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I think that everybody in the country and certainly all hon. Members recognise that housing is a key priority for the Government. We simply have not built enough homes for something like 35 years. Pressures and imbalances between the supply and demand for housing resulting from increased longevity and changes in the way we live, including our increasing tendency to live on our own, perhaps as a result of marital break-up or other factors, mean that we need to build more homes to address that imbalance. That is why in our housing Green Paper of last year—“Homes for the future: more affordable,
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more sustainable”—we made it clear that we must go further to meet the housing needs and aspirations of this and future generations.

Mr. Lancaster: Can the Minister just be clear and tell us if his priority is quantity or quality?

Mr. Wright: I am afraid that I am quite greedy on this issue and I do not want to have an either/or situation. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) referred to my remarks in a previous debate, and that was the point that I was making then. I think that the construction of poor-quality housing would mean that we would have to look at this issue again, with the additional investment of public money, in 20 or 30 years’ time. One of the things that I am particularly keen on doing is promoting the importance of good design and planning. We really need to raise our game in terms of the design of houses in this country.

Going off on a tangent somewhat, if you will allow me, Mr. Wilshire, I would also suggest that, under planning policy statement 3, local authorities have the ability to reject housing applications on the grounds of poor design and quality, and I think that perhaps they should do so a lot more. I want to see more homes built in this country to address the needs of our country, but I also want them to be incredibly well built and well maintained, because therein lies the importance of sustainability. I would like the first decade of the 21st century to be recognised as a great era for architecture and good design, so that we have sustainability in the long term with regards to housing.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) took me off on a tangent, so let me return to my main topic, which is housing need. We need something like 240,000 additional homes a year to address the imbalance between demand and supply and the resulting affordability pressures, to which I referred earlier. The Green Paper sets out proposals to deliver a total of 2 million new homes by 2016 and a total of 3 million new homes by 2020. I want to stress the central theme of my contribution today and make it clear from the outset that, as a Government, we do not want to impose housing on anyone. I do not think that such an imposition would be in anybody’s interest. With the greatest of respect to the quality of the debate today, I would like to refer to what I thought was the most important intervention today, by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes. I am paraphrasing somewhat, but he said that sustainability is dependent on “buy-in” from the local people. I could not agree more; I absolutely agree with that. It is incredibly important that to have housing development with a full buy-in from local people. If we do not have that, any development is unsustainable. The views of the local community are incredibly important and they need to be a key part of the whole planning process.

Tony Baldry: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he does so with his usual courtesy. In the light of the comments that he has just made, can he give me an undertaking that, if Oxford county council, Cherwell district council and the local community all come down against the proposed “eco-town” of Weston Otmoor, it will not go ahead?

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Mr. Wright: In his contribution to the debate, the hon. Gentleman made an important point about eco-towns. He was trying to hint strongly—passionately, if I may say so—that we have somehow dictated that eco-towns would be built without any public consultation and without any due regard for the planning framework and process at all. If he will allow me, I come on to discuss how eco-towns fit into the whole planning process, because it is a very important issue.

If I may return to what I was saying before the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, each authority must publish a statement of community involvement, or SCI, setting out how and when they intend to consult local communities. I understand that the north Northamptonshire joint planning unit area SCI encourages applicants for significant applications—generally speaking, developments of 100 or more dwellings, or developments of more than three hectares for residential development—to try to resolve issues prior to the submission of the application. The SCI also encourages applicants to submit a so-called “statement of engagement” covering their pre-submission community engagement and the way in which their proposals have changed as a result of that public consultation.

I also understand that public examination of the core strategy for the north Northamptonshire area recently ended, which is something that the hon. Member for Kettering mentioned. I hope that he shares my sense of encouragement at this major step forward in joint working: I speak as the proud chair of the Milton Keynes-south midlands inter-regional group, which is an impressive collaboration between four district councils and a county council that aims to rise to the challenge of housing growth that we need to address. I understand that the inspector’s report is due within the next few weeks.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: I thank the Minister for his typically amiable and courteous decision to give way. Will he consider answering the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), who said that developers are using the existing planning system to circumvent Government policy, disregarding the consultation policy that has been set down by land-banking and using the system of appeals to win approval for planning applications that may not be in the long-term interests of the local area?

