HC Deb 25 November 1996 vol 286 cc44-57 4.51 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)

I am today publishing a Green Paper called "Household Growth: Where Shall We Live?" I am also publishing a summary version, which is available free. Copies of the documents are in both Libraries. A copy of the Green Paper is available from the Vote Office, and I am also sending a copy of the summary version to all hon. Members in England.

My Department has also published today an independent research report entitled "Urbanisation in England: Projections 1991–2016". It converts household projections into implied take-up of land for new housing and related urban uses, and shows the effect that that might have at county level. Copies of this document are also available in the Libraries.

There are few more important long-term issues facing this country than the likely growth in households over the next 20 years. The latest projections, published by my Department last year, indicate that there could be up to 4.4 million more households in England over a 25-year period running from 1991 to 2016. That is almost 1 million more than the figures for which we are currently planning. This raises significant issues, not only for us, but for our children and even our children's children.

How we provide for the new homes that will be needed is something for all of us—the whole community—to consider. Our success or failure in so doing will affect the quality of our lives, the appearance of our towns and countryside, our patterns of employment and transport, and so on: in short, the sort of country that we wish to hand on to succeeding generations. It will inevitably have implications not only for the housing and planning policies for which my Department is responsible, but for many policies across the whole of Government. This is not, however, a matter for Government alone.

The purpose of the Green Paper is to stimulate and contribute to a wide-ranging public debate—a debate on the alternative options open to us of how to respond to the challenge of accommodating the new homes we shall need. It is especially important in this case, because the Government do not and cannot pretend to have all the solutions; nor can they control or influence all the many and complex causes that contribute to household growth. Many of the causes are beyond the influence of any Government to alter fundamentally, if at all.

In its report last year on housing need, the Environment Select Committee—chaired by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett)—recommended that we explore the causes of household formation. The paper does that.

The growth in population explains part of the household growth, but it is not the only explanation. Indeed, for much of this century, growth in households has consistently outpaced the growth in population. There are three main reasons. First, improved living standards and better health mean that people are living longer, and often on their own. Secondly, people are better off than ever before, and can afford to set up separate households more easily. Thirdly, changes in social behaviour and attitudes, especially towards marriage and the family, lead to a smaller proportion of households consisting of married couples with children.

Some of those changes are eminently desirable; others are harmful and damaging, and to be regretted. In all cases, however, the forces behind them are powerful. In many of these areas, other bodies are potentially more influential than Government. Churches, businesses, the entertainment industry, the arts, the media, schools—all exert influences in many of these fields which far outweigh any that Government can bring to bear. It is therefore absolutely right that we have a wide debate, involving the whole country, on whether anything can be done to influence the rate of household formation, so that it grows more slowly than it has in recent years.

That is right and proper, and, as I have said, reflects a recommendation from the Select Committee. However, it would be foolish for us to pretend that any of the trends can be easily reversed or modified. We must assume—it is only prudent to assume—that this growth will come about. Indeed, all the household projections produced by my Department over the last 10 years have consistently underestimated the actual household growth that has subsequently occurred.

As I have said, the amount of development for which we need to plan will have far-reaching consequences for the future shape, appearance and operation of our towns and countryside. At some point, all of us are likely to be touched by this issue—whether we live in a town or village that will need to expand, whether we have children growing up who will be seeking a first home of their own, or whether we live in the centre of the city which will need to accommodate new and different types of dwelling for the growing population that we foresee. That is why the debate must be for all of us. The Government want this to be a genuine debate. It will be a debate in which all the options for accommodating the growth will be open for discussion.

There is only one premise on which the debate should be based. My first priority is to use the growth in households to help to regenerate our existing towns and cities. For centuries, towns and cities have been the engines of civilisation, and, despite new ways of communicating, learning and doing business, they seem likely to remain so. It is therefore right and proper that we should seek to enhance them and their vitality by providing new homes within the existing urban fabric with facilities and services that are readily available.

