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Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): What does my hon. Friend think may be the implications of that for next year's county council elections? This year's local elections have reared their head in today's debates. Does my hon. Friend think that the Liberal Democrats could campaign on this issue in the 2005 county council elections?
I would be very surprised if Liberal Democrat councillors throughout the counties did not point out the Conservatives' failure to defend elected
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members over unelected regional authorities. I would also be surprised if it did not get mentioned in the odd "Focus" leaflet. Members from other parties like to mention "Focus" leaflets, but before they jumped up I thought that I would do it for them.
I have had another experience of the Tories wearing their local planning hat. It comes from the other local authority in my area: Tory-run Bridgnorth district council. I do not often mention it; frankly, it is best not to mention it most of the time. A supermarket is to be built in the centre of Bridgnorth. The issue is not whether that is right but the approach that the Tories took. They allowed the senior planning officer to do all the negotiations with the supermarket on his own. He then wrote the development control report stating whether the company should get planning permission, and he spoke in the debate. That was allowed by Conservative-run Bridgnorth council. It then allowed the planning officer to interfere with the legal officer's duty by trying to prevent councillors from speaking because he thought that they might be opposed to the development. The most recent failure is the fact that a meeting was held in secret to discuss the deal and the application, which are one and the same, and councillors who turned up were given the relevant papers and told that they had to hand them back at the end.
I hope that in her winding-up speech the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), will touch on planning policy statements. We have spent 18 months debating the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, but the detail that is critical to whether or not someone gets planning permission is included in planning policy statements, which have replaced planning policy guidance. PPSs, however, are never debated in the House. They are produced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, are the subject of consultation, and are signed off by Ministers. They are crucial to planning decisions but we never have an opportunity to debate them. We can argue about the system of planning in a planning Bill, but we can never debate the nuts and bolts of the planning system.
If the Minister for Housing and Planning believes in an open and accountable planning system, he should allow us to debate PPSs, which come up regularly for review. Draft PPS6 has raised a number of concerns, because the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury appear to have had an influence in allowing out-of-town supermarket developments again. I believe that the ODPM is concerned, but has issued the statement none the less. PPS6 favours developers of large-scale multiple retail units over other retailers such as small shops in town centres, which could be damaging to town centres. We know how much damage was caused in the 1980s when supermarkets were built on out-of-town sites, but there is concern that PPS6 will lead to exactly the same problem again. A husband and wife in my constituency have summed it up very nicely:
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"The centres of small market towns all over Britain will be destroyed just as they have been in France, more small businesses will fail, and many of the jobs created in these new shopping centres will be at the expense of our existing ones. We are constantly being urged to use our cars less and yet new housing developments in the countryside will only encourage more commuting. Why doesn't the Government actively encourage the owners of town centre properties to refurbish . . . ?"
With PPS6, we are in danger of creating more large out-of-town shopping centres. I hope that the Under-Secretary will make it clear that that is not the intention and that if necessary, the Government will change the statement.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): My hon. Friend has mentioned out-of-town developments. The Opposition said that they were going to stop such developments, but they started the process. My hon. Friend may be aware that a Conservative Secretary of State allowed a number of years for the ban to come into effect, by which time all the supermarkets had submitted their applications, as has been pointed out. If the supermarkets are allowed to re-establish themselves on such sites, that will sound the death knell for even more town centres. Does my hon. Friend agree that the supermarkets are causing the strange death of merry England?
"the spivs in the retail industry"[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 February 2004; Vol. 657, c. 854.]
I turn to another planning policy statementdraft PPS7, which covers rural areas. I have two concerns, which I hope the Minister will address. One is the general nature of PPS7. I quote from a constituent, a member of the local Campaign to Protect Rural England, who makes a powerful point, although perhaps it is expressed a little too strongly:
"My main overall concern about the Draft is that it appears to be very heavily biased in favour of almost any form of economic development almost anywhere in the countryside. There is totally inadequate emphasis on the importance of the countryside as a valuable and vulnerable asset in its own rightand on the consequent importance of safeguarding it for its own sake."
I hope the Minister will give assurances that draft PPS7 will not allow significant business development of an inappropriate sort in the countryside. Clearly, farm diversification needs to take place, but that would happen under the current PPG7. I hope the Minister will begin to address some of the concerns that are being raised about relaxing the rules too much in draft PPS7.
There is a second and more serious problem with PPS7: its potential effect on affordable housing. The Minister knows that one of the few ways of creating affordable housing in rural areas is through the use of exception sites. Draft PPS7 appears to rule out the use of exception sites for affordable housing in rural areas. That will have a dramatic effect because it will drive the young people away from the villages to the urban
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centres. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that that is not the intent of PPS7, and that if that is its effect, she will change it.
Finally, I turn to an issue that the Minister raised, but which was not touched on by the Conservatives, surprisinglythat is housing density. I am surprised that with all their worries about town cramming and development spreading out into the countryside, the Conservatives did not mention housing density. Perhaps they were worried because the figures for housing density when they were in government were pretty awful.
The Minister trumpets the fact that housing density is going up, but the figures are still dismal. The most recent figures we have, which I am sad to say are from 2002, show that 27 dwellings per hectare is being achieved. According to the Government's guidance the percentage should be higher. The median point of the range being discussed would be 40 dwellings per hectarehigher than the Minister mentioned. If that had been achieved over the past few years, 40 per cent. more homes would have been produced on the land that has been used since the Government came to power. That is the effect of getting the housing density numbers up.
We do not need estates of executive homes with gardens. We need more dense construction, because that is the way of delivering the affordable houses that we need. We do not deny that we need extra housing. We will not put our heads in the sand like the Conservatives and pretend that we can get away with no more extra houses. We need extra houses, but we need to make sure that they will not devour the countryside. I shall not become all Elgar-like, as the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings was, talking about "green and pleasant Land". I thought he would get on to "dark Satanic mills" after a while.
The debate, as is always the case when we are coming up to local elections, has been a lot of froth and very little policy. We know the Conservatives have no policy. We know their record is appalling. All they can do is point out some of the problems that the Government have created, and we agree with the words of the motion because they analyse some of the problems correctly.
The Government, if one believes them, say, "Don't worry. We've got it all in hand. It's all going to be sorted", but their policies do not add up to sorting the problems of affordable housing and protecting the countryside, which could be achieved if they reviewed the policies. I urge the Government to look seriously at integrating housing and planning policies more closely. I do not believe they have done so sufficiently. That lack of integration is leading to the problems that give rise to debates such as this on the Floor of the House.
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