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Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


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4.15 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I beg to move,

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for choosing to respond to this debate. A reshuffle always gives a Government the opportunity to revisit the effectiveness, or otherwise, of their policies. The creation of the new Department presents an opportunity for the Government to close a loophole in the planning process and put an end to the blight of inappropriate garden development.

After all, since there can be no personal suggestion of a U-turn on the part of the Deputy Prime Minister, few would criticise the new Secretary of State for wanting to put her stamp on the Department. What better way is there to do that than by reversing an unpopular and destructive policy?

I think that the Secretary of State knows, deep down, that the prioritisation of gardens for development is unfair to local communities and unsustainable for the local environment. She has intervened many times in her constituency to prevent such development from happening, as I have done in mine, and, like me, she may well have found her constituents being overruled by the Deputy Prime Minister. Her reason for getting involved might be the same as mine—that the present planning guidance is failing communities, which are powerless to prevent gardens and urban green spaces from being developed.

The planning guidance is also failing first-time buyers, who simply cannot afford the expensive apartments that are being built, and it is failing residents because there is a lack of supporting infrastructure. Finally, it is failing future generations, as they will have to live with the environmental legacy of the rush to build on our urban green spaces.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): My hon. Friend talks about our legacy, but does she agree that all hon. Members are the stewards of our nation’s future? Cathedral cities such as Lichfield or market towns around the country represent everything that this country has to offer in terms of architectural heritage. The helter-skelter construction on gardens and other areas is destroying our neighbourhoods.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend, and I commend to the House his article in this month’s edition of Town and Country Planning magazine. His
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defence of the city of Lichfield clearly demonstrates that he may have even more heritage to defend than other hon. Members.

I am trying to be generous, so I do not believe that the outcome of the planning guidance is the one that the Government sought. The problem has arisen because three separate elements—the classification of back gardens as brownfield sites, the prioritisation of brownfield land for development, and the density targets for new housing—have been superimposed on each other. It is the confluence of those policies that has created unprecedented levels of garden development.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the proliferation of flats built as infill or on garden land is especially damaging to our communities, as it puts immeasurable stress on the infrastructure? The roads in the south-east are already too congested, and there is a much higher demand for water and for secondary school places.

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend correctly anticipates the points that I plan to develop. I think that he will be pleased by what he hears.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): The hon. Lady mentioned three factors that she thinks are behind the pressures. Does she accept that people’s expectation of greater space standards in their housing may also be a factor? What is her view about people who want to enlarge their existing home to build a conservatory or an annexe in their garden?

Mrs. Spelman: Under the Labour Administration, I am extremely concerned about people contemplating building an annexe to their home or a conservatory. With his expertise in local government finance, the right hon. Gentleman is probably only all too aware that such extensions are precisely the attributes of a home that his Government have every intention of incorporating as part of their council tax rebanding exercise.

Mr. Raynsford: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: No, I want to continue.

The Government’s amendment to our motion compares the situation in the 1980s unfavourably with the present, but according to a written answer of 23 May the proportion of residential development on previously developed residential land has risen—from 11 to 15 per cent. since 1997—and nobody in the Chamber can have failed to see the impact.

This debate is not an argument about whether we need more houses; the Government know that we have repeatedly said that more homes must be built. House building has not kept pace with changing lifestyles and demographics, and that needs to be remedied. We are debating where, how and what should be built.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that something more insidious is going on in places such as Worthing and areas in the
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south? Developers are emboldened to offer premiums of at least 50 per cent. on the market value to the first house in a street of premium family homes. They then go next door and do the same deal, going as far along the road as possible doing the same thing. They apply for planning permission, which is turned down by the local council as the local planning authority, so they appeal. Their appeal is upheld on the basis of the Government’s new density policies and a block of flats is built, with 30 or 40 new inhabitants and many extra cars, and the extra stress on the infrastructure causes havoc.

Mrs. Spelman: Sadly, I am not surprised by what my hon. Friend says. Such things are happening all over the country and, interestingly, are the subject of a BBC Online blog, where numerous correspondents file real concerns that are exactly the same as those he has just expressed. My only surprise is that the Government seem to have ignored those views and have stopped listening to the people who are voicing those real concerns.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the problems to which she refers, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) described in the south-east, exist all over the country—nowhere more so than in the royal town of Sutton Coldfield? Secondly, does she agree that it was a pity and a serious mistake for a Government Whip to object to the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), which would have made a significant contribution to resolving the problems that she airs so well?

Mrs. Spelman: I share my hon. Friend’s great concern about the way in which the Government’s housing policy perversely results in the neglect of considerable tracts of land in the great city of Birmingham, which both our constituencies shoulder, in favour of the back garden development that has ravaged his constituency and mine. I echo his comments about the obstruction by Government Whips of an important private Member’s Bill. I hope that it will not be similarly obstructed at its Second Reading on 14 July.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I am trying to work out the position of Conservative Front Benchers. If we are going to reduce housing density and develop only, for example, on the footprint of demolished properties in urban areas and not on back gardens, presumably, if the Conservatives are to meet our agreed house building targets, we will have to identify more land elsewhere.

Mrs. Spelman: If the hon. Gentleman reserves his judgment until I have made my speech, it will become quite clear to him where I envisage many more extra homes being built.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): My hon. Friend should not leave the point about why the Government are doing this. The Government know perfectly well that if they are to bring brownfield sites forward, they cannot make the cashback arrangements that the Treasury wants to get out of development. They have got to put their money where their mouth is.
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This is an excuse by the Government not to rebuild Britain on brownfield sites, because the Treasury wants the cash.