With the right commitment to standards of environmental quality and the provision of homes, jobs and services, urban regeneration can offer a highly a sustainable option for future settlements. I therefore wish to see as much as possible of this new development going into our existing towns and cities, so that they can be revitalised and our countryside can be protected.

The production of this number of houses on green-field sites, concentrated in the most pressured areas, is simply not sustainable, and the Government are not prepared to plan to meet the pressures in that way. We have already set ourselves a target to build half all new housing on re-used land. I would be especially interested in people's views on whether we should set a target of 60 per cent.—indeed, whether even more might be possible. In saying that, I accept that we must strive to do everything possible to make all our towns more attractive places in which to live and work.

Let no one delude himself that these issues can be avoided, or do not need to be addressed. Anyone in government would much prefer not to have to face what are very clear and real pressures; substantial growth, however, will happen, and will need to be accommodated.

But even accommodating more housing in our towns and cities, as we can and must, means that some development on green-field sites will still be needed. That is unavoidable. The question is, which is the most appropriate way in which to do it? The options include extending our existing towns and cities, as we did in Northampton, Peterborough, Swindon, Newbury and Thetford. That allows people to have access to a "ready-made" town or city, with all the facilities that that offers. In some areas, that may mean building on to small towns. That will be a sensitive issue. That is why we need to discuss with people whether that would be the best option for them and for their areas.

Other options could include new villages or even new towns. Again, whether that is an appropriate option will depend on local circumstances. I am not advocating new settlements, or ruling them out. I simply want to explore what is possible and what people want—[Interruption.] Labour Members should learn that we want the people with whom and in whose towns and villages other people will live to make the decisions themselves. I am interested in the outbreak of hilarity once one talks about consulting the people—an interesting attitude of the Labour party.

There is also the issue of expanding villages. We are already committed to ensuring that villages remain viable and that we meet local people's needs. Even if that option is taken up, however, it will not make a major contribution to the total. We must also be concerned about avoiding too much development in the countryside, and ensuring that new development is sustainable. Above all, whatever we choose, we must ensure that we create sustainable patterns of development, that we use the growth to regenerate our cities, and that we maintain our policy of urban containment.

The Government have already helped to put in place measures that will help to accommodate the necessary development, much of it in our urban areas. We have already set one target—50 per cent.—for the proportion of new housing to be built on previously used land, and, as I said earlier, I am now seeking people's views on a higher, aspirational target of 60 per cent. or even more. We have revised and updated our planning guidance to reflect the principles of sustainable development and changing patterns in the marketplace.

I have launched the quality initiative to ensure that the standard of all development is raised to the level of the best, so that new development enhances rather than detracts from its surroundings. We have produced our air quality strategy to cut pollution and to make our air cleaner. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has published his transport Green Paper, which deals with serious transport issues in our cities, and proposes measures for improvements.

We are encouraging the regeneration of our city centres through city challenge, more mixed-use development and revised planning policies. We have launched our "greening the city" initiative to make our towns more pleasant places in which to live. We are encouraging more conversions of houses and offices to flats, and greater flexibility in the use of standards where that is sensible and safe.

None the less, other options will need to be explored as well, and that is what this debate will be about. In the next few months, my Department will organise a series of seminars in the regions to obtain local people's views on the impacts that household growth might have on their areas. My colleagues and I will be meeting different groups to assess their views. I hope that every hon. Member will contribute to the debate, and will encourage their constituents to do so. On the outcome of the debate depends the future of our towns and countryside and of the environment that we hand on to succeeding generations.

The only intolerable position in the debate is to hope that the problem will go away, and not face up to the real issues. I hope that all parties in the House can come together on the matter to seek an answer that will satisfy not only our generation, but succeeding ones.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Does the Secretary of State accept that his statement and document are long on pious concern, which sits uncomfortably with the fact that the Conservative Government, who have claimed for 17 years to be the party of rural England, have encouraged out-of-town development, whether it be housing, super-stores, warehousing or leisure centres? He commends the idea that local people should make decisions themselves, but was not much of that out-of-town development pushed through by Ministers, who overrode the decisions of local councils?

