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25 Nov 2008 : Column 1348


2.59 pm

Baroness Thomas of Winchester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, there is no current intention to defer our proposals.

We have learnt the lessons of the past and know that it is important to help people prepare for work, not abandon them on benefits, causing them to become detached from the labour market. Our welfare reform proposals offer more support to ensure that people are well placed to enter work when the economy picks up.

Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he accept that the whole welfare-to-work policy, which we on these Benches and the Social Security Advisory Committee broadly endorse, was conceived in a much more benign economic climate? In the light of that, are the Government prepared to agree that, until there is better childcare, more flexibility in employment and enough well trained personal advisers in enough jobcentres around the country, the tough sanctions regime should be abandoned?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: No, my Lords, I do not agree with that. The capacity of Jobcentre Plus is being increased. We shall doubtless deal with that when we discuss the Statement shortly. Of course, it is important that affordable and appropriate childcare is available, if we are to ask lone parents to undertake employment. The Government have invested more than £25 billion in childcare and early years provision since 1997. Over the next two years, we expect about 18,000 additional lone parents to move into work as a result of our proposals. However, there are some 460,000 vacancies in childcare and early years provision in England alone. We believe that it is not right to step back from the proposals. In the past we consigned people on to benefits and effectively destroyed their lives. Eight hundred thousand people have been on incapacity benefit for 10 years or more because we neglected them and their families in the past. We must not repeat that.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, would it not make better sense to help to liberate people from the poverty trap in which they are ensnared? Does the Minister not understand that when many people at the bottom of the stack go back to work and earn £1, income tax and loss of benefit takes back 80p out of that £1? Why not give them the incentive to work instead of trying to beat them into work?

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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, nobody is trying to beat anybody into work. Everybody who goes through a Jobcentre Plus process to be helped towards the labour market is provided with a “better off in work” calculation, which demonstrates exactly what their circumstances are. The proposition that people will inevitably end up poorer by going into work is simply not the case under this Government’s policies. Withdrawal rates of benefits are lower than under the Conservative Government.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in considering whether to require a person to take up work, it is essential for Jobcentre Plus staff to have regard to the availability of accessible transport, the nature of the work, whether it is reasonable for the person concerned given their impairment and previous career history, and whether it is reasonable to expect a person to take a job which would lead to a fall in their family income?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I agree that the issues the noble Lord has identified should, and would, be properly taken into account in determining whether a person should take up an employment opportunity. That is exactly what the employment and support allowance and the flexible New Deal proposals are all about.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, in following up the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, does my noble friend agree that under previous Administrations, in which a wage was a man’s wage, often, if he had dependants, he was better off on benefits, whereas tax credits were designed precisely to ensure that the take-home pay reflected family size so that work paid?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, my noble friend, as ever, is absolutely right. We should not forget in all of this the national minimum wage, which has been very important in helping work pay and, from my recollection, was opposed by some Members in this Chamber.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, is not the problem with withdrawal rates that they are different for different benefits? None the less, even in the worst recession since the Second World War, more than half a million jobs are waiting to be filled, as the noble Lord has just said. Surely he will agree that to abandon people to state benefits, whether single parents or anyone else, is no way to achieve the Government’s aim of lifting them out of poverty?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord. As he said, half a million job vacancies are available at any one time, there is a very dynamic labour market, millions of people move between jobs, from work into benefits and from benefits into work, and 10,000 vacancies are notified to Jobcentre Plus every working day. We will not repeat the mistakes of the past. That does not mean that we should not properly also focus resources on those who will be made newly redundant in the current economic climate. Yesterday’s PBR announcements will help us significantly to deal with those issues.

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Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, despite all the Government’s efforts, families still fall through the poverty trap? For example, where a young mother has a disabled child and would like to go back to work but that would mean part-time work and, therefore, she would lose her carer’s allowance and end up with less than she is receiving on benefits. I hope that the Government will look at those circumstances where there are still gaps in the benefits.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, certainly I am happy to review a detailed calculation on the basis suggested by the noble Baroness.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, I am afraid that we have hit 30 minutes.

Planning Bill

3.06 pm

A message was brought from the Commons, That they agree to certain Lords amendments to the Planning Bill without amendment and that they disagree to the remaining amendments for which they have assigned reasons.


Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton will repeat the employment Statement after consideration of Commons reasons on the Planning Bill.

Planning Bill

3.07 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons reasons be considered forthwith.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The page and line references are to Bill 69, as first printed for the Commons.]


Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I beg to move that this House do not insist on its Amendment No. 115, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 115A.

Yesterday the other place rejected by a majority of over 70 the amendment put forward by this House to amend the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to ensure that those exercising planning functions have “special regard” to the preservation of gardens, groups of gardens and urban green spaces. I hope that your Lordships’ House will now accept the argument put forward—indeed, the way forward proposed—by my right honourable friend John Healey, which was carried in the other place.

