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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 22 October 2008

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

South-East Plan

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Ian Austin.]

9.30 am

Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): It is a pleasure to be here this morning with you in the Chair, Mr. Amess.

I am acutely conscious that time is short and that a considerable number of my colleagues want to contribute. However, before I begin, I pay tribute to a number of organisations for their work in my constituency: the Guildford Society, residents associations such as the one for east Guildford, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. There has been considerable cross-party support locally to work on the plan.

The debate comes at the end of a consultation, which closes on Friday, on the Government’s proposed alterations to the south-east plan. They need to be clear about the opposition from local people in my constituency. I have commented on the south-east plan in this place on a number of occasions including 18 December 2007 and 22 July this year. It is extremely disappointing that the Government have not paid any attention to or reacted to the points that I raised. I suggest that their record on listening and responding is rather poor.

I draw attention to the report commissioned by the Government from experts at Roger Tym and Partners, who warned of the effects of imposing unsustainable building targets on the south-east. The report stated that the building plans will

The Government appear not to have paid any attention to that.

The publication of the plan was shrouded in secrecy. It was impossible to get an answer from the Minister about when it would be published even 12 hours beforehand. It was not widely available and is not accessible to people without the internet. If it had not been for the co-operation of my local newspaper, the Surrey Advertiser, and local radio station, 96.4 Eagle, I doubt whether anybody in Guildford without the support of the residents association would be aware of the plan’s existence, let alone its importance. Yet it will have a significant and irreversible impact not only on Guildford, but across the south-east.

I will mention the gross figures. The original plan proposed building 578,000 new homes. Despite the serious challenges of achieving that, the Government have returned with an increase of some 85,000, making
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the total 662,500 new homes. As the regional assembly has already made clear—and I am no fan of regional assemblies—Government proposals threaten to destroy an already delicate balance between housing growth on the one hand and providing decent infrastructure and protecting the environment on the other.

I would like to make it clear that the people of Guildford are not against housing growth. It is very easy to portray us all as nimbys. We have a sophisticated understanding of the need for more housing and the challenges that that brings. However, this plan is not the right way to meet housing need and is fundamentally flawed. It suggests that Guildford can meet London’s housing need without causing very serious and detrimental harm. The south-east plan proposes a smaller increase—but still an increase—in housing numbers for the Waverley part of my constituency. The proposed changes for Guildford will be felt well beyond the town itself.

I hope that the Minister will take close note as I discuss the geography and topography of Guildford. It is very geographically constrained. It is dissected by a floodplain and is surrounded by green belt, protected downland, rural villages, the Surrey hills and the Thames basin heaths. It has constricted roads, forming a pinch-point in the network.

Flood risk is a significant concern because there is an undefended zone 3 floodplain running through the town centre. There is also an extensive natural floodplain to the north-east of Guildford, which takes the flood waters, thus saving the town. That is already densely developed. The proposed changes to the plan will increase the flooding risks by increasing the pressure for development along the river channel on land with a risk level that planning policy statement 25 advises is a flood corridor. The plan also proposes new houses in the natural floodplain between Guildford and Woking, which is a crucial strategic gap.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that a most concerning aspect of the proposals for the south-east plan is the removal of the policy of strategic gaps full stop, whether between Guildford and Woking or between Farnham and Aldershot? Does she agree that such strategic gaps are a vital amenity for the people of those towns? They feel that there is a green lung around the edge of the town and that their community is distinct and does not form part of an urban sprawl that goes indiscriminately from one town to the next.

Anne Milton: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. One cannot understand the impact of those strategic gaps without going to the area and seeing them on the ground. They have been a crucial part of planning policy since the last world war and have served us very well. In line with Government policy in “Making Space for Water”, the Thames catchment flood management plan relies on the natural floodplain to do its job and manage flood risks in Guildford. The south-east plan cuts right across that point.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing an important debate on a matter that will affect the quality of life of all constituents in the south-east. She has made some excellent points.

