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8 Nov 2007 : Column 272

Mr. Pickles: I understand that the hon. Gentleman may be on the way to another place. As far as I know, there are no polling booths there. But no doubt he is doing a good service to his party. On the location of polling stations, I have been involved in local government for a long time and in this place for a long time, and generally the matter is regarded as non-political. I hope that the council in Leeds will strive for consensus to ensure that the maximum number of people are able to vote at a given polling station.

We now know the reason why the Prime Minister rejected the advice from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and postponed the election. He said that he wanted to

I wonder what went wrong. The Queen’s Speech is painfully lacking in vision. The plodding nature of the proposals could not be clearer than in the measures that the right hon. Lady is responsible for.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since there seems to be happy discussion of the fact that not only Back-Bench speeches, but Front-Bench speeches should be curtailed, would it be possible also to write in the suggestion that Front Benchers should talk vaguely about what is on the Order Paper?

Mr. Speaker: I have absolutely no control over the content of a Front Bencher’s speech.

Mr. Pickles: I am sorry that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has a sense-of-humour failure.

Each year the Government announce new housing figures and each year the housing crisis gets deeper. Each and every year the Government miss their own targets on house building. The Government are so out of touch with the housing market that their cure for failure is to increase the target even more. Goodness me! Is that not how Nikita Khrushchev ruined Soviet agriculture?

Let us consider what we were told on Tuesday—that the Government are going to build 3 million new houses by 2020. The Government do not have the capacity to build 3 million houses, nor do local authorities. The Government can create conditions that encourage house building, and councils can help facilitate new communities. The reality is that the Government have not come anywhere close to meeting their own targets.

The figures speak for themselves. The Government are building fewer houses than the previous Conservative Government. Under Labour, in England an average of just over 145,000 homes have been built each year since 1997. Across the whole of the Thatcher and the Major Governments, the average number of houses built each and every year was well over 173,000. So what is the Government’s response to failing to provide enough new homes? The Prime Minister talks about meeting aspirations. What first-time buyers want are bricks and mortar.

According to the Halifax, there were an estimated 315,000 first-time buyers in 2006, the lowest total for a
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quarter of a century. Home ownership is falling for the first time since records began. Mortgage repossessions are up. The Government, through higher taxation and a refusal to listen, have kicked the housing ladder away from thousands of first-time buyers. Homes are unaffordable for the vast majority of people.

Yvette Cooper: If the hon. Gentleman believes that bricks and mortar—new homes—are indeed needed, will he take the opportunity to condemn the Conservative-led South East England regional assembly, which is arguing for cuts, rather than increases, in the level of house building in the south-east?

Mr. Pickles: I am not entirely sure that that is true. I was about to say, having mentioned Nikita Khrushchev, that the right hon. Lady would make a very bad commissar, but on reflection, I think she would make a very good commissar.

Let us look at the Government’s announcements yesterday and compare them with reality. They say that they are going to build 10 eco-towns. There is something familiar about that. As far back as 1998, Ministers were talking about eco-towns. Last year they announced plans for six eco-community developments, but the reality is different. This year Ministers admitted that only one in 10 of the planned new homes had been built. The Government talk about opening up social housing and reinvigorating the social housing sector, but the reality is different.

The Government have made cuts to the right to buy sector, denying thousands of people in social housing the chance to own their own homes. Ministers talk about getting social tenants on the social housing ladder. They have a plan called the Social HomeBuy scheme—

Yvette Cooper: A pilot scheme.

Mr. Pickles: It is a pretty good pilot, for £15 million. When the press release came out, there was nothing about it being a pilot scheme. Some pilot! [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady should contain herself. She will get a chance. I know that she is feeling a bit uncomfortable, but live with it.

The scheme, which would cost £15 million, was intended to get 5,000 people on to the housing ladder. How many are on the housing ladder? How many took up the scheme? Eighty-eight. A £15 million scheme that cannot get beyond double figures is shameful. When the going gets tough, the Government reach for their favourite solution for all ills—a new quango.

If the right hon. Lady wants another go, she is welcome.

Yvette Cooper: I realise that the hon. Gentleman is not very keen on answering questions and has not yet answered any of the questions that I put to him, whether on the South East England regional assembly or any other issue. I will give him one more chance. As he is well aware from parliamentary answers and matters on the record, the Social HomeBuy pilot has spent less than £1 million on setting up a pilot scheme, not £15 million, as he says. He also knows that the
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Government have set out a programme of £8 billion of investment in new affordable housing. Can he say whether his party would back that £8 billion, especially given the £6 billion black hole that it faces?

