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Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are truly to give local authorities the ability to make these decisions, perhaps they should not be overruled so often by a body that would not know the local area if it jumped up and hit it in the face?

Greg Clark: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that provides a useful opportunity to clarify the purpose of my Bill and the motion. We do not want to preserve in aspic every garden in the country but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) said, to return to a situation whereby local authorities—democratically elected representatives —make case-by-case decisions.

The Secretary of State suggested that the situation that we described was exaggerated, or even a fiction, almost as if our constituents were suffering from the delusion of the emperor’s new clothes and imagining something that did not exist. A couple of months ago, the previous Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), said:

Our constituents take them seriously, as they are aware that it is going on. Last year’s figures show that 15 per cent. of residential development is now on garden-grabbed sites—that is, one in six new homes.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that provided that local authorities are given the responsibility of finding
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housing for young people to help them to get on to the housing ladder, there is no problem in giving them the final decision, rather than an interim decision, on whether housing development should go ahead and housing densities should reflect the concerns of local people?

Greg Clark: I entirely agree. If we treat local people as infants and do not allow them any say but only to kick out against decisions taken from afar, it is no wonder that we see such pent-up anger in our constituencies. I trust the people in my constituency to make the right decisions. They want to have houses and flats for their children and grandchildren, but they want to preserve the character of the area. They are able to strike that balance, and I trust them on that.

In introducing my ten-minute Bill and tabling an early-day motion, I was not trying to make a partisan political point. I believe that a mistake was made in the definition at a time when it did not matter, and we have an opportunity to correct it. The Minister for Housing and Planning can do that easily. All it requires is a change in the language of planning guidance. She can do it in PPS3. If she does that, she can look back on her tenure in the Department in the knowledge that she contributed something of lasting value to all our constituents. Hon. Members of all parties support that—we are making a cross-party plea.

If the Minister does not do what we propose, I fear that, in 30 years, we will look back on what has happened in the same way as we now look back on the destruction of some of our city centres, razed to make way for bland shopping centres. We will wonder why on earth we allowed it to happen. The Minister has a chance to prevent that, and I urge her to take it.

6.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): Like several of my hon. Friends, I am disappointed by the narrowing of today’s debate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that it was two years since the Opposition previously asked for a debate on housing. The debate before that took place four years earlier. In the past five debates on housing for which the Opposition called, I note an uncanny consistency in that all the motions contained the phrase, “serious threat to the nation’s green fields”, or something similar. We have moved from that to a serious threat to the nation’s back gardens. We are narrowing the debate all the time.

I do not imply that the issue is irrelevant, but it is not the subject that an Opposition party that wished to set out its stall on housing would choose. My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) listed the many topics that we could consider. Even in the context of the motion, overdevelopment is an interesting subject and we could have profitably debated the fact that many developers try to overdevelop inner-city sites. However, the debate has been narrowed to such an extent that one has to ask why. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) suggested that the answer was shortage of policy. I would not go that far, but the Opposition display a reluctance to put any more than their toe in the water.

The Opposition are obviously conducting another spurious green campaign. My right hon. Friend the
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Secretary of State effectively demolished the argument in the motion by saying that brownfield development and the volume of green belt land have increased under Labour, that the percentage of residential land that is being developed has decreased and that local authorities have discretion in the planning process. None of the Opposition arguments makes sense and one must therefore ask why they have chosen the topic. I fear that it signals a return to “dog whistle” politics. It proclaims that, whatever the Conservative party says at the moment about being friendly and wanting to tackle the housing shortage, if people listen carefully, it is not genuinely in favour of development anywhere.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Slaughter: I would love to give way, but I am short of time.

I have had the privilege of living in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for some 40 years and I remember when there was a Tory-Liberal coalition there from 1978-86. Not a single council property, save for sheltered housing, was built in that time. Under a Labour administration, 70 per cent. affordable housing was built in the borough. To revert to the point that appeared to trouble the Opposition spokesman, any development of five or more homes had to include an affordable element. That was such a contrast with neighbouring Kensington and Westminster. I am sad to say that we now have another Conservative administration in Hammersmith and Fulham. Already, in only two months, developers tell me that they are coming under pressure to reduce to a minimum the percentage of affordable housing in schemes.

