HC Deb 23 February 1998 vol 307 cc21-37 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement on planning for the communities of the future. A document setting out our approach is published today and has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The document includes a response to the public consultation on the previous Administration's Green Paper, "Household Growth: Where Shall We Live?".

I hope that we can refocus the debate and, in doing so, change some of the language that we use in it. To my mind, much of the debate so far has been clouded by unhelpful language, crude figures and confused statistics. For example, the term "brown-field" is not helpful. I propose to talk about recycled land, which, of course, can be in cities—[Interruption.] There is no difference at all in the interpretation; "recycled land" is simply a better term. It can, of course, be in cities, towns or villages.

Green-field is too often confused with green belt, as if the two were always the same. Most important, while the technical term "household growth" is sometimes necessary, it does not adequately describe our main concern, which is to develop sustainable communities, now and in the future. I hope that, following today's statement, the Opposition will join us in a sensible debate—which does not seem likely—about how to achieve that aim, while recognising the real difficulties involved in meeting household growth in a sustainable way.

My Department published the latest projections of growth in the number of households in March 1995, under the previous Administration. The projections suggest that around an extra 175,000 households a year will be formed in the 25 years from 1991 to 2016. That is because of population growth and because people are living longer and couples are separating more often. However, household growth has been outstripping population growth increasingly since the turn of the century. It is not new. The dilemma is clear cut and affects us all—how to accommodate more households and, at the same time, protect our precious countryside, without causing rents, house prices or homelessness to spiral upwards. It is a matter not just of how many households but of where they will live.

There are four key elements in our new approach. The first is increased flexibility. We shall emphasise that the projections are guidance, not building requirements. The second is more decentralisation. Regional planning conferences will have more responsibility and accountability in deciding the most sustainable way of meeting the needs of their communities. The third is making the best possible use of previously developed land and existing buildings. We must put the heart back into our cities and put cities at the heart of our strategy. The fourth is that what I set out today is part and parcel of our determination to achieve better integration of a range of policies that affect communities.

In order to achieve greater flexibility, we are determined to get away from a simplistic "predict and provide" approach in housing, as we have done for road building. We shall treat the household projections as guidance, not house building requirements. Moreover, we shall allow for greater flexibility in adjusting regional and local plans to ensure that, over time, local provision meets local need.

Decentralisation is an essential aim of the Government—whether in devolution, in establishing the regional development agencies, or in our proposals for London—which I am pleased to see the Opposition now support.

We therefore propose to strengthen the role of the regions in translating projections into regional planning guidance. The regional planning conferences will work together with the Government offices to determine how much extra housing is needed in their regions.

The aim will be to increase the local ownership figures so that local authorities translate the new regional guidance into plans and actions on the ground. I want to see better public information on the consequences of decisions on releasing land for housing, so that those responsible can be held accountable and the public debate can be better informed. I want it to be a truly bottom-up approach.

The conferences may be able to justify lower or higher housing figures than those implied by the projections, but we shall expect local authorities to monitor and report on the effects of their decisions. If the effects are damaging, authorities will need to act—or, in the last resort, we may need to intervene—but the whole philosophy of our new approach is to strengthen local responsibility and to have a bottom-up approach. We shall move to that new approach as quickly as possible in the reviews of regional planning guidance that are already under way. As soon as the new regional planning guidance is ready—possibly as early as next year—it will be open to local authorities to review their development plans.

In considering development plans in advance of new regional planning guidance, I shall continue to treat each case on its merits, taking account of today's statement.

It is our firm policy to protect our countryside and revitalise our towns and cities, by maximising the use of recycled land and existing buildings. One of the most effective ways of relieving the pressure on the countryside is to revitalise our cities and improve the quality of urban life. That is why I have called for an urban renaissance in Britain, requiring a whole range of measures. It is not just a matter of urban housing, let alone planning; it is about tackling the range of problems affecting the quality of urban life—in relation to crime, education, jobs, transport or the environment. Many of the same problems also affect rural communities, to which we must also direct our attention.

Last Wednesday, I unveiled the winner of the millennium village competition. The millennium village is a flagship scheme, providing 1,400 homes on recycled land at Greenwich. The development will be built to the highest quality of architectural and environmental design. Energy use will be 80 per cent. better than average. Every home will be linked to the internet, opening new horizons of communication. It will be a development for the whole community. There will be homes for rent as well as homes to buy, with provision for jobs, shops, public transport, health and schooling. The millennium village will point the way for urban regeneration in future, and I have asked English Partnerships to seek out other similar sites for urban villages, to share the benefits throughout the country.

