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Planning Policy

2.30 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): In my view, the wealth of our nation is not measured by the gold stored in the vaults of the Bank of England, but by the nature of the society in which we live and the quality of our environment. Our national heritage includes not only our great public buildings, including ancient cathedrals like the one in Lichfield, but the geography of our market and historic towns and cathedral cities. However, that environment is under threat as a direct consequence of the Government's planning policies.

Although we all appreciate the need for affordable housing and good quality start-up homes, the ever-increasing densities of new residential development are beginning to destroy the very nature of our heritage.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): On that point, the village of Cranfield in my constituency has two proposed new developments when the infrastructure in that village is already creaking, the schools are full and the village hall is not fit for purpose. Massive development is coming into my area, but developers are beginning to back off because of the lack of infrastructure for those developments.

Michael Fabricant : My hon. Friend is relatively lucky because I know of developments that have gone ahead and many residents have moved in, but there is no infrastructure. At least in the instance she raises, the developers decided not to go ahead because the infrastructure is not ready.

To continue my argument, it is interesting to note that although Tesco started with a "stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap" policy, it is now departing from that, whereas the Government have adopted a "cram 'em in, and pile 'em high" philosophy for housing. That began a few years back with planning policy guidance note 3, and they now propose even greater densities with their new planning policy statement on housing known as planning policy statement 3. Often, new housing developments arise when no additional infrastructure—schools, for example—is available and ready for the new residents when they move in.

The current policy set by PPG3 dictates high-density residential development of 30 to 50 dwellings per hectare, with new development to be located mainly within existing settlements, making greater use of previously developed brownfield land. The aim is to make more sustainable use of land, and I do not dispute that it has helped to regenerate many run-down inner-city areas, where there are often large wastelands of derelict former industrial land. Such sites are quite clearly brownfield land and new residential development can do much to revitalise and uplift the area. Moreover, in major urban centres, densities of 30 to 50 homes per hectare are fairly typical, and produce increased land values that help to offset the higher costs of redeveloping run-down and sometimes contaminated sites.

However, what may be appropriate in large urban centres such as Birmingham or Manchester is not appropriate in our market towns and historic cathedral cities. The Government seem to have a "one size fits all" mentality in planning policy, which fails to take into
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account the great diversity of architectural styles and building densities of English towns and settlements. Over the centuries, our smaller market towns have developed their own unique characters, which are very different from the major urban centres.

Although PPS3 is an improvement on PPG3 in that it at least proposes a range of densities which vary by location, it does so only by substantially increasing the range of densities overall. Only in rural areas, where the density is set at 30 to 40 dwellings per hectare, is the proposed density range lower than PPG3 levels. For so-called suburban areas it proposes 35 to 55 dwellings, for urban areas 40 to 75 dwellings, and for city centres it proposes a staggering density of over 70 dwellings per hectare. The definition of what constitutes a "city centre" is far from clear, but I hope that it refers to large urban areas and not small cities such as Lichfield.

PPG3 density policies are already having disastrous effects on historic towns, and that will only worsen if the greater densities proposed in PPS3 come into effect. I shall illustrate that by focusing on four particular issues: the poor standard of living environment that is created in high-density developments; the loss of well-established residential gardens to new housing development; the loss of existing employment land to residential development; and the threat to section 106 money, which is often used to improve the local environment. The examples I will give are for the city of Lichfield, at the heart of my constituency, but they are reflected throughout the smaller historic towns of our nation.

I should begin by pointing out that the city of Lichfield is in fact a planned "new town". Bishop Roger de Clinton saw to that early in the 12th century when he laid out a ladder-shaped pattern of wide streets to form a compact town centre around a bustling market square, from which Lichfield still benefits today. Like most developers, however, he also had a financial interest: the income from the rents was payable to the bishop. Lichfield prospered and grew steadily, so that by the 17th century it had 3,000 inhabitants. It took the next 300 years for the city to reach a population of 10,000, but then only 50 years for it to treble in size again to its current population of 28,000. That was brought about, first, through local authority development to take Birmingham overspill in the 1950s and 1960s, and then through a large estate of mainly privately owned housing in the 1980s. That expansion has been very rapid, but for the most part the new houses—both public and private—have been of a reasonable size, have their own gardens, are built on tree-lined streets and have recreation areas nearby. In short, they are the sort of houses in which people like to live.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to someone who represents the New Forest—"new" in that it dates from the 11th century, post William the Conqueror's invasion, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware. Can he throw any light on why the Government appear to want to house extra people in the south-east or other parts of the country by cramming people into existing towns or cities, instead of building new towns or cities? Is that sensible planning or does it relate to electoral manipulation?
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Michael Fabricant : My hon. Friend, as ever, raises a very interesting question. I shall take the fine example of our Prime Minister and say that this is probably not a question for me, but for the Minister for Housing and Planning. I hope that she will address that point when she responds.

I mentioned that the population of Lichfield had expanded to 28,000 and that we had a pleasant new development, which was mainly built in the 1980s. However, the further major growth spurt taking place now is of a wholly different style and character to those of the past. The largest single site is a greenfield site on the edge of the city, where in the late 1990s permission was originally granted for 650 dwellings. However, in 2004, on the back of PPG3 policies, revised planning permission was granted to increase that to 1,100 dwellings. For the mathematically minded, that is 70 per cent. more houses on exactly the same area. If the proposed PPS3 policies had been in place, the increase could well have been far greater.

Such high-density housing creates an inner-city style of development, totally out of keeping with the character of the rural fringe of an historic market town. The houses are predominantly three-storey units with relatively small rooms, handkerchief-sized gardens, or perhaps no gardens at all. I accept that some home owners enjoy that configuration, as it provides for easy maintenance, but the houses are packed so closely together and front so tightly on to the narrow estate roads that they are in almost permanent shade, even at the height of summer. There are some open landscaped areas, but almost nowhere that has suitable space for children to kick a football around. Slightly adapting Miranda's lines in "The Tempest" let me say, "O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! O brave new world. That has such houses in't."

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Hear, hear!

Michael Fabricant : I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his applause.

Both PPG3 and the new PPS3 make great play of securing high-quality design, but it simply cannot be achieved when the fundamental ingredient of living space is not permitted. People need space inside their homes, and most want gardens outside to separate their house from their neighbour's, to provide a place to relax and in which their children and grandchildren can play in safety. We even have the ludicrous situation of four-storey blocks of two and three-bedroom so-called family apartments that have no private garden space, and the land that the developer "saves" becomes a communal area that counts towards the public open space provision.