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The original amendment put forward by noble Lords opposite was intended to address a problem that has become known as “garden grabbing”. The amendment as constructed was extremely problematic. It suggested that planning authorities should have special regard to back gardens in all aspects of the planning system, both at the plan-making stage and in determining applications. That was unacceptable because it would have meant that planning authorities would have had to give priority to the consideration of back gardens in planning decisions over and above other considerations, such as design or the suitability of the transport links, in determining appeals.

I made it clear at Third Reading that I do not deny that there is an issue to be addressed and that there are public and political concerns around the issue of the loss of gardens to development. Our case for a more responsible and evidence-based response, however, rests on the fact that, although there is a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence in individual boroughs where gardens are being lost—some of that evidence was rehearsed again in another place—there is a crucial absence of systematic evidence as to where, how and why this is occurring, why some local planning authorities are more successful than others in developing policies for protecting back gardens and where a sustainable solution may lie.

I return to the point that I made on Report and at Third Reading—that the solution lies in the hands of local authorities that choose to develop. As my right honourable friend made clear in the other place, local authorities can set out, within their local development frameworks, strong and specific local policies that protect gardens in particular areas if that is desirable. Our planning policy statement 3—it is on planning for housing and was published in November 2006—also strengthened the local authority’s hand in this: local authorities can set individual brownfield targets that apply only to back gardens, effectively separating them from derelict land and vacant sites. My right honourable friend in another place quoted several examples, as I have done in this House, that show where that is working well and pointed out that local authorities already have the power to turn down applications for inappropriate housing development in back gardens. Provided that the supply of land is maintained and the proposed development is in line with the council’s planning for housing objectives, they can resist garden development and expect support at appeal.

There is simply no evidence that the Planning Inspectorate overturns local authority decisions on brownfield development just because they are on garden land; that was raised in the other place yesterday. I am able to put some figures before the House, which were provided to us by PINS. They show that over the two years from October 2005 until September 2007, 28.5 per cent of appeals were granted on minor dwellings—that is, fewer than 10 dwellings—which means that in 71.5 per cent of cases PINS supported the local authority’s decision. Of that 28.5 per cent, some of the development would have been on previously residential land. It is simply not true to say that any increase in garden development—if, indeed, there is one—is because of the actions of the inspectorate.

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My right honourable friend also said—I absolutely concur with this—that there is genuine confusion about the evidence that so-called garden grabbing is happening. For example, I have tried to follow up a survey that the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, mentioned in our last debate—he referred to a survey of six local authorities. I have failed to find it; I am sure that that is my fault rather than his, but I would welcome sight of it because it is reported to have found that, in the sample of authorities, 72 per cent of all brownfield site development is on back gardens. Our published statistics—they are taken from the land use change statistics, which are collected and published by my department on the amount of development on previously developed land as a percentage of all new housing and include development of back gardens—show that the figure across England is 26.9 per cent. Indeed, the Mayor of London’s draft London housing strategy indicated that only 3.78 per cent of new units in 2006 were on gardens.

I am going into such detail because I want to demonstrate that the situation is simply not clear. We can all agree that there are no systematic figures, that there is no uniform approach to address the issue and that the issue is best addressed at local level to reflect local circumstances. That is why I confirm, in response to the debate that noble Lords started in this House and which they pursued assiduously, that we are proposing to begin a review early in the new year of evidence on the extent of development on back gardens to ascertain whether there is a clear and genuine problem. If there is a problem, we will take action to remedy the situation by, for example, making revisions to policy, changing the definition of previously developed land or offering targeted support and guidance to local authorities.

We can proceed only from a robust evidence base, which we do not currently have. I know that noble Lords appreciate that—we are always told in this House to be sure of our evidence before plunging into policy. We must take the greatest care that policy changes do not bring perverse consequences and that they are properly consulted on. Noble Lords will also agree that, given the demand for housing—especially affordable housing—we have to be sure that a change of policy would not undermine our objectives on housing.

Having listened to the debate in the other place last night, I am pleased to say that my right honourable friend’s announcement of a review and a subsequent commitment on policy was welcomed by Members of the Opposition. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords who raised the issue successfully in this House will now feel that they can accept the outcome in another place.

Moved, That this House do not insist on its Amendment No. 115, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 115A.—(Baroness Andrews.)

3.15 pm

Earl Cathcart: My Lords, since garden grabbing was debated and voted on in this House on Report, our amendment on the issue was debated yesterday in another place and, predictably, thrown out. During the debate, there was strong support from all parties

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for the need to protect gardens and open spaces. Indeed, it was heartening that on Report in this House the Minister said:

“We support the underlying aim of the amendment”.—[Official Report, 12/11/08; col. 694.]

