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Housing in the South East

3.7 p.m.

The Earl of Carnarvon rose to call attention to the case for additional housing in London and the South East and the Government's proposals for achieving their targets; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, has decided to make his maiden speech in today's debate. His experience as an Oxford City councillor, both in housing and in planning, will be extremely valuable and no doubt noble Lords will take a great deal of interest in what he has to say.

This debate on housing involves everyone in the country, not only those in the South East and in London. I must declare my interest, which is a non-pecuniary one, as chairman of SERPLAN—until it is disbanded in April of next year and its responsibilities transferred to the Mayor of London and two regional assemblies.

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I have been involved in planning for housing for nearly 50 years. It is a very emotive issue. I fervently believe that every individual or family should have a home, a house or a flat. Those of us who fought in wars mostly thought at anxious moments of our homes, as well as our loved ones. "The Englishman's home is his castle" is not a fantasy. It is as true today as it has always been. That is why local and central government have done their best to provide a level of housing provision which can be achieved in London and the South East in the next 16 years.

We must ensure that everyone has the opportunity of a decent home. That is what I said in your Lordships' House on 15th December last year. That debate followed the publication of the Crow report. Since then the Government have published their proposals for future development in the South East. It is SERPLAN's response to those that I shall speak about today.

The Government have retained a good deal of the vision of the local authorities, their approach to achieving a more sustainable pattern of development and promoting urban renaissance, but I fear that the Government have disregarded the wider policy framework proposed by SERPLAN. Sustainable development cannot be achieved by the land use planning system acting alone. It is critically important that all decision-makers contribute to the process. Urban renaissance, for example, requires a co-ordinated approach by all relevant agencies. This was visible when some noble Lords, members of the All-Party London Group, visited Tower Hamlets a few weeks ago and were able to see for themselves the impressive Stepney Ocean Estate and the work of the Asian-led housing association, LABO.

Public transport will only become a realistic alternative to excessive use of the private car through large-scale private investment. The role of individuals and organisations therefore needs to be clear, as does the relationship between the different strategies and delivery mechanisms operating within the region.

SERPLAN has set out in some detail the expected contribution of these other bodies and mechanisms, including central government, and called for new mechanisms where these were needed. This approach is consistent with the concept of spatial strategies developing throughout Europe and reflected in guidance given by the Government.

The Government's consultation document, Proposed Changes, is stronger in the presentation of good intentions than in setting out the means and policies whereby these are to be implemented. The Government have failed to give local authorities the necessary powers, particularly in relation to housing type and tenure issues and the whole question of affordability. Similarly, in relation to wider housing issues, the Government have not acknowledged that existing mechanisms are inadequate to deliver the urban component of housing provision on the scale required.

I know that many people living in the South East fear that excessive development will affect their lives and ruin the countryside which they love. Housing

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provision is a subject which is too often considered in isolation. It must be seen as part of an integrated, spatial planning approach and considered alongside, and in close relation to, economic issues, employment and transport.

The Government's specific policy, as set out in Proposed Changes, for the overall level of housing provision in the South East is that,

    "Housing should be provided at the annual average rate of 23,000 dwellings in London and 43,000 dwellings in the rest of the South East".

No specific rationale is offered, either in Proposed Changes or in the accompanying housing technical note, for the level of housing provision proposed for the rest of the South East (ROSE). The Government argue that it should be possible to provide more housing, with proportionately less impact on land and other resources. The Government believe that ROSE can provide 43,000 dwellings per annum between 1996 and 2016.

The approach to housing provision for ROSE put forward by SERPLAN was based on "plan, monitor and manage". To summarise—the proposal was to plan for a supply side baseline level of provision with the strategic authorities demonstrating how they would increase this in line with a higher indicative range; to monitor key housing trends; and to manage additional housing provision through the development plan system. SERPLAN's approach was based on "managing up" to a total level of housing provision.

The level of housing provision proposed by the Government for ROSE does not recognise the real practical difficulties in achieving these targets. Some 43,000 dwellings per annum is an annual average relating to the period from 1996. We are already well into that period. The most recent available information indicates that additional housing since 1996 has been running at around 39,000 dwellings a year. The new regional guidance is unlikely to be put in place before 2001. Following publication in its final form, additional housing provision cannot be increased to the proposed level quickly. Even with speedy reviews, revised development plan policies will take some time to put in place. This means that the real scope for increasing housing provision through the plan-led process will be post-2006.

One important aspect of housing provision is affordable housing and the Government have suggested a target of not less than 40 per cent. SERPLAN's recent work has indicated that only 20-25 per cent of planning completions are affordable. SERPLAN supports the Government's target for affordable housing but in order to achieve it it will continue to press the Government strongly for increased power over size, type and tenure—an important issue which I stressed in my speech on 15th December last year.

Local authorities in both London and the South East are concerned about additional housing in parts of the South East without jobs being available to sustain the population, and such housing being occupied by long-distance commuters.

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I know that local government wish to engage in constructive dialogue with central government on the future provision of housing in the South East. I look forward to hearing noble Lords' views and the Government's response at the end of the debate. I beg to move for Papers.

3.18 p.m.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Order!

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, for raising this urgent and persistent problem and, in passing, giving me the chance to make my maiden speech.

