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ITV has confirmed since publishing the document that it is committed to ensuring that each region is fully equipped with the necessary journalists, camera crews and news-gathering equipment to get all the top stories. It will also provide segments within news programmes
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to provide an even more localised service in certain areas. The document refers specifically to the Tyne Tees and Border region.

I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby is concerned about the Yorkshire TV bulletin, “Calendar”, and the fact that the sub-regional editions have gone. The Government accept that there is understandable concern in certain areas that the quality of the coverage—another issue that he raised—may be under threat from the proposals. He is right to say that we must not sacrifice quality in attempting to meet financial constraints. If there is one thing that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, it is that excellence and quality will be the driving motivation for all we do in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport family.

There are examples of very good quality regional broadcasting by ITV—for example, its coverage of the terrible floods this summer and stories about local hospitals and local football teams, all of which are important ingredients in regional broadcasting. During very difficult times such as those, people want information about how the floods are affecting their schools and hospitals, and that information is always best provided locally.

Of course, we recognise the pressures on ITV, but we believe that regional news remains a core part of ITV’s public service remit. Therefore, Ofcom must carefully consider whether the proposals set out by ITV will enable broadcasters to sustain those close regional relationships with their audiences. I welcome ITV’s commitment to engage with Ofcom on the issue in the second review of public service broadcasting. I also welcome the report on the issue by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, published on 15 November.

We all agree that regional television remains a cornerstone of British television. Nevertheless, as in the rest of public service broadcasting, the picture is changing as we move from an analogue to a digital world. The Government are clear, however, that in this new world there will continue to be a vital role for public service broadcasting, such as regional programming and regional news, and we have made it clear that we do not see that being produced just by the BBC—

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. We must now move to our next debate.

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Housing (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

4.30 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I was pleased to secure the debate, which gives me the opportunity to raise some specific constituency issues.

I am fortunate to have lived for more than 30 years in a beautiful part of the country, and even more fortunate to have the privilege of representing the area. My constituency is characterised by the fact that almost every part is within 5 km of specially protected heathland—indeed, much of it is within 400 m. For part of the debate, I shall concentrate on the Purbeck part of my constituency. The ratio of house prices to wages in Purbeck has been shown to be the sixth highest in the country and the highest outside the London boroughs. The proportion of second homes in Purbeck is 6.9 per cent. and the Purbeck Housing Trust has a stock of only about 1,600 dwellings. It is obvious that young people and others on low incomes experience great difficulty in finding suitable accommodation.

The first issue I wish to raise is the impact of Natural England’s policies on some of my constituents. Natural England is of course an unelected body, and many residents are concerned about the scale of its power and the democratic deficit. I should point out that I live within 5 km of protected heathland but further than 400 m away. I should also like to tell the Minister that during my political career, spanning more than 21 years, I have fought to protect and enhance local heathland.

In 2006, Dorset local authorities informed applicants for residential dwellings within 5 km of protected heathland that their proposals could not be approved until a solution was found that would mitigate any impacts. An interim solution had to be put together fairly quickly because it was clearly impractical to have virtually no development allowable in Poole or Dorset. All the councils involved have worked together with Natural England and have agreed an interim policy, which permits residential development within the 400 m to 5 km band, provided that mitigating measures are agreed. As the Minister wrote to me in a parliamentary answer:

He went on that that should allow

My concern is that there will probably be no movement on the restriction on small-scale applications within the 400 m band. If Natural England says, “No,” that will be it, however much consultation is carried out. I understand the logic behind the 400 m rule; it is simple, clear, and easy to apply—indeed, I suspect it makes life easier for local planning officers: just say no. I emphasise that I agree with the need to protect our wonderful heathland. However, I want to put the cases of just two of my constituents. I could recount many more.

A young man with a baby and a wife, living with his parents, bought a plot with a small bungalow on it that could accommodate two dwellings. The idea was that he
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and his brother could build two properties and house themselves in the area in which they wish to remain. He started to deal with the local planning authority in March 2006, when an indication was given that support would be given to the replacement of one dwelling with two. I do not have any strict views on back garden development. I think that every case needs to be considered on its own merits. I do not go out campaigning against such developments, but we need to ensure that each development is right. Without any preconceptions about whether the planning application was good or not, there was an indication on the subject of the two dwellings.

My constituent incurred the expense of a flood risk assessment and an arboricultural assessment. On 9 October, it was requested that he have a bat survey carried out. In a letter at that time, Natural England considered that the proposal would not have a significant effect on the interest features of the site of special scientific interest. However, on 20 October—just 11 days later—Natural England wrote to say that it did object, and, in essence, the 400 m rule was applied. My constituent continues to live with his family, and neither he nor his brother have a house.

In Corfe Mullen, east Dorset, a couple coming up to retirement, who were not particularly well off, had an informal viewing by East Dorset district council, and informal advice was given by letter that there was a reasonable prospect of obtaining permission for a second dwelling on their site. They saw it as their pension fund. They submitted plans on 24 February 2006, which were refused on the grounds of scale and bulk, so they submitted further plans in July 2006. At no time were they informed of potential objections from Natural England. They first learned on a visit to the planning office on 27 August 2006 that the 400 m line went down the middle of the proposed plot.