That initiative will run alongside our other main programmes: nearly £1 billion under the capital receipts initiative, £250 million announced last week under the estates renewal challenge fund and our other urban regeneration programmes. Such initiatives will help to meet a higher proportion of future housing need on recycled land in our towns and cities, rather than in the countryside.

The target set by the previous Administration was that, by 2005, half of all new housing should be built on re-used sites". In practice, they achieved an average of 42 per cent. between 1985 and 1995—rising from 38 per cent. in 1985 to 50 per cent. in 1995. The figures are national averages—ranging from 33 per cent. in the east midlands to 83 per cent. in London—but the target was not based on any assessment of the availability of recycled land.

In future, we shall expect each regional planning conference to make a proper assessment of land availability and set regional targets for the use of recycled land. That has never been done before. It is an important change and it will sharpen the focus of policy and action on the ground. Last week, I asked my Department to work with English Partnerships and local government to create a national database of land use, which will give local authorities reliable information on the amount of recycled land available for housing.

Today, I go further. Local authorities, developers, builders and the professions have all been looking for a lead. To spearhead that unprecedented collective effort, I have established a task force to help make better use of recycled land. I have asked my noble Friend Lord Rogers of Riverside to lead it. It will co-ordinate and develop a wide range of activity and innovation.

I consider that a national target for the use of recycled land can help to guide regions and local authorities, and help them to improve their performance. With our new policies in place, we expect local planning authorities to be able to raise the national proportion of new homes to be built on previously developed land to 60 per cent. over the next 10 years. We shall come back to refine the national target in the light of regional targets when they are known and when our database is established.

We also want for the first time to measure separately the reuse of previously developed land in urban areas and in rural areas, so that we can get a better focus on urban redevelopment. Many of the respondents to the Green Paper accepted that 60 per cent. would not be easy. No one should underestimate the problems and costs of redeveloping some sites, such as those that are contaminated. Indeed, it cost more than £100 million to decontaminate the Greenwich millennium peninsula site alone—a decision taken by the previous Administration.

If we are to make our towns and cities attractive places in which to live and work, we must ensure a good quality of life. That is why we reject so-called "urban cramming" and pressures to build on green spaces in towns. Our parks and green spaces are part of what makes town living attractive. That is why we have strengthened the protection against building on school playing fields—a practice allowed by the previous Administration.

I now come to an important new element in our proposals. We propose to follow a sequential approach to the location of new housing and a phased approach to the release of land. Whenever possible, recycled land in urban areas should be built on first, provided that it can be well linked to public transport, jobs, shops and other facilities. The same tests will apply to the sequence of development of green-field sites. We shall also need to allow for release of empty property and so-called windfall sites. Some of the responses to the previous Government's Green Paper called for economic instruments, such as a green-field tax, to be introduced. As a first step, we want to open up debate on the use of that type of measure. Final decisions on taxation are, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Much of the debate has concentrated on urban housing, but we must also allow for the housing needs of people in rural areas. Many country people are deeply concerned at the lack of affordable housing, often because houses are bought by wealthier commuters or as holiday cottages. A young couple in a village have every much a right to a decent home as their counterparts in the town.

Hon. Members will be aware of the recent report by the Rural Development Commission, the "1997 survey of rural services", which highlighted specific problems in the rural economy, particularly after 18 years of the previous Administration. Communities fall into decline and are no longer able to sustain jobs and essential local services. Those problems are particularly acute in our former coalfield communities, which are often in rural areas and which pit closures have left devastated. We must find new ways to address those problems. We want to see thriving communities in our rural areas—a living countryside.

It was the post-war Labour Government who laid the foundations of the modern town and country planning system, including green belts and national parks. The Government remain committed to protecting the green belts and the wider countryside—protection of the green belt is as strong as ever. Any new development, whether in town or country, must be sustainable development. There will be exceptional cases—such as that of Hertfordshire—where pursuing the most sustainable solution may lead to adjustments in the green belts, which is precisely what the previous Administration used to do. Nevertheless, since we came to office less than 10 months ago, some 30,000 hectares have been added to the green belt in boundary changes. I expect that trend to continue in this Parliament under this Government.

Successful community development depends on a wide range of policies. We shall tilt the balance in favour of urban development, not only through the planning process but through fairer regional development, improving our public transport, raising standards in our schools and tackling crime. We shall consult on how best to implement the proposals and take them forward in partnership with those involved, especially the regional planning conferences.