Does the Secretary of State accept that we welcome the recognition that something has gone wrong, but deplore the fact that he does not seem to have decided to do anything about it? Does he not realise that the problem of people leaving cities is not just a planning and housing matter? It is necessary to deal with the reasons why people leave cities—usually to seek a better quality of life.

Does the Secretary of State not accept that the years of failure by the Government to do anything about the problems of air pollution, rising crime, schools and hospital services in urban areas, other than to close those hospitals, have made things worse? Will he confirm that, last year, the Budget reduced the funds available for hospitals, schools and police in urban areas? What will happen in tomorrow's Budget? [Laughter.] It is no good the Secretary of State mouthing pieties today and allowing the Chancellor of the Exchequer to kick the bottom out of his pieties in the Budget tomorrow.

The Secretary of State will, I am sure, accept that we have long advocated more building on brown-field sites and more people coming back to live in flats above shops. Will he confirm that Tory central office arranged for Tory candidates to denounce us for advocating that? Does he not accept that there are limits on building in already built-up areas, that it costs more per house, that, with higher densities, maintenance costs are higher, and that problems can arise for householders if buildings have been erected on polluted land—for instance, on what were formerly landfill sites? Will he contemplate changes in the law to protect householders who acquire homes on brown-field sites?

Does the Secretary of State accept that not all open land in urban areas can be built on, that many green-field sites in urban areas are precious, and that more are needed to provide playing fields and sports grounds for existing town dwellers to keep up the quality of life, which may stop them moving out of the area? He says that not all sites are ripe for development, but does he accept that people are unlikely to accept his promises when 5,000 playing fields have been sold under the Government and 2,600 more are threatened with sell-off?

Does the Secretary of State recall that, on the "Today" programme this morning, he said that he would provide more money for urban areas when that is not true, and that tomorrow's Budget is likely to reduce the amount of money that goes to social housing? According to the Government's present plans, 1.8 million houses will be built on green-field sites. The Secretary of State aspires to just 40 per cent. of the new houses that are needed being built on green-field sites. That would mean that he aspires to building 1.5 million houses on green-field sites, concentrated particularly in the south-west, eastern and south-east regions. This is not the end of building in rural areas as we know it.

We welcome a debate, but the Secretary of State should remember the here and now. He wants to hit the target of a further 3.7 million houses by 2016, but is he not obliged to accept that he is building only 137,000 a year, at which rate, by 2016 we would be 1 million short of his announced target? Does not that expose his document for what it is—fine words, pious objectives and pious aspiration—but, when it comes to something practical, the Government are nowhere to be seen?

Mr. Gummer

I will stick to the here and now. I had hoped that we would be able to have a common view on this, but, as the hon. Gentleman decided that we are going to have a party political debate, I will remind him why Britain's cities have driven people out. It is because they have had Labour councils, which have made it more and more difficult for people to live in them. There has been greater crime in cities, because the Labour party has voted solidly against any measure against crime. It is soft on crime, and not hard on the criminal.

The Labour party says that we have done nothing about air pollution, but it has improved every year because of our policies, which are the most advanced in Europe. Within 10 years, we will have overtaken any country. Of course the Labour party does not know what happens in the rest of Europe, and clearly it does not know what happens in Britain, given that last series of questions.

The Labour party voted against everything that has raised education standards in schools. It was against league tables and any improvement in the school system. It was against city technical colleges and everything that has changed the face of education for the better in our cities. How the hon. Gentleman dares to make such party political points, I do not know. They might be all right for speeches in Camden, where the people have forgotten how much Camden borough council has contributed to the desolation of that area of London.

Since we are talking about contributions to cities, what about Lambeth's contribution to the improvement of life in the city? What about Islington, where the education is so bad that the Leader of the Opposition sends his child outside the borough? What happens in Southwark, where one of the Labour party Front-Bench spokespersons finds the education so bad that she sends her child outside the borough, but not even to a school in the state system? The Labour party has nothing to say on this matter. It is largely responsible for the condition of our cities; it has damaged the cities, while the Government have had to come to the rescue to change things.

