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Obviously, the Conservative policy of right to buy, I am afraid, contributed to that shift, which has undermined the social housing sector. However, the change has not just taken place under the Conservatives. Since 1998, 408,000 social housing units have been sold off and only 180,000 built. Therefore, the right to buy has not been balanced, as it needs to be, with building and buying of new social housing. Also, as credit has been extended ever more unrealistically by mortgage lenders, house prices have continued to rise. It is critical that, as well as examining issues of supply, the Government address issues on the demand side, in particular reinvigorating the social housing sector and examining the mix of tenures.

Migration is also a factor. I will not dwell on that issue much, as the right hon. Gentleman has already discussed it at length. However, I repeat my disagreement with his view that the original cause is international immigration. In fact, I think that household growth, population growth from within the existing population and the flight of older, more affluent households are the key factors.

Mr. Lilley: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that people who come here from abroad do not live in houses, or do not form households? Roughly 200,000 more people come to live here every year than return abroad or emigrate. If they live in households that are bigger in size than the average—say, three people per household rather than two and a quarter—he will be able to work out that that requires 67,000 houses a year.

Martin Horwood: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, I am not saying what he suggests that I am saying. The critical issue is this: why are the people who are moving to counties such as Hertfordshire and other south-eastern counties moving out of London? He suggests that it is because of immigration. I have never seen convincing evidence that that is the case. I suppose that, if the immigration were not happening, one would see more supply—perhaps empty housing—in large urban areas, as one does in the north of England, where the immigration may not be happening to the same extent. The question is not whether the immigration is happening, but why do people move? I do not see any evidence that it is immigration that is causing them to move.

We have already briefly touched on the issue of second homes. They are certainly a factor in some areas. The Liberal Democrat proposal is to examine both planning permission and including second homes in the business rate to discourage their proliferation and the perverse effect that they have on some local housing markets.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s proposals on second homes. We all appreciate the particular problems that are faced by individuals and local authorities in certain parts of the world, not least Cornwall. However, can he tell me precisely how a planning regime would designate a second home? What would happen if someone wished to change the registration of their primary residence and their secondary residence? Who would be responsible for monitoring that change of use? Also, what appropriate planning regime would restrict development in such areas, and what impact would that have on the tourist economy?

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Martin Horwood: Given that the subject of the debate is housing in Hertfordshire, I will not get distracted into that subject. I will happily send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the Liberal Democrat White Paper when we get into government and seek to implement the policy in that much detail.

If I can move on, housing supply is obviously a major factor, but it is not the only factor. Therefore, a massive increase of supply should not dominate Government policy in the way that it does. I will give way for the last time.

Anne Main: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has the same problem in Cheltenham that we have in St. Albans, which is that people buy many homes. We cannot just say that we will have a tax on second homes. Some people that I know have portfolios of eight, nine or 10 homes. For example, if there are three or four people in a family household, there is nothing to say—we know because we have explored this in the Select Committee—that each of those household members could not be registered for each of those homes. It is a little disingenuous just to say that a tax on a second home would work. In St. Albans, it would not solve the problem, because the property market is so lucrative that people buy property portfolios and keep properties to rent them out on the highly lucrative buy-to-let market.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): Before I call Mr. Horwood again, perhaps Members would note that interventions should be relatively brief and not speeches in themselves.

Martin Horwood: I am very grateful, Lady Winterton. However, just in reply to the hon. Lady, I think that she is slightly confusing buy-to-let with second homes. In counties such as Cornwall, second homes lie vacant for large parts of the year. That was the issue that I was seeking to address.

As I was saying, housing supply is obviously a major factor, but not the only one. I do not think that it should dominate Government policy to the extent that it does, not least because it might not work. That is another point that we emphasised in our Select Committee report last year. The Select Committee concluded that:

We concluded:

My point is that it is one thing to say that we need more housing, but it is quite another to continue to rely arbitrarily on a massive increase in supply as the only, or dominant, policy tool in addressing the issues of affordability, especially when, as hon. Members have pointed out, the policy also has grave implications for the environment, sustainability and infrastructure.

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Another obvious demand factor is regeneration—in other words, trying to rebalance the scales between areas of high demand, like St. Albans and others in Hertfordshire, and areas which are less well off. I have to acknowledge that the Government have made serious efforts on that front, including the recent announcement in Gloucestershire of significant regeneration money for Gloucester city, which I hope will rebalance the local housing market there. However, the Government risk undermining that with the market-led approach to house building.

