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3.59 p.m.

Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I wish to add my thanks to those expressed previously to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important topic today. The issue is how we can achieve sustainable housing development in sustainable communities. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton, perhaps I may give a little case study of the impact housing development has had on some of the most important wildlife sites in this country. The case study is that of the Dorset heath land.

Lowland heath land is a priority habitat for nature conservation in this country and is recognised internationally as one of the jewels in our nature conservation crown. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan drawn up by the Government identifies this as a priority for action and also identifies past developments and continued fragmentation, and disturbance from the development of housing particularly, as significant causes of heath land loss. Before 1960, urban development accounted for the loss of nearly 9,000 hectares of heath land in England--that is about 23 per cent. of its total extent--and Dorset in particular has suffered massive historical heath land loss since the 19th century. In the past 75 years three-quarters of the heath land in Dorset has gone. The impact of urban development has increased in recent times rather than diminished, with 37 per cent. of the recorded loss being in the 10 years between 1978 and 1987 and being primarily as a result of built developments. So I do not think we should underestimate what we can do to our biodiversity and our nature conservation treasures if we get the answers wrong on sustainable housing.

It seems to me that there are three issues here for us. The first is how much housing; the second is where it should go; and the third is what kind of housing it should be. We have moved away in many areas from the predict and provide model for a whole variety of issues. For example, we have now discovered that if you build roads you create more traffic. I am not saying that if you build more houses you create more households, but there must be an issue there in moving away from the predict and provide model.

Much of the predicted household growth lies in the increasing number of single elderly people living alone and also--I declare an interest being a single

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middle-aged person--people like me living in solitary households; what my honourable friend the Minister in another place called "refugees from marriage". We are duty bound to question the shape of the society we see growing before us, with ever-growing numbers of single and sometimes very isolated households. I would suggest that innovative solutions to ways of living must be tackled if we are to deal with this issue in a rounded way. I am not suggesting that we all take up communes, though that might be quite fun at my age, but I believe that the idea that the social isolation of many people whom we see in our society today can be remedied by more innovative forms of housing provision is one that deserves attention.

Let us look at the issue of where we put our housing. We have heard some useful propositions today, particularly as to how we go about minimising greenfield developments and maximising brownfield developments. I commend the sequential test approach which focuses the search for housing sites in urban areas in the first instance. I think also that the physical implications of meeting the projections on the ground through the planning system to avoid damage to important areas for biodiversity has to be looked at closely. Strong, effective and visionary regional planning is essential to identify important habitats and species in a region and ensure their protection and enhancement. Strategic environmental assessment of the likely environmental effects of housing must be an integral part of any system. We need properly to resource regional planning conferences if that is to be done effectively. We should also be brave about the outcome of some of these planning processes. Where there are likely significant environmental implications as a result of rigorous assessments by individual planning authorities, we should permit them to revise their housing allocation downwards.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, touched on the failure of past greenfield development levies. We should learn lessons from the past. Nevertheless, there is a case for investigating the potential for a properly constructed greenfield development levy with clear policy objectives and setting out potential environmental implications so that we can protect greenfield sites from damage. National and regional targets for increasing the use of urban land are worth considering and urban capacity studies are certainly important as part of the appraisal of development plans.

Another point we need to consider in terms of location is the impact on the use of natural resources in general. Many of the housing proposals we are seeing--this applies particularly to rural areas--are in parts of the country where water resources are already under considerable pressure from a whole variety of issues. Transport issues must also be taken into account if we are not to put housing developments in areas that will simply create the problems caused by pollution and congestion in transport systems.

My final point concerns the kind of houses we should be looking for. We have a unique opportunity over the next few years. We now know ways in which we can make our housing stock much more sustainable in terms of its resource use. We must expect that the houses we

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see built, wherever they are built and in whichever quantity, perform to the high standards of environmental design principles and, in particular, are low use in terms of water and energy conservation.

4.6 p.m.

