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5.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on

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securing this debate, and on provoking a debate that has been better-tempered than its recent parallel in another place. In many ways our discussion has been more considered. It has recognised some of the complexities and issues with which we are dealing, and which, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, pointed out, are not straightforward. There has been recognition that it is unrealistic and does none of us any service to pretend that these are simple matters of town against country, or simple matters in which party political point scoring or creating false conflicts will be the way forward.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that in that spirit I shall resist going into the record of the previous government in relation to brownfield development. However, I cannot refrain from pointing out the effects of their policies in regard to out-of-town shopping developments in particular, which have had a profound impact on many of the areas of concern that were highlighted in today's debate.

The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that the Government should be judged on their actions and policies. All I ask is for a longer period than nine months to be taken into consideration, and for us to be able to answer some of the questions at slightly greater length and when the House and the country have had more opportunity to see the results of policies in action.

In that sense, my only quarrel with the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, relates to the timing of this debate. We have made clear that we shall be making a statement very soon, particularly on the issue of household growth. I cannot anticipate that statement; therefore it would be difficult to answer some of the specific points raised during the debate, though I will do my best to do so. I hope that I shall be able to persuade noble Lords that we are moving forward with positive measures to promote urban regeneration, to meet future housing needs and to protect the countryside--and to take those three strands forward together and balance them against each other rather than to see them as "either/or" matters; if we do that, we will not serve the needs of the whole community. I welcome the emphasis on community and communities in the remarks of many noble Lords who contributed to the debate.

I was interested to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford point out that in many ways the most effective measure to protect our countryside is the regeneration of our urban areas. There is an inter-relationship. I was disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, was slightly dismissive in his aside about the Millennium Dome. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, made a very relevant point. The noble Lord took up the difficulties referred to by my noble friend Lord Thomas of dealing with contaminated land and the cost of reclaiming such land. I was disappointed because the millennium project is not merely about the dome. On the site of the Millennium Village there was once a gasworks which left behind a legacy of seriously contaminated land. That land has been cleaned up and is to be developed as a model of exactly the type of sustainable community development on a brownfield site that many speakers have said is needed. They mentioned the need for the integration of housing, employment and transport and the need to produce

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sustainable answers. Good design and mixed use--the sort of urban renaissance that will be of value not only to those who dwell in cities and towns but also to those who value the countryside--is tremendously important.

But when we talk of regenerating towns and cities it is not simply a matter of making physical improvements. Fundamentally, it is a question of making them better places to live and of taking action on a whole range of policies to improve the quality of life of local people and break into the vicious circle of urban deprivation to which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred.

In that context, I hardly need remind the House of the emphasis that the Government are giving to education. We are providing the environment and incentives for the creation of more jobs. We are taking measures to tackle crime--not least the proposals currently being debated in this House in relation to the Crime and Disorder Bill. That approach will produce the quality of environment in our cities that will make them attractive places in which to live. We have to offer people choice--real choice--in these areas.

Any strategy for improving these areas must tackle the issue of poor housing. Our capital receipts initiative will release nearly £800 million of additional resources over two years to support housing and housing-related regeneration schemes, the majority being devoted to social housing. The issue of affordable social housing has come up again and again in today's debate.

There has also been mention of transport. Safe, efficient and affordable public transport, with measures to reduce reliance on the private car, is vital to improving the functioning and environmental quality of our urban areas particularly. Improving our transport systems by making them more sustainable and better integrated will also help make our towns and cities more attractive places to live. Transport is a key factor influencing the location of any new development, particularly housing. I shall fulfil the expectations of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and say that that is why it is important to have greater integration of land-use planning with transport policy. I hope that the House will see in our Integrated Transport White Paper, to be published in the spring, policies for bringing that forward.

The need for regeneration is not confined to our urban areas. That point was made during the course of the debate. Many rural communities have been affected by the great changes that have occurred in agriculture and by the rundown of traditional industries.

