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4 Dec 2007 : Column 199WH—continued

10.23 am

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow two such eloquent speeches. Before I go into detail, I need to declare an interest. My husband is the deputy chairman of the South East England Development Agency, which has a core part to play in any development. He is also, as leader of East Sussex county council, a member of the south-east county leaders, who put forward what is in effect the final plan that the inspectors came up with on housing development in the south-east. I also have some knowledge of the area in question, as a member of my family lives in the vale of Aylesbury.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on securing the debate, and I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury Vale is not here. Or is it Aylesbury?

John Bercow: Aylesbury.

Mrs. Lait: My apologies; I was referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). The debate has given us the opportunity to listen to my
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hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham in full flow, and when he is in full flow, there is nobody better in the House to explain a complex situation.

It is not often that a Conservative will say that they broadly agree with a Liberal.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): Shame.

Mrs. Lait: I know—it is a stain on my record for ever more. The points made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) were, in principle, ones with which I thoroughly agree.

This is not the first time that I have stood up in this Chamber and discussed the subject. In fact, I think that I was possibly the first Member of Parliament to raise the issue of overdevelopment during the past 10 years in my constituency. Yet again, I am familiar with the arguments. The other strength that I hope I can bring to the debate is that as a Scot, I was brought up near Glasgow. I have experience of the enormous council house estates, or schemes as they are called in Scotland, built all around Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee—mono-housing with no infrastructure, no jobs, no shops, no churches and no pubs. The Scots are living with the consequences 50 years later. The last thing that I would wish on any community is mono-culture housing that creates the social problems that we have seen Scotland suffer from, as well as other parts of the UK—Newcastle upon Tyne is a particular example.

Paul Holmes: Let me maintain the unusual harmony between me and the hon. Lady: she has talked about huge council estates in Scotland and the problems that they created, but that is not only a problem with huge council estates. In my constituency, a development of 3,000 to 4,000 houses on the Peak district side of Chesterfield is privately built and in a desirable area but has no community room, no schools and no facilities. Everyone has to travel out, even to take their kids to infant school. People cannot walk to school, so they have to drive. That is a problem not only on council estates, but on huge modern estates of any kind.

Mrs. Lait: I agree. The oldest exemplar before us is the case of the housing schemes in Scotland, and any mono-culture development of any size has to be avoided. That is why I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham on mentioning so strongly the need to create a sustainable community. That is what the Government tell us that they want to do, and we have to take them at their word.

Like my hon. Friend, I accept absolutely the need for more housing. There is no argument about that in any political party. The argument is precisely that which was put forward by both hon. Members who have spoken: do we have a top-down imposition of housing or a bottom-up acceptance by the local community where they see the communities develop and feel that they are in control of that? That is where the debate will lie.

The debate is encapsulated by the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which has just had its Second Reading, and the Planning Bill. The Government are dictating to local communities. However much the Government say that consultation has been brought into the system,
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essentially there is a top-down imposition of targets. Our communities are against all development because they feel that they have lost control and that the only thing that they can do is object. The planning system is brought into such disfavour in communities because a local developer—or any developer—puts in a planning application, local people object, it is turned down on perfectly rational grounds by the local planning committee, the developer appeals and almost invariably the planning inspectorate is suspected by our local communities of carrying out the Government’s wishes—it does not, and I exonerate it from wishing to do so. However, local communities perceive that the inspectorate carries out the Government’s wishes. That does nothing for the acceptance of planning developments, because people get cynical about the whole system.

In my view, and those of many others who have read the provisions in the Planning Bill, the Government’s attempts to tighten even further local communities’ development difficulties will only exacerbate that situation. However, this is not the place—I can feel you getting twitchy, Mrs. Humble—for a long dissertation on the faults of the Bill; that will be for Second Reading next Monday. However, the issues exemplified by today’s debate have arisen because people feel that they have lost control.

I, too, wish to hear from the Minister whether the Government accept the south-east plan, as reported by the inspectors, which represents a reduction on the numbers wanted by the Government, and a minor increase on those wanted by the south-east area—I am using the broadest definition of “south-east”. However, I understand that 29,000 houses a year are being built in the south-east area anyway, and it is believed that a figure of 32,000 is not beyond the realms of possibility, but more than that will be an unacceptable number for the south-east.

