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22 Oct 2008 : Column 87WH—continued

10.36 am

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing the debate. As we heard from the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), this is not the first such debate, and I suspect that it will not be the last. However, this debate is different from the first. The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) has broadly supported the Government, although with some serious questions being raised. I seem to remember that during the last debate three Government supporters savagely attacked the south-west plan. That indicates the sheer depth of concern about this top-down planning target.

I welcome the Minister to what must, for him, be quite an uncomfortable experience. I hope that he has enjoyed hearing of the difficulties that those who represent the residents of south-east England have experienced with the top-down approach.

I have to record the fact that my husband is leader of East Sussex county council and deputy chairman of the South East England Development Agency, and I am therefore deemed to have an interest in the subject. However, I have an interest in the subject in more ways than one, and I am familiar with a number of the broad issues that affect the south-east.

This is a timely debate—I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford on that—as the consultation closes on Friday. I have a deep scepticism that despite all the hard work that my hon. Friends, colleagues and constituents have put into the consultation, it will be ignored in much the same way as the original proposals were ignored.

My hon. Friend also referred to a serious concern in the south-east—the difficulty with water resources. That is a minor part of the infrastructure, but it has been referred to by practically every Member in the Chamber. I do not think I am wrong, but doubtless I will be corrected if I am—I clearly have not been properly briefed—but I believe that the South East England Development Agency estimates that the value of infrastructure requirements is to the tune of some £25 billion. Given economic circumstances, one is slightly concerned about where that money is likely to be found. The only developers that one can see on the horizon are the housing associations.

Mr. Lancaster: My hon. Friend may be aware that the Government have introduced the Milton Keynes tariff, under which some £18,500 per dwelling built went towards
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the local infrastructure. The tariff makes only a small contribution, but given the economic downturn and the lack of houses being built, has it not proved to be rather short-sighted?

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was going to speak about the impact of the Milton Keynes tax, which has emerged through the Planning Bill as the community infrastructure levy. Can the Minister confirm the rumour that the Government are thinking of imposing the community infrastructure levy at the rate of 25 per cent? If 25 per cent. is added to the cost of every house, it will consume the profitability of any developer.

Obvious consequences will flow from having a levy at that level. Perhaps then we will be able to work out whether the Government’s imposed target of extra housing in the south-east can even come close to being reached. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) will recognise that £18,500 is not 25 per cent. of the cost of most houses—it is considerably less.

My hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and for Guildford raised the issue of windfall housing. I am familiar with it from London suburbs such as Beckenham, because that is precisely how development has been carried out there. In my constituency, as well as in others in the south-east, concerns have been expressed that the nature and character of our communities are being changed, without the local community having a say. Although windfall development is useful and acceptable in many cases, for it not to be included in the housing numbers is disgraceful and typical of the Government’s top-down approach.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes, with whom I completely agree about the Milton Keynes roof tax, indicated the number of houses that Milton Keynes might have to deal with. I wonder whether that is part of the argument for imposing the community infrastructure levy on infrastructure developments that have nothing to do with the local community. The famous junction on the M1 that is required to make Milton Keynes more viable is not directly related to the community infrastructure levy as it is perceived by local people.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) rightly talked about environmental sustainability and the strategic gaps. None of us would argue with that—maintaining sustainability in the south-east is already difficult, given the pressures. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) noted how the top-down approach to planning undermines local democracy. Councillors feel that they have no power and wonder why they were elected. Local people often wonder why they go out to vote for local councillors who can make no difference whatever and are being instructed from the top.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) brought us to the nub of the problem—the issue of heroic assumptions. I suspect that the Government approach has been made on super-heroic, superman-type assumptions. Those of us who lived through the time in office of the then Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), remember that we sought to abandon predict and provide. Quite
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rightly, my right hon. Friend returned us to the reality of predict and provide, and the difficulty that flows from it.

This debate and the previous one highlight the centralising nature of current planning and the fact that we are told what we must do. Local communities are not involved, and do not believe that they are involved, in planning for their future and community. The challenge to the regional spatial strategies could, in our view, lead to civic discontent that is dangerous for the body politic. Not only Conservative and Liberal Members and our constituents object. Significant comments have been made by members of the Labour party. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), said:

The south-east, south-west and, I am sure, other regions will echo those views.

Mr. Andrew Smith: Does the hon. Lady agree that those who think that it is easy to shift economic development from the south to other regions also have a touch of Soviet-style planning about them?

Mrs. Lait: The right hon. Gentleman cannot—in any way, shape or form—accuse me of thinking that that is easy. I lived through the first experiment in regional policy—the building of a car factory at Linwood, just outside Glasgow. Indeed, the Labour council in Glasgow built delightful housing schemes, as they are called in Scotland, such as Easterhouse and similar places, which are now mostly leaving us, 50 or 60 years on, with social problems that are still unsolved. The right hon. Gentleman’s approach is not very sensible.

