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Ruth Kelly: If the hon. Gentleman knows of local authority areas where there is a genuine demand for new homes, but they want investment from the Government to support the necessary infrastructure, he should invite those local authorities to approach the Government and bid to be a new growth point. Yesterday, I announced
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the conclusion of the bidding round for new growth points. Many local authorities expressed an interest, but 22 had worked out detailed bids. They were keen for new houses to be built, and included the Tory-led local council of the hon. Member for Meriden, which proposed new developments. In total, the proposals represent 80,000 new homes by 2016 on top of what is already planned. [Interruption.] I am delighted that the hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that she supports that increase in housing supply.

Mrs. Spelman: I appreciate the Secretary of State giving way. This issue directly concerns my constituency. I have always supported my local authority’s endeavours to regenerate a council estate of 22,500 people for whom low-cost housing is in very short supply. We propose to build 5,000 new houses, and that proposal is very definitely for affordable housing.

Ruth Kelly: I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Lady supports that initiative. However, she will not make it clear to the House whether she supports the outline proposals in Kate Barker’s report to increase housing supply to 200,000 units a year by 2016 in order to close the gap between demand and supply. If the hon. Lady wants to commit herself to that policy today, I hope that she will choose this moment to intervene on me to tell the House that that is the case. She shakes her head, which is very interesting.

Mrs. Spelman: In our exchanges, the right hon. Lady is always careful to put on the record her interpretation of my words and my body language. However, I think that she might not have completed her homework in preparing for this debate. If she looks at our previous debate on housing, which focused extensively on the Barker review, she will see that we gave the review a considered response. She will also see that I clearly said that we wanted to build more housing. Our dispute with the Government involves the where, the what and the how.

Ruth Kelly: That is very interesting. I think that the hon. Lady is now sticking to the position that she outlined in The House Magazine last year, when she wrote:

She is saying that there are questions about whether we need 200,000 more units. It is also interesting that her junior housing spokesman, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said recently:

So the Conservatives’ junior housing spokesman is quite prepared to accept that we need to build 200,000 more homes each year, but the hon. Lady refuses to sign up to that ambition.

One test of a political party is whether it is prepared to take the tough decisions necessary to meet the demand for new homes. The Conservatives are happiest to focus on why we should not build new homes. Today, they
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have singled out building in urban areas on plots between existing houses. Perhaps next time they will admit that this Government have a better record than theirs on safeguarding the quality of such developments, on giving local authorities the tools that they need to take sensitive decisions, and on concentrating more housing on brownfield land. Perhaps they will also sign up to this Government’s ambition to meet the housing demand that now exists, for the benefit of future generations.

5.18 pm

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State to the debate. I also welcome the fact that we are debating this matter today, although I would have welcomed the debate that the Conservatives first promised even more. The subject was to have been the failure of the Government’s housing and planning policy, but that has rather quickly been slid over in favour of the removal of gardens from the brownfield definition. They started off with a titanic ambition but ended up in the life raft.

A number of outside bodies will also be disappointed by the rather narrow definition that the Conservatives have given to the debate today. I received a briefing from the Home Builders Federation this afternoon that had been issued on the assumption that we were going to debate the wider issue. However, I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State introduce that wider issue, because it is important that we take the broader context of housing and planning fully into account when considering this motion.

The motion is worthy, appropriate and of great importance. Members’ contributions so far have shown that the subject greatly engages us. That is precisely why my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), supported by 10 other Liberal Democrat Members, brought her Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill to the House. I have to say that my hon. Friend’s Bill was somewhat bolder than the Conservative Opposition motion today. It was not restricted solely to gardens, but looked into the protection of parkland and recreation spaces as well.

Having heard what the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, I hope that Conservative Front Benchers will give a clear commitment to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull that when her Bill is debated on Friday 20 October they will ensure that the dinosaurs on their Back Benches do not hinder, obstruct or delay the measure’s coming into law. Her Bill exactly encapsulates the points that the Conservatives are now making. In introducing the Bill, she said that

She said of developers:

In her telling phrase,

That is the essence of the case being made in today’s debate.

