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Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I, too, am delighted to make my first contribution in Westminster Hall. I congratulate my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), on securing this important debate. I strongly endorse all the points that he made, although I will not go through them all in the interests of time. However, his point about the Government's interim measure, which other hon. Members have raised, is particularly important. I strongly welcome the letter that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government sent to councils, but there is some doubt about its legal status. I had a conversation with officials in Milton Keynes council, who say that there is legal doubt about the suggestion that the Secretary of State's letter announcing the abolition of regional spatial strategies will be treated as a material consideration at appeal in the courts. In the interim, that is a significant matter, and I would be grateful for the Minister's clarification.
My constituency contains two areas where planning submissions are under way. The concern is that those submissions will be rushed through and imposed before the full change in the law takes place. One of those areas of development is in the south-east of Milton Keynes, around Woburn Sands and the Brickhills. There is great concern locally that a semi-rural area will suddenly be infilled with hundreds or thousands of new houses.
The second area, Salden Chase, is south-west of Milton Keynes, and it will be in the strange situation of being physically part of Milton Keynes-there will be a seamless divide between the town's existing settlements and the new estate-while also being in the neighbouring local authority of Aylesbury Vale. That has met massive local opposition, not only because it would be a huge imposition of housing on the fringes of Milton Keynes, but because the new residents would look to Milton Keynes for services-a hospital and schools, for example-and because there would be a significant impact on the transport infrastructure; yet all the revenue from council tax would accrue to Aylesbury Vale. Milton Keynes would bear most of the cost and receive little of the benefit. I should appreciate some guidance from the Minister about how he envisages cross-border developments being considered once the RSS is abolished.
There is time to pause and think again in Milton Keynes. There are already permissions for some 20,000 new houses and the existing local plan continues to 2011. The argument that suddenly abolishing the RSS will mean that all house building will grind to a halt is false. It is important to pause and think through the future. Hon. Members may not be aware that Milton Keynes has pretty much reached the size planned for it when it was designated a new city in the late 1960s. We have pretty much reached the population of 250,000 that it was designed to have. The existing developments will take us to that level. The question is how we grow from there. I think that there should be a local debate about that, rather than anything being imposed, top-down, from central Government. There is a disconnect in politics. People often feel that developments that will have a significant impact on their quality of life are imposed on them, without their having any say. We need to reinvigorate local democracy by giving people a say not just about the quantity of new development, but in the shaping of the style of developments.
We have talked primarily about housing numbers this afternoon, but I should like more detail about what we intend to do to give people the power to shape the design of communities. Will we, for example, scrap density targets and allow local decisions to be made about how many car parking places there should be and about the style of houses? We have been good at building one and two-bedroom flats in Milton Keynes recently, but there has been a dearth of family-sized accommodation with proper-sized gardens and spaces for children to play in. I want more open source planning-the buzzword-in the shaping of new estates. It is not just the number of houses that is important, but the type of housing.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a strong case. Does he think, as I do, that it might be appropriate for Ministers to give guidance in regulations about allowing local authorities to develop, with housing associations, many more intermediate schemes-not just rental, but do-it-yourself shared ownership and shared equity, when the time comes-so that the 125% subsidy for social housing will not just be about a bog-standard approach but will relate to a variety and plurality of housing tenures?
Iain Stewart: My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of the arguments that is often made for the central imposition of new housing is a reduction, somehow, in the cost, thus making housing more affordable. That is a laudable aim, but it should not be at the expense of local areas, completely transforming them and imposing settlements that are not welcomed by the existing residents. I am very much in favour of a more flexible system of shared ownership than the present one, to allow a greater mix of the equity that people can hold; that should also be transferable, so that they could take it with them on moving, as they move up the ladder and the needs of their family change.
Milton Keynes is at a crossroads and we want the power to shape our own future to be in our hands. That would go a long way towards reinvigorating local democracy. I hope that different parties will put forward different visions of how Milton Keynes could grow, but the critical point is that it should be our decision. We welcome the idea of the power being in our hands.
It is not often in local campaigning that the term "regional spatial strategy" produces any great interest, let alone excitement, but in Winchester the mention of it gets people very excited one way or the other. In the lead up to the general election that was because people knew very well the stance taken by what I hoped would be, and turned out to be, the incoming Government.
