Previous Section Index Home Page

According to Government research, if we do not build more homes, the proportion of couples aged 30 who are able to afford their own home will fall from more than 50 per cent. today to nearer 30 per cent. in 20 years’ time. I should declare an interest in this regard. My own children are very young, but I am
2 Feb 2007 : Column 524
hoping that in 20 years’ time, they will be able to leave home and move into houses that they can afford. It is a critical issue, and the circle is not being squared.

All these elements make the Bill redundant. The Government’s key housing policy objectives are not just to deliver more homes but to ensure that homes are of a higher quality and higher environmental standard to meet the challenge posed by climate change. Conservative Members purport to feel strongly about that, but when it comes to building affordable homes, they rarely mention it.

The number of new homes built on brownfield land has increased from 56 per cent. in 1997 to 74 per cent. today. That land formerly had vacant properties on derelict space. The Bill is another attempt by the Tories to block the housing policy that we need. It reads like an anti-housing Bill. Labour has produced policies and legislation that are pro-housing and pro-land. The Bill is all about not building. We need to build for the future to ensure that those people who are children now can move into affordable homes later. The hon. Member for Meriden admitted that we need to do that. I relish the opportunity to hear how the Conservatives propose that that should be done without building on anything other than brownfield land that is vacant or derelict.

The motivation behind the Bill is laudable. I am sure that what the hon. Lady means to do is a good thing and that it is in the spirit of protecting and preserving, an aim that we all share, but the fundamental issue of squaring that circle—of how we ensure that the housing challenge of the future is met—would be undermined by the Bill.

1.17 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): It is always a delight to follow the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). I have long maintained and long suspected that she is running a campaign to be deputy leader of the Labour party through her speeches. That has been confirmed now that she is taking an interest in housing and planning. She is a worthy successor to the present incumbent of that role. Her contribution was in the finest of traditions of the Deputy Prime Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on her part in securing the Bill for debate and on championing a cause dear to my heart and the hearts of many hon. Members on both sides of the House. I also compliment her on her excellent speech.

When I first introduced my Protection of Private Gardens (Housing Development) Bill, it was a response to a local constituency concern in Tunbridge Wells, but I became aware that it was a national problem. It affected all parts of the country in all parts of Britain. The thousands of letters and e-mails that I received giving precise, detailed examples of that showed that it was a common concern.

We had an early-day motion related to the problem, which as my hon. Friend said attracted support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. In total, it had 179 signatories, including 40 from the Labour Benches. I was slightly surprised when the hon.
2 Feb 2007 : Column 525
Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said from a sedentary position that the signatories were posturing.

Mr. Slaughter: I simply want to correct the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that I used that word from a sedentary position or otherwise in relation to the early-day motion or anything else. He either heard someone else or misheard me.

Greg Clark: I am delighted to have that clarified. I thought that I heard the hon. Gentleman say that, but I am pleased that he did not. It is important that there is cross-party consensus. I was delighted that my early-day motion was co-sponsored by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and signed by Members present, including the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), who spoke so eloquently about the problem.

Mr. Slaughter: Having clarified what I did not say, perhaps I should clarify what I did say and why, although the early-day motion may have some cross-party support, it does not have universal support. The reason is that, whereas there is some need to protect back gardens, as PPS3 endeavours to do, what the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues seek to do in Bills such as this is send out a clear signal against the development of housing which would limit the number of housing units to be constructed, and that simply cannot be supported.

Greg Clark: It is clear that the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to the debate at all because the point has been made time and again that this is a permissive, enabling Bill. It would allow local communities to make these decisions for themselves. I am surprised that he, as a former member of a local authority, does not trust local authorities to make those decisions.

Robert Neill: Does my hon. Friend agree that the final lie is given to the argument of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) that this is an anti-housing Bill by clause 2, which places a positive obligation on public bodies to report on the steps that they are taking to encourage housing development on land that they own? This is a pro-housing Bill and a localist Bill, and the hon. Gentleman ought to support it.

Greg Clark: My hon. Friend is quite right; this is very much a localist Bill. Conservative Members trust local communities. We believe that they will make the right decisions if they are given the power to do so.

Mr. Slaughter rose—

Greg Clark: I will give way once more to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Slaughter: The hon. Gentleman is extremely indulgent. If the Bill seeks to trust local authorities, why is it being prescriptive? Why does it not leave local authorities to get on with things, under Government guidance, and do what they want? It is his party that, in this Bill, does not trust local government.

