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The Government are concerned about nimbyism, but communities have to be brought along by professionals and not left behind by developers. The statutory requirement to deal with 85 per cent. of applications within 13 weeks has acted against the remaining 15 per cent., and has led authorities to refuse applications quickly rather than consider them more carefully. Who could blame local authorities for scrabbling to get the planning delivery grant when they struggle to keep council taxes down against a background of reduced or ring-fenced central Government funding? The result is that the proportion
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of refused applications increased by 14 per cent. between 2003 and 2005, so local authorities are taking decisions on rejection more quickly to meet targets rather than engaging a little more. They need the capacity to spend more time exploring applications. What is the Minister doing to address those problems and, in so doing, to assist local authorities, communities and developers alike with a professional planning process that is consistent, transparent and efficient?

There remains the prospect of another centralising measure in the form of the planning gain supplement that would funnel money straight into Treasury coffers. Why cannot those revenues go to local authorities, where they properly belong? My party favours a strengthened and simplified form of the arrangements under section 106 that have gradually grown and become more common. We could create a tariff system like that introduced by the Liberal Democrats in Milton Keynes, whereby communities could see the benefit of supporting new development and be less fearful of a lack of capacity in local infrastructure.

If the Minister thinks that local involvement brings a risk of nimbyism, she is wrong. The lack of community involvement is leading to disengagement with and suspicion of the planning process. I strongly believe that the planning process should not simply let residents air their concerns as part of a tedious precursor to inevitable and unstoppable development in which they have no real voice. Many of my constituents appreciate the fantastic views from their windows, but that does not mean that they value them more than having a place for their children and other people in their community to live. They do not, but they want to know that any new development will build communities, not just houses, and will benefit local people and not just developers and holidaymakers. That falls in with the “greed not need” argument put by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives.

The Liberal Democrats believe that involving local people means listening to them and giving them real control—and, yes, that does mean giving them the power to halt any proposed development. After all, what is the point of a system that allows for complaints but cannot deliver refusal? As my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) said in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, the test must be whether the system allows for a refusal.

With the right incentives—a local income tax and re-localised business rates might be a good start—councils and communities will feel much more moved to approve. I do not think that the proposal to offer individual incentives—or bribes, as they will surely become known—is helpful. Like the hon. Member for Pudsey, I can imagine a scenario in which growing lists of people object to things, saying, “I object, my neighbour objects, my dog objects,” and so on, on the off chance that they might be helped out with a bit of cash from the developer. That money should go through a section 106 reform system to be spent on local communities. It would be very unhelpful to give developers a get-out by allowing them to give some of that money directly to the neighbours to a project rather than to the wider community, which goes far beyond the immediate neighbours to a development.

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While housing is a key concern and was focused on by my hon. Friend, I want to address briefly the matter of supermarkets and city sprawl.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Member should address them briefly because we want to give the Minister time to reply.

Mr. Rogerson: Absolutely. I apologise, Mr. Olner. I shall be brief.

I agree with both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Pudsey that there should be a requirement to demonstrate need with commercial developments, particularly retail developments.

I hope that the Government will move towards creating incentives to renovate existing properties rather than allowing all the pressure that comes with new development. I hope that the Minister will take on board the suggestions that there should be greater status for planners and that the process should be simplified to make minor alterations to existing buildings. I hope also that she will resist the calls to create a new quango, to centralise section 106 moneys and to allow a new increase in the supermarket strangulation of town centres. The country deserves a more responsive and locally driven planning system that delivers healthier, wealthier and greener communities.

10.29 am

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Olner. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. His interest in housing and affordable housing is well known to the House, and his contribution was typically thoughtful and considered. Indeed, the debate is probably best described as being about two significant volumes: on the one hand, there is Kate Barker’s report; on the other, there is the hon. Gentleman’s 1989 publication “Cornwall at the Crossroads”. Those of us who love provincial literature have another name to add to the list of Cornish authors of distinction, and when we think of such writers in the future, we will think not simply of Winston Graham’s “Poldark”, Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” or even Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, but of the hon. Member for St. Ives and “Cornwall at the Crossroads”.

However, it is perhaps time that the hon. Gentleman picked up his pen again, because I would be interested to read a new book from him—one entitled “Liberal Democracy at the Crossroads”. His speech contained some interesting perspectives on the development of Liberal Democrat thinking, and as we all know, a healthy debate is going on in the third party about whether the future should be economically liberal or economically populist. I fear, however, that there was more that just a hint of economic populism in the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He attempted—briefly—to repeal the laws of supply and demand by suggesting that there was no real linkage between an increase in housing supply and the price of housing.

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One advantage of Kate Barker’s work—this backs up the work of most of the economists who have looked at housing markets in Britain and, indeed, across the world—is that it makes clear that, if one wants to tackle affordability, one must tackle supply. Although a variety of factors have driven up housing costs in this country and contributed house prices rising above the retail prices index generally—a trend that most of us consider malign—constraints on supply have undoubtedly been one of those factors. To attempt, however elegantly, to deny that linkage, as the hon. Gentleman did, is to seek refuge in economic populism rather than economic liberalism.

