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12.47 pm

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate, because it brings the opportunity to highlight the housing crisis in London. We should recognise that there is much in national and regionally set targets that has had a role in creating that crisis, because of the very remoteness of those targets.

First, however, it is important for me to declare an interest, although the Bill would not have an immediate impact on me. I have a planning application in for my front garden. I have an existing building on one side and a planning application to build a house for my parents-in-law—

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Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pelling: I should finish my declaration first. We will be able to overlook my parents-in-law’s house in the front garden.

Natascha Engel: Will the hon. Gentleman tell us how big his garden is? Is it what normal people would regard as a garden, or is it a massive piece of land?

Mr. Pelling: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to provide further information. I am glad to say that it is a very large garden that fronts on to a major road; I have access to my property through another means. It is a significant piece of land, but I would not describe it as one of the gravel drives that one might suppose exists in suburbia. Unfortunately, Croydon, Central is not as blessed as some would make it out to be.

Mr. Slaughter: I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman’s sense of filial duty. Is he not concerned that the Bill, which I assume—perhaps wrongly—he supports, may prevent the type of necessary development that is seen in his own case? Will not Conservative party policy, which is to reclassify garden land as greenfield land, prevent, in London, sometimes essential developments such as extensions to accommodate extended families, children, grandparents and so on? Will not the drift of Conservative policy prevent such development and lead to more overcrowding?

Mr. Pelling: I am grateful for the question that the hon. Gentleman poses. It is most unusual to have comments from him that are not just a repeat of what happens in the Hammersmith and Fulham council chamber, and it is nice to see that he has moved on from that approach today. It gives me the opportunity to say that I think it is those politicians who are closest to their constituents, in terms of level of government, who are most likely to respond most positively to the needs of those constituents.

It is clear that there is a real need to be met in London and politicians would not be so silly as to fail to provide additional housing when there is a demand for it. There are votes in extra housing, because of the desperate need in terms of the 62,000 people who are in temporary accommodation—effectively homeless—in our capital city, and the 350,000 people in inadequate accommodation.

In many ways it was the nationally and regionally set targets and, sometimes, the less than expert comments from national politicians that led to the success of the British National party in many local council elections last time. The issue of housing provision was at the centre of concern. I have real concerns for my constituency, where the BNP came second in one seat, close behind the Labour party, and third—very close behind my party and Labour—in the New Addington ward. The key issue of the provision of extra social housing is fundamental in fighting what many of my constituents in those areas regard as the remoteness of national and regional government in providing the additional housing that is needed.

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Angela E. Smith: The hon. Gentleman talks passionately about the need to provide additional housing. Does he accept the figures in the report by Kate Barker, in which she estimates that some 200,000 additional houses are needed?

Mr. Pelling: I am interested in the way in which nationally and regionally set targets have delivered the wrong type of housing for my constituents. The targets have delivered one and two-bedroomed flats, of which there is an excess. I know that the London assembly has a habit of using somewhat uncouth language, but its report “Size Matters” was important and influential, and it emphasised the way in which national and regional housing targets had delivered the wrong type of housing. What we need is family housing with gardens. That may have an impact on the amount of housing that can be provided, but I am pleased that local politicians in my area recognise that social housing is needed and are being active in providing it.

We are also grateful for the Government grant that has come via the Mayor and will provide additional council housing in my constituency. That is meeting the real need for social housing. As a Member of Parliament corresponding on behalf of my constituents, I find it difficult—although my difficulties are probably mild compared with those faced by Labour Members—when I am approached by a family of four who live in a one-bedroom flat. The father may be sleeping in the kitchen with his son, but I have to tell the family that rehousing will take nine to 10 years. I am pleased that local politicians in the London borough of Croydon are reacting positively to the need for provision that will help such families. However, they should also respond to the way in which the current planning system treats back gardens. In a residential area containing family houses and gardens, flats are suddenly constructed that are entirely out of keeping with the street scene. It is vital for local politicians to be able to respond to local sensitivities, and the Bill would enable them to do so.

We should consider whether the demands imposed by targets set for local authorities are so high as to be unrealistic. The target set for my borough is 17,000 additional homes, which is the equivalent of building 800 or 900 homes in every area containing 10,000 residents—in every ward, in some cases. When such unrealistic targets are set, it is not possible to deliver on them.