Mr. Nick Raynsford ( Greenwich)

Which party controls Greenwich council?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman dares to ask from his seat who represents Greenwich. I shall tell him about the London borough of Greenwich that he dares to speak about. It has done nothing to attract people. All it has done is make it more and more difficult for people to live there comfortably and happily.

I shall now deal with one or two of the sensible suggestions made by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. On open land, I have committed myself to protecting playing fields in the planning system throughout the country. I will tell the hon. Gentleman who my biggest enemies are in trying to do that—Labour councils, which have been trying to build on playing fields. One after another, they come forward with their schemes for building on playing fields and ask me, "Can we please build just here—not next door, just here, no more, but this one?" I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I turn them down.

I have been one of the foremost supporters of parks, through "Greening of the Cities", and so on. I am also pleased that, for the first time, large sums of money are going into the regeneration of our parks, not least from the lottery and the national heritage memorial fund. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras suggested that I am not building houses. Governments do not build houses; houses are built by the private sector and housing associations.

I turn to the question of money going into the city centres. Due to the capital challenge programme and environmental policies generally, we have brought in vast sums of money from the private sector that the Labour party could not begin to tap, and never wanted to. It pretends that such money does not go to city centres. The regeneration of the country will depend on partnership between Government, business, local government and voluntary organisations. That is what we are promoting.

We want a debate that goes far above and beyond the kind of petty comments that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras made up on the train from Nottingham. [Laughter.] He was going to make such comments no matter what I said in my statement. Even if I had mentioned figures of 70 or 80 per cent., he would have said the same. He should get on with the discussion, and leave the silly comments to the Liberal Democrats. They are the ones who have a different policy from one constituency to the next. He should leave them to lower the debate, and raise his sights.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Can we now have some short, sharp questions, and succinct answers?

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that converting almost 7,000 hectares of rural land for urban use every year is unsustainable? In view of that, is he aware that there will be strong support for the idea of increasing the target for the percentage of new houses built on recycled land? Will he therefore consider supporting that target—not only through the planning system, by having a strong presumption in planning guidance against permission for development on a green-field site unless the developer can show that all the possibilities for development on brown-field sites have been exhausted, but possibly through the use of a market instrument such as a levy on any development on green-field sites?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend will be pleased to see in the document that we have suggested that we might use the same kind of sequential judgment as that used for out-of-town shopping. We start by asking why the development cannot be built in the city centre, and, if it cannot, we ask whether there is a moderately close position. Only then can green-field sites be considered.

That is one of the propositions, and I hope that my hon. Friend will add his support to it if he feels that that is right. He is absolutely correct to say that it is unsustainable to believe that we can meet the requirements of the kind of life style that we have largely decided for ourselves merely by spreading houses across the countryside. That would not be right, either for our own generation or for future generations.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) support a green-field development tax, which sounds like a Liberal Democrat policy. Perhaps we shall see another Member crossing the Floor.

Although much of the Secretary of State's statement was, sadly, just a list of things on which he wants to consult, there was one very definite proposal that I—and I am sure my party—welcome: the move towards more of the housing requirement being put into urban areas than has previously been proposed. In making that proposal, he should answer one or two further questions. What, for example, is he going to do with the housing partnership fund? Will that continue to be funded? It has, of course, been one of the main ways in which empty housing has been brought back into use in urban areas up until now.

Despite saying that he wanted to encourage the conversion of houses and offices into flats, has the Secretary of State provided any incentives for doing so? Will he provide any in future? Will all this mean that the efforts to force housing on the shire counties through their structure plans will be changed? Will he give some further advice to the shire counties—those that have produced structure plans and those that are in the process of doing so—on how much housing should be in more urban areas as opposed to green-field sites?