The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) is wrong about the mythical “Harry Potter” realm between the inner city and the suburbs, full of oases of brownfield sites that can be developed—but there are one or two, even in my constituency. In those places, the developers are being told, “It’s more difficult because of the Greater London authority and the 50 per cent. rule—but let’s keep it down as much as we possibly can.”

More widely across London, the figures for social rented housing completions since 1998 speak far more eloquently than any of the words of the Opposition can. In Tower Hamlets, the figure is 3,902; in Hackney, it is 2,563; and in Hammersmith and Fulham, it is 1,587. Let us compare those figures with that of Richmond, at 628, and Wandsworth, at 492. A borough that is twice the size of Hammersmith and Fulham managed to complete only a third of the number of social housing units in that time. The only other connection to be made is that it is the Conservative boroughs that are building the smaller numbers of housing units, and the Labour boroughs that are building the large numbers. I wish that I had time to go through all the figures, because the same applies to the current round of housing allocation. It is absolutely shameful that while Hammersmith and Fulham is planning to build almost 1,000 units in the current two-year period, Wandsworth—a borough of twice the size—is planning only 248.

Mrs. Spelman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Slaughter: I wish that I could, but I simply do not have the time.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) was kind enough to praise a development in Hammersmith and Fulham in a speech that he made earlier this year. It will therefore be of concern to him that every affordable housing development in Hammersmith and Fulham between 1986 and 4 May this year was opposed by the Conservatives in that borough. That is the truth about Conservative housing policy. We have heard “Don’t build it on greenfield sites,” and we are now hearing “Don’t build it on brownfield sites.” The Conservatives’ consistent policy is “Don’t build it.” That is the message that comes through loud and clear. They clearly think that they are popular, but they need to be clear that the dog whistle cannot go off pitch, because certain groups of people might be listening to it.

There are families with four children living in one-bedroom flats in my constituency—this is beginning to sound like the four Yorkshiremen sketch—but I cannot imagine that the Conservatives would be too concerned about them. However, they might be a bit more concerned about the young professionals and first-time buyers who are also desperate for accommodation, but who cannot get on the housing ladder—although the Conservatives did oppose the introduction of home sellers’ packs. They might also be concerned about the young families who are trying to trade up, but who have little chance of doing so in London. We need a better intermediate housing market for those people. The Conservatives are obviously not even concerned about the empty-nesters who are selling their properties to developers so that they can get a pension out of it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) pointed out.

I would advise the Conservatives to listen more carefully, although I would not advise them to orchestrate another debate on this subject within the next five or six years. The more we hear about the detail of their housing and planning policies, the more hollow they ring. Perhaps that is why they pulled the original subject for their debate and replaced it with this fig leaf of a debate instead. The Conservatives’ policies ring hollow because of their real opposition to the building of housing, particularly affordable housing, and the fact that they have nothing to put in its place.

6.38 pm

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): We have had a good debate this afternoon and passions have been engaged on both sides of the House. That is hardly surprising, because this subject goes to the heart of the central political question of our time—how do we maintain and enhance our citizens’ quality of life?

I should like to pay particular tribute not only to the Members who spoke in the limited time available, but to those who intervened, often to powerful effect. I should like to pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), for Castle Point (Bob Spink), for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), all of whom paid eloquent testimony to the way in which the Government’s policy denies their communities the types of housing and development that they need.

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The motion has attracted support from across the House, and I also want to pay particular tribute to the interventions by 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 three of them emphasised one of the weaknesses at the heart of Government policy. Given the way in which urban green space—gardens—is classified as brownfield land, developers who should be encouraged to move towards genuine areas of desolation cherry-pick garden sites for their housing developments instead. As a result, the admirable aim behind the Government’s policy, and our policy, which is to encourage urban regeneration, is undermined by an unfortunate misapplication of an originally well-intentioned policy.

As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), no great legislative change is required—an edict from the Minister for Housing and Planning could change a situation that, unfortunately, leads to the perverse outcomes to which the hon. Member for Sunderland, South and other hon. Members have referred.

Anne Main: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Michael Gove: No, I will not give way at this stage, but I thank my hon. Friend.

As has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), there is a consensus in the House on the need for new homes. That consensus has been led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), both of whom have made speeches recently stressing the need to increase housing supply in this country. The Government, in talking about increasing supply, have always concentrated on quantity, but unfortunately they have lost the plot—indeed, they have lost the garden plot—on quality. The debate provides an opportunity for the Government to make a fresh start and to show that they believe that, when encouraging development—the right sort of development—we must take account of people’s need to ensure that there is appropriate urban green space.

