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On climate change, the urgency is extreme. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) pointed out the potential global catastrophe that we face. The Government’s Stern report said that an increase in global temperatures of 2° would cause falling crop yields, water shortages, rising storm intensity, forest fires, droughts, flooding and heatwaves,
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and the possibly irreversible onset of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the collapse of all or part of the Amazonian rain forest. Stern quotes the intergovernmental panel on climate change’s 2001 assessment as saying that the risk of that happening with atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at 450 parts per million is 38 per cent. Stern also quotes the Hadley centre as saying that the likelihood is much higher, at 78 per cent. However, 38 per cent. is not a risk that I would even like to take crossing the road, let alone playing with the future of the planet.

Complacency even starts to creep in in the Stern report. Strangely, Stern draws from those alarming risks the conclusion that 550 parts per million is a safe target to aim for, which has been translated into the Government’s targets. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, the IPCC figures might be conservative. The recent fourth assessment report is based on data collected by 2004 and so misses out a great deal of recent and even more alarming research. That includes research that has said that carbon intensity in the global economy might not be decreasing, as the IPCC assumed, but increasing, owing to rapid economic growth in India and China, thus making the situation more alarming than thought. The picture might therefore be worse than the IPCC, Stern or DEFRA have realised.

So why is the target reduction in the Climate Change Bill still only 60 per cent. by 2050? The opinion that that target is utterly inadequate is now widespread. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and other Labour Members agreeing with that proposition. I hope that we can form a cross-party consensus that the figure in the Bill needs to rise, although I was a little disappointed that at an event that the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), and I attended yesterday he failed to support any increase above the 60 per cent. reduction in the Bill. I fear that the Conservatives will not be backing Friends of the Earth, the Liberal Democrats and others in arguing for much more ambitious targets.

Like the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who spoke earlier, I regret the lack of urgency in bringing forward a marine Bill. We first consulted on the proposal, at length, in 2006. This year there has been a White Paper and yet more consultation. There is now a draft Bill, with yet more consultation in 2008, yet it is a measure that enjoys all-party support. We have years and years of consultation, but what we need is legislation. The need is urgent: more than half the UK’s biodiversity is in our coastal waters, and the economic activity in those coastal waters is worth billions, yet the management of our seas is at the moment “ad hoc” and “reactive”. Those are not my words; they are the words of the Government in one of their many consultations.

Worse still is the fact that some measures in the Government programme will pose a threat to our environment. Measures on housing, energy and planning address urgent and important issues, but all carry risks to the environment. They will, for instance, pave the way for a new generation of nuclear power stations, which the Liberal Democrats believe will be unpopular, unsustainable, unaffordable and unsafe for generations long into the distant future. If the
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Government’s energy strategy concentrated as much on renewable energy as it should do, we could look forward to a cleaner, greener future instead of being led down this dangerous path to nuclear new build. The planning reform Bill will be used as a cloak to facilitate the building of new nuclear power stations, probably on many of the same sites as the last generation of nuclear power stations, some of which could still be contaminated when they are overwhelmed by sea-level rises and storm surges due to climate change. To say that this is not joined-up thinking by the Government is to put it mildly.

Planning reform is certainly needed, but it is needed to entrench, rather than undermine, local people’s rights. In my constituency, residents are happily watching hundreds of new houses being built on brownfield sites. In fact, local councillors of all parties have accepted a figure of 8,500 new houses, so there should be no accusations of nimbyism there, even though that insult is a rather feeble one that is used whenever local communities seek to defend their quality of life, which is something that they have every right to do. Councillors and politicians in Cheltenham draw the line, however, at building 14,500 new houses, or perhaps even more, under the new targets being imposed on us by Government inspectors soon. That would represent a 25 per cent. growth in the size of our town. If a similar kind of growth were imposed on Greater London, most of the Government’s 3 million target would be met in one fell swoop.

Pushing all the new housing into a few urban extensions and a few growth point areas such as ours, thereby pushing development into the green belt and on to flood risk sites, threatens to bring about an unsustainable level of growth that will create urban sprawl and add further pressure to local roads and services. Such is the green light being given to developers that they are even eyeing up the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty, which most local residents had assumed was absolutely sacrosanct from development.