Mr. Gummer

This is a continuation of policy. We used to get about 38 per cent. of new housing on brown-field sites. That figure is now nearer 50 per cent., and I want to increase it to 60 per cent. and beyond. We are talking about percentages. Does the hon. Gentleman not understand the difference between percentages and absolute figures? The policy has been going on for the past 15 years. As usual, he does not know his figures.

I want to answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), but I would be much happier to do so if I did not know what is going to happen. I shall tell him what will happen. Liberals in the country will say that the idea is very good, but Liberal Democrats in the towns will say that they do not want the houses. We know exactly what the Liberals will say; it is always like that. I challenged a Liberal Democrat councillor in his own area on the issue when he tried to say that they wanted fewer houses. I said to him, "If you promise in your surgeries to tell every young couple who comes to you for a house that they cannot have one because you, the Liberal Democrat councillor, have stopped the building of houses, I will think about your proposal." Of course, he said, "Oh, no, I won't do that." What he meant was that he blamed the Government either way. That is Liberal policy, and we know that that is what it will be.

Of course I shall go on helping the policies to improve the use of empty homes, create more opportunities for conversion and ensure that people use their homes more effectively to let and the like. When he reads the document, the hon. Member for Newbury will find that most of those things are there covered.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

My right hon. Friend's proposal for a fresh debate is extremely welcome, although he will not get much help from the Labour party. Does he accept that there is widespread concern about the household projections and the way in which they are formulated, and that there is even more concern about the huge figures for housing plans that are proposed in various shire county structures, including Surrey?

Does he accept that such figures seem to assume and accommodate certain social trends, which we, as responsible Members of Parliament, may not wish to accommodate, and may want to alter in future? They seem to assume and accommodate large migration, particularly to the south and the south-east, of the kind that may not be in the interest of the north, the south or the nation.

Will my right hon. Friend consider that again before he is quite so definite about having to accept down to the last 100,000, or whatever, those enormous household projections? Will he very much endorse what he hinted at earlier—that, where planning authorities have brown land and want to build on it, they will be given powers to do so, so that the momentum of developers to go straight on to agricultural land is checked?

Mr. Gummer

My right hon. Friend and I have a similar attitude to the family and the concerns that he has raised. He will find in the document a very clear statement that, if we find such figures intolerable, we will have to look again at the way in which life style is operated and whether we are prepared to accept such an environmental result. That is a real issue. The problems are very clear.

Of course, the figures may be wrong, since, as I have said, we have always been wrong in recent years—but always due to underestimating. That is the problem. As a responsible Minister, I have to look at the sort of numbers that will be demanded. Even if we were able to change the mores of society, so that there were fewer divorces and so that divorced people married again, the numbers of homes that would be needed would still have a significant impact on the country. We will need to discuss the issues and decide whether the figures should be left exactly as they are; or whether, as I fear, they will be greater, or, as my hon. Friend and I hope, less. I hope that encouraging local authorities to use their planning powers will be one of the consensus views that will come from the document before us.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to a debate. One of the keys to the number of houses we will need to build in the future is how well we look after the existing housing stock. Is he satisfied that the Government are spending sufficient money modernising the existing stock? The Secretary of State hinted that he wants new building of high-rise flats and deck-access flats. If so, is he satisfied that local authorities and housing associations have sufficient resources to spend on the communal areas of existing flats to ensure that we do not lose them from the stock and therefore need more new dwellings built?

Mr. Gummer

I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not think that I am advocating the building of high-rise and deck-access flats. I mentioned mixed development and modern—and older—approaches to the subject, rather than the mistakes that we have made since the war. It is much better to have greater density than large areas of unused land. The density in many of our cities is measured not by the real density but by the fact that large areas of former factories and the like are not occupied. We must take seriously the change that has taken place and the need to reinforce our city centres.