There are other implications—important physical implications—for one of the key drivers of housing need in London. Migration, whether within the United Kingdom or from outside, is an issue that needs to be dealt with. We should also take account of the requirements of land set aside for industrial and manufacturing use. Sometimes the definitions are too demanding. In my constituency, for instance, 84 per cent. of employment is in the service industries. It is often appropriate to combine residential building with building for employment purposes, which has been done on land next to my constituency that is owned by British Gas. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) referred to the value of such mixed developments, and I think that they represent a very “green” approach as well.

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It should be possible to intervene in the market with locally sensitive planning. Retail units are frequently transformed into housing because the rents are low, and the immediate advantage of the resulting capital gain can lead to the destruction of key suburban retail centres that have served local communities. I fear that residents’ groups will become so concerned about their inability to set the local agenda that there will be a real revolt against the planning system.

My constituent Richard Hough runs a car repair business in Croydon. His property, which is next to a railway station and was owned by Railtrack, was snapped up in unusual circumstances for just £112,000. As a result of the developer’s continuing determination and the nature of the planning process, he faces the prospect of losing a family business that has served our community very well and has given work to many young people who might not have been able to gain employment otherwise.

It is local politicians who are most likely to be influenced by the need to provide housing as sensitively as possible in order to meet the needs of their communities. We should have the confidence that it is local politicians who are best placed to make that decision. Strong in the view that providing additional housing in the right places is what will win votes for those politicians, we should trust in the ability of local politicians to make good local political judgments.

1 pm

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate.

The issue of land use and garden protection has only recently been brought to my attention by the Dronfield Civic Society and the Dronfield History Society in my constituency. Both groups exist to protect and to preserve the historic town of Dronfield, so this Bill is of great concern to them as well to as many of my other constituents. Therefore, I am pleased that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has chosen land use and garden protection as the subject of her Bill and I am even more pleased to take part in the debate today. It gives me the opportunity to raise a number of concerns, wider issues on planning and specifically the use of garden land.

Chief among those concerns is that, apparently, if we believe the scaremongering on the Tory website, which I do not visit frequently but I have on this occasion, anyone who lives in a privately owned home is going to have Yvette Cooper and Angela Smith knocking on their door in their hard hats and Bob the Builder outfits—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We have a strict convention in the House that we do not refer to hon. Members by name.

Natascha Engel: Okay. According to the website, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), will be going there dressed in hard hats and Bob the Builder outfits and in their diggers, and they will be saying to people that they will
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be bulldozing through the side of their garden to get to the back of their garden, knocking down climbing-frames, filling in sandpits and building huge skyscrapers where their patios used to be.

The Tory party website talks of land grab. Most normal people in privately owned homes would be terrified if they read that that was going to happen and that people will come along to take their land away. That is quite irresponsible.

Mrs. Spelman: I am touched that the hon. Lady thinks that the Conservative party website is so widely read. In reality members of the public mostly do not need to read party websites. They only need to see what is happening in their neighbours’ gardens. The anxiety of our constituents is not a laughing matter. It is causing real grief in the community and our constituents are experiencing the reality of development occurring all around their properties.

Natascha Engel: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I agree: I do not think that many people visit the Tory party website. However, the campaign materials, as they are called, are a laughing matter. I agree that the issue is not a laughing matter, and our Government have addressed it in great detail to ensure that exactly the kind of thing that the Tory party website talks about cannot and does not happen. I should be grateful if the Minister, in her summing-up, would confirm that that is not possible and so allay the fears of my constituents. It would be very helpful to me and to many Labour Members.

I would like to address some of the wider details in the Bill and the fundamental challenges that the country is facing. The hon. Lady has highlighted an issue that is of concern: the vastly growing number of people who are in need of houses. We have a housing shortage and we need more homes. I know that she accepts that fact but I also know that she is not prepared to commit herself to saying where those new homes should be built.

Mrs. Spelman: As was referred to by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) in her speech, in the debate on housing last year I made it clear that a huge opportunity exists to regenerate the inner ring around our city centres, currently in decline. I have explicitly stated where in my constituency 5,000 new affordable homes will be built.

Natascha Engel: The hon. Lady has not recognised how different different parts of the country are. Urban inner London is very different from areas such as my constituency, which are almost exclusively rural.

