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18 Apr 2007 : Column 122WH—continued

18 Apr 2007 : Column 123WH

That is at the heart of the case that my right hon. and hon. Friends have made. I know that it is fashionable on the Labour Benches to characterise Conservative Members of Parliament as nimbys, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) pointed out, in Hertfordshire a significant level of house building has been embraced—positively welcomed—by Conservative members and delivered by Conservative local authorities. As my hon. Friend—who, as a chartered surveyor, has a passionate commitment to the built environment—pointed out, it is Conservatives who build, whereas the Labour party prefers simply to condemn. We can see from the historical record that in every year in which the Conservatives were in power, more social and affordable housing was built than in any year in which Labour was in power. Only in the last two years has the level of market housing under this Labour Government come anywhere near the lowest level under the previous Conservative Government.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham has a sincere and long-standing commitment, which predates his entry into the House, to environmental matters, and those parts of his speech that touched on the environment were the most impressive. I welcome his sentiments, although not all the policy recommendations in his speech, and I am grateful for the way in which he acknowledged the campaigning energy that Conservatives in Hertfordshire have devoted to this cause.

Uniting all the comments from Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members so far in this debate has been scepticism about the way in which the Government seek to balance our genuine need for new housing with other criteria, specifically environmental, but more broadly quality-of-life issues. The Government tend to blame local authorities for the failure to meet housing targets and they argue that the only way in which to meet those targets is by ramping up the numbers that they lay down through their regional spatial strategies and other means. However, as I pointed out with reference to the number of houses built under this Labour Government relative to the number built under the previous Conservative Government, that centralised, statist and, with respect to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Stalinist approach simply has not worked. We know that it has been deleterious to the quality of life in areas such as Hertfordshire, but we also know that it has not brought on stream throughout the country the level of new housing development that we need. That is because our planning system at the moment is broken, overly bureaucratic and insensitive to both democratic and environmental needs.

Those are not my observations, although I passionately believe them; they are the observations of Kate Barker, who was commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to examine the planning system. She pointed out that under this Government planning has become hugely bureaucratic. The planning encyclopaedia is composed of 12,000 pages—eight volumes—backed up by 201 statutory instrument. That brings costs, not only for those who are attempting to navigate the planning system to defend their local environment, but for taxpayers. In one year, 2004-05, Departments, local government and other public bodies spent almost £100 million
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simply on planning consultants to negotiate the maze of red tape erected by this Government. No one benefits from that system.

Martin Horwood: I am quite surprised to hear the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman endorsing the views of Kate Barker. Does he also agree with her that

Michael Gove: As the hon. Gentleman spoke, I could hear the sounds of an elephant trap being constructed for me, and I shall not on this occasion blunder into it. I believe that Kate Barker is a very effective analyst of many of the problems in the planning system, but I disagree with her prescriptions for some of the things that she thinks we should do. I have raised those in a previous debate, and am happy to discuss them outside this Chamber.

One key point that the Government should acknowledge is that the whole plan-making process is uniquely centralised, and while the citizens and residents of Hertfordshire must live with those decisions, the power rests with the Secretary of State. The Government tend to blame local authorities and Conservative MPs as though the power rested in their hands, but Kate Barker says:

Responsibility rests centrally, and it rests heavily on the Minister to ensure that environmental and quality-of-life considerations weigh with other social and economic factors. My hon. Friends have made a series of points to draw attention to the way in which Hertfordshire is suffering environmentally, and those considerations need to be rapidly brought back into balance.

I said that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford used to be a chartered surveyor, but I suspect that he missed his true profession. Having listened to him setting out the sorry tale of contact between the Minister for Housing and Planning and the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), I have concluded that he should really have been a prosecuting barrister. I, and the whole House, would be very interested to hear the Minister’s explanation of what seems to the Opposition to be a prima facie breach of good practice—or, in the terms used by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans, a stitch-up. Can she unstitch that now?

3.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on obtaining the debate. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) is here. In January he secured a debate on housing targets in Hertfordshire, and we have continued that debate today. It is a little unfortunate that some of the myths that
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were expounded then and to which I responded have nevertheless entered this debate, but I shall endeavour to respond to as many points as possible. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me as I set out the necessary explanations, as I did on the last occasion. I shall take interventions towards the end of my contribution if there are issues that I have not dealt with.

