HC Deb 03 February 1998 vol 305 cc825-8
1. Mr. Kidney

What practical advice his Department plans to issue on alternatives to the development of green-field sites to planning authorities to meet growing housing demand. [24886]

2. Mr. Mullin

What measures he is taking to encourage house building on brown-field sites; and if he will make a statement. [24888]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

I hope to be making a statement to the House on the whole issue of household growth later this month. Meanwhile, national planning policy encourages local authorities to use previously developed sites for housing. This helps regenerate our towns and cities and helps to protect our countryside.

Mr. Kidney

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Local people have plenty of good sense and resourcefulness. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, when he changes planning policy, he will give more say to local people than the previous Tory Government ever did?

Mr. Prescott

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's question. My statement to the House will introduce greater flexibility into the criteria that will allow greater thought and priority to be given to the judgment of people in local areas.

Mr. Mullin

I hear what my right hon. Friend says. However, I put it to him that the signals that have come from his Department thus far are ambiguous. For example, is my right hon. Friend aware that Newcastle, which has 7,000 empty housing units, is proposing to colonise 1,200 acres of green-belt land? Easington, which has acres and acres of brown-field sites following pit closures, is planning to build on green-field sites in some of the few unspoiled villages remaining in county Durham. In Sunderland, acres of listed Victorian properties are sliding towards dereliction because of developments on green-field sites outside the city. I put it to my right hon. Friend that that sort of madness is deeply ingrained and must be stopped rather than merely discouraged.

Mr. Prescott

I well understand my hon. Friend's point about making a judgment between using green-field and brown-field sites for housing. In the case of Newcastle, much of the area available for brown-field sites has been built upon. My hon. Friend mentioned the different problem of empty houses, which we must address also.

The amount of land released in Newcastle under the inspector's recommendation for green-belt sites is compensated by an increase in green belt sites in the north-east that is 50 times greater than the amount of land earmarked for house building. That is the scale of the change: 50 times more land will be available for green-belt areas than is available at present.

My hon. Friend will know that in Newcastle the inspector judged that transport and urban considerations were important and that housing was connected to the transport and metro links. They are serious considerations, and I shall respond to them more fully when I make my statement to the House.

Mr. Gummer

When the right hon. Gentleman re-reads his answer, I wonder whether he will notice that he mistook "green-field" for "green-belt". Is that not one of the problems? When the right hon. Gentleman produces his statement—the whole House hopes that he will build upon his article in The Times—will he agree to revisit the decisions that he made regarding Newcastle, Stevenage and West Sussex and try to recover the ground that I fear he has lost, and which his statement might help him to regain?

Mr. Prescott

I take the right hon. Gentleman's more serious point about making a proper judgment between green-field, green-belt and brown-field sites. I am bound to say that I am somewhat confused about his position and that of his Front Bench, which seems to change nightly. The Opposition cannot decide what areas should be given to green-field and to brown-field site development. The Tory party manifesto refers to 60 per cent. for brown-field areas, the consultation document says 50 per cent., both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) have said that it should be 75 per cent., and a meeting of the shadow Cabinet a few days ago appears to have changed the figure to 66 per cent. However, the record of the Conservatives when in office, over their last 10 years, was 42 per cent.

Mr. Soames

Will the Secretary of State answer a specific question? Will he explain to my constituents in Mid-Sussex why, after the most exhaustive and careful examination and the finding of the Government inspector, he should have torn up and thrown aside the structure plan for West Sussex, which had been so carefully prepared and agreed to, and which was the basis upon which we could go ahead? Will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House why he tore up that excellent piece of work?

Mr. Prescott

It is difficult. The hon. Gentleman will realise that West Sussex is seeking a judicial review of the decision. I thought that I had made it clear that the number of houses that it was proposed to build was contrary to what we thought to be the best judgment for the area. Clearly the inspector and I had a disagreement about the matter. We shall argue the case in the appropriate place. As I have said, it will be a matter for judicial review. That is all that I can say about the matter at this stage.

