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18 July 2007 : Column 100WH—continued

I would also like to see a reluctance to build houses on gardens. My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) has done a great deal to promote a
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Bill to reclassify gardens from brownfield to greenfield sites. Of course, we all want more houses to be built on brownfield sites.

Mr. Love: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, because of the concerns that have been expressed throughout the country and, indeed, in this House, the Government have moved to change planning legislation in that regard. It is now possible for local planning authorities to reject such applications.

Philip Davies: Indeed, and anything that strengthens the hand of local authorities to prevent building on gardens is a good thing, but it still does not deal with the possibility of Government planning inspectors overruling the local authority in such matters.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Philip Davies: I will in a moment. I hope that there will be a presumption from now on that houses should not be built on gardens, because doing so blights local areas and completely changes the nature of villages. Places in my constituency such as Baildon, Eldwick and Menston have faced many such applications recently. I hope that there will be a presumption that houses should not be built on gardens and that gardens should be considered greenfield sites.

Mr. Truswell: I congratulate my honourable neighbour on securing this debate. I apologise for the fact that the attractions of a delegated legislation Committee mean that I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate. Does he share my concern that local authorities such as Leeds and perhaps Bradford are not making sufficient use of their current planning powers—such as the action plans in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and planning policy statement 3—to judge applications by the way that they meet housing need, rather than by the profit motive of developers? Also, is he satisfied that local authorities are doing enough to ensure that there is a sufficient proportion of affordable housing, and that that housing is truly affordable, when they do grant planning permission?

Philip Davies: I have a great deal of sympathy with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, but we should recognise that local authorities often find themselves in a difficult position when it comes to housing applications. They are faced with piles of planning guidance from central Government, and with targets set for them by the regions—even though the regional assemblies have now been abolished—for the number of houses that have to be built in a certain area. Local authorities have to factor in all those things when deciding on planning applications.

It is no good trying to pretend that local authorities have a free reign in dealing with planning applications, because, as we all know, they do not. They often operate under the threat of a developer taking his case to a planning inspector on appeal, and the planning inspector then overruling the local authority’s decision, at immense cost to the local authority and the council tax payer. We cannot ignore that factor in their deliberations. According to the Government’s figures, a planning inspector overrules a council’s decision in one third of cases, so that threat is always hanging over local authorities.

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Mr. Truswell: Will the hon. Gentleman accept my point that councils need to maximise the use of their powers to resist appeals and to substantiate the case before planning inspectors, but that often, they do not?

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but I would like the Government to give local authorities more freedom in determining planning applications. At the end of the day, they are democratically accountable and best placed to know what is in the best interests of the local area. It is unfortunate that a planning inspector from Bristol will often visit a given area and overrule a democratically accountable and elected local authority that has made a decision that may be popular in the local community.

I certainly welcomed the announcement about abolishing regional assemblies—something that the Conservative party has called for for many years. My concern is that we have not actually moved away at all from the idea that a regional body of unelected, unaccountable and unwanted people should make decisions about the number of houses to be built in a particular area. The Minister accepted yesterday that the spatial planning strategies will still be going ahead as planned, and that the number of houses that the regional body, at the behest of Government policy, will expect my local authority to build will therefore be unchanged. My local authority must find places for those houses, regardless of whether local people want them or whether there are suitable places for them. The local authority is under pressure to find places, so that housing targets can be met.

The Sustainable Communities Bill went through the House of Commons not too long ago with all-party support. Its purpose was to try to ensure that local communities have more say in what happens in their local area. If the Government truly support the Bill, I hope that they will give more power and freedom to local authorities to determine housing applications, without the spectre of planning inspectors and regional targets hanging over them.

I have one final point. I am aware that I have taken up a lot of time, Mr. Cummings, but I have tried to be generous with interventions. One of the things that really irritates my constituents, particularly in Baildon—the village in which I live—is that housing applications are approved and more and more buildings go up, yet there is no infrastructure to support them. In the surveys that I carry out, this is a big issue for local residents. All that happens is that traffic problems and the quality of life get worse. Local people would be much happier if they felt that the infrastructure support followed the amount of housing.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. We either have a housing shortage or we do not. If we do have a housing shortage, it has to be met and there has to be building somewhere. The point that he makes about the Sustainable Communities Bill is a fair one, but the issue is one for local authorities to decide—including, I suggest, his own. I was on the Committee that considered that Bill, and the thrust of it is that all the appropriate community infrastructure, such as schools, community centres, doctors and so on, must be in place when substantial development takes place. That is basic sense for any planning authority. I am surprised that his planning authorities have not learnt that. What have they been doing over the years?