I shall move on from those new estates to consider the effects of planning policy on the more established areas of the city. Lichfield—I speak about Lichfield, but what I have to say applies throughout England and Wales—is fortunate to have many older properties built at a time when land was not so much at a premium. Those properties have gardens—sometimes large gardens—with trees and shrubs providing green havens for wildlife. Few people would equate those gardens with the derelict and abandoned industrial sites of inner
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cities, but in terms of Government targets for development on "previously developed" land, as they put it, those sites are one and the same thing, and they are all classed as brownfield sites.

In the past, the problem did not really exist, because the cost of developing such relatively small garden plots meant that they were not usually viable. However, with ever-increasing residential land values derived from the ever-increasing densities that are permissible, developers are seizing those opportunities—who can blame them?—and more and more residential gardens are becoming high-density housing developments.

In the past few years, we have seen several cases in which a perfectly good house on a large plot has been bought and then demolished to make way for several closely packed houses, or new homes have been built in the back gardens of existing houses. There have been strong protests from local residents with justifiable concerns about the loss of green space and the inappropriate style of development, but the development meets PPG3 criteria—it scores its brownfield points from the Government office—and the local planning authorities see little alternative but to grant approval. They are in an impossible situation.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that, as I mentioned to the Minister during the passage of recent planning legislation, one problem is that the PPGs and, for that matter, the PPSs have been published and imposed subsequent to the adoption of local plans by local authorities? Where it is possible for a local plan to be based on the PPG and to take into account the latest manifestation of the Deputy Prime Minister's thought processes, it is possible to alleviate the problem, but it is not possible to do so retrospectively.

Michael Fabricant : My hon. Friend makes an important point. That situation reflects a lack of co-ordination between national and local government, which is extraordinary given that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for that sort of planning matter.

Returning to gardens, residential gardens provide far greater biodiversity than most agricultural land, so they have greater environmental value, particularly because they provide wildlife habitats in the heart of built-up areas where such habitats would otherwise be absent. Ironically, the loss of garden land usually has a far greater impact on the character of the surrounding area than the loss of an equivalent sized plot of greenfield land. Development of residential gardens should be strongly resisted, but planning guidance positively encourages it.

At least the new PPS3 acknowledges that problem when it says that, although residential gardens are defined as brownfield land, that

It then negates that, however, by referring to the

by minimising the pressure on greenfield sites.
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On 2 February the ODPM—obviously feeling some pressure on this point—issued a brief statement that typically passed the buck to local councils, saying:

However, set against the clear encouragement in PPS3 about the "positive contribution" of such development, local planning authorities will be reluctant to risk the high costs of a planning appeal by refusing such applications. It costs the council tax payer money to lose such a fight.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I know that it is not the correct planning term, but when I was on a planning committee, there used to be something that we called "tandem development". There was an intention in the original planning development, which was met, but subsequently guidance comes in that is completely contrary to that. I accept the cost argument, but I wish that local authorities would be more robust in arguing the case. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Michael Fabricant : I do agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have raised that point with my own authority, but it told me that in one case to fight and lose an appeal cost the authority £250,000. At a time when local government is under financial pressure, those costs all have to be borne by the council tax payer. Perhaps we can understand the reluctance of councils to undertake such battles. I put it to him and, more importantly, to the Minister that by making her policy more clear, if only in her answers to me today and perhaps in the guidance that her Department issues, we could avoid such a problem arising. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

My third point is on the loss of existing employment sites. Lichfield—I keep mentioning Lichfield, but my point applies to other areas—is predominantly a residential city. Many people travel out of the city each day to work in Birmingham and the surrounding conurbation. Clearly, all the daily traffic that that generates is not good for the environment or sustainability. Lichfield needs a much better balance between housing and employment sites, so that its residents can find employment in the immediate locality, but employment sites stand little chance when competing with the far greater property values that can be obtained from a high-density residential development.

Instead of providing new employment sites, many of the employment sites in the city are being closed down and developed for housing. In most cases, it is not a result of business failure—they are going concerns—but the one-off bonanza of selling their land is apparently worth more than the long-term value of selling their product. A packaging factory now has 80 houses on it, and a concrete firm called Bison has permission for 175 houses. Even our greatly cherished old public houses such as the Carpenter's Arms and the Sozzled Sausage are being bought up and bulldozed to be replaced by yet more private housing.

As with the development of gardens, the conversion of employment sites to residential development also attracts brownfield points, because it re-uses previously developed land and so—supposedly—benefits sustainability. However, what really happens is that it
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worsens the imbalance between housing and employment in the city, because more and more people have to travel out of the city to work, often to the relocated sites on the outskirts, which are inaccessible by public transport. They will probably have to drive out of town anyway to fill up with petrol, because most filling stations in the city have also been closed and sold as housing land. Even where land is earmarked for employment development, it is often not developed, because the landowners hold back in the hope of eventually securing a far greater financial gain from a residential development on the land.

Finally, where planning policy currently provides a useful gain locally is through use of section 106 money, which is provided by developers. The money can be used by the democratically elected local planning authority to improve the local environment and provide necessary infrastructure. However now, the proposed introduction of a planning gain supplement—PGS—by the Treasury would require Lichfield district council and other councils to abandon their policies. That could hinder the ability to identify and respond through the planning process to the legitimate needs of wider social and community facilities than those available through PGS.

The Government claim that the PGS will be a tax on developers, but it will also have a major financial impact on charities, which will receive less for their land from developers if they sell it. It will have an even more serious impact on charities developing their own land to fulfil their charitable purposes because they will not have received any income in terms of a price paid for the land against which they can offset the PGS. Yet again, the Chancellor is failing to trust locally elected bodies. He is imposing his will from the centre and introducing a stealth tax that will damage some of our most respected and deserving charities.

I have four questions for the Minister. First, the Government make many fine statements about involving the local community in the planning process, so if a local community makes it clear it wants lower-density development—for example, houses with gardens—will the Government provide clear guidance that such local wishes can outweigh centralised density targets? If she did that, she would answer the very point raised by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew).

