HC Deb 09 December 1998 vol 322 cc280-8 12.29 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

I am glad to have an opportunity to raise a matter that causes much concern throughout the country. It is a pleasure to see the Minister for London and Construction in his place. I hope that he will be as helpful as he normally is when answering in debates.

The public just do not believe that 4.4 million new houses need to be built between 1991 and 2016. They distrust the science of prediction. The Office for National Statistics says that it makes sensible predictions based on the facts that are available to it. The problem is that its estimates become a self-fulfilling prophesy. It is wrong to take the 4.4 million figure and assume that everyone will want to live in the same place as before or, indeed, that all those people should live in the same place as before.

More than 90,000 units were handed down to Devon by the region. Devon cannot trade with, for example, Cornwall, which has to build only 48,000 houses. Even if the statisticians predict correctly nationally, the Government parcel out the regional allocations using calculations that have been set by historical precedent. The figures are based on past demographic and housing trends. The inability of the regions to trade outside or within themselves means that the historical housing numbers continue unchallenged.

On the basis that we cannot change the figures—they are set in concrete—the task is to accommodate those new housing units throughout the nation without destroying the countryside any further.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving me the chance to make a short intervention. Does he agree that there is a need to look at alternative methodologies, in particular ones that take account of the regional dimension, which can completely change the way in which the figures are calculated?

Mr. Steen

That is a helpful intervention. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the courtesy of letting me know that he wanted to intervene. The whole science is questionable. The statisticians have been getting away with a historical perspective that has allowed them to predict and provide year after year, without challenging the science.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

I have much sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. Does he agree that another flaw in that bogus science is the fact that huge allowance is made for, say, divorcing couples, but no allowance is made for the fact that divorced couples team up with other people thereafter?

Mr. Steen

This is a debate about housing, but the hon. Gentleman is right. Divorce is part of the problem with the housing allocation figures, because the statisticians presume that people are going to go on divorcing at the present rate and living with partners at the present rate. The statisticians go on predicting and providing down that ugly path, which is usually incorrect.

Why do housing projections continue to follow the predict-and-provide model when the Government say that they are ignoring it and another type of planning, which is used for road planning, abandoned the model a long time ago? We have found out that, if we predict traffic levels and build the roads to accommodate them, traffic volume increases above and beyond the projected levels; the M25 is a classic example.

Why should we build more roads if the effect is simply to increase traffic and gridlock? Infinite car usage is not financially, environmentally or socially sustainable; building 90,000 new houses in Devon is not sustainable either. Why on earth do housing planners and statisticians not realise that? No one can stop the planning juggernaut, except the Minister. He alone has access to the brake pedal.

If we build 4.4 million units of housing, they will be occupied sooner or later. What about the effect on the housing market of all that building? Will it not erode the value of existing properties, again creating negative equity for some householders?

The statisticians believe that many of those additional housing units will be used to accommodate the fall-out from family break-ups, which the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) mentioned. Divorce accounts for about a third of the 4.4 million units of new housing required. Again, we are told that 30 per cent. of those new housing units are intended for occupation by an increasing number of single people and by elderly people who are living longer. In addition, there is the movement of people taking or seeking work in another region.

There is also another reason. Statistics from South Hams, which is part of my constituency, show a massive in-migration from outside the county. Between 1981 and 1997, the population of South Hams increased by 15 per cent. By contrast, that of the whole county of Devon increased by only 5 per cent. Therefore, the population increase in South Hams has been out of all proportion to the increase in the county as a whole.

In the three months ending March 1998, 8,233 additional people moved into Devon, and about that number have moved in nearly every quarter since 1988. There is massive in-migration to Devon of 35,000 people a year. Current policy makes provision for all those people and is based on a liberalism and permissiveness that make some feel obliged to respond automatically to all social demands, regardless of the devastation that it wreaks on existing communities.

Having predicted, should we provide? South Hams has among the highest number of designated beauty and conservation areas of anywhere in England and Wales. On being told that it must build 12,000 new units by 2016, South Hams will have to build the equivalent of three or four new towns, all on green-field sites. Even Dartmoor national park, which is also partly in my constituency, has to find room for 800 more houses.

