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21 Jun 2006 : Column 1406

I hope that the right hon. Lady recognises that her Department’s responsibility for planning guidance and law on the one hand, and for building regulations and codes on the other, gives her a unique opportunity to bring together coherent and long-overdue policies to promote environmental sustainability, ensure the preservation of biodiversity and increase the affordability of housing.

As part of that comprehensive guidance, the Secretary of State should also make it clear that any proposed garden developments must comply fully with those criteria and that they will be refused if they do not. That is what my colleagues in Stockport and south Shropshire are doing, when they consider it appropriate.

Mr. Jenkins: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again. He is very generous. Was he as pleased as I was to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say at the Dispatch Box that she would revisit the planning rules, with a view to redefining them so that we can be sure that developments in back gardens are appropriate and in keeping with the environment? She also said that she would do everything that she could to give local authorities the power to ensure that.

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman makes a second very helpful intervention, and I thank him for it. I agree that it is good that the Secretary of State is prepared to move on this question. There is plenty of movement to be had, both on the specific matter of protecting gardens and on the more general point about ensuring that housing development is sustainable whenever and wherever it is built.

Andrew George: My hon. Friend is making a good point. On 5 October last year, I wrote to the Minister for Housing and Planning about developments in gardens and was informed in her reply of 24 October:

and so on, as my hon. Friend describes. However, when I showed that letter to my local planning department I was told that many of the applications it refused were given permission on appeal. Does he agree that that is a matter of great concern?

Andrew Stunell: Yes, my hon. Friend is right. Many letters written by Ministers to Members of Parliament are in the same vein as the one that he received. They say that such and such a decision is a matter for local discretion. Whether we ask about schools, social services or planning, we receive the same letter and it is absolutely meaningless, because local authorities do not have the flexibility or authority, and certainly not the money, to deliver on the choices that Ministers say that they can make.

The Secretary of State has a housing problem. An extra 500,000 families have been added to council house waiting lists since 1997 and 100,000 people are registered as homeless. As she said, the gap between homes built and households formed grows wider each year; it is substantial and will create ever-increasing problems of affordability and accessibility and for promoting sustainable
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communities, although I am pleased that she said clearly that she wanted to do something about it. She may hesitate to accept the motion, which we shall support. No doubt she will argue that to support it would in some mysterious way make the problem worse, but I urge her to recognise that bringing just a fraction of the 680,000 empty properties in England back into occupation would go a long way towards ameliorating the position, as would even half of the 1 million homes that her funded working group recommended be developed in commercial premises and over shops. If only a fraction of her working party’s recommendations were implemented there would be a tremendous step forward in housing availability.

Margaret Moran: I thoroughly agree with the hon. Gentleman about bringing empty properties back into use. Does he acknowledge the fact that the Government have, for the first time, introduced targets to bring long-term empty properties back into use by 2010? But is he aware that Liberal-controlled Luton council could not even provide me with the number of empty properties in the borough so that I could ensure that the council is acting on the Government’s intention to bring such properties back into use for homeless people?

Andrew Stunell: I am interested in the hon. Lady’s comments, because I have in my hand a table showing the number of empty homes by region, subdivided by authority, so there seems to be no problem about finding that information. Perhaps the hon. Lady did not ask in a polite enough tone of voice.

The Secretary of State should insist that when and wherever new homes are built they meet the highest environmental standards. Her Department must make a contribution to the Government’s overall aim of reducing carbon emissions and limiting climate change and the way in which she exercises her important responsibilities on planning and building regulations, regardless of the site of the houses, will offer opportunities in that regard. Our housing stock should at least be at the same level as the rest of western Europe in terms of sustainability and the reduction of environmental impact. We must not simply go for cheap and cheerful solutions that are expensive for the environment.

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Sadly, the Government amendment is silent on those key points; it is bland, vacuous and self-congratulatory. In contrast, we need the Secretary of State to acknowledge that providing sustainable and affordable homes is a key task for her and the Government that she supports. Today’s debate and the motion before us take a look at just a small aspect of a much broader major policy area that needs prolonged, thoughtful and urgent action.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I think that my hon. Friend may be about to come to his conclusion. I wonder whether he hopes, as I do, that when the Minister responds to the debate she will set out clearly how she is going to shift responsibility to local authorities to give them much greater discretion over the decisions that they take, so that there will be no need for groups such as the Rotherfield action group, which is trying to stop four detached houses being demolished and turned into a development of 30 or 40 flats. We need to hear from the Minister how the local community can have its say on that matter, but also on other controversial issues such as telecoms masts.

