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We were pleased to read reports today that the Secretary of State has had a change of heart about the demolition of some of the Victorian villas in Liverpool. I commend my hon. Friend the shadow Minister for regeneration, who has campaigned vigorously with other hon. Members to bring about that change of heart. We hope that it is a
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sign that the Secretary of State is minded to review quite a few aspects of her predecessor’s policies.

It is no secret that my constituency is heavily affected by development in gardens. In fact, almost half the brownfield development is on garden land. Feelings are rising so high in the borough of Solihull that more than 2,000 people have signed my petition calling for that kind of infill development to be stopped. Colleagues facing the same problem have urged me to make it a national petition, which we will do. Next time hon. Members are in a garden, I ask them to look around and imagine how it would feel if the land next door were developed and their privacy lost because they were overlooked.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Spelman: Just a minute.

Perhaps hon. Members would put their houses on the market and move, but it is not so easy to do that if a bedroom is floodlit by 24-hour lighting in the car park of a neighbouring apartment block, or if effluent from new houses is making its way back up the drains because the existing drainage system cannot cope. Those are genuine examples from my constituency, and they have a devastating effect on the quality of life. The impact is not just practical, but social and environmental.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): Does the hon. Lady agree that we should build more homes? In particular, does she agree that we need to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2016?

Mrs. Spelman: The Minister is an intelligent woman and I have no doubt that she has perfect hearing. She must have been distracted when I stated at the outset, as I have on numerous previous occasions, that we agree that we need a lot more homes.

Yvette Cooper rose—

Mrs. Spelman: If the Minister lets me continue my speech, I shall explain where we see that house building happening.

In some places, the result of garden development has pitted neighbour against neighbour. Communities have been divided by it. People who have worked hard and saved to buy a house with a garden are now looking anxiously over their borders for signs of development. What hope is there for a family that wants to preserve its garden as a safe refuge where children can play or as an oasis after a hard day’s work, when on either side high-density housing invades that space?

What of the environmental impact? Back gardens are crucial habitats for all kinds of wildlife, much of which has often migrated there from the countryside. The destruction of those precious ecosystems, which house everything from badgers and foxes to squirrels and birds of prey, should provoke outrage. Back-garden development is effectively turning access to nature and wildlife into the sole preserve of those who live in the country.

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Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: Not at the moment.

I find it ironic that the Government who introduced the idea of measuring birdsong as a key indicator of quality of life are now responsible for a policy that will do more than anything else to silence it.

Garden development also brings with it the problems of infrastructure. Villages and urban areas are growing in an unplanned and erratic way, and the infrastructure cannot cope.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: Just one minute.

Community facilities, like schools and doctors’ surgeries, are not expanding at the same rate as population growth. The Environmental Audit Committee’s warning that extensive house building is not sustainable where water is short is being flatly ignored. Without the necessary investment, we will simply not be able to service the increased numbers of power showers and dishwashers drawing on water supplies. Even where there are adequate water supplies, there is often inadequate drainage, and what of the roads and lanes on which the development occurs?

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Spelman: Just a minute.

Public transport links are not sufficiently developed to service a fast-growing commuter population, and road congestion now goes hand in glove with garden development. The Department’s obsession with planning the car out of new development merely results in cars littering the pavements, forcing pushchairs and mothers into the road. All that makes road crossing more dangerous, traffic congestion worse and residential areas ugly.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Spelman: I give way to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman).

Helen Goodman: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Tory Members do not have a monopoly on representing beautiful parts of this country. In my constituency in Teesdale there are a large number of villages, and we face a problem that is the exact opposite from that put forward: the brownfield definition is too narrow. People cannot turn existing buildings into new houses in hamlets, and consequently we are having to build outside larger villages on greenfield sites.

Mrs. Spelman: At no point did I say that one party had a monopoly on this country’s beautiful landscape. If the hon. Lady has a problem with her Government’s housing policy and it is not working for her, I suggest that she take her objections to her Secretary of State.