Secondly, will the hon. Lady accept that development on residential gardens is hardly ever justifiable and amend the guidance in PPS3 to give a fairer and clearer definition of brownfield land that specifically excludes residential gardens and positively discourages building on them? Thirdly, to maintain a sustainable balance between employment and housing, will the Minister introduce measures to restrict new housing being developed on sites that are currently in viable economic employment use? Finally, will the Minister and her Department make robust representations to the Treasury not to abandon the principles of local democracy and the application of section 106?

The environment of our historic towns is fragile, yet they are a reflection of our nation's heritage. The Government are the steward of our built heritage; they owe it to future generations to ensure that that environment is not lost for ever.
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2.53 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) has done the House a great service in giving us the opportunity this afternoon to discuss planning issues. I very much hope that his speech is widely reported in the newspapers on his patch—indeed, I hope that the headline will be "MP supports Sozzled Sausage", if nothing more.

Banbury is an historic town. Until the start of the 1900s it had no other existence than as a market town. It existed simply as a market town and people who lived a day's cart ride away would go to Banbury market to sell their produce and stock, see their lawyers, and buy their provisions and take them home. In the 1980s and 1990s, we saw development and construction on the edge of town with Sainsbury's, Tesco and Morrisons stores, all of which are excellent supermarkets, and more recently the Castle Keys development between Banbury town hall and the canal, with Marks and Spencer as an anchor site. Within a comparatively short time, there were three quite large supermarket developments on the edge of town and Marks and Spencer in the town. On the edge of town there was also increasing warehouse retail development, such as office supplies and carpet stores—hon. Members know the sort of thing I am talking about, which involves quite a large amount of footfall with considerable retail footage growth.

Although Banbury as a town has grown and prosperity has grown, the amount of retail space has grown faster than the population, with the result that the historic core—the old shopping area of Banbury—does not receive the same amount of footfall as it once did. The consequence is a number of empty shops. Those shop premises that are occupied are increasingly occupied by charity shops, but some premises are boarded up and covered with graffiti. It is on that aspect of the subject that I shall focus this afternoon—I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak in this debate.

Given the laws of supply and demand, there is no way that there will be infinite demand for retail space and we must accept that retail activity, like any other human activity, evolves and changes. Although some shops will remain within the historic core of the town—jewellers, wine merchants, specialist auction houses and so on—there will be many gaps. I have three suggestions for the Minister on what we can do with that space.

First, I hope that some of the property could return to housing. We have a great shortage of social housing in north Oxfordshire. Although it is an issue for another day, I am genuinely concerned that the two large-scale voluntary transfer housing associations—Banbury Homes and Charter Housing—have no ability with the Housing Corporation to build new social housing. I do not know how we can get new social housing in a constituency such as mine.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the massive sale of council houses might have created that problem?

Tony Baldry : No. The right-to-buy policy was an extremely good policy, which created much more viable and vibrant communities. The problem now is how to create new social housing.
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There is an opportunity in historic town centres, but there is a difficulty. Many of the empty shops belong to property companies and retail consortiums and appear on their balance sheets as an asset value. It is often easier for them to hold those properties as an asset value than to develop them. I hope that the Minister will consider my first suggestion, which is that if property companies that own empty retail space in historic town centres are prepared to sell it for social housing, they should have relief from capital gains tax. That would be a real incentive for them to vacate the sites and to make them available to social landlords for housing for young people and elderly people, who would find it useful to live in town centres.

Secondly, practically every top-floor flat over a shop in Banbury High street and Parson street is empty. Historically, when the shops were built the shopkeeper would live above the shop, but that does not happen now; the space is, at best, storage space, but more often it is empty. I know that at different times there have been attempts to encourage developers and social landlords to take on flats above shops, but that does not seem to have worked, so perhaps we could provide an incentive whereby if owners of shops were prepared to make the flats above them available, they could have some relief from corporation tax. There is a precedent for that: if any of us have lodgers in our house we can take rent of up to £3,000 tax-free. The same incentive would encourage businesses to make flats above shops available, particularly to young people. These days, young people can usually only get into housing through the private rented sector with the benefit of housing benefit. Making sites in town centres available would be good news.

Towns like Banbury have a number of historic buildings, but there is no protection for those historic buildings in the planning system. The listed building system protects buildings of architectural interest, but it does not protect buildings of historic interest such as the Banbury cake house, the shop that sold Banbury cakes. The old Banbury police station, which was demolished recently, was not of great architectural interest, but was of great historic interest in the market town. The Spencer corset factory was a wonderful 1920s art deco building that could easily have been converted into flats, but it was a lot cheaper for the developers to knock it down and start again. The same was true of the gardener's house of the People's park. I pay tribute to Banbury Civic Society, which tried hard to persuade the district council not to grant planning permission to demolish those properties, but the council clearly feels, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield said, that planning law and guidance ties its hands. I suggest to the Minister that we and, perhaps, civic societies throughout the country need to give thought to whether we need a designation—even if it were rarely used—of buildings of historic interest. Perhaps there could be a limit on the number of buildings that a local authority could declare to be of historic interest, but any historic market town will have several icon buildings of historic importance to the community, which, if they were to go, would leave a kind of ersatz streetscape. One town would look exactly like another, which would be a source of considerable sadness.
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I do not have a solution to the last issue that I want to raise with the Minister. Often, district councils make intelligent proposals on developing and improving a town centre. For example, in 1995, Cherwell district council commissioned an urban design study by Roger Evans Associates on how the hole that had developed in the historic core of Banbury could be replaced and repaired by rebuilding the historic street frontage. It considered a mixed-use allocation, and the district council went through all the necessary planning steps, including a detailed policy in the non-statutory Cherwell local plan and so on. The difficulty is that some landowners who own bits of derelict land—perhaps part of a car park, whatever—in various parts of the historic town have no incentive to develop them. They can sit on their land indefinitely, in the hope that some day a better planning opportunity may arise. Clearly, one cannot compulsorily purchase all the land, so there must be a carrot to encourage landowners who are sitting on key sites in historic town centres to develop those sites. I acknowledge that the mechanism may be difficult, but there must be some way to do that. Otherwise, the most tardy, unimaginative landowner can hold back imaginative town centre historic redevelopment, which would restore the townscape.

My message to the Minister is that we cannot hold back new retail development. Sainsbury's, Tesco and Morrisons are popular because people want to shop there.