Andrew Stunell: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, except when he talks about responsibility. Ministers are only too willing to transfer responsibility, but they are not willing to transfer the power and money to implement those responsibilities. Surely that is what is needed.

We have had a wide-ranging discussion so far and no doubt it will go further in the remainder of the time available to us. I hope that the Secretary of State will not waste the opportunity to make sure that her Department redoubles its efforts to deal with housing and planning issues to give us sustainable communities and a safer world to live in.

Royal assent

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Work and Families Act 2006

Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006

Children and Adoption Act 2006

HBOS Group Reorganisation Act 2006

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Question again proposed, That the original words stand part of the Question.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I should remind the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. Thirteen hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye and there is less than an hour before the winding-up speeches. I just mention that so that hon. Members can try to exercise a degree of self-restraint in order to accommodate as many other hon. Members as possible.

5.47 pm

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): I will start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) on one point: the importance of housing as a subject and the expectations that many of us had when we first understood that there was going to be a housing debate today. We hoped that we would hear from the Opposition on a number of rather important issues. They include how we can expand the supply of new homes, both for sale and for rent, in areas where they are needed; how we can ensure that we have sustainable developments that will prove attractive for people to live in for many years ahead, and that we do not repeat the mistakes of some past patterns of development that have not proved satisfactory; how we can raise design standards and environmental performance in housing and so reduce carbon emissions; how we can help first-time buyers to get a foot on the ladder and extend opportunities for affordable home ownership; how we can ensure an adequate supply of rented housing for those who need or want to rent, rather than buy; how we break down some of the pernicious divisions between tenures that characterised much of 20th century housing policy; how we can ensure better provision for the homeless and for those requiring support and care, as well as a roof over their head; and how we can best continue to improve the conditions of poorer-quality housing and areas in need of regeneration. We would have liked to hear from the Opposition on those, and many other vital issues for housing, but, sadly, we were disappointed.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend add one more issue to his list? I am talking about how to bring the 680,000 empty houses back into useful occupation without that being depicted as the confiscation of the houses of widows who just happen to be in hospital at that moment. That is the level of debate.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes an important point about empty properties. As I was indicating, there are many other issues in addition to those that I highlighted that could usefully be considered.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Raynsford: No, I will not give way any more, because we are time limited. I am afraid that there is
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now the likelihood of a list system. If one starts listing things and gives way once, everyone else wants to get in to make their particular point. I will therefore take no further interventions.

Mr. Burns: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to have to raise a point of order, but I had hoped that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) would give way to answer this question. Given the right hon. Gentleman’s entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, does he think that it would help the House if he would declare it, if it is still accurate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: We rely on all right hon. and hon. Members to declare any interest that they believe is relevant to the debate that is taking place. That is a personal matter for them.

Mr. Raynsford: Just to avoid any possible uncertainty on the matter, I should declare that I am the chairman of the NHBC Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that makes grants to voluntary housing bodies and other organisations undertaking research in the housing field. I was a member of the board of the Notting Hill housing trust, but in case the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) was thinking of that interest, I must add that I no longer am.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a remarkable shift in the location and character of new housing development. Whereas new housing in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Conservative party was in government, was characterised by sprawling development which was often poorly designed, of low density, usually on greenfield sites, usually exclusively for sale, and ate remorselessly into the countryside, in recent years there has been a dramatic increase of mixed tenure developments on brownfield sites, and a great step forward on the regeneration of many of our inner-city areas. There have also been real improvements in the quality of design and environmental performance. We have not gone as far as we should, but there have been very fine exemplars of good development.

I recommend a visit to Greenwich to any hon. Member who doubts that. They would see there not only some of the country’s finest historic architecture—several hon. Members have praised the quality of the architecture in their constituencies, but I give way to no one in that regard—but exemplars of high-quality new housing development, such as the Greenwich millennium village and the regeneration of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. They are clear illustrations of how wrong the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was to claim that garden development is diverting development away from the more appropriate regeneration of brownfield sites. There could not be a clearer illustration of how totally wrong she was, so I hope that she will come to see the fine regeneration taking place in Greenwich.

