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22 Jan 2008 : Column 396WH—continued

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I, too, want to talk about the scale of the proposed developments and whether we will see huge homogeneous blocks of new development attached to towns such as Taunton, rather than a more bottom-up approach with development across a number of communities. I accept that we need more social housing in my area. We also need more housing for people who are trying to get on the property ladder. However, if we build on the scale
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envisaged in the regional spatial strategy, I fear that the character of towns such as Taunton will be severely diminished.

Julia Goldsworthy: People are justified in feeling concerned about the effect on the character of their community. The strategy is driven entirely from the top down rather than from the bottom up.

I have one final concern about the document. In what kind of negotiating position does it leave the local authority? The hon. Member for Tewkesbury said that one does not need to be a specialist to work out what specific sites will be earmarked for development given the numbers specified in the regional spatial strategy. In what negotiating position does that leave the builder, or the people who own the property? They know that the local authority will be absolutely desperate. I am worried that such a measure will drive up prices even further. It is taking away from local areas the ability to negotiate. In St. Agnes, the local authority has successfully negotiated with a landowner over an exception site, which means that it is dramatically increasing the proportion of affordable housing. That kind of local negotiation will be lost if this strategy details the areas earmarked for development.

The fundamental question concerns the legitimacy of this decision. The decision has been led by the regional assembly, which is not directly elected and is to be abolished. The assembly is setting planning policy for decades and then disappearing. The nearest public examination of the decision took place in Exeter, 100 miles from my constituency and considerably further for those living further west.

My concern is that the matter reflects my experiences with other regional organisations. When the south-west regional strategic health authority was set up, we spoke to a delegation of MPs about some of the promises that had been made by the Devon and Cornwall SHA. They said, “We cannot be accountable for any decisions made by predecessor organisations. Sorry about that. Our job is to deliver national policy in the regions and not to take representations back up the line.” My concern is that that is exactly what we are seeing here.

There is another fundamental question: where is the scrutiny process? How many real people are engaged in it? We have heard of specific examples that were ignored. Even if one takes on board the 14,000 representations, that is only a fraction of the regional population. There is a really big difference between consultation and participation, and I feel that this is consultation rather than participation. One just has to see the number of acronyms in the document to know that it is double Dutch to anyone not well versed in such issues. What will the parliamentary scrutiny process be? Today’s debate is led by Back-Bench demand and not in Government time. The regional Minister is not here. Parliamentary answers show that all he plans to do is make representations to the Secretary of State. When the regional assembly was abolished, we were told that we would have an opportunity to make such representations through regional Select Committees. Those are being abolished. Yet, interestingly, in the Planning Bill, the issue of regional accountability is being raised. The
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Minister for Local Government wants to see a super-Committee established so that cross-cutting Committees can scrutinise these national policy statements. Why is there no counter-balance to that in the regional strategy process? Surely we should be considering processes that are led by local demand. That would place local authorities in a much stronger position to negotiate with land owners. Surely there must be proper liaison with other Departments. There is no explicit demonstration that these communities will be sustainable—economically, socially or environmentally. We need to support existing rural communities rather than picking out urban conurbations and saying, “Let’s make them bigger.” That is the easier thing to do when one is looking at a map of the south-west zone.

Finally, if the Government continue to insist on parallel scrutiny at parliamentary level, it smacks of something that has not been properly thought through. From the point of view of my constituents, this whole process is more likely to alienate than engage them.

12.6 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). This is the first time that we have spoken together in a debate. I congratulate her on her new appointment. I thought that her speech was passionate and impressive. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing this debate. I have seen him in various ministerial guises and have always found him immensely courteous and keen to listen to what local people have to say. He never needed a stakeholder or a panel of experts to tell him what to do. He had a great deal of common sense and listened to what local people wanted. We could do with more people like him in Government.

I feel enormous sympathy for the Minister for Housing who has sat there in splendid isolation. She has had a Parliamentary Private Secretary for company—he no doubt wishes that he had something better to do with his time—but no regional Minister. I am not entirely sure what the Minister for the South West does. [Hon. Members: “Not a lot.”] That is not entirely fair. This grand panjandrum clearly has a role. He appears to be a highly decorated postman. If one sends a letter to him, he passes it on to someone else. If one expresses a view, he asks someone else for the answer. When the hon. Gentleman comes to write his extensive memoirs, his time as Regional Minister for the South West will not make more than a footnote. I hope, however, that he will pay some attention to the region.

