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18 Apr 2007 : Column 110WH—continued

Finally, as I intend to be brief, we need to know the reasons for this additional housing. There are two reasons why extra housing would be needed: one is an increase in population, and the other is a decline in household
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size so that the same number of people need more houses. As I understand it, the Government are saying that virtually all the extra houses are the result of a projected decline in household size. It is quite true that more houses are needed if you have an unchanged population and a declining household size. However, such extra houses will not impose the same infrastructure requirements as the house building that is required to house additional people. The same number of people are living in smaller households. They do not need so much extra water, schools or, we would hope, hospitals.

Anne Main: I find it interesting that the Government have also done no real assessment of the unit size of houses that are being built, so that is developer-led. Lots of flats are being built, which is not necessarily what communities want. In Hertfordshire, we have an ageing population in many places, and older people do not want to live in high-rise blocks of flats; they often want low-rise accommodation, possibly bungalows. We also have a shortage of accommodation for people with disabilities. I feel that all we are doing is bowing down—on the Government’s targets and the relaxation of planning regulations—and having the homes and properties that developers wish to give us. They fulfil housing target densities, but do not deliver the mixed communities that we all want to see our residents living in.

Mr. Lilley: I agree entirely. We need to know the causes of the extra housing targets because they will influence the nature of that housing and the size of the units that we need to build, and therefore the nature of the communities created. It is important that we get an answer, finally, from the Government as to why the housing targets are constantly rising. Are they expecting an accelerating decline in household size? Is that the sole factor lying behind house building or is it, as most of the public assume, because more people are expected to be coming to live in Hertfordshire?

It is my belief, and I have said this before, that the housing growth in Hertfordshire—perhaps a third of the total growth—is largely due to an increase in the population. That increase is not because the birth rate exceeds the death rate in the area, but because more people are moving into it. They are moving in not from the rest of the United Kingdom—from the north, Scotland and Wales—but from London. The increase is not the direct consequence of immigration from abroad—relatively few immigrants move direct into Hertfordshire—but the indirect consequence. Very large numbers of people come to live in London. The substantial bulk of the flow from abroad comes to live in London, and then Londoners of all ethnicities move out to the home counties. That is the pressure that we are facing. If that is the case, that has different consequences for the number, the size and nature of houses that we need to build. The Government should come clean on whether that is what they envisage happening.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I share the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis up to a point, and there is a significant out-migration issue from London, but is there any academic verification for his assertion that immigration is to blame? The only reference I can find is from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which said
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that out-migration was largely due to natural household growth, growth in the existing population, and older and more affluent households moving out to the urban fringe, and not due to immigration.

Mr. Lilley: On the contrary, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the Joseph Rowntree study and the source of that information—the principal demographers in this country are based in East Anglia and Cambridge—he will find that the pressure of immigration from abroad is leading to the net outflow from London to the home counties. I refer him to a pamphlet, written by myself, that lucidly explains all that. It is called “Too Much of a Good Thing?” It is available for £15 from the Centre for Policy Studies or free on my website. I show the original figures, which have been updated, and they suggest that for the country as a whole, a quarter of all new households—the Government put it at a third—are likely to be due to net immigration from abroad.

As I said before, that is not net immigration direct into Hertfordshire. It is into London and then out. We need to know those figures if we are to understand the nature of the problem and cope with it accordingly. I am afraid that we have had 17 statements from Housing Ministers over the years, and not one of them has even mentioned the issue. I only return to it because of course every time I do, they try to shut me up. As often as they try to shut me up, I will return to the subject. I hope that as a result we shall get more information out of this debate than we have out of previous debates on the subject.

2.58 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): May I add my commendations to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) not only for securing this timely debate—we had one in January but this comes after the conclusion of the formal consultation—but for her excellent identification of another one of the failings of the approach that the Government have taken to the whole issue.

When we consider local housing targets, it is important to remember one of the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), that Hertfordshire is already one of the most densely populated shires in England—I think that it shares that title with Surrey. Given that it has a million people or so, it is no surprise that the Government’s target of up to 93,200 more houses by 2021 has caused the gravest concern. In practice, that would mean 200,000 additional people, which is another 20 per cent., in just 15 years. It is an unprecedented scale of development, and following my right hon. Friend’s remarks, I must say that it is completely out of step with local need.

Ministers love to claim that in Hertfordshire we are against all new development and housing—that we oppose every last brick being placed on another. They are completely wrong. We recognise the need for more homes. Our local authorities have consistently ensured that homes have been built to meet local need. During the past 20 years, East Hertfordshire district council in my constituency has enabled more homes to be built than any neighbouring authority. Since 2001, some 2,140 homes have been built in my district, unlike in neighbouring Harlow in Essex, for example, where just 810 were constructed. We will take no lectures from Ministers on that particular subject. We build while they talk.

