Previous Section Index Home Page

4 Feb 2009 : Column 248WH—continued

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on securing this debate. As has been said throughout the debate, my hon. Friend is a huge champion of the whole idea of housing and her report is excellent. I like the concept of housing for the benefit of the whole community and she has been a strong champion of community land trusts for some time now. She has rightly and successfully held the Government to account on the matter of community land trusts, particularly on the definition of them. Let me spoil the consensual
4 Feb 2009 : Column 249WH
cross-party thing that we have had throughout this debate by saying that it is thanks to her efforts and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that we were able to accept an amendment to the Housing and Regeneration Bill on the definition of CLTs.

This has been a professional, high-calibre debate, reflecting the importance of the concept of CLTs. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton mentioned that there is a growing interest in the potential for CLTs. I agree. She beat me to it in saying that the time has come for CLTs—I had already written that phrase down—but, again, I believe passionately in them and agree strongly with her about that.

Let me declare an interest at this point. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has already mentioned it, but hon. Members will be aware of the 14 CLT pilot areas—seven in urban areas and seven in rural areas—which the university of Salford is helping to run. Hartlepool, my constituency, is the location for one of the seven urban area pilots. Progress has been slow so far, but I take a strong interest in the concept of CLTs, particularly because I have a constituency as well as a ministerial interest.

We in the Government feel strongly about putting power back in the hands of communities. That theme is repeated across the range of public services, with a stronger voice and more direct involvement for people throughout the health and education sectors and local democracy, so services improve and quality is raised. There is no reason why we cannot do the same thing in respect of housing and planning. At the same time, we know that the lack of affordable housing is a major concern for people throughout the country. One of the strong themes of the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton is the need for affordable housing. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) has also produced a strong report that we will respond to shortly.

Yesterday in the Department, we had a presentation on the affordability of housing. We saw a map of the country showing the pressures on affordability, and the least affordable places to live were represented in red. As hon. Members would expect, London was bright red. However, I was struck by the fact, which will be of interest to the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell and to my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and for Stroud, that the south-west was burning red. In both the urban and the rural areas of the south-west, there is a real affordability issue. We should ensure that we build more houses to a model that helps to provide them in perpetuity. How to provide affordable housing for today’s generation and the next generation is a long-term concern for all hon. Members.

The Government are keen to back the aspirations of people who want the chance to own a home of their own. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell is strong on that in his report and in his comments in this debate. Future household growth projections, the fact that we have an ageing population and the current short-term difficulties with regard to the global economy underline the need for us to go further and faster to help more people to realise their aspiration for affordable housing. That was a strong theme in the debate.

We are doing our bit. The Government are investing £8 billion in affordable housing—for both social rent and low-cost home ownership—through the new
4 Feb 2009 : Column 250WH
Homes and Communities Agency throughout the next comprehensive spending review period. That represents a £3 billion increase compared with the previous three years. We have never seen in this country the investment in housing that we will see in the next three years.

Grant Shapps: It has not been spent.

Mr. Wright: That is simply not true. We have responded quickly and decisively to the current economic difficulties. We have brought forward future years’ spending—about £550 million—for the HCA precisely to allow housing associations and RSLs to bring forward spend, not only to help to ensure that we have affordable housing for our people, but to ensure that we can stimulate economic activity and help the construction industry at what everyone acknowledges is an extraordinarily difficult time.

Grant Shapps: I do not want to lead the debate off the subject, but I want to get to the facts. I met Sir Bob Kerslake just before Christmas and he made it clear that although money has been allocated, only about £600 million of the budget has been spent to date.

Mr. Wright: To be fair, this is something that we look at closely with Sir Bob and the HCA and, in the two months that the HCA has been up and running, to be able to spend £600 million is not a bad state of affairs. We consider this issue very closely. It is extraordinarily important. We need to ensure that we have the homes that this country needs. I have already mentioned the affordability issues. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell was right when he mentioned the evaporation of lending capability, which is putting acute affordability pressures on young families. We need to ensure that we build the homes that people need and that we stimulate the construction industry to help to do that.

The market is struggling, leading to sharp falls in house prices, and developers are finding it harder to sell new homes. That is why we have brought forward money to allow the HCA to go to RSLs and councils to buy unbought stock from private developers. In central Government, our focus is on proactively responding and intervening to address those difficulties, helping to restore stability by rebuilding confidence and reassuring consumers that there is practical support where that is needed. The Government have a key role to play and we have stepped up to the plate to help to achieve what I have set out.