We are faced with the fact that the number of units that are planned for the principal conurbations in Devon—Plymouth and Torbay—is just a fraction more than the number for the countryside of South Hams. Torbay is having 6,300 new houses built, Plymouth 7,000. Between them, Exeter and Plymouth are to build the same number of houses as those planned for the South Hams countryside. If we build houses in one of the most beautiful areas of the United Kingdom, there will always be a queue of people to live in them—until the buildings destroy the beauty of the area.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is the same in the north-west, in my constituency? The ridiculous predictive figures mean that Whittingham will have to provide for an extra 1,000 houses, when only 500 houses exist in the village, and Calderstones and Grimsargh several hundred extra houses. Those small villages will be dwarfed by the new developments.

Mr. Steen

My hon. Friend puts it in his normal lucid and imaginative way. Villages will be swamped and destroyed. That is what the Government have to face.

It is town versus countryside. Even if it is too late to stop the 90,000 units being built in Devon, it is not too late to ensure that housing units are contained within existing urban areas. Cheap and pleasant housing should be made available in our principal cities: Plymouth, Exeter and Torbay. We should rebuild the inner cities to include single-person flats. Young people living in them will help to rejuvenate our city centres.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that, to make our cities attractive, they should be able to keep open spaces for use as parks, and so on? May I take the opportunity to assure him that Plymouth has been doing everything to look at where it can build houses or find new houses? Is he also aware of the structure plan working party of elected Members from our areas, which has looked at the figures? Far from their being handed top down, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, the working party has agreed that, with some modest adjustments, it will be able and will have to provide for the number of houses that are planned. It is a case of plan and manage, rather than predict and provide.

Mr. Steen

It is all very well the hon. Lady saying that Plymouth can absorb all the extra houses. Of course it can, because the figures for Plymouth and Torbay together are only slightly more than the number for the countryside of South Hams. Plymouth does not have a large number.

Mrs. Gilroy

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steen

I will not give way any more.

Mrs. Gilroy


Mr. Steen

I will not give way to the hon. Lady. Plymouth does not have a large number of houses. The houses that are going to damage Devon are the houses that have been allocated to the district councils; they will destroy the countryside. I apologise, but I must get on.

Mrs. Gilroy

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steen

I am not giving way again.

Mrs. Gilroy

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

I do not think that the hon. Lady really has a point of order. She has made a little speech and I think that she has done very well.

Mrs. Gilroy

Indeed, but the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) said that I had said something that I did not say—that Plymouth could cope with providing the houses. It will have great difficulty in doing so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There is no right of reply. It has to be remembered that this is an Adjournment debate, where a Back Bencher brings a case to the House to allow a Minister to reply. There may be another occasion when the hon. Lady can put the record straight.

Mr. Steen

I hope that I will be given an extra minute, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The intervention by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) took a minute and delayed the progress of an excellent and important speech.

City centres have been emptying into and on to the suburbs since the 1960s, with green-field sites taking the strain. Nottingham and Liverpool illustrate that trend. Inner-city schools are closing down because of lack of demand, while rural and suburban schools try to cope with increasingly unwieldy class sizes. Many built-on sites are under-utilised. The approach roads to Plymouth are lined with one-storey shops—something should be done there.

In Devon, why not concentrate on building the 90,000 new units in the cities? Enough land is left to accommodate those units, whether it be unused, underused, vacant, dormant or derelict. It is all there, but no one will take the lead. Of course, it is easier and cheaper for developers to build on green-field sites, but we must not let builders concrete over green-field land simply because it is cheaper for them to do so than to rehabilitate brown-field urban land. We need to increase the tax on green-field building and give tax incentives for brown-field site development. The present projections are that nearly 1.5 per cent. of England's total land area will be swallowed up by urbanisation by 2016. That means 2,750 acres of the countryside being built on each year.

