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4.37 p.m.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for introducing this fascinating debate. In thinking of what to say I recalled the response of Gandhi who, when visiting this country in the 1930s, was asked what he thought of British civilisation. His response was, "Yes, it would be a very good thing." I shall concentrate my remarks on what I believe to be the social fragmentation over the past 20 years and the problem that I hope the new Government will be able to tackle; that is, the creation of a society in which people want to live together not only as families but as communities in a mutually supportive way.

I believe that it is worth looking at the ability of the planning system to work. Twenty years ago I worked in a factory on the edge of Trafford Park, the largest industrial estate in the whole of Europe. Next to the factory was a greenfield site devoted to agriculture. Today that site has been completely built upon following the development of a massive out-of-town shopping centre. The project is reaching completion. The developers obtained planning permission and all the relevant regulatory approvals from the previous government. I pay tribute to the previous government

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that, having given Dumplington planning approval, they changed the rules and said that massive out-of-town shopping developments should not in future go ahead because they were deemed to be antisocial. It is a pity that they did not stop Dumplington. Changing the planning rules can effectively change the way in which development takes place. I am very glad that the Government have signalled their intention to carry out a radical review of the planning system to ensure that it meets not only today's needs but the future needs of society.

I was amazed when the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said that the assumptions underlying the grand total of 4.25 million extra households over the next 15 to 20 years were completely wrong. One of the difficulties we face is that the assumptions made by the statisticians on the basis of the experience of the previous 20 years are probably right.

The projections talk of 4.25 million new households. One can see a large number of households of elderly people, single persons, and those caused by the fragmentation of married relationships, with the consequent splitting up of families. Very few noble Lords have spoken about the desperate plight of people at the bottom of our society who live in dismal housing conditions. We must recognise the need for improved housing for them. We need to improve standards in our new housing.

I hope that over the next 10 years of this Government's existence we shall see a change in the way society is organised and structured. Two things are needed. First, we must reduce the imbalance in income and wealth between the top and bottom of our society; and, secondly, we must deal with the horrendous social problem of mass unemployment. I was pleased to hear my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey reiterate at the Dispatch Box today the Labour Party's and Government's commitment to full employment, however that may be described, as he said.

Many of the previous government's policy actions led to social fragmentation. I shall give just one example. It is the crazy social security system which puts more money into the pockets of an unemployed couple with children if they split up than if they stay together. The Government have started to tackle that problem by getting rid of the single-parent premium. There is some concern about how they did that, but we must tackle the elements in society that cause fragmentation. I wish the Government well in their future policies to build social inclusion rather than fragmentation.

4.43 p.m.

The Earl of Radnor: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Marlesford for introducing the subject of greenfield building and--this is a new term for me--brownfield non-development in the centres of our cities. That is very much in the news at present. I put my name down for the debate, probably unwisely, because I panicked when I saw that 4.4 million houses were going to be spread over the English countryside. I had not realised that that forecast was made in 1992, and as the noble Viscount, Lord Hampden, said, has probably

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been overtaken by events and is not as accurate as it might be. I must declare an interest in that on my land I have developed and am developing in various places. I do not believe it involves greenfield sites in the accepted sense of the word. I am also involved in farming in a large way and with forestry. So I sit on all sides of the fence.

As a farmer I was disappointed that I heard nothing about food in the countryside but a great deal about biodiversity. No one mentioned that gobbling up the land detracts from agriculture, which adds a great deal to our GNP. I was fascinated, and I always will be, to hear about sustainable housing. I long to know what an unsustainable house is. Does it fall down, or what? No one seems to be able to tell me that.

Greenfield sites are more attractive than brownfield sites. They are the darling of the builder and the developer so far as concerns money making. The brownfield sites remain in the cities because they are unattractive to develop. Money does not come from them. It has been said, but not emphasised, that they have all sorts of disadvantages. One is that people do not want to live there. Soil pollution--a relatively new worry for builders--often exists and causes a great deal of trouble. There is the expense involved in dealing with light agreements, parking and so on.

At some stage the problem must be tackled. We cannot go on creeping across our country. Sussex has been mentioned. I was tempted to suggest to the noble Lord who was worried about Sussex, although he is not in his seat, that he might send some of his houses to the north-west, where apparently the noble Lord, Lord Wade, has plenty of room for them.

Something positive must be done. The noble Lord, Lord Vinson, said that there must be some element of subsidy, or, as has been mentioned, an agency to buy up these brownfield sites so as to resell them. There must be some incentive to develop the brownfield sites, or they will continue to proliferate while we go on taking a little more of the green land.