Mr. Wright: I am a passionate supporter of the plan-led approach, because I think that any sporadic introduction of development is in nobody’s interest. I understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Peterborough and by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), but a robust local authority, working in conjunction with a local plan, is absolutely essential to ensure that that type of development does not go ahead. I would also say that pre-application discussion is vital to securing good partnerships between developers, local authorities and other key players to ensure that we get the housing growth that we need and also the infrastructure that that housing growth requires.

Mr. Bone: The Government may hope that that is happening, but the reality of the situation is that it is not. Planning applications are submitted, and councils feel that they are under pressure to approve them because of all the guidance. The odds are that their decisions
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will be overturned on appeal if they do not approve them. One third of appeals are upheld, and the number is increasing. The Government may hope that that does not happen, but it does.

Mr. Wright: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but I reiterate my earlier point about the importance of a plan-led approach and pre-application discussions to ensure co-operation. I do not want a stand-off between local authorities and developers, as that is not in anyone’s interest. I want a good, mutually beneficial relationship between developers and local authorities. At the same time, local authorities must be robust in saying what is required for their area, including quality of design. It is important to ensure that there is a good—literally, constructive—relationship so that we get the homes and infrastructure that we need.

Dan Rogerson: Pre-application negotiations can be constructive, but, inevitably, the developer and local authority have different objectives. Would the Minister not concede that inflated target numbers strengthen the developer’s hand? In any negotiation, a green light has, in effect, been given to the developer to try to press the local authority to weaken any commitment to provide, for example, a high number of affordable houses or other community benefits as part of the scheme. In fact, the targets give all the cards to the developer, not to the community through its local authority.

Mr. Wright: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s essential premise. We have not given a green light to developers or given them the upper hand. As I said, with PPS3 and other things, local authorities are in the driving seat. Perhaps they need to use such tools a bit more than they do at present. Given that this debate is about public consultation on large-scale housing developments, I certainly think that the local authority has a key role to play.

Mr. Hollobone: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wright: Before I do so, I just want to say, in respect of the hon. Gentleman’s area and the different pre-application discussions, that the north Northamptonshire statement of community involvement suggests a range of techniques that could be used. They vary according to whether a proposal accords with the development plan, but they could be used in his local area to secure that sort of partnership.

Mr. Hollobone: The development on Cranford road, Burton Latimer, which I mentioned earlier, completely undermines the Minister’s case. He may be well intentioned and think that the planning system is working as he intends, but the reality on the ground in places such as Kettering is that it is not. In effect, decisions by Government inspectors undermine the local development framework that the Department set in place.

Mr. Wright: I still maintain that it is vital that we have a plan-led system that includes public involvement and consultation in its key principles. To reiterate what I said earlier, it is not in anybody’s interest for houses to be plonked somewhere without due regard to the area, the views of local people and the infrastructure on which they will rely. I strongly believe that.

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Equally, I believe that we must be mature and sensible about this. I have reiterated time and again in debates such as this that there is an imbalance between housing supply and demand. People need and deserve good homes in an attractive environment. I would ask the hon. Member for Kettering and others, where will people live? Where will our children and grandchildren live? What about the graduate from Kettering who wants to move back to the area in which he or she grew up? How will they secure an affordable house? What about the young mother with children who may not be able to afford a home but needs social housing in Kettering? How will people get on the housing ladder? Those are the challenges that we face.

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, whom I very much respect and for whom I have a great deal of admiration, the idea that we should build only in Scotland and the north is somewhat naive and, I must say, patronising. There is housing pressure in every area of this country, and we need to address that by building more homes.