Winchester city council put together a good local development framework, engaged in lots of local consultation to do so and produced a core strategy with a step change option for the district. However, that was done in the straitjacket of the south-east plan and the relevant numbers. Local people felt that it was a bit like being told "You can buy a car-any car you like, as long as it's a Ford." With good grace and the best of intentions,
they took part in the consultation. Many thousands of them attended or wrote to take part in the local development framework consultation, and they felt somewhat cheated by the document when it came out. They had had their say; but in the end, 12,500 houses were still imposed on them. That created great ill-feeling, and people were very excited; the abolition of the RS, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) says we must call it, is incredibly welcome in my constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) said that the Government's stated emerging policy was a welcome pause for thought, and it is indeed that in Winchester. The Pickles letter, as it has become known, was the talk of the town at a meeting of the city council planning development control committee that I spoke at a couple of weeks ago. That meeting was held in connection with non-determination of an application by CALA Homes to put 2,000 homes on a greenfield site known as Barton Farm just north of Winchester that is mentioned in the south-east plan. Every speaker mentioned the Pickles letter. The officer recommendation was taken on the basis of that letter; perhaps that suggests how it is being viewed in town halls. As the local MP, I wrapped up the debate, and I am pleased that councillors upheld the officers' recommendation and threw out the application. The problem now is that a planning inquiry is set for early September, to consider CALA's application. There is massive public opposition to the building of 2,000 houses on the site. The Save Barton Farm group, which deserves every credit, has worked tirelessly for years and fought many battles only to be told that it must go back and fight them all again.
I thought that my speech would be brief-it has been-but I should like to ask the Minister some questions. Will the Planning Inspectorate show the deference to the Pickles doctrine that Winchester's PDCC obviously did? The timetable for the legislation is critical, going by what hon. Members have said, and I should welcome the Minister's view about that. What is his advice to the new leader of Winchester city council, who wrote to me recently about the local development framework, explaining that although it is, as I said, a good document, with many good things on affordable housing and sustainability policy, the council cannot progress until it knows whether it has been released from what it considers to be a planning limbo? Will LDFs continue, and if so, in what form? Will the numbers that may be considered as part of the LDF still be based on submissions made by county councils to the original south-east plan discussions?
Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): This is also my first contribution to a Westminster Hall debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) for the opportunity to debate regional spatial strategies and for bringing an issue that is so high on the local agenda to a high place on the Westminster agenda. I, too, shall be brief.
Although I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the abolition of the RSS, we are all aware that that is not the end of the matter. Given the progress that had been made towards the implementation of the
RSS, some people believe that the proposals generated for it should be put into practice, given the absence of anything else. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make it clear today that such thinking is mistaken and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) said, we see representative democracy in action.
I have had the pleasure of making representations to the Minister responsible-the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)-and I have received a personal assurance that the RSS is dead and buried and that councils will be given new guidance shortly on how to proceed. The Government and the people have been extremely clear in wanting a bottom-up approach to housing development. The proposals made by the RSS do not hold any legitimacy for most residents in my constituency of Warwick and Leamington, and I am sure that that is the case for residents in many other constituencies across the country. It is therefore vital that councils across the country offload the dead-weight of the previous planning framework and move towards swift consultation with local people, creating a new, more open and more democratic process of deciding on housing development. That is the only way that we will secure the type of housing that people want and welcome in their communities.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I am extremely grateful to you, Mr Benton, and to colleagues for allowing me a few minutes to speak. I am enormously proud to support a Government who are abolishing the regional spatial strategies. It brings me great pride even to say those words after six years of battling against these things, so I congratulate the Minister. I also congratulate, in the case of Cheltenham, the Leckhampton Green land action group, the Save The Countryside campaign, particularly Kit Braunholtz, Alice Ross, Helen Wells, Gerry Potter and Councillors Klara Sudbury, Steve Jordan and John Webster, and thousands of others throughout Cheltenham, Gloucestershire and the whole south-west, who succeeded in sufficiently bogging down the emerging south-west regional spatial strategy to the point at which it never emerged at all.
This policy of the last Labour Government may once have been well intentioned in an attempt to control the spiralling rise in house prices, but it ended up being undemocratic and profoundly unsustainable, because it delivered targets that were based not even on an absolute number of houses for local people, but on thousands of houses per year being delivered apparently in perpetuity. Presumably, when we reached the end of these strategies in 2026, we would have had further ones that would have had to maintain that rate of supply. The credit crunch in a sense constrained irresponsible lending and helped to deflate house price inflation, but there are a few issues that I hope the Minister will have time to address.