Mr. Beith : The hon. Gentleman makes several interesting practical suggestions, but is he prepared to write off the historic town centre as a place of retail activity? That would be a bitter blow to many historic towns, and it is something that has been made much worse by the proliferation of supermarkets around the edge of towns and all the public transport and other problems that they generate.

Tony Baldry : I believe that my constituents genuinely feel that Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Tesco and Marks and Spencer have been of real benefit. Retail prices have come down overall, and the range of food and goods in the shops has increased as a consequence of their presence. I shall not take up the time of the House, but there was an article in The Economist only last week that demonstrated that to be the case. The number of people using supermarkets each Saturday and Sunday is a testament to their popularity, and I do not think that we should blame them for the ills of town centres.

Shops will continue to prosper in historic town centres, but the amount of retail activity over the past 20 years has not expanded at the rate of expansion in the size and scale of supermarkets. Therefore, with the best will in the world, some shops in historic town centres will no longer be viable. One can see the result of market forces in the voids on Banbury High street and Parsons street, and in the number of shops for which the only use is as charity shops. Charity shops perform a useful function in recycling goods and raising money for charities, but that is not a long-term future. We must work out how to make such areas viable again, and turning some of the buildings back into residential accommodation for the frail, the elderly, young people and people who find it useful and beneficial to live in a town centre would be a good way to do that. One sees
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that in towns and cities in France and elsewhere in Europe, and I see no reason why it could not be done in the UK.

We must work out how the planning system can help to reinvigorate town centres, and blaming the supermarkets will not help us do that. We must acknowledge that we need to go with the grain of market forces in reinvigorating and reviving historic centres of market towns, to meet society's needs, in particular needs for housing and other activities. We must also take measures to protect historic buildings and working organisations such as civic societies.

3.5 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing this debate. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, particularly about the floors above shops in our town centres, which ought to be put to better use.

I have a question for the Minister: will she confirm that section 106 agreements are not site-specific and that it is the local authority, not the developer, that determines what should be provided under section 106? I know that that is the case, but there is at least one local authority that thinks that it is the developer who decides what should be provided.

I was interested to hear that Lichfield was a new town in the 12th century. I have news: Britain's oldest recorded town was, in fact, its first new town. Colchester was set out by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago, and the street grid pattern from that time still exists. That is both good news and bad news—good news, obviously, from a tourist's perspective, but not quite so good for traffic movement, particularly in the greater core of the town centre.

Colchester should be a city. It was a city when it was the first capital of Roman Britain, but, alas, it dropped out in the mists of time. It should have been reinstated for the millennium, but I was advised in a response to a parliamentary question that only the Head of State can withdraw the title of city once it has been granted. I have been able to establish that no Head of State in the subsequent 2,000 years removed the title of city from Colchester, so Colchester is still a city. Alas and alack, the Home Office, which was then dealing with millennium city applications, refused to accept my watertight legal argument.

I wish to speak in this debate because, like the hon. Member for Lichfield, I represent an historic town. There are many attractions in such towns, but there is also a downside in that other towns can do many things that we, quite rightly, cannot. That means that we need a bit of assistance from the county council or central Government. They should acknowledge that we are custodians of our historic past and that that comes at a price. It ought to be considered when it comes to transport grants, park-and-ride schemes and so on.

I should point out that I am the secretary of the all-party group on small shops, which only a couple of weeks ago produced a report on the threat to small shops. It includes many recommendations, which I trust will be taken on board by various Departments. The report is timely, as Tesco is about to come back into Colchester town centre. Having gone out of town and
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done its bit, it is now coming back into town to do its bit again. In Colchester, it proposes to go into Crouch street. That attractive street, with its parade of local shops, is straight out of Walmington-on-Sea, "Dad's Army" and the 1940s.

We may talk about a listed building here or a listed building there, but that is only part of it. It is the whole character, the whole street scene, that is important. A building might not be worthy of retention on its own, but if we take it out of the street scene, that scene is like a beautiful lady's smile with one tooth gone. What was attractive now has a gap. We should not talk about an individual building being listed; it is the street scene, the group setting, that is important.

I am sure that the Minister was already aware—if not, her officials will have briefed her—of contributions that I have made in the past two years' Christmas recess debates and on my ten-minute Bill, which I introduced only last month. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) for drawing so much attention to my Local Government Referendums Bill. By his opposition he eloquently demonstrated why local democracy needs referendums when the local authority is out of step with what the community wants to happen.

What can be done to help small shops and small businesses? Central Government need to realign the setting of business rates. At the moment, the small corner shop pays more per square foot in business rates than the out-of-town supermarket. That cannot be right, because the existing unlevel playing field becomes even more unlevel. In fact, it is not unlevel; there is now a slope and the only question is how steep the slope is. Perhaps central Government could consider that. I also urge them to consider English Heritage's thoughts on value added tax for new build as opposed to conversions, restorations and so on. That would be a positive step towards addressing the concerns of the hon. Member for Lichfield about brownfield development. We should be encouraging the retention of what is best, though conversions and so on, rather than almost encouraging developers on to greenfield sites.

We are left with the interesting question of what is a greenfield site and what is a brownfield site. Let us imagine that a large mental institution occupies 50 acres of landscaped grounds. I think that I am right in saying that, under the Government's definition, those 50 acres of landscaped grounds, sports fields and so on would be classed as a brownfield site. The institution ought to be classed as a brownfield site, but I question whether classing the landscaped grounds as such makes sense and whether someone in the local infant school would recognise a sports field and a landscaped park as a brownfield site. I think that everyone would recognise that as a greenfield site.

I referred to my membership of the all-party small shops group. I urge the Minister and her Government colleagues to see what else can be done to try to resist the growing clone-town image. There are many towns where, if someone was blindfolded on the way in, they would not know what part of the country they were in, let alone which town. That phenomenon is very worrying, because local identity is important. I hope that we can consider that.
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I shall conclude with the Romans. The setting of Colchester's Roman wall is a major tourist attraction. Unfortunately, there is a grandiose plan for an art gallery with a public subsidy of £600,000 a year and the closure of the town's bus station, which the local community strongly opposes. In addition, with the Vineyard Gate St. Botolph's redevelopment, it is proposed to demolish some 40 buildings, ripping the guts out of part of the central area of Britain's oldest recorded town. That is being funded and encouraged by the East of England Development Agency, which was saying only two days ago in the Eastern Daily Press how proud it was of the amount of money that it was putting into Norwich to protect that city's heritage. By my reckoning, those are double standards. Obviously, the agency hoped that the MP for Colchester would not read what it was putting out in the Norwich paper, but I saw that. There is a need for joined-up government in the East of England Development Agency, let alone in the Government, because there are many buildings in the area that, although perhaps not worthy of listed building status, are important in the collective setting. Those buildings managed to survive two Luftwaffe raids on Colchester in the second world war, but it does not look as though they will survive Colchester council in the third millennium.

