2 Feb 2007 : Column 473

House of Commons

Friday 2 February 2007

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

9.33 am

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I beg to move, That the House do sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (Motions to sit in private):—

The House proceeded to a Division—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the Aye Lobby.

The House divided: Ayes 1, Noes 30.
Division No. 41]
[9.33 am


Burt, Lorely
Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Greg Knight and
Pete Wishart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr. James
Bottomley, Peter
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben
Clark, Greg
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Engel, Natascha
Flint, Caroline
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCabe, Steve
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McIsaac, Shona
Moffatt, Laura
Neill, Robert
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Purnell, James
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Spelman, Mrs. Caroline
Thornberry, Emily
Waltho, Lynda
Watkinson, Angela
Willetts, Mr. David
Tellers for the Noes:

Kevin Brennan and
Mr. Ian Cawsey
It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative.

Orders of the Day

Land Use (Gardens Protection etc) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.47 am

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Members often have to be in two places at once and, for me, today provides a poignant example. It is the day of the funeral of my chairman of planning, and I should be attending it, but I cannot. Therefore, I wish to dedicate this Bill to the memory of Councillor Les Kyles, as a mark of respect.

The Bill addresses a problem in the planning system arising from the classification of back gardens as brownfield sites for planning purposes, and therefore as a priority for development that even the most recent guidance is unlikely to solve. I am not the first Member to draw attention to this problem: my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) introduced a ten-minute Bill last July; last October, the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) had a private Member’s Bill on a similar subject; and also last year, early-day motion 2130 on garden definition gained 179 signatures from Members in all parts of the House. The repeated reincarnation of this issue in private measures shows that there is a genuine and growing problem.

As I have said in previous debates on planning, I do not think that the Government set out to make garden development—or garden-grabbing, as we know it—the centrepiece of their planning policy. The problem arose from a combination of factors: gardens being defined as brownfield for planning purposes, the emphasis on “brownfield first” development, and density targets being forced on local authorities. As a result, colleagues in all parts of the House will be familiar with gardens being divided up, sold off and turned into building sites. When they are part of a family-sized house, the house itself will often be demolished in the process to free up land for denser units of accommodation. That is happening all over the country—in the north and the south, in towns and villages and in cities and their suburbs. There is no doubt that it is happening, but why is it a problem?

Such chaotic and unplanned development is unsustainable in the long term and destructive in the short term. The fact is that the existing infrastructure cannot cope with such a drastic increase in housing density. Roads and drainage systems that were designed to meet the needs of bungalows and family houses are suddenly expected to serve a block of flats or multiple new houses. One property expert has spoken of instances where gardens behind a row of large Victorian houses have been built on, only for the owners to find that their baths would no longer drain properly at certain times of the day. In some of the low-lying villages in my constituency, when we have heavy rainfall the storm drains cannot cope now that so many extra houses have been bolted on to the Victorian sewerage system, which has drainage pipes as much as 100 ft below the surface. That property expert said:

One does not need to have a degree in engineering to realise the folly of a planning system that actively encourages such a mismatch between infrastructure and development. We must also consider the environmental impact that follows the loss of so much urban greenery. As David Attenborough recently pointed out in a programme on climate change, concreting over the soil surface has disastrous consequences for water supply and drainage.

Gardens are a vital source of biodiversity. For many who live in urban areas, they are the closest thing to the countryside that they can get. Gardens give people immediate proximity to nature and a safe outdoor space for children to play in. These things directly affect people’s quality of life and the Government admitted exactly that when they listed birdsong as a key quality of life indicator. The balance between green spaces and buildings goes to the very heart of what makes a balanced neighbourhood that is sustainable, cohesive and enjoyable for people to live in.

Clause 1 specifically acknowledges that fact by requiring planning authorities to have “special regard” to the preservation of gardens and green spaces. That duty would apply not only to the determination of planning applications, but to the formulation of medium and long-term planning policy generally. The clause does not automatically prohibit development on garden sites, but it does caution planning authorities to have regard to the desirability of safeguarding gardens and urban green spaces. Members will be aware that that is already the case for listed buildings and conservation areas; the clause simply articulates an additional factor for consideration.

