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7 Oct 2008 : Column 39WH—continued

11.54 am

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson, on my second debut from the Back Benches. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on securing his role in Government as a paid position. He is being asked to earn his money today, and I know that he will listen well to earn it. He has done a good job as Minister in the past year, and I wish him the best of luck. One thing that is likely to be in his brief—rightly so—is the fact that average house prices in the south-west of England are higher than the national average, but average wages are lower.

I congratulate Gloucester city council on its pragmatic way of taking on the issue of housing. We have a housing list of some 5,000 people in dire need, so we do need more houses—the council tells me that it is still interested in growth status as well—but we have major concerns about where the houses are to be built. Plans for regeneration in our town centre, along the Gloucester docks, are progressing well, but they could be jeopardised by the development that might be proposed for the Brookthorpe-with-Whaddon area. I am concerned about that, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). The area lies within the Stroud boundary and is part of the Stroud district.

The city of Gloucester looks almost comet-like. The city centre is in the north, and the rest of it trails to the south. Brookthorpe-with-Whaddon would add to that trail of urban sprawl. It is also a greenfield area that has protected areas of my constituency, such as Grange and Tuffley, from severe flooding. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that we have had terrible floods in Gloucester. They would have been far worse but for the green area south of Grange and Tuffley, which affects the Grange road and Bodiam Avenue areas because of its proximity to Wyman’s brook, Whaddon brook and Daniel’s brook. The plans could have a cataclysmic effect on an area where people are still homeless from last year’s major floods.

I ask my hon. Friend to consider working in partnership with Gloucester city, which has taken a pragmatic approach to housing, to remove Brookthorpe-with-Whaddon from the maps of the RSS, as it has been removed from the text. If an allocation of 1,500 houses or any other allocation is to be made for the site, I ask him to work with Stroud as well and to say, “You decide where those
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properties should be.” My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has some clear ideas, but he does not believe that the development should occur at the location called 3B on the RSS maps.

From dealing with officials on the matter as a constituency MP, I know that some of them are working hard on it, but I do not think I have got through to them. They tell me that the RSS is not prescriptive. The first thing that Stroud district will do when it develops on that site on the borders of the city of Gloucester is say, “The Government are making us do it.” Regardless of whether or not the RSS is prescriptive, that is what it will say. Let us put the ball back in its court by letting Stroud have greater control over where the houses should be. By working in partnership, we can get the right amount of housing for the area in a more pragmatic way.

[Robert Key in the Chair]

11.58 am

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I hope that the Minister is getting the message that from one end of the region to the other, concerted opposition is being voiced to the proposals in the regional spatial strategy, not just by MPs from up and down the region and from all parties, but by many people who have come here to sit in the Public Gallery. I pay tribute to those who have written to me from my constituency and others, such as Chris Skidmore who is here. Many others are mounting very vocal campaigns to prevent the development.

I do not want to spend time going over issues that have been covered, but the crucial thing for my part of north Somerset, the constituency of Weston-super-Mare, is the proposals’ lack of sustainability. We have mentioned the difficulties of the lack of liaison between the Minister’s Department and the Department for Transport. The Department for Transport says it will not expand junction 21 of the M5 in my constituency unless proper provision is made to improve the balance between employment and housing in the RSS for my area, but at the same time, as everybody here knows, the RSS has dramatically increased the amount of housing without any concomitant or matching increase in local employment. As a result of that lack of joined-up Government thinking, my constituency, which already has an enormous amount of net out-commuting every morning and evening—it also has the matching degrees of traffic congestion—will actually face increases in out-commuting. We need jobs before yet more houses, otherwise a crucial element of sustainability in the RSS will be lost.

Without wishing to take up any more time, on the grounds that everybody else wants to say something, I would still like to mention the problem with the growth rates. It has to be wrong—it cannot be sensible—for us to talk with straight faces about a growth rate of well over 3 per cent. per annum for the next 20 years when, even as we stand here, we face one of the worst financial crises, and probably one of the worst general economic crises, of the past 20 years. As we all know, yesterday the stock markets collapsed to a tremendous degree—I do not know what they are doing today—so we are in cloud cuckoo land if we think that standing here and blithely talking about such high growth rates is reasonable.

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Mr. Don Foster: It is vital that we make the Minister aware of how ludicrous some of the figures are. On my patch, they would mean building new houses at three times the current rate. What is equally ludicrous is that we are wishing to build student accommodation on our two university campuses, which will take people out of existing homes in my city centre, but that for some bizarre reason that student accommodation will not count towards the figures.

John Penrose: I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Perhaps the only thing that could be said for declining house prices is that they make some houses more affordable, if people could only get the mortgages in the first place, which of course they cannot. We all understand that the growth rates are unrealistic and that therefore the central premise of the RSS is wrong, and yet for some reason the Government seem to be grinding on remorselessly and seem unwilling to change their figures or their view. The RSS is unsustainable; it does not represent joined-up Government and is tremendously environmentally unfriendly from the point of view of increasing commuting as well as concreting over green belt land. Ultimately, it fails the crucial test in my constituency—it does not put jobs before yet more houses.