2 Feb 2007 : Column 526

Greg Clark: We shall come on to talk about PPS3, but it is clear from experience throughout the country, not just from Conservative councils but from Labour and Liberal Democrat councils, that local planning committees do not feel that they have the powers to sustain an objection to developments that the whole community is against. That is what we want to correct.

I want to pay tribute to some of the organisations outside the House that have supported the intentions of this Bill and predecessor Bills, including the Association of Garden Trusts, Garden Organic and the Royal Horticultural Society, which had a fascinating debate on the subject after which a vote was taken indicating almost unanimous support for the Bill. Almost all the RHS members attending the debate favoured the kinds of protections that we seek.

Lynda Waltho: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Greg Clark: I would like to make some progress, then I will happily give way.

Ministers must realise that the issue is not going to go away. Whatever they do to the Bill today, we will come back again and again until the measure receives in this Chamber the support that it has in the country. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister when she responds whether the Government now admit that there is a problem of garden grabbing because it was not so very long ago, when he was a Minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, that the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), said:

I would happy to give way to the Minister if she would like to say whether she takes the allegations of garden grabbing seriously.

Angela E. Smith: My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) showed why the phrase “garden grabbing”, as used on the Conservative party website, is emotive and rather silly. I can assure the House that I have neither a Bob the Builder outfit nor a digger. The issues that the hon. Gentleman is trying to resolve are adequately addressed through PPS3, PPS17 and local development plans that local authorities can propose. I will be happy to give examples in my speech of local authorities that have used those plans to address the very points that the hon. Gentleman wants to tackle by passing additional legislation.

Greg Clark: The Minister talks about addressing points, but her predecessor said that there were no points to address and that the allegations were not to be taken seriously. It would be a helpful start if Ministers could concede that garden grabbing is happening across the country.

The denial strategy does not work. The statistics certainly exist, and they support the fact that is known across the country—that garden grabbing is a serious issue in our communities and is spoiling the character of our neighbourhoods.

2 Feb 2007 : Column 527

It was the case that the Government initially refused to publish statistics on the quantity of garden grabbing that was going on up and down the country. It was only when they inadvertently released them to the press that Members were able, partly through Mr. Speaker’s efforts, to see these statistics. They reveal that 15 per cent. of housing development taking place across the country is on formerly residential land, usually houses and gardens being replaced—as many hon. Members have pointed out—with apartment blocks covering not just the pre-existing house, but often the whole footprint of the garden and the house itself. That is the issue that we want to tackle.

The breakdown of the figures shows that in many areas the proportion is much higher. For example, in my own constituency of Tunbridge Wells, the proportion of all new dwellings built on sites of houses and gardens was 47 per cent., while in other areas it was higher still. It was 62 per cent. in the borough of Croydon—the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling)—and 89 per cent. in Surrey Heath. Amazingly, in South Buckinghamshire in 2004, every single new home was built on the site of a previous house or garden. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) intervened earlier and in her constituency the proportion is 60 per cent.

The situation is not getting any better. Garden grabbing is gathering pace. Ministers will claim that it is not so, but we know from our own constituencies how hoardings are rising up in residential areas throughout the country. Perfectly good houses are being demolished and beautiful gardens destroyed. We heard about the strange statistical apparition of 14 new flats replacing a family home. Why is it 14 across the country? It is because of the loophole that allows developers to get away with not providing much needed affordable housing by falling below the threshold. That means denying affordable housing as well as destroying the character of some the most beautiful and cherished areas in the country.

Some suggestions were made earlier that Conservative Members were scaremongering and that it is not the case that people are getting knocks on the door from developers, pressuring them to sell their homes. I have to tell hon. Members, including the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, that that is not true. I have with me a letter sent from one developer to every resident of a particular road in Crowthorne in Berkshire. It shows how even developments going on in this House can be used to pressurise people to sell. Entitled “Time to keep your options open”, the letter states:

They are even prepared to use our discussion of these matters to put pressure on residents in order to bounce them into selling homes, creating the domino effect that we have heard about.

Natascha Engel: There is one issue that I cannot get my head around. If a private homeowner with a bit of private land at the back, which could be called a
2 Feb 2007 : Column 528
garden, wants to sell the land and have a house built on it—with the potential consequence of being overlooked—surely it is a matter for that person’s choice. Is the hon. Gentleman denying people the right to exercise that choice?

Greg Clark: Let me describe to the hon. Lady what happens. Of course it is an individual choice to sell a garden, but when something has consequences for other members of the community, it is a long-established principle that the community should be able to decide whether the private advantages for that individual outweigh the detriment to that community. That is why we have a planning system.