This statement represents a break with the past on one of the most important issues facing us today: how and where we should live. We want to replace the top-down, "predict and provide" mentality of the past with a more responsive and accountable system that is better able to revitalise our towns and cities and protect a living countryside that we all enjoy. I believe that the proposals will help us to achieve our twin aims of urban renaissance and ensuring that we hand on a green and pleasant land to future generations.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

Labour Members cheer now, but it would be more impressive had they not cheered exactly the opposite policy three weeks ago. Everyone knows that, however it is dressed up, this is a major Government U-turn. It makes nonsense of everything that Environment Ministers have been saying over the past nine months. How does the Secretary of State square what he said today with, for example, what the Minister for London and Construction was saying a few months ago about the impossibility of the policy that has just been announced?

Against that background, let me ask the Secretary of State a few short questions to find out how deep his conversion goes. How will his announcement affect plans for development in the green-belt land and countryside that he has already personally waved through in Hertfordshire, West Sussex and Newcastle? Will he order a halt on those plans? How does it affect the structure plans of counties such as Hampshire? Will they proceed on the new or the old basis in making their plans?

On the target for brown-field developments, or recycled land as the Secretary of State prefers to call it, why have his Ministers consistently said up to now that a 60 per cent. target is unrealistic? He acknowledged in his statement that his Department's statistics show that the previous Government raised the brown-field use figure not to 42 per cent. but to 50 per cent. Is he aware that our target remains 66 per cent? I have no doubt that in a few weeks' time the Government will have accepted that also.

On Lord Rogers's committee, is the Secretary of State aware that the public will need to be convinced that this is not just yet another Government review? Will the committee be entirely independent? Will it be asked not only to identify brown-field sites but to suggest measures to encourage their use? In that respect, does he recognise that measures such as the new development land tax that he mentioned may be good for the Treasury, but do little to stop development, given the vast difference in price between agricultural and development land?

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is not enough for him to say that although he has approved the destruction of the green belt in one area, he has approved its extension elsewhere? The one certainty of that policy is that green-belt land is permanently lost and that the green-belt principle is undermined.

Opposition Members have campaigned against development in the countryside and in the green belt, and for maximum use of brown-field sites and recycled land. This afternoon, the Government have accepted our arguments. Both we and the public will need to be convinced that the Government's words will be followed by action. The best way for the Government to show a new resolve is by reversing a number of the damaging decisions that they have already taken to destroy the green belt.

Mr. Prescott

I find it difficult to accept that the Opposition spokesman realises that he was in government for 18 years. As he pointed out, and as I fairly said, the Opposition's record on using brown-field sites ranged from 38 per cent., to 50 per cent. in their last year in government. It was therefore fair for us to say that the average was 42 per cent. I was a little surprised that he raised the matter of targets because, in government, they achieved their target of 50 per cent. in one year—

Sir Norman Fowler

It was more than 60 per cent.

Mr. Prescott

That was before they moved. It was 50 per cent., then, as I understand, a consultation document recommended that 60 per cent. be considered. Then, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) wrote to me saying that I should adopt a target of 75 per cent. I wrote back to ask him whether that was his party's policy. The shadow Cabinet was then immediately convened, and the figure changed to 66 per cent.—all in a matter of weeks. I do not think that we can treat the Opposition spokesman's claims with any seriousness.

I want to have a serious debate. I did not slag off the Opposition in my statement; I did not think that there was a necessity to do so. [Interruption.] Just try and stick with it. We are trying to have an intelligent debate about a serious matter: where people live. I have tried to be helpful in suggesting changing some of the terms. In 12 months, I hope to have more information about where brown-field sites are. I find it amazing that the previous Government had not found out. In order to make a judgment, it is important to find out the amount of recycled land or brown-field sites we have. We are going to do that, and I hope that the House will be better informed as a result, so that we may have a more intelligent debate. [Interruption.] I am dealing with the opening comments of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler.)

I have said that any decisions that come before me will take the statement into account until the necessary changes that the statement requires are made. I particularly chose to mention Hertfordshire in my statement, to show that I was prepared to break into the green belt in order to connect the area to a transport corridor. The basic principle is about meeting transport requirements, by moving more people on to public transport. The House will have to have more and more debates about that. It is true that, after 10 months in office, there are over 30,000 more hectares of green belt. That is quite important. It shows just how important we think those matters are.