There are many buildings that the Victorian Society, English Heritage and the Colchester civic society—this echoes the comments about the importance of civic society—want to remain. Unfortunately, the power of the developers—whoever they may be and who are, I suggest, working covertly with the local authority—is carrying the day. Many of us are looking to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to stop the latest attack on the heart of the town where I have lived for most of my life and which I have the honour to represent.

3.16 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing the debate, but I shall start by saying how much I agree with a couple—not all—of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), first on what he describes as icon buildings, which I describe as landmark buildings and which my local planner tells me ought to be called locally listed buildings. Whatever they are, they are buildings that are of a special character in the town.

On the night before the general election, I saw a building that was about to be demolished in Shanklin and I was so horrified that I took time out from my canvassing to telephone the local conservation officer to ask her exactly when planning permission had been given in relation to the building. It is a former pub that was called "The Clarendon" because it was built of timbers that were rescued following the shipwreck of the Clarendon off St. Catherine's point in the 17th century, yet that building was being demolished to make way for some pretty ghastly flats. I am pleased to say that the decision was taken when Isle of Wight council was controlled by a different political party from the one that controls it now. I would very much like more action to be taken to secure individual landmark buildings and to secure the protection of the character of areas through the conservation area approach.
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I have another story for the Minister. A house on the front in Cowes called "Mornington" was listed with the agreement of English Heritage. It was then, while the   area was subject to consultation on the question whether it should have conservation area status, delisted without anyone in my constituency being notified. It was then demolished while the area was still under consideration. When I challenged the local authority on why it had not imposed the conservation area first and then consulted, instead of consulting first and then imposing the conservation area, it told me that it was regarded nationally as bad practice not to consult, presumably, a developer who would want to demolish a building before measures were put in place that would prevent him from demolishing it. I do not think that what I have suggested is bad practice. The Minister looks puzzled. I hope that she will look into how more sensible guidance can be given. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield in that regard.

I also echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Colchester on clone-town Britain. We are certainly seeing the development that he described in too many of our town and city centres. I note what he says about VAT, although I would rather see VAT imposed on new building than taken off repairs to old buildings. It is always easier to argue for improvements to old buildings.

On section 106 agreements, which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned, I am concerned to hear that it is now possible for a developer, having secured a development with a section 106 agreement and signed up to it, to challenge after five years have passed the agreement that he freely entered into. That seems to be a case of developers having their cake and eating it, but of course it is not uncommon for developers to try to do that.

Finally, I should like to reinforce the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield about the unitary development plan falling out of date. My local plan was only approved in 1997, yet it is already significantly out of date and has been made more so by changes in Government guidance. I am pleased to say that my local authority is proceeding rapidly with the creation of its local development framework, but however rapidly it proceeds, there is a gap through which the developers can sneak and develop in ways that my councillors and I do not like.

Bob Russell : I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider another scenario, where the local authority, having signed its adopted local plan, proposes in its own application to go against what it had agreed and adopted only a year before.

Mr. Turner : My position on that is clear. Local authorities should not be judge and jury in their own application, because that is contrary to the rules of natural justice.

Town centre regeneration is the most important issue that we have touched on this afternoon. We can do a number of things to improve the quality of life in town centres and prevent them from being damaged. First, they should have conservation area status, which would protect the teeth in the face of the beautiful woman, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. Secondly, we have
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to consider street design and look at the relationship between planning, conservation and highways. In many cases, highway engineers do not bulldoze—although they do that all too frequently—but drive a metaphorical coach and horses through a conservation area by installing appalling street furniture. At the foot of Quay street in my constituency, in the middle of a conservation area and less than five minutes from where I live, there is a forest of horrid street signs.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that in considering street design, there should be a concept of density appropriate to the area? The new PPS3 is increasing density rates dramatically from up to 24 dwellings per unit under the previous system bar one, which is leading to three-storey development in essentially residential areas where two-storey development prevails.

Mr. Turner : There should be an allowance for appropriate densities as far as possible and such decisions should, as far as possible, be taken locally by people acquainted with the local circumstances, not, as is the case in my constituency, by inspectors in Bristol appointed by the Deputy Prime Minister in London.

I should also like to mention the materials from which streets are built. My local authority has just built a nice new pavement in Wroxall, but as in far too many places it is made from tarmac, with the kind of kerbstones that are seen in modern developments. It is inappropriate in a village. Such things need to be taken care of rather more carefully.

In relation to local shops, the hon. Member for Colchester mentioned clone towns. I have not read the document to which he referred, although I have read press statements about it. There is a case for protecting and encouraging the development of more local shops in town centres. One way to do that is to adopt the policy, as some local authorities do, of allowing rate relief to non-chain stores, which has a cost attached but is within the capacity of local authorities. I was told of a case in Hinkley, where the local authority developed land that it owned specifically for local traders' occupation. That approach might be taken by means of a section 106 agreement, even on land that is not owned by a local authority. If we can get 40 per cent. social housing from house builders, perhaps we could get, say, 10 per cent. social shopping from developers of shops. Indeed, I recognise that in many cases some supermarkets that want to acquire a site in towns do that.

I disagree most with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury on the position of the supermarkets and the house builders, which are terrifying lobbies that wield enormous power. In the 1980s, Tesco, which funded the local government reception year in, year out at the Conservative party conference—

Bob Russell : And the others.

Mr. Turner : The hon. Gentleman clearly knows about the others.

Tesco was busy trying to buy the votes of councillors on local planning committees. At the time, we did not realise the damage that that would do to town centres. Similarly, there are builders, including in my
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constituency Persimmon, a national chain—I would not dare to mention a local chain, of course—which, having secured planning permission for x houses, managed to cram them by bad building, not bad design, to the end of the site so there was room for two or three more left over. Of course, that is just an amendment to a planning application in some cases and does not require advertising, so unless local people go out with a tape measure in the middle of the night they do not know what is happening.