Mr. Drew: Unsurprisingly, I shall return to the value-for-money calculations. I would be happy for this to take place outside the orbit of this discussion, but it would be useful for the Government to examine value for money, to help the HCA, and then to come back and discuss it with those of us who are trying to move things forward, because that is the crux of the problem that some of us are facing at the moment.

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend mentioned value for money during his excellent speech. It is an important point. I will spend some time talking about the role of the HCA, because that is important, but I want to respond to that intervention in two ways. First, I recognise the point about value for money. Community land trusts can provide additional albeit somewhat intangible
4 Feb 2009 : Column 251WH
benefits, whether that relates to community cohesion, building capacity in the community or strengthening the sense of ownership. During the passage of the Bill that became the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and I debated at length how land can be sold for less than market value for a wider social good. That is an important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton mentioned the consultation exercise on CLTs that I launched in October. That closed on 31 December. A key issue that we were considering in the consultation was how to get the concept of value for money into this process—how we can assess value for money when considering community-led development. Again, that is an important point.

Secondly, given the economic difficulties that we face, the evaporation of mortgages and the business model for RSLs being inappropriate in the current market with regard to private money helping to fund socially rented stock, we have to be as flexible as possible. That is the key point and I think that it is what Sir Bob Kerslake would champion. The HCA has to be as flexible as possible in responding to the current difficulties.

I have mentioned the role that central Government have to play, but I return time and again—this point was reiterated throughout the debate—to the power of the community itself. In my experience and, I know, in the experience of hon. Members on both sides of the House, there are few problems that communities cannot solve for themselves. If their talent and ingenuity are unlocked, they can work wonders. Change goes deeper when people have ownership and can take control of things themselves, rather than having them imposed on them. I strongly oppose the idea of public services being provided at people, rather than for people and with people. That is a disgrace. Working together and shaping public services according to specific local needs is the way we need to go.

It is in the context of community empowerment with regard to housing—including long-term concerns about affordable housing, about the evaporation of mortgages and about how our children and grandchildren will get on to the property ladder—that CLTs can play a key role. That is why I and a number of other hon. Members have said that their time has come. CLTs are about engaging, galvanising and mobilising the community. They are about bringing communities together to improve the quality of their local environment, the services that they receive and the facilities available to them.

The Government’s firm aim is to see CLTs that are well managed and have the capacity to take on development. I am mindful of points raised in the debate about support and training for communities. The point has been made that a bottom-up approach is not sufficient; people need professional help in this regard. We recognise that and, in response, have commissioned research to review the availability of and access to technical expertise and information for community organisations to enable
4 Feb 2009 : Column 252WH
them successfully to manage their own assets. Community transfer of assets, community ownership and how those things are achieved on the ground practically and technically are important points.

Matthew Taylor: I am sure that the Minister is right on that, but I think that he will also accept that, if the planning officers see themselves as gamekeepers whose job is to say no to much of this development, to apply very strict criteria or to say that a community is already unsustainable, and they will not allow anything to happen there, what ought to be quite quick and simple loses its certainty and gets bogged down in ridiculous planning arguments. That is the experience of community groups. Even when communities start in favour, they too often run into a brick wall. We need to move from these schemes being seen as exceptional to their being seen as what people do in the community.

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I would certainly be against the “Computer says no” philosophy and in favour of the idea that people should be helping to enable and facilitate. Central Government have a role to play in that in providing resources, but local agencies also have a role. A strength of the HCA is the can-do attitude stemming from Sir Bob Kerslake downwards. That is about saying, “How can we help you in your local community? How can we ensure that you have the tools to do the job and realise your ambition on the ground?”

Linda Gilroy: Will the Minister be sure to let us know when we can expect to hear the response to the CLT consultation?

Mr. Wright: I will get that on the record now because I know it concerns my hon. Friend. As I said, we launched the consultation in October and it ended on 31 December. We received 63 responses—very in-depth, professional, high-quality responses, including one from my hon. Friend. I am currently reviewing and assessing those and I hope to be able to respond fairly shortly.

Grant Shapps: When?

Mr. Wright: I am not able to give a firm date. I am sorry to disappoint hon. Members on that. I am keen to do the work as quickly, but as thoroughly as I can, taking the whole House with me to ensure that we have cross-party support.

It is a disappointment that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) did not have the courtesy to stay for the winding-up speeches, because he made a very perceptive and intelligent point about development often being seen as negative when it should be seen as positive, as something that helps a community to realise its ambitions and aspirations. I do not want that nimby attitude to exist in planning and development. I want development to be seen as a positive thing that helps to engage people. Community land trusts can be a vehicle to achieve that and, with cross-party support, we can move from talking to delivery and action.