With regard to Lord Rogers's independent review, we hope that he will be able to report in the first 12 months precisely how much land is available. The report will be independent. I am sure that anybody who knows him will agree that he would not accept any proposition that was not of an independent kind.

What we have done today is to indicate a change. It will make for a more intelligent debate. I appeal yet again to the Opposition to join us in that debate. People outside the Chamber are concerned about where their homes and communities will be, whether in rural or urban areas, and look to us to have a proper debate.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be music to the ears of my constituents, in terms of both the development of what he calls recycled land and the protection of the living countryside, especially green spaces in towns? My constituents will be particularly pleased to hear his confirmation, in response to the bluster from the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), that the criteria in his statement will be used in judgments to be made. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the intention, so far thwarted, of North West Water to build a housing estate, office blocks and an hotel on the only piece of open, green countryside adjacent to my constituency, is rejected by thousands of my constituents who have fought the proposal for years? We look to him to approach any planning applications in the light of the criteria in his statement.

Mr. Prescott

My right hon. Friend reminds the House that it is not just urban playing fields but small woodland areas and forests in our towns and cities that need protecting. I cannot comment on the particular case that he mentions, as it may come before me in my quasi-judicial capacity.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

The Deputy Prime Minister's statement is an extremely important step away from the discredited policies of the former Government, under which six out of 10 homes were built on green-field sites—many of them as a result of the overturning of local objections, and some as a result of the overturning of the views of local inspectors.

Would the decisions that the right hon. Gentleman has taken and which were based on the previous Government's policies have been different under these new policies? If so, why does he not announce a moratorium on further major development in the green belt pending the implementation of the new strategies? After all, he has accepted that they may take a year to implement, and just taking them into account is no guarantee that they will be followed.

Why has not the right hon. Gentleman accepted the view of the round table that reported to the previous Government: that 75 per cent. of properties could be built on brown-field—or what he calls recycled—sites?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman is right about the different policies pursued by the previous Administration. I may have omitted to answer the point about whether there has been a U-turn. Indeed, I challenge the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield to show that anything I have said today differs from what I have said before. [Laughter.] It is no good saying, "Ho, ho, ho!" I will need more evidence than Opposition laughter before I will accept that there has been a U-turn. [Interruption.] Clearly, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield cannot contest what I have said.

As for the 75 per cent. target, I believe that 60 per cent. is difficult enough to achieve. We need to assess how many brown-field sites are available before we can judge how the policy is working. I have set that work in hand.

Changes to plans or moratoriums would require legislation, and I am not in a position to introduce legislation at this stage. I shall, however, take into account the principles that I have identified in my statement. Local authorities, too, will no doubt take them into account when they make their assessments under the new system. Most of the targets are for 15 or 20 years ahead. I am sure that the new procedures, which will give local authorities a better chance of flexibility and of including the regional dimension, will lead to further changes. Those will be matters for regional planning guidance and conference discussions.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that if the strategy is to work, we must be prepared to look after existing housing areas far better than we have done in recent years? We must be prepared to spend more money on them, especially high-density housing schemes. We shall also need to regenerate the urban parks—where is the money to come from?

Mr. Prescott

I am surprised by my hon. Friend, who fought on the same manifesto as I did at the general election. It spelled out the fact that there would be £5 billion from capital receipts—a huge amount of money—to do precisely what he is calling for. What is more, the Chancellor has provided £800 million for the purpose.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister accept my congratulations on getting rid of his target of 50 per cent., which is what we achieved, and on accepting the target that we had, of 60 per cent? What part will the round table on sustainable development play in the whole issue? It has suggested that 75 per cent. would be possible.

Secondly, there is a way in which the right hon. Gentleman can go back on decisions that he has already made. West Sussex council is taking him to court. It would be quite possible for him to decline to offer any evidence. That would enable him to do in West Sussex what I understand he has already done in Dorset.

Thirdly, would it be possible for the right hon. Gentleman to devote a little more time to discussing mixed development? I noticed no reference to mixed development in what he said. The key to what we are dealing with is mixed development in our towns—not only social mix, but a mix of housing, shops and offices.

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman do something for the people of Stevenage, who are to have foisted upon them a development that would not be allowed under his policy, and which I would not have allowed when I was doing his job?

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Before the Deputy Prime Minister answers, may I appeal to hon. Members? Most hon. Members in the House are standing—only about six are not standing. I obviously cannot call them all. Therefore, there will be only one question each now; otherwise, I shall ask the Deputy Prime Minister to answer only the first question.