Sir Paul Beresford: The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) fails to understand that persuasion and co-operation with the local planning authority are what works, rather than what I think is fascist dictation. That point is recognised by my hon. Friend, who was a planning Minister before me.

Mrs. Lait: That is the point exactly and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for picking me up on it. Unless local people feel in control, they will resist. This system of top-down centralised planning ensures automatic resistance. It undermines the role of the local authorities and leaves local communities feeling helpless. We plan to deal with the matter in a completely different way and I reassure my hon. Friends that we will abolish regional spatial strategies. We will give back to local people and local authorities the power over their own future.

The point has been made repeatedly: local people know what they can provide and what they need. Indeed, they agreed with the total of 27,000 houses in the south-east plan. They are willing to do that, but the Government, who think that they know better, say, “I am from the Government and I am here to help.” We all know the implications, including our constituents.

We must get rid of the regional spatial strategy. We must work with local people and give authority back to local authorities. That is the only way that we can meet what is an acknowledged need for more housing.

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10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I am in danger of having the least amount of time in which to respond to the various excellent points that have been raised. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) and all colleagues for the restraint, vis- -vis time, with which they have spoken.

The hon. Lady and I joked before the start of the debate that she could have spoken for an hour on this important issue, and I do not doubt that other hon. Members could also have done so. The fact that they curtailed their remarks demonstrates huge discipline. I recognise the passion with which many colleagues and hon. Friends have spoken, particularly when raising the concerns of their constituents, and I am grateful for the brevity of their comments.

A number of issues were raised, and I shall try in the next 11 minutes to gallop through them and deal with as many as I can. In summary, the issues were the number of houses proposed; the implications for the green belt; whether there will be sufficient social, physical and other infrastructure to support the required growth; and the consultation process. Before responding, right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, as people in the Public Gallery will need to be, that I am unable to comment on, for example, individual proposals for housing, given that the consultation process is under way and the roles that the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State play in the planning process. However, I will try to address as many of the general points as I can.

In response to the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), comments made today will be taken as responses to the consultation—I have sought assurances on that—and the Government will consider all responses. On housing numbers, the hon. Member for Guildford and others were concerned about the proposed house build in their constituencies but said less about how best to ensure—I paraphrase—that our children will have homes to live in with their families in future. I know that those comments were made not because those Members and their constituents are nimbys, but out of recognition of the necessity to balance the need for housing and respect for local areas.

That said, we need to put things in context by saying what has happened in recent times. The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) referred to his association with my constituency. As a former leader of the local council, he will be aware that thousands and thousands of houses were sold over the past 30 years and that there was a lack of house building in the period. Those things led to some of the crises in the area and elsewhere in the country. I am grateful to him for providing me with the opportunity to put that on record.

During the past 30 years, under both Conservative and Labour Governments, there has been a nationwide 30 per cent. increase in the number of households and a 50 per cent. drop in new house building. In the south-east, the average age of a first-time buyer is now 33, more than 200,000 households are on council waiting lists and more than 7,500 homeless households live in temporary accommodation. The latest regional household projections—the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait)
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referred to these as super-heroic presumptions—forecast that 35,850 new households will be required in the next 20 years. The proposed number of dwellings in the panel’s recommendations was 32,000, but the increase to 33,125 is 4 per cent. higher.

We face a gap between growing demand and constrained supply, which we all recognise. I am sure that we have all met people in our surgeries—whether in Tooting, Beckenham, Hampshire or Milton Keynes—who are unable to have a house near to where mums, dads, brothers or sisters live. The pressures in Surrey are no different from those in other places. The Government acknowledge the pressures in south-east and from 2006 to 2008 have spent £700 million on increased affordable housing in the region. More importantly, in the next period, between 2008 and 2011, that will increase to £1.24 billion.

To suggest that we do not recognise the problems in the south-east is, I believe, slightly unfair, but the challenge for the future is to balance the interests of the current generation with those of future generations who will need homes. The Government are worried that the concerns of future generations could be drowned out by those of present generations, whether at local, regional or national level. That is the balance that needs to be struck.

The green belt remains an important part of national policy and the Government continue to place great importance on the correct application of the long-standing policy of planning policy guidance note 2. Opposition Members criticised the travesty of the Government building on the green belt, but it is worth allowing the facts to cover some of that rhetoric. The amount of green belt has increased by 33,000 hectares since 1997 and now accounts for around 13 per cent. of England’s land mass. It is not true that green belts are being built on around the country, as we can see from those national figures. There is nothing stopping me today confirming that the Secretary of State has proposed to accept all the panel’s key green belt recommendations. I am sure that colleagues who are interested in green belt will be pleased to hear that.

