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Julia Goldsworthy: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Roger Berry: I shall very briefly, but I am conscious that other colleagues wish to speak.

Julia Goldsworthy: I shall be brief. I wish to draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments out more widely by saying that the lack of a match between the number of houses and the number of jobs is explicit. The regional spatial strategy proposes 11,100 dwellings in my constituency, but we know that only 4,700 jobs can be provided. That is implicit in the calculations.

Roger Berry: I strongly agree that, particularly at a time that we are concerned about the environment and environmental damage, we must pay due attention to ensuring that decisions about housing and employment are made together. Otherwise, the transport, infrastructure and environmental problems will become enormous.

I have two final points, which will be brief because other hon. Members wish to speak. First, I do not believe that the regional spatial strategy should be site specific. The hon. Member for Northavon referred to that. There must be an agreement on the total level of housing in each local authority area, and it should be made democratically. At the end of the day, however, whatever the level of housing development in south Gloucestershire needs to be by 2026, where the houses go should be a matter for the local council and local councillors. I spent far too much time as a Labour local councillor on the old Avon council, before the previous Government abolished us, arguing that local councillors should have the power to represent their people. I am not going to change that view now, just because I happen to be here. Local councils must have the powers and opportunities to say where housing is best placed. I do not believe that it is right for anyone else to assume that responsibility.

My final point is about the importance of South Gloucestershire council’s own response to the consultation. It is critical, as are the responses of all local councils, and I wished to make two points about it. However, I shall make only one, because I am conscious that other Members wish to speak. It would not be good enough for South Gloucestershire council to object simply to the scale of developments east of the Avon ring road. It should oppose them altogether, and I expect it so to do. That is what the economic and environmental arguments demand, what local residents want and what the vast majority of those who live in Kingswood want. I very much hope that the Minister is listening, and I am sure that he is.

11.35 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), who exposed most eloquently the very many flaws in the process that has brought us to this point. The top-down, undemocratic nature of those flaws are crucial problems. The matter is the most frequently raised issue in my constituency since the report of the examination in public, and even more since the end of July. I have been personally involved throughout the process, but other MPs were not even allowed to speak at the examination in public.

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I wish to pick up the point about affordable houses, for which there is a huge need in my constituency. If I believed that the proposals addressed that need, I would support them. However, given the environmental and other constraints in my constituency, I do not believe that we can build our way out of the crisis. The approach to providing the housing that we need should involve local communities providing houses to agreed targets, very locally and in suitable locations, and it must be backed with more Government money. When faced with a large amount of heathland, as is the case in Purbeck in my constituency, there are so many constraints that it is necessary to have extra Government support—not Government dictation—to meet our needs.

There are two sites proposed for my constituency, one of which popped up after the examination in public. It is proposed that there should be 2,750 homes in the green belt. The proposal is opposed by every council at whatever level, and was made by one developer. Was the hearing balanced, I ask myself? Everybody is against the proposal. It will shatter the green belt, and we will have just one urban sprawl. By the end of the process, if it is not halted, I imagine that there will be wall-to-wall housing from Wareham to Christchurch.

Mr. Steen: The problem is not just in and around Bristol and Purbeck. Is the hon. Lady aware that in Torbay, the spatial strategy would mean an urban sprawl right out of Torquay into Paignton and into green fields, with tens of thousands of houses? There is already gridlock on the roads and no schools or health services. The proposal is preposterous and ought to be buried fast. Does she agree?

Annette Brooke: I welcome the common ground that is being found today among all parties and from all parts of the region. There is good reason for the Minister to listen, and I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point.

The overall number of houses proposed is going up, up, up, and it is debatable. The growth premise of the regional spatial strategy must surely be reviewed in light of what is happening. I appreciate that it is a 20-year prediction, but the predicted growth rate of 3.2 per cent. appears to be totally out of line. I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon that there is uncertainty about exactly what the report of the examination in public says. It certainly seems to me that it implies that there is now no necessity to look for brownfield sites first. We must have clarification on that point today.

I endorse my hon. Friend’s point about infrastructure. The change that the Secretary of State has brought to my area would remove any infrastructure requirements. In some ways, there is some practicality about that because, for example, the roads cannot be greatly improved without their impinging on the heathland. However, given the congestion during the tourism season, the provision of all the proposed extra housing without any extra roads is absolutely impossible to comprehend.

Purbeck’s target has been increased during the process, from what the local councils agreed, by 145 per cent. Purbeck is one of the most constrained areas for development in the country, so it is an impossible proposal. In addition to the Purbeck housing, there are proposals with which some local councils originally agreed, but not at local community level, such as those
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for 700 new homes in Corfe Mullen, and a further 1,000 in east Dorset, at Wimborne and Colehill, which are located in beautiful green belt areas. I think that everyone believes that if the proposals go ahead they will represent the destruction of beautiful areas for ever. We do not have faith in the process by which we have reached this point. I urgently ask the Minister to reconsider, and to listen to the many representations that are being made. Let us get back to making our decisions at local community level.