12.2 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I shall be very quick, Mr. Key. As others have said, it is important that we all acknowledge that we want additional housing, particularly affordable housing. In my area, the local council agreed 15,500 new houses; the examination in public then said we must increase that figure to 18,800, and then—bizarrely—the Government said even that was not enough and that we need 21,300.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): We want some housing for those who are desperately in need. In the district that I and the hon. Gentleman represent, 6,000 people are without homes. It is very important that we do not forget that in this debate.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I hope that he will join me in echoing comments made by others about the urgent need to have a sequential test so that we stick to the rule of developing brownfield, derelict properties first, and green belt land as a very last resort, if necessary. If we do not, it will lead to problems with developers cherry-picking the best and easiest sites, which would be a planning disaster. As others have said, infrastructure is crucial. Will the Minister at least reconsider the ludicrous situation in the centre of Bath, where 1,772 family homes are entirely occupied by students? Building student accommodation on our two university campuses, including the one in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris), would release many of those properties. Surely, releasing properties for ordinary home use should count towards the target.

12.4 pm

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb). Many Members on both sides of the House and from all parties—in particular, from mine—have been
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interested in contributing to this debate. He pinpointed some of the key problems with the process: the first is lack of parliamentary scrutiny—this is one of the few opportunities that we have had to have any input into the process, other than in writing of course, and I am sure that everybody who has written in at every stage of this process will feel that their comments have been taken into account in their entirety.

My hon. Friend also pinpointed the barriers in electronic media that constituents have faced when trying to engage with the process. He raised the crucial “Gary question”—I guess that that is how it will have to be framed. I wonder whether a copy of our discussions could be sent to Gary, wherever he is in the world! There seems to be a real lack of understanding—understandably—about the importance of what we are debating today. That is a feature of the top-down way in which the process has been driven. It means that people are removed from decisions that will very much affect their lives. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to pinpoint that.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I would like to raise a matter that has not really been discussed—the so-called “Regional Approach to Transport” chapter, which indicates that there is no regional approach to transport. It also states that the A303 is apparently no longer the second strategic route to the south-west and makes the entertaining suggestion that the answer to the problems with the A303 is better walking and cycling measures. That will be a great help to people wanting to go on holiday in the south-west of Cornwall. It really exposes the poverty of thinking in the document.

Dan Rogerson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The extra housing numbers being advocated in the RSS mean that the available transport funding will be sucked into the new urban areas, which means that projects such as the A303, along with the A30 at Temple in my own constituency, which were on the original list, are now some way down it.

This debate is reminiscent of others that we have had in this Chamber on eco-towns, in which hon. Members have said time and again that planning ought to be about local people, through their elected representatives, coming together to determine the shape of their communities and looking at priorities and needs that must be taken into account. Hon. Members are right to point out that there is huge housing need but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said, there are empty properties out there, whether as a result of “studentification”—a phrase that has come into my vocabulary in the past year or so—or of the imposition on communities, such as those in my constituency and others in the south-west, of second homes, or any other factor. We need to consider all those questions.

Problems exist with the underlying suppositions in the document. As the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) mentioned, current economic circumstances might mean that we are facing a very different reality from that which was in place when we started out on this process—or, indeed, when somebody started out on it. The process deals in artificial constructs. My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon talked about the very poetical language used to describe parts of his constituency. This is my favourite: unknowingly, many
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of my constituents live in the Devon and Cornwall polycentric housing market area—I am sure they would be delighted to hear that.

This Government’s regional policy is in tatters. A referendum was held in the Minister’s own area on moving towards regional government, and because of this we have staggered from one change to another, and now nobody is clear about where regional policy is going. It means that a document such as the one we are discussing, which could be hugely influential on and important to developers, if not to local communities, is still in question because we do not know how we are to move forward. My party’s position is that regions must come about through local areas working and coming together to form natural regions with their own priorities that will then allow serious discussions to be had about transport and other infrastructure priorities, as well as the housing issues being debated here.

Sadly, the process as it stands will destroy any remaining confidence that the people might have had in the planning system. Last night, while staying in my constituency, I attended a Trewen parish meeting. I am sure that you, Mr. Key, and other hon. Members will be familiar with Trewen. It is a parish of about 70 or so dwellings. The most animated point of the evening came when planning issues were raised. But those are planning issues that people can get hold of—they are local, they are on their doorsteps and they understand them. It is easy to get people involved in parish planning processes, to get them engaged and to make them feel empowered—they ought to be the building block of planning policy. Clearly, some brokering is required, but I think that we can overcome any nimbyist tendencies.

Hon. Members have said that their constituents are keen to have housing, but in the places where they decide, not those decided by developers. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) was right to say that we should move forward, with local authorities representing their communities and working in partnership with developers to come up with serious plans. That is what planning should be about, and that is the sort of planning that could re-engage people with the planning system. That is what my party would seek to do.

