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7 Oct 2008 : Column 26WH—continued

Steve Webb: That is exactly right. People ask me how the need for these houses arises. The report shows that they are needed not only for local people. It supposes a
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massive influx, principally from other parts of the United Kingdom. It is not about immigration from outside the UK; it is overwhelmingly immigration from the rest of the county. In some parts of the country, some houses are being demolished because no one wants to live on certain estates. In our area, there is an attempt to cram in houses. Authorities see a field and think “Housing estate.” That is the state of the unbalanced economic growth taking place in our country.

People sometimes ask me where I believe the jobs and the houses should go. I certainly think that perhaps 21,000 should go in South Gloucestershire, but where is this excess? If the economy was not so unbalanced—if the United Kingdom was not like a big see-saw, tilting towards the bottom—we might have a more measured housing policy. At present, it is about trying to cram extra people in and not about local need. It seems like predict and provide—just as with the roads and the airports. We have had more houses and more jobs: let us have more houses and more jobs—and more houses, and more jobs: in 2026, another 20,000 for the next 20 years. Is there any limit? Will we have reached it when we hit another 21,000?

I shall focus on only two or three specific issues, as I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak. The first is that of the green belt.

Last year, the Prime Minister was very reassuring—honestly. He said that he would “robustly defend” the green belt. We all sleep better in our beds at night knowing that the Prime Minister will robustly defend the green belt. Sure enough, on page 75 of the document we read:

We are greatly reassured by that—until we read the next phrase, which contains the words:

The only reason that 1E is not in the list is because it is not in the green belt. The document says that the green belt will be kept except when it gets in the way: the green belt is fine except that we want to get rid of it.

Many of my constituents say that the green belt is vital, especially in areas that have seen rapid development and urbanisation. Once that principle is breached, however, the area will never be the same again. It is vital for quality of life—for mental, physical and spiritual well-being—and not only for those who live in the countryside. It is particularly important for those who live in the towns and cities. It is not about country dwellers throwing up the barriers and saying, “Leave our green spaces alone.” People who live in Bristol want to keep the Bristol green belt; it is not only those who live in the countryside. If the proposal goes ahead, communities such as the village of Shortwood in my constituency, which is in the green belt, would simply be wiped off the map by a sprawling housing estate.

I discovered this morning—in a document of this size, there is always something new to discover—that the housing density for what are called urban extensions, which we know as fields, is 50 dwellings per hectare. That means going up, and not only sideways. There is
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obviously a trade-off. We do not want completely to cover all the fields. However, the document means high density housing going up, which will have an even more conspicuous impact on the landscape, and specifically so in the green belt areas. The green belt is a fundamental issue of principle.

I ask the Minister a key question, of which I have given him notice. If any of our local authorities zone all those areas for housing, which will be expected of them, will the developers be able to say, “You have created space for 32,000 houses. The first house we build will be put on the prime bit of green belt, which we have never been allowed to touch before”? Or will they be able to say, “Hang on a minute. There are lots of other brownfield sites and urban areas that you should use first”? I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us at least that once the areas are zoned a local authority will not lose on appeal if it says no to a green belt development simply because of a failure to apply a sequential approach.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. Is he aware that, in the examination in public, the panel’s report stated that brownfield and greenfield sites were

My hon. Friend—and, I suspect, many other hon. Members—wants the Minister to allow local authorities the power to have them sequentially phased.

Steve Webb: Absolutely. I have no doubt that if any semblance of local democracy is to be left in the process, local authorities should be able to prioritise sites. That is not a no to housing; it is saying that local people—those who know the local area best—should be able to say that a site is less damaging and should be taken first. That is fundamental.

Planning policy guidance note 2, which issues guidance to local authorities, states:

in this case by a local authority—

If a council wants to undermine the green belt, it has to satisfy the Secretary of State that it is an exceptional case. Through the Minister, I ask the Secretary of State whether she can satisfy us that such a case would be exceptional—that there are exceptional circumstances for eroding our green belt. I have not yet seen such circumstances demonstrated.

The second key issue, about which many hon. Members will want to chip in, is infrastructure. What is poetically known as area of search 1C—it is to the east of Bristol in my constituency—is about green belt. Area search 1E, the area around Yate and Chipping Sodbury, is about infrastructure. Originally, there were no specific houses, then 5,000 and then 3,000. It seems like the phrase on “Who wants to be a millionaire”—“But I don’t want to give you that.” The numbers seem to come from nowhere—just an extra 5,000 houses.