What often happens is that a domino effect takes place, whereby one house is demolished in a leafy family street and the people living next door start to worry because they now have a big apartment block rather than a house on one side and are concerned about what will happen if the other side goes the same way. People fear that instead of living in a leafy family area, they may soon be living in a canyon between two apartment blocks, so they decide to sell out quickly before it happens. So they sell up and a domino effect ripples down roads such as Forest road in my constituency, changing the character of the area for ever.

Victorian villas or houses built in Edwardian times or even in the 1930s may not have enough architectural merit to be listed buildings. Nevertheless, in 50 years’ time, I suspect that we will look back at them much as we look back on the destruction of city centres that took place in the 60s. We will think, “Why on earth did we allow that to happen? These were some of the most cherished areas in our towns”. We ought to step in to allow local people the discretion to help to protect those areas.

Natascha Engel: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Greg Clark: I should like to make a bit more progress. I have taken quite a few interventions already, but I shall give way to the hon. Lady a little later.

The issue of whether PPS3 provides the necessary additional protection contained in the Bill has been repeated again and again, but the same lack of reality pertains to that question as has characterised the whole debate. Ministers first denied that garden grabbing existed. They then said that the existing powers under PPG3 were sufficient. They now say that PPS3 contains the necessary powers. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has made it very clear that there is a hierarchy of planning obligations on local authorities. Housing targets and housing density targets involve hard numbers, and the suspicion of planning departments throughout the country is that those hard numbers will always and everywhere trump the more qualitative measures that we seek to protect.

Angela E. Smith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; it is helpful because he seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of PPS3. I appreciate that it was introduced in November, so he may not have had the opportunity to absorb its contents. He talks about hard targets. Under PPS3, it is clear that local authorities have greater flexibility
2 Feb 2007 : Column 529
around those targets. I would appreciate it if he were to take that on board and not misrepresent what is in PPS3.

Greg Clark: I am delighted to hear from the Minister on that, because I hope that she will respond in her winding-up remarks to the challenge from some of her hon. Friends to clarify—it might be useful to planning committees and inspectors in future—and to state exactly the Government’s intentions. Is it the case that no local authority faced with a garden-grabbing development that it wants to turn down will be forced to abide by the housing targets that are imposed on it? Can it refuse planning permission for an unsympathetic garden-grabbing development if it has not met its housing targets?

Can the Minister confirm whether the regional spatial strategy will be set aside and not pre-empt any decision to which PPS3 might seem to point? Is there complete local discretion in that respect? The Opposition are sceptical. Until we see it written down in black and white, which PPS3 does not do, that regional spatial strategies and housing targets can be set aside in exercising such discretion, we will not believe it. If PPS3 has now been published, why was it not written down there?

Mrs. Spelman: It would be helpful to put on the record of the House that PPS3 says:

The guidance is clear that the regional targets take precedence.

Greg Clark: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. She will also be aware that in making the valuation of PPS3 the Library has considered the changes there and advises hon. Members that

So the Library is saying that there is a modest change. There is clarity that regional spatial strategies and the housing targets imposed on local authorities take precedence. While that is the case, the warm words that are issuing from the Minister will provide no reassurance to planning committees and planning authorities throughout the country. That is why my hon. Friend’s Bill is so important and why—to answer the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Tamworth that such things could be done through reassurances from Ministers—it is much more important that they are included in statute, so that we can have dependability. Until we have that, planning committees throughout the country and local residents will not feel that they have the protections that they require.

My hon. Friend has set out in detail, clause by clause, the advantages of her Bill, so I will not detain the House by going through that again. Suffice it to say that the character of the Bill is entirely enabling. My Bill, which preceded hers, acknowledged that there will places up and down the country where it is desirable to build on gardens. However, the people who should make those decisions are the people who know the area
2 Feb 2007 : Column 530
and its needs, who are democratically elected by other people in the area, and who can be thrown out if they make the wrong decision. That is the entire thrust of my hon. Friend’s Bill. I do not understand why certain Labour Members are so keen to refuse that discretion to local authorities. Surely they should trust elected members to make those decisions on their behalf.

The Minister should be aware that the damage being done by garden grabbing is not just physical. Real damage is being done to local democracy, which is why the subsidiarity point that my hon. Friend mentioned is so important. Constituents up and down the country assume that, when they elect councillors and the councillors sit on a planning committee, that planning committee is empowered to make decisions concerning their local environment. However, the truth is that councils find themselves powerless to resist developments. The House of Commons Library note makes that perfectly clear, stating:

Next Section Index Home Page