As for infrastructure, the 90,000 new housing units in Devon will place strains on the sewerage system, water supply, schools, hospitals and so forth. Even where houses are not being built, the ripple effect will impact throughout the county. There will be more cars, schoolchildren and recreational requirements. More general practitioners will be needed, more water will be consumed and more sewage treatment will be needed.

Even the airwaves are already full—so much so that south Devon cannot receive Channel 5, although that may be a blessing in disguise. We simply do not have the environmental capacity to accommodate in Devon everyone who may like to live there. The effect on the environment and the damage to well-established and happy communities would simply be too great.

Predict and provide is a top-down approach and does untold damage. The Government must reverse that policy, which is based on the premise that what has gone before is the yardstick for what should happen. The Government must review the way in which their central housing figures are distributed among the regions. The districts, counties and regions must be prepared to object to the housing figures that are handed down to them when they have the opportunity to do so. It is no good doing what the Liberals did in Devon last July. They voted for 90,000 new units and the very same evening launched a campaign claiming that, if the houses for which they had voted that afternoon were built, untold damage would result and much of the countryside would be suburbanised. That was the action of not merely Liberals at the county level but the Torbay Liberals, the South Hams district council Liberals and the North Devon Liberals, who all voted for the housing figures that they were given, which they admit would destroy the countryside. They vote and then they weep crocodile tears. I see the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) rising and I will give way to him if he will make his intervention short.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

I will make it as short as possible, but I do not understand how Liberals in Torbay, a unitary authority, could have voted on those figures for the county. The figures that they chose were below those that the Secretary of State said he had rejected. He is imposing a higher figure and so the hon. Gentleman should address his remarks to the Secretary of State, not to councillors. Also, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) introduced predict and provide when he was Secretary of State in a Conservative Government.

Mr. Steen

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman will join me in campaigning against the Secretary of State, as the figures are disastrous for Devon.

The Government should review all county structure plan figures. They should create tax incentives for brown-field building and tax green-field developments. Our priority must be to rebuild the cities and save the countryside. As it is, many of our cities resemble doughnuts with no jam left in the middle. Regions should be able to trade housing numbers with other regions and, within them, counties should be able to do the same.

The Government may predict, but they must not automatically provide. If they do, they should allocate housing units to the less populated areas and should not allow the south-east and the south-west to bear the brunt of the housing explosion. The Government must heed a warning from all parts of the country that the countryside is in peril. There is widespread discontent about the housing figures and their allocation. The Government must listen—as the Conservative party is listening—because the people have spoken.

12.44 pm
Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on raising this subject and I am grateful to him for asking me to take one minute of his time to endorse what he has said. I do not think that he has left me a full minute, so I will be as quick as I can.

First, I agree with everything that he said about predict and provide. I also agree with most of his conclusions, apart from having some reservations about his passing reference to tax. I rely on my hon. Friend's judgments on matters that affect Devon and will not debate them with Liberal Members, although they endorsed what he said about the methodology of predict and provide, and I think that we all agree about that.

Similar consequences have occurred in Nottinghamshire. One can substitute different place names in the analysis, but similar problems arise. I hope that, in his reply, the Minister will show that flexibility for which he is sometimes known and will say that the policy will change.

My district of Rushcliffe is having 14,400 new dwellings imposed on it by a county structure plan that predates the general election. Nothing has changed since then, except that all the road building has been cancelled and the new Government policy is that 65 per cent. of new homes should, where possible, be built on brown-field sites, although our area has only a minuscule number of those. I hope that the Minister will endorse my hon. Friend's suggestion that districts should be allowed to revisit the figures.

The city of Nottingham wants more dwellings than it has been allocated; Rushcliffe wants fewer dwellings. Several of the districts could come to an agreement. The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning has already said that he may be flexible if the county council is flexible. I hope that we will have a helpful response from the Minister.

12.47 pm
Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for allowing me a minute. As a colleague from Devon, I congratulate him because, as he knows, I have fought for more than 20 years to stop the spread of the concrete jungle into the countryside, in particular in Devon.