Mr. Soley

Does my right hon. Friend recall the early 1980s, when the then Tory Government promised a bonfire of planning controls? Over the following decade they managed to build too few houses in the wrong places for the wrong groups of people. Now the Conservatives wonder what the problem is.

Does my right hon. Friend recall also that it was a Labour Government who in 1947 produced a progressive planning Act? It is now 50 years since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 came into effect. To deal with the problem, we need a modern, sophisticated reversion to that 1947 Act so that we get the right type of housing in the right places for the many people who need it in both city and rural areas.

Mr. Prescott

I agree very much with my hon. Friend. The statement that I shall make to the House shortly will cover many of the points that he has raised. The review that we are conducting of the planning machinery will have an impact on many of the decisions that are taken in future.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

The Minister's comments would be more welcome if the Government had not recently made a series of major decisions allowing green-field and green-belt development. Would it not be appropriate, given that the Government themselves say that that policy must change, to announce a moratorium on any further major permissions until the Government have announced their new policy?

Mr. Prescott

I well understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, he will realise that I am governed by statutes. Whether I agree or disagree with the inspector's report, I have to operate within a certain timetable. I am left with no choice about that. Therefore, I have taken the decisions that I have. I have intervened, disagreed or agreed, whatever the position may be. I have no choice in the matter until I make a statement to the House in a couple of weeks' time.

Helen Jackson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the beautiful open Pennine countryside around the huge conurbations of Manchester, Sheffield and other cities in the north has been preserved because of Labour Government policies, which have been implemented by Labour local authorities? Will my right hon. Friend recognise in his forthcoming statement that if there is any dilution of the present controls and a dependence on commercial interests, the present safeguards will not apply, especially to the beautiful countryside in the Pennines.

Mr. Prescott

I agree with what my hon. Friend has said—[Interruption.] I think that we can agree that the then Labour Government set up a legislative framework after the second world war. The previous Conservative Administration built upon that framework and were able to double the number of areas in the green belt. There is no dispute about that. I remind the House, however, that that was the result of Labour legislation. Despite all the controversial decisions that have been taken in the nine months since we have been in office, the designated green-belt area is greater now than when we came into power.

Mr. Dafis

Does the Secretary of State recognise that one of the problems that is caused sometimes by restrictive housing policies in rural areas that are designed to protect the countryside from unnecessary development is that local people on low incomes are forced out of the housing market as a result of competition with people with high incomes moving in from urban areas to rural areas? Do not restrictive policies in rural areas need to be accompanied by special measures to protect the needs of local indigenous rural areas? What ideas has the right hon. Gentleman about that?

Mr. Prescott

It is important that we concern ourselves with the provision of social housing. The argument between green belt and brown-field sites is not necessarily totally about that issue. Indeed, in green-field areas, sufficient consideration has not been given to the provision of social housing. We are talking about the provision of housing and where it is distributed, and my statement must address itself to that point. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to wait another couple of weeks.

Sir Norman Fowler

Taking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), surely what matters are not the words used by the Secretary of State about the countryside but the decisions that he takes. Is it not a fact that there is widespread concern throughout the country that, even if the public win their case before an independent inquiry or panel, it will be overturned by the Secretary of State?

Mr. Prescott

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I read the leaflet produced yesterday by the Opposition called "Save Our Countryside", which seeks an assurance that never again would a Government ignore and overturn the recommendation of an independent planning inspector. I presume that Governments will always reserve the right to judge whether the planning inspector is right. We recognise that. It is a proper judgment that Governments have always observed on these matters.

I regard such pamphlets and, indeed, the targets set by the Opposition as sheer rhetoric and hypocrisy in their hope that it will divert the Government from their course. It will not. Despite all the controversy about recent decisions, more areas are in the green belt than when we came to power.