11.40 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Because of the time constraints and the fact that so many hon. Members want to speak I shall keep my remarks very brief.

I was at a meeting of Unite activists last week, many of whom came from the constituency of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). I thought I was there to answer questions on the economy, employment and trade union rights, but we spent half an hour talking about how unfair they thought the proposals were to impose housing development on the flood plain, particularly in the Tewkesbury area. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister realises that this is not an issue that will go into the long grass; it is a burning problem in our area, because people feel very strongly. [Interruption.] We get those as well, with the floods. The issue will not go away and we must face up to the fact that housing development in Gloucestershire—but obviously the whole RSS—is highly controversial.

I want to make some very specific points, the first of which is quite critical of local government. I understand where the South West of England Regional Development Agency and the Government office for the south-west are coming from in relation to the RSS, but there are local government representatives on the RSS and I want to know why their voices were not heard, apparently, until the plan came back with everyone against it. I should like to know who was on the RSS, and what they had to say. Were they part of the proposals? Did they walk out? Did they not turn up? Did they express their anger? If they did not, I want to know why not, because either local government is part of the process or it might as well give up completely. That is my criticism of local government, but it does not enable us to escape from the fact that we have a problem.

Principally—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) will say something on this point if he is called to speak—we were very angry about the way in which a site-specific recommendation was brought forward, in relation to the RSS, for Whaddon, which is in my constituency but happens to abut Gloucester city. I could make the point that that is entirely the responsibility of Stroud district council, because it has been obsessed with pushing the Hunts Grove development, which, again, is concentrating development on the southern rim of Gloucester, but it should not be making site-specific recommendations in connection with the RSS.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): On that point, my hon. Friend and I have both been working very hard on the matter, and we were told that the RSS would not be site-specific. In fact, Brookthorpe with
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Whaddon was taken out of the text of the RSS but has remained in a map—whether accidentally or on purpose we do not know. Surely the sensible thing to do would be to remove the allocation, take the map out, and say that those 1,500 homes should if anything be part of the local development framework. That would then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) has said, give the local authority the ability to decide where to put those homes, including in the rural communities that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has been suggesting for some time.

Mr. Drew: Obviously I agree with my hon. Friend. It is good to see him back with us mere Back Benchers; we can find many opportunities to argue our position—and we will. I want to make a couple of other points. We feel strongly about Whaddon, and about other opportunities to bring forward ideas on housing development—I know we are obsessed with housing development, but that is a controversial part of the proposal. The point has been made about the need to link employment and housing. We have an employment problem in the Stroud area, not least in that virtually all the employment growth has been in my own town of Stonehouse. That has led to all manner of other problems about where people live in relation to where they must work. I asked a parliamentary question during the recess about how many commercial properties are still empty in the Stroud district and the answer was more than 500. I do not want to lose those as employment possibilities, but I cannot believe that all of them are suitable for employment and I want to know whether we are in any way going to move away from the brownfield first obligation that the Government have been right to pursue, and which has been successful. What are the implications for that? I want some of those sites to be used for housing.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I am very grateful to my neighbour from Gloucestershire. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the reasons for the mounting fury in Gloucestershire, and certainly around my constituency, is that the sequential test has been lost and we have developers, right now, putting in planning applications that some of them will appeal within weeks, on the basis of an RSS that is not yet policy, and that thousands more are being mapped out across our green belts? That is the implication of losing that sequential test—that the greenfield sites will be developed first, not just at the same time as the others.

Mr. Drew: I hope that the Minister hears that important point, but I want to finish with one more point: there is a degree of unfairness in the RSS. I think that that unfairness is that Gloucester and Stroud are again taking the lion’s share of development. I know that Tewkesbury is catching up, and there are some issues that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury may want to raise if he is called to speak; but I think that the balance between the Forest of Dean, Stroud and even Cheltenham—my neighbour the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) may not necessarily agree with me about that—is not right. However, I also want to make the point that the development on the ground is happening specifically in some parts of the districts—almost certainly the Labour parts of the districts—where we are taking an intense increase in the
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amount of development. I have always argued that we need to disperse at least some of that development around.

It is good to see the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) here. The Taylor report gave us some indication of what rural areas need. They need some development. I shall always argue in favour of dispersal. At the very time when we are concentrating housing development as excessive numbers of the wrong type of housing where the jobs are not, we are killing our rural areas because we cannot get any development in them. What is happening is a recipe for telling developers, “Go for the easy pickings. Forget the rural areas; they do not matter.” That kills rural areas and is unfair to the places with excessive development. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister hears that; it is important that we get the point. We need development in rural Britain. It should be of the right scale, but we certainly need it.