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We have to ask exactly what led the Conservatives to change the definition of today’s debate from the broader one that they announced last Thursday. I did not hear clearly enough from them whether they have satisfied themselves in the meantime that the Government’s housing policy is successful after all and does not require criticism. Do they now believe that the Government’s planning policies are right, whereas last Thursday they thought that they merited debate because they were wrong? Is the development of back gardens all that they can find fault with in the Government’s stewardship of Britain’s environment, rural communities and leafy suburbs?

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): The hon. Gentleman may not think that developments in back gardens are important enough to trouble the House with, but I can assure him that the defects in the planning policy guidelines and rules are blighting the lives of many of my constituents in Chipping Barnet. It is an enormously important issue to them.

Andrew Stunell: I do not know whether the hon. Lady had the opportunity to hear what I said at the beginning of my speech, but I made the point that, although this is an important topic, the House also deserves the opportunity to reflect on the broader issues. I welcome the fact that Secretary of State brought some of those broader issues into play. If I consider the difference between the title announced by the Conservatives last Thursday and the motion tabled for debate today, I am tempted to echo the familiar words of the England manager, “First half good, second half not so good.”

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): On that very point, is the hon. Gentleman as amazed as I am at the full title of today’s motion—“Removal of gardens from brownfield definition”? Will the redefinition safeguard gardens from further development? I do not think so, and it would be the same if they redefined them as greenfield development. Surely what we should be interested in is the type and quality of the development and the degree of imposition it represents on the lives of people who live alongside that development. We should be debating not how to define the land, but how to empower councillors to safeguard people from such developments.

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Whether we are talking about gardens, greenfield development or inner urban development, what matters is what is done with the land.

One of the reasons why the Conservatives might have tried to narrow the focus of the debate is their sheer embarrassment. It started with the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) back in February, when he spoke of taking

He made it clear that developing what he called “marginal scrubland” could be an option to revive decaying suburbs. I am not sure whether—to take my football analogy a bit further—he suffered a twisted knee or concussion, but he has not played that tune since.

In April, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said that the current planning system was “bananas” and that it was promoting a belief that we should

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He derided it; he described it as “bananas”; and he slagged off Labour for not building enough homes. I presume that, some time between last Thursday and today, someone at Tory headquarters did some background research and advised the hon. Member for Meriden that to proceed on the broader front risked their looking very foolish indeed.

Mrs. Spelman: The decision about what to debate sits fairly and squarely with me. The hon. Gentleman says, “First half good, second half bad.” He clearly did not like the fact that I went much wider into the question of urban regeneration and affordability in the second half of my speech—I certainly expanded the debate much wider than just classification. However, I initiated the debate because of the cross-party support for a specific change in the law that he would like and that many of his hon. Friends signed up to, and the force of that cross-party consensus persuaded me that this was a good use of parliamentary time.

Andrew Stunell: Of course the hon. Lady is absolutely right: there is widespread cross-party support for the view that the guidelines should be changed. I would point out that 40 Labour Members and a significant number of my hon. Friends have signed the early-day motion. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull has presented a Bill precisely in the terms that the hon. Lady is discussing.

Greg Clark: I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman’s line of argument—with some difficulty. Does he think that it is a mistake for the Conservative party to give hon. Members the chance to debate the motion, on which there is a widespread consensus? It is important that we know whether he would prefer not to debate it.

Andrew Stunell: I thought that I had made it very clear—[Hon. Members: “No.”] Perhaps the problem is that I have taken too many interventions. Let me make a clear statement. I have made it very clear indeed that we should have had a debate on the planning and housing policies that this country has and does not have. In focusing on a narrow aspect of that, we have lost something in the debate. I very much hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will take a broad view of the issues that should be debated, so that we can take account of the wider context of greenfield development, which certainly includes urban regeneration, rural housing and the alternative to development of gardens.

Mr. Hoban: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he intends to support our motion tonight?

Andrew Stunell: Yes, I will certainly tell the hon. Gentleman that, and if he allows me to proceed a little further, he will hear entirely what I plan to do and what I will recommend that my colleagues do.

There is certainly a problem—it is familiar to every MP—and the fact that there is widespread support in the debate for the early-day motion and the two Bills
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that have been referred to so far illustrates that. The infilling and backfilling of larger gardens has been an increasing problem over the years in many areas, including my constituency, which is covered by Stockport council.