I am aware that larger builders and building concerns keep their planning permissions live and build when they wish, so the local authority cannot afford to stop their planning permissions. Instead conditions are put on the permission, such as no cats. That is a pretty useless condition, but that is how it is handled for sophisticated people who know how to handle the planning system. In one case of a potentially big development, it has been suggested to me that, although part of the proposal lies within the 400 m limit, enough money will be offered that it will be considered exceptional circumstances. I put it to the House that the system is a blunt instrument for ordinary people, and there should be some flexibility, even if the starting point is a presumption against development.

Natural England has pointed out to me that the 400 m zone has been supported by planning inspectors in appeal cases, but to me that is just indicative of the power that Natural England wields. I hope that the Government can set out some guidelines so that it is at least possible to have case-by-case judgment. My constituents are being told by their respective councils that they have no hope of getting planning permission. One of them went to visit the local office of Natural England, where the officer said that the final word was not for them but for the local council. They are playing games. It was not a pleasant experience and my constituent was given no hope that there would be any movement.

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I have questioned with all the planning authorities concerned whether the 400 m rule will put further pressure on our valuable green belt—we have some of that in addition to the heathland that is designated green belt. Each reply stated that only a modest number of houses would be built on infill sites in the 400 m zone, apart from one large site in Poole. Why cannot a more sophisticated approach be taken, examining individual settlements to work out how much development is being halted and whether the impact of that development would be greater than expanding the size of existing houses, which would be allowable? The two cases that I have mentioned were on the outer limits of the zone, right in the middle of heavily populated residential areas, and in one case, the distance from heathland was 400 m as the crow flies. How easy it would be to access heathland from there must surely be considered, rather than just a straight measurement.

I wish to comment briefly on the south-west regional spatial strategy, the final report on which we are awaiting. Again, there is a democratic deficit. In May and June this year there was examination in public, at which, to my knowledge, no Members of Parliament were allowed to go and talk. I find that incredible when one has been elected by a large number of people. My constituents expected me to be there to speak, but I wrote three times and each time was refused. There are proposals that would affect the green belt in my constituency—700 homes are proposed in a beautiful valley, which local residents do not want to lose. If affordable housing for local young people was being built, the reaction might be slightly different, but by the time the infrastructure is put in—anybody who has been to Dorset will know what our roads are like—there will be very little money to provide the housing that is needed.

As one can imagine, being a young person looking for housing in Purbeck is very difficult. I have had a number of cases in which a single mother, or single parent, is seeking housing. Because supply is so tight and because it takes such a long time, single parents cannot be offered housing near to their extended family. Surely it is important to take the extended family into account. Why is not proximity to the extended family within the criteria for allocating houses? Because of the constraints on building, it is not possible to build more houses in areas in which most people need to be in order to be near to their mother or grandmother.

To help the situation, a councillor and I have suggested allowing our housing trust to buy existing houses that come on the market, particularly former council houses because they are a bit cheaper. It has been demonstrated to us that that will not stack up in money terms. It only makes sense to use the amount of money that is available to a housing trust to buy new build. New build in Purbeck is in way out places such as Bovington, where there is no public transport. It is not helping the cohesion of the family if we cannot have the flexibility to produce innovative solutions. I want consideration to be given to the monetary position, because it makes sense to buy existing houses in order to keep a family together and enable them to support each other.

Another concern is the number of flats that are being developed in Poole and right across the south coast. Our local council says that it is the Government’s fault that so many flats are being granted permission and that nothing can be done about it. People who drop into
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my surgeries often talk about the number of flats being built everywhere. I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about this—I should declare that the owner of the plot next door to me had an application to build flats, but it has been withdrawn, and there is not an application at the moment. However, this potential loss of family houses is of concern to my constituents. We are not getting a balance. Figures show that of all the new dwellings in Poole, 70 per cent. are flats, which is way over the allocation. Something is wrong either at Government level or in the processes set at local level, but we are not getting a balance in the development that is allowed.

I have raised a range of housing and planning issues, but they are issues that are coming up time and again in my surgeries, and I really wanted the opportunity to discuss them publicly.

4.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate on planning and housing in her constituency. She is right to say that it is a vital issue, not just in her constituency but in every constituency in the country. We work together really well on the Public Accounts Committee. I have a lot of time and affection for the hon. Lady. However, I am afraid that I will have to disappoint her on a number of points today. She will understand that I will not be able to go into detail on a lot of her concerns, particularly with regard to the regional spatial strategy and individual planning applications. I do not want to prejudice in any way the impartiality of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should the proposals for the regional spatial strategy come before her at a later date, and I know that the hon. Lady will accept that.

