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Housing Proposals (Gloucestershire)

4.45 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I think that we are about to be interrupted by another vote, but I shall see what progress I can make. I am grateful to the Minister for turning up to hear what I have to say, and I look forward to hearing her response.

I intend to discuss the South West regional assembly's proposals for housing in Gloucestershire and, in particular, the consultation document that it has issued, which is entitled, "Shaping the future of Cheltenham and Gloucester to 2026." The proposals are part of the spatial strategy required by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. The title page of the document also includes the words:

I understand that some of that work was done by Gloucestershire county council.

I have a number of problems with the document, and I will list five of them. First, the consultation period on the document is very short. Secondly, the document is very confusing and, in some areas, incomprehensible. Thirdly, it has taken the wrong tack on housing. Fourthly, its proposals seriously compromise the position of the green belt, and fifthly, they certainly endanger the flood plain.

Powers given to the South West regional assembly and to the Deputy Prime Minister are quite strong. Some might even call them excessive, in terms of house building. In my view, it should be left to local bodies to decide the basis on which houses are built in their area.

Regional government was rejected by the people of the north-east, yet the Government seem to be introducing it by stealth, by giving increasing power to unelected quangos. The regionalisation of England is consistent with the breaking down of the United Kingdom through devolution, which is convenient if we are to move towards a federal Europe of regions, in which countries do not exist. Perhaps I digress too much, but that is an important argument against regionalisation. The quality, or lack thereof, of the document is also important. It demonstrates the folly of having too many layers of bureaucracy.

The spatial strategies will supersede the local plans and the county structure plan. Already, Tewkesbury borough council's plan has cost £300,000, largely because of costs associated with a Government inspection of the local plan inquiry. There are five other districts in Gloucestershire. I think that I am right in saying that Gloucester itself has not prepared a local plan; the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) will correct me if I am wrong. A lot of money has been spent on preparing those local plans and the structure plan, all of which will be swept aside by the spatial strategy.

I shall discuss each of the points that I mentioned. Printed along the bottom of the document in capital letters are the words, "Have your say", yet the consultation period is just four and a half weeks; it closes on Friday 18 February. It is already 1 February, and this debate has been held as soon as it could be. The Government guidelines for the consultation period on
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this type of document suggest 12 weeks. Why, therefore, is this consultation period not 12 weeks? Was the publication of the document delayed? Has that truncated the consultation period and, if so, why was that allowed to happen?

I described the document as confusing. The proposals and the analysis are in parts incomprehensible.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): I thank my neighbour for giving way. I have sympathy with much of what he has said. Dose he agree that the confusion has arisen at a time when the county council's local plan has not been agreed? He and I both attended a meeting with the Government office for the south-west a little while ago, and there was some contention about the local plan, not least the sustainability of the balance of 16,000 local homes proposed by the county plan, versus 6,000 in Cheltenham, which he knows that I oppose. That is a balance in one area rather than another. This matter arises when we do not know whether that plan has been adopted, so there is no coherence.

Mr. Robertson : The hon. Gentleman is right. The confusion is not helpful, and now we get another confusing aspect to the matter with the publication of this document.

Regional planning guidance note 10 suggests that 2,400 houses per annum are required between 2005 and 2016. The document that we are discussing tests other proposals, including RPG10 plus 25 per cent and RPG10 plus 50 per cent. It says:

But it is not being discounted. The South West regional assembly and the Government could go for that option. The wording is not only misleading, but downright wrong. How can this be a serious consultation document if it says that one option has been discounted when it has not? Where have the plus 25 per cent. and plus 50 per cent. figures come from? Were they just plucked out of the air, or are they based on past trends and, therefore, a reliable extrapolation?