Mr. Prescott

The recommendation of the round table on sustainable development—75 per cent.—is a difficult target to achieve. I could not in all honesty recommend that to the House, although I am prepared to reassess those matters once we have far more information. I have set that in hand.

With regard to West Sussex, the matter is before the courts. The principle on which we disagreed was that the local authority wanted to cut its housing programme by 25 per cent. I was not prepared to accept such an extreme cut. Dorset's cut was 1 per cent. of the total. The record of the previous Administration, in which the right hon. Gentleman played some part, shows that he also forced higher targets on some local authorities, which they did not want to accept.

Mixed ownership and living together are closely identified with the millennium urban village concept. I could not go into all the details in my statement, so I shall send the right hon. Gentleman all the aims and objectives—which he has probably read—of that concept. He is right about that, and we are trying to secure it.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome statement. What immediate guidance can he give to Bradford metropolitan district council regarding its urban development programme, which allocates 1,500 spaces for houses at Silsden, in the green belt, in a beautiful part of the Aire valley in my constituency?

Mr. Prescott

Such matters are controversial. The plan in Bradford has been strongly contested and is, I think, still being contested. My hope is to provide a better system, so that we do not get into such situations, and so that local authorities will have a greater opportunity to determine the figures in a more decentralised way. I have set out the programme for that, and I hope that it will be more acceptable to the people in the regions.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

I welcome the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister is re-examining policy, and I congratulate him on overruling the unhelpful remarks of his junior Ministers on previous occasions. That makes a practical difference. Will he consider the situation of counties where structure plans have already been settled, such as the county of Nottinghamshire, where the bulk of the development is being allocated to the countryside in the south, and far less of it to the old coalfield sites in the north, which need the regeneration? Will he allow the public inquiries on those structure plans to be reopened? It cannot be right for one policy to apply in some counties, and a new policy, if he has one, to be applied in others.

Mr. Prescott

If the Opposition spokesman was at the Dispatch Box answering for the Government, I am sure that he would give the same reply as I shall give: those matters cannot be reopened at this stage. I have provided an opportunity for a review of projections that are set 25 years ahead. That process will allow us to reconsider those matters. All projections over that period will be taken into account in the structure plans and the long-term development. I am providing a far better process for people to influence growth and development in their areas.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement on recycled land. Will he bear it in mind that many existing planning permissions have not been triggered by developers? In my borough, there are 5,500 planning permissions year after year that have not been activated. That should be the backdrop to any decisions that he and his colleagues make when they receive inspectors' reports on planning applications. Will he be mindful of the need to ensure that where there is new residential development, particularly in the south-east of England, there is a penal tax on landfill and other measures? We must not resolve one problem of providing residential homes by creating an additional environmental problem that often results in land tipping, to the disadvantage of my constituents in Essex and those in other counties in the south-east of England, which is unacceptable.

Mr. Prescott

Those matters are very much under review at present. A conclusion will be arrived at shortly.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my constituents were deeply disappointed when he approved—or said that he had no objection to—plans to build 10,000 houses in the green belt between Stevenage and Hitchin in my constituency? That is the biggest incursion into the green belt since any hon. Member has been in this place. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the whole country will view this as a litmus test of whether he has changed his rhetoric or his policies? Is he aware that Hertfordshire county council told me today that he could, without legal risk or the chance of incurring damages, reverse that decision and abort the plan? If he does so, my constituents and I will hail him as a hero. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that no one will believe that he has changed his policies if he is not prepared to change that decision?

Mr. Prescott

I have some difficulty accepting the Opposition's arguments in this area. As I understand it, they would like local authorities to have more say on such matters and, in this case, the local authorities fully endorsed the proposal. For whatever reason, the local authorities have agreed to that proposal. Therefore, to that extent—

Mr. Lilley


Mr. Prescott

The local authorities agreed to the proposal. I accepted what the panel said about changes to the green-belt area because I felt that the transport corridor encouraged the movement of transport in an urban sense, rather than the pepperpot development that we have seen in rural areas. That is an important part of the environmental sustainability arguments. The previous Administration—in which the right hon. Gentleman was a major player—gave 500 hectares of green belt to a vehicle storage and distribution centre, corporate headquarters, automotive production and an airport runway.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his clear and concise statement and on the excellent choice of Lord Rogers to head the task force? Does he agree that, in order to achieve his aims, we must take a grip on the archaic, inflexible, expensive and bureaucratic planning system that he inherited from the previous Government?