One of the most interesting pieces of evidence that the Select Committee received when considering its report was from the West Midlands regional assembly, which said:

It went on to say that it feared that

I find it strange that I am arguing with a Labour Minister that the Government are too slavishly in hock to market forces, but that seems to be the case.

Mr. Prisk: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Martin Horwood: I will, but for the last time.

Mr. Prisk: I rise simply because I want to commend the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I will be brief, Lady Winterton. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in my constituency, the Government’s proposal is to build a new town, supposedly with the aim of regenerating part of Essex, which is across the border in another district? The argument that he has just made is exactly parallel to that. Does he agree that it is nonsense to argue, as the Government do, that building a new town in one county will somehow regenerate another town in another county?

Martin Horwood: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was not aware of that and I agree with him. The emphasis on building new houses has a particular environmental impact, because it takes the equivalent of some 25 tonnes of carbon to build a new house as opposed to 1 tonne or 2 tonnes to refurbish an existing one. All other things being equal, it is environmentally a much better idea to refurbish and re-use rather than to build new.

The other supply-side issue that I was going to mention is the scandalous number of empty homes. The latest figures that I could find were for October 2005, where the estimate was that there are 723,000 empty homes. Why, therefore, have the Government not taken more policy initiatives on that front? Why have VAT rates, for example, for greenfield developments, for which the rate currently stands at 0 per cent, not been harmonised with those for the repair, modernisation and conversion of existing properties, where work currently attracts VAT at 17.5 per cent.? That would at least encourage
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some developers to look at bringing more rundown empty houses back into the market.

The environmental impact of all that is clear. Hon. Members have referred to the impact on the water table and the local rivers in Hertfordshire. I understand that the River Ver is under great pressure and that other local rivers quite often run dry as a result of over-extraction. I have also referred the carbon cost of new build as opposed to the re-use of existing housing. There is also the issue of the impact on environmentally friendly forms of transport. I understand from local campaigners that First Capital Connect trains are already full to bursting and that, as the hon. Member for St. Albans pointed out, the A414 is often severely congested. Transport, congestion and pollution are obviously serious environmental threats and I share her alarm regarding those issues.

We are facing such an onslaught because the Government’s instincts are always to overrule from the centre, not to listen to local people, and scarcely to listen to environmental arguments. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) has offered a forensic analysis of the flaws in the process by which the numbers were arrived at, but the bald facts are that the East of England regional assembly said that it would propose 478,000 new houses—an enormous number—for the east of England. That figure has been more or less arbitrarily increased to 508,000, which may bring the total for Hertfordshire itself to perhaps as high as 100,000 new houses on top of a total existing housing stock of only 500,000. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is a 20 per cent. increase in a relatively short time.

Hon. Members who have spoken so far were right to reject the accusation of nimbyism. I have always considered nimby a childish playground taunt that is used to attack people who are defending their quality of life. Let no one accuse the Liberal Democrats of nimbyism. The Liberal Democrats in Hertfordshire support at least 70,000 new houses in the county—just like I have supported 8,500 new houses in my constituency. I accept that such housing will inevitably be at a higher density than existing housing, but when the Government constantly ratchet up those numbers, we move from development to overdevelopment, which often means overflowing into the green belt. However, this is not just a green belt against non-green belt issue. I am all for an intelligent review of the green belt and there may be areas of the green belt that can be looked at. I do not have an example that is local to Hertfordshire, but in Gloucestershire I strongly support the inclusion of valued green land such as the so-called Leckhampton “white land” into green belt to provide more permanent protection from predatory developers. However, I fully recognise that that cannot always be a one-way process.

I was delighted to receive a letter from Cheltenham race course this morning, which said that a large area of one of its car parks is green belt land that could be usefully surrendered. It would probably be appropriate to use that particular land for a hotel rather than housing, but it shows that green belt land can be intelligently reviewed and that within existing green belt designation, significant brownfield sites that would be appropriate for housing can be found.