However, when arguing against our garden preservation amendment, both the noble Baroness and the Minister in another place, John Healey, argued that there is sufficient protection within PPS3 to preserve gardens. The small print of PPS3 must be so small that this protection is unidentifiable. Even the Minister’s honourable friend Paul Truswell had to ask for clarification on how PPS3 can be used to address garden grabbing. The issue certainly is not clear to me, to local authorities or, indeed, to the Planning Inspectorate, especially as PPS3 defines previously developed land as,

That definition specifically does not exclude gardens but it includes them within the curtilage of the house. This issue was not helped by John Prescott saying, when Deputy Prime Minister and head of the Planning Inspectorate, that the need for housebuilding was such that gardens were a legitimate source of development. We can go on debating whether PPS3 offers sufficient protection for gardens but it is obvious to me that, as I think the noble Baroness said, the policy is unclear about whether gardens can or should be protected.

Another tenet of the Government’s arguments against the amendment has been that brownfield policy has been in existence for years and therefore a change of course now is either not necessary or too complicated. However, that is not the case. The previous version of the guidance, PPG3, issued by my noble friend Lord Patten in 1992 when Secretary of State, did not include any definition of gardens as brownfield, nor did it contain density targets. Indeed, the guidance discouraged residential infill where inappropriate and gave a broad discretion for councils to protect the character of their locality. It stated:

“Where authorities consider that the pressure for development and redevelopment is such as to threaten seriously the character of an established residential area which ought to be protected, they may include density and other policies in their local plans for the areas concerned, while avoiding undue rigidity. Policies may also need to cover the physical scale of new buildings, access, and in areas where new development is likely to have serious traffic implications, off-street car parking standards. Policies should take account of the character of particular residential areas ... Where the planning authority considers that existing densities in a particular area should not be exceeded, a policy to that effect in the local plan can help to deter the speculative demolition of sound housing”.

That policy gave gardens and open spaces the necessary protection while giving local authorities flexibility.

The policy has now changed and it changed under this Government. I believe that they now recognise this, too, which is why they are offering us a review. I welcome the announcement that they made yesterday, which was repeated by the Minister, that there will be a review of this issue early in the new year, but that could signify either that the Government have accepted, however grudgingly, that there is a serious concern that must be addressed or that they simply wish to kick the subject into the long grass in the hope that it

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will go away. I hope that the former is the Government’s motivation. Indeed, I feel sure of that, given that the Minister said:

“We support the underlying aim of the amendment”.—[Official Report, 12/11/08; col. 694.]

As the underlying aim of the amendment is to protect gardens and green spaces in urban areas from infill and rapacious overdevelopment, the Government’s concession is very welcome.

I hope that the Minister can furnish the House with some details of what form the review will take. One of the great difficulties in this area is that there are no reliable national figures and facts, because the Government do not collect them. There must therefore be an external review, not simply an internal department review of whether anything should be done. The review must be evidence-based, comprehensive and countrywide, encompassing all local planning authorities in England. What is the timescale of the review? The matter is urgent and concern is widespread. When will the review report? Will the Minister facilitate a debate in this House?

I hope and expect that the Minister will agree that the following questions should be asked. What percentage of new homes is built on brownfield land? What percentage is built on existing gardens and green spaces? What is the density of such developments? How does that compare with the density of housing in the existing surrounding area? How many of these developments were refused by the planning authority as inappropriate development but were allowed on appeal by the Planning Inspectorate? How does each local planning authority interpret the local development framework set out in PPS3? Does each local authority’s framework provide specific protection for gardens and open spaces and, if so, how? These are the kinds of questions that must be asked.

If the Government claim that they cannot act because there is no evidence of a problem, they must be prepared to gather the data that will allow us to ascertain the scale of the problem. The Minister in the other place said that he was not prepared to accept anecdotal evidence. These are the sorts of questions that must be asked if anecdotal evidence is ever to be allowed to be investigated in a fair, clear and statistical way.

I have one more point. Given that the review will take place in 2009 and that, with the present state of the housing market, developers are reluctant to build any new housing, I hope that the Government will not be tempted to conclude that garden grabbing has been much reduced over the previous year or so and to go back to their old argument that PPS3 therefore gives sufficient protection for gardens. Unless the Government do something now, garden grabbing will return as soon as the property market strengthens. I do not doubt that the results will differ from local planning authority to local planning authority, but I am quite certain that, if the Government go about this review in a rigorous and impartial manner, the scale of the problem will quickly become apparent. Once we have got to that point, perhaps the Government will be more amenable to suggestions about how we can better protect our gardens.

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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, clearly this matter has different resonance in different parts of the country. In my area, suburban London, it is a major issue. I readily agree that it is a multi-faceted issue; it cannot be divorced from the matter of getting homes built that offer a good quality of life and do not inappropriately reduce the quality of life of those in existing homes. Yesterday, the Minister in another place said that there was no evidence of a problem, although he appeared to pray in aid information from the inspectorate as evidence on the other side. I do not know how many anecdotes are required to become, in aggregate, evidence, or at any rate a strong pointer, but there is clearly at least a strong pointer.

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