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We have heard a great deal about housing need today. During a period in which 3,000 council homes were sold off, the building of only 1,300 social homes has been allowed. During that time, I have seen the number of families on the housing register rise from 1,000 to 4,000. The basic figures in themselves represent an appalling indictment of the total failure of the Labour Government’s housing policy. The Government’s inability to provide the homes that are needed has increased the misery of those living in overcrowded accommodation, and the pressure on that accommodation must be relieved. That, along with social changes such as more single families and the fact
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that few of us are living with our parents, is one of the reasons we need new homes. Parents on both sides of the family died last year, but I must confess that when I was a young man the last thing that I wanted to do was live with the in-laws or the outlaws—I wanted to set up a home with my wife. Again, that creates extra pressures.

The other problem is our growing elderly population. We need to bring in immigrant workers to maintain the tax base and to ensure that elderly people can afford to retire in dignity. All those factors are creating extra pressures. That does not mean, however, that we should not give careful consideration to housing development and where it is placed. Increasing audit is an idea that has much to commend it, although I would not want the Bill as it stands to be passed. It has some merit in some parts, so I shall not oppose it at this stage. I have grave reservations, however, about some of the detail and some elements of the Bill.

One of those reservations relates to how this Bill will link up with local development and the work that local government ought to do—and that some parts of it are doing—to audit the provision of services and the needs in an area at the same time. It might not be this Bill per se that is needed, but a responsibility on local authorities to have a more wholesale approach. Perhaps we ought to plan the infrastructure that is needed rather than having the current piecemeal, ad hoc approach.

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman will find that the guidance on the production of regional spatial strategies provides for exactly that.

Richard Younger-Ross: There is some element of that, and I have looked at some regional spatial strategies. In relation to district councils and more local problems, I have not seen that approach. I will be interested to see how the provision works its way through, and whether it ultimately delivers anything.

There are some other difficulties relating to predictions and auditing. The hon. Member for Wealden referred to auditing in relation to hospitals, and gave some figures on growth of hospital need. That is a difficult calculation, because it depends on what basis is used. Were we to take a crude figure of 400 bed spaces in the local hospital, we could say that a doubling of the population would necessitate 800 bed spaces in 10 years’ time. That does not quite follow, however, because we must take account of the changes in hospital care. With micro-surgery, keyhole surgery and other techniques, more people are being kept in hospital for shorter periods. Therefore, even were the population to double over a period, the number of bed spaces needed might be only 600, not 800—an increase, but not a doubling.

I therefore have some reservations about the crudity with which the Bill operates at some levels, which might cause some difficulty. That does not mean, however, that it is not worthy of debating in Committee. One good reason it is worthy of such debate is that it would show the paucity of some of the Government’s action in the past.

The hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) mentioned the definition of “significant”. I hope that I have pronounced her constituency name correctly, as
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Members are always mispronouncing my constituency’s name—it was mispronounced earlier. The Bill refers to 150 houses as “significant”. My background is in architecture, and one does not have to be bright to work out that if “significant” is 150 houses, a developer looking to build 300 houses would build 298. He would build 149 now, which he would get through without the additional burden. A couple of years later, as he had land-banked the land—given the size of the development, one does not build 300 houses in one go anyway—he would put in another application for a further 149 houses. He would therefore get round that definition a second time. That difficulty and failure would need to be addressed, but that does not mean that it is not an important thing that should be tackled.

My constituency is beautiful—from Widecombe in the Moor, across lots of Dartmoor, to rural coastal towns. The building of 150 houses in Widecombe in the Moor would be devastating. Developers would never get consent from the national park authority anyway, but the principle of the argument is that far fewer houses would be significant in such areas in their impact on doctors’ surgeries, on roads—the roads are narrow and Devon banks are very high—and on other parts of the infrastructure. A far more flexible approach would be required.

I come to the next stage of the problem in how we deal with the planning process. Part of the difficulty is that many of the services have been privatised. By their nature, such services will respond only once there is a market. Therefore, water companies will by and large look at resolving the problem after demand has been created. In some cases they do not even do that, which is why Thames Water is getting itself into hot water, as it were. We have to find a way—special planning begins the process—to get the infrastructure in place before construction or at the same time.