Those communities already have congested roads, and infrequent train services with people being left on platforms because they cannot all cram on to the trains.
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That is happening now, so one can imagine what would happen if we built those houses. There is land for them. No one is saying there is nowhere to put them—we could fit them in. However, we are talking about an area with a high level of car ownership, and a high level of commuting into central Bristol and the surrounding area. The previous version of the regional spatial strategy included specific infrastructure projects. They have been taken out and all we have left is wishful thinking about improving public transport infrastructure.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): My hon. Friend will know that there is already gridlock in the morning peak at the M4-M5 interchange and at the junction of the M32 and the A38, with people trying to leave Bristol to work in the employment areas in Aztec West and Bradley Stoke and people from South Gloucestershire, Bath and north-east Somerset trying to get into the city centre. The proposal will simply make matters worse.

Steve Webb: My hon. Friend is absolutely right—the area is already incredibly congested.

I am sure that the Minister will respond by saying that somebody will improve public transport. The train company was not sure whether it could provide extra trains in the morning. I asked whether it could double the number of morning peak journeys from Yate to Bristol and how many people it could actually get into Bristol. The company said it could carry only 140 more people. There will be 3,000 houses, but only 140 more people could be accommodated on journeys. The other 3,000 or so commuters—there will be some jobs in the area, but most people will commute—will not be going on trains, and buses are infrequent and expensive. Of course the Minister could do more, but has anybody really done the math, as Americans would say, to match the two numbers? It is not good enough to say, “We will build 3,000 houses and improve public transport.” The roads out of Yate cannot be widened without knocking down houses. It is not a question of doing something that one is determined to do—physically, there simply is no room. Who is going to listen when we say no? Infrastructure is critical.

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): The points that my hon. Friend made about capacity design and infrastructure are also a lesson on the need to move away from estate-by-estate, developer-led investment, which provides houses but not the work spaces and community infrastructure that create a living, working community. Do we not need investors and councils to shape communities that work? That way, we would not have everybody commuting to Bristol, but a place where people live and work as a community. One problem with the RSS is that it does not deliver a solution to the problem of shaping communities that work.

Steve Webb: I echo the need for communities that work and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on rural housing. I am worried that we will not be able to make people live next to where they work, so even if we zone land for employment in the middle of Yate, people will still come in and go out. We cannot control that—that’s life—and it will always happen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) said, we already have gridlock, which will only get worse. We should not simply wish that public transport was better. Even if we had the money, the physical possibility of improvements would be a bonus.

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Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): My hon. Friend is making the point that extra housing development is motivated by proximity to existing transport infrastructure. Taunton, for example, is set for massive expansion. I echo the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) in saying that we want extra housing, but not on such a scale, and not by imposition. Taunton is earmarked for expansion because it is on the M5, and people can get to Exeter and Bristol more easily for work. However, they could make those journeys only if thousands of people were not already trying to do so.

Steve Webb: My hon. Friend rightly stresses the importance of infrastructure. One other infrastructure matter is hospitals. One would assume that the health service was involved in the process, and that thinking on housing and health service planning was integrated. The Minister was a Health Minister—

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

Steve Webb: I am sorry—he was not a Health Minister. Nevertheless, South Gloucestershire has a major, world-renowned hospital—the Frenchay—which includes an A and E department. That is great, but it is being closed. The population numbers on which that decision was taken were old. I asked the North Bristol NHS Trust how many people it thought would be in the area when the new super-hospital opened, but it had done no projections. When I asked how many extra people would be in the area and what that would mean, I was told that the new super-hospital would be the equivalent of 250 beds short when it opened. Are the health plans going to be revised in the light of the new housing? Has the Department of Health even had a say in the process? The infrastructure must be put in place simultaneously, not as an afterthought.

We are told that when we get the new houses, we will get schools, libraries, playing fields and so on, but some of the prime sites for development are playing fields. Some 500 children play football and rugby every week on the sports fields on the edge of Chipping Sodbury, but I bet that the developers fancy them as a prime site for building lots of houses near a nice market town. We cannot lose our infrastructure simply to build houses. People need those open spaces, and it would be criminal to lose them.

Many other hon. Members wish to speak, but I wish to talk about sustainability. Alongside the document, as the Minister knows, is a detailed, technical, independent sustainability assessment. Obviously, I read the full version—I assure hon. Members it was not just the non-technical summary, but I shall quote the latter. The assessment is an independent, expert commentary on the plans, which was published on the same day.

It states:

of the document

By law, the Government must have the plans assessed. The people who made the assessment say that they are worried, but the document has not changed. The process
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was supposed to be integrated, but on the day the document is published, the experts say that they do not think that the housing numbers are sustainable.