Returning to my comments about mono-housing, there is confusion over the definitions of affordable housing and social housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham referred to the need for both low-cost housing for purchase and an increase in the rented sector. Unfortunately, however, the two have become interchangeable, which might well impact on the Vale of Aylesbury. If it is not clear that social housing is merely a part of affordable housing, and if it is defined as affordable housing only—if the two become synonymous—we could go back down the route of a mono-culture development. We need to maintain the difference between the two.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham terrified me with the estimate by Roger Tym and Partners of £760 million for infrastructure, although I suppose that I should not have been terrified. If I understood his figures correctly, he said that Buckinghamshire county council has received £31 million in infrastructure money so far and will receive another £30 million. If we accept the consultants’ figures, there will be a £700 million gap in infrastructure money in the Vale of Aylesbury alone. He also referred to the community infrastructure levy proposed in the Planning Bill, but the Bill does not make it clear how that levy will work. The nice fluffy idea is that developers will pay the levy and that it will be based on the Milton Keynes tariff. However, people
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are deeply suspicious. My memory is that the public spending statement mentioned that the regional development agencies, which will be responsible for planning and housing, will also benefit from the levy. If they are to be included, and if the £700 million infrastructure costs for the Vale of Aylesbury are to be covered entirely by the CIL, how much will developers have to sell their houses for in order to pay for it? I am sorry, but I am not a sufficient mathematician to work that out.

Paul Holmes: On the Milton Keynes tariff, Councillor Isobel McCall, the leader at Milton Keynes, has warned that although the tariff simplifies things very much and goes a long way towards allowing the local authority to provide an infrastructure, it is not enough. The local authority ends up making bids for money from various different pots to try to stitch together enough to put the infrastructure in place. The system needs changing.

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on some of the difficulties of the tariff. I hope that he will serve in Committee on the Planning Bill; if he does, he will discover that the clauses on the community infrastructure levy are bland, to say the least. We do not know whether the tariff will be a set tariff; if it is, we will, of course, have difficulties with values throughout the country. If it is based on a tariff system, the same point will apply. However, if the Government expect the community infrastructure levy to fund the infrastructure in one small area with the sum of £700 million, I suggest that the houses that will be built must be over the £1 million mark. That is hardly social or affordable housing, with the best will in the world. It would produce a monoculture of millionaires, and I do not think that we want that in the Vale of Aylesbury.

John Bercow: I, sadly, will be deprived of the joys of participating in the Planning Bill Committee, but Val Letheren, Martin Tett and Carole Paternoster, county and district representatives in my area, are anxious for reassurance about the community infrastructure levy. The expectation of funding so much from such a modest instrument seems an enormous one. Is my hon. Friend aware that on the strength of the record of the planning gain supplement, top-slicing is the order of the day? Not only are we expected somehow to raise huge funds locally, but we are not even allowed to keep the bulk of them.

Mrs. Lait: The difficulty that we have is that the Bill is totally opaque—it does not explain. We have been assured that the clauses will be brought forward while the Bill is in Committee.

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Lady that we are talking about development in Aylesbury Vale. I have allowed some debate about the Planning Bill, because of issues about how development may proceed, but I hope that she will return to the issue at hand.

Mrs. Lait: I dearly wish to keep in order, and frequent references to the Vale of Aylesbury have so far helped me to do that, but we can envisage, projected forward—at least I have avoided the phrase “going
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forward”, which should be struck from the English language—difficulties with the provision of infrastructure, and the Government’s approach to its development, in the proposed new system.

On infrastructure, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and the hon. Member for Chesterfield both rightly raised not only the issues of shops and churches, but the more fundamental issues of transport and of energy and sewerage provision. I shall get into trouble again, because I wonder whether the Minister can advise us whether the provision of the energy required for a development, such as the one in the Vale of Aylesbury, would be regarded as coming within the responsibilities of the new infrastructure planning commission. The White Paper suggested that there might be five to 10 national infrastructure issues. I understand, informally, that that has been increased to 40, or possibly 80. However, we are still trying to find out what might be regarded as a national infrastructure issue. Might it be argued that a power sub-station for 5,000 new houses—it is 5,000—in the Vale of Aylesbury is relevant to the national infrastructure commission? Might the required new roads and railway lines be relevant, too, and might they be brought within the new system? If so, any new development in the Vale of Aylesbury would, I suggest, be delayed yet further as such issues are worked out through the new structure.

Some real questions must be asked about how the infrastructure will be developed within the Government’s proposals. Indeed, if any such proposal were to win an eco-town award, again one would ask whether it was relevant to the national infrastructure, because if it was, it would have to go right the way through the new infrastructure planning commission, which is, theoretically, meant to speed things up. It will be an interesting debate to determine whether the commission does that.

There are real questions, which I hope the Minister will answer, about the proposal to build in the Vale of Aylesbury more houses than local residents currently feel able to take. In the 50 years since I first visited that part of the world, I have seen huge expansion in the area. The ancient villages and towns have expanded beyond any recognition. Local people are prepared to accept further development, but unless they feel that they have control over the amount of development, that they accept it, and that they are prepared to live with the consequences and the requirements, so that they can secure a doctor’s appointment and a school for their children and get to work more locally than before, the Government will face a form of civil breakdown, which I am sure they would not wish for and which, in their heart of hearts, they would never have envisaged.