Andrew George: That is an interesting twist on what I said. The figures that I presented made the point that, in some areas, we cannot build our way out of the problem of a lack of affordable housing. That is especially true in an area where the housing supply has doubled—indeed, where it has increased faster than almost anywhere else in the country—but where local people’s housing problems have become worse. Of course, there is a national, broad-brush perspective, but the hon. Gentleman must surely accept that we cannot micro-manage development and meet the need for affordable housing from Whitehall.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. He is right that the national picture shows that there has been a shortfall between the number of houses that we have built and the number of new households that have been created—indeed, the Minister has drawn attention to that—and that shortfall has been one of the primary factors in fuelling house price inflation. However, the hon. Gentleman also makes a valuable point by drawing attention to the fact that there are specific local and regional markets in the overall national housing market.

All my concerns about Barker I—Kate Barker’s first report, on housing supply—relate to the way in which she argues that we should try to influence specific house prices in some regional markets by having targets for house building in those markets. That seems to be a step too far in the direction of manipulating prices on the basis of centralised state direction of supply. I believe in allowing supply and demand to come more happily into equilibrium by ensuring that we have a system that is more responsive to market pressure.

In that respect, although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about how second home buying affects the price of homes in his constituency, and I pay tribute to his attack on the politics of envy, we must recognise that the existence of recreational and second homes plays a significant role in the health of the economy in many rural parts of Britain by ensuring that they have a viable tourist sector and, therefore, remain economically healthy. Thanks to the alteration of council tax rebates, we have a way of ensuring that those who have second homes contribute more effectively to the community, but it is important to bear it in mind that attempts to restrict second home ownership, not least through the manipulation of the
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planning system and the use class order system, would be another lurch towards economic populism rather than economic liberalism.

Andrew George: I am pleased that the Conservative spokesman is clarifying the Conservative approach to second home ownership, but does he not agree that in areas such as mine, where second homes have increased in proportion and number, there has been a commensurate decrease in the number of hotels and guest houses that can compete in the market? The council tax discounts and other means that give second homes and holiday homes an advantage are damaging one of the basic elements of the local holiday trade.

Michael Gove: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern for the hotel and the bed-and-breakfast trade, but it is not for central Government to prescribe where people should stay when they go on holiday; it is for central Government to facilitate choice wherever possible. However, his plea that local authorities should be given greater flexibility when attempting to fill the gap in the intermediate market was well made. All hon. Members recognise that the rate of house price inflation has led to a growing intermediate market, with a growing group of people, whom we would not classically define as the sort of people who would wish to be in social housing, being incapable of competing in the full property market. There are several ways in which such individuals can be helped, including through low-cost home ownership schemes and the thoughtful provision of affordable housing in appropriate rural areas, and local authorities can play an important part in helping to provide such housing.

The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) made a fascinating speech, and I can only say that I am sorry that I was not there for the Adjournment debate that he secured earlier this year. Having read the speech that he made then and listened to his speech today, all that I can say is that he is—not all the time, but some of it—marching in time with the concerns of those on the Conservative Front Bench. In a speech on housing supply and affordability, which was made from the Conservative Front Bench last week, my colleagues and I made it clear that people who are concerned about development are not nimbys, but that they have legitimate concerns about the sensitivity and aesthetic quality of what is being built. They have concerns about over-intensive and, indeed, dense development, the lack of infrastructure and how communities are being steamrollered into accepting development, rather than brought along through consultation.

The Opposition represented all those concerns in last week’s debate, and the hon. Gentleman eloquently encapsulated them in his speech, but, sadly, they were either dismissed or overlooked by the Government. Pudsey has a proud tradition of having Conservative Members of Parliament, and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to take the opportunity today to cross the Floor and to join the party that better represents his interests on this matter, we would be delighted to welcome him.

Mr. Truswell: All that I can say is that talk is cheap. If the Conservatives in Pudsey and Leeds shared the hon. Gentleman’s views, they would be doing
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considerably more through the planning process to protect the communities that they purport to represent.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention is getting rather long, and we need the Minister to reply to all the questions that hon. Members have put to her. Would the hon. Gentleman wind up his intervention?

Mr. Truswell: If Conservatives in Pudsey and Leeds shared the hon. Gentleman’s views, they would draw up an action plan based on the 2004 Act, which would do considerably more to protect the communities that they supposedly represent.

Michael Gove: I absolutely take the hon. Gentleman’s point. We are both believers in localism, so I shall not stray into the concerns he mentions, but simply say that we both agree that local communities are often the best judges of what development should take place in their precincts.

As ever, the hon. Member for St. Ives made a thoughtful speech, in which he drew attention to the importance of community involvement. He also drew attention, as did the hon. Member for Pudsey, to some of the concerns that individuals might have about the introduction of side agreements—what some might term planning by inducement—which is one of the ideas entertained by Kate Barker.

Some people might also be concerned that Kate Barker opens the door to developers offering help by paying for planning consultants to facilitate developments in which they have a direct interest. As I am sure the hon. Member for Pudsey would acknowledge, that raises questions about conflicts of interest and the integrity of the planning system. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response.