The Government, like everyone in this House, want to see a living countryside, not a rustic museum. We want to protect the countryside, especially the outstanding landscapes and wildlife sites. But people matter too in the countryside and need homes and jobs as well as beautiful surroundings. A healthy rural economy will, in turn, help to support exactly the conservation that we all wish to see and to combat social exclusion and poverty. Those are issues to which the noble Lord, Lord Wade, referred.

The regional development agencies will have an important role to play in this, addressing local needs and priorities, bringing a regional dimension to the support

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for local business, the small businesses that, as was pointed out, are so important in the rural economy and help to increase employment opportunities.

Much of the debate has inevitably focused on the question of how much new housing is needed, and where it should or should not be placed. As I said when I started my contribution, the Deputy Prime Minister will be making a statement in the next few weeks setting out the Government's proposals for addressing household growth in the light of responses to the previous administration's Green Paper on the subject. I am afraid that we shall all have to be patient for a little longer on some of the key questions that have been raised in today's debate.

It has been fascinating to hear the different contributions involving figures. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, understated the position beautifully when he said that there was a difference of view. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, rubbished the figures completely. It is not as easy as saying that the issue of household growth and the projections for household growth are simply the figment of some fevered imagination of a civil servant in Marsham Street. Household growth projections in the past have turned out to be underestimates rather than overestimates. The population is still growing. Young people want to set up homes on their own. The elderly want to go on living independently in their homes. The commune proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, may look an attractive proposition but some of the huge institutions for the elderly were not attractive and independent living is not something we should turn our backs on. It means that there will still be a demand for new housing which a responsible government cannot simply ignore. However, I recognise the complex social factors pointed out by my noble friends which affect household formation. We must obviously take that into account.

While in no way underestimating the importance of protecting the countryside, we must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of letting the debate become one-sided. We know that damage to the countryside can be caused by new housing, particularly where it is not sensitive to locally generated needs in places with already established housing and communities.

We must not neglect to consider the effects of building insufficient homes or of local authorities not providing for the housing allocations that are needed. The effect could be to drive up house prices, making housing less affordable, and to force many households to share or to give up their aspirations to the kind of housing that many of us take for granted. The less well off may not always have had so loud a voice in these debates, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. But a government like ours, committed to combating social exclusion, cannot and will not ignore their interests. That is why I come back to what I think has been the theme of the debate, that we must have a balance.

On the general question of how to accommodate household growth nationally, I was fascinated by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton. He pointed out that it is possible to exaggerate the scale

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of the challenge. The annual rate of house building over the next two decades that would be needed to meet the current projections of household growth in full would be some 175,000 a year. That is much lower than the average rates in the four decades from 1950 to 1990, which peaked at 300,000 a year in the 1960s. I remember Harold Macmillan promising half a million homes a year and it being seen as a great social policy. Perhaps it was 300,000; I did not think he managed the half million, but we could go back to the archives.

It is important that we should look carefully at the predictions but that we do not write them off completely. The investigation that the environment committee in another place is currently carrying out into household growth projections will be useful.

We need to remember that 89.6 per cent. of England is rural. Urban areas--and that does not just mean cities but includes our larger villages and both small and large towns--cover only 10.4 per cent. of England. Even if the household growth projections were met in full, on current patterns of development that would reduce the area of England that is rural by only 1.3 per cent. But the key point on which much of the debate tonight has focused is that if local authorities could improve their use of brownfield sites the reduction would be much smaller.

It is important to recognise that some of the pressure for household growth is in rural areas. People want to find homes and jobs locally, rather than having to move to towns and cities. A crude bar on development in the countryside would do more harm than good to the interests of those who live there.

We have also heard a great deal of concern today about the green belt. As has been pointed out, the countryside beyond the green belt--which is the majority--is also vulnerable to development pressures. Development in the open countryside is already strictly controlled, especially in statutorily designated areas. The problem of leap-frogging is not so much about protecting the countryside as finding the most sustainable location for new developments. The reality which has been recognised by some of the contributions today is that in some cases a green belt location may offer the most sustainable solution. That, I believe, is the case with the county council's plans in Hertfordshire.

