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Mr. Redwood rose—

Keith Hill: I give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who I am sure will inject a note of common sense into our proceedings.

Mr. Redwood: I am grateful to the Minister for his rave review. Does he accept that a larger number of
 
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people are coming into this country—legally and illegally—than are leaving it? Some external bodies believe that it could be as many as 250,000 extra people a year—equivalent to a city the size of Southampton, which would be necessary to house them all properly. What does the Minister believe is happening in that respect and what impact is it having on the housing market? What would be a sustainable rate for granting people from abroad the right to live and work here?

Keith Hill: We certainly are in pre-election mode, are we not, with that sort of typical Tory scaremongering? Let me put it to the right hon. Gentleman that population growth stemming from various sources is, of course, a significant driver of the demand for housing. We should also be aware—I believe that my old jousting partner, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) put his finger on the problem—that there are other significant drivers.

More than 40 per cent. of the demand for new housing arises from natural demographic changes in our population. Some are to be welcomed. For example, we live longer; the elderly do not vacate homes on the scale that they did in the past; many people choose to live alone. That is their choice. Unfortunately, other factors—family discord, divorce and so forth—are significant drivers that can often force people to live singly.

There are therefore many factors at work. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) mentioned the Thames gateway, and the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), may want to say something about the true Conservative position on that development. After all, it stems from the work of Lord Heseltine, that visionary who used to represent Henley. However, the fact is that two thirds of the growth in housing demand in Kent arises from changes in that wonderful county's existing population. Folk there live longer and choose to live singly, but they also suffer from some of our society's disorders.

Let us be clear: it is not a question of blaming the enemy outside, but of recognising that serious changes are occurring in our society that we must try to accommodate.

Mr. Prisk: Will the Minister give way?

Keith Hill: No. I shall try and let the hon. Gentleman in later but in these short debates, with many hon. Members wanting to speak, I am conscious that Front-Bench speakers must be as brief as possible.

I want to be reasonable about the green belt, which we all cherish. It is wrong to whip up hysteria by making exaggerated claims about its loss. Nearly two thirds of new development in the green belt has been made on land that was previously developed, and total use of green-belt land amounts to only 0.02 per cent. a year.

The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has been silent, at least in a formal sense, throughout our exchanges so far. I have been courteous enough not to draw attention to her, but if she insists on protesting about the green belt I shall draw the House's attention
 
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to her website, where she makes it clear that she entered politics to protect the green belt in her locality. I am not surprised: after all, the Conservative Solihull council adopted the development plan on 22 April 1997—that is, before the general election of that year—that led to the loss of some 260 hectares of the Solihull green belt.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Does the Minister accept that the Government pulled the rug out from under Solihull council's feet when they redefined what constitutes a brownfield site? They said that my constituents' back gardens were brownfield sites, and in so doing they set neighbour against neighbour. The council found it extremely difficult to defend itself in court.

Keith Hill: I provoked the hon. Lady to speak. I am not sure that central office will approve of that, on this of all days. She knows that redefining gardens as residential land capable of development has been part of the land use classification system since 1975. The Opposition did not challenge that when they were in government, and we inherited that approach from them. I may say more about that if the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) intervenes on me later.

Planning policy guidance note 2 is there to protect the green belt. It confirms that the green belt must be protected as far as can be seen ahead, sets the defining boundaries and provides a presumption against inappropriate development. The guidance is working, and we stand by it.

In addition, the Government have set clear targets for each English region, including those regions that contain the growth areas, to maintain or increase the current area designated as green-belt land in local plans. That is the policy that the Government are pursuing.

On a more serious note, I need to say something about the recently published green belt statistics.

On 29 March 2004, I announced in a written parliamentary statement the release of new statistics on the change in the amount of green belt in England between 1997 and 2003. They showed an increase of around 25,000 hectares in the amount of green belt identified in adopted local and unitary development plans. It was subsequently pointed out to us that the published figures contained errors, including a significant transcription error for which, as the Minister, I of course take full responsibility. In addition, minor corrections have come to our attention in relation to three other local authorities. That is why, in a reply on 10 May to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), I published a summary of revised figures for green belt increases between 1997 and 2003, giving the corrected figure of around 19,000 hectares.

In the light of those errors, I want to assure the House that further work is being carried out on checking the revised figures, in order to ensure that they are now robust. That will take two to three weeks. Once we are satisfied that they are accurate, a revised statistical release will be issued and placed in the Libraries of both Houses. I apologise to the House for the errors. The House will, I know, understand that such things happen, but they should not, and for that, I apologise. However, I should remind the House that statistical errors do nothing to undermine the fundamental point that I want
 
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to make today in relation to the Government's record on the green belt: since we came to office, there have been significant increases in the green belt in England.

Some 19,000 hectares were added between 1997 and 2003, with a further potential 12,000 hectares proposed in emerging local plans. If those proposed increases come to fruition, that would be a creditable 31,000 additional hectares—an area bigger than that covered by Birmingham city council. I contrast that record with what happened between 1993 and 1997, when the green belt increased by a mere 2,000 hectares. Already we have expanded the green belt in our first six years 10 times more than the Tories did in their last four years, and we expect to do better.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister has been honest about the error in the figures, and I accept what he has said. However, I question the proportion of green belt that has been added in areas where development pressure is not the greatest. Most people see the green belt as a means of preventing urban sprawl where development pressure is greatest, and that was its original intention. Why is the Minister adding to the green belt in places where that is not so?

Keith Hill: I appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman received my apology. I understand his point, but if he looks in detail at the figures that I published on 10 May he will see that significant reductions have not been made in the green belt in areas of development pressure—and, in some cases, it has been increased. Major green belt additions between 1997 and 2003 were made in places such as Blackburn, Doncaster, Coventry, Stafford, Christchurch and west Lancashire. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that those in the midlands and north of England are at least as entitled as those elsewhere to receive the advantages and the protection of the green belt.

Let me say loud and clear that we have no plans to relax planning controls on the green belt. The fundamental policy aim remains to keep land around urban areas permanently open, to prevent urban sprawl and to protect the countryside from encroachment. Where green belt boundary changes are proposed, we want to be satisfied that all opportunities for development within the urban area contained by the green belt have been properly considered, including brownfield land.


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