Mr. Hollobone: The point about Burton Latimer is that the local borough council identified 17 potential sites for housing development, some of which would have been in the development framework once completed, but, against all the wishes of Burton Latimer residents, the Government inspector scuttled the council’s plans and allowed the developer to go ahead with a plonked application in a site that nobody wanted.

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman is aware that I do not comment on individual schemes because of the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial responsibilities, but I hope that we can reach consensus in the House and elsewhere. I understand people’s concerns, but, ultimately, we have to ask where our children, grandchildren, grandmothers and grandfathers will live if we do not address the challenge of building the homes that are needed now, in the 21st century.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: The Minister’s argument would carry more weight were he to refer, for instance, to the population statistics and projections but also, if we are talking about the whole country, to the frankly disastrous housing renewal programme. The National Audit Office found that large-scale demolition of perfectly good houses is taking place in the north of England, Yorkshire and the north-west. At the same time, unsuitable development is taking place in the east and south-east of England. That is the wider context, but the Minister seems to be unable to face up to it.

Mr. Wright: Absolutely not. I would love to have a debate on housing market renewal in the north and the
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midlands, because that is something for which I have ministerial responsibility. I contend that we need a significant, long-term investment programme, largely to rectify the challenges caused by the Conservatives’ decimation of the economic base in those areas in the 1980s. [Interruption.] This is an important point in this debate, which is about public consultation on large-scale housing developments. Let us stop spreading the myth that most of the buildings in inner cities in the north are being knocked down, as that is not what is happening. The ratio of new build and refurbishment to demolition is in the region of 4:1 in housing market renewal areas. As a result of public consultation, we are refurbishing and building more houses. The idea that someone is dictating from a desk in Whitehall how the centre of Liverpool or Salford should look is simply a myth, and I expect better of the hon. Member for Peterborough than that he should peddle it.

Infrastructure has been mentioned, and we had an interesting debate about the issue in December. As I have said before, housing and infrastructure investment must go hand in hand. The Homes and Communities Agency that will be created under the Housing and Regeneration Bill has as a central focus investment in infrastructure in order to regenerate communities in England, as that is very important. There has been real progress to date in the area represented by the hon. Member for Kettering. North Northamptonshire was awarded the third highest allocation of all growth area locations, with an indicative award of nearly £20 million for the next three years. In addition, there a £200 million community infrastructure fund for growth areas, new growth points and eco-towns over the next three years, and Northamptonshire benefited from more than £21 million in the first round of CIF funding. The deadline for expressions of interest in the community infrastructure fund was yesterday, and bids have been received from Northamptonshire county council for three schemes in Kettering, including the A43 Corby link road dualling, which the hon. Member for Peterborough mentioned in his concluding remarks.

It is wrong to say that we are not thinking about infrastructure. The idea that we need to have housing and infrastructure investment together is exactly the right approach. Also, it is a myth that we do not want public consultation on housing growth: in fact, that is a vital and essential part of the community empowerment plan that we wish to introduce. In the time available to me, I am not able to respond to the point that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made about eco-towns. Needless to say, this is the first stage of the process, and it will be completely part of the planning process. However, I will write to him and respond to the points that he made. In conclusion, this is an important issue. We need to address housing needs and we need public consultation, but the debate must be sensible so that we have the homes that we need and deserve in this country.

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Piece Hall, Halifax

12.31 pm

Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have secured this debate on such an important building and such an important aspect of my Halifax constituency.

The historic Piece Hall market and building has been at the heart of Halifax town centre for decades. This architectural jewel in the Halifax crown is a testament to the commercial success of the woollen industry of west Yorkshire and Lancashire. This grade 1 Georgian building is the only remaining intact cloth hall in west Yorkshire, and it is a rare complete survival of this type of building in Europe. I do not exaggerate when I say that if this building were in Venice or Vienna, Rome or Rhodes, tourists would flock to visit it. Alas, it is not, but I am glad about that, because we are proud to have the building in Halifax, with the economic, social and industrial benefits that it has brought to the town in the past 100 years and beyond.