The point is that this provision would enable local planning authorities to exercise their own discretion over the occasions on which garden protection outweighs the interests of new development, and vice versa. At the moment, planning authorities have little chance of an objection on that ground being upheld on appeal. As a note from the House of Commons Library explained,

One of the main reasons why planning authorities are so disempowered is that the Government are obsessed with targets. The blanket imposition of density targets means that the characteristics of suburban living that attracted people to live in a particular neighbourhood are under threat as never before. People are angry about that, but what makes them even angrier is that, although the Government can remedy the situation simply and easily, they have so far refused to do so.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The situation that my hon. Friend is describing is exactly what is happening in Bournemouth. The South West regional assembly has imposed a target of 20,000 extra homes and, as a result, many houses are being knocked down and replaced by flats. Does she agree that councils do not have enough power to challenge such targets and that even the Government’s forthcoming proposals are not strong enough to enable us to escape
the developer’s paradise that is causing so many of our Victorian houses to be replaced by flats, without the necessary investment in infrastructure?

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He has got straight to the heart of the matter: where true power lies in any planning decision between the local, regional and national elements. Even the most recent guidance makes it explicitly clear that the region, thanks to the regional spatial strategy, which overrides local decision making, will have the last say. As a consequence—and as my hon. Friend and many Members are experiencing—local councillors cannot give expression to the wishes of the people who elected them.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): What would the hon. Lady say to people in my constituency, which has the least amount of green space in the whole of Britain, and where 13,000 families are on the waiting list for housing? What hope does her Bill offer those of my constituents who have been waiting for many years for housing?

Mrs. Spelman: I can give some comfort to the hon. Lady on protecting the small residue of green space that remains in many urban constituencies. The point of my Bill is that it would increase her local council’s capacity to protect what little green space she has. If she reads her own party’s most recent guidance, she will find that the preservation of open space is not referred to and that gardens are spoken about only in relation to new build. Just as she has 13,000 people on the housing waiting list in her constituency, I have 7,000 people in mine. I expect that her constituents, like mine, face the problem that flats built on the back gardens of Victorian properties are often beyond the pocket of those on the waiting list.

I have made it clear from the outset that I do not believe, and have never said, that the Government set out to develop back gardens. It is the unintended consequence of three different elements of their planning policy coming together. Rectifying the unintended consequence of back gardens being classified as brownfield, and thereby getting caught up in its prioritisation, would direct developers to genuine brownfield sites. There are many such sites in my constituency and in the city of Birmingham, which my constituency shoulders—and, I suspect, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). In that way, more affordable housing could be brought into the supply.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that her point is strongly reinforced by our experience in the London borough of Bromley, where, if anything, our greatest need in affordable housing is for family homes? However, the perverse result of the imposition of minimum density targets is a green light for developers to build small, flatted units, which is not what the demand is for. That, in turn, increases the gap that those who are trying to move up from their first home and into a family home have to bridge, and drives them out of London’s suburbs further into the south-east, thereby damaging long-term sustainability.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend. Since joining this House, he has been most assiduous in pointing out the plight of those seeking family-sized accommodation in his constituency. In fact, the Minister for Housing and Planning has acknowledged publicly that there is a shortage of family-sized housing. Whichever way we come at this issue, the unintended consequence of current planning policy has been the building of large numbers of flats. Moreover, flat owners are seeing their flats’ value increase much more slowly than other types of new build, because of the glut of flats on the market.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): Does my hon. Friend think that the housing crisis in London is down to the unintended consequences of the nationally and regionally remotely set targets for housing?

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend is right. In a sense, he asks a rhetorical question. I am trying to give the Government an opportunity to address the unintended consequence of their planning law. I genuinely do not think that they set out to make the housing crisis worse. We are all here to assist them in resolving a crisis in the affordability of housing. I am deeply concerned that the method by which the Government have chosen to try to end the housing crisis in London—giving the Mayor of London extra powers on housing and planning that have been removed from the London boroughs with their democratically elected councillors who sit closer to the problem and are more likely to achieve a solution—is not the right way to go about things.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the responsibility of locally elected councillors is to ensure that developments contain affordable housing and have shared equity schemes, as there are in Crawley? Is she ensuring that her councillors are doing that job?

