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5.43 pm

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

It is a pleasure to see Opposition Front Benchers back in their places for the debates on the Bill as it moves into its final stages. We are missing the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), who is at home after the birth of his third child. He is hardly old enough to have three children, but we wish him well—I understand that all is well.

Their Lordships have sent us an amendment to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to ensure that those who exercise planning functions have special regard to the preservation of gardens, groups of gardens or urban green spaces. I hope that I can explain to the House not only why the amendment should be rejected, but the steps that we propose to take to ensure that we examine properly the concerns that have been raised.

As my noble Friend Baroness Andrews said in the other place last week, and as was pointed out when this House debated the issue a couple of years ago, both on an Opposition motion and in relation to a Bill that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) introduced—it is good to see her in her place, as she has long had an interest in such issues—local authorities can already set out strong and specific local policies in their local development frameworks to protect gardens in particular areas, if that is desirable and appropriate. In our planning policy statement 3, on housing, which was published in November 2006, we strengthened local authorities’ hand in doing just that.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

John Healey: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was in his normal place on the Front Bench, but should be delighted to give way to him now that he has moved to the Back Benches.

Michael Fabricant: I am interested in what the Minister said about the regulations already being in place. When there are instances of garden grabbing in my constituency, Lichfield district council says that they are out of its hands. The council says that it is directed by regional policy and national policy guidance and has no choice but to allow gardens to be used for building, because they are regarded as brownfield sites. Is the Minister saying that the council and, more importantly, the National Association of Local Councils are wrong on that point?

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John Healey: I was in the middle of saying that if the hon. Gentleman encourages his local authority to look hard at PPS3—indeed, he might want to ask why the council has not seen it before—it will see that it can set individual brownfield targets that apply only to back gardens, effectively separating them from other derelict land and other forms of brownfield and vacant sites.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): The Minister is being characteristically generous in giving way again. Notwithstanding PPS3 guidance, does he not acknowledge that many councils, including Castle Point, have given away far too many gardens in the dash for flats? We are seeing massive flat developments being built without any garden space at all, but these turn out to be unsaleable in the end, thereby destroying our urban communities.

John Healey: I do not know in detail what the hon. Gentleman’s council in Castle Point has done, and cannot speak for it. However, he might want to ask his local authority why it is not taking full advantage of the planning system, as some are, by making back gardens a special feature of its policy, as part of its ability to make finely graded distinctions in the general category of brownfield land.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): In case the planners in west Berkshire are watching this, let me give vent to their feelings by asking the Minister this. If the planners refuse applications, as they frequently do, to build high-density units on gardens when such developments would be inappropriate in certain areas, they are then overrruled on appeal, with the inspector citing national policy. That is the problem right up and down the country. Is the Minister saying that I, the planners in west Berkshire and everybody who is experiencing that are wrong?

John Healey: No, I am not. However, if councils use the scope of their existing powers to make it clear in their planning and housing objectives that back gardens should be treated in a particular way, they should expect their approach to command support should an appeal arise. The starting point is the extent to which local authorities choose to use the scope of the powers that are currently available to them.

If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the situation in West Berkshire, perhaps he should have a word with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who leads the Conservative Front-Bench team, because Brentwood’s local plan is one of the best examples of a local authority taking advantage of the provisions and scope of the PPS3. It has specific policies that reflect local circumstances, such as that any new development should reflect the character and density of the surrounding area and should have minimum net plot sizes and minimum building-line frontages. So a council that recognises what it can do has set its policy framework accordingly. If concerns of this nature arise in that area, it should be able to deal with them much more effectively than other local authorities. The hon. Gentleman might suggest that West Berkshire take a leaf out of Brentwood council’s book.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): My council has been attempting to strengthen its language under the unitary development plan. Is the Minister aware
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that it has been told that the language is already as strong as it could possibly be, and that if it does anything more it will be overturned by the inspectorate, and the UDP will have to be revised? None of that has stopped developers running a guerrilla war, constantly attempting to buy every house with a sizeable garden in order to put massive and complex developments on them. Applications are often turned down on appeal, but developers will persist three, four or five times until the wretched developments eventually go through.

