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2 Feb 2007 : Column 537

Robert Neill: Any form of planning gain, whether through planning gain supplement or section 106 agreements—when I was a councillor I was an advocate of the constructive use of those agreements in my authority—should have as its principal test that it returns benefit to the community that is affected by the residential development. My biggest concern about planning gain supplement is the determination of the Government to nationalise planning gain, in effect, and take the benefit away from the people who will be affected by the development and put it into the coffers of the Chancellor. That is the danger.

Protecting the quality of the built environment in the suburbs is critical to maintaining their sustainability and economic viability, which is in turn critical to maintaining the sustainability and economic viability of the cities. If one starts to allow a creeping densification and a change of character of suburban areas, people will be driven away. They will move from, say, Bromley, past Sevenoaks and further down into Ashford and the rest of Kent, making less sustainable journeys to work on overcrowded commuter trains. That puts pressure on the environment and, in some cases—I have seen it happen with police officers, nurses and others working in Bromley—people get fed up with the commuting and get a job locally, so we lose a local police officer to Kent police or a nurse to a Kent health trust. That is an unacceptable state of affairs.

The situation is made worse by the final perverse incentive of the operation of the planning system, which is that it is easy to meet density and affordability targets by building small units with several one or two-bedroom flats rather than the family homes that most London boroughs—certainly Bromley—identify as being required to meet the need for affordable homes. Nothing in the existing regulations or planning system does anything to address that problem.

Another concern is that people’s housing need changes over time. Many people are more than happy to start off renting when they leave college and start work. There comes a point when they want to get a foot on the housing ladder. That is why I agree with comments by Labour Members about the importance of intermediate housing and shared ownership schemes. There then comes a point when people want not a flat, but a house with a garden, if only a small one, where they can bring up a family. It is the inability to provide such houses, even in suburban London now, that is causing people to move out from the suburbs. Building on back gardens does nothing to address that problem; indeed, it makes it worse.

When I look at my postbag, I notice that apart from concerns about safety and policing, which have always been top of the list for Londoners, the threat to the quality of life and the environment in the suburbs is second—sometimes equal first—in terms of the number of letters. Overwhelmingly, those concerns are caused by excessive and inappropriate development in back gardens. In the classic scenario, developers buy up two plots and put up a development with the magic 14 properties so that it comes under the threshold. If five houses are put on one plot, it does not make any contribution to the supply of affordable housing, but it does gradually undermine the quality of life for residents.

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The point has been made, and it is worth emphasising, about the problem of repeated applications for the same site. It is often cynically and deliberately done to wear down the resistance of local residents and councillors. An elderly gentleman came to my surgery just before Christmas. He and his wife live in a small close in Bickley. One house in the close has been bought by developers. The council has consistently done its best to resist overdevelopment on the site, but it is another case of developers starting at about the 14 level and working down. As soon as one application is refused in comes another, slightly different—reduced a little, tweaked, reconfigured. There have now been some eight applications, and the fight is physically wearing down the neighbours. The development company, of course, has resources that they do not have. What worries them is that there will inevitably come a point at which the inspectorate will think, “This has ticked just enough of the boxes that the Government require to be ticked for the application to pass the test and be allowed on appeal, if not by the local authority.”

It is the combination of rigid, remotely set targets and the perverse incentives that they create, and what must be described as a lack of political sensitivity in practice—whatever the rhetoric from the Government—that seriously threatens the quality and sustainability of suburban residents’ lives. The Bill seeks to deal with that by introducing a simple and straightforward protection in the form of a requirement for special regard to be paid to the needs of gardens and urban spaces. It also provides incentives for public bodies to make the most efficient possible use of their land for potential residential development.

We can all see that our towns and cities contain plenty of publicly owned land that could be brought on stream. I deeply regret that the Government are apparently out to kill this Bill, thus doing a serious disservice to the residents of our suburban communities.

2.6 pm

Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) began by saying that this issue went to the heart of the Government’s planning policy. I strongly disagree. PPS3, which has been mentioned many times today, has a number of broad aims. They include supporting the need for further housing, improving the design and environmental standards of new homes, delivering more affordable homes, supporting more family housing, and giving local authorities more flexibility in regard to how and where to deliver homes. That last point deals specifically with the issue of back gardens. Government policy acknowledges that it is not always desirable to build on land that is ancillary to residential accommodation, but that is not at the heart of Government policy; it is, however, at the heart of Opposition policy.