The Secretary of State has considered the proposed changes. The problem is protecting the general extent of the green belt in the south-east. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes made a huge issue of the green belt, but he may have meant green fields, which are slightly different. I cannot comment on those points for obvious reasons, but, generally, it is a matter of striking the right balance between the continued application of the green belt policy, the ability of planning authorities to address local issues and the need to create and maintain a network of sustainable communities. The Secretary of State and the Department will welcome comments from all quarters on whether specific place references in the final south-east plan would help to provide more certainty.

I would like to be clear on one more thing on the green belt. Local authorities, as part of their responsibility to current and future generations, must make the difficult decisions about the most sustainable locations for the growth and development that we need, and then plan
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for their delivery. Once again, it is not fair to suggest that the Secretary of State is ignoring local authority proposals.

Colleagues talked about infrastructure and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) spent a great deal of his short contribution dealing with social infrastructure. We hear many stories about Government spending in the south-east and the fear of what happens if infrastructure is not in place—the “i before e” problem, meaning infrastructure before expansion. The Government recognise that infrastructure is not only about transport; it is also about health, education, energy supply, waste disposal, cultural and leisure facilities, and green spaces.

Once again, I want to put facts before the rhetoric. As I said, £1.24 billion has been devoted to securing affordable housing in the south-east. Public expenditure on transport in the region in the five years to 2007-08 increased from £1.9 billion to £2.3 billion—[Interruption.] I hear someone ask from a sedentary position what this has to do with infrastructure or transport. That point has been made.

Mrs. Lait: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Khan: The hon. Lady had 13 minutes to speak, and I have nine, but of course I will give way.

Mrs. Lait: I am not going to argue about the fact that the Minister has 12 minutes in which to make his speech. Future infrastructure costs are estimated to be £25 billion, not the paucity represented by the £1 billion-plus on public transport, which has already been spent.

Mr. Khan: I am disappointed that the hon. Lady calls £1.24 billion “paucity”. Someone said that infrastructure should come before expansion, and my point is that we have invested in infrastructure, and now we have expansion. I am disappointed that she belittles £1.24 billion.

Anne Milton: The Minister continues to say that he recognises this and that, and keeps telling us what the Government have done, but he is not listening to the people of the south-east, particularly Guildford. He stands there saying that it is unfair of us not to recognise what the Government are doing, but he should pay attention and listen to the people in my area.

Mr. Khan: I am disappointed with that comment. The hon. Lady will be aware that I cannot comment on the individual plans. Had she listened to what I said six minutes ago, she would have known that I can speak today only in generalities. She will be aware of the legal reasons for which I cannot go into specifics. The Government are listening and she should note that we have received 500 e-mails, 3,000 letters and 1,300 comments online so far. We take on board what is said in the debate.

I wish to give a final plug for the consultation, which ends at 5 pm this Friday. We are listening. I encourage all those watching the debate, and those who will read about it in their local papers or hear it on local radio, to continue to respond. People have until 5 pm on Friday to make their views known to the consultation, and we will listen.

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Libyan State-sponsored Terrorism

11 am

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): It is a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess. I am grateful to have the opportunity to debate this important subject.

State-sponsored terrorism has been and remains one of the most alarming trends in international terrorism. It is not a new phenomenon. On 11 September 2001, the western world experienced the nightmare of international terrorism on a scale that had never been seen before. Unfortunately, such action was not a new phenomenon. For many decades, Ulster has suffered from the appalling consequences of IRA terrorism, which has been heavily funded and sponsored by rogue states, such as Libya. Fuelled by a hatred of all things British, Colonel Gaddafi supplied the Provisional IRA with weapons and cash for many years.

One of the most lethal weapons in the IRA arsenal was the deadly Semtex explosive, which made one of its first appearances in Enniskillen in that deadly and tragic bombing in November 1987. For decades, it has been used to bomb towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland. It was used to tear out the heart of the City of London and it left a trail of death and destruction in Omagh in 1998.

As a result of Libya’s prolonged and persistent support for the IRA, many innocent men, women and children are dead, and their relatives physically and psychologically scarred. While we are living in more peaceful times in Northern Ireland today—and we are all grateful for that—the scars of the victims will never heal, and the victims must never be forgotten. We are faced with the threat from Islamic terrorism. The western powers have worked towards the restoration of diplomatic relations with Libya and towards bringing Colonel Gaddafi and his regime in from the cold.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree with me that this is a matter of concern to many people and not just those in Northern Ireland? Libyan-donated Semtex explosives were used in bombs at Bishopsgate, Canary Wharf and Manchester, and in other cities in Great Britain. The Government have an obligation not just to Northern Ireland but to citizens throughout the United Kingdom who were the victims of IRA violence as a result of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism.

Mr. Dodds: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He makes an extremely valid and important point. Last week, he helped to organise a visit to this place for victims and the relatives of those who were injured and killed in incidents across the United Kingdom. I know that other hon. Members here have had constituents killed in incidents in which Libyan-supplied Semtex was used. The matter affects not just Northern Ireland, but many people right across the United Kingdom. It is a United Kingdom issue.

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