We have seen, through the eco-towns development and from a debate that we had about Northamptonshire some time ago, that developers are using the threat of housing targets imposed from outside to go to appeal and avoid local engagement. That is a criminal position for us to be in, and we need to move forward in a far more constructive way.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am aware of the lack of time, but does my hon. Friend agree that the south-west strategy, as produced by the Department, is an exercise in micro-management of the region that will lead to a cataclysmic outcome in many areas, as many have described? Above all, it projects forward the past failures of growth-led strategies, particularly in his area and mine, where house numbers have doubled in the past 40 years while the housing problems of local people have become worse. Does he agree that simply building more houses is not the answer?

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Dan Rogerson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

I shall draw my remarks to a close. The so-called planning process has continued to undermine people’s faith in the system. What we should have—I hope that at some point we will have it—is a far more transparent, grass-roots-led programme that is driven by community need and gives communities control over their future.

12.11 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I am a veteran of a number of Westminster Hall debates, and I have never seen either the Public Gallery or the Chamber so full of people singing from the same hymn sheet. There has not been one dissenting voice so far.

Mr. Iain Wright: Not yet.

Mrs. Lait: I said, “so far”. Hon. Members will be relieved to know that I do not plan to take up too much time, because we all ought to hear from the Minister at great length.

Another irony is that there are several veterans of the Planning Bill present for our debate. Let me take up the issue of infrastructure, which was raised by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), whom I congratulate on gaining this important debate, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). Being slightly conspiracy-minded, I wondered whether the community infrastructure levy was going to be the Government’s answer to all our infrastructure problems. Given our doubtless expanding economy in the next few years, on which all this is based, do they think that it will produce the money to magic up a junction on the M5 for my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), and open up the expansion of the ring road that the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) mentioned? What about the other requests for infrastructure and the eloquent description of the infrastructure that is needed in Woodspring?

Before I launch into the few words that I have to say, I need to put on the record the fact that my husband is the leader of East Sussex county council and the deputy chairman of the South East England Development Agency. As hon. Members can imagine, he has been engaged in all of these debates regarding the south-east. All the arguments that have been put forward today are familiar in the south-east, and I suspect that Members from other areas of the UK would make exactly the same criticisms if they were present, because the Government’s regional strategy is bust. It does not work, it is hated and loathed, and it has contributed fundamentally to the British people’s distrust and suspicion of our planning system. Our planning system used to be the envy of the world—so much so that one can still find similar systems around the world—but the Government have bust it, because local people no longer feel that they are in control of planning.

Mr. Jeremy Browne: I completely agree with the hon. Lady that there should be more local autonomy when taking decisions of this sort. I am therefore curious to know why she came to my constituency to try to overrule the local council on housing decisions that it seeks to take.

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Mrs. Lait: Those proposals are very controversial within the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and local people must therefore be able to voice their objections. His party maintains that it has long believed in localism, although it has not really delivered it, so its representatives, of all people, should understand that issue.

Moving on to how we can sort the problem, it is clear from all that has been said that there is no acceptance of the Government’s regional spatial strategy. As many hon. Members have pointed out, if the houses that local communities know they need are to be built, local people need to be in control of that process. The only way that they will gain that control is if the whole regional spatial strategy is abolished. That is what we will do when we become the next Government. That is one of the keys to ensuring that our planning system regains the respect of the people who have to live with it. We must put them in control and work with the councils so that, for every local area, a development plan is produced that local people respect and are prepared to buy into—indeed, that they own. Once we have abolished the RSS, local people and councils will be in the driving seat. That was the tenor of everyone’s contribution today, but I am surprised that the Liberals, in particular, did not make that commitment.

12.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Key. I am keen to start by asking the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), “Is that it?” I am quite amazed by the response from the Conservative party.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing the debate. He was entertaining, funny, engaging and passionate. Indeed, that is a word that I would use to describe the debate, as Members on both sides of the House have been passionate. However, I was not aware that there were so many Liberal Democrat Members. I am amazed by how many there are—far too many for my liking.

The hon. Members for Northavon and for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) said that there has been a lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the whole process, but I disagree vehemently. We have had several debates on the south-west regional spatial strategy, both in this Chamber and in the main Chamber. Indeed, the hon. Member for Northavon himself mentioned that the RSS was debated on 22 January, when my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was Minister for Housing. I have responded for the Government in debates on 7 May—I believe that that debate was secured by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson)—and on 25 June. This week, we have this important debate and I shall talk about housing in Plymouth later today, when I expect the RSS to be mentioned. In addition, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) has secured a debate on affordable housing and planning tomorrow, in which the issue will be debated again. Oral questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government are scheduled for next Tuesday, and I would welcome questions on this subject: they must be tabled by tomorrow. The idea that the matter has not been subject to parliamentary scrutiny is wrong. It was announced that the 12-week consultation process would start in July. This has been subject to public consultation, as it rightly should be.

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