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We believe, however, that development must be sustainable. It must be underpinned by funded infrastructure, and it must be planned democratically. Sadly, the changes to the panel’s recommendations proposed by the Secretary of State and made to the east of England plan failed on all three counts. Take sustainability, for example. Clearly, a key objective in any natural housing proposal would be for housing and employment targets to equate, yet the Secretary of State wants housing for over 17,000 more people than there will be jobs for.

Take the vital issue of water and sewerage. The panel’s experts made it clear that local development in our area must be delayed because of serious capacity problems, yet as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans pointed out, the Minister has simply ignored them, saying that the problem could be “overcome with time”. I look forward to seeing the water engineer who can use time to overcome water problems involving piping arrangements and so on. It will be a masterful exercise.

The truth is that the Government have no plan to address existing water problems. They are making no attempt to realise the fundamental obstacle that those problems will create for any new development, never mind one that meets the Minister’s higher targets. If they had come forward and said, “We recognise the issue, we recognise the problem and we will invest money to sort out”—for example—“the Rye Meads sewage works,” we might have considered it and tried to help. But no—instead, we get platitudes such as “overcome with time”.

Anne Main: When I was at the east of England plan, I was told that the water issue was a logistical one, because there was a statutory obligation to supply water. That—just piping—does not address the impact of the abstraction of the water on the fragile ecosystem. The Government seem to have refused to address that point, looking simply at the engineering issues surrounding water supply.

Mr. Prisk: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I cannot understand why Ministers are being so foolish. They could make their own jobs easier if they dealt with such matters and analysed them in a professional way. Instead, we get platitudinous nonsense that does not solve the problem for any of us. We wish to be co-operative in this matter, but are unable to do so when we receive that kind of advice.

That is not the only issue on which we feel that the Government have failed. There is the question of Harlow North. The Secretary of State proposes that that speculative development should proceed, and that instead of the original idea of 10,000 houses on the site—which, I should add, is 3,000 acres of green fields—there should now be up to 20,000 houses. Given that the scheme has been rejected twice by the planning process and was completely removed by the Minister’s own panel, why does she now believe that Harlow North should proceed?

Then there is infrastructure. When presented with the initial list of key projects, which included improvements to the roads and railways that we have heard are so congested, the Chancellor refused to fund more than 75 per cent. even of those initial schemes. In other words, the Government would like us to have 200,000 more people in Hertfordshire, but they are prepared to pay
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for infrastructure for only 50,000. That is just the basic capital project. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) mentioned, our schools, hospitals and essential services are not being improved. They are being squeezed and in some cases closed.

If the substance of the Government’s housing plans is poor, the way that they have been imposed is even worse. Frankly, it is a tale of incompetence and political chicanery. I wish principally to focus my remarks on how that plan and the housing targets in it were set. We have heard about the failure to provide an appropriate environmental capacity study, but that was not the only failing. First, the consultation process was fundamentally flawed. The East of England regional assembly failed to print and distribute sufficient copies of the plan on which it was supposedly consulting. The result was the nonsense whereby in Bishop’s Stortford, for example, a town of 35,000 people, we were provided with—

Anne Main: One copy?

Mr. Prisk: No, they were generous. We got two copies of the plan in the library, which caused something of a challenge. It was a 300-page document and people had to queue to see a document that was meant to be publicly available, until some of us shouted and screamed sufficiently loudly. We were told, “Well, this is fine, it’s available on the internet.” Does that mean that people who are not on the internet are not entitled to be consulted? It was a failure of process that was repeated in Hertford, Ware, evidently in St. Albans, and across the region. The regional assembly then withdrew its support for the plan after Ministers’ promises to fund the infrastructure proved to be false. Yet the Government pressed ahead, and the result was the legal nonsense of a plan that was not supported by the body responsible for producing it.

Perhaps the worst example of the shoddy way in which the plan was railroaded through was the episode of the Housing Minister and Harlow North. When the Government-appointed panel of inspectors considered the plan last year, it recognised all the problems of the speculative scheme. Those experts strongly and expressly recommended on 19 June that the new town should not be included in the regional plan. Some people disagreed; the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell) said that it was unfair and that he wanted to put an alternative to the Government. Of course, as my hon. Friends know, the Government’s own planning rules preclude that. Planning policy statement 11 states that in the period between the panel reporting and the Government responding, any representations would

Thus, until the Government publish their changes, Ministers should receive no representations. Fair enough. Regrettably, the Housing Minister apparently breached that rule, as on 13 July she met the hon. Member for Harlow specifically to discuss housing. In December the Government overturned their own inspectors’ recommendations and reinstated the new town in the plan.