Anne Main: Unless a designated brownfield site has been specifically ring-fenced within a green belt, it is part of the green belt and it does not matter whether it
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is scruffy or unattractive as it performs the useful purpose of stopping coalescence. I caution against advocating building on parts of such land.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Lady is right up to a point in that an important role for green belt is preventing coalescence, but she is utterly unrealistic in saying that we must have a blanket policy of never building on anything in the green belt. That is hopelessly unrealistic in the current circumstances. I was not at all advocating abandoning the green belt as I strongly support the principles of the green belt and perhaps even a net increase in it. I was saying that an intelligent approach must be taken and that green belt should not be swept aside on the arbitrary whim of the Secretary of State and the Government, who are in pursuit of an unsustainable, unpopular and fundamentally unnecessary policy of overdevelopment.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, I wish to point out that we have half an hour left for the other two Front-Bench speakers and it would perhaps be helpful and fair to them if he brought his remarks to a conclusion in a moment.

Martin Horwood: Thank you for that guidance, Lady Winterton. I was bringing my remarks to a conclusion, but I have had to deal with a large number of interventions.

In conclusion, the Liberal Democrats support and applaud cross-party campaigns run by local campaigners and politicians who oppose overdevelopment in Hertfordshire. We support the “No Way to 10K” campaign in Welwyn Hatfield, which was initiated by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). I know that he too has signed the “Hands off Herts” online petition that is on the Prime Minister’s website. The petition was initiated by my good friend, Sandy Walkington, who is a passionate and well informed local campaigner in St. Albans. That online petition is one of the top petitions by number on the Prime Minister’s website and we, too, support it. I urge all local residents to log on and to sign up, including the hon. Member for St. Albans, who, I think, has not yet signed. I hope that she will confirm that she will do so today.

3.29 pm

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, and it is delightful to see you in the chair. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on initiating the debate; notwithstanding the closing comments of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I do not think that anyone could doubt my hon. Friend’s commitment and passion in defending the interests of her constituents and of the county of Hertfordshire in matters of housing and development. It is not through signing petitions, wherever those may be, but through passionate and coherent argument in this place and on doorsteps that a difference can be made. In the two years in which my hon. Friend has served as a Member of Parliament she has made a formidable difference.

Martin Horwood: I am happy to applaud many of the positive campaigns that the hon. Member for St. Albans has run. I was merely inviting her to sign the very popular local “Hands off Herts” petition, as the
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hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield has done. Perhaps the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) would endorse that from the Conservative Front Bench now.

Michael Gove: I am very careful not to stray beyond Surrey Heath when it comes to signing petitions, but I am always anxious to recognise effective campaigning work, and in that context in Hertfordshire there is no one better equipped than my hon. Friends the Members for St. Albans and for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) to teach us all about defending the interests of our constituents.

It is perhaps appropriate that we are debating housing in Hertfordshire this week and that we should note briefly the passing of Robert Jones, the former Member for Hertfordshire, West who was a Member of this House from 1979 to 1997 and served latterly for three years as a Minister in the Department of the Environment with specific responsibility for housing, planning and the environment. One of the themes of the debate has been the way in which those three issues are interconnected. Robert Jones was a model Member of the House, passionately committed to extending the free market principles on which his party had been elected, and at the same time defending the environment of the country that he loved. I know that many hon. Members will want to take the opportunity to attend his funeral, or indeed to write to his widow, and I am sure that we all want to pay tribute to the contribution that he made to his constituents, and the causes that he believed in.

All the speeches in the debate so far have been of very high quality. I mentioned the campaigning skill of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans. In her speech she passionately and effectively made the case for improved local democracy, and for taking account of quality-of-life considerations as well as economic ones when making housing and planning decisions. She also drew to the Minister’s attention very effectively the two key quality-of-life problems that her constituents face—the way in which flatted developments are eroding the historic character of St. Albans, which makes it such a cherishable place to live in, and crucially, the way in which environmental considerations do not have the status that they should have in the Government’s deliberations on housing and planning. That theme was picked up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). He rammed home the point that the Government have failed, in the matter of conducting suitable environmental capacity studies, to ensure that their plans for housing are genuinely sustainable.

That is not an argument that is restricted to Conservative Members. A former Minister for Housing and Planning, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), recently wrote something called “Blueprints for Green Homes: a Housing and Energy Policy for the 21st Century”. In it he asked what guiding principles should be the foundations of a progressive Labour housing policy. By asking that question he implied that the current housing policy was far from progressive. How did he answer it? He said:

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