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Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman says that these are basic matters, but this is an issue all around the country. I do not know whether my local authority is unique in terms of the problems that it has experienced. I suspect not, because the issue of housing developments going up and the infrastructure not being there to support them has been raised in virtually every local authority in the country. There are certainly places in my constituency where houses are built and where every available piece of land is sold off to developers and built on. Yet no extra roads or infrastructure is put in place to support those houses, which exacerbates people’s frustration about the number of new houses that are built. The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) will know that well, because there is a new planning application on his side of the constituency boundary near Menston, which borders my part of the constituency. A heap of houses are going up on an already congested road, but there will be no more roads built to support them, which just creates more problems for local residents. That is a big problem all around the country.

Mr. Truswell: I assume that the development that the hon. Gentleman is talking about is High Royds. We have known about it for 10 years or more, so the local authority had a huge amount of time to plan, but it never did. That is the point that Labour Members are trying to make: planning powers are not being used as effectively as they could be to create a framework that anticipates pressure on the infrastructure.

Philip Davies: I do not wish to get bogged down on a parochial matter, but the hon. Gentleman will also know that an extra 500 houses will be built on my side of the constituency boundary in Menston, on land on which the council did not want to build. The planning inspector put in the unitary development plan against the wishes of local people and the local council. Part of the issue is that the needs and wishes of local councils are overridden by Government bodies.

I apologise for having taken up so much time. I have had a quick canter around a few housing issues that affect my constituents, and which are of concern to many people in the country. I genuinely hope that the Minister will do his best to address some of the points that have been raised.

3.2 pm

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): Housing is vital to my constituents, as it is to the whole country. I am pleased that it is now at the top of the political agenda, for which I have argued for some time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing the debate, although I disagree with some of his more provocative remarks on immigration and the green belt, which I will come back to later. I, too, would like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment and to welcome the innovation that the Minister for Housing now attends Cabinet.

I am particularly pleased about the strong emphasis on building new housing, particularly new social housing, in the draft legislative programme. Given the legacy of
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neglect that we inherited, the Government have a good record on investing in the refurbishment of social housing. Progress towards the decent homes standard is important, but not nearly enough has been done to increase supply, both of social housing and affordable housing to buy. That means that in my constituency and many others, thousands of people endure the misery of inadequate and over-crowded housing conditions, which has an appalling effect on their quality of life and on their life chances.

As the drive for more housing gathers pace and with the Green Paper in mind, I am particularly concerned that nothing in that Green Paper or in the language used to describe our housing approach closes off the option of development on appropriate green belt land near Oxford. In the circumstances confronting our area, we must have an urban extension to Oxford if we are to meet housing need, and there is nowhere else for that to go but on present green belt land because green belt boundaries are drawn so close to the built-up area of the city.

Housing provision is a key local concern to those in housing need and to the many people who have grown up in the city and who cannot now afford to live there. The impact of housing provision on the labour market, public services and business activity is raised with me all the time, whether I am meeting the chamber of commerce, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, universities, hospitals, or the trade unions. Just about everybody with an interest in housing provision and the economic vitality of Oxford, which is at the cutting edge of regional and national growth and could contribute still more given room to grow, accepts that we have to modify the green belt. I and local councillors have campaigned hard on this issue. Readiness to go ahead with an urban extension is synonymous locally with being serious about tackling the housing crisis.

There is an overwhelmingly strong case for building more housing in the south-east, particularly in central Oxfordshire. The city’s housing needs survey, which was conducted by Fordhams, identified a need for 1,700 to 1,800 new affordable properties a year. I would like to press the case for agreeing with the “Barker Review of Land Use Planning”, which states that the green belt policy

Barker’s interim report notes that there are now some 27,000 more jobs than residents in Oxford, which has led to large numbers of commuters “jumping”—to use the phrase that she used—the green belt every day. Of course, in practice, people are not so much jumping the green belt as crawling through it in the polluting traffic jams that creep in and out of the city each day.