I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to improve our housing stock. Most improvement in housing stock is done by the private sector—by people in their own homes—and the Government's successful economic policy is most likely to aid that improvement. Large-scale voluntary transfers will ensure that much of the older housing owned by local authorities is improved by releasing the money that is tied up in them. If certain local authorities, especially Labour authorities, had not held rents down or been unable to keep them up, we would have had very better quality. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage people to take account of the benefits of large-scale voluntary transfers.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that 50 per cent. in the inner cities is not enough, and that the figure should be nearer 70 per cent. to save our rural areas? Does he also accept that we should not join villages into mini-conurbations, as Lancashire county council seems determined to do to Garstang and Catterall?

Mr. Gummer

I understand my hon. Friend's cogent views. I also represent a rural constituency, so I understand the issues. I remind her that there are many ways to increase the number of people who can be accommodated in towns and cities without resorting to high-rise flats. For example, terraced houses with gardens can provide just as sensible an answer in terms of space as many of the high rises we have had in the past, as the Hulme redevelopment has shown. The answer is better, but sensible, housing for our urban areas.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Will the Secretary of State clarify his current policy on small amounts of infilling in urban areas? Will he explain why his Department has recently written to Cambridge city council objecting to some aspects of its local plan, especially those that refer to small inbuilt developments, not on parks or playing fields, but on the sort of brown-field sites mentioned in the report today?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that the hon. Lady would not expect me to go with her on a trip around Cambridge today, although I know the city well. The city council has a bad record for planning, and the city has been damaged by the refusal of the council to adopt a sensible transport policy. That is the city council that gave away green bicycles, found they were stolen and wondered why. That is the city council with some of the worst car-parking arrangements in the United Kingdom. Some of the car parks are looked after so badly that they have a smell that can be recognised down the street. So I would not be surprised if it got wrong the issue raised by the hon. Lady as well.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we would not need such a large number of houses if all the voids were utilised? Will he therefore carefully consider the nine out of 10 worst local authorities, which happen to be Labour, and ensure that they use their housing stock efficiently?

Mr. Gummer

Until the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) asked his question, I had hoped that today we would proceed on the basis that much of the report was common ground, such as the suggestion that we should use all the accommodation we now have as efficiently as possible. That means that local councils, if they own houses, should seek large-scale voluntary transfers that would considerably improve the efficient use of the accommodation.

I hope that local councils that own accommodation will ensure that the changeover takes place quickly. I should like to see more private owners able to let accommodation in their homes. There are many actions that we can take; I agree with my hon. Friend that it is most important that we do not waste the accommodation we have, because that is environmentally unacceptable.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

The Secretary of State has said several times that his Department has underestimated the population projections for some years. Since those projections become the starting point for regional planning guidance for housing provision, is not the implication that the number of houses that need to be built has also been grossly underestimated? Even the Government accept that some houses will be built as social housing, mainly by housing associations, so can we expect that the Budget this week will provide more money to put right the backlog that the Secretary of State has just admitted?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman is talking about two different sets of figures. We have clear figures on the need for housing for those in special need. Indeed, I am sure he will agree that the success of the housing action trust in his constituency has been remarkable. Although he was opposed to it to start with, I believe that he is now in favour of it, because it has been so successful. Much can be done, and is being done, in supported housing. We must get all hands to the pump, and one way to do that is for the hon. Member to encourage his local council to use the large-scale voluntary transfer mechanism, as is happening in many local councils, to ensure that we release large funds to improve housing and to reduce debt.

Sir Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's Green Paper. He has not said much about green belts or about the tricks that local authorities such as Sheffield play when they try to bring land and sites out of the green belt into production. I trust that he will examine that aspect closely, because a huge tract of green belt land was prevented from going into development only by the action of one of his colleagues.

