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Development (Basingstoke)

3.56 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I initiated this debate because the problems associated with development are an important issue facing my constituency today, and it truly resonates with many other communities throughout the south of England. It was also an important issue during the general election campaign. There was overwhelming concern that house building plans are not necessarily achieving the Government's objective of providing affordable housing and that the scale of their development plans and what they are imposing on Basingstoke, as well as throughout Hampshire and the south-east, are leaving local services struggling to cope with the extra demand. That concern has also been somewhat heightened by a recent South East England regional assembly consultation on further increasing the Government's house building targets in the south of England.

Basingstoke is a great place, and I can understand why more people want to live in my constituency. Location is everything, and Basingstoke is in the right place, being near the capital and the European markets. It is one of the bigger employment centres in the south of England, and it retains an attractiveness as a place to live and a place in which to work and set up a business. Growth has been a good thing for our communities, but at a pace that is sustainable and set by local people with the best interests of Basingstoke at heart. There is a fine line beyond which overdevelopment becomes a burden to communities if investment in local services is not forthcoming. So, we have a responsibility to ensure that services receive the investment they need to cope with that change.

Deep concern has been expressed that, in the past few years, the switch from local control of development to centrally determined house building targets might be forcing the pace of house building in the south-east beyond what is sustainable within our community. We are starting to see worrying signs of overdevelopment, and the funding of services is simply not keeping pace with that change. I initiated the debate today to highlight that and to call on the Government to change their approach. I also want to reassure my constituents that the Government will listen on how they want their community to develop.

As the Minister will be aware, house building targets are set by central Government. Basingstoke is building 800 houses a year. That number is significantly higher than that determined by my local authority as being required to meet the needs of local families and to ensure the future prosperity of our important business base. More than 6,000 houses are being built throughout Hampshire, which makes my area one of the highest developed in the country.

The impact of overdevelopment manifests itself in many different ways, and there is an ever-present threat to the local environment, be it farmland or countryside. At the moment, there is a particular concern about rural communities to the south of the M3, which are remaining in what has been designated the western corridor by the south-east regional authority. The Minister will be aware that that is a high-density development zone. We will continue to protest about
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that and challenge it, but I want to focus today's debate on the Government's targets for house building and their effects on local services.

The Minister will be aware of the Roger Tym report, which identified a deficit in infrastructure investment of £8 billion across the south-east of England. Hampshire county council has examined it and has inferred that there is an infrastructure deficit in our county of £1 billion. That means there is a shortfall of £1 billion in spending on the roads we use and on the public transport, schools and water supplies that we need.

For my constituents, that means we have overcrowded trains and a lack of money to support other forms of public transport. That leads to ever-increasing congestion on our roads. I was recently told that we will have the honour of being the first county in the country to have two cars per household. I imagine that the accompanying congestion will have to be considered.

Separately from that, the health care system in north   Hampshire—indeed throughout Hampshire—is approaching a perilous state. This year, there is a £40    million shortfall in health care funding in Hampshire, which means a £10 million shortfall for my primary care trust. The Minister will be only too well aware that north Hampshire receives only 80 per cent. of the national average of health care funding. What does that mean for my constituents? It simply means that, although we are still building 800 houses a year, we have no money to build any new doctors' surgeries. There is no money now, nor will there be in the foreseeable future. That is causing deep concern among GPs and their patients.

We are fortunate in Hampshire because we have what I believe the Government term an excellent authority. I find Hampshire county council excellent as well. We are perhaps experiencing a shortfall in funding for some services, but Hampshire has been considering ways to help us out. From its own resources, it has found some £15 million to invest in a new secondary school in Basingstoke to replace the John Hunt of Everest school. We very much welcome that, because we need to ensure that our schools are being built where the new development is. I thank Hampshire county council for the support it is giving Basingstoke in that.

All too often, however, we find that promised improvements in services are not forthcoming. I will outline two brief examples, the first of which is Chineham station. Chineham is a prosperous area and a strong community in my constituency. Part of the development there was to include a station to serve not just the large and vibrant residential community, but two significant business parks—Chineham and Hampshire International. Some years on from that initial promise, we are still waiting for the station to be built.

