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18 Apr 2007 : Column 104WH—continued

High density is being interpreted as flats and, consequently, housing choice has been diminished, not enhanced, as family homes come down and blocks of flats rise up. The result is a rapidly changing street scene, huge increases in congestion, increasing pressure on schools, hospitals and natural resources, and a loss of local community spirit. When calculating the increased totals, the Minister does not seem even to have taken
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into account the particular economic activity of our area and its employment opportunities. The Office for National Statistics labour force, resident and workplace survey of 2001 estimated that 68,681 people live in the area of St. Albans, yet only 51,206 people work there. That position contributes to huge numbers of people who commute daily on congested roads and on trains that are crammed in cattle-truck conditions.

According to the most recent east of England plan, the projected job growth for the whole of Hertfordshire until 2021 is 64,700, yet the Minister wishes to place 93,000 units there. According to the Office for National Statistics’ unemployment data figures, we are fortunate to have a current regional unemployment rate of 20 per cent. below the United Kingdom average unemployment rate and, in St. Albans, the current unemployment rate is 46 per cent. less than the UK average unemployment rate. We have low unemployment and a highly skilled work force that looks to London and neighbouring cities for its employment. The high house prices mean that that situation is liable to continue and that more market-led housing will only compound the current trend to buy into our county and commute.

We are therefore naturally concerned that the Government, through their lack of rigorous analysis at every level, are indeed fuelling a property-led project, thus encouraging commuting, putting strain on local transport systems and not creating balanced, sustainable communities supported by local jobs, underpinned by adequate infrastructure and sympathetic to the local environment.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an excellent exposition of the weaknesses in the Government’s policy. Is she also aware that the loosening of green belt and the replacement of one site for another—perhaps Hertfordshire with Cambridgeshire, which Government policy now allows—is directly encouraging speculative development on green fields? Fields in my constituency are being pegged out now by speculators on the basis of the Government’s new policy. Is she aware of that and what does she think about it?

Anne Main: I raised that point in our last debate on this matter. We suffer in exactly the same way. Property developers are placing Government pronouncements on their websites to encourage people to hope that there is value in buying up such pieces of green land.

Unless we are going to bow down to the god of ever-increasing prosperity at the expense of ever-decreasing quality of life, we must ensure that an environmental impact of continually escalating housing targets is rigorously assessed. If we are to avoid fuelling a transport-intensive, pollution-generating commuter hell, then we must take account of local economic activity and ensure that we are not building more and more houses that are developer-led but not necessarily the type of homes that local people want or particularly need. Inevitably, it is leading to swathes of high-density, flatted developments dominating our towns and villages which are frequently snapped up by property developers. The Government and the Minister seem to draw great comfort from coupling the huge increase in building with newly introduced targets for energy consumption, recycling and water use. I am sorry to disabuse them of that environmental comfort blanket, but noting the concern and allocating the
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problem a target will not resolve it, and it does not address the current status quo.

In my constituency water is currently at a critical point. We have important chalk streams, which are sensitive to the increased pressures to build. Does the Minister know that the chalk streams in our area are unique in Europe? They are recognised by eminent environmentalists as the European aquatic equivalent of the rain forest. She has a chance to respond, but does not do so.

The future of the streams is already under severe threat due to drought. That more water is extracted from the Ver area of recharge than is naturally returned to its aquifer by annual rainfall is incredibly worrying and already a source of deep concern to local environmentalists, who care about the environment and have written to the Minister on that point. Therefore, irrespective of the new housing targets, the most recent Environment Agency study of the Ver since the implementation of the alleviation of low flow scheme in the early 1990s shows that the river is still falling. Despite an effort to conserve our scant water resources by having a hosepipe ban last year that lasted for 10 out of 12 months, our rivers are still falling. If those rivers fail, as they frequently do in periods of drought, even with current demands for water, the whole biodiversity and fragile ecology of the area will ultimately begin to fail. Does the Minister even begin to appreciate the ecological and environmental vandalism that the new housing target proposals will potentially wreak on the biodiversity of Hertfordshire and of my beautiful constituency?

The Minister does not address the current infrastructure and environmental deficit of the hot-spot areas, such as St. Albans, where many thousands of houses are to be built. She does not seem to recognise that simply putting in green building measures for the new homes will not solve all the attendant pollution issues of the existing housing stock and the occupants of that housing stock. It is crucial, if we are to have a degree of intergenerational environmental legacy, for us to look at the environment in which the houses are to be placed, to assess and evaluate the current environmental pressures, and to calculate the impact that those new houses and occupants will have on the established community and that environment.

