HC Deb 27 January 1998 vol 305 cc152-213
Madam Speaker

I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister. I have also had to limit Back-Bench speeches to 10 minutes. More than 30 hon. Members wish to speak, so I hope that Front-Bench spokesmen will note what I have said and not deprive Back Benchers of time.

3.47 pm
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I beg to move, That this House deplores the recent decisions by the Government to allow large-scale development in the countryside; is deeply concerned that the protection of the green belt and green spaces may be further weakened by the Government in the future; and urges the Government to strengthen protection for the countryside, while encouraging the renewal of towns and cities, by increasing the share of new housing which is built on previously developed land. In the past few weeks, public concern about the threat to our countryside from new development, and particularly, but not exclusively, from housing, has been mounting. The instinct of the people, their alarm that much of our green and pleasant land is about to be covered in concrete, is right. That threat is the direct result of the actions taken by the Government since 1 May.

Even in the days since the Conservative party announced the subject of this afternoon's debate, there has been a slight greening of the Government's rhetoric. Alas, their actions belie their words. The Secretary of State's latest newspaper article shows that he still does not understand the issue. For more than half the Cabinet, comfortably housed at taxpayers' expense in official residences, the problem may not seem very immediate. Ministers who have just squandered £60,000 of our cash on wallpaper may not need to look out of the window.

For the rest of us who have never authorised the spending of £100,000 of public money to cover the annual cost of our flat, the threat is a reality brought home day after day by one Government blunder after another. Those blunders show that Labour does not understand why the countryside should be protected. They show that Labour does not know how to protect the countryside and does not even care about the consequences of not protecting it. The Prime Minister may speak of hard choices; the Secretary of State makes only concrete choices.

The Government's housing mistakes cannot even be explained by their hostility towards rural areas. Starving the countryside of cash to reward Labour's strongholds in the urban north is bad enough; indeed, it is what we are coming to expect of a Government who put a Minister whose tax affairs are reported to be the subject of investigation in not one but two countries in charge of the Inland Revenue. However, while some parts of the Government seem to adopt the standards of a banana republic, until now at least there has usually been some rationale behind their actions.

When it comes to housing and planning, even that has disappeared. Covering the countryside with houses is not only bad for the people who live, work and play there and for the environment that they have cherished for generations; it is equally damaging for our towns and cities. Whenever the Secretary of State allows new homes to be built in places previously thought to be protected, he destroys the incentive to regenerate our urban heartlands.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

Does my hon. Friend agree that people in the borough of Elmbridge in Surrey, which has met all the policy planning guidance criteria for a green belt and which is already under development and infrastructure pressure, are alarmed about the casual language used by the Government? That will inevitably increase development pressure and speculation in Elmbridge, which covers my constituency.

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was shocked earlier today when he told me about the alarm in Elmbridge, but I entirely understand why it has arisen. Each time the Secretary of State inflicts new homes on countryside that is miles away from places of work, he adds to the congestion on our roads and increases carbon dioxide emissions.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the Birtenshaw Hall farm development on the fringe of Bolton, for which the local Labour council refused permission, only for it to be granted by the Secretary of State in the previous Administration, much against the wishes of almost the entire local population? Is he further aware that in the past few weeks Bolton metropolitan council has had to donate £1 million to Barratt as compensation for trying to protect that land?

Mr. Yeo

As I shall explain to the House, under the previous Conservative Government, the target for the number of homes being built on previously developed sites rose from 38 to 50 per cent. in the past decade, which is a substantial achievement.

For half a century, the choice of where to build new homes has been shaped by a planning system understood by builders, implemented by local councils, accepted by the public and respected by Ministers. In just nine short months, the Secretary of State has undermined that system. He has attacked the role of local authorities and condemned huge tracts of countryside to the bulldozer. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?] As my hon. Friends point out, he has not even had the courtesy to turn up to the debate on the havoc that he has caused.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Deputy Prime Minister has overturned the exhaustive public examination conducted by an inspector on West Sussex county council and insisted on adding further homes to an already extraordinarily high target, to make a total of 50,000 homes? That is unachievable. Will he condemn out of hand that callous move and acknowledge that West Sussex does not have the infrastructure to take those new houses?

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that, and will be glad to learn that I intend to deal with it later.

The Government have permitted developments that prove that the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning spoke the truth last September when he said that the green belt is up for grabs. The Government have refused to accept the need for a higher target for the proportion of new homes to be built on previously developed sites beyond the 50 per cent. that is currently being achieved. They have displayed contempt for the local councils responsible for planning and ignored the advice of independent planning inspectors and of their own chosen panels of planning experts.