That cuts across—without digressing too far—much Government thinking in other areas. Very often, funds from the closure of a care home, for instance, will be used for another facility, but the care home is closed before the funds are made available and the other facility is not provided for two years. Exactly the same applies in planning. We cannot leave a gap of two years between the creation of the need and the construction of the road, the extra water supply, hospital or school.

The hon. Member for Wealden criticised the Government’s proposal to change section 106 agreements. Let us be clear: section 106 agreements are a form of bribery. A developer comes along and says, “Right, I want to build 150 houses. What do you want—a new school, a new link road?” That is how it works. Small parishes might really want a new school and somebody might come along and say, “I know that you really don’t want 150 houses; you only want about 50. But you allow us to build 150 and we’ll build you a new school.” That is the reality in this country and that is why getting rid of 106 agreements is an exceedingly good idea.

I have reservations, too. The idea that the funding will go into a pot and move out of the local authority is deeply worrying. I would like to be assured that there is some way of getting that money back into the community to pay for infrastructure. I am somewhere between the two: I am not convinced of the Government’s proposal, but I know that the way in which 106 agreements work at the moment is deeply flawed.

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Mike Gapes: On the point about 106 agreements, does the hon. Gentleman agree that many local authorities do not use their powers effectively and that sometimes they agree to housing developments without taking account of implications for school places five, seven or 10 years down the line?

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point; local authorities often do not take such things into account. A developer in my constituency said following the process, “Cor! They were a soft touch. We would have put in twice as much money if they had asked us.” The system relies on the skilled negotiations of the planning department in extracting as much money as possible. Planners are good at spatial design; we do not train them to be negotiators and to extract money from developers. That is not part of what they are taught at college.

Comments have been made on the intentions behind the Bill. In neither the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Wealden nor the speech made by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) did I find one hint of nimbyism. Perhaps some local authorities would use the Bill for nimbyism, but existing legislation is used for that purpose. However, to accuse the hon. Gentlemen of that is to do a disservice to them and to the Bill. For my part, I think that the Bill has some merit. Sadly, I doubt that it will get much further, but it has given rise to an interesting debate and raises serious issues that the Government need to tackle.

2.20 pm

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): As an MP from the north-east of England, I wish that we had some of the problems that have been identified in the south-east—too much work, too many people wanting to live in the area, too much investment. If we had some of those problems, I might share some of the views that have been expressed today.

I live in a village that was the epitome of a sustainable community. It was a mining community that was first developed in the early 1820s, when a local colliery was sunk. They started building houses in 1832: the houses were part and parcel of the job of the miners and remained so for the next 150 years, becoming part of the village scene. Not only were there houses that working people lived in, but the miners’ union developed houses for retired miners who had been thrown out on the streets when they finished working so that they could remain in the community. The people developed parks, sanatoriums, welfare systems, football fields, cricket clubs and brass bands. It was the epitome of a sustainable economy—sorry, a sustainable community; it was anything but a sustainable economy.

Unfortunately, everything changed when the Thatcher Government, in their wisdom, decided that it was a good idea to do away with this country’s indigenous coal industry. As a direct consequence, they destroyed thousands of homes and hundreds of communities throughout the country—homes that were valuable to the people who lived in them but that, unfortunately, had no real value on the property market. They were in areas where there was no work and people had no interest in moving there; they continued to be lived in by people who could not afford
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to move out because the houses had no market value. Eventually people did move out, or elderly people moved into homes or, sadly, died in their home, and the local authorities brought in people that they could not house elsewhere. That led to a spiral of despair: drugs, burglary, petty crime and violence sucked the life out of the communities.

Now, houses are being pulled down and we need new ones. We need new houses in a way that we have not needed them before. We do not need restrictions or any form of nimbyism to prevent the development that we need. We want high-quality, environmentally sound houses that our young people can afford to buy and live in. We do not want obstacles such as the ones that we faced when we were younger put in the way of positive, quality developments for the people of the future.

We in the north-east do not have some of the other problems that have been identified today. We have a plentiful water supply, mainly because we developed resources such as the Kielder reservoir. It was created to help the steel industry and the coal industry in the north-east, but in the 1980s, the Tory Government decided that they did not want to use British coal to keep the steel industry going; they bought Polish coal instead. As a result, we have a reservoir with underground links to three main rivers, but the water is not needed except for public consumption. We do not have the problem that affects the south-east, so why should we in the north-east be subjected to the limitations that the Bill would impose?

