing that might come from this announcement. Thurrock has the most river frontage, the most brownfield sites and the most green belt of all the gateway riparian authorities, and we

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would welcome our own urban development corporation. Will those bodies address the fact that much of the railway network is to the east of the channel tunnel link and requires substantial upgrading owing to low capacity?

Secondly, our green belt has been taking in London's household waste. That is unacceptable and we do not want any more.

Finally, we need a massive boost to our health and hospital provision, which is wholly inadequate.

The Deputy Prime Minister: As on so many occasions, my hon. Friend points out the weaknesses and difficulties that are involved in the transfer that has been taking place in terms of the economic and industrial development of the Thurrock area. Traditionally, transport links have not necessarily developed in that direction or have suffered from underinvestment. We are discussing that with the Secretary of State for Transport, and some relevant proposals are already in his plan. Some areas of London will not be opened up to housing development unless there are connections to rail links. As usual, we have to set priorities, because demands are far greater than resources. As my hon. Friend knows, we have established an urban development corporation that will work in those areas with the authorities to achieve the measures that I have announced. As he says, there are a great many brownfield sites in his area. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions says that there are more in Greenwich. I will not dispute that both areas have many brownfield sites, and I very much welcome that because it will help us to keep on building.


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