Mr. Gummer

I am glad that my hon. Friend agrees that my Department and one of my fellow Ministers stopped that happening, and Sheffield city council should not have sought to do it. I have committed myself again to being the strongest supporter of the green belt of any Secretary of State in recent times, and I shall continue to be that. The green belt is part of the protection of sustainable development. We cannot continue to destroy the areas that are especially important for the rest and relaxation of the people who live in cities. It is not acceptable.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I shall try not to upset the Secretary of State, although he is awfully sensitive today. I do not know what has come over him. He said that he wants a national debate involving the whole country. He did not say anything about Scotland, yet the problems arise equally in Scotland. How much has the Scottish Office been involved so far in this issue, and will there be a parallel debate in that part of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Gummer

No one could be more enthusiastic than I about the United Kingdom and the desire of the whole of the United Kingdom to work together. The hon. Gentleman's support for a policy that would divide the United Kingdom and break it up does not give him much ground for what he has just said. I happen to be the Secretary of State for the Environment for England, so I am seeking to encourage discussion in the areas for which I am responsible and to which the figures refer.

It is proper for the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to deal with those issues as they feel necessary. They have different problems with different pressures, which is one reason why we have a Secretary of State for each area.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in determining how much accommodation we will need in the future, we should take into account not only extra households but the number of places in care homes for the elderly? Does he further agree that one way of ensuring that development takes place in urban areas and not on green-field sites is to encourage local authorities to write policies to ensure that into their local plans? If that were done, councils deciding on planning applications would have a good reason for refusing one for a green-field site, because the development would not be inside an urban area. In addition, writing such a policy into the plans would make it less likely that a decision to refuse an application would be overturned on appeal.

Mr. Gummer

I agree with my hon. Friend's last remarks, and we ought to look more carefully at the wisdom of always assuming that older people should live apart from their families. That is an area in which other European countries have a lot to teach us.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

What priority has the Secretary of State given to the need to make the new homes energy-efficient? Will he examine the supreme qualities of new, modernised and galvanised steel frames and steel cladding? When he discovers their advantages in terms of durability and energy efficiency, will he promote their use—particularly the steel frames that are manufactured in Newport, Gwent?

Mr. Gummer

Energy efficiency is particularly important to the existing housing stock, as new houses will be built according to the tougher legislation that is now in place. The House will have noticed that the previous two Labour speakers—the first from Scotland and the second from Wales—would not have the status to question the English Secretary of State were Labour's policies on devolution to be followed.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)

My right hon. Friend's statement will be welcomed throughout Somerset, where there is great concern at the pressure that new houses may bring to the countryside. He has placed strong emphasis on brown-field sites. Will he make sure that counties with a shortage of brown-field sites, such as Somerset, are not told by their Liberal Democrat local authorities that, because of that shortage, they must build in the green countryside and villages, whose very character may be threatened?

Mr. Gummer

I agree, and the Liberal Democrats in Somerset wasted no time in saying that it would have to build on green-field sites. I suggest that the council should spend more time trying to find answers, as my hon. Friend suggests. The reason why the council made its announcement was straightforwardly party political. It wanted to frighten people, and to claim that the Government were threatening them. We heard that from the Liberal Democrats—as we always do.

Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, and its particular emphasis on urban development. Will he confirm that he will not introduce a contaminated land regime, which would mitigate against his targets for urban development and his particular emphasis on brown-field sites?

In considering his green-field site policy, will he take account of the considerable concerns raised in areas around major conurbations where there is the possibility of the green belt being infringed? Does he agree that the green belt should be protected, and should not be allowed to be infringed by the development of transport connections arising from housing developments which spiral out from the conurbations and damage green belt areas?

Mr. Gummer

I shall certainly continue to protect the green belt areas. One of the problems with the phrase "contaminated land" is that it covers everything from land that is merely second-hand to land that has been deeply contaminated by a previous use, such as a gas station. It is a mistake to use those words in the generality, as we must clean up sites to the standard necessary for their purpose. In some cases—I hope, in more and more cases—that will be housing.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for encouraging a debate on the subject. Does he understand that the people of Worcester will be alarmed by the new and higher figures for household formation rates that he has provided to the House?