Several hon. Members rose—

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Mrs. Spelman: I shall make some more progress.

The communities that are now being asked to accommodate garden development were originally created with an infrastructure to support a particular population density. The Government cannot expect the same infrastructure to serve adequately a population often twice that size. The result is that everyone loses out one way or another—not least those who are looking to get on the housing ladder, as I shall explain.

In the past the Government have cited housing shortages and the need to help first-time buyers as a defence of garden development. I will now look at how, in practice, the policy works against providing the sort of affordable housing that the country so desperately needs.

The problem with garden development is that far too often it generates houses or apartments at a price beyond the reach of first-time buyers. The reason is very simple: location, location, location. Houses with gardens large enough to be developed are mostly in areas where house prices are high. The result is that the new build is beyond the pocket of first-time buyers. We must also be clear that much of the development that is defended on the grounds that it helps first-time buyers is not generating houses for that market. The average price of one of those new flats in my constituency is £200,000—well beyond the pocket of those on the waiting list for housing. Solihull borough, which has met its target, and half as much again, in each of the past five years, still has a waiting list of 5,000 people, most of whom cannot afford to buy what is being developed.

Part of the reason for that is a misdiagnosis of the housing affordability problem. We welcome the aim of increasing housing supply, but the wrong sort of homes are being supplied in the wrong places to meet genuine need. The perverse consequence of an affordable housing quota for larger developments of 25 or more dwellings is driving the more lucrative option of garden development, which is below that threshold. What is so frustrating is that that rush to develop gardens has meant that exciting new opportunities for regeneration are being disregarded.

We have a vision of building a lot more houses and homes as new garden suburbs for the 21st century, replacing the urban dereliction of the near-city ring. [Hon. Members: “Where?”] I hear hon. Members asking where. Nearly all British cities are configured on such a pattern; perhaps the nearest such city will come to Members’ minds as I speak. Those cities have a regenerated central business district. In Birmingham it is the Bullring; in Manchester it is the result of the unfortunate consequences of a bombing; in Liverpool we see a regenerated city heart, as we do in Newcastle and in Leeds. Surrounding the central business district, virtually within spitting distance, is a ring of dereliction. That is the challenge for regeneration.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I agree with the points made by my hon. Friend, but does she accept that none of those developments is sustainable without proper investment in infrastructure? Whether we are talking about an inner-city area or East Grinstead in my constituency, where 2,500 houses will be built on the Government’s whim without any additional investment in infrastructure, how will such development improve people’s quality of life?

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Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend gave me advance notice of his intervention, and as he rightly suggests, the Government have applied the word, “sustainable”, to communities that are not in the true sense sustainable.

First-time buyers are often of an age at which they want to live close to the city centre, with all its cultural and social advantages. They want to carry on living in the city where they studied or where they work and have a network of friends. There is a great opportunity to meet that demand with affordable housing for first-time buyers between the city centre and the more affluent suburbs. Garden development creates more commuting journeys from the outlying towns and villages to the main economic hubs, but cities will become more sustainable if we shorten the commute.

Near-city development is better suited to the stronger and more developed infrastructure already in place in our cities. There is a strong economic rationale for such development, as those sites are on former industrial land that has fallen into decay. With imagination and willpower, however, it could house apartments, shops and entire communities in new urban villages that enable people to find their feet as home owners. Our approach reflects that housing life cycle. [ Interruption. ] Hon. Members asked me to explain where those homes would be built, and I am doing so. I suggest that they listen, then they will learn.

In our vision, first-time buyers could start with an affordable house in a new garden suburb, move somewhere slightly larger in a new urban village when they settle down with a partner, then scale up to a family-sized house. Other people will want to move further out to a town or village with more space and a larger garden, so we need to create those choices. That brings me back to my starting point—gardens. The sad irony is that young people aspire to live in houses with large gardens and in neighbourhoods with green spaces, which are being lost. Of course, that pattern does not apply to everyone.