Mr. Prescott

There has been considerable criticism of the planning framework—although I think that every hon. Member would agree that such a framework can play a useful role. We are reviewing the matter at present and taking account of the many criticisms that have been made. However, I believe that a planning framework is absolutely essential in this area.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that many people in the country, including Members of Parliament, believe that they have an absolute duty to protect the jewel of the British countryside? Once it is bulldozed, it can never be returned to us. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that, under his present plans, more than 2.5 million new people will go to live in the countryside in the next 10 to 12 years? Does he really believe that that is acceptable?

Mr. Prescott

Whether or not it is acceptable, it happened for 10 years under the previous Administration.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

I welcome the principles contained in my right hon. Friend's statement. Many of my constituents will now feel hopeful that they may not have to move out of London in order to provide homes for their families. Is my right hon. Friend absolutely certain that we shall find ways of providing affordable housing in London and in our inner cities?

Mr. Prescott

That is a very important matter. Recent information has shown that many people are leaving London, and I believe that they would stay if certain parts of the city were more attractive places in which to live. Improved housing, reduced crime and a better education system are influential factors in determining whether people leave an area. Social housing is a crucial part of the equation, and my hon. Friend knows that we have discussed such development in London. I want to see mixed ownership and different forms of financing house purchase, which would allow for good mixed development in all areas.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Although the right hon. Gentleman's decision to recycle more brown-field sites is, of course, good news, does he accept that a deep sense of injustice remains in West Sussex about the fact that, even after his statement, he still intends to press ahead with his futile case in the High Court? In the context of his statement, how can he justify overturning his own inspector's decision that West Sussex county council had an impeccable case and that West Sussex could not physically take any more new housing?

Mr. Prescott

I am not taking West Sussex county council to court; the county council is taking the Government to court—that is its decision. Secretaries of State of all Governments have constantly faced such decisions. As the hon. Gentleman says, the matter is before the courts, but I did not believe—I have given some of the reasons why—that a 25 per cent. cut in the total amount of housing for the area was acceptable. I believe that local parties should determine the figures more flexibly in a regional context. West Sussex is a good example of why we need a new system.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend realises that, while the previous Administration lined the pockets of their friends in the new house building industry, houses in areas such as I represent fell into dilapidation faster than we could improve them. Indeed, in Bolton in 1998, there are 5,000 to 6,000 irredeemably unfit homes. I welcome his statement, but please will he help us to carry out some clearance, so that these areas can be regenerated and people do not have to continue to live in these intolerable conditions?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The fact that there are some 700,000 empty properties today is a major problem for us. [Interruption.] It is private and public sector housing. I am bound to say that it does not help if hon. Members shout out ideological comments about whether the authorities are Labour or Tory. The House, if it is concerned about homelessness, should be united in dealing with empty properties, regardless of whether they are private or public. We should address the fact that many of those properties are on brown-field sites. The Government are also considering the refurbishment of estates and have started some of the programmes. We are committed to bringing more resources into play—when they become available—to improve and refurbish our estates.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Whatever percentage is chosen for recycled land, there will be a substantial amount of development on green-field sites. Is not the key question how the right hon. Gentleman can ensure that priority is given to the development of recycled land? Did I understand him to say that he would consider further how that might be done? Will the outcome of such consideration be taken into account in the existing system of public examinations and structural plan reviews?

Mr. Prescott

Those are important questions; some of the answers may flow from the reviews that we are conducting. People have not properly addressed the question of the 75 per cent. figure. As the right hon. Gentleman suggests, 25 per cent.—or 1 million of the 4 million houses projected, which is an awful lot—will still have to be built on green-field sites. How we fit those houses into the green-field sites is debatable—both the Government and the previous Administration allowed the green belt to be cut for further housing—but we must address that difficult problem. The sequential test that I am introducing—which, as everyone should agree, is good common sense—already applies to out-of-town shopping centres. We should, therefore, be able to get a better idea of how much we can put on the brown-field sites before we deal with the green-field sites.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

My right hon. Friend's statement will be welcomed by my constituents, whether they live in rural or urban areas. Will he assure the House that he will consider giving local councils greater control over the density of housing to be built in an area, so that developers cannot ride roughshod over local people's wishes and build fewer homes in an area than were intended, thus putting more pressure on our green fields?