I turn to the independent panel’s reluctance to listen to elected politicians. That is entirely understandable because those folks are entirely unrepresentative. They are not elected by anyone, and, therefore by the nature of things, will find elected politicians intimidating. To see an elected politician would symbolise to those good folks exactly how much democratic legitimacy they lack.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch talked about the simplistic approach of predict and provide and said that it had been replaced by an even more simplistic policy. We have some indication of that in the fact that the Government seem hellbent on increasing
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housing targets. “Let us build 23,000 homes,” they say; “No, let us make it 28,000. Let us build 38,000. No, let us go even higher.” One can almost imagine the brickies standing by their hobs: “Comrades, let us put up some more. Off we go.” Actually, they probably would not say “Comrades” but “Tovarishchi” because they almost certainly will be Polish plumbers and brickies. Let us meet this Government’s target. We know what their response has been. Last week, we heard that there has been a 5 per cent. drop in new house buildings. Another projection for this year is that it is going to drop even further. The Minister, with the help of her Parliamentary Private Secretary, might as well take her chair outside, stand it on the piece of land on the other side of Black Rod’s garden and command the Thames not to rise, because although she may increase the figures, nothing will happen unless people are prepared to build houses. There is complete detachment from the reality on the ground.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) spoke about the country bumpkin lane that is close to his local airport. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne spoke about the lack of infrastructure. We have representatives from a more local level who are very close to the people. The Launceston mayor, Mr. Eric Chapman, says that schools are absolutely bursting and it is difficult now to get an appointment with a health centre. He says that we would welcome houses provided that the infrastructure is provided at the same time, but unfortunately that is never the case.

Mr. Jeremy Browne: Will the hon. Gentleman touch on my constituents’ concerns about larger-scale infrastructure, including proposals to step back from the original commitment to dual the A303 and the A358 between the Ilminster bypass and the M5, which is important for commerce and other travel in the south-west?

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable and local point. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East was making was that unless the infrastructure—the schools, hospitals and roads—is there, buying a house in the south-west will be a form of internal exile, because once people are there, they will not be able to leave, certainly not in a timely fashion. Surely the point is this. It is not that local people are nimbies, but they want to get something out of new development. They want to see something on the human scale. They want to ensure that children can be educated—that development will not mean increased class sizes. They want to feel sure that dentistry services and hospitals will be there, that jobs will be there and that places are not being provided for people merely to sleep and commute elsewhere or for people who are looking towards second homes.

The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) about community land trusts was important. Let us consider the conurbations in the south-west. Clearly, there is a world of difference between Swindon and some of the villages in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. Things such as community land trusts offer a possibility of providing exactly what that area wants, which is reasonable, low-cost housing that will not act artificially to put up the price of houses but will
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be there for local people. If ever an area cried out for that, surely it is the one we are discussing. My hon. Friend also made a very reasonable point about the disappearance of back gardens. This weekend, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds will do its annual count, and back gardens and the habitat that they represent are an increasingly important part of our ecosystem.

During the period of summer when the flooding occurred, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) showed enormous local leadership and was extremely persuasive in the House about the plight of the people affected. I remember visiting his constituency. I particularly remember looking at the plight of local businesses that had been flooded not once but twice and three times and were finding it increasingly difficult to get insurance. I am not entirely sure that the most significant part of people’s income should be—I was about to say “floated” but then I realised that that would be an appalling thing to say—put into a house where there is the risk, within the normal lifespan of a building, of it being flooded two or three times, with a catastrophic effect. As my hon. Friend knows, six months or nine months is nothing when it comes to drying a house out. A degree of sense is needed.

I think that it is timely that I conclude now, because a number of very important points have been made on which I think that hon. Members will want to intervene on the Minister. Given that there is nobody on the Labour Benches to defend the right hon. Lady, I think that she should speak for herself.

12.15 pm

The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who made an uncharacteristically short speech today. I hope that that does not suggest that he and his party do not have much to say on housing issues from their Front Bench, although I fear that that may be the case.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing this debate on the regional spatial strategy. I have listened carefully to the points that he and other hon. Members have made. I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) to her post. This is the first opportunity that she and I have had to debate together. I congratulate her on being, I think, the only hon. Member today speaking for a south-west constituency who took the opportunity to welcome and support considerable house building development in her constituency. With respect, I point out to all the hon. Members who protested with some earnestness that they were not nimbys, that they then took the opportunity to expound in great detail their opposition to increased housing in their constituencies.

Several hon. Members rose—

Yvette Cooper: I cannot resist. I shall take hon. Members’ interventions in turn.

Martin Horwood: As the Minister knows, because I have said this to her in Select Committee and in the House more generally, I have supported more than 8,000 new houses in the Cheltenham urban area, as is reflected in the regional spatial strategy. What we
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object to is the continued imposition of even greater numbers spilling over into valued green spaces without appropriate consultation and with no democratic accountability.

Yvette Cooper: I shall let each hon. Member speak and then I shall respond.

Mr. Breed: Yes, we are nimbys in South-East Cornwall. Plymouth is already in our backyard; we do not want it to take over our house.

Mr. Jeremy Browne: I am grateful to the Minister for this novel format. May I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood)? I acknowledged earlier that we badly need extra social housing and extra properties for people who are trying to get on the housing ladder. People come to talk to me about those issues all the time. Those houses are being built and my community by and large welcomes them, but we do not want something that is totally inhuman in scale, swamps Taunton and completely changes the character of the town while at the same time putting unreasonable pressure on amenities and services such as schools and hospitals.