Furthermore, the document says that 60 per cent. of the houses should be in the principal urban area. That is also not true; that is not the proposal. The 60 per cent. figure is what the county structure plan third alteration panel report 2004 recommended, but that has not been accepted by the South West regional assembly. It has not been decided that 60 per cent. of the houses should be in the principal urban area. Page 5 of the document, headed:

is based on false premises. The highlighted area of the page—probably the most critical part of the document—is based on falsely represented assumptions and arbitrary figures.

4.53 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.3 pm

On resuming:—

Mr. Robertson : I was referring to the document on housing in Cheltenham and Gloucester as being very
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confusing, and I went through some of the detailed reasons for that. I also mentioned the misleading quote in the document, and was about to say that the highlighted bit on page 5 is probably the most important part, but is based on a completely false premise. Falsely represented assumptions, arbitrary figures, approximations, guesswork and a very misleading quote all appear in a very small part of the document.

My next concern is that the regional assembly and the other people who worked on the document are taking the wrong tack on housing altogether. I do not intend to be party political, but in opposition the Labour party said that it would end the predict-and-provide approach to planning. I welcomed that, but in the document we have proposals being made on the basis of birth and death rates, migration, household size, divorce rates and economic trends. Page 13 states:

If that is not a prediction, I do not know what is, and if this document is not about providing in order to satisfy that prediction, I do not know what is. Unfortunately, the principle of predict and provide is still going strong. When will the Government fulfil their 1997 commitment to end that approach to housing?

I turn to the green belt. In Question Time on 19 January, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), the Prime Minister said:

In this document, four options for that increased housing are put forward. Option 1 would be in a "Green Belt, greenfield area". Option 2 would also be in a "Green Belt, greenfield area". Option 3 says that it will have a

Option 4 also says that it would include the green belt. Therefore, all four options include major building—if not the entirety of the building—on the green belt. How does the Prime Minister square his words in the Chamber less than two weeks ago about protecting the green belt with the document that the Deputy Prime Minister will consider that proposes major incursions into the green belt?

I turn now to the flood plain. Two rivers, the Severn and the Avon, converge at Tewkesbury and continue down the Severn vale as the River Severn, causing flooding all the way down at certain times of the year. It will make matters considerably worse to build on or near the flood plain. Last year the Government's inspector, Mary Travers, suggested building 580 houses both on and near the flood plain between Longford and Innsworth. That was bad enough, but this document goes much further. Its proposals would involve a massive building programme either on or very near the flood plain. That could have serious implications, and it is wrong.

This is a poor document. It is badly written, its assumptions are general and arbitrary, and it proposes a development the size of Gloucester—which is a
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considerable size—to be built largely, if not entirely, in my constituency, on the green belt, and close to, if not on, the flood plain.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the basic fallacies in this document and the one that comes from the third review of the structure plan is the failure to address the need for some building in rural areas? We do not want to swamp rural areas, but our villages are in desperate need of some housing, and that is left out of all these documents.

Mr. Robertson : The hon. Gentleman is right. I do not want to name areas, but there are places where villages are dying. They could do with a little extra building, and a little extra infrastructure, too. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that need is not mentioned in this document. People trot out the mantra, "The houses have to go somewhere," but certain areas of the south-west are not developed properly; for example, Cornwall and Devon are not economically developed. All we will end up with is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we build more and more houses in my constituency, the prices will fall, and people will fill up the houses and then turn around and say, "Well, there we are; we needed the houses."

I am digressing slightly, but I am concerned about this document. The consultation period ends on 18 February. That is bad enough, but I defy most people to understand what it is going on about, the figures that are being bandied about, where they have come from, what this means, what period of time we are talking about, and what is the total number of houses we are talking about. It is incomprehensible. Asking people to respond in such a short time and asking them to understand this nonsense of a document is asking far too much. We are talking about a serious matter, which, given all the problems that go with building houses, could completely change not only my constituency, but the surrounding areas.

I would be grateful if the Minister could address the points that I have raised about the document and let me know whether there is anything that she can do, not to wreck the whole process—I accept that there has to be a process—but to ensure that it is carried out fairly, professionally and competently, because at the moment that is not being done.