Andrew Gwynne: As a fellow Stockport Member, the hon. Gentleman will know that Stockport council’s unitary development plan includes a local planning policy that is designed to prevent inappropriate developments in the large gardens of places such as Hazel Grove, Bramhall and Cheadle. Does he agree that that policy should not prevent wholly appropriate developments elsewhere in Stockport, especially in areas such as Reddish, where investment in housing is desperately needed?

Andrew Stunell: I am indeed a Stockport Member, although I am a member of a different party. I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said, and it is quite interesting. He and I could probably enlighten the House a good deal on the planning policies that apply in Stockport.

As the hon. Gentleman says, for many years there have been planning applications in Stockport relating to back gardens. Councillors, when they have thought it appropriate, have tried to limit the damage, in conjunction with the communities in whose areas the applications have been made. Sometimes an application could be properly refused and sometimes it could be substantially modified, but the treatment of the whole curtilage of the home as housing land has too often meant that inappropriate development could not be resisted—a situation already described by others. If it was resisted, there would be an appeal, the Secretary of State’s inspectors would recommend that it be granted, and the Secretary of State would grant it.

There have been some important successes in Stockport in the tackling of such matters. As the hon. Gentleman has said, every problem has a solution, but every solution has its own problem. Stockport is now officially full. All the planning applications that should be granted, according to the Secretary of State, have been granted. The present position is that no applications should be granted, which means that the council can refuse applications relating to garden sites. Unfortunately, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that and the Secretary of State’s guidelines have had the unintended consequence that the council cannot be flexible when it comes to Reddish. That, surely, is one of the key points to which the Government should respond. Even in one local authority planning area there can be fundamentally different circumstances, which must be dealt with by means of more flexible local policies.

Our amendment, which unfortunately was not selected, refers to the need for affordable and sustainable housing. That seems to me a crucial matter which the Secretary of State’s guidelines must take into account, but the Conservatives may have been a little too clear in their statement that such development was not permitted at present.

Mr. Soames: Would the hon. Gentleman be good enough to give us his interpretation of the word “sustainable”?

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Andrew Stunell: I can certainly do that, if the hon. Gentleman wishes. I am referring to environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability. Social sustainability means balanced communities in terms of demography and tenure; environmental sustainability means buildings with a very small carbon imprint; and economic sustainability means that employment and public services must be readily available to communities. I hope that helps the hon. Gentleman.

Liberal Democrat-led South Shropshire district council has found a way of promoting both affordability and sustainability even on the smallest infill and garden sites. We in the House of Commons should take account of the flexibility and innovation of local planning authorities that have a mind to take such action. We should be saying “Please go and experiment. Please find the policies that work for your area. Please listen to your local communities. Please take account of the local situation. Do not impose inflexible national guidelines that prevent any possibility of the right kind of development.”

I say to the Secretary of State, “Please look at the circumstances in Stockport, which have been illustrated by two of us in this debate already today. Please look at the situation in South Shropshire district council. Learn from examples of the practical application of the existing policy and see what you can do with the revision of the guidelines.”

Jeremy Corbyn: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about flexibility and reducing the threshold to incorporate social housing on small-site developments. Will he explain why Liberal Democrat-controlled Islington council has consistently refused to lower the threshold below 14 units, thus preventing the development of social housing anywhere in the borough? Is it because the council does not want to produce sufficient social housing, and that it would prefer simply to export the poor out of London?

Andrew Stunell: I am sure that Islington, like almost every other local authority in the country, has a rising council house waiting list. For example, Stockport has 13,000 council homes, and a waiting list of 6,000 households looking for social housing. The council would willingly provide more social housing units if it were given the finances and authority to do so.

I want guidelines that are flexible and reflect the local community’s legitimate concern to ensure that development is appropriate. The guidelines should also make it clear that any development should be sustainable, should protect biodiversity and should take into account legitimate concerns about local amenity. I have referred already to the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, which I believe sets out very clearly the framework within which we should proceed.

However, there is a serious case to answer on the broader issues. I hope that the Secretary of State, or the Minister for Housing and Planning, will respond positively to the problems that exist, and explain how she intends to develop her policies to tackle them. I am sure that the Secretary of State will be sympathetic on the specifics; she certainly should be, as she has taken plenty of trouble in the past to protect the interests of her constituents faced with similar problems. I am sure that she will want to ensure that the same protection is available to people in Stockport, Solihull, Meriden or anywhere else.

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