The big lobby groups need to be resisted. I am pleased to note the pressure on the authorities of the House to recognise which lobby groups are funding some of the all-party groups, because if those groups are funded behind the scenes by big lobbyists, we should know, just as we and the public should know if our hon. and right hon. Friends are funded behind the scenes.

My concern about the supermarkets is not only that they damage trade in the town centres—I recognise that they are popular; of course, they are—but that they have a number of unfair competitive advantages. First, their trading practices and purchasing policies are deeply unfair to farmers in this country, so I cannot think what they are doing to farmers in the developing world.

Secondly, they have free car parking on site, which they have acquired over a long period. I recognise that in many cases it is the local council's fault that it is not easier for people to park their cars in the town centre, but if supermarkets have free parking on site and there is no scope for new supermarkets to open, they are a local monopoly. Tesco at Westridge in my constituency, the only supermarket in north-east Wight, has a current application to double its sales space. That will undoubtedly damage three of my nine towns, Sandown, Shanklin and Ryde; that is recognised. Some of the planning gain that we would supposedly get from approving this application by Tesco is a tiny amount of money going into Ryde. Supermarkets are local monopolies and should be recognised as such.

Thirdly, it should be recognised that supermarkets are vertical monopolies. The hon. Member for Colchester talked of Tesco opening a branch in his shopping street. Having driven many of the businesses out of town centres, it is now taking over some of the few remaining smaller shops and chains and damaging trade in that way.

Fourthly, supermarkets are hugely damaging to the environment. The level of packaging should be a planning issue, as should food that is grown in my constituency being taken 100 miles and then brought back to be sold. That is exactly what is happening. Planning considerations should include whether additional haulage is required and whether jobs are protected in the local area through opportunities for people to sell local produce. We can do a great deal to improve the planning system. I am sorry to say that in some cases in the past local authorities have been a bit feeble and, far too frequently, planning officers have said, "We'll lose on appeal, we'd lose a lot of money", and the council members feel compelled to vote in favour of an application that they would rather vote against.

I suspect that since May last year members of my local authority have rejected more planning applications than were rejected in the preceding four years when the authority was under different control. That is because
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they are beginning to realise that such decisions are vital to the future prosperity, economy and quality of life of my constituents. I hope that the Minister will give us some hope that those issues can be taken account of in future planning guidance.

3.30 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): First, I apologise to you, Mr. Chope, and to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for not being in my place at the start of this debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, because protecting the unique character of our constituencies is a huge priority for all Members of this House.

The constituency that I have the privilege of representing has a number of historic landmarks, the most famous of which is perhaps Bramall hall, a magnificent manor house dating back to the 15th century. During my time as leader of Stockport metropolitan borough council, we took positive steps to protect the character of the area surrounding the hall and to preserve its unique qualities.

The area is blessed with sites of historic and architectural importance throughout the borough of Stockport, including a market that dates back to mediaeval times. However, it also faces high demand for housing and other developments, so I empathise with the hon. Gentleman's cause this afternoon.

All of us have the responsibility to seek to balance the competing needs of housing demand with the protection of the character of our towns, villages and neighbourhoods. That is one of the reasons why my party strongly supports cutting VAT on home improvements. Literally hundreds of thousands of properties throughout the country could be brought back into use if only there were the financial incentives.

In addition, I agree with the assertion that loopholes in planning policy and guidance allow building work up to the curtilage of the plot, meaning that gardens and other spaces can be compromised. Attempts to close that loophole through legislation are ongoing, and my colleagues support that course of action. However, it should be acknowledged that the Government's record on developing brownfield, as opposed to greenfield, sites is reasonably good. Nevertheless, pressures persist on communities such as those we are debating this afternoon.

There is a wealth of guidance from a variety of sources that seeks to preserve the character of historic locations when it comes to planning. Indeed, English Heritage has published detailed proposals for principles that should be applied to developments in areas of historic importance. They include the careful use of materials, incorporating historic street patterns, detailed site analysis and plenty of other guidance, which, if consistently implemented, would have a very positive effect.

Of course, there is guidance from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, particularly in PPS6, although that has a high degree of internal conflict in respect of market towns, historic towns and cathedral cities. One of the statement's basic premises is as follows:

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However, much of the document seems to suggest a high level of encouragement, and even protection, of traditional businesses such as markets:

The statement goes on to say:

Detailed research on PPS6 and other planning guidance shows that that top-down approach does not always produce the desired outcomes on the ground, and that the results in terms of development are at best patchy.

My party's aim is to decentralise the system, speed up the planning process, increase sustainability and give communities a much greater say over land use in their areas and improve their ability to shape their local environment.

Mr. Beith : I point my hon. Friend to an example in my part of the world, where as a result of top-down decisions on the regional spatial strategy by a distant and unelected regional assembly, historic towns such as Alnwick and Berwick are being told that only 60 houses a year will be allowed to be built in the entire district. Sustainability of house building is also important to the conservation of historic towns.

Mark Hunter : I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution. He makes an interesting point, and I shall refer further to such issues a little later.

We believe that the best way to protect important sites of the sort that we are discussing is to end interference from Whitehall and the Secretary of State in the process of drawing up local development plans. Frankly, we want to get central Government off the backs of local people. My party has also proposed the concept of the community plan, under which a community would set out what it sought to achieve from the council's local development plan, and in some circumstances could propose that some land should be zoned for particular purposes. The community plan would then form a subsection of the local development plan. Under our system, the planning system would become much more community-focused, and be bottom-up rather than top-down. That need not mean building fewer homes than are currently proposed. Communities can respond to their needs if they are given the freedom to do so; the end result will often be better and more acceptable than a plan handed down from Whitehall via regional offices demanding, say, that 100,000 homes should be built in a particular region.

In addition to the community plan, we have also proposed much wider use of pre-application consultation so that developers, and the community in which they wish to build, can reach agreement on applications. We believe that that is a route through which communities can influence section 106 agreements. If land is suitable for development, community involvement in drawing up the remit for the site will be a key approach for ensuring that the needs of the community are met. Such a community-led approach is impossible under the present centralised planning system.
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Ultimately, the greatest action we could take would be to reform the planning system, so that local and regional authorities can make more decisions for themselves about what developments are allowed. By involving the community—the people who know and appreciate their areas more than any civil servant in Whitehall ever could—we can promote development to meet our needs and protect our constituencies at the same time.

