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Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): I wish to return the House to development and planning, which several hon. Members mentioned earlier in the debate. I particularly appreciate the opportunity to do so on this occasion because it is timely. I understand that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is reviewing certain aspects of the planning regulations that are relevant to the issue that has arisen in my constituency.

The issue that we are struggling with comes from a group of people whom I label demolition developers—speculative developers who come into the area in search of perfectly good existing properties, offer the owners a considerable multiple of their values, buy them up in blocks and demolish the lot, replacing them with a much denser development.

Leamington Spa, which is part of my constituency, seems to have been targeted by demolition developers—in particular, Cala Homes—who have made repeated efforts to buy up groups of houses for exactly that sort of development. Some of the efforts we have successfully resisted; some we have not. In particular, a classic example—again, involving Cala Homes—on Lillington road was surprisingly lost on appeal, although it was fiercely resisted by the local authority and the community.

The problem when such applications succeed is that they result in inappropriate developments that are clearly in conflict with the character of the area and that significantly alter the landscape of the town. Our objection is not simply nimbyism in the sense that we do not want development of any sort. The local authority is certainly not opposed to development. We have seen a great deal of it, a lot is taking place and there is a lot more still to come.

We fully accept that there are pressures in our area that lead to the requirement for development and we are more than happy to respond to them. We have the benefit of enjoying a very vibrant economy, we are a highly favoured area for business location and our unemployment level is down to about 1 per cent. We completely understand the pressures that arise from that for first-time buyers. We accept the need to embrace development to respond to those pressures. However, the point is to have the right development in the right
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places and to allow development to take place in such a way that we can maintain the integrity of the community and architecture and, indeed, the balance of the community.

We believe that it is possible for development and conservation to run alongside each other; they are not necessarily incompatible. The issue that we face is this: is the planning system adequate to allow our local authority or any local authority in similar circumstances to resist the demolition developers? In searching for an answer, one inevitably begins with PPG3, as last redrafted in March 2000. At first sight, it says the right things. For example, it says:

That is what I would expect to find in a planning guidance note.

There is also helpful advice on development. PPG3 says that

I would also expect to find that. The guidance is also useful on re-use, referring to policies

Throughout the note there is much emphasis on using "previously developed land", and that is helpfully defined in the third annexe as

A helpful footnote even defines "curtilage"

It has been suggested that PPG3 is the problem behind the ambitions of the demolition developers, but a careful examination of the guidance note shows that that is not the case. The crucial definitions predate the guidance and go back all the way to 1975. The definition of "previously developed land" has not changed in more than 25 years.

What else can we do to shore up our defences against   the demolition developers? To research this, I   approached my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, who wrote to me in March 2004 to provide extremely helpful clarification. His letter discussed his Department's interpretation of PPG3 and said that

He added:

He then helpfully went on to comment on demolition by saying that the Government
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I referred to a recent incident on the Lillington road, where despite the council's objection the case was lost on appeal. The inspector said that local planning policy on   intensification was overridden by PPG3, but that does not square with my understanding or, I think, that of the Minister, given the letter that I cited. PPG3 does not offer any encouragement to undertake such development. Nothing in the definition of previously developed land has changed. Decisions should be taken with reference to local policy, but we have the problem that that seems to be overridden by inspectors.

I still ask whether there is adequate protection against such speculative development. I am sure that our local planning authority could do more, although I am pleased that it has agreed to produce a supplementary planning guidance note. I have examined several such notes. For example, our neighbouring authority of Solihull has produced a note that deals effectively with the problem. However, we need further assistance from the Government, especially on demolition. I stress that perfectly good existing residential properties that are occupied, not derelict, are being demolished. The controls are insufficiently strong, although I appreciate that the situation is being examined and that the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which currently governs the demolition of existing properties, is being reviewed. The Act currently permits the demolition of dwelling houses.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is undertaking a consultation on the matter. It has thrown up the fact that there is a

The consultation document seems to recommend that there should be a change because it says:

I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will tell us when the consultation process will conclude and when we may expect regulations on demolition to change.

In summary, we are asking for help to build stronger defences against the demolition developers. They are more interested in profit than posterity, so we must act to defend our local architectural integrity. Our architectural integrity has made Leamington Spa attractive, so short-term profiteering should not undermine the bequest that has been handed down by previous generations. Our ancestors developed our town with sensitivity, and that is what we want to be able to do.

5.43 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I hope that the House will note that today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Disraeli. It would not be right for the House to adjourn for Christmas without recalling Disraeli's many achievements and his quotation,

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The House might think that the matter that I wish to raise is local, but it has wider ramifications. I want to   draw it to the House's attention because I never want it to be said that I was wise after the event. A couple of years ago, when asylum seekers were coming through the Channel tunnel from Sangatte, the then Home Secretary responded to nightly television coverage of the event by deciding to establish what were initially to be several trial accommodation centres for asylum seekers throughout the country. He decided that the centres would be situated outside the south-east on land owned by the Government. At the time, some 80,000 asylum seekers were coming into the country every three months.There was a trawl of the Government estate and a number of sites were identified, including one in my constituency on the outskirts of Bicester.

The House will understand that for the two neighbouring villages the prospect of an accommodation centre housing 750 refugees, when their combined population was about 750, was not met with unalloyed joy. It seemed that the right response was to petition Parliament for a public inquiry, which is what people did. A petition was signed by about 15,000 people, asking for nothing more than that there should be a public inquiry into the Government's proposals.

In due course, a public inquiry was held. One of the important things about a public inquiry is that people have to turn up and put forward rational arguments. One cannot make nimbyist or xenophobic arguments. They have to be based on why such a development should not go ahead on planning grounds. The Government and Home Office Ministers thought that it would be a shoo-in because the inspector would rubber-stamp their recommendations. In the event, having heard the evidence, which took some days to give, the inspector recommended to the Deputy Prime Minister and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that the development should not go ahead on a number of grounds.

The Deputy Prime Minister overruled that and decided that because it was Government policy, he would grant planning permission. The matter became a subject for judicial review, first to the High Court and then to the Court of Appeal, which found in favour of the Deputy Prime Minister, simply on the narrow grounds that because the land originally belonged to the Ministry of Defence, and was therefore Crown land, the Government could do whatever they liked with it without reference to planning norms, which should concern every Member of Parliament.

Time has moved on, and I hope that the new Home Secretary will take time over the Christmas break to review the relevant papers and consider whether it is not time to think again. The number of those claiming asylum status is down to 8,000 every three months— a substantial fall. The cost of building the accommodation centre is estimated at about £60 million, which is a substantial sum.

The Government have never managed to find a single organisation to support the project. The Refugee Council said only the week before last that it was wholly inappropriate for the needs of refugees. The idea that one sticks 750 asylum seekers in a transit registration processing camp in the middle of the countryside for up
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to six months is inappropriate. It is also a curious use of public money when Bullingdon prison, just over the road from the accommodation centre site, now houses 900 men when it was built to house 600. It is substantially overcrowded. We are told that the Home Office budget is so strapped that the governor has no discretionary spending. It is curious that the Government can find £60 million to build an asylum centre that no one who is concerned with the welfare of refugees believes is appropriate when we cannot find money to ensure that our prisons are kept in proper repair and are not substantially overcrowded.

As there has been such a substantial change in circumstances, with the number of migrants claiming asylum status dropping from 80,000 every three months to 8,000—a tenfold decrease—I hope that the Home Secretary and the relevant Minister of State will use the Christmas break to consider whether the centre is necessary. I ask them to think again.

That is the thrust of my remarks, and I hope that the Minister will promise to raise the matter with his Home Office colleagues.

5.49 pm

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