That is not a cutting-edge environmental objective when considering housing totals for growth areas. Over the years we have had a long series of worthy recommendations from various committees urging us to consider the impact of rapid building on the environment. The Minister must feel that the casual coupling of “sustainable” and “community” in recent reports means that the public will rest assured that the environment is being taken seriously and implies that the relevant assessments of the environmental capacity of the projected increase have been taken into account. But that is not the case. The process for determining the housing targets appears to be totally devoid of any rigorous environmental or even strategic assessment. The complete lack of strategic assessment has led to the Government’s erroneous belief that proposed new floor figures of at least 83,000, and possibly 93,000, extra homes for Hertfordshire are environmentally sustainable.

The issue of housing targets has presented challenges for many years, particularly in the south and east, and I
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remind the Minister of a 1996 report from the Select Committee on the Environment which looked at the problem when considering housing need and housing targets. Crucially, that Committee noted an effort to ensure that housing targets were not being imposed in an unsustainable fashion without recognising the environmental impact, and it welcomed and encouraged the Government of the day’s intention to commission research into one important aspect, namely environmental capacity, with a view to producing good practice and guidance for future development programmes. That was a perceptive solution and a genuine attempt to ensure that any future communities were truly sustainable. Indeed, it was supported on a cross-party basis, so we might wonder how much note was made of that recommendation in light of today’s concerns about the environmental sustainability of the proposed housing targets.

In 1997, an exposition on the concept of environmental capacity entitled “Making sense of environmental capacity” was undertaken by Michael Jacobs for the Council to Protect Rural England. Mr. Jacobs may not be unknown to the Minister as he is currently advising the Government in his capacity on the council of economic advisers. Most tellingly, Mr. Jacobs pointed out then that

That is exactly why the Committee and the Government of the day recommended environmental capacity reports to ensure that housing targets were not too great or burdensome for any area. They are absolutely crucial and should be integral to this Government’s assessment of any increased housing targets for Hertfordshire.

If these studies had taken place, it would help to support any assertions from the Minister, which she made in the last debate, that the proposed changes to the draft plan represent a new benchmark in reconciling the growth need that we need with sustainability. Yet, only last week, I asked the Department for Communities and Local Government whether this Government prepare any studies on environmental capacity to accept any housing in particular areas in relation to regional spatial strategies. I was told:

and that

That is straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. The Government’s view is that if a number of people want to form households in that region, the housing has to be provided. It is not a case of whether the environmental capacity can endure it, but that the housing will be provided. The Department went on to say:

There we have it: a new benchmark for the environment is to ignore it. If developers want to build, so be it, and our countryside can go to hell in a handcart.

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How bizarrely perverse that according to the Minister’s own Department, we have a situation that when a draft regional spatial strategy has an examination in public by a planning inspector, the environmental argument underpinning the proposals may be challenged, but that would not be based on the Government’s environmental estimate, because the Government have not made one.

We accept that defining the environmental capacity of an area such as Hertfordshire is not easy. It is, after all, easy to measure the capacity of a road to accommodate traffic because we know how many cars can fit on to it, going at a certain speed with appropriate margins of safety. Helpfully, we can also measure the attendant pollution. That does not mean that we should not try to estimate and look for environmental capacity, but the Government are not even trying.

Pollution is a huge worry in my constituency and these ever-increasing housing targets are fuelling that concern. My constituents are fearful that the Government merely pay lip service to the evidence of congestion and increasing levels of local pollution. According to the RAC, the stretch of the M25 between junctions 20 and 21, which runs over my constituency, is among the most congested in Britain. It does not take the skills of a highways engineer to realise that that situation, compounded by the M1 and the A1(M), results in a toxic U-shape around St. Albans, with the M10 piercing the city, bringing much heavy congestion and pollution.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I apologise for not being here for the whole of my hon. Friend’s speech, but I was in the main Chamber on a very important matter for my constituents—pensions.

With congestion comes accidents, and with accidents come injuries. The Government do not accept that if they impose thousands and thousands of homes on Hertfordshire, particularly in the Hemel Hempstead and St. Albans area, the closing of the Hemel Hempstead acute services will put at risk the lives of the people who move into our region.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend may be aware, as I am, of what happened the other week when the M1 suffered a complete, three-lane failure as a result of a crane crashing across it. That led to much of the traffic on the M25 trying to pass through my constituency. Based on the congestion that day, I would have hated to have had to try to get somebody to any accident and emergency service, but particularly to those in Watford.