Before I finish, I should like to ask whether, given his obvious commitment to preserving the character of his area, the hon. Member for Lichfield was as surprised as I to hear his party proposing that there should be building on the green belt. Surely that policy, announced only recently by the shadow Chancellor, will do precisely the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman is calling for this afternoon. Concreting over our precious green space is hardly the best way to preserve the unique heritage of our market towns, historic towns and cathedral cities.

3.37 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): This debate has been wide-ranging, interesting and enjoyable, as these debates always are. First, I should say that normally my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) would answer a debate on the impact of planning policy, but unfortunately he is indisposed. Anything I say that goes contrary to our Front-Bench team's planning policy will be immediately disowned by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), so I let the Chamber know in advance that pretty much I have free rein.

Debates such as this are enjoyable because there is always some element of competition, along the lines of the Monty Python sketch with the three Yorkshiremen. The competition has been partly about pubs and local produce—we had the Sozzled Sausage and the Banbury cakes; my contribution is the Bedfordshire clanger, a wonderful pasty with meat at one end and fruit at the other, wonderfully made by Mr. David Gunn and his team at Sandy.

Hon. Members have also competed on the age of their new towns; we went from the 12th century to the 11th century, which was then trumped by the Romans of the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). All I can say to that is that my children were born in a part of Bury known as Jericho, and Jericho is the oldest city in the entire world—so I win that one.

I shall go into a little more substance, as I think is appropriate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on raising the issue of planning policy clearly and sensibly. He picked out a variety of issues, a number of which I shall address, paying particular attention to two. He mentioned the problems that are likely to be caused by the new stealth tax—the planning gain supplement—that the Government are planning. It will drive up the cost of properties, be passed on to those who buy houses and do nothing to improve the affordability of housing for those who seek it. He was right to draw attention to yet another stealth tax from a Government who have become renowned for them.

Secondly, I strongly support my hon. Friend in his concerns about the so-called back garden development, which is a new phenomenon. The hon. Member for
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Cheadle (Mark Hunter) is nodding, and I know that that development is a concern to many of us. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden tabled early-day motion 486 as long ago as July last year, almost as soon as the new Parliament convened. It noted

At that time the problem was related to PPG3.

Back garden infill is insidious, setting neighbour against neighbour. At its worst, it can take out a row of houses, because the asking price for a house becomes impossible for a householder to resist. The houses can then be removed and a new estate constructed. That is not the proper way to go about things. We are right to resist it and to urge the Government to be much more direct, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield said, in their opposition to it, as opposed to their current lukewarm attitude.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the key point, which is the need to preserve the distinctive character of our great historic cities and market towns—those places in this country that have history. We are proud of our heritage, but it is threatened by the inevitable march of progress. That has its place and, as hon. Members from all parts of the Chamber have mentioned, careful conservation can do wonders. Inappropriate development could be a tragedy. We have lived through the renovations of this country in the 1960s and we know what we lost. We all hoped that we had learned some lessons, but we are not so sure now that we did.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England produced a report in March 2004 entitled "Market Towns: Losing their Character?". It will be familiar to all of us, including the Minister. It set out a series of concerns that have been echoed today. Its survey

Various comments were made in the survey, which ranged throughout the country. The report stated:

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) mentioned that last point. The report continued:

My concern is that the Government are failing to learn some blindingly obvious lessons. Three or four particular points raised in this debate make that case for me. I do not think that the Government do learn lessons. The Observer this weekend had an article entitled "Mr Prescott, please save us from another supermarket mega-shed". It was about a planning application in Sunderland, where a local proposal to have a much more appropriate town centre development runs the risk of being lost because of proposals by a supermarket called Tesco.
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I sometimes wish that we played Tesco bingo in the House of Commons and awarded ourselves points for each time that company's name was mentioned, because we would all be doing very well. I am afraid that Tesco is going to take another beating from me, because I am less generous towards it than my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I feel strongly that it has its place; there is no doubt that supermarkets have made an extraordinary contribution to the retail life of this country and to the everyday lives of many people. They have their place, but we have learned over the years that sometimes their impact can be more damaging than it is worth.

In the 1970s and 1980s, we learned of the damage that out-of-town centres do to town centres. I wish that the Government would now learn the dangers of the express stores—the small stores—coming into what used to be the independent retailers' area. I do not object to Tesco the supermarket; we have learned to live with it and it has many advantages, although I know that farmers are very concerned about the pressure on them as suppliers. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the worrying involvement of the big stores in small-scale retail developments in towns is very damaging.

The Association of Convenience Stores claims that some 2,000 independent stores went out of business last year. The Forum of Private Business has written to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Nick Goulding, chief executive of the FPB said:

That comment was made about the monopoly position of large stores. He continued:

The Government have failed to learn lessons and to appreciate the dangers that are affecting our market towns, which were set out in the 2004 report to which I referred and which are echoed two years later, in 2006. There has been a slow response. Our town centres and historic market towns demand something better.

The Government are also slow in relation to design. The design of new buildings in historic settings—indeed, in any setting—is important. The Minister will be aware of the criticisms made by the urban task force in November 2005. The UTF was set up by the Government but finds its voice listened to increasingly less. It issued an independent report that was critical of new design and new developments. On page 5, it stated:

That is not what we need; we need a Government who listen carefully.

A further Government failing is that when a good initiative is introduced, such as the market towns initiative that emerged through the Countryside Agency, they cannot help but meddle. They took that initiative away from the Countryside Agency and put part of it with regional development agencies. That was a transfer to an unelected body—a collection of interests
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which gets increasing powers and responsibilities. The Government meddled with the basis of an initiative that had attracted some interest and built up core skills, which were then diffused. The Government cannot resist being top-down, meddling and slow to respond to things that are necessary. That is the core of the issues that colleagues have raised today about our historic market towns and cities.

We need appropriate planning guidance that recognises the distinctive differences and characters of urban areas in the United Kingdom. We also need a Government who demonstrate that they have learned lessons and that they have seen the dangers to our historic cities and market towns, which colleagues from all parts of the Chamber have discussed in their contributions. Above all, we need a Government who recognise the importance of local decision making rather than having decisions increasingly being made by unelected regional assemblies.