The other example is a new development in Sherfield park involving some 800 new houses. Quite rightly, my predecessor, Mr. Andrew Hunter, insisted that within that new development a new primary school should be located. Indeed, the developers set aside land for that use. Unfortunately, I have heard in recent months that that land has been released and will not be used for a new primary school now or in the future, because it will
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be built on for residential purposes. That is deeply disappointing, because it could have provided an opportunity to improve the infrastructure of the area.

All too often there is a lag between building houses and building the necessary services. For example, in a ward in my constituency, one resident in four is aged under 16. It was rightly agreed that money should be set aside to build youth facilities, but several years after the residential development, those youth facilities have not been built.

Most worryingly, the Government's objective of affordable housing is not coming to fruition. There has been investment in Basingstoke to provide more access to affordable housing and shared ownership, but house prices have continued to rise and homelessness continues to be a key issue. The objective is not being met as the Government anticipated when their house building targets were established.

I hear local businesses express concern about the loss of business land to residential use. Business is an important part of the Basingstoke community, and a number of service sector businesses are concerned that if we continue to lose land from business use to residential, that could tip the balance against the success of our local community.

Similarly, if the Government are setting targets and forcing the pace of development, they must ensure that there is investment in services for people who live in the area. It seems, however, that those targets may not be as sustainable as was originally thought because local services are being stretched to the limit. It is inconceivable that we should consider increasing that building rate if the situation persists. The Government rightly set a benchmark for communities to be sustainable, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on how Basingstoke fits into that model.

My constituents have voiced their concern to me and to the South East England regional assembly through its recent research study, which shows that the majority of Hampshire residents have called for a reduction in house building. That is surprising. Why have they done that? Perhaps because they are not seeing the necessary progress in affordable housing or are experiencing local overstretch in GP services or congestion on the roads. They are not seeing the necessary investment and are questioning sustainability.

I believe—many people agree—that we need to do more to increase our investment in local people and the skills that they hold locally, rather than just import new people to meet the needs of local employers.

My county has more than £1 billion of deficits and is facing an infrastructure crisis in Basingstoke. The Government must address that issue directly. We know that SEERA is due to make new announcements on the next round of Government house building targets for the south-east, so perhaps this debate is timely. The Minister may find it useful.

In advance of discussing serious recommendations today, perhaps the Minister will put my constituents' minds at rest and give some guarantees about listening to the people of Hampshire and what they want for the future of their community. More than two thirds want a reduction in house building targets. People in Hampshire know what is best, and the Government should consider giving more responsibility back to local
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people. They should also consider reviewing the funding for affordable homes and do more to value the character of our towns in the way we do as residents.

The Government should give some guarantees today to fill the infrastructure gap that I identified and to ensure that future development is truly sustainable. I look forward to hearing the Minister's assurances on those issues.

4.10 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) on securing the debate on such an important issue for her and her constituents. I hope that I will be able to answer her questions. When I cannot do so satisfactorily and to her liking, I hope that I will at least be able to give her some arguments to justify the Government's policy.

It is right and proper to start with some broad-brush policy issues, because how we plan for development such as housing—the hon. Lady concentrated on housing and infrastructure—is fundamental. We thus recognised the need for a faster, fairer and more flexible planning system—in short, a better planning system that addresses many of the concerns and paradoxes that existed previously. That is what the new Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 seeks to achieve. We have constantly emphasised that planning needs to facilitate development, which, as she said, must be sustainable and inclusive.

We need also to tackle the economic, environmental and social needs of our communities, and I hope that we can agree on the policy objectives. The hon. Lady clearly does not agree with the practical implementation and I shall try to address that. The fundamental question is why development is needed in Basingstoke and in the south-east generally. We must address the need for housing. It is not the Government as such who are putting the south-east under development pressure. Our actions are reflecting that pressure, which exists for a number of reasons. The important question is how those pressures are best managed.

The hon. Lady's council, Basingstoke and Deane council, has an excellent attitude towards housing planning. It is proactive and encourages developers, and it wants affordable housing and growth. I welcome that approach. It is making progress on delivering housing in the district, and several meetings have taken place with the Government office for the south east, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and council officials about that.