Yvette Cooper: I welcome the slight shift in emphasis by at least two hon. Members who started talking about the need for more housing. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne)—I was already planning to do this—for being, I think, the first hon. Member in this debate to talk about the needs of first-time buyers. He recognised that much of what we need to do across the country is to recognise not simply the need for more social housing and more shared-ownership housing, but the needs of first-time buyers trying to get on the housing ladder.

Let me deal with some of the points about the regional spatial strategy. The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) asked in particular about the process of the strategy. The purpose of the strategy is to set out the broad development strategy for a 20-year period. It considers how much housing is needed, general location, priorities for new infrastructure and economic development, environmental protection and the policy for reducing carbon emissions.

The starting point is with local councils, which need to work through the regional assembly to put together initial proposals, which then are drawn together by the regional assembly. Such proposals were submitted in draft to the Government on 24 April 2006. We have had the 12-week public consultation, which provided opportunities to put comments to an independent panel. The independent panel then held an examination in public between April and July 2007 to discuss and test the draft regional spatial strategy, and to take a range of evidence before considering its report. It submitted its report to the Government on 10 December 2007; it was published for information on 10 January 2008, and it contains recommendations to the Secretary of State on all aspects of the draft strategy.

In the present phase, the Secretary of State is to consider the panel’s report, but no decisions have yet
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been taken on it. Because of the nature of the process, it is not appropriate for me to comment on the detail of the regional spatial strategy, nor indeed to respond to particular points raised by hon. Members about their constituencies—Gloucester, Christchurch, Tewkesbury or South-East Cornwall and others in the area. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the content of the regional spatial strategy overall, or proposals from individual areas. Indeed, so seriously do officials take the injunction that I should not comment on it that the first brief that I received from the Department on the subject contained no information about the regional spatial strategy for the south-west, so I sought additional briefing notes. However, the process needs to be gone through, because Ministers sometimes take quasi-judicial decisions.

The hon. Member for Northavon asked whether his constituents should be making representations at this stage. During the next stage of the process, the Secretary of State does not take additional representations, but will publish proposed changes to the panel’s report. We expect that to happen in the spring, after which there will be a 12-week public consultation. During that time, those interested in the content of the regional spatial strategy will have the opportunity to make their comments known on the proposed changes.

Several hon. Members rose—

Yvette Cooper: I shall give way to as many hon. Members as I can. If I may, I shall give way to all three and then respond.

Martin Horwood: I have been making submissions on the regional spatial strategy—this wretched document—for three years, since before I was first elected as a Member. I have endured days of consultation, and it does not seem to make a blind bit of difference. Despite more or less local unanimity against particular policies, the representations of local community and elected representatives never seem to make a difference to the document. Will there be a process in which we are not only consulted but have the opportunity to make changes?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot comment on particular proposals. Equally, simply because a panel inspector does not agree with him does not mean that the inspector has not considered his views.

Steve Webb: We all know that when consultation happens it is much better to influence people before they have decided rather than causing them to lose face by changing their mind. If the Secretary of State is thinking about her response now, why cannot my constituents feed in now in order to shape what she says? Once something is published, we would be sceptical about her ability to change it.

Yvette Cooper: We have a clearly defined and transparent process, in order to make clear what the opportunities are for everyone—not only for MPs or individual constituents, but for everyone who chooses to do so—to make representations at different stages. The first stage is obviously being involved in the Assembly’s discussions, then making representations to the panel, and then making representations once the
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Secretary of State has published changes, because the Secretary of State first takes advice from the panel that has considered the Assembly’s report. That is how the process works.

Julia Goldsworthy: Will the Minister clarify whether the Government will be making parliamentary time available to discuss the matter, whether the regional Minister will be making an input, and whether the regional Select Committee structure, or any successor should it not go ahead, has the opportunity to engage in the debate? Our concern is that no scrutiny procedure has been put in place.

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Lady will be aware that Parliament has decided that the planning process should effectively culminate in quasi-judicial rather than parliamentary decisions on plans and planning decisions. That is how the process works.

Some hon. Members spoke of their difficulty in giving evidence to the panel as elected MPs. That is a concern, and I shall consider it further. The process currently means that discretion on who can give oral evidence lies with the chairman of the panel, but we need to consider that further in order to ensure that properly representative views are put forward.

Mr. Chope: Will the Minister answer the question about the role of the Minister for the South West in this process? Will she confirm that when we come to the next formal consultation period of 12 weeks, it will be not only on the recommended changes to the panel report but on the whole of the panel report as currently published?

Yvette Cooper: The process is first that the Secretary of State will publish proposed changes in the spring. That will give people an opportunity to make their views known overall.

The regional Minister will play an important role in considering those broader areas—where housing should link with transport, where different approaches to health should link with education, and the various things that link together in the region. Related to that, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), asked whether he could meet me on the matter. It would not be appropriate at this stage in the process for me to discuss the regional spatial strategy as it affects his constituency. However, I am happy to discuss the wider issues of housing, infrastructure and the nature of the decisions being taken on his constituency.

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