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22 Oct 2008 : Column 80WH—continued

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That brings me to the substance of my concern about the whole top-down approach—environmental sustainability in south-east England. One example is water, which a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), mentioned. In the south-east, Thames Water has proposed a desalination plant on the Thames to obtain fresh water. Such proposals are normally heard about in Saudi Arabia. Non-governmental organisations such as Waterwise point out that the availability of water per head in the south-east is now lower than in Sudan or Syria. We are at the absolute limit of water sustainability.

As the Environment Agency repeatedly tells Ministers, we are also at the limit of building on flood plains, and the projection to build 100,000 homes on flood plains cannot be sensible when climate change will inevitably make them more vulnerable. The south-east is the most densely populated region not only of England, but of all European regions. The population density of England as a whole is the same as that for the Netherlands, which traditionally has been the most densely populated part of Europe. The south-east is substantially more densely populated than the average. I second all those environmental sustainability reasons, including submissions to the Minister from Hampshire and Isle of Wight wildlife trust on some of the consequences for the sustainability of wildlife as a result of the proposed development.

I shall not continue with the infrastructure points, but I entirely agree with what other hon. Members have said about the importance of “i before e”—infrastructure before expansion. That is an additional and very serious problem in the proposals. There are concerns about sustainable transport links, and our experience in Hampshire is that the infrastructure has not been put in place adequately to sustain communities that have been built up.

Finally, a matter of enormous concern to us locally in Eastleigh and more widely in south Hampshire is the Department’s extremely mistaken judgment to allow the plan to get rid of strategic gaps to proceed . We feel strongly in Eastleigh that we do not want to be part of a sprawling urban area called Solent city, which will merge every settlement from Totton in the west to Waterlooville and Portsmouth in the east.

A key part of our planning policy has been successfully to build the extra housing that we need for household formation. The borough council has done that responsibly, but has always borne in mind the key requirements of residents that local settlements should be distinctive and have their traditional character; that one village should not merge into another; that Hamble wants to be separate from Netley and Bursledon; that Bishopstoke wants to be separate from Fair Oak; and that there should not be fill-in between West End, Eastleigh, Bishopstoke and Fair Oak.

For all those reasons, I hope very much that the Minister will reconsider this exceptionally misguided policy of getting rid of strategic gaps.

10.17 am

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing the debate, which is both timely—the consultation period finishes at the end of this week—and extremely important.

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When I was elected in 1997 to have the honour of representing a constituency that is entirely within the green belt and, indeed, provides the green belt between London and the rest of the south-east, I knew that developmental pressure would be the most important issue and a constant in my life of representing my constituents. I am utterly horrified by the Government’s proposals. Let us be clear. There is a basic, philosophical difference between the Government on one side and us on the other. That comes out loud and clear in the changes that the Secretary of State has proposed to the plan. I shall make the case briefly.

The original plan said:

The Secretary of State has struck that out. The original wording referred to

After the Secretary of State had her way, it referred to

The Secretary of State has struck out all the references to “local”. The original plan referred to

The Secretary of State struck that out. It also referred to

What on earth is wrong with that? Something is wrong with it, because the Secretary of State struck it out. It then referred to

What on earth is wrong with that? Something is wrong with it, because the Secretary of State put a line through it.

I say this as the representative of the constituency of Reigate. In the last development plan that came out in 1994, the borough of Reigate took a substantial increase in housing. Those in my constituency have co-operated with the Government and the Department on trying to enable that development to happen and their reward is to have housing numbers increased where the green belt is under the greatest pressure.

The Secretary of State has put a line through the figure of 4,740 houses in the plan and has said that we must have 8,240 in the north of my constituency—in the London fringe. That is in addition to the 3,000 houses that are being imposed around Gatwick and the town of Horley in the south of the borough of Reigate and Banstead. That part of the borough is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). Some 2,800 houses are already being constructed there on the only non-green belt area of open space, which is up to the boundary of the green belt around the town of Horley and the boundary of my constituency.

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I declare an interest because that is where I happen to live. I live next to a river and, interestingly, the houses are being built on a place called Great Lake Farm. I wonder why it is called that? Local people have the pictures to explain why it is called Great Lake Farm, but that has not stopped the development plan going through, and all the flood prevention measures have, of course, been incorporated within the development. However, considering the weather conditions we are experiencing, what will be the consequences for everybody else who lives around there? Some 36,000 houses are going into the Gatwick sub-region and one can only speculate on what that will mean for the River Mole, which runs past my house—particularly given that, under the south-east plan, 2,800 houses will go immediately downstream in that part of the borough, and they will be followed by another 3,000.