4 Feb 2009 : Column 253WH

Global Population Growth

11 am

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Illsley, and I know that as usual you will be firm but fair in chairing the proceedings. It is also a pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), in his place to respond to the debate. I have followed his career with great pride and joy and am pleased that he has been so successful. I wish him well in his new job in Government, which is an exciting but difficult one.

The local council in Stafford is today unveiling its proposals for a consultation on its next local development framework. The Conservative-controlled Stafford borough council will be explaining why it has agreed to a Labour Government plan for a growth point at Stafford, because it has agreed to take 20 per cent. more new housing over the next 20 years than it would have had to take under a normal calculation. I am sure that there will be great controversy locally about why we must have all that house building in Stafford in the next 20 years. When people such as myself explain that it is because of the growing population and the need for housing, people ask me where that growing population comes from and why we have to have it.

There are many explanations of our need for more housing, but much of that need relates to demographic change and not necessarily to immigration change. Those questions illustrate on a small scale in one place in this country the population growth going on around the world, which should concern people but does not get the airing and debate that it should receive.

After I secured the debate, I suddenly started to see the topic attracting comment and attention in the media. Last week, George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian about population growth being a serious concern, and argued that we should blame not the poor for having children, but the rich for hogging more than their fair share of the world’s resources. This week Sir Jonathon Porritt was reported in the Telegraph headlines for saying that there should be a two-child limit in future on the size of families. He referred to irresponsible parents who have more than two children and green campaigners who betray their membership by not debating that important issue. I would very much like to dissociate myself from his comments, particularly as I am one of four boys born to my very successful mother and father, who are both sadly dead. My approach is different, and I would like to explain it this morning.

It is important that we focus on the part that population growth will play as a more general issue in sustainable development. The population of this country has now passed 60 million and is forecast to reach 77 million by the middle of the century. The world’s population has passed 6 billion and is forecast to reach 9 billion over the same time scale. That would mean an increase in the world’s population of 6 million every month, which is a staggering statistic.

I am drawn to the debate on population because of my initial concerns for the environment and the urgency of our task to combat climate change. The Climate Change Act 2008 was a world first in setting a binding target for cutting carbon emissions by at least 80 per cent. by 2050. I took part in the debates as we crafted
4 Feb 2009 : Column 254WH
that Act. We of course have to mitigate by reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases and adapt by preparing for rising sea levels, warmer summers, wetter winters and more unpredictable weather events, but as I asked on Second Reading, where is the discussion about the effect on all our plans of the level of population we will be working with?

My approach is very different from that of Sir Jonathon Porritt. I do not think that society should interfere in the free choices people make about having children, and I want the world community to discuss all aspects of sustainable development, including population size. In this debate, I want to focus on two points that arise as a result of a growing population. First, given that there will be a larger population in the future, how can we manage the world’s resources to meet their needs? Secondly, can we agree that, on balance, the world will be a safer place if we can stabilise the population at a lower level than currently forecast, and if so, what can we do to achieve that stability?

I will look first at the resources for a larger world population. Currently, over 1 billion people—about one sixth of the population—live on an income lower than $1 a day. The balance between those living rural or urban lives shifted last year: for the first time, more of us are urban dwellers. As the population grows and land use continues to shift towards urban living, we will need smarter ways of providing water for drinking, washing and irrigation and of farming to produce enough food for everyone. As we know from our plans in the UK for cutting carbon emissions, we will have to replace much of our carbon-based energy with renewable sources.

I shall now discuss the implications for water. One in three people in the world already face water shortages, and there are significant areas of water stress now. The Pentagon produced a risk assessment a while ago that identified competition for limited water supplies as potentially a major cause of future conflicts, and we can anticipate migration away from areas of water shortage. Also, we can see that rising sea levels will create too much water in some areas, which will cause flooding, wash away people’s homes and again trigger migration. The forecast rise in global population means that, by 2030, we can expect demand for water to be 30 per cent. higher than today. In some developing countries, as much as 70 per cent. of fresh water is currently used for agriculture, so we simply have to focus agricultural research and development on global public goods such as developments to support sustainable water and land use, and that brings me to food.

We saw last year that prices rise when food is scarce, often beyond the reach of local people, and we witnessed serious riots around the world due to food shortages and unaffordable prices. It was certainly a wake-up call for the international community and our own Government and food producers that food security is even more basic than energy security. The forecast rise in the global population means that demand for food is expected to rise by 50 per cent. by 2030, so we need the agricultural research and development I have mentioned to stimulate agricultural production in all parts of the world. It is a big ask: more food from less land. There will be less land because of the urbanisation I have described. At home and abroad, it is essential that our Government promote long-term investment in research, science and technology to support farmers everywhere.

Next Section Index Home Page