John Healey: I have no idea what the precise wording of the hon. Lady’s local planning policy framework is, and she has not quoted it, so I cannot give her a judgment on that. However, in a moment I shall come to the question in my mind about the nature of the evidence supporting the sort of concern that she has expressed. She has given an anecdotal example of a problem that she sees in her area. Let me make a little progress, and if she wants to come back to this point, I shall give way again.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): On PPS3, does the Minister accept that it might be appropriate for councils to take case-by-case decisions on gardens, rather than to have blanket policies that cover the whole borough? Not every garden needs to be preserved in aspic. It might be appropriate to consider each application on its merits and to make decisions in that way. Nothing that the Minister has said allays our concerns as to whether any council that tried to do that would have its decisions overturned on appeal.

John Healey: The principle and practice of the planning system are that each application is considered on its merits in the context and framework of planning policies set by the planning authority. Those policies are produced within the context of guidance that we give from the centre. There is already considerable scope within the system for local planning authorities to equip themselves, as part of their ambition in their planning policies, to deal with any concern about garden grabbing in their area, but most authorities are not fully using that scope. Local authorities have the power to turn down applications for inappropriate housing in back gardens. Provided that the supply of land is maintained and the proposed development is in line with a council’s planning for housing objectives, it can resist garden development and can expect support on appeal.

Let me return to the issue of evidence. Unless the House hears this afternoon about fresh evidence that I have not come across, there is no clear evidence of a problem that needs the proposed solution. In the other place, the Opposition spokesperson talked about a survey of six local authorities, and I have tried hard to find details of that survey. I am not sure whether it has been published, but if it has, I have not been able to get a copy of it. On the basis of that survey, it has been said that 72 per cent. of all brownfield site development has been on back gardens, but that figure is way out of line with our published, comprehensive and publicly scrutinised figures for that sort of development. Our published figures on the amount of development on previously developed land show that the percentage of all new housing built on back gardens across England is not 72 per cent. but just under 27 per cent. There is huge inconsistency between those figures, but I have been unable to take a close look at the results of that small survey, because I cannot find a published copy of it.

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Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): One half of the amendment puts forward proposals to define green space as being separate from other brownfield land. Would that classification not make it easier to assess the amount of development on gardens and elsewhere?

John Healey: But does the hon. Lady not accept the general proposition that legislation should be based on good policy, which, in turn, needs to be based on sound evidence? At the moment, that evidence is not clear, so the case for a change in policy, let alone a change in legislation, has not been established.

Greg Clark: Will the Minister help us with the evidence that he mentions? He will understand that, within regional and national totals, different authorities will be higher or lower than the average. In the past three years, I have tabled parliamentary questions asking for specific figures for each local authority for the previous year. In the first two years, my questions were answered, but this year his Department has declined to give me that information because it said that it would be misleading. Will he put the information in the Library so that we can have a consistent series of answers?

John Healey: I suspect that the answers that the hon. Gentleman has received so far have not been in my name, but I shall look into whether there is an inconsistency or concern about data for the most recent year compared with those for the two previous years. Either my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing or I will write to him on that.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I could help regarding the evidence. I am trying to be as helpful as possible to the House, and I do not have a closed mind on this, but the evidence on which to base policy decisions, let alone legislative changes, is not yet clear or available. Early in the new year, we will review the evidence on the extent of development on back gardens in order to establish whether there is a genuine problem. If there is, we will take action to remedy the situation.

Susan Kramer: I thank the Minister for taking the positive approach of reviewing the problem. Will he consider the issues not only at national and regional level but at local level, because constituencies such as mine, where land is very valuable because houses are highly priced, are a particular target of developers? Looking at broad areas of the country, one might not find the problem, but if one looked at the specifics of some of my communities, one would find that developers bid at almost every opportunity when a single house with any reasonable amount of garden is being sold. My great fear is that in the recession, when many people will not have cash but developers will, a set of locusts will be going after all those opportunities.

