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House of Lords

Thursday, 9th December 1999.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Derby.

South East: Regional Planning Guidance

Lord Bowness asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When a response to the report by Stephen Crow and Rosamund Whittaker on house building in the South East is to be published.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Government will issue for consultation the proposed changes to SERPLAN's draft regional planning guidance for the South East early in the new year.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, do the Government accept that the Crow proposals cannot be implemented, even in part, without a serious effect on the existing green belt which, indeed, two years ago the Government pledged to maintain, and without serious consequences for the transport infrastructure in the region? Secondly, does the Minister believe that the two key questions which in their report the authors stated were central to their thinking on virtually every issue were in fact the right questions to be asked?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the panel asked a number of questions. I believe that there is a range of other questions to be asked, both about SERPLAN's original proposals and about those which come from the Crow report. It is a very complex area. It is certainly true that the higher figures which appear in the report would put some pressure on housing, to say the least. However, I believe that aspects of this issue, such as the density of housing and the balance between brownfield and greenfield sites, would mitigate the effect on the green belt to which the noble Lord refers. Because of the complexity, we need to consider the recommendations carefully and subject them to the widest consultation.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not simply a question of complexity but that it would be socially, economically and environmentally extremely damaging to add to the enormous pressures that already exist on the South East when we should be encouraging urban regeneration and renewal in the cities in the rest of the country?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not believe that this is entirely an either/or situation. Clearly, the Government's policy is to encourage regeneration in

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many of our industrial urban and rural areas away from the South East. Indeed, the whole structure of the regional development agencies is designed to enable that to happen. Nevertheless, there will also be development in the South East; there will be housing consequences for that development, and the ensuing pressures must be considered very carefully. That is what the Government are doing.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I suppose that I must declare an interest in that if I were to have one or, peradventure, two acres of development land in the South East, I should be immensely rich. Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord why it appears that we need 4 million new houses, which are designed for single mothers, old age pensioners and divorced people, when the builders want to build four-bedroomed, two-garaged houses in the South East and to increase the housing stock by something like 20 per cent. I am not a genius, but even I find that very hard to comprehend.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure that I accept that the noble Earl is not a genius! However, I agree that those are difficult problems. The change in household formation--in the structure of households--leads to the type of demand to which the noble Earl refers. It is highly probable that some of those pressures will be met by a higher density of housing within the South East. However, as the noble Earl says, the normal development pressures are to build larger houses within the South East. That balance must be reassessed in terms of the total development of the South East. As noble Lords have said, in addition to the pressures in the South East, we need to look at those which exist elsewhere. To a lesser extent, the same changes in demography and the same development pressures are also occurring elsewhere.

Lord Renton: My Lords, bearing in mind that population pressure is the principal problem with which the Government have to deal in this matter, will they take into account that if they can halt some of the drift from the North and the Midlands to the South East, that would help? Further, is the Minister aware that a few weeks ago we were told that over the next 12 months we must accept 80 people claiming immigration and asylum. It would be a great help if that number could be limited considerably because a high proportion of those people wish to settle in the South East.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, clearly, international immigration brings some pressures, more so to London than to the rest of the South East to which the figures refer. Contrary to general belief, the demographic or population pressures on the South East do not come primarily from people from the northern regions. Indeed, there is only 3 per cent migration from the North East, for example, into the rest of the South East. The primary pressure on the rest of the South East comes from people who move out of London into the rest of the South East. In addition, there are demographic pressures in terms of

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households to which I have already referred. Therefore, the first point made by the noble Lord is not the principal problem.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, if the report were to be implemented, can the noble Lord tell us how many acres of existing green belt would be lost?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as the noble Earl knows, it is government policy that we should maintain the net value of the green belt. That would be our intention in these circumstances. We would wish to see as many houses as possible built within existing brownfield sites and those which already have development permission within the South East. Obviously, the Government are currently addressing the issue of the pressures which arise from that.

Ministerial Blind Trusts

3.13 p.m.

The Earl of Liverpool asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What purpose ministerial blind trusts serve.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, the Ministerial Code makes it clear that Ministers must avoid any danger of an actual or apparent conflict of interest between their ministerial position and their private financial interests. Placing investments in a blind trust is one option available to Ministers to avoid any conflict of interest.

The Earl of Liverpool: My Lords, I am grateful, as I am sure is the whole House, to the noble and learned Lord for answering this Question. But I confess to being slightly disappointed that the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal, who I am pleased to see is in her place today, does not feel able to answer it because, after all, she was one of the three trustees of the Prime Minister's Office blind trust.

Does the noble and learned Lord consider it appropriate or, indeed, desirable that a past trustee member of the Prime Minister's Office trust fund should be on the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee which, among other things, will play a large part in deciding who shall become a Member of this House and sit and vote here?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, first, I apologise for not being my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal. As the Question was first drafted, it related to the Ministerial Code, which is a matter for which the Cabinet Office has particular responsibility. Therefore, it seemed appropriate for the Cabinet Office rather than my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal to deal with it. There is nothing odd about the fact that I am answering the Question rather than my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal.

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The noble Earl asked whether it is appropriate that a trustee of a blind trust should be on the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee. The person to whom the noble Earl refers is somebody of the highest integrity. There is nothing that that person knows that is not also known to every other member of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee because, as the noble Earl will know, when a name is put forward to that committee, it is incumbent on the Chief Whip of the relevant party to describe in detail any contributions which have been made by the individual to any political party, including any contribution to such a trust.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the general public has very little knowledge of trusts at all and even less knowledge of blind trusts which are part of quite a technical procedure. I cannot claim to be any authority on them myself. Will he tell the House how blind is a blind trust? I have read reports in the press that people can have their neighbours, close friends or family making decisions for them. How satisfied is the Minister that people putting their affairs into blind trusts are completely detached from those trusts?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the Question relates to ministerial blind trusts. They mean that a Minister's interests are placed in the hands of trustees. The trustees then deal with the portfolio as they see fit without the Minister being informed about what happens in relation to the assets in the blind trust. The intention is that the Minister then does not know what is happening to his assets. A blind trust set up in that way shields the Minister from what is happening in relation to his assets. If set up appropriately, the trust is completely blind.

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