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5.59 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Sadly, that was a characteristically disingenuous speech by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who, as a past planning Minister
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should know better. It was preposterous and beyond belief to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was in any way suggesting that people wishing to extend their houses—adding porches, patios, sun lounges or whatever—would not be able to do so. I will return to that, but I thought that the record needed to be set right straight away.

I am immensely grateful, as my constituents will be, to my hon. Friend for moving the motion. It is a specific and important issue that needs to be fully addressed. The person to whom we must be most grateful is my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has done so much on this subject. I recently addressed a public meeting in my constituency at which a resolution was passed that I should thank him, and I now do so publicly, on the Floor of the House.

The reason why this is an important debate is that it affects so many constituencies. As the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) said, it affects Members in all parts of the House, and the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells has been signed by Members of all parties. The most telling interventions came from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the hon. Members for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), all of whom rightly pointed out that the problem is huge in their constituencies. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South said to the Secretary of State, she has to do something to put it right.

I represent a largely suburban constituency; it is not rural. We have had terrific development pressures; we have taken more than our fair share. Greenfield sites have been built on, and more will be built on in the next few years, to provide much-needed social and other housing. What desperately upsets my constituents, whether they live in Bracknell, Sandhurst, Crowthorne or Finchampstead, is building on gardens.

That was when the Secretary of State showed that she is not yet up to speed with her brief. I am confident that when the Minister for Housing and Planning winds up the debate later she will correct the record and be more positive. My constituents will be appalled at the Secretary of State’s saying, “Oh, this is just something about building between houses.” That is not at all the case. We are talking about developers offering huge sums of money to people, one after another, to have their usually modest bungalows or houses knocked down so that the site can be redeveloped as a block of flats. Those blocks of flats are not of sufficient density to lead to any more social housing, so people in Bracknell Forest borough and Wokingham unitary authority who are on a long housing waiting list are not helped at all. The flats take a long time to sell or let, and they completely change the nature of the area in which they are built. They put terrific strains on infrastructure and are not wanted.

To answer the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich—I think that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove came to this conclusion too, although he took a little time about it—we need to give powers back to local representatives. Again and again, local residents oppose an application to build a block of flats on a site where property already exists. They are supported by their locally elected representatives—the Member of
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Parliament, the town or parish council and the borough council, and the planning authority turns down the application. What happens then? We all know that, again and again, the developer appeals to the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State and her inspectors come down in favour of the developer. We are left to pick up the bits and pieces.

Helen Goodman: The right hon. Gentleman has explained the problems in his constituency very clearly, but he appears to suggest that people are compelled to sell that land. Some of his constituents, however, make money by selling land to developers, thus destroying the neighbourhood for their friends and neighbours. Can he explain that anomaly?

Mr. Mackay: The hon. Lady has a distinguished record as an academic, so I am surprised by her intervention. We both live in the real world. If someone was offered half as much again for their property they would need a strong moral compass to refuse. We must ensure that local elected representatives make the final decision on what is built, as they will be held accountable for their decision when they seek re-election. If I may say so, the hon. Lady’s intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was much better than her intervention on me. She said that development could not take place in the hamlets in her part of the north-east, which caused unnecessary development elsewhere. If power were restored to her local planning authority and people wanted development in the hamlets—she suggested that they did—that development would take place. If elected representatives get it wrong on planning and do not provide sufficient housing, or if they allow unreasonable and intrusive development that people do not want, they will be slung out at the next election. Democracy works well because it concentrates the minds of elected politicians, and that is what we want to do.

May I return to my constituency to illustrate the strength of feeling on the issue? There have been two public meetings in Crowthorne, which is not a very big place. More than 500 people attended the first meeting—as politicians, we do not often attract such attendance—which I started to address inside the Morgan centre. However, the organisers were worried that many people were waiting in the crush outside, so I had to go out in the dark and address them in the recreation ground. It was like Gladstone and Disraeli again! The second public meeting was as full as the first, and it was attended by representatives of the other main political parties in my constituency. Everyone was united at that non-political event. It was characteristic of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich to play party politics but, mercifully, the Labour representatives behaved much more responsibly at that meeting. That is not surprising, however, knowing them and knowing him.

Finally, I would be grateful if the Minister for Housing and Planning responded to an initiative in Crowthorne. Local planning officials who came to the public meetings said that a village design statement would be helpful, so a group of hard-working independent people who had not taken part in objections to the development spent a great deal of time preparing such a statement for Crowthorne. It is extremely impressive, and the planners say that it will be made available to developers and other interested parties. It defines Crowthorne in a
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neutral tone—it is neither pro nor anti-development—and I would be grateful if the Minister told the House how much weight can be given to that statement, if she accepts my word that it is neutral and extremely professional. Will her inspectors, as well as the planning authority, take note of it? Bracknell Forest borough council and Wokingham unitary have both assured me that they will take it into account.