Mrs. Spelman: My right hon. Friend’s considerable expertise in this area gives him an advantage over many Members in the Chamber in understanding what goes on in Government when such important strategic decisions are made. I will add one other note of scepticism: the incorporation of back gardens into the brownfield definition and the application of that through planning guidance have enabled the Government to come closer to their own set target for brownfield building. In the target-driven culture that we live in, that has furthered their own ends.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Spelman: I want to make a little more progress. I will take more interventions later.

Our discussion of where homes should be built could hardly be more topical, because today we had an announcement from the Government office for the south-east. It wants the house building target that was originally set to be increased by 60 per cent. I hope that the Government will understand why there is such deep concern in communities up and down the country about the way in which their housing policy, with its perverse incentives, is being interpreted.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why local communities feel so disempowered in the whole debate is the fact that decisions are being taken out of their hands? The decisions are being taken in Whitehall by people who do not know the area or the pressure on local communities.

Mrs. Spelman: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is correct to point out that the Government’s housing policy and the way in which power has been exercised has damaged trust in the planning system.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Like the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), I represent a rather beautiful area. In the Birkenhead area, Wirral local authority attempts to get developments on the poorer sites along the river, but the developers want to go into the lusher areas of Prenton, Oxton, Claughton and Bidston. The local authority tries to defend its position of ensuring that development goes on in the poorest areas, but if the local authority does not agree with something, all those decisions are appealed and practically every case is lost. That is what is so wrong about the present set-up.

Mrs. Spelman: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and perfectly understands the situation. No doubt that is why he and 38 of his colleagues on the Government Benches have signed our early-day motion. We tabled our original early-day motion as the motion for this debate because it has attracted such strong support from Members on both sides of the House. Surely the Government must sit up and listen to this cross-party consensus.

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Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Spelman: I am going to make a bit of headway. If my hon. Friend would like to wait, I think that he will like my next comments. I would especially like to commend him for bringing a ten-minute Bill before the House to change the classification of gardens from brownfield. We wish him well with the Second Reading on 14 July and we thank him for the extensive research that he has conducted.

Greg Clark: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her warm words. She referred to the early-day motion. I wanted to point out for the record that it was co-sponsored by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor)—I am grateful for her support—and signed by at least two Liberal Front-Bench spokesmen. It is thus a cross-party early-day motion, rather than just a Conservative one.

Mrs. Spelman: I hope that the difference with this debate will be that there is a strong cross-party consensus. We want a change to the law because people throughout the country are angry about gardens in their neighbourhoods being carved up and built on. The buildings that go up in the gardens are not just two-storey houses or bungalows, but often blocks of flats.

The first place that people who are worried about a planning application should go is their local planning authority. However, planning authorities are hamstrung by a combination of the brownfield definition, prioritisation and density. However inappropriate the development and regardless of how much it will fundamentally change the character of a neighbourhood, a developer, as the House of Commons Library puts it, thus

The problem for planning authorities is that irrespective of the strength of public opinion, planning guidance and housing targets will virtually grant planning permission on appeal by a developer.

The Minister for Housing and Planning recently said on the BBC programme “You and Yours” that it is at the discretion of local planning authorities to determine planning applications. However, as she well knows, that is simply not true. If an authority refuses an application, it is overruled by the Secretary of State. Now that we understand the cause, I want to examine the effect of the failure in the planning system.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Although it is a specialist area, is the hon. Lady aware that the same problem affects airfields, which, obviously, are large flat spaces that are attractive to developers. Several hon. Members will have experienced problems in trying to sustain an economically important airfield in their area. Owing to the changes to planning guidance, there is a risk that airfields might be treated as brownfield sites. Does she agree that the Government should clarify the situation? I should declare an interest in the matter.

Mrs. Spelman: The hon. Gentleman will know that the new planning guidance, which was sneaked into the debate on where and how we should build houses, has a centralist approach fundamentally at its heart. As he
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will hear—if I get the chance to complete more of my speech—I am passionate about how important it is for the re-empowerment of local communities that decision making should come back to where it should be: in the hands of local government.

The most obvious effect of the perverse confluence in planning policy is the destruction of gardens and green spaces. Gardens are a unique source of biodiversity, but they are being lost for ever. Large houses, which are often of local historical interest, are being demolished and replaced by blocks of flats. Trees and hedges are being torn down to make way for access routes, and areas of urban green space are being bought up, enclosed by hoardings and built on. That is changing the entire character and balance of neighbourhoods throughout the country.

The hon. Members who signed early-day motion 2130 were not subjected to an orchestrated postcard campaign or a covert campaign exercise. They put their names to it of their own free will. I believe that they were simply responding to constituents’ letters and public meetings in their constituencies, and I applaud them for doing so. Hon. Members throughout the country signed the early-day motion, which proves that, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) aptly illustrated, the problem does not affect just the south-east. In industrial parts of the north and the midlands there is a proud history of family homes with attractive gardens. It must seem to those communities, which are already suffering from the decline in manufacturing, that even their heritage is being knocked down brick by brick.

Paul Clark (Gillingham) (Lab): The hon. Lady talks about biodiversity. If she believes that the development of garden land threatens, as it says in the motion,

does she, on the same grounds, reject the proposal by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), the chair of her party’s policy group on economic competitiveness, to concrete over the Medway estuary to build a minimum of 50,000 houses?

Mrs. Spelman: I regret giving way to the hon. Gentleman; so far most of the interventions have not been of the point-scoring sort. The fundamental point, which I reiterate, is that the biodiversity in urban gardens and green spaces is often richer than it is in utilisable agricultural land.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Spelman: No, I will not give way. I want to proceed with the point about the demolition of our heritage.

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