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Is the hon. Lady not heartened by the assurances the Government have given to me, including on the Floor of the House, that the Environment Agency will prevent any further building on the floodplain—certainly in my constituency—and that the Government are against building on the green belt? They have set their mind on to building on brownfield land. There is plenty of that to achieve the housing targets that they have set.

Anne Milton: I disagree. I do not think that the Government will get anywhere near those targets by building on brownfield land in Guildford. The Government have contradicted themselves on green belt policy many times. I urge the Minister to listen very closely to this point. The plan says:

It does not say “maybe” or “possibly”; it says that reviews of the green belt boundaries are required.

That is in stark contrast to the comments made in the House by the Minister for Housing:

I raise again the Prime Minister’s comments of 11 July 2007 when he said that

The Government cannot have it both ways. The plan says that reviews will be necessary and that green belt land will be built on. Either the plan is wrong or the Prime Minister and the Minister for Housing are not being entirely straightforward.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): My constituency is entirely in the metropolitan green belt. It is where the green belt is at its narrowest around London and it has already been driven through, in a sense, with a ribbon of development along the A23. Under this plan, the constituency of Reigate and the borough of Reigate and Banstead are threatened with the largest number of houses, as a direct change imposed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I urge the Minister to look at what he proposes to do to the quality of life of the people that my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and I represent. I am also extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) for the splendid case that she is making on behalf of all of us.

Anne Milton: I thank my hon. Friend for those points. The Minister must come back and specifically address the contradiction between what is said in this place and what is said in the plan.

The metropolitan green belt has served us well for 50 years. It has been successful in maintaining the strategic gaps. It has protected the historic and special character of towns such as Guildford, checked urban sprawl, and of course safeguarded our very valuable countryside. It has been a very successful planning policy. However, despite the protestations from the Prime Minister downwards, the Government have put their name to a plan that will rip up our green belt.

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Crucially, the Government’s proposed changes weaken the link between development and infrastructure. Infrastructure in Guildford is at breaking point. Business is a considerable contributor to the Treasury’s coffers. However, the great success of the research park in Guildford, for instance, is limited by the paucity of infrastructure development, and taxis will not go to it after 4 pm because it takes so long. Another example is north Guildford, where incremental planning applications have had a huge toll on local road networks.

The patronising comments in the plan are unbelievable. For example, there are aims such as:

Does the Minister honestly believe that the people of Guildford have not already thought about that? It is absolutely absurd to have this development without first having the infrastructure improvements that we desperately need now.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making such important points on behalf of so many of us who are in exactly the same situation as she is. As she knows, an enormous demand for new houses has also been made in my constituency. An extra number of houses has been added on in an area where the infrastructure is simply not capable of bearing them. It is unsustainable and completely unreasonable. It is impossible to imagine how any area could cope with the impact of new housing and retain the quality of life that people have come to expect. She is right to say that this is nothing to do with nimbyism; it is simply that the infrastructure and environment cannot sustain the proposed level of housing.

Anne Milton: I support all my hon. Friend’s comments. He knows that I was brought up in Mid-Sussex and there has been immense housing growth in that part of the country. I am sure that each one of us here today would be happy to take the Minister on a short tour of our areas. Give us a day, Minister, and we will show you what the situation is like. The Government’s proposals to slap an increase of 2,000 more homes—and more—in Guildford simply demonstrate how little they know and understand the constraints under which we already operate.

I would like the Minister to take note of a few other issues. Guildford should not be on the list for regional hubs, for major high-density housing and economic growth. Neither its geography nor its infrastructure can cope. The review of the green belt to the south of Woking, which is not in my constituency, puts the distinctive character of both Guildford and Woking under serious threat, as I have already mentioned.

Guildford may be a transport hub, but we certainly are not a regional hub. The town cannot and should not be a centre for significant change. We are an historic town that is struggling already.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Is not one of the problems that my hon. Friend is identifying that the new planning regime has virtually disfranchised the elected county councils and replaced them with
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unelected regional development agencies? Therefore, should we not be moving towards a planning regime that is much more responsive and sensitive to the needs of local people through elected councillors?