The assessment states that the experts are worried about the “indirect impacts” on

such as the green belt to the east of Bristol—and

We did not need sustainability experts to tell us those things, but what is the evidence that they have been taken account of in the document?

The assessment also states that

We can be as sure as heck about that. This is a serious question. What do events in the real world mean for the proposals in the document? Given what we see on the news every night, do we really still want to plan such a vast level of development? What do the Government think? I have heard hon. Members who are present say that the document is scaremongering and that the development will not happen because of the credit crunch, the housing crash and so on, and that we do not need to worry. However, will the Minister tell us whether we need to worry? My concern is that once the land has been zoned for housing, that is that.

On a local point, what about flooding? That will concern the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). South Gloucestershire is undertaking a strategic flood risk assessment. It has not finished that process, so we could find out that we have land zoned for housing in flood-risk areas. Will the local authority be able to change the document if that happens?

Appallingly, the housing numbers in the document are a floor, not a ceiling. The Government said that they wanted to go further if possible and, amazingly, there will be an early review to see whether higher household projections can be accommodated. The document is not as bad as it gets—it might get a lot worse. The people in my constituency are appalled by the process. They are not nimbys, nor are they opposed to affordable housing to meet local needs and local economic development, but they object profoundly to the undemocratic nature of the process. Many of us are going to Downing street later to hand in a petition signed by thousands of people to register our concerns. On behalf of my constituents, I plead with the Minister not to dismiss us as nimbys, but to listen and to change this flawed document.

11.27 am

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing this debate and on his speech. I was brought to the Chamber both by the title and by his eloquence. I agree with most of his speech, especially the parts in which he addressed the overall situation in south Gloucestershire, which I will talk about as it affects Kingswood.

I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak, and I do not want the debate to be exclusively about our patch, as it were. I wish to make only two points. First, the proposed increase in housing development up to 2026 is absolutely unacceptable. There is not a
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shred of evidence that the numbers are doable or sustainable. Secondly, I am totally opposed to any building on the green belt to the east of the Avon ring road—the A4175. I am not saying that there should be fewer houses on the green belt, but that there should be no building there whatever.

On the overall situation, let me confirm what the hon. Gentleman said. There was all-party agreement on South Gloucestershire council when it was a joint administration in 2006, and today, when it is a Conservative-led administration, that the proposed 32,800 extra homes are entirely unacceptable. The infrastructure arguments on roads, public transport and other community facilities have been made. It is simply not doable, and certainly not desirable. At the same time, all three parties on the council—and we should listen to what local councillors say—said that 21,500 is a substantial additional contribution. The Emersons Green development was pushed through by the previous Government without infrastructure being developed and the last thing I want is another situation like that.

Notwithstanding Emersons Green and Bradley Stoke in the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon, the fact is that councillors, myself and, I believe, the majority of local residents are prepared to accept something pretty close to the original draft RSS figure of 21,500. However, what is now being proposed is significantly more than that, and it is entirely unacceptable. It must be revised down to a more acceptable level. I speak not only for my constituents and myself but, I am sure, for any sane person who has examined the numbers. There is no case for the figure that is currently out for consultation.

Secondly, as I have said, I am totally opposed to any building on the green belt to the east of the Avon ring road, from Shortwood and Bridgeyate down to Bitton, for three basic reasons. The first is that the green belt is there to separate adjacent urban communities, and if the proposal were to go through, it would totally undermine the credibility of the green belt between Bristol and Bath. I hope that the Minister will take that on board. There is massive opposition to the erosion of that green belt.

Secondly, the proposals for new housing are actually in the wrong place. I have pored over the documentation for more hours that I would wish, and found that in Kingswood, in the southern part of south Gloucestershire, there is a massive net outflow of people who work in Bristol, on the northern Bristol fringe and in the northern part of south Gloucestershire. People are migrating out. I believe that it is sensible to try to locate houses close to where people work, but the proposals would do precisely the opposite.

That brings me to my third reason. Just imagine the environmental implications of the proposals—the hon. Member for Northavon made that point. Imagine the implications for transport and roads, and particularly for public transport. Like many other people in my constituency, I have to use the Avon ring road regularly. One of the first things that I demanded when I came to Parliament was the completion of the ring road, because there were bits at either end but nothing in the middle. It has helped many neighbouring communities to alleviate transport disaster, but it is now operating pretty close to full capacity. The idea that thousands more homes to the east of the ring road, on the green belt, would cause anything other than a disaster for public transport and the environment is, frankly, cloud cuckoo land.

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