Development is being aggressively promoted at Glenfall way in my constituency, which is inside the AONB. I hope that that application will be thrown out, and I equally hope that the planning reform Bill will not encourage developers to try again later, although I fear that it might. On another site, in Leckhampton, following 700 objections to a greenfield development that had previously been ruled inappropriate by two Government inspectors, an application has been made yet again. In effect, those 700 objections to the earlier, almost identical application will count for almost nothing, and the whole process will have to start all over again in the community. We need planning reform to level that playing field and to make it a fairer fight between local communities and aggressive developers.

I would object less if this manic push for huge numbers of new houses was actually going to work as a reliable way of delivering affordability. The truth is, however, that house prices in Cheltenham are high not because insufficient land has been released historically—in fact, there has been a massive amount of new building over the past 20 or 30 years—but because of a national trend towards higher house
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prices, which has been influenced as much by interest rates, mortgage lending and a lack of social housing as by a lack of land being released. Locally, we have outstanding schools, a thriving local economy, a fine, attractive town centre and attractive parks. All those factors would still be there if we experienced this enormous growth, and I suspect that we would still have relatively high house prices.

Of course the developers want to build on greenfield sites near towns such as Cheltenham: it is much more profitable than the alternatives. One such alternative is urban regeneration. It is no wonder that the west midlands regional development agency, in its evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee, said that the policy of creating urban extensions next to relatively affluent towns would actually undermine urban regeneration. It is no wonder that there are complaints from less wealthy counties, such as Cornwall, which want and need the housing more. And it is no wonder that there are complaints from smaller, rural communities whose post offices, shops and schools are closing for lack of people and which are not being given the allocation of housing numbers that are being attached to large towns such as Cheltenham.

Another consequence of the headlong rush to have new build on valued green spaces is the loss of plant life, higher carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity, not to mention the straightforward loss of beauty, which is rarely mentioned by politicians, but valuable to our quality of life, mental health and the simple enjoyment of the countryside. Once lost, those green spaces are gone for ever. Instead of slow-tracking the Climate Change and marine Bills, which should have been fast-tracked, I suggest that the potentially disastrous market-driven predict-and-provide planning and housing policy is where the Government need to pause for thought, consult and go back to the drawing board.

4.5 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Before making my remarks on housing, I want to pick up one or two issues raised in the debate. First, a couple of hon. Members have referred to education, including the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who talked about the academies programme. I think I can confidently state that I am the only parent in Parliament who has a child in an academy school. Let me say that I, for one, go down on my knees in gratitude for the three new academy schools in my constituency. Together, they will account for about £100 million of new buildings when completed. Those buildings replace a dilapidated, ugly and brutal three-site failing school. We hear so much nonsense and mythology about the schools programme, but it is right that the schools that were in the greatest need and in trouble have been given the priority for new buildings and management.

New buildings alone are not going to transform children’s educational experience. One of the worrying contexts that we are failing to address on both sides of the House is the extent to which schools have polarised in their intake. New buildings or no new buildings, devolved management or no devolved management, it will be impossible to provide all our children, especially those from the most challenged backgrounds, with the quality of education that they need if we do not have a
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mixed intake. A voucher-type scheme is the worst possible option. In some ways we have a de facto voucher scheme now, because parents apply for the most popular schools—those in highest demand—and those schools choose their parents and children. It is not a case of parents and children choosing those schools. As a result, the schools that are less popular gradually ratchet downwards, to become schools of last resort. That has to be turned around. Many different polices will be needed, including the academies programme and resource allocation. We need to be far more rigorous and honest about what is happening in our schools because of their admissions policies, and what we need to do to ensure a balanced intake.

The second issue that has arisen a couple of times is migration. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for seeing some of us a few weeks ago to discuss the impact of new arrival communities on local services. We need to discuss the extent to which, while central Government benefit from migration and the contribution that migrants make to the economy, local communities have to deal with the service consequences of changing or growing populations. The problem is decades old; it is not new. We have to address it, but before we do, we must go further in ensuring that we have a reasonably accurate count of who is living in our local communities.