I realise that it is a badge of pride for the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), but I find it perverse that there have already been three Bills dealing with this issue in the current Parliament, if we include the one tabled by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). Moreover, I believe that only one Opposition day debate has been called by the main Opposition
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party in the current Parliament, and that that also dealt with this issue. If we go back further and examine the housing and planning issues raised by Opposition parties in previous Parliaments under the present Government, we find that there were five debates in 10 years, the first four of which dealt exclusively with the prevention of development, although they did not deal specifically with back gardens.

Lorely Burt: May I point out, in a spirit of helpfulness, that the debate on my Bill lasted for three hours and 20 minutes, and that it largely concerned the subjects we have covered today? May I also point out that it was debated in the last Parliament, not the current one?

Mr. Slaughter: I hear what the hon. Lady says, but her party is not without guilt on the issue.

In the Opposition-day debate on 5 May 2004—it perhaps showed the Conservatives’ position even more clearly—they did recite the problems, which they believed related to affordability and overcrowding, but they ended up again with a ringing condemnation of the Government and the Barker review, and talking about a serious threat to the nation's green fields. That juxtaposition always gives the game away where the Conservative party is concerned.

I have looked at the Library brief, but I found more guidance in the campaign pack document entitled “Labour's Garden Grab”. It effectively forms the explanatory notes to the Bill for the Conservative party. It is fascinating. It tells us that a study found that

and that a 2005 poll

That is a fascinating way to inform Conservative housing policy. It is in stark contradiction to the comment by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) at the Conservative party conference last year that

was a priority. We are always aware of the inconsistencies in what every Conservative Front-Bench spokesman says on housing.

Greg Clark: Does the hon. Gentleman mock the aspiration of young people eventually to own their own home and to have a garden in which they can bring up children?

Mr. Slaughter: I absolutely do not. I mock the remote attitude of the Conservative party. If I had detached properties on the market anywhere below £1 million in my constituency, I would like to find them. If the hon. Gentleman wants to buy a small three-bedroom terraced house in my constituency, he will have to start at £500,000 and go up from there. A small flat is the most that any first-time buyer is likely to aspire to. I am just putting Conservative housing policy in context.

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The most revealing part of that pack is the question and answers at the back. In an attempt to cover difficult questions that the public may ask, the Conservatives put some questions:

The answer is:

I wonder where those other homes will be built—not on the green belt and not in the city either. The questions continue:

Greg Clark: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Slaughter: I would love to but I have only three or four minutes left.

The simplest answer to that question would probably be yes, but the Conservatives say:

But they never say the number of affordable homes they want. It is always a vague aspiration that more properties should be built. The next question says:

That is a good question. The hon. Member for Meriden addressed that issue in the most spurious way, referring to the issue of density. Rather than use hectares, I will use terminology that we all understand, I think. In my borough, there are currently one and a bit MPs. At the time of the second world war, there were four MPs representing the borough. The density of the population has gone down dramatically over that time. If the issue is infrastructure, which I do think is an issue, I would say: what about section 106 agreements—Conservative councils singularly fail to provide infrastructure in many cases—and what about planning gain supplement, which the Opposition parties again oppose?

The Bill sends out a message, but it does not achieve anything; it is unnecessary, as a number of my hon. Friends have said. PPS3 gives a clear indication of what the Government would suggest to local authorities, but the initiative would then be left with them. The Bill would either direct local authorities—although Opposition Members now say that it would not—in which case it would be an unseemly interference with local discretion, or it would do nothing of the kind, in which case why is it necessary? From the point of view of the Conservative party, it is necessary in order to give the clearest possible indication that the aim of housing policy must always be to restrict development—to limit the number of properties built.

The Conservatives have a record of failure on this issue, as they introduced the designation of gardens as brownfield sites, and as under them a far higher percentage of properties were built on greenfield land and on former residential land. It is also clear that very few Conservative councils, particularly in London, are doing anything to address housing need issues. If this Bill is the best that the Opposition can do in respect of
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housing policy, no one will be impressed; certainly none of those of my constituents who are in housing need will be impressed.