Andrew George: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: I should like to reach the end of my thesis and explain where and why those homes could be built.

That pattern does not apply to everyone who wants to get on the housing ladder. We have championed the cause of more affordable housing in rural areas for some time, but unlike the Government, we want to empower local people to decide how genuine local need should be met. We want to restore local democracy, and the emotive issue of housing is a good way of showing that we mean it. I have spent a considerable time discussing what we will do, but I shall conclude by setting out what the Government should do.

Yvette Cooper: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: I have already accepted one intervention from the hon. Lady. In fact, I have been —[ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady has said that at this point in time she is not prepared to give way.

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Mrs. Spelman: I think that I have been generous in accepting interventions, Madam Deputy Speaker. The fact that those interventions have been made by Members from all parts of the House demonstrates the level of interest in the subject.

May I focus on what the Government should do? The simplest and most effective measure they could take is to amend planning policy statement 3 so that gardens are no longer classified as brownfield sites; that does not even require primary legislation. Local authorities should be allowed to decide the appropriate density for their community. Once a site is returned to its proper classification as a garden, there is nothing to stop someone applying for planning permission, but it is the council’s responsibility to judge the application on its merits. As a result, we would lift the threat to our urban green spaces and remove the fears of people living in the shadow of unwanted development.

The Secretary of State must surely understand that gardens are not what people accept as brownfield sites. If they are to have any faith and trust in the planning system, the classification needs to be changed. The planning system should serve, defend and promote the interests of the community, but her predecessor’s control of that system undermined public confidence. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was created to serve the man, whereas the Secretary of State’s new Department has been created to serve the community and local government, as can be inferred from her title. This is her chance to live up to that title.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister, and I call on the Secretary of State to move it.

4.50 pm

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I thank the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) for her warm words at the beginning of the debate; in fact, I am grateful to the Opposition for tabling this motion. At last, housing is moving up their list of priorities. I did a little research in the run-up to the debate, and it appears that about two years have passed since we last heard from the Conservatives on housing
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during an Opposition day debate. I understand that the hon. Lady led for the Conservatives on this issue then, as she does again today.

Two years ago, the Tories were concerned about too much urban sprawl—that too many houses would be built on the outskirts of our towns and cities—whereas today, they are concerned that too many homes might be built within our towns and cities. Some Members might see a contradiction, but at least it is consistent with the overall direction of Tory party policy: a different day, a different policy.

I listened with great interest to the hon. Lady, and so that no one gets the wrong impression of what is actually happening, it might be useful if I set out some basic facts.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): As a supporter of an early-day motion dealing with this issue, I was somewhat surprised that I did not hear a single mention of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission—other than a passing reference—in the entire speech of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). The reason why market towns have experienced much more development is that we have strangled and stopped development in our villages. The only way that we can begin to address that problem is to allow villages, through empowerment, to have a proper level of development. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the right approach?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and, as I am sure he is aware, the draft planning guidance that we are considering allows that approach to be developed.

Let me set out some basic facts. First, between the late 1980s and today there has been a significant decline in the percentage of brownfield development on previously developed residential land—land that includes back gardens. I will develop that point later. Secondly, there has been no change in the definition of brownfield land since 1985, when the current definition was first used by the Conservatives for the purposes of land use planning statistics.

The hon. Member for Meriden made some interesting points. There have been relevant changes to planning policy guidance over the years, and, indeed, more are in the process of being introduced. As she readily acknowledged, this Government have been much keener to encourage local authorities to seek out brownfield sites for development rather than greenfield sites. Why? Because re-using land that has already been developed reduces the need to use new greenfield land and helps regenerate our cities and towns by bringing often derelict land back into use.

Several hon. Members rose—

Ruth Kelly: I will give way to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), and then I will make some progress before taking further interventions.

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