Talking of changing policy, I was particularly interested in some of the remarks made by the Secretary of State in her speech. She talked about the need to take tough decisions on housing. I pay tribute to some of the tough decisions that she has taken in her role as the MP for her constituency. In March 2005, she supported residents who opposed plans to build 200 new homes. In 2004, she supported residents in a successful campaign to stop 30 new flats being built in an area of Bolton. The year before, she played a leading role in blocking proposals for a block in the same area. In 2002, she fought against plans to build new homes in West Horton. Two years earlier, she celebrated with residents after she had blocked a proposal for 600 new homes. In 1999, she played a pivotal role in blocking proposals to build 1,100 new homes in her constituency. Indeed, Margaret Rothwell, the chairman of Bolton’s planning committee, said:

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That is an interesting record, but I come not to condemn the Secretary of State, but to praise her for defending the interests of her constituents, because that is what the motion is about—restoring to local communities the chance to shape their own environment.

The call put forward in the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells has attracted formidable cross-party support. I offer the Minister the chance to join that progressive consensus today. Forty of her colleagues and several senior Liberal Democrats have said that the motion is important, because they recognise that urban green space is good for the nation’s health, good for the environment and good for biodiversity.

The British Medical Journal has emphasised how good green space is for our health. It pointed out that in environments with a high level of greenery, there is three times the level of physical activity and 40 per cent. less obesity—both form targets that the Government want to encourage, yet their policy works against doing so.

On the environment, the World Health Organisation in its recent report “Green cities, blue cities”—I do not know why it chose that title, but I can only commend it to the House—said that where there is extensive urban greenery, not only are CO2 emissions absorbed, but oxygen is emitted. Tree leaves collect dust and the phyto-acids in trees act as bactericides. Our urban green space plays a key part in ensuring that our environment is cleaner.

On biodiversity, the university of Sheffield, in a recent study, pointed out:

However, under this Government, that nature reserve is increasingly being concreted over.

At the heart of the debate is the question of local accountability, as was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). At the moment, the combination of the Government’s policies denies local autonomy over not just the designation of gardens as brownfield land, but density targets. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells, the Library, which is independent, has recently drawn attention to the fact that that perverse trend has gathered pace under this Government. It pointed out that

The Library concludes:

In other words, local communities are robbed of control over their own environment because of the Government’s policies.

David Wright: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Michael Gove: Not at this stage.

The situation is likely to become still worse because of the changes to planning policy guidance note 3 in the new planning policy statement 3, which increases the density pressure. We recognise that, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) pointed out, some communities will want sensitive garden and infill development, and we believe that communities in which there is strong popular backing for such development should be allowed to go their own way. The problem with policy at present is that local autonomy is denied, and communities that wish to resist development are robbed of the power to do so.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) congratulated us on raising an important issue and, a second later, said that he was disappointed that we had selected this subject for debate. I am used to hearing Liberal Democrats saying different things to different audiences, but that was an example of one Liberal Democrat saying different things to the same audience. All I would ask the hon. Gentleman is: why have the Liberal Democrats not used any of their Opposition day debates to discuss housing and planning issues in the past? Let me give the House an assurance: I will talk about housing and planning whenever the Government give me an opportunity, and I shall be delighted to use any opportunity that may be extended by the Minister or the Secretary of State to hold the Government to account for their failure to deliver on their housing targets.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove asked my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden why she had not talked about rural housing affordability, supply generally or location. In fact, my hon. Friend explicitly mentioned all three. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the importance of football analogies; let me give him such an analogy. He took his eye comprehensively off the ball, and scored a series of own goals. [Hon. Members: “Very funny!”] I am grateful for those generous words.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), whose commitment to housing and planning is well known, made a fascinating speech. He understandably referred to the regeneration in his constituency, which in many cases I would applaud, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden pointed out, much of the investment there was due to the millennium dome. Given public investment on that scale, I am not surprised that there has been urban regeneration—but I doubt that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will allow the level of public expenditure in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency as a result of the dome to apply in the constituencies of the rest of us.

The right hon. Gentleman also suggested that we were opposed to patios and extensions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said, it is unfortunately the changes to council tax that the Government are contemplating that will discourage people from enhancing their homes as we would like them to do. Our policy would enable local authorities to allow precisely such enhancement.

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