I was asked about the Government's policy on the green belt. We believe that it is a valuable and long-standing tool of planning policy to which we are committed. Like any tool, green belts are designed with particular purposes in mind, chief of which is to prevent urban sprawl. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, we are concerned to protect the countryside as a whole. We do not intend to become obsessed merely with the narrow issue of the present boundaries of existing green belt. We must look at the objectives behind it.

It has always been open to local authorities exceptionally to adjust green belt boundaries. Any proposals for change must be the subject of full public consultation. My own department would need to be satisfied that all alternatives within the urban areas contained by or beyond the green belt had been fully

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considered. That is how we have approached all cases which have arisen since we came to office, and that is how we propose to continue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about responsibility for national parks. At the moment, that rests with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The comprehensive spending review of countryside and rural policy is examining all aspects of the objectives and delivery mechanisms of the policies on the countryside, including institutional arrangements. The review is ongoing and I cannot say anything more definite before it is concluded in the spring. However, I note what the noble Baroness said, and some of the reactions to her remarks in the House.

Perhaps I can deal also with the issue raised by the noble Earls, Lord Clanwilliam and Lord Radnor, concerning the development of supermarkets, which have played a key role in some areas. We made clear our commitment to the policies in Planning Policy Guidance Note 6 of focusing retail development in existing town centres wherever possible and to applying the sequential test so as to explore neighbourhood centres and edge-of-centre locations before considering out-of-town locations. The number of approvals for out-of-town shopping centres dropped dramatically since PPG 6 was introduced. But, as in all planning matters, the effects take a long time to filter through.

In today's debate there has been a broad consensus that we should make the best possible use of brownfield--or previously developed--sites. There are certain things which we, as a government, can do to help councils and builders in that respect. In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, former MoD sites clearly offer good opportunities for redevelopment, including housing. However, planning authorities must take into account other uses, such as employment, as well as the issues of sustainability and accessibility--points raised by the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I can assure the noble Lord that the MoD and DETR co-operate closely on policies of disposal of redundant MoD sites. However, I do not believe Northolt has been declared a redundant site.

We must encourage local authorities to be more imaginative in using brownfield sites. But I do not believe that putting new housing on every urban site is the answer. There may be occasions when that is not the most sustainable solution, and I return again and again to the central issue of sustainability--the links with public transport, for example, are particularly important.

We should not be looking to put housing or other building developments on every urban brownfield site. The quality of urban areas may be improved by "urban greening"--making use of spaces between buildings as well as open spaces in towns and cities. That point was picked up by my noble friend Lord Thomas of Macclesfield. That should be an integral part of any development or regeneration project in order to avoid the dangers of urban cramming.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised the issue of what we know about brownfield sites and how up-to-date our information is. We are proposing to put in hand studies and research which will, within the next

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year or so, give us a much better picture of the opportunities for brownfield development. We also want to look at and open up discussion on whether economic instruments can play a part in that. I was interested in the comments of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Macclesfield and many other noble Lords who referred to economic instruments, some of them more imaginative than others. And I would disappoint the House if I did not say the usual mantra that we listen carefully, but at the end of the day taxation policy is a matter for the Chancellor. However, I took on board the issues concerning recycling the money as well as the land that were included in the question of hypothecation.

I know that I am overrunning my time and perhaps I can write to one or two noble Lords who raised specific questions--my noble friend Lord Cocks, for instance.

It has been a most interesting and constructive debate. I am pleased that discussion moved away from the frankly empty posturing we have witnessed in recent months, and the trading of figures and targets without regard for actual achievement against such targets. I have tried to give a flavour of the positive measures this Government are taking to regenerate our towns and cities and to improve the quality of life for those living in urban and rural areas alike. The challenge we face in dealing with household growth is considerable: it will call for good judgment and hard decisions and this Government will not shy away from those decisions. There is an enormous opportunity before us to reshape our towns and cities by encouraging new development which is sustainable while protecting the countryside.

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