I want to end as I began, by arguing that the definition of brownfield sites must change. Brownfield sites are derelict; they are industrial or commercial developments that are no longer used. They are just outside redeveloped inner-city areas, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden made clear. They are not the gardens of existing houses. We want the definition to be tightened and changed. We also want an indication from the Minister and the Secretary of State that the democratically elected local politicians on planning authorities, and local residents, will be listened to far more than they are at present. If the Minister can give me that assurance when she winds up, I will leave the House tonight a very happy Member.

6.10 pm

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), I had anticipated that this debate would be much more wide-ranging than the motion on the Order Paper and would tackle serious housing issues. I welcome the Government’s amendment, which has widened the terms of the debate.

This debate appears to be a fig leaf—or any other kind of leaf—to cover the lack of Opposition policies for tackling issues such as homelessness and overcrowding. I hope that we will hear what we were all listening for: a full assurance from the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) that she agrees with the Government’s targets for increases in the supply of affordable housing, which is so desperately needed in areas such as my Luton constituency. There is a crisis in areas such as mine, where we have no option to build outside my area.

I do not recognise as accurate the hon. Lady’s portrayal of areas around inner cities that are simply lying in wait to be redeveloped. In my constituency, those areas are being, and have been, developed. We have no land for new building inside our conurbation; no infill development opportunities are available.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): My hon. Friend has expressed her thoughts on such areas of land, which it is claimed exist outside city centres in the south; as she said, they do not exist in practice. Might that therefore mean a Conservative party policy of building new towns throughout the south of England, and does she consider that an appropriate way to develop new housing there?

Margaret Moran: My hon. Friend makes a good point and I should be very interested to hear the response of the hon. Member for Meriden, because we deserve some serious answers, instead of the rather fantastical proposals that she advanced as so-called solutions.

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The crisis is imminent—it is upon us now, given the urgency of the problem of homelessness and overcrowding. There are 3,500 people on the housing waiting list in Luton. Some 60 per cent. are homeless, 20 per cent. are applying for a transfer, and the remaining 20 per cent. will never see the light of day in terms of housing. As of the last financial year, the council was receiving 130 housing applications per month. In addition, huge numbers of people are spending more than a year—sometimes two years—in temporary accommodation. The overcrowding crisis is such that I regularly see in my constituency office surgeries families of six or more who are living in two-bedroom flats. How can those families survive in those conditions?

Opposition Members’ solution to the problem is a flight of fancy; I want to talk about the reality. Throughout the country, some 900,000 children are living in similarly overcrowded conditions. Ethnic minority communities such as the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in my constituency are seven times more likely to experience overcrowding than other communities, but the problem ranges across every community in my constituency. Overcrowding has an incredible impact on the health of those families. A survey by Shelter found that 90 per cent. of the families questioned felt that overcrowding was damaging their children’s health; 93 per cent. of the severely overcrowded families surveyed said that they were experiencing depression, anxiety or stress; and 80 per cent. felt that the overcrowding experience was having a detrimental effect on their children’s chances of a good education, because there was simply nowhere for them to do homework, or to find space for playing or learning. The life chances of generations of children and families are affected by overcrowding.

The hon. Member for Meriden dismissed the idea of extensions to houses, but for many of those families, it is their only way of getting some small additional space. In addition to the short-term solutions to overcrowding that have been mentioned, we need to consider greater opportunities for extension of housing. That is happening in the owner-occupied sector and it is what most of us do if we own our homes—we build a loft and an extension. For people in the council and social housing sector, I have never understood why we cannot allow similar extensions within the social housing framework. The housing corporation in my area recently funded one such extension, built by Luton Community Housing, which I commend. In crowded areas such as mine that is often the only solution. I ask my hon. Friend to include that among the short-term solutions that we need to consider.

The Government have commendable plans—

Mrs. Spelman rose—

Margaret Moran: I am sorry. Because of the time constraints, I cannot give way, although I would love to take the hon. Lady’s intervention so that we could have a proper discussion.

At last we have a Government who are committed to extending affordable social housing. The Chancellor has said that he will invest in social housing and make it a priority in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.

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Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Margaret Moran: I am sorry, I do not have time.

That target is to be commended. The fact that Luton is part of the south midlands growth area strategy is our lifeline of hope for the thousands of people on our waiting lists, who are desperate for a transfer because of overcrowding and other needs.

One of the arguments deployed by the Opposition, apart from the garden issue, relates to infrastructure, which has been mentioned many times. Of course, the infrastructure needs to be in place for the sustainable development of affordable housing. In my area I cannot see any dereliction of duty on the part of the Government in terms of providing infrastructure—rather, the reverse. They have put millions of pounds into transport infrastructure, such as the widening of the M1 and the introduction of the east Luton corridor and the Translink rail system, all of which—together with plans for the expansion of London Luton airport, which we look forward to—will provide necessary transport and employment opportunities and other infrastructure measures that underpin the growth strategy.