Mr. Pickles: Black hole? Is that from the Government who have just revised borrowing requirements by £11.6 billion? I will take no lectures from the Government. They are the Government of the dodgy figures on housing, dodgy figures on the homeless and an inability to get round to building. We do not want to hear from the right hon. Lady any more on those matters.

Let us talk about the quango. The new homes and communities agency, which is better known as the greenfield housing development agency, will be established by merging English Partnerships with the Housing Corporation. In typical Labour fashion, two quangos will be merged to produce—well, two quangos, for alongside the greenfield housing development agency, the office for tenants and social landlords will be created.

Only this Government would demand 3 million new houses and simultaneously be demolishing homes against people’s will. That act of supreme vandalism, which is called the pathfinder scheme, is another failure. It was much trumpeted, full of high expectations, with no delivery. Across the country terraced houses are being bulldozed against the wishes of local people and local communities, and the Government refuse to listen. Bureaucrats in Whitehall are forcing the demolition of family homes across England. Town halls that fail to meet the arbitrary targets for bulldozing or seizing homes will face the threat of savage cuts to their funding.

Let me give an example that the Secretary of State might well recognise. In Salford, town hall bosses have rejected pleas for the local community to renovate homes in Seedley under the pathfinder scheme. They opted to demolish, on the grounds that the renovation plans lacked the “transformational” qualities needed to obtain Government funding. Why do the Government think that the only way to build new houses is to ride roughshod over the communities that they want to build in?

Hazel Blears: Perhaps I could invite the hon. Gentleman to visit Seedley and Langworthy in my constituency, where he will see the work that has been done over the past 10 years to rebuild a community virtually destroyed by the previous Government. We now have terraced housing that is sought after by people in our community and houses prices have increased dramatically. In the past, one used to be able to buy and sell a terraced house in Seedley and Langworthy for £5,000 to £6,000, because the community was absolutely devastated. The average house price now is around £70,000. That community has been rebuilt and has got off its knees, after the legacy that the Tory party left it. I invite the hon. Gentleman to come and visit the people of my community who have prospered under this Government.

Mr. Pickles: If the right hon. Lady had had her way—and if we had had ours—we would have done more than visit her; we would have gone out canvassing, but that was sadly not to be. I am sorry that her idea of redeveloping and improving an area is to demolish it.

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Mr. Prisk: My hon. Friend has rightly highlighted a number of central Government cock-ups. Does he also recognise that the end result of the Government’s decision seven years ago to force through planning guidance to ensure that we build thousands of flats is that many families who needed homes now find thousands of flats, but no family homes? Does he agree that that central direction is one of the reasons we are in the mess we are in?

Mr. Pickles: The Soviet tractor factory approach to density has not worked. It has just created a number of flats that have gone for rent-to-buy and buy-to-rent. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield and I visited a mixed development on Monday with different areas of density that could manage a density of 55 to the hectare, which is pretty impressive. We have to place that against a different kind of development—the kind with bland uniformity.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Pickles: Perhaps I could ask my hon. Friends to allow me to make a little progress, because I am keen to hear to what others have to say.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): My hon. Friend is doing a tremendous job of highlighting 10 years of failure from the Government. Does he put that down to sheer incompetence or cynicism; in other words, that by maintaining the dynamics—or mis-dynamics—of supply and demand in the housing market, in order to ensure that the economy continues to thrive, the Government are letting down a generation of people who wish to have their own homes built?

Mr. Pickles: In truth, I do not think that the people across the Dispatch Box are cynical or incompetent; I just think that they are misdirected. They simply do not understand how the housing market works and have adopted a Soviet approach to central planning—I will come to the commissar in a moment. It was not so long ago that the figures for car and telephone production for the year would be announced from that Dispatch Box. Housing is the last bit of socialism that the Government have got, so I entirely understand that they might be reluctant to get rid of it.

Andrew Miller: We have listened for nearly 20 minutes to the hon. Gentleman’s rather poor stand-up turn, which would not go down well in a nightclub. Will he now spend just one minute explaining to the House some alternative Conservative policies? Last time the Conservatives were in power, we had a massive backlog of repairs and modernisation required in the housing stock for the most disadvantaged communities in my constituency. What would he do for those people?