The projected figures for Devon would mean an increase of more than 30 per cent. in its population. Does the Minister believe that we can do that without ruining much of the environment of the area? My constituency is a prime example. When I fought the 1967 general election, the electorate was 63,000. Since then, the size of my constituency has been cut three times, but if I had now the same parishes that I had then, the electorate would be 122,000. That is the sort of increase that we have already had to put up with. The projected increase would have a terrifying effect on the environment and the countryside—it is not possible. I absolutely support what my hon. Friend has said and I am delighted that he has been able to instigate this debate. The Government must listen. They must revise the figures that they are making the countryside bear.

12.48 pm
The Minister for London and Construction (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for raising those issues. A number of other hon. Members have also expressed concerns about household growth. The hon. Gentleman also raised this matter in the recent debate on the report on planning for housing by the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. He knows from that debate that the Select Committee has carefully considered the validity of the household projections not merely once, but twice. It looked into projections methodology in 1995 and again this year. I cannot do better than to quote the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend, the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who is a member of that Committee. He said:

On the number of houses that we will require between now and 2016, I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who went to great lengths to rubbish …the figures. In Committee, I went to some length to try to find holes in the figures produced by my former colleagues, the excellent civil servants in the Department of the Environment, but no amount of effort on my part could produce an argument to show that 4.4 million was necessarily wrong."—[Official Report, 22 October 1998; Vol. 317, c. 1426.] The hon. Member for North Wiltshire served on the Select Committee and looked at the figures critically and carefully. Given the implication of the figures, his view is not surprising—4.4 million sounds a horrendously large figure, but as an annual rate of housing provision it works out at about 175,000 homes a year, which is about half the housing that was provided in the 1960s and is below the trend for the post-war period. It is a relatively low level of new housing provision compared with what occurred previously. That is why it is important to put it in perspective, as the Select Committee has done.

Mr. Burnett

On the methodology point, the demographic pattern is falling as is the number of people living in Britain. There are also other phenomena to which I referred in my intervention on the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). For example, divorcing couples do not necessarily produce two households. In addition, the area does not have the infrastructure to cope with vastly increased numbers.

Mr. Raynsford

I am rather sorry that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, as it is clear that he has not looked carefully at the methodology. The demographics are not falling, the population is not falling and a trend of household increase has persisted throughout most of the post-war period. If the hon. Gentleman had done his homework, he would know that most previous housing forecasts have underestimated, not overestimated, the extent of household formation. Hon. Members who have examined the issue carefully—as the Select Committee has done—have reached that conclusion, although some of them did not want to do so. I urge the hon. Gentleman and others who are suspicious of the figures to do their homework; they will then know why so many people have reached that conclusion.

Mr. Steen

Let us accept the figures. Will the Minister now address how we should deal with them?

Mr. Raynsford

That is exactly what I intend to do.

The household numbers are not something that the Government simply dream up. They were not even produced by the present Government, but were produced by the previous Administration. We would have no reason to support them if we did not consider them to be soundly based. We have no reason to change them, and nor does the Select Committee.

People continue to form households almost regardless of the prevailing economic situation and we ignore trends at our peril. We are not talking about speculation. All the people who are considered in need of housing by 2016 have already been born. Are we to deny them decent housing?

The hon. Gentleman referred to migration. I accept entirely that it is a difficult issue for Devon, but as we do not live in a Maoist society that can ban migration, it cannot be ignored. The hon. Gentleman himself migrated to Devon some years ago when he decided that South Hams was more congenial than Liverpool, Wavertree, his previous constituency. Responsible government means that we have to manage population movements as best we can.

Mr. Sanders

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford

No. I have already given way more than enough and I am running out of time.

Pulling up the drawbridge or pretending that the problem does not exist is not responsible government. Providing fewer homes would create difficulties. It could worsen housing conditions such as overcrowding, increase homelessness and contribute to house-price inflation. It could also work against the interests of local people with modest incomes, as incomers with large disposable incomes would probably bid up house prices and squeeze out local people. We have to address the issue.

For that reason, we have proposed moving away from the traditional approach of predict and provide, which we did not regard as a satisfactory basis, towards a more bottom-up approach with local authorities playing a key role through regional planning conferences on the principle of plan, manage and monitor rather than predict and provide.