11.48 am

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I shall focus on north Somerset. I know that other hon. Members want to speak.

The targets for housing allocation in north Somerset were always absurd. They represented a Whitehall-centred view of housing development, and took no account of the impact on the local environment, the need for infrastructure development, or the detrimental effects on the quality of life in the area in general. Let me just put the size of the development in perspective. In the census of 2001, the town of Clevedon in my constituency had a population of 22,000, representing about 9,300 households. I imagine that that is the size of development in many of the constituencies of my colleagues here today. By 2006 it had grown to the size that is now proposed for development in north Somerset; so what did Clevedon have in 2006 that a similar development would require? It had seven wards and seven ward councillors, one secondary and six primary schools, one leisure centre, one swimming pool, seven places of worship, six pubs, two post offices, three supermarkets, one hospital, three doctors’ surgeries, three dental surgeries, four vets’ practices, one library, 16 community meeting places, 150 allotments, one youth club and about 100 bus stops served by six main services. That is the sort of infrastructure that any of the developments in the strategy would require. Yet in north Somerset we are witnessing a contraction of infrastructure, with doctors’ surgeries at risk, post office closures, and inadequate public transport, especially in rural areas.

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb). We are not talking about nimby areas. We have taken a large share of development. In the past 20 years in my constituency—in Nailsea, Clevedon and recently in Portishead, with a huge and prestigious development on a former brownfield site—we have taken more than our share of increased housing. We accept that people need places to live, but one cannot simply continue to stuff the same places with ever greater numbers of houses without any consideration for infrastructure. Who would live in those homes?

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) mentioned transport. My constituency has the lowest unemployment rate of any in the United Kingdom and among the fewest job vacancies. Where are the people in
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all those houses going to work? They will have to drive to Bristol or Weston-super-Mare, increasing road traffic against every one of the Government’s targets on transport and the environment. Our road networks are already struggling under the burden from the increased housing development of the past 20 years.

John Penrose: My hon. Friend is making an elegant statement of the problems that we in north Somerset face. As he is making points about transport infrastructure, I remind him—to return to the earlier point about the lack of cross-departmental co-operation—that the Highways Agency has said that it has no plans to expand the capacity of the M5, the major arterial route for people making the type of journey that he describes, and that it is at odds with the Minister’s Department over the RSS.

Dr. Fox: It represents a complete dislocation of government. There are targets in one place and different targets in another, and they do not seem to add up in any way. Try to get into or out of Portishead at peak times: it is now the biggest cul-de-sac in Britain. Barrow Gurney is still waiting for a bypass 10 years after it was promised. The airport is dragging more and more traffic through the villages in my constituency. We do not have the infrastructure for what we have, let alone for any more.

In a letter to Sir Simon Day, Baroness Andrews said:

To interpret the jargon, if we take into account the actual cost of the proposals and the real amount of infrastructure required, the numbers do not add up, and if we include the genuine price, the strategy becomes totally uneconomic.

We are witnessing a dramatic slowdown in the housing market. House-building activity is grinding to a halt as demand falls. To sign up to the sort of housing expansion envisaged in the strategy before we know what impact the current economic crisis will have on home owners’ behaviour would be complete folly. This is no time to grant speculative permissions that might be used in entirely different future circumstances. With the possibility of a change of Government—a Conservative Government would take an entirely different approach to housing targets—developers will face even greater temptation to get as many permissions as possible for future development. It is essential that local councils do not play into their hands, wittingly or unwittingly, by seeming to go along with some of the underlying assumptions.

For example, we in north Somerset must not agree to the current scope of environmental impact assessment. First, it implies wrongly that there is consensus on the issue. Secondly, it might be argued in a future inquiry that such an agreement constituted a nod from the council in the direction of permitted development. Our area faces one of the most unimaginative planning schemes, whose answer to shortage in south Bristol is simply to concrete over the adjacent countryside. A back-door extension to the city boundary is the least acceptable solution to the problems we face.

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As the fields of the village of Dundry in my constituency are being built on, I can easily imagine the argument: “Now we’ve got this housing built, health services are being provided by the Bristol primary care trust, but social services are being provided by north Somerset. We’ve lost coterminosity. Wouldn’t it be much nicer if we simply created a new boundary? It would make everything much tidier for the bureaucrats.” The only planning permissions that should be granted are those that would be accepted under current policy and that fit in with local priorities. Elected councillors in all our areas must give their offices clear leadership to ensure that the wishes of those who live in north Somerset and the south-west as a whole are given priority over the convenience of the bureaucracy or a speculative development. Our green belt must be left alone.

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