The hon. Member for Cheadle had a sly dig at comments made by the shadow Chancellor, but he will have to consider how he reconciles local decision making with his own party's demands for regional government and for moving things further away from local regional councils. I assure him that our policy on the green belt is fixed: the green belt is important and remains a vital part of Conservative party planning policy; ensuring that we make better use of brownfield sites and of ill-designated green sites might help everyone. The House, and our historic cities and market towns are seeking those things, but I suspect we will not get them until the Minister and I swap places in some years to come.

3.50 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing the debate and for leading the tributes to market towns throughout the country. I shall resist the temptation to tell the House about the market town in which I grew up, and I shall almost resist the temptation to pay tribute to the two market towns in my constituency. It has an interesting market town with sadly hidden Roman heritage, but more visible mediaeval heritage, including—to match the Banbury cakes of the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry)—Pontefract cakes, which are still enjoyed throughout the country. I also draw attention to the liquorice sweet factories that still exist in Pontefract.

I have no doubt about the importance of our market towns not only to the quality of life for those who live in them, but to local economies throughout the country. Many different issues have been raised today. I shall begin by talking about some town centre matters, after which I shall refer to many of the questions about housing asked by the hon. Member for Lichfield. Planning guidance has changed the balance in favour of our town centres, especially retail development. That is the right way forward. It is interesting that even IKEA has started to change its format to cover town centre developments, too. While it is true that many supermarket chain stores say that they prefer out-of-town developments, we know of many cases in which supermarkets are involved in the redevelopment of town and city centres, and they are often at the heart of urban renaissance and regeneration.
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The hon. Member for Banbury made some thoughtful proposals on town centre regeneration, some of which we should obviously treat as Budget submissions to the Chancellor. I agree that town centre living and mixed housing, retail and other developments in town centres are important for the life of a town centre, not only because they make it more sustainable, support the local economy and keep buildings in use, but because they can improve the safety and the quality of life in a town centre. Such areas no longer become the deserted no-go zones in which people feel frightened late in the evening.

I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's ideas about the way in which we could support social housing and I shall look into that issue. Local authorities can use a wide range of powers to support town centres and to promote their development and redevelopment, whether they be planning powers, compulsory purchase orders or working relationships with local businesses to support business improvement districts. We have provided guidance and support on how to manage town centres, such as neighbourhood wardens and policing. We certainly need to provide guidance to support competition and the economic life of our town centres.

There have been debates about clone towns. Some people are hostile to chain shops, but if Next moved into one of the town centres in the market towns in my constituency, it would be really good. If some big chains moved into the market towns, that would be a sign of economic growth and prosperity. We must inject a little economic reality into our debates on the nature of our towns. We certainly need to support a wide variety of different businesses in town centres. As part of their planning approaches to town centres, we urge local authorities to consider the need to provide different premises. Perhaps they need to provide smaller units, for example, to enable smaller businesses to get going. There must be diversity of provision.

At the beginning of his speech, the hon. Member for Lichfield said that the quality of life depends very much on the quality of our communities and our market towns, and that that is a measure of the wealth of the community. He is right, but I am sure that he would agree that if we do not have enough homes for people or if people cannot afford to buy houses, it says bad things about the wealth of our communities and the nation. When talking about the need for housing development and its nature, whether in market towns or cities, we must be clear about the wider backdrop of housing need to which we must respond.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of households, but a 50 per cent. drop in the level of new homes being built. As for household growth, about 190,000 new households are formed a year as a result of our ageing, growing population with more people living alone, but only about 150,000 new homes are being built. That gap is unsustainable. It is hardly surprising that, faced with that gap, our long-term house prices have risen considerably faster than those in other European countries to the point at which, even though we have 1 million more home owners since 1997 as a result of low mortgage rates, economic stability and prosperity, we have rising house prices that cause particular pressures for first-time buyers. Those pressures are unsustainable.
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We must respond to such pressures over the long term, too. If we carry on building at the current rate over the next 20 years, research shows that the proportion of two-earner, 30-year-old couples able to afford their own home will fall from more than 50 per cent. as it is today to nearer one third. That is unsustainable. We cannot have a society in which two thirds of 30-year-old, two-earner couples cannot afford to buy their own home on the basis of their earnings. I accept that some of them will still be able to afford their own home because they will receive gifts or inheritances from parents or grandparents, but it is not fair that people's chance of affording their own home is dependent on whether their parents or their grandparents were home owners. It is so important to build more new homes for the sake of first-time buyers in the future and for the sake of being able to deal with pressures such as overcrowding, homelessness and the problems of those on low incomes. We must accept as our starting point the need to build more new homes.

Where and how do we develop new homes and provide the housing that the nation undeniably needs? The Conservatives face a challenge. I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) when he said that perhaps we should be developing new towns instead of high-density developments in cities or existing towns. That was an honest recognition of the fact that there are trade-offs. It is unacceptable for people simply to say, "Yes, we need more new homes, but let us tell you all the places where you cannot build them and all the places where new housing is acceptable", and not to say, "Okay, so where should the new homes go?"

The hon. Member for Lichfield said that worries had been expressed about high-density development. There is a lot of high-density, high-quality developments. Let us consider the Georgian terraces in Bath: they are beautiful, extremely high-density developments—much
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higher than the density levels that are set out in planning guidance. Should we not have flexibility in the density to which we build? Should we not respect the different character of market towns and city locations? That is why PPS3 introduces much more clarity and flexibility in the guidance on housing density.

Alistair Burt : The Minister offered us a challenge, so I must toss one back. If terraces are so good, why have so many been knocked down in the north of England as a result of the pathfinder project rather, than being maintained and refurbished?

Yvette Cooper : As the hon. Gentleman will know, a huge number of Victorian terraces in our pathfinder areas throughout the north of England are being refurbished as a result of the pathfinder scheme. In fact, far more are being refurbished than are being demolished. In some areas, the quality of the housing and local demands or problems have meant that a variety of housing is needed. We must recognise that there is a wide variety of housing needs. We must respond to the local character of the places, and provide sensitive and sustainable housing. It is right that we have increased the proportion of houses being built on brownfield land.

Finally, I come to the planning gain supplement. I hope that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) will find himself contradicted by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) because the supplement will provide a good opportunity for us to raise the money that we desperately need for infrastructure. We cannot build new homes without the necessary infrastructure for local communities. We must accept that that is an important factor for the future. The issue is not simply where new homes should be built.

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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4.14 pm

On resuming—

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