Mr. Prescott

That is indeed an important point. The guidance notes will have regard to density of housing.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I welcome what the Secretary of State has had to say, which is in marked contrast to the imperviousness of the previous Government when facing exactly the same arguments.

May I bring the right hon. Gentleman back to the county structure plans, which are key to the planning process in rural areas? Somerset, for example, is in the middle of the process. It has indicated that it does not believe in the figures that have been put forward and would like to see them revised downwards. The examination has been completed in public. Will Somerset be allowed to revisit the examination in public or to consider the Secretary of State's new policy in determining what to submit to Ministers in due course?

Mr. Prescott

I have made my statement. I have no doubt that the matters under discussion will be taken into account in all parts of the country. I am not able to comment on reviewing structure plans, because such issues may come before me. That being so, I cannot comment at this stage.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. May I say, however, that 60 per cent. is not a very ambitious target for the north-east, where many acres are capable of being recycled? There is a good case for stopping all or most green-field developments, to force developers and planners to come up with ways of civilising our inner cities.

I invite my right hon. Friend to Sunderland, where there are acres of listed Victorian properties that are sliding towards ruin. Attempts to refurbish them are undermined, because local authorities are granting planning permissions on green-field sites.

Mr. Prescott

I recall my hon. Friend asking me a similar question about Newcastle a short while ago. I checked things out, and it appears that 77 per cent. of new houses are being built on brown-field sites. That is even better than the targets that we have talked about this afternoon. That achievement cannot be held as a criticism against Newcastle.

It is—[Interruption. There is an argument. I have said that at this stage 75 per cent. is too ambitious. It would be wrong to say that I believe that that percentage can be achieved. That would not be an honest approach. I think that 60 per cent. is possible, and that is the target that I have set the Government in 10 years' time. Within about 12 months, I shall make a statement on the review of brown-field sites, or recycled land, so that we can all make a judgment on the real possibilities. That is the proper approach.

We are talking about the provision of housing, and there is talk of council housing. The green-belt area in the north-east improved under the Durham county plan, involving about 15,000 hectares. That is a major extension of the green-belt area, and one of the reasons why we are doing so well.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

The right hon. Gentleman never mentioned the word "money" in his statement. What is his estimate of the additional costs of developing on used sites as opposed to unused sites? Is it his intention to direct additional resources to local government, the new regional development agencies or the apparently reprieved English Partnerships, to finance the bringing of land into a condition that is fit for development? Is this the death knell for the proposed new town between Ripon and Thirsk, in open countryside?

Mr. Prescott

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that I did not mention money in my statement. I mentioned more than £1 billion in regard to capital receipts, regeneration and estates renewal. If extra moneys are required—I well understand the argument that recycled land is much more expensive to build on than other land, and I have considerable sympathy for it—a judgment will have to be made at a later stage.

The sequential test will tell us how much money will be needed. I worry to some extent that extra pressure that is put on recycled land will have the effect of pushing up land prices. If owners are thinking about the target of 60 or 75 per cent., they may well feel, "Let's hang on to the land." If that is the position, local authorities and other bodies will find it difficult to afford recycled land on which to build.

That is one of the arguments of supply and demand. We must take account of those real problems, which have implications for public expenditure. I do not have sufficient information at present to make a judgment.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I am sure that he is aware that Labour Members have been engaged with this issue for a long time. I ask my right hon. Friend to accept that villages are prepared to accept development. However, when the local plan is for 25 houses, that is what they want to end up with. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to consider means to ensure that the planning process is able to deliver that sort of development and not a great deal more housing?

Mr. Prescott

The judgment on how many houses will be in villages or in urban areas is best left to the new framework that I am proposing. The more flexible approach allows all the different bodies to reach agreement and decide on the areas. Whether it is 25 houses for a village or 1,000 for an urban area, the judgment will be made in the local area. The flexibility that I am introducing will make the system more effective than the existing arrangements.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

The house projection figures reflect social change over the years. Some of those changes are definitely desirable, but many would consider some to be undesirable. Will the Labour Government attempt to influence any of the undesirable ones?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman should be more specific about what he feels to be undesirable.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and in particular his reference to strengthening local responsibilities. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, and bringing responsibilities back to local areas is welcome. If he wants to develop a millennium village in West Yorkshire, I can offer him two sites. Horbury and the former mining village of Sharlston would make admirable sites for a millennium village.

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend has a long history of wishing to see the decentralisation of Government decisions, so I well understand why he welcomes the proposals that I announced today.