I simply hope that the Minister will reflect on the cry of outrage from hon. Members who represent the constituencies affected and who can see that this is a deliberate effort to undermine local democracy. The purpose of having councils and the contribution of local representation is so that local people can make their voices heard. As has been said, it is not that local people are incapable of making judgments about what is required to house their children and grandchildren; it is that they are also sensitive to the protection of their environment. The Government appear to have chosen to say, “We know best and we are going to ensure that south-east England remains the motor of the economy. Never mind the infrastructure. We see that housing is a requirement and you are going to deliver it.” During the enormous consultation exercise, which has ended up in a revision of the plan, the Government have overridden local people’s judgments. In the case of my constituency, that has resulted in nearly doubling, by fiat of the Secretary of State, the number of houses that will be required to be built.

The Government have a dreadful philosophical approach that completely disfranchises local people. I sincerely hope that the Government will listen at this late stage to the responses to the consultation, to which thousands of local people in my constituency have contributed. How are local, ordinary people supposed to understand all of this and get involved in the consultation? Yet hundreds—if not thousands—of people in my constituency alone will have had to have found some way of trying to understand what is happening in order to respond to a consultation that is likely to be a complete waste of time. I sincerely hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will surprise me when they respond to the consultation.

10.24 am

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) for choosing this subject for a debate and for introducing it in such a responsible way. We have had some good speeches in response.

In a way, this is an unreal debate because it is driven by the Government’s target to build 3 million homes by 2020. Hardly anybody in the housing world thinks that that target is achievable, yet that is what is driving the debate. The energy of Ministers in the relevant Department
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should be focused on building houses on the sites that already have planning consent. They should concentrate on making progress on meeting the housing needs of all those we represent, as opposed to driving these targets based on the 3 million figure.

A long time ago, I was the Minister for housing and planning and took an interest in these matters. The forecasting of households is not an exact science; it is underpinned by some heroic assumptions. I remember having a dialogue with the man who produced the figures. One has to make assumptions about whether a child—someone who is age 20—who has had a row with their parents is entitled to a home of their own. That is a difficult judgment to make, but the forecasts of households depend on such judgments.

Heroic assumptions about inward and outward migration have to be made, and when focusing on the south-east, heroic assumptions have to be made about outward migration from London. Is it right that we should continue to plan for the outward migration from London when many people planning for the future of London want to retain that population there—particularly in relation to those who are likely to migrate outwards? Likewise, there is a debate about whether, given the structure of London, one should focus on the east side of London, where unemployment is highest, or the west side, which is overheated. Some real political and sociological issues underpin this debate.

I start from the premise that everyone is entitled to a decent home. Certainly, in my constituency, a major development area on the eastern side of Andover is going ahead without a lot of aggravation, and we accept that we have a role to play. My view is that one is more likely to get a sensible answer if local people feel that they have ownership of the problem. In a county, district or village, there is resistance if people are told what they have to do. If people are asked about how best to provide for their children, elderly parents, teachers and postmen, they will say, “We have a real responsibility and interest in this.” They will then be much more creative in looking for sites than if they have to find sites because they have been told to do so to accommodate people who are not in the area but who plan to move there.

Let us consider the policy of building on land that would not normally get planning consent—the so-called exceptions policy. People who live in a village will be creative about identifying suitable sites, having a dialogue with the housing association and ensuring that homes are built for local people. However, there will be resistance if people are told by someone from outside, “You have to find sites for another 100 houses and we cannot tell you who will live there.”

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the one thing most liked by local people is the feeling that they can give a home to another local person?

Sir George Young: I agree. In one parish council in my constituency, the village has provided all the homes that they have been told to. They are actually trying to provide more homes by moving the allotments that they own from the middle of the village to the outside because they feel that they have a responsibility to make better housing provision.

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I shall leave the Minister with this thought. A top-down approach provokes a reaction, whereas a bottom-up approach does not. One of the Government’s mistakes has been to move to a much more dirigiste, centrally driven planning policy, which perversely makes it more difficult to get the houses that we all want built in the areas in which we need them. I know that the Minister is relatively new in his appointment, but I ask him to begin to put a few question marks against that aspect of the policy. If that happens as a result of this debate, we might have made some real progress.