Mrs. Spelman rose—

Mr. Raynsford: I said that I would not take any more interventions, but I will give way to the hon. Lady because I referred to her.

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Mrs. Spelman: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman; I gave way to him during my speech. The site to which he refers is of course exceptional because everyone will remember it as the site of the dome. It is thus in a category of its own in terms of its need for regeneration.

Mr. Raynsford: Again, the hon. Lady is wrong. There is not just the dome but the Greenwich peninsula, the Woolwich Arsenal and the Kidbrooke regeneration. There is a series of major sites on which we are seeing high-quality new urban development. The hon. Lady seems to shake her head—she does not want to know. Her whole attitude has been one of visceral hostility to new housing. We heard that for years during the previous Opposition regime, when she was given a fairly free rein to oppose housing developments. She now has to choose her words slightly more carefully, but she has the same message: hostility to housing.

The quality of the Greenwich development should not be in any doubt. That development ensures that people have good-quality homes to rent or buy; the two types are side by side, and mostly indistinguishable. It is planned so that there is easy access not only to public transport but to schools, health centres and other public services. There is a stunning ecology park that is doing more for biodiversity and wildlife than was ever the case on that formerly polluted gasworks site. In summary, the exemplary new development has been created as a result of, and is an exemplar of, the Government’s housing and planning policies. It is because of such developments—and there are many more—that more than 70 per cent. of new homes are now on brownfield sites, compared with about 50 per cent. or less in the Tory years.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out, the proportion of residential development on land previously residentially developed—land that might include former gardens—was greater in the 1980s when the Conservative party was in power than it is today. It is intellectually untenable for the Opposition to suggest that the increase in brownfield development in recent years has reflected the gobbling up of gardens in suburbia. That simply is not the case.

There has been a serious oversimplification of the issues. The Opposition have tried to present the situation as a case of rapacious developers seizing and building on back gardens wherever possible. There are instances where that is happening, and that should be resisted. Inappropriate development in back gardens would not have my support. However, there are also appropriate infill developments that make use of land that has not been used well, and is in locations where there is good access to transport and other services, which makes it sustainable, and the quality of the area is enhanced as a result. We should distinguish between the two.

Greg Clark: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I do not have time; we are time limited.

As I made clear in my intervention on the hon. Member for Meriden, there are a large number of proposals to extend existing properties, perhaps to provide more accommodation or a conservatory, which involve building on garden land. Many of the home owners
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who aspire to have more space and who would like the opportunity to have an extension or conservatory should be warned that if the Opposition had their way, that development would become much more difficult, because there would no longer be an assumption that any such site might be regarded as brownfield.

Hon. Members should bear that in mind. The Opposition’s simplistic and misleading approach is in danger of distorting the debate. We need to try to achieve high-quality development that meets good-quality design standards, including the high environmental standards that we want in our housing development, and makes sure that communities work together and are vibrant and successful. That was very much the thrust of planning policy guidance note 3, which was issued in 2000. The Opposition now decry it, but I take a certain amount of pride in it because I was the Minister with responsibility for planning when it was prepared and issued. It put the focus on increasing brownfield development and on better-quality design. It shifted the emphasis significantly in that way, and gave a strong thrust towards sustainability objectives, all of which I stand by—and I hope that the House would do the same, because they are important measures of quality in development. We should be trying to achieve those objectives to ensure that inappropriate, poor-quality and badly designed development proposals are rejected, and that good-quality appropriate developments on garden sites are supported. The House should be adopting that approach.

The hon. Lady has, over many years, found every opportunity to oppose housing developments. She has got into that mode again, although she tried to qualify it, as I implied, by saying that she was in favour of lots more housing, but did not agree with the Government’s proposals and was worried about where the housing would be, what sort it was and how it would be built. Those are precisely the arguments that allow her to sit on the fence and say, “I do believe in more housing,” to please the house builders, while at the same time saying, “No, no. We will resist housing developments,” to please the people in her party who remain viscerally opposed to new housing development.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but there has been a slight error with the clock. I can give him one more minute.

Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I assure you that I require less time than that.

The hon. Lady paid lip service to the idea of more housing, but behind that was the continued opposition, using any means possible, to new housing development. I am afraid to say that the Opposition have revealed that they remain a party that is not seriously thinking about how new housing development should be promoted and supported where it is needed, but still has its old perspective on opposing housing. I hope that the House rejects their motion.

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