Anne Milton: Of course. My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point in saying that local decision making is probably at the heart of the issue. The plan is being imposed on us all and if we had local decisions by local people, we would get better decisions. I believe that the Government are nervous of local people; they think that local people will say “no” to everything. Actually, people are very sensible. They have sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters who need housing, so they understand the need for more housing. However, they want to be in control of where that housing goes, how it goes there and when it goes there, and they need support from the Government. The Government are so reliant on the south-east for their taxes. They must understand the need for the improvements in infrastructure that I have mentioned.

I would also like the Minister to rethink the idea of Guildford meeting housing need from London, given that we are already struggling to meet our existing housing need. Development must be preceded by infrastructure improvements. We want a sustainable, deliverable approach from the Government, and the decisions that are needed about our local area must be made by local people who are locally accountable and not by people in distant regional assemblies who are accountable to no one.

Finally, the plan makes it clear that annual figures will be a minimum, so the 31 per cent. increase for housing in Guildford is a minimum. Also under the plan, windfall sites, which historically have provided much of the land for housing, are to be disregarded when housing supply is being planned, and the rate of building should be assumed to continue to five years after the end of the plan. There will not be 8,000 extra houses in Guildford, but a considerable number more, including on those windfall sites.

That extra housing will wreck Guildford and ruin our countryside. It is completely unsustainable. It will put at severe risk the future of our green belt, our town centre, with its special character, our already very congested roads in the north of the town, and Guildford itself as an historic, distinctive, evolving and dynamic community.

I urge the Minister to think again. If he will come to Guildford, I will show him. He should take note of what his own experts and organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England are already telling him and halt these proposals now.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. The winding-up speeches will begin at 10.30 am. I would like to call everyone who wants to speak, so I appeal to hon. Members to bear that deadline in mind when making their contributions. An excellent example has already been set by the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton).

9.47 am

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing this important debate. With so many Opposition
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Members taking an interest in this important issue, I am glad to be here on the Government Benches.

I welcome the hon. Lady’s recognition that more housing is needed, because often the mood music of debates such as this one can be that, somehow, we do not need new housing or that, wherever it is going to go, it has to go somewhere else, anywhere other than near ourselves or our constituents. So I welcome her recognition that more housing is needed, and I also welcome what she said about the common sense of local people who have children and grandchildren who need homes, and those houses have to be provided.

In that context, we should also recognise that the Secretary of State has quite modestly increased the number of new houses in the south-east plan. However, it is worth noting that serious draft plan numbers were far lower than the evidence suggested that they should be and the examination in public noted that the draft plan’s suggested numbers were at the lower end of the range.

The National Housing and Planning Advisory Unit urges far higher numbers. I am very much in favour of housing to meet need, but I do not think that it is fair to say that the Government are not listening or taking account of concerns that have been voiced.

Mr. Blunt: Can the right hon. Gentleman define for us what “modest” means in percentage terms?

Mr. Smith: I define it in terms of the needs of the people I see in my advice surgeries, who are desperately in need of housing. The hon. Lady referred to the vitality of our economy and I rarely have a meeting, whether it is with the CBI or the chambers of commerce or other business organisations, in my area—

Anne Milton rose—

Mr. Smith: The hon. Lady spoke about her area; I will largely confine my remarks to my area. As I was saying, in my area I rarely have a meeting with business organisations where they do not say that more housing is needed to tackle problems of retention and mobility of labour.

The hon. Lady rightly spoke about the importance of infrastructure, which, clearly, is crucial. But past problems are a reason for getting the infrastructure right, not an argument for not building houses, which, as I have said, are desperately needed.

Anne Milton: Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman therefore agrees that infrastructure improvements should come before house building.

Mr. Smith: The two have to go together. The necessary infrastructure must be in place so that people can travel and access local facilities. We must construct not just housing estates but genuine communities, and I will have more to say about that in a moment.

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