However, there is no doubt that we have not been building enough homes generally. In the wider south-east, build rates have been significantly lower than those planned for, but need is increasing because the population is living longer and more people are living alone. The affordability of homes is also a serious problem. According to the latest available figures, there has been a 160 per cent. increase in house prices in the hon. Lady's constituency and there is pressure for housing for key workers. An important part of the infrastructure that she rightly identified involves providing homes for the people who work in the essential services.

The pressure for housing is not because of the population increase in the south-east, but because of how people choose to live their lives and the fact that
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they are living longer. Given the increase in average house prices, which are running ahead of estimates, it is obvious that those who suffer most are those on lower incomes, yet when in opposition many hon. Members campaign against proposed new homes in their constituencies. The hon. Lady mentioned public opinion, referring to the numbers opposed to new home building. I have no doubt that if such a question were asked, that answer would be given. However, public opinion would have a different slant if the question was, "Do you think that house prices are too high, and do you feel that your children will be able to stay in your area and buy a home there?"

Let us consider the results produced by asking the question, "Do you want continued or increased economic growth?" Public opinion surveys across the south-east of England show that 43 per cent. of the public want economic growth to continue at current levels for the next 20 years, that 26 per cent. want increased levels of growth, and that only 25 per cent. want there to be less economic growth.

I understand why the public in a particular locality might not wish there to be what is perceived as overdevelopment.

Mrs. Maria Miller : Let me clarify my point. I am not arguing about building houses. As the Minister pointed out, there has been great diligence in respect of building houses in my constituency. The point is that Basingstoke is not getting sufficient investment to ensure that the people who move into those houses, or the people who are already resident there, are able to continue to enjoy the quality of life that attracted them to the town in the first place. That is what I want to address, rather than the need, or lack of need, for houses to be built.

Mr. Woolas : I understand the hon. Lady's point, which I suppose she would sum up as, "Don't kill the goose that lays the golden egg." In other words, if development happens in the wrong way, the reasons that attract people to live in a place will be removed. I accept that, but I am trying to establish the fundamentals of why this is taking place. It is incumbent on any Government to address them. Fifty years ago almost to the month the Conservative Government of the time planned to build 125,000 houses across the south-east of England under town and country planning legislation. That was opposed vigorously by Labour Members and the arguments employed were exactly the same then as they are now.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): The Minister raises an interesting point. It is incumbent on all Governments, regardless of their political hue, to examine policies, such as that of Wandsworth borough council, which is called "Hidden Homes". It focuses on existing council housing stock, and addresses whether there is space within it to create fresh housing stock that is more cost-effective to build because there is no need to erect an entire building from scratch. Doing that often tackles antisocial behaviour problems—old garages might be converted into new flats, for example. It is incumbent on all Governments, and especially on the
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current Administration, to look at ways of using existing housing more effectively to prevent building on green belt land when that is not necessary.

Mr. Woolas : I understand what the hon. Lady says. If I can finish laying out the policy framework first, I will then address her particular point.

The housing market in the south-east is tighter than it has ever been. The region's vacancy rate of 2.3 per cent. is the lowest in the country; the national average is 3.4 per cent. The south-east is also below the Government's empty homes target and the level that is necessary to allow flexibility in the housing market.

What about future housing numbers? Let me establish the background before coming on to the main point. The regional spatial strategy has the purpose of addressing long-term housing needs in a sustainable way. The South East England regional assembly comprises representatives from local authorities, social, economic and environment partners. It is currently preparing the south-east plan to cover the next 20 years—to take us from 2006 to 2026. Local authorities from across the south-east, including the county councils, are engaged in the process. I mention the county councils because there has been controversy about their role. The preparation of the south-east plan involves a statutory process that is clearly set out in legislation, regulations and national guidance. That framework includes extensive consultation, which is built into the process, including an examination in public held by an independent panel. In finalising the plan, the Government will need to take into account all views expressed during that process and the recommendations made by the independent panel. I hope that that goes some way towards assuring the hon. Member for Basingstoke that her views and those of her constituents and other stakeholders—I think that that is what we call them nowadays—will be listened to during the process of the plan.

Clearly, communities are, as the hon. Lady said, about much more than just housing. We will need to work together across the public, private and voluntary sectors to ensure that the new housing development that she talked about is supported by the right infrastructure, facilities and services. The Government have made significant investment in infrastructure in the south-east overall. However, I am aware that the South East England regional assembly and others are concerned about the future provision of infrastructure, and the hon. Lady reflected those views today. Infrastructure is an important element of the south-east plan, and we are in constant dialogue with the assembly about that key point. We clearly want to make the best use of existing mechanisms and to improve on them where necessary. We also want to make the processes for identifying infrastructure potential and requirements and for investment decision making more open and transparent.