If communities do not accept and believe in their own area, one way or another we will face real problems. I very much hope that the Government take that dire warning on board. None of us wishes to see it happen, and we do not encourage it. We believe that more housing is needed, but unless people accept that need and own it, real problems will emerge.

10.43 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. It does not seem too long
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ago that I responded for the Government in an equally important debate, in which you participated, about the economic regeneration of Blackpool. However, it is nice to see you in the Chair for what has been a good-natured and illuminating debate this morning.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on securing the debate. When I was appointed a Minister, he was one of the first people to congratulate me and send me a note, for which I was grateful. His courteous and, it must be said, positively cutting manner, his eloquence in the Chamber when holding the Government to account and his hard work as a constituency MP are a real pleasure to watch. His membership of this House raises the parliamentary average, and I am grateful that he is a Member.

I genuinely think that it has been a good debate. The way in which we plan and deliver the development of local communities to maintain and improve on our strong economic performance and to provide much-needed additional housing, while imposing and securing sustainability in every sense, is among the most challenging issues that we face. I welcome the opportunity to respond, and I have enjoyed listening to hon. Members’ contributions. However, I am afraid that I must disappoint the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he knows this—in his request for me to comment on precise housing numbers. He knows that I am constrained in what I can say because of the current position on the spatial strategy for development of the regions.

The draft south-east plan submitted by the regional assembly underwent extensive consultation and public examination, and the independent panel submitted its recommendations on the draft plan to the Government in August. They are being considered, and we expect to publish our formal response early next year. The response will undergo a 12-week statutory public consultation, and we will then consider the comments and views of all interested parties before preparing the final regional spatial strategy. I am afraid that I must disappoint the House by not commenting further on any detailed aspect of the proposed changes before that process occurs.

The national perspective is important. The recent housing Green Paper set out the Government’s ambition to deliver a substantial increase in new housing. The case for doing so is clear. Since the early 1970s, we have been building more slowly than new households have been forming and have experienced a sustained increase in house prices as well as rising numbers on housing waiting lists. As I mentioned on the Second Reading of the Housing and Regeneration Bill last week, poor and inadequate housing can have a major impact on health, well-being and educational attainment.

In Aylesbury Vale, lower quartile house prices are now more than eight times lower quartile earnings, putting home ownership out of many households’ reach. More than 2,000 households were on the district’s housing waiting list at the end of March 2006, more than double the number for 2002, which is simply unacceptable. To address the situation, we aim to deliver a minimum of 240,000 new homes a year by 2016, with a total of 3 million by 2020. That goal is based on extensive analysis of housing supply, demand and affordability.

We recently established a new body, the national housing and planning advice unit, to provide independent advice to central Government and regional planning
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bodies. The unit’s initial advice on the housing numbers published in October underlines the scale of the challenge that we face in meeting our objectives for long-term affordability. It is important that regional planning processes consider an appropriate range of housing numbers with a view to meeting long-term needs. Unless we get it right now, our sons, daughters and grandchildren will lose out. As I said last week, housing will become a source of inequality if we do not act now.

As well as increasing numbers, we must meet high environmental and design standards and deliver thriving, sustainable communities. That has been a theme of this debate, and rightly so. Local authorities, working with residents and local partners, are at the heart of shaping the vision for their locality. I dispute the point that the process has been centrally driven and top-down. The process does not work if that is the case, and it must be bottom-up if it is to work. The importance of local authorities’ place-shaping role is reflected in the recent changes to relations between central Government and local government. We have strengthened local area agreements and significantly simplified local authority funding and performance management arrangements.

The planning system exists to help local authorities achieve the principles that I have described. It is a plan-led system, because we need a proactive and integrated approach to development and place-shaping. We are committed as a Government to the principle of sustainable communities. In 2004, we introduced new evidence-based planning systems at the regional and local levels to enshrine that principle. Plans must now be supported by a robust and credible evidence base, and plan-makers must show in a sustainability appraisal that they have addressed sustainability.

Through their local development framework core strategies, local authorities have a clear opportunity to set out the vision for their area for the next 15 to 20 years. They should set out clear strategic objectives for how their areas will be developed and a delivery strategy for achieving them. We recognise that it is important to ensure that the necessary infrastructure accompanies development, which has been another theme in this debate. Local planning authorities must therefore develop a strategic approach to infrastructure provision when preparing local development frameworks and work with infrastructure providers to ensure that they are clear about how the place will look in 15 to 20 years, so infrastructure providers can plan on the basis of a clear picture of the future shape of the place. By working together, those bodies can influence how the area develops.

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