The real reason for the Conservatives’ position on the issues that we are debating is given in statements that they have made. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) talked about preserving 1930s terraces because they add to cityscapes. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) wishes all planning constraints in relation to residential development to be abolished, but only on post-war properties. Perhaps the Conservative position is best summed up by something that the hon. Member for Meriden says on her website:

That is the key reason for this legislation; it is simply about trying to look after certain parts of the country. It would ignore constituencies such as mine in terms of both housing need and housing development. Some Opposition Members ask why we need the Greater London Authority Bill. The reason why we need it, and why we need responsible planning and housing powers that are responsibly exercised, is the singular failure of the Conservative councils to do anything to relieve housing need.

2.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on her success in the private Member’s Bill ballot and in bringing this issue before the House. She contacted me beforehand to say that she would have to leave for an urgent engagement, and I thank her for her courtesy in doing so.

I have a sense of déj vu in respect of the matters that we have discussed. The debate has been long and detailed, but I shall do my best to deal with the points that were raised and to address the Bill. The Conservative party says that Labour Members are interested only in building what its campaign packs always describe as vast and ugly or inappropriate blocks of flats, because they are the only kinds of flats that it thinks exist. The contributions from my hon. Friends give the lie to that. Every Member of this House wants there to be appropriate development, but we must address our current housing needs.

The issue of development in gardens was debated at length in an Opposition day debate of June last year and on Second Reading of the Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill, a private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) last October. That does not undermine the importance of the subject under discussion. However, I wonder to what extent we have addressed these issues before. The supporters of the Bill have failed to convince the House that new legislation is needed.

I will take this opportunity to restate Government policy and Government commitments on these issues, and to explain why we do not need additional legislation to protect our urban green spaces and back gardens. The Government’s position has not changed,
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but that of the hon. Member for Meriden clearly has. Indeed, I became aware during her speech that her Bill would have unintended consequences that she would not want. It could, for example, lead to more building on green spaces and gardens in the very areas that she is seeking to protect.

Clause 1 states that

in order to protect such spaces. However, there are already many examples of planning policy that require regional bodies and local authorities to have special regard to gardens and urban green spaces. Planning policy statement 3, which has been mentioned many times today, makes it clear that local authorities can put very strong emphasis on urban green space—including gardens, parks and play areas—in their plans. That point is crucial to this debate. PPS3 also places a much stronger emphasis on the quality of residential design and layout, and it sets out a range of design quality factors that a proposed development has to be assessed against, including accessibility to public transport, community facilities, open and recreational space and private outdoor space, and how that development complements neighbouring buildings. So PPS3 makes it clear that a proposed development’s design should be in the context of the area.

There is also PPS17, which requires local planning authorities to provide for all types of open spaces, including public parks and gardens. Existing provision must be audited for its quality and quantity. There is PPS1, moreover, on delivering sustainable development, which already addresses the other issue with which clause 1 deals—the need to have regard to mixed-use development. My point is that there are many existing examples of planning policy that require regional bodies and local authorities to have regard to the very issues that clause 1 raises. PPS1 deals with delivering sustainable development, PPS3 with town centre planning and housing, and planning policy guidance 13 with transport.

The Bill’s aims are very laudable and we agree entirely that protecting green urban spaces and encouraging mixed-use development are very important objectives. I am surprised, however, that the Bill proposes that those aims be prescribed in primary legislation. That is over-bureaucratic and unnecessary. Rather disappointingly, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) pretended to misunderstand the point that I made earlier, but there are indeed many other examples of very important objectives, such as tackling climate change and encouraging economic development, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) said. They are not prescribed in primary legislation, but it is clear that we should have special regard to them. Establishing in primary legislation two particular issues that we must have special regard to elevates them above others that we think equally important, such as climate change, wildlife, biodiversity and disabled access.

Greg Clark: Will the Minister give way?

Angela E. Smith: I would love to give way, but I do not have very long and I want to address all the issues that the hon. Gentleman and others raised; he had longer to speak than I have.

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Clause 2 requires all public bodies to report on the

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