We do need infrastructure development. We need investment in new roads, we need our railways infrastructure to be built up and we need more and better housing. We are seeing quality development in houses and businesses across the north-east, but we want more. Obstacles are being thrown up in certain areas, with people saying that they do not want building in their area because they think that they have enough. That is nimbyism and it is not helpful. What my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) said was nimbyism, clearly is. It may be a sophisticated term and I am not the man to ask about sophistication, but it is clear that, if the Bill goes through as it stands, we will have a situation in which a private company can say, “We aren’t satisfied that we can deliver in the way that you are asking us to.” To me, that is a built-in veto.

If private companies such as Thames Water cannot produce enough water for the people of the area to use, why should we allow them to dictate the system and stop development? I have just moved into this area. I have bought a flat in Wandsworth common. I am told that I need to go carefully with my water. I am paying for it, so why should I go carefully with it? Twenty years ago, those people were allowed to take control of our public water supply—helped by investment from the Government. We were told that part of the deal—the reason we were giving control to the private companies—was that those people would develop the infrastructure, look after us and make sure that we had water, without any problems. That is not the case.

What is Thames Water doing to improve my water supply? Is it fixing the leaks? Is it employing mechanics and engineers to dig the roads up and put the leaks right? It has put adverts in the newspapers and on
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billboards to say, “This is how much more water we will provide for the next 10 years.” There are adverts featuring Battersea power station and other buildings in London. Those adverts say, “This is how much water we will save.” Instead of talking about it, Thames Water should get on with it. It has had 20 years to get on with it and unfortunately it has not succeeded.

It is clear that one of the drives behind water privatisation was that promise, and that promise is not being delivered. Why, then, should we allow those people to say to us, “We aren’t satisfied that we can deliver. Therefore we will block what has been suggested.” Those involved in running the sewage system can do the same, as can the Environment Agency and the people who get rid of our waste. In the area where I live, there are massive issues about waste disposal. There are already big planning arguments involving companies such as Sita which have long-standing contracts in our area to fill up old quarries and mine shafts. They are having massive planning arguments under present legislation. Why should we give them another veto so that they can say, “We are not satisfied, therefore this cannot go forward.”? That is not right or proper. That may not be the intention of the Bill, but I am convinced that it is how some people will use it.

The difference between what happens now and what is proposed is that, at present, any developer has to consult certain bodies. It has to say to people who provide waste systems, sewerage, water and power, “Can you deliver for us?” and they can say yea or nay. What they cannot do, and what the Bill will mean they can do, is say, “We aren’t satisfied we can do it, therefore you can’t move forward.” That is what we will end up with. Lectures from the Conservatives, who sold off social housing and then refused to build more houses to replace it, do not in any way enamour me of taking lessons from them on providing sustainable communities and decent-quality affordable housing for our young people. That is what this is about.

Mr. Soames: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Anderson: No, I will not, because the hon. Gentleman would not give way to me.

One of the questions that the hon. Gentleman raised was, how can we save water? Well, we could say to some of the millionaires in the south-east, “Why don’t you turn your swimming pool into a sandpit?” That could go a long way towards saving some of the water that we need. The clear intention in the Bill is nimbyism. The intention is to stop things moving forward and to block the development of quality housing in a particular area. That will have a massive impact on the rest of the country and that should not be allowed.

2.28 pm

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): We have had an excellent debate. I hope that the Bill can now move quickly to Committee. I commend it to the House.

2.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has been an interesting debate, but we have had a lot of
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bluster about proposals that would add absolutely nothing to the processes that we already have in place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) rightly said that the Bill amounts to sophisticated nimbyism. The current planning processes and the regional spatial strategies, linked with the local development framework, do everything that the Bill sets out to do. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) is completely wrong to say that there are no provisions for consultation with relevant organisations and with local and strategic health authorities.

It being half-past Two o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 20 October.

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Remaining Private Members’ Bills


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 20 October.


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Monday 17 July.


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 20 October.


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 20 October.

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