Time does not stand still. Since the war, as the years have gone by, the role of the Piece hall has become less clear. Everyone recognises the building’s importance: they know that, with a bit of initiative and industry, the building could come alive once again and be at the heart of regeneration proposals for Halifax town centre. However, that will not happen overnight. I have pushed for this debate to get on the record the building’s importance to the town centre. I urge the Minister to visit it and see for himself the splendour of the surroundings. I urge the Government to contribute to the investment in this building, not only to ensure its survival as a reminder of our great industrial past, but to help us look to the future with pride as a new use is found for it in the 21st century.

We are at a crossroads. A few years ago, the council commissioned a building condition survey for the Piece hall, and its report identified the fact that investment in excess of £1 million was needed. More than £400,000 of council funding has been invested in the infrastructure, but much more needs to be done. Halifax people do not just want improvements to the building; they want change, character and charisma added to it. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge and comment on the council's ideas for the Piece hall, which I will set out in a minute. I hope that he will outline whether those ideas could go further, and will explain how similar buildings around the country have survived and flourished after renewal took place.

In addition to the investment that I have mentioned, there has also been some partnership work with Yorkshire Forward, whose recent report highlighted the fact that the Piece hall was the focus of economic and cultural regeneration in the town, and came up with a number of ideas and investment initiatives that could be tied together as an overall regeneration package. Cinemas, bowling alleys, hotels and other leisure and commercial facilities have all been identified as parts of that package. However, all too often, grand plans and big visions fail to be realised. One of the key schemes in Halifax—Broad street—has fallen through time and again over the past 10 years. Perhaps the Minister will offer the council some advice so that it can ensure that artists’ impressions are followed through and goals are achieved. The council’s
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proposal for an overall regeneration focus is sound enough, but a recognised use for the Piece hall is still missing from the jigsaw puzzle. Does the Minister believe that such old buildings have a future within regeneration initiatives?

As important as economic considerations is the cultural importance of the Piece hall building and the pre-industrial society and social history that it represents. For example, the Piece Hall yard is the largest public space in Halifax town centre, and has been used for more than a century for civic functions and public events. There is no doubt that local people, visitors and tourists cherish this wonderful building, but do they cherish what it offers apart from its being a superb memento of Halifax’s past? I want the building to be visited by people because of what it is now, and not only because of what it once was. There are too many ideas at the moment, but not enough action. It seems that the Piece hall is part of the wider regeneration plans of Halifax, but not the focus of those plans, and I want to change that.

What can be done, and what should be done? That is a broad question. The Government’s commitment to the cultural heritage of our times means that they should have a keen interest in what is going on for the future. Perhaps the Minister will outline in his reply what plans and ideas the Government have for historic buildings such as the Piece hall.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): May I tell my hon. Friends the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) and the Minister that in west Yorkshire we have lots of interesting places that people can visit, in both the natural and the built environment? Unfortunately, however, not many people visit them, because the cruise liners and tourist boards concentrate on areas such as York to the detriment of other towns. I often feel that York is strangled by a surfeit of visitors. Why not spread those visitors into areas such as Halifax, with Piece Hall yard, and Keighley, with Keighley and Worth Valley railway, the BrontÃ" Parsonage museum and the wonderful East Riddlesden hall, which is owned by the National Trust. The natural environment in this area, especially spreading over to the Calder valley—the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty)—and Hebden Bridge, is wonderful. I wish that the cruise liners and tourist boards would be a bit more imaginative and start taking people to, and encouraging them to go to, to areas like ours.

Mrs. Riordan: My hon. Friend is right. We have a wealth of listed buildings in Halifax, Calderdale and in west Yorkshire generally that are not recognised often enough and we do not get the tourist numbers that we need to achieve. That is why I want to highlight these issues today.

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