Mike Penning: The people who were, sadly, injured in that crash went to the Hemel Hempstead A and E, which is about to be closed.

Anne Main: Unfortunately, that happens to be the A and E that served my constituency as well. I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend.

According to the RAC, the stretch of motorway to which I referred is among the most congested in the country. The situation brings pollution to the heart of my city and cars end up spilling on to the A414, which is the busiest non-motorway road in the county, so we are pretty congested. Commenting on the Government’s house building agenda and specifically the housing targets proposed for Hertfordshire, the RAC report on
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motoring observed that the new emphasis on building new homes puts even more pressure on the road network.

Let us say that we listen to the Minister’s siren calls for ever higher housing targets and accept the new household projection figure of 508,000 proposed by her and combine them with car ownership data based on the average car ownership figure of 1.34 cars for Hertfordshire, as published in the 2001 census. I sincerely hope that the Minister has done the maths, because I have. I suspect that she may not, but let me help her. We are talking about an extra 680,000 cars on our already congested roads. That is madness and a pollution nightmare. Can she try to imagine the impact of nearly three quarters of a million extra cars in our area? If so, can she imagine the grossly damaging effect that that would have on the environment?

The Minister may wish to ponder the sobering fact that according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2004, out of 47 Government office areas, St. Albans has the fourth highest combined road and domestic carbon dioxide emissions, and the situation is set to deteriorate even further under the proposals.

The environment is multifaceted, with often strong but complex links between constituent parts. Fortunately for Hertfordshire, we have valuable swathes of green belt, which are the lungs of our county. However, a landscape is a reflection of many factors, including the underlying geology, and there are worrying trends in the landscape in Hertfordshire. Water supply is under great strain. Three Valleys Water recognises that housing growth on the scale proposed by the Government will pose significant challenges. Challenges of water supply, as I have already identified, face the River Ver, but there are additional challenges on water supply.

However, the Government persist in ignoring all the committees that have pointed out the flawed approach to housing proposals in the growth areas. In 2000, the Government’s response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s 21st report stated:

No change there then, is there?

A report by the Environmental Audit Committee in 2005, “Housing: Building a Sustainable Future”, examining the Government’s housing projection totals, slammed the Government’s complacency on the environmental impact of the housing targets. It said:

the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—

The same report went on to say:

What the Government do not mention is that that is not their sustainability appraisal; they will be asking people outside to do their own appraisals.

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Let me remind the Minister yet again of the remarks from her Department. It said that the Government view is that if a number of people want to form households in that region, the houses will be built. I totally disagree with that approach and I dispute the Minister’s new housing figures and the process by which they were arrived at.

I know that other hon. Members want to speak, and I shall conclude my remarks soon, but before I do so I want to draw the Minister’s attention to early-day motion 1288, signed by some of my colleagues here today, and urge her to abandon the new totals, with all the environmental implications, and formally request that the Government reinstate the conclusions reached in July 2006 by the panel in the final draft of the plan and thus accept the lower total that we believe we can deliver in Hertfordshire.

2.49 pm

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate and on her very cogent and powerful speech in defence of the environment in Hertfordshire in general and in St. Albans in particular. One of her most potent arguments related to the fact that the Government have not carried out environmental capacity studies, despite the fact that they were advised to do so by the Environment Committee and by their advisers, and despite the fact that they have accepted that as necessary in the past. I hope that the Minister will respond explicitly to that point, and explain why the Government have not done so. In the meantime, I endorse my hon. Friend’s call for the Government to abandon the latest increased targets for house building in Hertfordshire until such studies have been carried out, to assess whether there is the environmental capacity to take this extra house building.

We also know that the Government have not agreed to finance the additional infrastructure that this house building would require. I remind the Minister that Hertfordshire is already the most densely populated county outside London. Its roads are the most overcrowded and busy in any county, because they bear not only the traffic generated by this dense population but more traffic passing through the county than that faced by any other. The secondary schools, certainly in my area, are all already oversubscribed. The hospitals face closures, including ward closures and the downgrading of half the major general hospitals in Hertfordshire, and yet more need and more demand for them would arise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) pointed out.

We know already that the water services face immense pressure, and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans pointed out the problems that will be faced if extra housing is built. We also have a shortage of green space. That green space has been preserved and protected by the green belt, and the Government propose to lift that protection, to move the boundaries of the green belt further north and to expand it to compensate for the loss of green belt in Hertfordshire, by designating some land under no serious pressure somewhere north of King’s Lynn.

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