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Mr. Hopkins: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for his intervention. If we are to have more housing, the logical place to build it is around existing large towns, especially towns such as Luton, which are below a critical mass at which they can become more interesting. We have heard about the splendid city of Leeds, which can sustain theatres. I was going to say that it can sustain a successful football club, but that would have been unfortunate.

Nevertheless, big cities can sustain much more interesting facilities than medium-sized and larger towns such as Luton. Luton and Dunstable, together as a conurbation, cannot yet sustain facilities of the kind that I want in our area. I look forward to the expansion of our conurbation to such a size that it reaches the critical mass at which we will be able to have a big, successful football club, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a professional theatre.

That is what I am looking for, and I like to think that my constituents agree that Luton could become an even more exciting place if it was larger and we also had decent homes for our people.

There is much to be said for the Government's plans, and I entirely agree with their approach.

A point I have made to local authorities in my area, to people who live there and to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is that we should build the benefits into new housing developments. Small spinneys and woodland areas could be made into green corridors forming a link with the existing conurbation. That would make life much more interesting for everyone in both places, and would preserve what is best in the rural element of urban areas. One of the great successes of planning is our preservation of green areas in towns. Certainly there are some nice parks in Luton, and we want to preserve them.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I entirely agree that we should build an element of greenness into new developments. The problem is that in areas such as the one mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and my own constituency, gardens are being filled in, and the concentration on new housing is eliminating the rural, green aspect that we value so much.

Mr. Hopkins: Local authorities in my area strongly agree that green areas should be preserved and green corridors created.
 
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I have not much time left. I want to make one or two important points. In recent months I have had some conversations with house builders. I asked them whether they were interested in building on brownfield sites; no, they were not. Were they interested in building social housing? No, they were not. Were they interested in contracting to build for local authorities or housing associations? No, they were not. What they were interested in was building on greenfield sites where they can get the development value and build expensive executive homes.

The Government must intervene to ensure that that does not happen. There must be a much greater role for the state at local and national level to ensure that we build the houses that are needed, not those designed to bring big profits to builders. If that means a degree of subsidy to reinvent and recreate the great local authority housing of the past, which housed so many of my friends when I was young, so be it. I am a strong supporter of good local authority housing development, and I believe that it must have a major role in the future.

We must stop the house builders, the developers and the free marketeers ruining our countryside and making it a place where many of my constituents will never be able to find houses because they will be unable to buy, and where a small minority of people will live in large executive homes. Low-density housing will do nothing to introduce some sort of equality and social justice.

There are many more points that I would like to make, but perhaps that will suffice for now. I strongly support the Government's position, and will vote against what the Conservatives have proposed.

6.23 pm

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). Given the limited time, I hope he will excuse me if I do not pick up all his points.

In an intervention on the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), I pointed out that over the last 25 years the population of our country had increased by 4 million, but so had the number of households. That reveals a dramatic change in our country's demography. Let me give one or two more statistics. The number of lone-parent families has doubled in the last 35 years. The number of single-person households is now 30 per cent. of the total. Conversely, the number of households consisting of married couples and children—what we regard as the typical British family of yesteryear—has fallen from 33 per cent. of the total to 20 per cent. I mention those figures because it is certain that whatever problems we may have in meeting the housing aspirations of the people of our country in the next few years, the task will become immeasurably more difficult.

Let us also remember two other factors. First, in the last 25 years, car ownership has increased from 14 million to 27 million; and, secondly, we are becoming an ageing population. That has occurred not only because we are living longer—due more to medical science than to the Government, though I sometimes doubt whether Government Members realise it—but because of the falling birth rate. We need more dwelling units and, apparently, smaller homes.
 
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I do not believe that there is any all-embracing, single, simple solution. We need different approaches and different policies for different areas. I should like briefly to outline my seven-point policy.

First, green belt policies have been the undoubted success of post-war planning policy. I believe that they should be inviolable and that Governments should support them. On the one hand, they have prevented towns joining each other, and on the other, they have prevented ever-increasing sizes of conurbations.

Secondly, we should place even greater emphasis on the use of brownfield sites. One problem is that so many of them are contaminated, making it more expensive to prepare the land for housing. Those sites also tend to be based in areas where building is more expensive than elsewhere. The Government have made changes to section 106 agreements, whereby in return for certain planning permissions being granted, the developers make contributions for the benefit of the community. I believe that the revenues from section 106 agreements should be put into helping developers with the extra expense of developing brownfield sites.

Thirdly, it is possible for us to be much more imaginative. In the old days, we used to think in terms of high-density development and building multi-storey blocks of flats in cities and large towns. However, the ingenuity of architects and planners now suggests that it is possible to have higher-density, low-level development. I would like to see the Government choosing sites in our great cities and very large towns and holding a competition for the design and layout of high-density development. The high standards of health and security that we demand would have to be met and "defensible spaces", to use the modern jargon, provided for people to live in. The winning schemes should be built. After people were invited to assess them, they could readily be sold off at a considerable profit.

Fourthly, we need a firmer policy to protect our pleasant suburbs. Too many impersonal blocks of flats have been allowed to replace pleasant houses, and too much unrelieved "tarmacadaming" for off-street parking has been allowed to replace gardens. Providing more places for cars as well as building more flats has been a problem.

Fifthly, we need to encourage the conversion of more existing non-domestic buildings—warehouses, old mills and so forth—into providing homes. Interestingly, in my part of the country, the value of homes is higher than the value of offices. Some suitable offices could be transformed to become housing stock.

Sixthly, we must have minimum development on greenfield sites. I am not na-ve enough to suppose that no such development will take place, but it should be a last resort and occur only when it can be shown that there are no more suitable brownfield sites in the area. It should be possible, on a village-by-village basis, to look at smaller communities and settlements to see whether sensible development could make them more viable. That could mean that the local sub-post office does not have to close and that a bobby on the beat and a doctor could be based there locally. A village could thus be transformed into a more economically and socially viable unit.
 
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My seventh point is that we need a more imaginative policy to reverse our declining urban areas, particularly in the north.

Finally, the motor vehicle has changed the way in which we live as well as having a profound effect on our town planning. Why do we not earmark areas in some big cities in which people may live, provided they do not own a vehicle when that is their choice? We might be surprised to find that many people, especially those in our great cities, would like the option of not having a car, yet being able to live in a quieter environment. It is key to making our inner cities and town centres decent, safe and attractive places once again. We need enthusiasm, imagination and commitment; and would it not be wonderful if we could get all-party agreement on how to go ahead and achieve that?

6.30 pm


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