First, can I urge my right hon. Friend to collaborate with his Government colleagues and with other organisations to find a way to create a downward impact on household formation rates, which I do not believe the House should accept as a given? Secondly, can I urge him to set a target of two thirds for the building of new houses in urban areas and brown-field sites? Thirdly, will he encourage the county councils which are setting arbitrary divisions in terms of the areas where development should go—I am thinking particularly of Worcestershire—to introduce policies that enable new housing developments to be spread evenly across county council areas and not concentrated in sensitive areas?

Mr. Gummer

First, my hon. Friend and I would disagree fundamentally about some of the reasons why we need more homes. It is sad that one in two marriages are now breaking up, as opposed to one in five. That is not something that the Government can easily reverse, but most of us ought to be concerned about the instability that it creates.

There are many reasons for the change in the figures, such as young people who are setting up home earlier, and older people who are living longer in their own homes. We must accept a number of things whether we like them or not, and it is as well to try to decide on how we will deal with them, while hoping that, by other actions—not only in this House, but by the Churches and outside organisations—we can do something about the sad destruction of the family, which is the centre of our society.

We must look more carefully at where county councils put houses, and how we target house building within our big cities and smaller towns. In addition, we must try to get some councils to stop using this subject as a party political weapon.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that responsible local authorities, such as Buckinghamshire, already feel that they are under enormous pressure from existing housing forecasts? Although I acknowledge that there are limits to the influence that the Government can have on the rate of housing formation, may I urge him to explore with his Cabinet colleagues whether there are other policy changes—for example, to the social security and tax system—that could help reinforce the family, and so mitigate the impact of the forecasts published today?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend will find that these issues are raised in the consultative document, and he can be sure that my Cabinet colleagues and others will be considering these matters. This is a matter for a public debate and concerns difficult issues—not least the questions of the family, family formation, the stability of the family and the way in which we intend to live. But we cannot start the discussion until we understand that, if we take on a particular life style, that has a direct environmental effect. If we do not want that effect, we must look at our life style, and it is no use pretending that the problem will go away. We must accept that this is a result of the way in which we have decided to live. If we do not want that result, we must live differently.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

I welcome the Green Paper's emphasis on local decisions on local housing matters. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to encourage planning authorities not to take decisions in other areas that are inimical to housing development? I am thinking in particular of the decision that my right hon. Friend took—quite rightly—to bar an airport at Filton in my constituency, which would have stultified a considerable amount of housing development in an area where it is locally desired.

Mr. Gummer

We have to take such decisions, but so do local councils. If Bristol city council had followed a more progressive policy over Cribb's Causeway and its in-town development, it could have created a more lively centre for Bristol. However, the council has failed for years to rejuvenate its city centre.

Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton)

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on grasping the problem of the gap between how people want to live and how people do not want others to live near them? Does he recognise that those of us who represent urban areas will be concerned by any increase in density in our areas? Does he accept that, in planning for an increase in households, there is a need to take into account that what may be a brown-field or under-used site to some hon. Members is a breathing space for those of us who live in urban areas? We do not want more and more town cramming—there must be a balance throughout the country.

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend must accept that we have tried to make sure that we have in place the policies to ensure that the greening and the improvement of our cities takes place, and cities must be prepared to look again at the way in which they develop. We must remember that about 80 per cent. of the units required will be for one-person families. Therefore, the nature of the housing and of the building, for example, the mixed development, will be different from the traditional family housing that we have discussed in the past.

Many of those people would prefer to live in the centre of the city because they want to be near all the amenities. If one is on one's own, it is more difficult to manage a suburban or a rural existence if one works in the centre of town. We are trying to put that sort of development together. We do not want to be caught in a situation in which all hon. Members representing the countryside say, "We can't have them here," and those who represent towns say that we cannot have them there either.

Somehow, the nation must make up its mind about how it will meet the demands, some of which are ineluctable. Some, we cannot solve without facing up to them. Others we could change, if we changed our pattern of life. I want a nation that is prepared to face up to the fact that, if it lives like that, that will be the result. If it does not want that result, it has to change the way it lives.