5.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on securing the debate. I know that he feels strongly about the issue and that he has asked a series of written questions about it to which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has responded.

I want to set out where we are in the process in relation to Gloucestershire and the current debate on developing a new regional spatial strategy. The Government are committed to creating sustainable communities, to delivering the homes that communities need and to ensuring that we have a planning system
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that will put in place the long-term strategies for delivering the homes and jobs in a sustainable way. As part of that we must ensure that communities are fully involved in developing those strategies.

The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which came into effect last September, implemented a series of important reforms to the planning system. A key feature of the new system is the development of regional spatial strategies. Their aim is to ensure much greater co-ordination of all the work that is essential to deliver homes, jobs, infrastructure, services and facilities. Regional spatial strategies will need to be developed by the regional planning bodies. The reason for doing that is to recognise that many planning issues, including housing markets, go beyond local administrative boundaries. They therefore need to be considered at the regional level and at a more strategic level.

Regional planning bodies are required by the new planning Act to have at least 60 per cent. of their membership from local authorities with planning expertise. At least 30 per cent. of their membership comes from community interests, such as business, voluntary and environmental groups, to ensure that a wide range of views are brought to the planning process. Ultimately, the Secretary of State must also approve the regional spatial strategy, so that there is further democratic accountability at national level.

Regional spatial strategies are not aimed to be one-size-fits-all documents. They need to address particular issues that will come up in their own regions. They also need to seek advice and consider sub-regional issues, which might be more localised than the regional level, and discuss them with county and unitary authorities, which have strategic planning expertise. They also need to work in partnership with planning authorities and others to carry out joint studies, monitoring and other work that is essential to their work.

That is the way that work has progressed on the regional strategy for the south-west. Well before the new Act was in place, the South West regional assembly took the initiative in developing partnership arrangements with the local county councils and the unitary authorities. Joint studies have been agreed for eight sub-regions, based largely on the region's largest urban areas, including Cheltenham and Gloucester. They have been under way for some months and are expected to report in March. Their purpose is to feed into the more detailed consideration that needs to take place later on and into the development of the regional spatial strategies.

The partnerships have been asked to undertake technical work, not to set out proposals for housing or any other type of development. They have been asked to consider a series of alternative future scenarios and take into account issues around demographics, housing and economic studies, green belt and environmental designations, transport and a range of other considerations.

To ensure consistency and comparability between the eight studies in different parts of the south-west, all the partnerships were asked to consider the possible implications of three hypothetical levels of growth: a continuation of existing levels as set out in the current regional planning guidance for the south-west; an
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increase of 25 per cent. in those levels; and an increase of 50 per cent. in those levels. It is important to stress that those are not development proposals, but different hypothetical scenarios to complete the studies and test the work that was being done. Importantly, the partnerships were also asked to consult local people and stakeholders on that work.

Mr. Robertson : I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the issues very clearly. I accept what she says, but does she not agree that the document is very complex and that it will not be easy for anybody—even people involved in the process—to understand it fully and comment on it, especially given the very short time scale?

Yvette Cooper : I want to come on to the document to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It is entitled "Shaping the Future of Cheltenham and Gloucester to 2026", and is published by a steering group for the Cheltenham and Gloucester sub-region. That group is led by Gloucestershire county council and includes all that county's district councils, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the community and voluntary services, the Gloucestershire strategic partnership and Gloucester First, which represents businesses. The group is independently chaired. The document contains technical work as well. The consultation paper sets out the steering group's thoughts on what might be the spatial implications of different levels of growth, and asks for people's views.

Mr. Dhanda : I hear what the Minister says. She makes excellent points, particularly about the fact that housing proposals are not made in this strategy. However, at a meeting last week, one of the developers highlighted something to me which implied that a specific scheme called Hunts Grove—of which the Minister will not be aware—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), is in that strategy as a given.