I have no objection, although I cannot see the best form in which to do it, to the greenfield site owner or developer paying in some way or another for the enhancement of the brownfield sites so that the city centres will pull their weight. The figure of 28--households or people--has been mentioned. Such development would swallow up a fair number of households. So much for that. I shall not branch out into the social habits that have caused the need for so many more homes.

We should not forget that there are also brownfield sites in villages. Our villages are straggling affairs, of tremendous charm, built up over the ages, with houses of all descriptions and periods. There is tremendous resistance to filling in the gaps which exist. When I was a member of Sub-committee D we dealt with such matters. The great catchphrase then was the "NIMBY" factor--not in my back yard. If anyone wanted to build anything they were told that it was not possible. I have been told by a noble Lord that the latest in-word is "BANANA"--build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything. That is very much the attitude towards life in the countryside.

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Finally, I shall take a glance into the future. There has been a tremendous move towards shopping in supermarkets. It has happened quickly. It has been immensely efficient. It started in the towns and it is now out-of-town. Mr. Gummer wanted the shopping centres to be in the towns. That has now been reversed. Four or five of these super or hyper-markets within a provincial town of about 45,000 people will kill the shopping centre. They will probably satisfy all the needs of a large catchment area. There is another brownfield site coming up which might be useful for housing: shops will have gobbled up the greenfield sites, and they will eventually become brownfield sites which could again be used for housing.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Moran: My Lords, we must all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for arranging this debate and for the admirable speech he made in introducing it. I pay tribute, too, to the CPRE, over which he presides, for its tireless campaigning to alert people to what is going on. I warmly agree with him on the value and fragility of the countryside, which is as precious to town dwellers as it is to those who live in the country. The greatest threat to the vanishing countryside is the spread of housing, which steadily converts country to town. An area the size of Bristol is urbanised every year.

We are seven years into the 1991-2016 period of the now notorious predictions in the November 1996 Green Paper. Central government pressure on local authorities to build more and more houses has transformed many towns and villages for the worse. An attractive old town such as Ledbury in Hereford is now surrounded by new housing estates of identical, tightly packed, box-like houses. The same is true of many other towns, small and large.

I would like to stress the neglected problem of water supply. The water companies told the Government last November that they could not supply all the planned new houses because too many of them were projected in areas with water shortages; 2.3 million in the most drought hit regions of the east and south-east. Water suppliers have no right of veto on developments and are often not even consulted about them. We must pay much more attention to this aspect of the problem, otherwise we shall be building houses without water or ruining our already threatened rivers. I should welcome reassurance from the Minister on that point.

The new Government have already had a change of heart. Although at a meeting the other night I was able to remind Mr. Meacher that he had said that the last thing we could ever wish to see would be the "Los Angelisation" of the UK countryside, initially deep concerns were aroused last year by remarks by junior Ministers. For example, Mr. Raynsford said that restrictions on building up to 2 million homes in the countryside must be relaxed since it was simply not acceptable to make people live in urban environments in unacceptable ways just to protect the countryside. Some of those remarks encouraged the unworthy thought that perhaps the House Builders Federation had given £1 million to Labour Party funds.

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There was a very strong reaction, spearheaded by the CPRE's notable full page advertisement on 28th November. The outcry seems to have rung alarm bells in the higher echelons of the Government and resulted in an entirely new and very welcome line propounded by the Deputy Prime Minister, notably in his article in The Times on 26th January. But my experience as a diplomatist has taught me that what usually matters is not what people say but what they do. And what Mr. Prescott has done--or failed to do--in West Sussex, Stevenage and Newcastle has not so far been reassuring.

Furthermore, 2.2 million new houses in the countryside would mean six new cities the size of Bristol. This is a grim prospect. There seems no reason why we should not build most of them in cities and towns, which might well suit many of the single people or couples who like to be near shops, restaurants, pubs and cinemas. All the evidence is that there is plenty of capacity for this without what is called "urban cramming" or building on parks or playing fields. The RIBA has suggested a brownfield agency and has launched a brownfield initiative. We need to convert spaces above shops and make more use of redundant industrial buildings.

It is vital to make life in cities more attractive, safer and less polluted and to halt and reverse the haemorrhage of 300 people a day. But transforming our cities will take time. The problem is, however, immediate and urgent. It is at present much cheaper and easier for house builders to build on greenfield sites. What the Government must do is to introduce in next month's Budget economic instruments to discourage building on greenfield sites and encourage building on brownfield sites. I was glad to see that Mr. Prescott seemed to favour that.

Twenty-five years ago, Philip Larkin wrote in a poem called "Going, going":

    "For the first time I feel somehow That it isn't going to last, That before I snuff it, the whole Boiling will be bricked in ... And that will be England gone".

Our new Government now have a chance to prove him wrong. I profoundly hope that they will take it.

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