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Keith Hill: I often observe in these debates that there is nothing more deadly than the friendly intervention, and that was a perfect example. I am entirely unsighted of those issues. I should be delighted if my hon. Friend were to write to me. I shall seek to reply to her, within the constraints of my quasi-judicial role as a Planning Minister. I hope that that gives her some satisfaction.
The truth is that people are returning to our cities, which are cleaner, safer, greener and creating more jobs and prosperity for their populations and regions. Take Manchester. Fifteen years ago, fewer than 300 people lived in the centre of that city of nearly half a million people. Now, the city centre has a population of 15,000 people, and it is growing. Many of them are young people who have colonised refurbished Victorian warehouses. Similar trends are evident in most of our major cities' central areas and they are expected to grow substantially in the next few years, with the planned new residential developments. That regeneration is welcomed, but some apparently think that we are planning to build in people's back gardens.
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Let us not forget the wider reforms to the planning system. We need to put planning back at the centre of local decision making and to restore pride in both planning and planners. That is why the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, so recently passed by the House, introduces a simpler and more flexible local and regional plan-making system, promoting better community involvement and giving local people more say in what their local environment looks like. For the first time, we have given the planning system the statutory purpose of contributing to sustainable development.
Let me make it entirely clear that our vision of creating sustainable communities applies equally to rural areas. The fact is that some of our rural areas are suffering, not because we are hellbent on concreting over the countryside, but because local people cannot afford to live there. That is why we have doubled the Housing Corporation's target for low-cost housing in villages from 800 in 2001 to 1,600 last year and why we will build a further 3,500 low-cost homes in villages over the next two years. That is why we are taking further steps to make it easier for councils to limit the resale of ex-council housing in rural areas, so that those homes are reserved for local people. There are now 30 such areasup from 24 in 1997and soon there will be 35. That is not rhetoric; it is real action to protect rural communities.
The choice offered to the House today is simple. We can go forward with this Government's policies: strong, successful, vibrant towns and cities; better designed, more sustainable new development in which homes, jobs and services are planned together, not left to the mercy of the market; and safeguarding our countryside by prioritising brownfield land, increasing the green belt and taking practical action to protect rural communities. The choice is a positive vision of sustainable communities or a return to the sprawl of the past.
The Opposition bring to the House a record in which out-of-town retail devastated our urban shopping centres, our great provincial cities were ravaged by boom-bust economics and low-density housing sprawled across the countryside. The House has a choice: to go back to the mistakes of the past or to embrace a positive agenda in which economic progress, social justice and environmental concern go hand in hand. The Opposition's motion offers nothing. It reminds us of their past failings. It tells us that they have nothing to offer for the future, apart from opportunism and sloganising. I urge the House to reject the motion.
The Conservatives' motion is broadly on the point and for that reason we shall support it. However, it is only broadly there. There are difficulties with the Government's approach to planning. They are over-centralist. The recent Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill takes powers away from local authorities and passes them up to unelected regional authorities. We tried to prevent that but unfortunately the Tories caved in and the Government got their way.
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The Government are over-centralist in their approach to housing numbers; that point has already been discussed. They cannot allow for local variation. Most parts of the south-east are screaming out that they do not want as many houses as the Government want them to take. However, for the past six months I have been asking for an extra 1,000 houses in South Shropshire, but the Minister still cannot provide them because of the centralised approach that is taken. [Interruption.] He says that he is working on it, and I hope he is. We wait with bated breath in my area.
Overall, the Government's approach fails to trust local authorities as effective planning authorities. The new Bill gives local authorities a greater ability to plan, but the imposition of central targets over that process is the problem. That is where the Minister will discover that the nirvana and vision that he portrayed at the end of his speech will fall down. He needs to give way a bit and trust local authorities more.
In the Department, housing and planning are almost in separate silos. They are not seen as one and the same thing. I realise that the Minister speaks on both issues, but there is a lack of joined-up thinking between the planning system and the need for more affordable housing. The planning system is not used as a vehicle to deliver affordable housing. Several options are available, but they have not been taken up. Too much work takes place in silos.
None the less, the motion is a bit rich given that it comes from the Conservatives. We have heard the Minister outline their past failings, but the very title of the motion, "Town Cramming and Urban Sprawl", gives the game away. They are worried about building in towns and building outside towns. They clearly do not want building anywhere. In fact, the purpose of this debate was to allow certain Tory Back Benchers to jump up and say, "I do not want all these extra houses built in my constituency." We heard that several times during the passage of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. This is not "nimbyism" but "nimcyism"not in my constituency. The Conservatives say that they want more affordable housing as long as it is not built in their constituencies. They will quite happily build it everywhere else as long as it is not in the places that they represent.
Dr. Starkey: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the other point that came across in the Tory spokesperson's speech was that the Conservative party wished to direct people to where they should live in England? That is not in the south-east but up north where there is a lot of space. The Conservatives also want to direct people into the sort of households that they should have. The Conservatives believe that people are spreading out too much and that they should live together whether they want to or not.
Matthew Green: The hon. Lady may have a point, but there is a consensus that housing density should increase. She was verging on saying that that should not happen. However, in broad terms I agree with her.
I have experience of local Conservatives in my area. Their approach to development seems to be to say no to everything. In fact, the Conservative party appears to have a planning policy that is "Always say no". It is the
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most negative approach to development that I have ever seen. It does not matter whether jobs or anything else are at stake; it is simply a matter of "Let's say no".
We have seen the Conservatives' failures in government. Let us not forget that out-of-town supermarkets were developed under the Conservatives, and that in places such as Malvern, supermarkets have devastated the town centre. I am worried that this Government will reverse their policy of stopping such developments.
There is a policy vacuum in the Conservative party. The one occasion on which the Conservatives announced a policy on planning and housing was Monday. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) made the announcement and then appeared on "Newsnight", where he was well and truly Paxman-ed about it. It was a bit of a "Newsnight" mugging. It may not be fairI do not think that Jeremy Paxman is fairbut it revealed that the policy did not require any legislative changes and might have an inflationary impact on the housing market. When the Conservatives announce a policy they have a problem, but the rest of the time, when they do not have a policy, they are just the party that likes to say "No".
The Conservatives' wanting to take on the planning issue in local elections would be understandable if they had stood up for what they say they believe in. Let us turn to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. An amendment on the transfer of powers to unelected regional authorities was ping-ponging between the two Houses. This House may not have been made aware that the Conservative motion before the House is their second. They put one on the Order Paper and then changed it. The first said at the end that
"local authorities should be able to decide the priorities for local development, not unelected regional authorities",
but they removed those words. I wonder why. They are embarrassed that their Lords let them down and allowed the Government to proceed with a Bill that transfers powers to unelected regional authorities from county, metropolitan and unitary authorities. Far from defending the rights of local democracy, they caved in, and they changed the wording of their motion because they are so embarrassed about it.
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