I have raised the issue in the House on several occasions, and all the way through the Government have defended themselves by saying that the junior Minister, who is
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with us today, is responsible for making the decisions, not the Housing Minister. That defence was meant to distract me from two crucial points. First, the rules do not refer to who makes the decision. They say that no representation should be received by the Government. The Minister for Housing and Planning meeting a local Member of Parliament to discuss housing between the panel’s decision and the Secretary of State’s announcement is clearly a representation. The fact that that Minister will not publish her papers from that meeting, despite requests from constituents under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, on the grounds that she was “engaged in making policy”, only confirms the pertinence of the meeting.

The second point shows Ministers in a worse light. The junior Minister tells us that she is responsible for the east of England plan. Note the present tense—she is responsible for it now. But was she the responsible Minister last July when that crucial meeting took place? To find out, I tabled named day questions for answer on 3 March. Three weeks later—silence from the Department. With the help of the Leader of the House, on the day on which the House rose for Easter, I was finally able to force an answer from the Department. The junior Minister was put in charge of the east of England plan in October—three months after the Housing Minister discussed housing with the Member of Parliament for Harlow. No wonder they did not want to answer my questions.

The housing targets set out in the plan are of great concern to my constituents. Imagine, Lady Winterton, that in your constituency you were to have a new town forced on you, with 25,000 houses on 3,000 acres of green fields, opposed by every parish, town, district and county councillor, which 25,000 people opposed in the consultation. Some 5,000 people in this consultation have said no, yet the Government seek to railroad the plan through by bending and twisting the rules.

My constituents firmly believe that the meeting last July breached the planning rules and in doing so undermined the examination process. That prejudicial action, along with the failure to consult adequately, the absence, as we heard, of an environmental capacity study and the resulting decision to designate a specific development, is grounds for saying that the plan and the housing targets that it includes are fundamentally flawed. If people now challenge the plan, it will be because they wish to see due process, open and transparent governance, and sustainable and deliverable housing targets. On all those counts, the Government, and particularly the group of Ministers that I mentioned, have failed, and they should be held to account.

3.10 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing a debate on this important subject. As a fellow member of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—now the DCLG—I know that she understands well the frustrations and challenges of this sensitive area of policy. The issues raised by a debate on housing in Hertfordshire have implications for counties such as my own of Gloucestershire and, indeed, for the whole country.

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The background to the issue is that we face multiple crises, including a crisis in housing affordability and an impending environmental disaster. On housing affordability, the situation is worst for those on low incomes and new home buyers, and it is acute for those in otherwise prosperous areas such as Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation study suggests that housing costs in the south of England now take up 40 per cent. of the average earnings of first-time buyers, compared with only 25 per cent. in Scotland. It also suggests that 50 per cent. of younger working households cannot afford to buy a first home in the south of England.

The environmental crisis is also acute, and reference must be made to that, too. The implications of climate change are well known, and I shall not rehearse them today, but the problem in the UK is that emissions are still rising. CO2 emissions have increased by 2.5 per cent. since the Government came to power, adding to the 6 per cent. of global cumulative greenhouse gas emissions that the UK has already produced and the 14 per cent. of current emissions for which the EU is collectively responsible. These days, people often seem to think that we can escape our responsibilities simply by pointing to the emissions of countries such as China and India, but I am afraid that this country’s collective and historic responsibility is still great.

As the Select Committee knows, the Government’s response to the housing crisis has been distinctly one dimensional. Increasingly, it relies overwhelmingly on simply expanding the supply of housing in areas of predicted and current high demand, such as Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire—the so-called predict and provide strategy. Obviously, that delights many commercial developers, for whom building urban extensions around affluent towns such as St. Albans and Cheltenham is more profitable than regenerating inner cities, providing struggling rural communities with small developments that might benefit them as they try to keep their schools and shops open, or providing more housing in lower-income counties such as Cornwall, where an acute affordability crisis is being fuelled by second homes.

In its report last June, the Select Committee touched on issues such as second homes and other factors beyond the basic supply of housing. For instance, we commented on affordability in rural areas, saying:

I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether that has yet happened.

Those comments point to several factors beyond the basic supply of houses, including the balance between social and market housing. They raise the issue of migration, which the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) mentioned. They also touch on the desire for second homes.

On the balance between social and market housing, there has been a dramatic shift since the 1970s, when only 50 per cent. of the population were home owners. Today, that figure is 70 per cent.

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