Like the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson), I agree that the Barker report has good and bad parts. Kate Barker correctly identifies the fact that there is a problem with the planning system in this country and that it is overly complex and bureaucratic. However, as a result of her terms of engagement, she could not criticise the people who have been in charge of the planning system for the past 10 years—this Government. They have made it significantly more complex and bureaucratic.

Kate Barker’s role is that of an investigating magistrate who has been invited by the mafia to come to Sicily to explain why the crime rate is so high, and who knows that she dare not point the finger at the mafiosi who have invited her. I shall adapt the metaphor so that it might be more appropriate for the Minister. Kate Barker is in the position of a talented London Weekend Television producer called Peter Mandelson, who has been invited to advise the Labour party on why it had been unelectable for so long, but who is unable to refer to the party’s own policies in the course of his prescription.

If we were to look at what the Government have done to make planning more complex, we would see that they have added an additional layer to the planning process—the regional layer of planning. That regional involvement has made the process unnecessarily complex, and it has introduced delay. It
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has done more than that: it has constricted communities that wish to grow and prevented them from doing so.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members have drawn attention to the fact that some villages, towns and settlements in their communities wish to have new housing development, but because, under their regional spatial strategies, the development is considered unsustainable or unviable, or because planning targets for that region have been hit, a moratorium has prevented them from expanding.

One of my specific concerns is that if villages and towns are to remain sustainable and viable, they must be allowed to expand. One of the concerns about how regional spatial strategies have been implemented is that specific villages wishing to grow and to sustain local shops have been told that they cannot do so. As a result, there will not be the services to keep those villages sustainable, because there will not be the required number of people.

I pay particular tribute to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), both of whom have vividly drawn attention to the problems that their constituents face as a result of regional planning guidance preventing new housing from being built. I should also say that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) has also drawn attention to the way in which the RSS in the south-west has prevented growth from occurring.

Kate Barker draws attention to a worrying new concern: such regional bodies, which are out of touch, unaccountable and unelected, could be given a new planning power to redraw the green belt. It is vital that we recognise that the green belt has afforded useful environmental protection for many of our settlements and for the country as a whole. Of course local communities retain the right to permit development in the green belt if they believe that it will enhance local amenity, but if an unelected body were to redraw the green belt, we would no longer have community involvement in securing that protection or in enhancing it. Will the Minister let us know whether she welcomes that weakening in national protection?

In addition to the regional layer of bureaucracy, the report opens the door to another new layer of bureaucracy, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall pointed out. It contains the idea of a national planning commission, which, once again, would be a new, unelected, unaccountable and distant quango. It would not replace ministerial powers, because it would operate alongside them. As Kate Barker points out, there will be no change in the 2004 Act and in the effect that ministerial powers will have. Once again, we will see that the Government’s answer to bureaucracy and complexity is yet more bureaucracy and greater complexity.

10.44 am

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this wide-ranging debate.
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He is right that this was the Treasury’s week for responding to the Adjournment debates, but I assure him that I have always taken the view that it is unwise to allow the Treasury to respond on one’s behalf if one can possibly avoid it. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) that I take that approach at the breakfast table as well as on the Floor of the House.

Hon. Members have raised a series of issues on both the first and second Kate Barker reviews. I will try to deal with the reviews in turn, because it is important to distinguish between them. The first Kate Barker review on housing was done several years ago. The Government published a detailed response and are taking forward a range of detailed policies, some of which reflect her precise recommendations. Others reflect the aims behind them, although the approach to the implementation differs significantly. We have taken the time to deliberate and we have changed many areas in response to the first Barker review.

We have not yet set out the Government’s position on the second report. We have welcomed it, and we think that it includes important overall analysis on the need to speed up and improve the planning system to support economic development. We have not yet taken a view on the individual recommendations, and we are keen to hear views on them, including the views of the MPs in this debate, before we do so.

It is also important to be clear that our response to the second Barker review will not change our response to the first one. We are already implementing our response in respect of our approach to housing and to changing planning for housing across the country. We have set out planning policy statement 3, which must now be implemented. We will not change that in response to the second Barker review, which looks more widely at economic development.

I wanted to respond first to the points made by the hon. Member for St. Ives about the overall analysis behind the first Barker review. He asked whether there is a need for greater housing supply. We think that there is a clear link between housing supply and long-term house prices across the country. This country’s long-term house prices are rising more rapidly than those of other countries, and our new supply is lagging behind increased demand.

The figures are clear. In the last 30 years of the 20th century, there was a 30 per cent. increase in the number of households and a 50 per cent. reduction in house building. More than 200,000 new households are being formed every year as result of the ageing, growing population and the fact that more people are living alone, yet historically we have been building an average of 150,000 new homes a year. That gap is unsustainable. We are increasing house building now—the most recent figure given was 170,000 new homes—but there is still a gap between rising demand and the growth in supply. That gap also fuels underlying house price pressures.

Research and modelling done in response to the Barker review suggests that if we were simply to carry on at the current rate of building, given that rising demand, the proportion of 30-year-old couples able to afford their own home would drop from more than 50 per cent. to nearer 30 per cent. in the next 20 years. Such a situation would be unsustainable.

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