Bearing it in mind that there is controversy in Gloucester and Gloucestershire on whether that scheme should be included—not least because there is a competing scheme that would give money towards a £7 million bypass through my constituency—will the Minister urge people to take a closer look and ensure that there are not givens such as that scheme? Among others, the Government office for the south-west is itself in dispute about whether the schemes should be part of the strategy.

Yvette Cooper : Obviously, as my hon. Friend points out, I do not know the case that he mentions, nor its status in the current planning system.

I reiterate that the document sets out the preliminary work required to develop a regional spatial strategy. This is not a regional spatial strategy, nor is it a local development framework. It is not a planning document, but part of the process through which the local area is going to establish the regional spatial strategy. There is an opportunity for consultation on this document right now, and there will be further opportunities for consultation when specific proposals are put forward at a later stage. It is important to reiterate that.
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As I have said, the consultation document makes clear the purpose for which it has been prepared and the fact that it does not set out housing proposals by the South West regional assembly. It is right that the community is asked for its views on these important issues at an early stage so that those views can be taken into account as the regional spatial strategy develops. That is what is happening in Gloucestershire and elsewhere in the south-west, with joint study area partnerships for Swindon, the west of England, Taunton and south-east Dorset. They, too, have already issued consultation reports. I understand that other partnerships will also be consulting shortly.

It is consistent with the reform of the planning system that the public are given the earliest possible opportunity to consider issues that can be complex and contentious, and, indeed, matters for strong local disagreement. There will of course be full consultation on the draft regional spatial strategy itself. That is where any firm proposals for housing growth will be made, and that will be the opportunity for full public discussion and consideration. The regional spatial strategy will be submitted to the Secretary of State in December, after full consultation. There will also, however, be a subsequent examination in public by an independent panel during 2006.

There are a series of opportunities for hon. Members' constituents to engage with the process. I recognise that these are issues which constituents want to debate in full. It is important to have as many opportunities as possible at every stage in the process, and not simply at its very end, when definitive proposals have been put forward.

Mr. Robertson : I accept that there are different stages to the process, but I would suggest it is off to a bad start in this particular case. The Minister says there will be further consultation in 2006. Without wishing to be pedantic, I have to say that that really proves the point I was trying to make about the document. It says "if necessary" there will be further consultation, which seems slightly different from what the Minister is saying. So will there be more consultation, or not? Is it intended that there will be, rather than that it will occur "if necessary"?

Yvette Cooper : Let me clarify that point, although I am obviously unsure of the exact wording on the page that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. A draft regional spatial strategy will be drawn up. There will be full consultation on that draft. It will then be submitted to the Secretary of State in December, and there will also be a subsequent examination in public by an independent panel during 2006.

I think we need to recognise the context here. We need to have wide public debate about the future of communities and the need to ensure that the planning system delivers the homes and jobs required. In the south-west, including the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the availability of enough affordable housing is a major problem. The current average house price in Gloucestershire is £191,000—higher than the average for the south-west as a whole. Between 2001 and 2026 the number of households in Gloucestershire is expected to increase by 22 per cent. We cannot ignore or wish away those figures. If we want to ensure that existing and new households in Gloucestershire, and
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elsewhere, have the opportunity to live in an affordable home, we must ensure that these issues are debated within the planning system, and that the planning system can deliver homes for the whole community, in the right places and at the right time.

The Government are committed to creating sustainable communities and to ensuring that community members have a full opportunity to debate these issues through the development of the regional spatial strategies. That involves a series of different
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consultations and discussions, in order to ensure that everybody has the full opportunity to debate the future of our towns and cities before final decisions are made. That is happening in Gloucestershire and elsewhere in the region. We need to see that good work continue, and we look forward to seeing it brought together into a regional spatial strategy to help us to deliver the homes, the jobs and the services that our communities need.

Question put and agreed to.

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