Mr. Pickles: I was brought up in a terraced house and raised for most of my life on a council estate. Do not patronise me—I know what it is like to live on a poor estate, what it is like to be poor and what it is like to be abandoned by Labour on those estates. I have been generous in giving way and I have responded to hon. Members, so I will now tell the hon. Gentleman
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what we are going to do, which is in the main part of my speech. If he will be a little patient, we will come to it, but all in appropriate time.

The greenfield housing development agency represents the greatest threat to the green belt yet. The Secretary of State was reluctant to offer reassurances about the safety of the green belt when she gave evidence before the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, only to be contradicted by a panicky Prime Minister a few hours later. Can she guarantee that the green belt protection will stay in place?

Hazel Blears indicated assent.

Mr. Pickles: Okay—it will be interesting to see how that is implemented. Is the reality instead that the Government are just waiting to let rip with the bulldozer and the concrete mixer, regardless of the views and concerns of local residents? Why does the Secretary of State not realise that she needs to work with local communities rather than imposing her iron will, along with the clunking fist? Why can she not realise that we need to build communities, not homes? [ Interruption. ] The reason Government Members laugh is this. Their idea of building is to rip up green fields and put on lots of little ticky-tacky houses. The first generation is proud to live in them, the second generation shuns them and the third generation regards living in them as a badge of failure.

That is why we want to build real communities, with real homes that people are proud of. We need more homes that are affordable, well managed, environmentally sustainable and eco-friendly. Many need to be built in cities, but not all. Can the Secretary of State see that increasing the supply of such homes can be best achieved by working with local communities, rather than by overriding local feeling, which she is intent on doing? We need developments with roads, hospitals, nurseries and shops, with homes that people will want to live in—homes with gardens for children to play in and spaces to park a car.

I hope that we can build a consensus on planning. It is clear that the Government are in a mess with their proposals for the Bill. Let me assure the right hon. Lady that we recognise the need to improve our planning system, not just for large infrastructure projects, but for the good of local authorities and the communities that they represent. Our planning system can at times be slow, too expensive and too bureaucratic. We must never see a repeat of the painful process of approval for terminal 5 at Heathrow. However, the new rules on inquiries have only just been introduced and seem to be working reasonably well in the Stansted inquiry.

We need a system that is fast and responsive to changing needs, and which allows us to build the large-scale infrastructure that is so vital to our continuing prosperity. The problem is that so many of the difficulties in the current planning system are of the Government’s making. The ink is hardly dry on the previous planning Act and here we are, desperate to legislate again. The system introduced by the Government is ensnaring local authorities in red tape and bureaucracy. We need a system that is accountable to the public and democratic, and which carries public confidence and support.

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Regrettably, the proposals before us achieve none of those aims. Instead, we see a new planning quango—the infrastructure planning commission—that will strip local authorities of their say on planning applications on everything from airports, power stations, motorways, ports, sewerage plants, hazardous waste storage and landfill. As one might expect, the quango is unaccountable and effectively unsackable.

My doubts on that change are not partisan. Perhaps I should quote the views of the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), the former Housing and Planning Minister. He is of the view that

I entirely agree with him. The IPC’s functions include powers for the “compulsory purchase of land” and

Responsibility for regional planning is to be transferred from the unelected regional assemblies to the unelected regional development agencies. Perhaps the commandment from the Secretary of State is “Quango shall speak unto quango”. The quangocracy is not a success. At present, the Government say that all decisions would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, yet this would only be via the Select Committee system. Parliament as such will have no opportunity to approve or reject them. That simply is not good enough. National infrastructure projects deserve a proper debate to which the whole House can contribute. We are prepared to look at ways of making large infrastructure statements accountable to the whole of Parliament. If we can find a way to offer genuine accountability and genuine democracy, we will look at any proposals that the Secretary of State might make. The real expertise on planning still resides with local authorities, and it would be better to return strategic planning to them than to create an unpopular quango.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles: I will, but I am afraid that this will be the last time that I will give way.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman mentioned nuclear power and infrastructure projects. Does he agree that, specifically in regard to nuclear power, it is important to have an informed debate, and that any consultation is genuinely that—a genuine consultation rather than window dressing prior to the Government’s announcing that they are already in favour of nuclear power, whatever the outcome of the consultation? Whether or not one is in favour of that kind of technology, surely the House and the country deserve the respect of being allowed to hear the facts rather than simply the prejudices of the Government.

Mr. Pickles: I entirely agree. Matters like these are marred by political prejudice—that is the nature of the thing—but I think that the folks out there expect us to take a view on this, and to listen to what they have to say. Even if we disagree with them, they will at least respect us if we make that decision.

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