Rightly, colleagues have pointed out the risk of the Planning Inspectorate undermining some Ministers' intentions. In fact, there is one judgment relating to-I hesitate to try to pronounce this-Bata field in East Tilbury, delivered in a letter in the name of the Secretary of State on 21 June, that also seems to undermine Ministers' intentions, although it is in the name of the
Secretary of State, because it cites the unacceptability of development on the green belt, except in exceptional circumstances, and then it gives the exceptional circumstances as the demonstrable shortfall in affordable housing completions and the quality of the design. Those do not sound very exceptional to me. There is a risk that, even in the Department itself, there are still people who have not quite grasped the new situation. I hope that the Minister has time to address that.
Annette Brooke: I am sure that my hon. Friend will have heard me say this before, but in my constituency, a further 1,700 houses were imposed at the examination in public. They were opposed by every democratically elected person, but I am convinced that, if our Government had not taken the measure that they have taken, that extremely undemocratic decision would have been forced through. That gives the message to the Minister and everyone else that we must all take on the new values of the coalition.
The final issue is the possibility that some areas of market housing will be constrained, and we have traditionally delivered some affordable and even social housing on the back of market housing, so it is very important that the Department addresses the need especially for social housing for rent. Will the Minister examine some of the issues, including the use of income from rent more flexibly by arm's length management organisations such as Cheltenham Borough Homes, to allow the building and buying of more new council housing for rent? That is one of the things that might help to address some of the possible criticisms of the abolition of regional spatial strategies-I am anticipating somewhat the words of the Labour spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey)-even though they were based on utterly unsustainable levels of economic growth, not on genuinely identified housing need at all.
John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr Benton. May I say how much I enjoyed the debates that you chaired in the previous Parliament and how much I look forward to such debates in this one? I congratulate the Minister on achieving his place on the Front Bench. I must say that I felt a little frisson as hon. Members said, "I look to the Minister for answers on these questions," or, "I look forward to the Minister's response on this," and then realised that it was not me this time but him.
I particularly congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) on introducing the debate in a very measured and well-informed way. As he said, the answers from the Minister are more important than the questions, so I intend to give the Minister as much time as possible to answer the questions that hon. Members have asked. I have five questions for him to answer, however.
The hon. Members for Milton Keynes North and for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) both argued, rightly, that Milton Keynes is a town that has always been committed to growth and has always seen growth as
part of its future, so the arguments that they make on behalf of their town, just like those of their predecessors-particularly the predecessor of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South, who was a very distinguished Member of the House-carry a lot of weight.
I have been very impressed by the quality of this afternoon's debate. Most of the contributions have been measured and incisive, and there have been many of them. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) talked about the Yorkshire and Humber regional plan. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) talked about the importance of building in all areas of the country, particularly if we are concerned about the opportunities for first-time buyers and young families to get a start in life in their own area. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) talked about incentives, while the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) talked about energy efficiency and asked questions about it. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes South is concerned about design standards, which are important.
The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr Brine) talked about the problem with the Pickles letter, which is a significant aspect of the debate. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) talked about the importance of democracy in the planning system, which is an essential feature. Even in only an intervention, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) managed to make a very important point on affordable housing. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) managed to mention most of the people on his RSS constituency mailing list.
I got the job of housing and planning Minister a year ago-that was all. I inherited the regional spatial strategies and quickly found that they had very few friends, as has been underlined clearly in the debate. In most regions, the regional spatial strategies have been agreed and are in place, and they were agreed by a combination of elected local council leaders from the region, in the region. Beyond that, what was clear to me-it is still clear now-was that our regional spatial strategies and our approach to planning were too inflexible to reflect some of the differences between regions. Our approach was too top-down, but it is clear that the new Government's approach is simply a charter for nimby resistance to new homes, which should concern us all because it could have worrying consequences. My associated concern is that it is a signal of the Government stepping back at national level from any role and responsibility in securing the new homes that are needed in all parts of the country for the future.
The consequences of the changes are already clear. It is not so much about greater local powers but fewer new homes. In many areas, that will result in the blocking rather than the building of new homes. Although the contributions to the debate have been measured, the comments of some council leaders have been clear. For instance, in response to the Government's announcement about the abolition of regional spatial strategies, the Conservative leader of Adur district council said:
"It will reduce the number of new homes significantly",
which he said was to be welcomed. The National Housing Federation said that the number of new affordable homes would "fall off a cliff", while the chief executive of one of our leading house building companies described the impact of the changes as being "scary as hell".
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