Again, it is easy to go for glib soundbites. No open democratic society in the world knows with absolute certainty what its population is, or where it is at any given time. As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, I was fortunate enough to go to Washington a couple of weeks ago. The American Government believe that there are 20 million people in the country who are not documented and whose location they do not know. It is a global problem, but what we can do is improve our capacity to measure at local level.

In 2001 I was a lone voice. It gives me no satisfaction—well, actually it does give me some satisfaction—to know that I was right. I was alone in saying that the local census count in my borough in central London would prove to be catastrophically wrong. I telephoned the censors and the Government during the weeks running up to the census to say there were whole estates to which forms had not been delivered, and which would therefore disappear from the count. We knew very well at an early stage that the count would be inaccurate. Incidentally, my local council took no interest in the possibility of an inaccurate population count until 18 months later, when the census was returned and it found that it had lost 24,000 people. Then it suddenly became a matter of great interest.

The Office for National Statistics had been wrong, and refused to admit it. Only now are we beginning to elicit from the ONS some recognition that its methods alone cannot cope with what is happening in our urban communities. It is not just to do with migration, although migration is part of it; it is also to do with churn, an issue that is hugely under-recognised by government at all levels. A population in which 30 per cent. of households move every year has massive implications for the delivery of services such as schools, social services and benefits, because it is very hard to count. When diverse communities exist along with
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communities with large numbers of properties in multiple occupation and a high level of mobility, a dry statistical measurement will simply not be enough. It is the services at the sharp end that will be affected, and it is the people who depend most on those services—often the most vulnerable—who will not be counted and will therefore not be provided with services.

The Government need to recognise that the Local Government Association has a point. It may have its own political axe to grind, but it has a point about numbers. They also need to recognise that we must vastly improve the partnership approach to the measurement of population. That involves not just the ONS, national insurance numbers and GP registrations, but a great deal of permanent outreach-based contact with populations and the matching of numerous data sources.

Housing is a long-standing concern of mine, and I welcome the new priority for house building that we have established in recent months. Mechanisms in the housing Bill will enable us to deliver the homes that are needed. I especially welcome the emphasis on social housing. As the sub-prime crisis across the Atlantic and its ripple effect have demonstrated, we have a genuine problem not just with those who cannot get a foot on the ladder—important though that is—but with those who cannot sustain home ownership. There are a growing number of such people, and sadly that number is likely to continue to grow. We must ensure that we not only provide homes for them, but do something critically important, by de-stigmatising affordable housing for rent.

Home ownership is a legitimate aspiration. It is a lovely aspiration. It is an aspiration that I am sure almost every hon. Member has fulfilled. It is not, however, a moral right. It does not confer a higher status on home owners, and it does not imply that those who cannot afford to buy their own homes are in some way inferior and as a consequence—for this is the practical manifestation—should not have the rights to choice, mobility and decency that the rest of us take for granted.

Of course the problem is partly due to a long-term failure to build new homes on the necessary scale, but it is also the result of the right to buy. That was a fantastic policy, and a windfall, for those who benefited from it directly, but it was a social catastrophe none the less. It left us in a position equivalent to running the bath taps with the plug out: building new homes while haemorrhaging social housing at the other end of the process. We must address that problem.

Although building new social homes is crucial, it is not enough. I welcome the fact that the Government are also seeking to implement some of the recommendations of John Hills’ review of social housing. He has this year produced what is probably the most rigorous and thorough analysis of the social housing sector in generations. He has put forward some excellent proposals, mostly based on incentives and rightly rejecting the call we have heard from some quarters for an end to permanent tenancies for social tenants. That would be another inhumane and brutal social catastrophe. The incentives address issues such as downsizing and mobility. He also looked at the issue of worklessness among social tenants. That is not a problem to do with housing benefit, as has been suggested from the Opposition Benches. It is a
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problem to do with rent: those who aspire to get into work at the lower end of the salary scale will be unable to clear their rent. If people are to be able to hold on to their homes, rather than be at risk of arrears and losing their homes, we must look more imaginatively at the relationship between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Communities and Local Government in terms of the treatment of housing costs. It is criminal that families are trapped in poverty and worklessness because of the way in which rent and housing benefit currently interact.