Lord Norrie: My Lords, as we have heard this afternoon, the debate is not just about housing, or even about whether we build on greenfield or brownfield sites. It is a debate about how and where we and future generations should live. It is also about how we can use new housing to drive economic growth, which in turn leads to the social and environmental improvement of our towns, while avoiding damage to the countryside. In this complex debate I shall focus my attention on what might be considered to be two of the most important issues--the future of our towns and cities and the problems with the planning system.

The very title of this debate stresses the need to consider town and country together in deciding where we are to live. The exodus from town to country, at something like 300 people a day, underlies many of the tensions over greenfield development and growing urban dereliction. Our towns are decaying while our green fields are being built over. It is disturbing to see that at the end of each year there is more urban derelict land than there was at the beginning; and at the same time, we are still threatening 650 square miles of rural England with urban development.

We should not be despondent or think that we cannot influence these trends. As the Deputy Prime Minister himself has said:

    "We don't believe that the patterns of the past should automatically set future housing provision. We believe changes in policy can, and will make a difference".

I should be grateful to the Minister if she would confirm that the Government are committed to stemming this tide and are developing new policies which will help to achieve these ends. I am sure that with the right leadership and support future patterns of migration can be very different. They can work in tandem with both environmental and social policies. This will help regenerate our towns, reduce the need to travel and protect the countryside.

My noble friend Lord Marlesford has rightly referred to the crucial value of the British planning system. It is true that our crowded island is indebted to the planning pioneers, but we cannot rest on our laurels. There have been some who criticise planners for not providing enough land for building homes. Others have criticised the green belt for forcing development to leapfrog into sensitive countryside further away from our towns. My Lords, these are siren voices. We need to strengthen the powers of planning to steer more building to where it can benefit urban communities and relieve pressure on the countryside.

The green belt is a policy of the future, not the past. It is central to any strategy for urban regeneration. We cannot afford to see more green belt releases like those for 2,500 houses north of Newcastle and up to 10,000 houses west of Stevenage. There are fears that these are

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just the tip of the iceberg as evidence is now emerging that other local authorities are doing exactly the same in the West Midlands and Yorkshire. If we are to reduce car use and re-use brownfield sites, we need more effective protection of the countryside beyond the green belt and to introduce stronger tests before allowing changes to green belt boundaries.

Another priority for improving the planning system is to tackle what is paradoxically an oversupply of building land. Too many local authorities allocate land for development often a decade in advance of it being needed for building and permit too much new housing too quickly. The Council for the Protection of Rural England has highlighted one example where the rural parishes of South Herefordshire are expected to receive over 80 per cent. more homes than had been planned. This is all because too much rural land was allocated and too many planning permissions were granted for new houses in the early years of a long-term plan. Inevitably, this means that too many greenfield sites are built on and opportunities to use brownfield sites are lost.

These are difficult issues. Stemming the loss of people from urban areas and changing the way in which we plan for new housing do not have off-the-shelf solutions. But we can be quite clear that the current approach is failing on too many counts. The need for affordable homes from housing associations is not being met. Urban dereliction continues to rise. Home, workplaces, schools and shops are forced further and further apart leaving more people dependent on their cars. Rural landscapes are being lost.

The effects of building are even more insidious. They shatter the tranquillity of rural areas well beyond the edge of the new development. Visual intrusion, noise pollution and the dreaded orange glow of street lights from new housing schemes all reach out into the heart of the countryside. This cannot go on.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, this debate is not just about green or brownfield sites; it is about how and where we live. The priority for both town and country should be to find a more innovative and constructive way of planning new housing and to establish a more positive approach to urban life.

There are growing voices of concern and alarm that the Government are failing to take notice of the countryside. Those anxieties will come to a head on 1st March when well over 100,000 people are expected to rally in London under the banner of the countryside. I do not see that as being divisive, rather as a way of emphasising the need to see town and country together. The countryside is our heritage and the Government must understand the depth of feeling there is about it. They should listen to the voice of rural areas and they must not bulldoze through the opinions of local people or the green belt policy, which has done so much to preserve rural Britain.

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