I welcome the Government’s targets for the increased supply of housing—200,000 homes by 2016—but the recent excellent report from the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, “Affordability and the Supply of Housing”, goes further. We have not yet got the Opposition to agree the first target and I am asking for another, but let us be aspirational. Shelter believes that a further 20,000 homes are needed on top of the target, and I agree. It would be as well for the Minister in her winding-up speech to suggest imaginative ways of adding to the target.

We need to consider short and medium-term solutions to crises such as those in my area. Many families cannot wait four, five, six or seven years for the growth strategy to become a reality—for new homes to be available. I mentioned extensions. Converting existing homes should also be considered, although it is not straightforward. We need to deal with the issue of VAT on the refurbishment and repair of existing homes. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has raised consistently with the Chancellor, as have I, the point that there is no level playing field for VAT. I welcome the Chancellor’s moves to ensure a reduction in VAT to bring empty properties back into use, but we need to act further and faster to rehabilitate older properties, such as those in the most deprived area of my constituency, which takes me right back to what I was doing when I first entered the social housing field.

We also need urgently to tackle the issue of empty properties. As I have said, there are 680,000 empty properties nationally, which is 3 per cent. of the housing stock. There are a number of empty properties in Luton, and we should take cognisance of the Government’s existing target to reduce long-term empty properties by 25,000 by 2010, which would be a good start. The Empty Homes Agency has said that we need to be more ambitious given the scale of the crisis, and it has suggested the target of a 50 per cent. reduction by 2010 in the number of properties empty for more than six months. We need to be that ambitious, because the crisis is acute for the families I see day in, day out in my surgeries.

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The Government have gone beyond even my expectations. The previous Tory Government smashed investment in housing year on year, whereas this Government are committed to the necessary investment. However, I ask Ministers to move a little further, given the urgent crisis faced by families in our constituencies.

6.21 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): If you were to go down to Tunbridge Wells today, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would be sure of a big surprise. You would progress through some of the most beautiful leafy roads in Britain, which look at their best at this time of year. If you were to walk from the station, you would come before long to Forest road, where you would see family homes built in the 1920s and 1930s. Those homes have mature trees and gardens that teem with wildlife. The surprise is that you would be looking at a brownfield site.

An even bigger surprise is that those houses are under threat because of that definition. This is what happens: developers offer one of the residents a big cheque, and before very long the hoardings go up, the house comes down, the garden is ploughed up and the flats go in. In a short space of time, a road that has contributed to the character of an area for 50 or 60 years is replaced by a block of apartments and a parking lot. In those circumstances, the people who live next door think that the same thing will happen on the other side, so they panic and sell up. Within a short time, a domino effect ripples down such roads in my constituency and others like it, which completely changes the character of an area.

The biggest surprise is that that process is happening not only in Tunbridge Wells and the leafy south-east, but across the country. When I introduced a ten-minute Bill on the subject four months ago, I did not know that it would attract e-mails, telephone calls and letters from all over the country—from Stockton-on-Tees to Bristol and from Cardiff to Rochdale. All the people who contacted me said that their local areas are being degraded, while the affordable housing that we need is not being provided. I accept the need for more housing and, in particular, for affordable housing. But I am concerned that such garden-grab developments are being used to avoid the affordable housing requirement, because they involve less than 15 units of housing. Such developments are displacing the development of genuine brownfield sites and robbing the poorer members of our society of their entitlement.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the threshold for including social housing should be lowered to, for example, six or eight units, which would mean that a fair share of social housing would be developed on all sites?

Greg Clark: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Unfortunately, I am an Opposition Back Bencher, but I hope that the Minister may pick up his suggestion in due course. [Interruption] The hon. Gentleman and I have something in common—we are fellow opposition MPs.

The Secretary of State described our concerns as, in effect, a fiction, citing two reasons: first, that councils
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already have sufficient discretion to turn down such applications, and secondly, that the definitions have been consistent. I concede that the definition of brownfield sites has been around since 1985. However, it was never part of planning guidance, but merely a convenient way of recording statistics. Since then, two things have happened. First, the Government have introduced targets for building houses and for building on brownfield land. We all know that once one applies a target to a definition, that definition becomes important, which is why this definition is important now.

Secondly, the Government have introduced higher density targets. In 1997, the average density of new build was 24 units per hectare; now, it is 42 units—nearly twice as high. Under planning policy statement 3, that could increase to as many as 70 in urban areas. As they say, “Do the math”: if an existing home is to be replaced and those doubled, perhaps trebled, density targets are to be met, it cannot be done without the garden. There has been a material change in the environment.

Confirming my perception, the Library, commenting on these changes, said:

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