I will push hard for the housing legislation to include the long promised and long overdue updating of overcrowding measures. In my constituency, we have families not of six people in two-bed flats, but of six people in one-bed flats. It is time we recognised the inhumanity of that level of overcrowding. We need a modern legislative response to give such families the hope that they will achieve what they rightly aspire to.

4.17 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. At the outset, there was some marvellous political knockabout between the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). It was a contest between a heavyweight and a lightweight. I say that meaning no disrespect to the Secretary of State, but there was clearly a size difference between them. I greatly enjoyed that knockabout and the exchange of insults across the Chamber concerning the idea that many Members were nimbys. The truth is that when it comes to representing our constituencies we are all nimbys, because we are elected and paid to represent their concerns in this Chamber. Many of us—almost all of us, I think—live in our constituencies, so many of their concerns are also our concerns. I therefore make no apology for being a nimby, and I do not think that any of my colleagues should make any apology for being nimbys either, because that is what we are here to be.

I wish to talk about concerns about house building. I represent a constituency north of London and just in the south of Hertfordshire, called Broxbourne. We have done our bit. Over the past few years, we have built 5,000 new homes. They needed to be built, and I am sure that we will build a few more homes in the coming years. However, there is concern in my constituency—and, I think, in others in the east and south-east—about sharing that burden. Why is it that when we talk about population growth most of it seems to be in those areas?

My constituents come to me to express their concerns, and they are confused. They say, “Charles, every morning we get up at 5.30; we have to get up that early because if we get to the station after 6.15 we can’t get a seat on the train. We get on crowded trains—if we can even get on the train at all, as sometimes there’s no room and it leaves without us. If we do manage to get on the train, when we reach one of the interchanges at the borders of London and we get off to board a tube train, those trains, too, are absolutely heaving.” They are concerned. They do not know how the current
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infrastructure will cope with the forecast increase in population and the growth in new homes. Of course they cannot use the roads, because those are blocked from 6 o’clock in the morning; the M25 is gridlocked from about 6.30. So it is nimbyism in a sense, but it is also legitimate for people living in areas that are going to take the bulk of the new home-building to raise their concerns about infrastructure and to have them answered.

It is also very important that, in building new homes, we create communities and do not just build dormitories for London. Too much of what was built in my constituency could, I am afraid, be classed as a dormitory. There is very little mixed provision, with many small one-bedroomed or one and a half-bedroomed flats. People return to those flats in the evening from work and leave for work in the morning—there is very little engagement with the local community. Most of them, I am afraid, shop at the local supermarket, which does very little for the community shops. We need more mixed provision. We should build new homes that accommodate all groupings and all sizes of families—from homes for people living individually to proper family homes with three or four bedrooms, so that we can have mixed communities.

The great sadness of Broxbourne is that while we were building all these new flats, many of which are buy-to-let—although I recognise that buy-to-let provides homes for people—we were closing down primary schools. So although we were building more homes and increasing the population of my constituency, at the same time we were closing much-loved primary schools. My constituents would be a lot more relaxed about new house building if we could show them the benefits of it—for example, new youngsters coming to their schools.

In talking about mixed provision, we should also bring the issue of density into the discussion. Before moving to the sunlit uplands of Broxbourne to be its MP, I spent my professional career living in London. I lived in two wonderful Victorian terraced houses—one in Battersea and then one in Balham; I migrated to Balham to have my children. Those houses were clearly built to last—and yes, I lived in mixed communities. In both the places in London in which I lived, I had housing association houses and flats either side of me, and they were inhabited by wonderful people whom I became great friends with, so I have nothing against mixed communities, which I think are good and socially cohesive.

However, when we build new homes, can we please draw from the past and look at how the Victorians and Georgians did it? Such homes are still hugely desirable. In the 1960s, many terraced houses in Battersea were pulled down to make way for new high-rise council blocks. Although desirable, those council blocks are not now as desirable as the terraced houses that were left. A three-bedroomed terraced Victorian home, for example, can sell for upwards of £600,000. So before knocking down Victorian homes in the north of England, the Government should think carefully and consider whether it would make more sense to invest in those homes to ensure that they last another 100 or 200 years.

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