Recommendation 9 of the Barker review states:

3.7 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.22 pm

On resuming—

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Mr. Smith: To meet the enormous backlog of social housing need in Oxford there is a strong case for one or more urban extensions of the city into the green belt, with a compensating extension of the green belt elsewhere. The city has unique economic needs, which can best be met within or adjacent to it. The substantial scale of housing needs within the central Oxfordshire sub-region cannot be accommodated in the county’s towns alone. There is an opportunity to build truly sustainable communities, associated with the city; also, new infrastructure is more sustainable and the associated costs are lower in proximity to the city.

Oxford city already has a very good brownfield development record. It is consistently the local authority with the highest rate in the country of reuse of existing sites for development. Yet that development has manifestly failed to meet the city’s substantial need for new homes. Moreover, the scope for additional housing in the built-up area is rapidly becoming exhausted, with unacceptable pressures on existing residential areas and green spaces in the city, including gardens, which the hon. Gentleman talked about. I very much hope that with the Green Paper and the south-east plan examination under way, the chance will now be taken to review the central Oxfordshire green belt, in the light of the overwhelming evidence, as well as the recommendations of the Barker review.

Before I draw my remarks to a close, let me knock on the head the nonsense that is heard from opponents of house building that those of us who believe in tackling market failure and responding to people’s real housing needs somehow want to concrete over south-east England. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Barker review analysis showed, outside London just 12.2 per cent. of land is currently developed. We can both build the extra houses that are needed and preserve the distinctive beauty of the English countryside. We can also respect the greatest aesthetic and ecological characteristic of cities such as Oxford by protecting the green wedges—the corridors of countryside that come right into the city centre, which, if we do not review the green belt, will come under inexorable pressure.

Some hon. Members may have seen a comment piece by Tristram Hunt in The Observer last Sunday, which claimed that Ministers

Ministers have said no such thing. They have argued that the primary source of land for new housing should be brownfield sites, but that local circumstances must be examined through the planning process. My argument is that within the overall provision of green belt protection we urgently need a review of the green belt in central Oxfordshire, to provide for housing and the continued economic vitality of the city. Those such as Tristram Hunt and the Campaign to Protect Rural England who maintain blanket opposition to any building in the green belt fail to understand that although it has an important role in preventing urban sprawl it is also responsible, in places such as Oxford, for urban strangulation. Such cities face enormous pressures, because of an over-tight green belt, including the loss of valued green spaces inside the city, the proliferation of houses in multiple occupation and flats, which are destroying the character of residential
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areas, the environmental degradation and congestion caused by thousands of commuters crossing the green belt every day, and a catastrophic housing shortage, with a real risk that Oxford and places like it will become affordable only to a small elite.

Mr. Hunt suggested in his article that developing part of the green belt might

My message to him is that it would alleviate the suffering and distress of families who live in overcrowded conditions, whose children cannot live in the city they grew up in, and would do something to help those in temporary or inadequate privately rented accommodation. I urge my hon. Friends in Government to be resolute and energetic in the drive for the new homes that we need, and, where the social, environmental and economic arguments point to the need for modest changes in the green belt, to get on and make them, using, of course, all the proper procedures, so that those whom we represent, who need and deserve decent housing, can get it.

3.27 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent’s Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing the debate, and welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his position. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) I also welcome the higher profile that housing has now secured, even if I do not necessarily welcome all the ways in which the issue is presented, including some that we heard from the hon. Gentleman. We look forward very much to next week’s housing Green Paper as a further demonstration of the Government’s renewed commitment to tackling what we all agree is both a crisis of affordable housing to buy and, particularly, a shortage of rented accommodation for people in housing need.

It is important to understand the full range of reasons that have driven that level of housing need in recent years. We accept that there is now a backlog affecting housing provision, because of a decades-long failure of the house building industry to meet need. It was only two years ago that private sector house building fell to its lowest rate since 1926. The pent-up demand that is now in the system is in large part driven by that failure. Of course, in the social rented sector it is also driven by a near halving of supply in many areas of the country, because of the impact of the right to buy. We all support the right to buy. It represented, in many ways, the biggest shift of wealth to poorer people that has ever happened in this country. However, for decades we failed to replace the stock, and as a consequence the people occupying many of the properties that were sold under the right to buy are no longer of the same profile as those who seek social rented housing. They are the ones who have borne the brunt of the impact.

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