Housing, and planning and transport with which it is inevitably intertwined, has been a particular interest of mine—as the noble Earl was kind enough to point out—since I was an Oxford City councillor serving on the housing and planning committees. I was elected to that council in 1972 just before the noble Earl became chairman of Hampshire County Council and just as house prices in the South East were really taking off for the first time. I remember that well because I had struggled to buy a small terraced house in east Oxford for £8,500, with a salary at that time in my new job of £2,500.

It was a good salary and it was certainly a very interesting job. I was a research assistant and speech writer; "chocolate soldier" as we were called because we were paid by the Joseph Rowntree Trust, to which we on these Benches owe a great deal. My boss at that time is my now noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. One of my first tasks was to help him with a speech on housing and transport. A generation later, at the peak of yet another house price boom in south-east England, I thought that I would start by taking a look back at what we said then:

    "At the end of June 1972, the typical modern house in London and the South-East was selling at £11,000. Only six months earlier its price was £8,800. Fifteen years before it could be bought for £2,500.

    "The problem in London"—

the speech went on—

    "is particularly acute. It is already hard to retain teachers for London schools or probation officers for London courts because when they want families they can find nowhere adequate to live. If we can provide housing of varied standards and prices near to the areas where people work, we are not only preserving our cities, we are also relieving some of the transport problems. If part of our problem stems from mass daily travel, part of the solution is to reduce the need for it".

It was a radical speech. It called for a system of compulsory purchase by local authorities to force owners to release land which the country needed for housing. We saw our planning system then as the key protector of land use against immensely strong market uses, which have never been properly tamed. If left alone, they would produce,

    "one great sprawl, neither city nor country, neither field nor place, where life without a car is impossible, yet roads and parking space will take up two-thirds of the area of these non-cities."

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Well, we have moved a good deal down that dismal road already in the South East since 1972.

We are no more likely to solve the housing problems of the South East by greenfield private development than we are to cure traffic congestion by building more motorways. We cannot trust market forces to produce the right housing balance for society in this richest and most congested corner of England where land supply is tight and demand can be almost infinite. No, if one is serious about keeping vital services going in London, or Oxford, or Horsham, or our villages by giving nurses, policemen, teachers or bus drivers some chance of a decent home that they can afford, one has to be firm and tough, year in and year out, using the planning system quite deliberately in conjunction with higher grant rates to housing associations. I very much agree with the noble Earl that we must target new developments throughout London and the South East strongly towards affordable housing. This will help key workers who would expect to buy but are now priced out of the market near their work, and also the many people who—let us never forget this—will always need homes to rent long term because their incomes are too low or too uncertain for a mortgage.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions issued two important housing papers in March and April: the new Planning Policy Guidance Note 3 and the housing Green Paper. Both contain plenty of sound sense. But on the key point of affordable housing, what do they say, what will they do, and when will they do it?

The Green Paper talks about,

    "assessing and delivering an appropriate amount of new affordable housing, a significant proportion of which becomes available through the operation of planning policies".

It points out that,

    "insufficient amounts of new affordable housing have been developed in areas of acute housing pressure"

and that,

    "in areas of high demand there tend to be higher than average levels of overcrowding and use of temporary accommodation".

Finally, on page 71, we learn:

    "In London and many southern urban and rural areas, high demand for housing coupled with high house prices has placed acute pressure on the social housing stock".

That is all very worthy, but it hardly starts to recognise the scale and urgency of the problem.

I am delighted to hear from the noble Earl that the Government are moving towards a target of 40 per cent affordable housing in new developments in the South East. If so, it is certainly rapid movement since last year when we were told that PPG3 was a statement of policy rather than a guidance manual. Now, on page 74 of the Green Paper, we are promised good practice guidance next year on helping local authorities secure appropriate affordable housing within new developments and improved arrangements for finding out what is going on. I am bound to say that when one reads these documents one gets the feeling that the DETR is moving ahead about as fast as traffic on the M25 on a Friday night.

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The shortage of affordable housing is acute throughout south-east England. I would argue that in the present situation of extreme housing shortage we should have a general presumption that for at least the next five years at least half of each new development on greenfield sites in south-east England should be affordable housing. That 50 per cent target should not be eroded by the so-called planning gains and Section 106 agreements invented by the last government. After all, these are basically just ways of selling planning permissions to the highest bidder.

A maiden speech is not the place to discuss all the changes in planning and taxation which are essential to transform access to affordable housing both to rent and buy. It is the place, I hope, to point out that the developers have gobbled up green fields for a generation but housing need in London and the South East is just as acute today as it was 30 years ago. Housing, planning and transport policy in London and the South East will be a hard test of "joined-up government". Is it just a slogan, or will it really work on the ground?

Although we are life Peers, other maiden speakers have talked about their fathers. We heard that the noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater, is a hereditary civil servant. My noble friend Lord Greaves produced a policeman's whistle. Luckily, the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, spared us the butcher's cleaver on Monday. My father was a diplomat. I do not really know what the tools of a diplomat's trade are—perhaps a bagful of foreign languages in his case. He was very proud to be the first boy from his local school ever to get into Oxford. That was possible even in the bad old days before the Chancellor of the Exchequer appointed himself admissions tutor of Magdalen.

I thank the officers and staff of the House, who have been universally kind and helpful to me both before and after my introduction. It is heartening to see so many old friends here. For example, six of us in the latest list of new Peers are old comrades from the SDP—three on these Benches and three on the Benches opposite. I look forward to working with them and with all noble Lords, wherever they sit, in the interests of the whole House.

3.27 p.m.

Baroness Uddin: My Lords, on behalf of the whole House I should like to congratulate—

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