Someone with a house that overlooks the countryside might have a different set of priorities from someone whose aspirations for a home have not yet been met. One of the Government’s central dilemmas in dealing with housing is that building houses is unpopular and meets enormous resistance.

I ask hon. Members to consider the following:

Those are not my words, but those of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) a little more than 10 years ago, which he used in response to the Environment Committee, itself the subject of comments by the hon. Lady. It demonstrates that housing issues and dilemmas have not greatly changed.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is an experienced speaker who makes his points well, but one gets the impression that prior to 1997 everything was well in the housing world. The Government inherited a £19 billion backlog of repairs for social housing; 2 million houses had failings in basic decency standards; more than 1,800 people were sleeping rough; and families were living in bed and breakfast accommodation. Tackling those problems has been enormously important and a great deal of progress has been made.

On specific issues relating to Hertfordshire, consultation on the Government’s proposed changes to the draft plan ended in March. For reasons of propriety, I cannot engage in a debate about potential further changes before Ministers have carefully considered all the views that were expressed. However, I shall reiterate the rationale for the level of growth not just in Hertfordshire but in all parts of the region and nationally. I also want to put the record straight on the situation in Hertfordshire.

In the winter of 2005-06, an independent panel held an examination in public to test the soundness of the draft east of England plan, which the regional assembly had produced after wide consultation. The panel endorsed the basic thrust of the draft plan, and the Secretary of State’s proposed changes build on that draft. However, the panel made a number of recommendations to improve the plan. It concluded that the case for higher growth had been made, based on population increase, housing needs, affordability and employment needs, and that growth must and could be reconciled with sustainability principles and environmental constraints.

Ministers accepted almost all of the panel’s detailed advice, including its housing proposals for all but one of the 47 districts. I accept that the panel’s recommendations for Hertfordshire are controversial,
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but it found that the draft housing proposals were unbalanced, and the figures for Hertfordshire in particular were too low.

What are the main reasons for higher growth? I outlined them in January, but they bear repetition. Government policy is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity of living in a decent home that they can afford. Kate Barker’s review of housing supply concluded that the housing market had not responded sufficiently to meet the needs of the country’s ageing and growing population. The Government’s response set a challenging ambition to increase the supply of new housing to at least 200,000 houses per annum by 2016.

The new 2004-based household projections, which indicate that household formation will average 223,000 annually to 2026, underline the urgent need to pursue our ambition and build more homes for this and future generations. Although good progress has been made—from a low of around 130,000 new homes in 2001-02, housing supply has increased to more than 180,000 in 2005-06—we clearly must maintain momentum.

The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden questioned the basis on which the figures have been put together. I will give a little more detail about the basis of the household projections from the 2004 study. About 8,000 of the 14,000 increase in annual household growth is attributable to an assumed increase in migration. The remaining 6,000 results from increases to the population due to higher life expectancy, changing age structure and higher household formation. Migration counts for about 33 per cent. of the household growth in the 2004-based projection.

House building needs to be increased in all regions. There is already an urban renaissance in northern and midland cities where full use is being made of brownfield land to support jobs and housing growth. For Hertfordshire, the latest forecast of future housing needs is at least 30 per cent. higher than the scale of development most of the local authorities will accept.

Martin Horwood: Will the Minister try to answer my point? This is not simply about the absolute numbers of houses. There are still more dwellings than households in this country, according to her Department’s statistics. It is about patterns of supply and demand. What other policies, apart from building more houses, is her Department producing?

Meg Munn: There is a great deal going on in relation to that. I should be delighted to answer the hon. Gentleman in more detail in a debate on that subject, but the hon. Member for St. Albans has initiated a debate on housing figures in Hertfordshire and I want to concentrate on that specific issue.

Martin Horwood: Will the Minister give way?

Meg Munn: No. I need to try to answer the questions that have been asked.

The issue is not just about numbers, but affordability. Housing affordability problems are acute in the south where, as elsewhere, the majority of households want to own their own home. Increasing numbers cannot afford to do so, including many key workers and families. In Hertfordshire, the ratio of average house prices to lower quartile household earnings is about 12:1, making it the most unaffordable county in the east of England. Many more homes are needed if local people are to find
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decent homes. Not building enough—a mix of rented housing, equity share, and homes for the majority who want to buy—will just make affordability problems worse.