The draft regional spatial strategy for the south-west, based on the detailed proposals made by the relevant Dorset authorities, identified potential for the urban areas of Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch to provide about 29,000 additional dwellings by 2026. We now await the recommendations of the independent panel that carried out the examination in public of the draft regional spatial strategy earlier this year. However, I reiterate to the hon. Lady that I cannot, of course, comment or speculate further on what might arise from that until the panel report is published.

The hon. Lady said that, as an MP, she was not allowed to appear at the examination in public. I point out to her that anyone can attend such sessions, because they are held in public. However, given that EIPs are concerned with discussing selected matters, the decision on whom to invite as participants is made by the panel and is based on representations made to it. It is for the panel to explain why they ask certain people to appear and not others. I hope that that clarifies the matter.

On the national perspective, we need to rise to the challenge of making new housing affordable, which is why the Government have announced that we will invest £8 billion to increase the amount of affordable housing over the next three years—a £3 billion increase on the
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last comprehensive spending review period. By 2010-11, we aim to be delivering more than 70,000 affordable new homes a year. The wider aims are for 2 million new homes by 2016 and 3 million by 2020.

Important though they are, this debate is not just about the numbers but about ensuring—I think that the hon. Lady alluded to this in her excellent speech—that new homes are part of well-designed and mixed communities, which will mean more family homes and greener homes built to the highest environmental standards to meet the challenges posed by climate change. That is why we have set out the most ambitious target of its kind in the developed world—to have all new homes zero-carbon by 2016. Furthermore, we need to provide enough land to meet the challenge of building new homes. Councils are tasked with identifying 15-year supplies of land for housing, with the continuing priority for sustainable brown land. However, it is important to point out that we are not changing the rules on strong green belt protection.

For a generation we have not been building enough homes. Since the early 1970s, the level of new build has been far less than the demand. I therefore welcome the fact that we are now building more homes than we have been for about 17 years. Figures show that 185,000 were built in the last year for which data are available. However, we need an additional 240,000 new homes a year to meet the target of 3 million new homes by 2020. Last week in the House, we had the Second Reading of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which will help greatly to ensure that those 3 million homes will be built. A key part of the Bill is the establishment of the homes and communities agency, which will be tasked with working with local authorities and local and regional planning bodies to ensure that they can step up to the plate and build what is necessary in their area. That is a crucial part of our ambition for more homes

The hon. Lady focused on the constituency and regional perspective. I am aware that providing more housing in Dorset brings its own special challenges. She said eloquently that the county is characterised by its outstanding environmental quality, with its numerous international, national and local designations playing an influential role. That means that any housing development must respect the high quality of the surrounding environmental assets. The Dorset heathland is designated as a special protection area and a special area of conservation, which stems from European directives aimed at protecting important habitats and bird life. I know that Natural England’s decision to object to all planning applications for housing developments within 400 m of those sites has caused some local concern, although the research has also shown—she mentioned this—that adverse effects can be experienced by heathlands up to 5 km away.

We made it clear in the planning White Paper that a high level of protection should be given to our most valued townscapes and landscapes, wildlife habitats and natural resources, and that those with international and national designations should receive the highest level of protection. That is why we believe that it is essential that the local planning authorities in south-east Dorset progress
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plans to mitigate those effects by providing alternative open space or heathland management to divert potential users away from such sites.

I am pleased to see that work is progressing well on a joint heathland mitigation plan by the south-east Dorset local planning authorities, with a consultation taking place in September to October and a public examination programmed for May or June 2009. I must point out that without that interim mitigation framework, I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that there would effectively be a moratorium on all new housing developments within south-east Dorset. Most of Purbeck district council, Poole borough council, Bournemouth borough council, Christchurch borough council and East Dorset district council is within 5 km of that heathland, which would prevent south-east Dorset local planning authorities from meeting their targets in relation to affordable and market housing.

A moratorium would also adversely affect the local economy, especially the construction industry, and perversely the environment would be affected as current residents and visitors would have nowhere other than the existing heathlands sites to use for recreation. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that the interim mitigation framework allows the provision of new recreation areas and the improvement of others, enabling the construction of new housing without compromising the environmental quality of the area.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned the green belt and I have touched on that issue already. I repeat that the Government have made it clear in the planning White Paper that we remain committed to the key principles of the green belt, and we are not changing green belt policy. With all the concern that has been expressed about building on the green belt—I have written many letters to hon. Members about this—it is worth saying that this Government have increased the amount of green belt land. Since 1997, we have seen the amount of green belt land across the country grow by 64,000 acres. In 2006, the amount of land designated as green belt amounted to 1,631,800 hectares. That is about 13 per cent. of the land area of England, compared with 8.3 per cent. of the land area classified as urban land. There are also no Government plans to review green belt boundaries—they are a matter for local authorities and regional planning bodies.

The hon. Lady was eloquent in saying that this issue is not only about the numbers, although they are important; it is about the role of the local authorities providing a strategic vision for housing in their areas. Planning policy statement 3 asks local authorities to develop key and clear strategies for where housing will be developed in their areas, working with local communities.

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