The fundamental point is that the new approach is being developed through the new round of regional planning guidance which will provide the first opportunity to take account of the household projections published in 1995. The draft guidance will set new figures for the region, as well as for the counties and unitary authorities. The figures will also be tested in a public examination, exposing them to considerable public scrutiny, which is obviously sensible. Each region will develop a comprehensive monitoring arrangement to scrutinise the effects of the eventual level of housing which is agreed. Each region of England is currently engaged in the process and in the south-west the regional conference of local authorities is already well advanced with its draft. We need to work together in ensuring that the new approach is developed in as constructive a context as possible, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join us in developing the new approach.

I now turn to the hon. Gentleman's points about the Devon structure plan and the proposed new settlements adjoining Exeter and Plymouth. As I have mentioned already, household growth is a fact and it is for the local authorities in each area to produce the best solutions they can to manage the growth in the most sustainable way. The structure plan with which the hon. Gentleman is concerned is based on existing regional planning guidance containing housing figures agreed by the authorities in the region back in 1994. That is the guidance to which the structure plan must therefore have regard.

As the hon. Gentleman will no doubt know, the Government have made their concerns clear about the Devon structure plan and it is now for the authorities to decide what action to take in the light of those concerns. The Government wish authorities to be realistic and responsible in allocating land for housing. The main aim of our new approach is to ensure that as much new housing as possible is located on previously developed land. That is why we increased the national target to 60 per cent., although what can be achieved will vary from region to region. In the south-west, only a third of all land used for housing was previously developed. Although I acknowledge that there are particular difficulties in parts of the south-west, nevertheless we will expect a more ambitious target in the new regional planning guidance from the south-west region.

If authorities suggest quite radical approaches such as new settlements, the Government expect the proposals to be sustainable. We have as much interest as anyone in maintaining and enhancing the countryside—especially in beautiful parts of the country such as Devon. We have stressed that the need for any new settlements must be thoroughly justified.

The way forward lies in building on the consensus that lies at the heart of the debate. There is far more common ground than there are differences of views. Everyone wants as much land recycling as possible. Everyone wants more sustainable patterns of development. Everyone wants to protect the countryside and regenerate our urban areas, and I think that everyone wants to ensure that people are adequately housed and not left homeless or in bad housing conditions.

Mr. Steen

I do not mind too much what the Minister is saying, but he has said nothing about how we can stop 12,000 new housing units being built. According to the Library, South Hams is one of the most beautiful constituencies in England and Wales. How does he propose to stop 12,000 houses being built there when the same number is expected to be built in Plymouth and Torbay? How can he switch it so that the countryside is not ruined by too many houses?

Mr. Raynsford

As I have said already, we have made observations in our response to the Devon structure plan and it is now for the county to reach its conclusions before submitting proposals to us. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that in the circumstances I cannot make any further comment. However, I have stressed the importance of maximising the amount of development on previously developed land.

The Government are trying to develop that agenda—which I believe is shared—as fast as possible. We made it clear in "Planning for the Communities of the Future" that our first choice for new development is that it should be on previously developed land, preferably within urban areas. We believe that a sequential approach is long overdue and we want authorities fully to explore that option before they propose urban extensions or the release of other green-field sites. The Select Committee supported our national land recycling target of 60 per cent. There is much work to be done to help authorities develop the agenda. We have set up the urban task force, under the guidance of Lord Rogers, to examine the practical issues involved in making better use of brown-field sites.

Work is progressing on the national land use database—the equivalent of a Domesday book for the 21st century—to identify previously developed sites that are available for new housing and we will soon have a much clearer picture of the opportunities to take forward that higher target for recycling.

We have a full programme of revising the relevant planning policy guidance notes. We are currently updating the guidance on planning for housing—PPG3—which will be published for consultation early in the new year. We are also preparing an urban White Paper, which will be published next year. It will set out the most comprehensive and far-sighted programme for urban renewal since our last White Paper in the 1970s.