10.28 am

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess, to discuss this important subject. I must confess to a feeling of déj vu in that a couple of weeks ago, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and I debated the south-west regional spatial strategy in this very Chamber. As we now have a different Minister facing us, perhaps he will forgive me for repeating some of the remarks I made to his colleague because the issues are same.

First, I should congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing this important debate. She quite rightly raised the issue of local opposition and voiced her concerns about how those points of view have not had the opportunity to be heard. She is concerned that this process dictates against local opinion—and we have heard that point repeated time and again. Importantly, she also spoke about flood risk, transport capacity and water resources, a subject mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). The hon. Lady was also keen to point out that her constituents are not nimbys and that they understand the pressure caused by housing need. They wish to be part of the process, helping to meet that need and not being left out of decisions being made on their behalf.

The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) rightly pointed out that many areas of the country have a housing crisis, a subject that we all face at our regular advice surgeries, with local people struggling to find somewhere to live that they can afford. All local authorities are trying to deal with such issues, in partnership with some responsible developers, registered social landlords and the business community. However, they all face one problem: no matter how much consultation they undertake and how much excellent work they do locally, it is undervalued and set aside by the process of regional planning, which has been imposed over the top.

I pick up on the hon. Lady’s point that development should allow the green lungs of urban areas to be maintained. We should not go for a policy of continued urban density, as it will change the character of our existing communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) made a similar point in a report that he wrote for the Government. He said that planners ought to consider the broader scale, particularly on development in rural areas, something that I very much support.

The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) spoke of trends coming out of the capital into his part of the south-east. I recall that that included his own political career, given what he said about a certain London borough. We return to the question time and again of how overheated economic development is
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becoming in the south-east. He made some good points about the need to promote economic development in other parts of the country in order to spread the load and, indeed, to allow the benefits of development—there are some—to occur in other parts of the country, where they are crying out for it.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) has over the years consistently spoken about development in Milton Keynes. I once served on Bedford borough council, so I am familiar with some of the problems that he mentioned about the area beside the M1.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh highlighted the overall problem when he listed the communities in his constituency that have raised concerns about how their areas will be affected. That takes us back to the level at which we should deal with planning matters.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) spoke about planning at town or parish level. In my constituency, the parish plan process has been incredibly positive, drawing communities together to meet the needs that they have identified. That overcomes whatever nimby tendency there may be, which sometimes comes from those who have recently moved into an area and like it as it is—unlike local residents, who have been there for longer and have seen the community changing over the years. I have seen some very positive outcomes from parish plans. Communities have come together to make proposals, sometimes even proposing specific sites where they would like to see development.

One of the key elements in our debate on the south-west regional spatial strategy is the question of sequential sites, a scheme under which local communities and local authorities can identify those sites where they would like development to happen first. The problem with inflated housing targets is that it gives developers a blank cheque, allowing them to go to appeal in order to avoid focusing on those sites first, and instead developing sites on which the local community would far rather resist development. That is yet another problem with the process.

The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) pointed out that the Secretary of State has undertaken some vicious pruning of the strategy. She seems to have pruned some of the key provisions that local authorities and their representatives on the regional assemblies sought as guarantees. As I say, we have ended up with a blank cheque for development.

I return to a point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire about the shifting economic sands on which our debate is centred. We have to be honest about where housing development is to happen and how quickly it is to take place, given the economic situation that we face. It is even more important to take advantage of the extra time that we now have in order to get things right on some of those sites. As building may not occur for a considerable time, we should ensure that we do not set down planning and zoning proposals that put the wishes of local communities at risk, as they will hang over their heads and could prevent development in areas that may be more preferable.

My party is increasingly concerned that the planning system is being driven entirely from the centre. Excellent work is being done by local authorities and local communities. They are coming up with sustainable plans
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that meet the needs of the community, that acknowledge the fact that there may be inward migration in some of these areas as well as a need to look after local people, and that consider the benefits to the local economy and the importance of securing employment land as well as residential land. All that good work is being set aside by centrally imposed targets based on models that must now be re-evaluated.

The Liberal Democrats would far rather see a planning system that is flexible enough to deal with the economic circumstances, and one that is far more accountable to local people. We want a planning system that creates communities, meets local need, and is sustainable for new and existing residents alike.

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