I know that in Basingstoke there have been particular concerns, and the hon. Lady mentioned many of them. They include waste water, and she mentioned transport infrastructure in particular. Thames Water is working with the Environment Agency and the regional assembly to model and examine the impact of house building on water quality and supply, which is obviously an important part of the infrastructure. Again, that will feed into the south-east plan. In relation to transport,
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I understand that the Highways Agency objected to developments set out in the Basingstoke local plan. That was examined at the local plan inquiry, and I gather that the inspector who held that inquiry is due to report in autumn 2005.

Some of the points that the hon. Lady raised about infrastructure are recognised. Although there has been investment, there are gaps to fill to ensure that the housing development taking place has the services to back it up. Her point is recognised in Government planning policy guidelines. That has been one of the big changes over the past few years. She mentioned affordable housing in particular.

Mrs. Maria Miller : The Minister says that there are "gaps to fill" in investment in infrastructure. Perhaps he could clarify whether the Government intend to fill those gaps and fund that?

Mr. Woolas : I commend the hon. Lady for asking the obvious question. However, the Government cannot fill all the gaps. The way in which—[Interruption.] To be fair, the Government have, as I outlined, put significant investment into infrastructure in the south-east, although I am not surprised that she asks for more. I commend her for doing so because her job is to represent her constituents.

During the process of the 20-year plan and the process of the local plans that have been brought forward already, her main concern about whether such points are being listened to has been taken on board. However, all councils across the country, in growth areas and non-growth areas, argue that they need more money for infrastructure development. I have never yet met a councillor or a Member of Parliament who said that they had more than sufficient money for infrastructure investment.

To get the full picture, we have to take into account the investment that has been made in health, education and other public services. Although the hon. Lady says that new schools and health centres are required but not available, the main drive on infrastructure predominantly comes not from increases in population, but from housing development to reflect changing lifestyles. However, that is not to say that there is not some pressure on population, as she outlined.

On affordable housing in Basingstoke, failure to deal with the availability and affordability of housing will have serious knock-on effects for the more vulnerable
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residents. Nearly 100,000 resident households are housed in temporary and/or overcrowded conditions. In the borough of Basingstoke and Deane, there is a need under the assessment for 534 affordable housing units per year alone for those unable to afford or rent their own home. The issue is important. House prices are rising significantly. The gross lower quartile annual pay in Basingstoke is £14,082 compared with an average Basingstoke terraced house price of £218,000 in the first quarter of this year. Even a 50 per cent. share in a house in Basingstoke is not affordable for most people. We must deal with that huge problem.

The problem is similar for key worker housing. A £725 million key worker living programme will be targeted to help more than 16,000 key workers in London and the wider south-east by March 2007. The aims of the programme are obvious, and 50 per cent. of the key worker living programme is providing new-build options through both shared ownership and intermediate renting. The hon. Lady is saying that she wants those affordable homes and key worker homes and that she does not object fundamentally to the development. Her concern relates to her perception of overdevelopment and the infrastructure gap.

The hon. Lady asked for guarantees that the Government will listen to the points that she and her constituents make. I think that I can give her guarantees, but not in respect of all the answers that she requires. I believe strongly that the centrality of our 20-year plan and the consultation programme on the need to carry stakeholders forward together is being dealt with. While accepting that she does not want Basingstoke to lose its attractiveness because of such developments—I confirm that it is a very attractive place in which to live—and despite the problems that she has outlined, the alternative of allowing either a laissez-faire attitude towards development or restricting housing and infrastructure development would make those problems even worse. There is an element of trying to move forward together with her local council, the county council and the South East England regional assembly to ensure that we square the circle.

I have tried to address all the points. I am conscious that I have not been able to give specific answers about infrastructure investment. That was not because I wanted to avoid such important questions, but because I believe that the process that is in place for the development and consultation will solicit the answers. I hope and expect that, at the end of the period of consultation, she will have achieved satisfactory answers to her questions.
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