Mrs. Spelman: Let me share another unfortunate and unintended consequence of the hon. Lady’s Government’s planning policy that is working against the desire of her councillors and mine to provide more affordable housing. The Government set a criterion that developments of 15 units or more should have a percentage of affordable housing. That varies from place to place from 25 to 40 per cent. I invite her to look at the number of developments that supply 14 units of accommodation in one block and escape the need to provide that affordable housing. By the way in which she nods her head, I see that we are in agreement on this. Such developments are an unintended consequence of a Government policy that, sadly, has had the opposite effect from what was intended.

Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: I want to make progress. I have taken several interventions.

The only people who are not losing out from the rush to develop back gardens are the developers and land speculators. For them, England is literally becoming a treasure island. Right now, land agents
may be putting this Bill and my speech on their website in a bid to convince people speculatively to buy plots of land in the expectation of being granted planning permission.

Along my country lanes, I regularly see speculative plots of land for sale. Does the Minister honestly believe that that is a symptom of an effective and sustainable planning policy? Is it really going to deliver the right homes in the right places? The truth is that the anomaly in planning has created a controversial and divisive scramble for gardens and urban green spaces.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that her Bill would help the neighbours of house owners who have plots—this also applies to plots owned by property developers—for which repeated applications are made? An elderly constituent of mine is resisting a fourth or fifth application to build on a neighbouring plot. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill will help those who are stuck in that position?

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend makes a most important point. My Bill is designed to help deal with repeated applications to develop back land. Such applications are divisive because they set neighbour against neighbour. When a developer comes along and knocks on someone’s door, it is sometimes difficult for people to resist the attractiveness of the offer that is made, but the consequence for neighbours on either side is the threat of a serious erosion of their privacy. Often, their garden or property ends up being overlooked by the new property, which may be multi-storey, that is erected. Even if the neighbours are successful through their local council in getting an application rejected at the first attempt, what we see over and over again are repeat applications, which almost wear down the democratic process until an application is granted.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): The hon. Lady speaks in general terms about what she sees as the problem. Is she aware of those local authorities that have used planning policy statements 3 and 17 to insert in their local plans policies that address that problem, using existing guidance and statements?

Mrs. Spelman: If what the Minister describes is working so well, why have 179 Members of Parliament on both sides of the House signed an early-day motion on the problem? Her colleagues from as far away as Birkenhead and Stockton-on-Tees have highlighted the fact that it is proving extremely difficult for local councils to resist applications for back-land development if, in the eyes of an appeal court, they fit the criteria of meeting the regional housing target and housing density criteria, which take precedence over more subjective considerations of suitability and the character of the neighbourhood.

Neighbour is being pitted against neighbour. Communities are being doubled in size almost on a whim. Infrastructure is crumbling under the pressure. The only defence that the Government have so far offered is that more houses must be built. That
argument is the logical consequence of a target-driven mentality, which focuses only on quantity rather than on suitability.

Mr. Slaughter: I am beginning to understand why the hon. Lady does not want houses to be built. Does she want any houses to be built? If she opposes targets, I do not understand how she could do it. The only target we know about from her is that she believes that Barker recommended too many houses, although she did not say what she means by too many. Perhaps she would like to tell us now.

Mrs. Spelman: I was discussing suitability, which is not the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. The House is getting tired of the way in which he distorts what people say. I did not say that we do not want more houses to be built. If he did not hear me correctly, I suggest that he see a hearing specialist.

Back-land development is doing nothing to help a whole generation of first-time buyers who have seen their hopes of buying a house evaporate under the Government. Boosting supply, regardless of where the houses go and the impact on existing communities, is about as crude an approach to planning as one can imagine.

Let us look at the facts. Houses with large gardens are nearly always in areas where the property prices are high. When the old houses are demolished and blocks of flats go up where their gardens were, they automatically come on to the market at a higher price—a price that is well beyond the pocket of the first-time buyer. Of course, for developers, the profit margin is higher on properties in expensive areas, so it stands to reason that they will want to develop garden sites more than any other. As a result, areas that desperately need regeneration are being overlooked and that has the twin effect of denying many areas a vital opportunity for development and denying first-time buyers new housing that could come on to the market at a price better suited to their budget.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I have some sympathy with the hon. Lady’s comments. I was a gardener in a previous life. I love my garden and would hate to see it built on. However, does she agree that local authorities already have many powers to stop the erosion of gardens, such as unitary development plans and tree preservation orders? Measures are already in place for them to use. I am not sure that we need further legislation.

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