What about the environment? As the panel pointed out, growth and living within environmental limits are not alternatives, but joint imperatives. The proposed changes to the draft plan represent that new benchmark in reconciling growth with sustainability. We have taken the panel’s recommendations one step further and propose to set in place stronger policies and clear targets to reduce water consumption, improve energy efficiency and drive up recycling of waste.

Anne Main: I am grateful to the Minister for rereading the report that I quoted earlier, but it does not explain the environmental capacity studies that need to be done and which the Government have obviously failed to address and do themselves.

Meg Munn: If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I am just coming to that. I was paying attention to her speech. We take the environmental pressures of our house building programmes very seriously. Indeed, one of the benefits of the sustainable communities plan and growth areas is that housing growth can be handled strategically. That allows us to focus more on environmental implications. There is a well-established process for appraising the sustainability of housing plans, which is to prepare sustainability appraisals of regional and local plans. Those are tested thoroughly through the examination process, with inspectors making recommendations that take account of the sustainability—

Mr. Prisk: On a point of order, Lady Winterton. Is it appropriate for the Minister simply to read out a report verbatim when hon. Members have asked specific questions? She is making no attempt to address the matters that have been raised.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): That is not a point of order for the Chair. The Minister can reply as she thinks fit.

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman is a little bad-tempered this afternoon.

Mr. Prisk: If the Minister answered our questions, we would not be.

Meg Munn: Hon. Members have put a range of questions. They have asked about environmental assessments and I am responding to that.

Mr. Prisk: The Division bell will go in two minutes, and the Minister knows it.

Meg Munn: If the hon. Gentleman would contain himself and listen, I might be able to make progress and he might get some of the answers that he seeks.

There is a well-established process for appraising the sustainability of housing plans. Those are tested thoroughly through the examination process, and inspectors make recommendations that take account of sustainability and other issues that are raised during the process. The Government’s response to the Barker review of housing supply was accompanied by a research report on the sustainability of additional housing scenarios in England.
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That covered the environmental impacts of things such as land take, construction materials, waste, energy and water, as well as wider sustainability issues such as the impact on local economies and communities.

The response to Barker was accompanied by a number of environmental measures, such as the announcement that 10 per cent. of growth in the newer growth areas would be devoted to green spaces, with plans for the newer growth points to be developed in conjunction with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency. Since then, we have been working on ways of ensuring that the environmental impacts of housing development are managed carefully—for example, by consulting on a timetable to zero carbon housing development by 2016; using areas of housing growth, such as Northstowe in Cambridgeshire, as environment exemplars; and announcing that the Government would consider proposals for new eco-towns.

It is not surprising that the issue of water has been raised. I understand concerns about water resources, especially as the east of England is our driest region, and I acknowledge the particular problem of low river flows in parts of Hertfordshire. However, it is people who use water, not houses. The Government, the water regulators, the water companies and communities working together have a shared responsibility to steward water resources and avoid waste to ensure that occupiers of existing and new housing have sufficient water supplies now and in future.

At national level, the Government have consulted on options for regulating for minimum standards of water efficiency in new homes and commercial buildings. Proposals for higher water standards are being taken forward through the new code for sustainable homes. The Environment Agency and water companies, as statutory consultees—

3.53 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.15 pm

On resuming—

Meg Munn: The Environment Agency and water companies, as statutory consultees for both the regional spatial strategy and the local development frameworks, play an important role in informing planning authorities and independent inquiries at key stages of the plan-making process. Water companies have 25-year, forward-looking water-resource plans, which they review every five years and which are reviewed annually by the agency. The plans take into account the supply-and-demand balance for a specific area, and include new household growth and population changes as part of the planning process.

Referring specifically to the east of England, the Environment Agency’s technical work has indicated that sufficient water resources will be available to support the proposed level of growth, provided that significant water savings are achieved and planned new water infrastructure is put in place. The Government have proposed new regional targets on reducing per-capita water consumption and policies to ensure the timely provision of additional water infrastructure and a co-ordinated approach. That will include a programme of water-cycle and river-cycle studies to address water supply and waste-water treatment issues in different parts of the region.

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