John Healey: The hon. Lady’s question can be boiled down to asking whether our review will examine the evidence in local authority areas. Yes, of course it will.

I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), because I am concerned that we too often see Tory councils and members of the Conservative party arguing about housing and housing numbers. That leads me to suspect, if I am honest with
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the House, that behind this amendment lies a serious rejection of our obligation to provide new housing for new generations. If the hon. Member for Beckenham can convince the House that that is not the case, I would welcome it, but too often the evidence from her own councils and her own colleagues has been to the contrary.

6 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Before I leave the right hon. Gentleman to the tender mercies of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), can he help me on this matter? Given the Minister’s surprising and uncharacteristic degree of cynicism, how does he square what he said with the statement of his ministerial colleague Baroness Andrews, who said in the other place:

If the Government support the underlying aim, it cannot be logical to suggest that it comes from some motive to prevent excessive development.

John Healey: I think scepticism rather than cynicism is a proper description of my attitude. As I am trying to explain, the Government do not have closed minds on this issue, but we are first looking for firm evidence that there is a problem to which we need a solution in the form of change in policy; and secondly, in the light of what I just said, I am making it clear that we would be prepared to change our policy only if we were convinced that that would not also undermine our objectives on housing.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): On the question of evidence, I welcome the announcement that the Government will review the impact, but will the Minister take important facts into consideration? The 27 per cent. average national figure he cites for building on previously developed land disguises the fact that during the last few years, because of a boom in house prices, there has been a significant increase in the number of houses built. It is a combination not just of the percentage, but of the sheer numbers built on backland. My own local authority has seen a doubling of the number of houses built, as well as an increase in the percentage of building on formerly developed land. Perversely, where gardens exist, that has led to meeting housing targets in areas of high land value ahead of schedule. Solihull metropolitan borough council met its target for 2011 by 2006.

John Healey: The hon. Lady is right, and it is a record that we have been proud of in recent years. From a low in 2001, we have reversed what had been a year-on-year decline in house building for 15 years before that. We are pleased and proud to see more houses built; we need more houses in this country. My response to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) is that if the contribution of development on brownfield sites, which could include back gardens in some areas, is relatively stable, I fail to see the strength of the argument for saying that this is an urgent and pressing problem, particularly in the absence of any firm evidence to the contrary.

Several hon. Members rose

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John Healey: I give way first to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) because he has been in his place from the start of the debate. I will then give way to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who has just arrived. After that, I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell).

Bob Spink: The Minister mentioned housing targets, and I think that he was a little cynical about them. The evidence from my region in the Thames corridor is that there is sufficient brown land—previously developed land—available to meet all the Government’s housing targets, but that it is has not stopped green land in my constituency coming under pressure. The reason for that is that developers can make a lot more money by developing back gardens and green land in my constituency. Will the Minister get the Government to focus on their target of protecting green belt, green land and back gardens by forcing development into the brown land in the Thames corridor?

John Healey: I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point, so I invite him to submit evidence from his local area to the review that, as I have confirmed to the House, will start in the new year. That may or may not help to build up the evidence base on which consideration of any policy change could be considered.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): As we have just heard a pre-Budget report that turned out to be a Budget with an urgent and big tax change, will the Minister give us guidance from the Treasury Bench on how soon we will be able to debate and vote on the huge VAT change? It is very unusual to have a Budget, yet not be able to proceed to a Division on it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I do not see the relevance of that point to the motion before the House.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) none the less raises an important point on which I would like your guidance. We have effectively just had a massive Budget—bigger than many of the real Budgets through which I have sat over the past 25 years, all of which have been followed by five days’ debate. Have you received any indication, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there is to be a change in House business to allow us to debate that Budget, or is democracy at an end in this place?

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I can rule on the point of order, but bearing in mind that this is a time-limited debate, I am not sure that we would be well served by having an extensive series of points of order, which will only take out more of the time available to debate the important matter before the House.

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