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4.42 pm

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): The Government made the usual efforts to find a theme for this Queen's Speech: as far as I can recall, they came out with some flannelly language about the future and fairness. I agree with those who said that it is impossible to find a theme, and that it merely shows that, as they get towards the end of their second term, the Government have lost their sense of purpose and direction. A very mixed bag of measures has come before us, most of which are ad hoc—either the latest bright idea from some think-tank that happens to be close to the No. 10 policy unit or an old departmental idea that has been taken out of a cupboard and had the dust blown off it to be brought forward to address one issue or another.

I agree with the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar), whose speech I enjoyed, in only one sense. If the Queen's Speech is in any way historic, as he suggests, it is because it contains two measures that could prove to do lasting damage to the fabric of our society. I strongly disapprove of the proposals for changes to access to higher education—I shall return to that in a few moments—and I strongly object to the proposals for constitutional reform of the upper House. The measures on top-up fees and the House of Lords have, rightly, dominated the discussion so far; and they are the two measures that will do the most damage if Parliament is unable to stop or to modify them in the course of the next few months.

Much of the Queen's Speech was dull but worthy. I begin with the subject that was chosen for today's debate and on which Front-Bench Members concentrated: planning, housing and fire. That is all dull but worthy and was introduced by a most unlikely character—the Deputy Prime Minister, for whom I have a high regard and who is certainly not dull. I do not regard his politics as worthy—indeed, he and I have disagreed politically on every subject that I can envisage and for as long as I can remember; his politics and mine resemble each other like chalk and cheese. He loves the red meat of politics and political controversy, which showed when he read his brief on the Bills that happen to fall within the extraordinary remit that has been created for him and is called the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

The right hon. Gentleman reminded me of one his heroes, Mr. Michael Foot, who, when he was put in charge of a worthy measure, read the brief carefully, left

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the Chamber as rapidly as possible and trusted that his junior Ministers would sort out the consequences in his absence. The difficulty with that approach is that we are considering important matters, not least in a constituency such as mine, and serious dangers can be tucked away in what do not appear to be the most controversial measures.

Rushcliffe is a constituency like many others: largely rural, largely suburban and around and between great conurbations. All the arguments about planning and housing centre on the pressure on the green belt and greenfield sites and on getting the balance right for development without destroying the environment.

I listened to the Deputy Prime Minister speaking about his subjects and he did not entirely reassure me, but left me with some fears that he might be taking things in the wrong direction. The planning structure is too bureaucratic, too remote from the population and often too remote from local needs. The current process of structure planning has never worked properly. We have a long process of regional structure plans, county structure plans and so-called public consultation, which attracts only special interest groups to make representations and comes to life only when the most local authority—the district authority—deals with an individual planning application and the local residents suddenly become aware of what might happen and start to react.

Having listened to the Deputy Prime Minister's description of his Bill, I fear that the distant and regional aspect is about to be strengthened and that the process is likely to become more, not less bureaucratic. He strengthened my view that planning, like most other features of local government, is best delivered on the smallest scale possible and nearest to the population who will be affected. The more power that can be given to the local planning authority and the less that can be moved up to regional level, the better.

Mr. Challen: I represent part of Leeds, which was mentioned earlier. We started a unitary development plan in 1992 under Conservative arrangements. It took 10 years to get to deposit that plan and the problem is that by the time it affects the public, the original thoughts behind it may be long forgotten. I therefore appreciate much of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says. However, the problem in Leeds arose under Conservative arrangements. Will he therefore accept that the current system is not perfect?

Mr. Clarke: Far too many of my political remarks take on a touchingly non-partisan aspect. I accept that the strategic planning that I am criticising goes back to the time of Conservative Administrations. As with the example in Leeds, so in the east midlands and Nottinghamshire. The process can take a long time to get from the spatial planning, about which my east midlands development association continues regularly to bombard me with glossy documents, to the reality years later, when many original concepts have undoubtedly changed. I regard what has been said about that with suspicion.

I heard the fashionable emphasis on affordable and starter homes, which I accept are necessary. Until recently, there was a huge gap in the provision of affordable housing, especially for young and for single

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people, which has to be filled in urban and rural areas. Again, the problem is best tackled locally. The increased provision of suitable housing for single people, who like living in cities and bring them back to life, is one of the best aspects of what is happening in cities. In rural and suburban areas, it is often easier to get planning consent for so-called affordable housing. The result is that high-density planning applications succeed and the properties that are available on the market are unaffordable to anyone looking for a starter home.

That merely distorts the development that takes place in areas where there is no doubt that the market will drive the price up beyond the affordable level. Again, in all the structural planning I am deeply suspicious of that.

I am interested to hear what has been said about multiple occupation, and I agree with those who have already said that the problem with student accommodation should be addressed. Nottingham has become a great student city, and I am glad to say that large numbers of students look for accommodation in the suburbs, which I represent. They add life and quality to the area, but there can be sudden influxes of student occupiers. That is not always strictly multi-occupation; they are merely put in a house by a landlord, which they share, so there is little control over the change of use that takes place. We need greater control over the extent to which whole neighbourhoods can suddenly change, with implications for services. I also think that students are entitled to whatever protection is going to guarantee the quality of multi-occupied accommodation as well. I hope that the student accommodation problem is addressed.

On home information packs, I echo exactly what has been said by Liberal and Conservative spokesmen. This is an old idea that has finally been given in to, and I believe that its main effect will be to add to the cost and to increase the delay that occurs in the housing market when there is no need to do either. That measure also brings home to me—as does the fire Bill, worthy though that is—the dangers, under this Government particularly, of ever more and costly regulation being imposed on most transactions and quite a lot of business activities.

This Government just love regulation, all of which is produced and driven by worthy purposes and worthy bodies, whether that be the Consumers Association or people interested in food safety or health and safety of various kinds. In this case, I do not think that most purchasers would be well advised not to have their own survey done because a home information pack has been produced. In the end, the proposal will add to the cost of the housing transaction. Also, it will probably give rise to more litigation, not less, as people dispute whether the property matches up to what they were told in the home information pack. It is yet another regulatory activity that will serve no worthwhile purpose.

Fire Bills always do the same thing, but no one will oppose anything put forward in the name of fire regulation because one is instantly accused of wishing to see most of one's neighbours fried to a frazzle if one resists any suggestion that comes back from the fire service or the fire prevention authorities. We should consider the compliance cost of what is proposed. The cost in relation to the risk that is being averted is usually

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staggering. Although I have not looked at this particular Bill, such measures are usually one of the sources of highest cost and most difficulty to many property owners and many small businesses. I am quite sure, however, that the Bill will go through the House completely unopposed, because nobody ever challenges any advice on fire prevention.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that for £1,000 most buildings could have an efficient sprinkler system? Such a measure would have saved £9 million-worth of expenditure on a school that I have just lost—it has been completely destroyed—and would have meant that the school could have begun to operate that same day.

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