As regards making a bid for a millennium village, my hon. Friend's is the second application that I have received. The first was Hull.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned the possibility of a tax on green-field sites, which was originally trailed some time ago. Will he confirm that if such a tax goes ahead, he will ensure that the proceeds from it are reinvested exclusively for the betterment of rural areas and will not be confiscated by the Chancellor for his own nefarious purposes?

Mr. Prescott

I did not hear the last part. It did not sound as if it was worth while anyway.

On taxation arrangements, the decision will be made at the appropriate time by the Chancellor.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

My right hon. Friend was far too generous to the previous Government when he described their policies as "predict and provide". They may have predicted, but they certainly did not provide affordable social housing. I hope that he will ask regional planning conferences to set specific targets on social housing.

With regard to town centres, I ask my right hon. Friend to look at some of the schemes that were successful but grossly underfunded, such as living above the shop, and whether we can put more effort and money into such schemes.

Mr. Prescott

We are looking at those matters. The judgments on social housing will be made by the local authorities with the regional planning conferences. We have a major part to play, with our housing programmes. My hon. Friend mentioned the "predict and provide" policies of the previous Administration. During their time in government, the Conservatives produced 1 million fewer houses than the average building programme of a decade earlier.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

I am glad that the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about a living countryside and thriving communities in rural areas, but how does he reconcile that with the Government's apparent intention to use the current crisis in farming as a way to bring about a radical downsizing of employment in agriculture? Does he agree that if that downsizing occurs and if the crisis continues, we shall see a catastrophic decline in rural areas, and their economic viability will be pulled out from under them?

Mr. Prescott

I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. There has been a massive change in the economic circumstances of rural areas, which is largely because of considerable changes in agriculture. The report that I mentioned shows the decline in essential services in rural areas. The solutions that we have put forward—to work with rural areas and to bring in regional development agencies—will play a major part in improving the situation in rural areas. It could not be worse than what happened under 18 years of Tory government.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

I commend my right hon. Friend's statement, which will be regarded as enlightened by urban and rural communities, and thank him for his rational approach in the face of mischief making and misinformation. Will he assure me that under the new planning system, which will remove so much that was bad from the previous Government's system, parish and town councils will be able to estimate the housing needs and environmental capacity of the communities that they know so well?

Mr. Prescott

Under the new planning system, parish and town councils, while not making the decisions, will have greater influence through the regional conferences. Decisions will not be passed from top to bottom. Councils will be able to determine their own areas and decide, exercising greater flexibility, how they will be spread within the region.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that bragging about the size of the green belt is irrelevant and that what matters is where it is? Constantly removing green belt from the inside and expanding by greater percentages outside does not protect communities in the cities from sprawl or the countryside from development. Unless the green belt is inviolate, it fails in its principal purpose.

Mr. Prescott

It was not inviolate under the previous Administration. I can give the hon. Gentleman the figures, if he tables a parliamentary question. Previous Secretaries of State had to make balanced judgments. I do not criticise that. The green belt became an issue only because we were told that we were cutting it, and the record—[Interruption.] Every Government, including the previous one, built on green-belt areas. We have increased the green-belt area by more than 30,000 hectares in less than 10 months. That is a pretty good record.

The hon. Gentleman has a fair point, which Secretaries of State have to bear in mind when judging planning matters. I may allow house building on the edge of Stevenage's green belt, for example, and people may say that providing green belt elsewhere does not necessarily satisfy demand. I understand the point, but could be more sympathetic: people in urban areas, too, like green-field sites, but the Conservative Administration constantly sold such sites—school playing fields, for example—and were indifferent to green-belt considerations.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, because it signals a significant policy change. The previous Administration's planning approach was guided by a presumption in favour of development. Local authorities would refuse planning applications, only for decisions to be overturned on appeal and costs awarded against them. A more democratic approach to local decision making will allow the protection of green-field sites.

Mr. Prescott

How could I possibly disagree?

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

May I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's policy change on targeting recycled sites? I should be grateful if he enlightened me as to where that leaves Essex, which has already agreed in principle to an extra 85,000 homes. Will he shed light on these shadowy new organisations, regional planning conferences? Is he aware that he has changed his policy? Will the conferences be accountable to the House or will they be in planning experts' limbo, and immune to accountability, which will allow the planners' cabal to proceed relatively unsupervised?

Mr. Prescott

As I said in my statement, the responsibilities of the Secretary of State have not changed.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I am bringing this debate to a close. We shall no doubt return to these matters very soon.