The Government have a national target of 60 per cent. of buildings on brownfield sites. What is a brownfield site and what kind of land can be built on are key issues addressed by the Bill. I entirely agree with the motivation behind it; we need to look at such matters. We also have great housing need. However, the Bill is unnecessary as the Government have addressed all its key issues.

Greg Clark: The hon. Lady raises the point about the definition of gardens as brownfield sites. Does she agree that a garden should be classified as a brownfield site or not?

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Natascha Engel: I was going to say that there are many different types of garden. I think that the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) mentioned that. Some gardens are just patio areas, whereas others are vast amounts of land. [Interruption.] I am unsure whether the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) is just shouting; does he want to intervene?

Mr. Ellwood: I am waiting for the hon. Lady to answer the question.

Natascha Engel: I am giving the answer. I am saying that there is a big difference between a small patio area and a garden that is a vast amount of land.

Mr. Slaughter: Opposition Members are anxious to hear an answer to their question, but my hon. Friend might wish to throw the question back at them, as it was the Conservative party, in 1985, which classified gardens as brownfield land.

Natascha Engel: That is a lovely point, and I was going to make it—although I thank my hon. Friend for making it for me. It is a key point that a Conservative Government introduced the definition of brownfield sites that we are discussing. Only very rarely has a piece of garden—certainly of a private home—been reclaimed in order to be built on. That is important, too.

Greg Clark: It is indeed the case that the definitions were introduced in the 1980s, but the Library is very clear on this matter. It says that the 1985 definitions

Therefore, they did not have the intention that the Government have now given them.

Natascha Engel: Let me move on now.

The Bill would make it easier for local authorities to develop on urban green spaces, which is the opposite of the intention. Many Members have highlighted such unintended consequences. The Government have taken on board the concerns that are felt, and they have produced guidelines and planning rules to address them. The measures that are in place have been mentioned by Members in all parts of the House. Planning policy statement 3—PPS3—of November last year gives local authorities clear powers to protect green spaces and open land, so the Bill is totally unnecessary.

There is another unintended consequence of the Bill that I am really concerned about, and it is the reason why I definitely cannot support it. As I understand it, it would remove the power of national Government to intervene in these matters, and such decisions would be entirely down to local authorities. [Interruption.] Well, that is my understanding. If the hon. Member for Meriden wants to intervene again, she is more than welcome to do so. If the Bill were enacted, national Government would no longer have the authority to intervene, so if a local authority decided to “land grab”, there is nothing that national Government could do about it. That is entirely irresponsible.

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Mrs. Spelman: Coming to this debate, it is important to have an understanding of how the planning process works. There is a system by which an application is made, and it is rejected or accepted. That decision can be appealed against, and the Secretary of State has the ultimate say. As I said in my speech, under the current Secretary of State, one in six decisions have been overturned. That planning process remains; my Bill purely creates an exception in relation to housing density, gardens and urban green space.

Natascha Engel: I suggest that the hon. Lady have a look at the Tory party website, which she obviously has not visited that frequently. It states explicitly that the situation that I described would happen.

The main aim of PPS3 has nothing to do with gardens and everything to do with finding vacant and derelict sites that were in use for many years, and bringing them back into use. The hon. Lady has recognised that there is a need to build more homes, and that is exactly where they should be built—on derelict land that already has vacant buildings on it. PPS3 is also about delivering affordable homes—an issue that Labour understands better than the Conservatives. For the constituents who visit my surgeries, that is indeed the issue. It is not about having a vast expanse of garden that they can call “land”; it is about being able, at the age of 30, say, to afford to move. The key point is that house prices are very high and insufficient affordable housing is available. PPS3 is explicit on this issue. It refers to delivering

and supporting

exactly the spaces that the hon. Lady says that she is concerned about in the context of back gardens—

So I cannot see what else the Bill would add to existing legislation.

Laura Moffatt: Does my hon. Friend agree that such an approach is also of benefit to older people, who may have a house that is now too large for them, but who want to stay in their community? Developers such as McCarthy & Stone have bought and developed homes to allow such people—who are home owners—to remain in the heart of their community.

Natascha Engel: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. They are exactly the sort of people who come to my and her surgeries to discuss these issues. It is the very vulnerable whom we are concerned about, such as older people who want to stay in their communities, and younger people who cannot leave their parents’ home. The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot)—he is no longer here—mentioned that issue earlier, in the context of his large family.

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