Three new schemes show how little the Secretary of State cares for the green belt. Earlier this month, he gave the go-ahead for 10,000 new homes on green belt near Stevenage, a scheme opposed locally by the Conservatives. The scheme was steamrollered through Hertfordshire county council by a shoddy conspiracy between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties cooked up to prevent the issue from even being voted on by the full council. Does the Minister agree with the Labour leader on North Hertfordshire district council, who said: We feel very let down. The Government claims to be committed to protecting the environment and regenerating urban areas and now we have them supporting plans to rape 2000 acres of Green Belt"?

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Will the hon. Gentleman cast his mind back to the Thatcher Government, of which I believe he was a member? It became the rule for every local authority that the 15 per cent. of planning application appeals that were allowed under the previous Administration went up to something like 50 per cent. It became impossible for local authorities to defend their green belt because the market philosophy dominated 18 years of Conservative rule and Conservative country planning.

Mr. Yeo

The hon. Gentleman is off message. The Government have been trying to say that they believe in the market philosophy. The debate is about where homes should be built. Our concern is that under this Government, they are being built more and more often in the wrong place.

The second recent decision was when the Secretary of State, only last week, approved 2,500 more homes in the green belt outside Newcastle despite the existence of 4,000 empty homes in one part of the city alone. Does he agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) that that decision will accelerate the decline of inner-city areas such as his?

Thirdly, last August, after dithering for months about the industrial development of 150 acres of farmland in the green belt in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), the Secretary of State finally overruled the independent planning inspector who had recommended that the development should not be permitted. The land in question just happened to be owned by Labour-controlled Birmingham city council. The decision was sneaked out in the first week of the summer parliamentary recess.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

The hon. Gentleman has quoted with approval my remarks about the Newcastle green belt, which it is certainly my intention to defend and to go on defending. Does he agree that what is needed now is a tax on speculative green-field development?

Mr. Yeo

Once again, I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is on message. It is certainly true that the old Labour solution to every problem is, "Let's have a tax increase," but, judging by some of what I have read in the newspapers, I thought that there was at least some prospect that the solution to the problem might be a tax cut, in the form of a cut in VAT on conversion work. We shall see.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the problems with the Government's change in policy is that even land that the Government say should never be developed immediately acquires a premium? In my constituency, the result is that those interested in creating the Colne valley park find that they cannot buy land for that park, because—even if the land is zoned to be green belt until kingdom come—those willing to sell say that there is a premium on the land, as it may be capable of being developed hereafter.

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend has put his finger on another important point—that the malign consequences of starting to weaken the protection of the green belt go extremely wide.

Different factors applied in each of the three cases that I described, but the outcome was the same: building was allowed when it should have been prevented; building will occur on sites that were previously protected; and building will go ahead solely because of a decision by the Labour Government. The power lay with the Secretary of State; he exercised it and, in each case, he made the wrong choice. Instead of covering acres of newsprint with misleading green claims that will not save a single blade of grass, he should stop covering acres of countryside with new houses.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, under the Regional Development Agencies Bill, the Secretary of State arrogates to himself even greater powers to make such decisions, thereby entirely ignoring the views of elected local councils, such as my local council in Bromley?

Mr. Yeo

I am glad to be able to assure my hon. Friend that I shall table amendments to that Bill, which is in Standing Committee next week, to try to reverse those powers.

The purpose of the green belt is to prevent urban sprawl—the sort of sprawl the Secretary of State seems so keen to encourage. Perhaps his ambition, as he cruises home in his gas-guzzling, chauffeur-driven Jaguar, is to see urban sprawl along every mile of the A1. Perhaps what he means by an integrated transport strategy is to build more and more homes on each side of every road in country. Whether or not that is his ambition, it is likely to be his achievement, because what he has done is to invite developers to dust down every planning application that they have not pursued for years because it had so little chance of success. He has warned councils not to bother to waste staff time and taxpayers' cash to fight applications on the green belt, because the Secretary of State will allow them through anyway. He has kicked in the teeth every protester who wants to save his or her own environment. As Simon Jenkins wrote in The Times last week: The effect is to abandon all green-belt zoning round London and other cities … Mr. Prescott has forged that most crushing of planning tools, a precedent.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Does the hon. Gentleman regret the decisions of the former Secretary of State, Mr. Nicholas Ridley, who allowed all sorts of developments all over the place in the open countryside, contrary to all sorts of recently developed local plans, especially in my constituency? Does he regret that, when councils complained to Mr. Ridley, his response was, "The more they squeal, the more I know I'm right"?

Mr. Yeo

No, I regret nothing about my former right hon. Friend.

The green belt is only one part of the picture. The countryside contains huge areas that have never enjoyed green-belt protection, and those areas are also in danger. At present, half of all new housing is built on previously developed sites—a proportion that has risen from only 38 per cent. in 1985. That was good progress under the Conservative Government, but it was still not enough. The present consumption of green-field sites is unsustainable, which is why at the election we pledged to build more than 60 per cent. of new homes on previously developed sites. We believe that the target should be two thirds—a target which is attainable and realistic.

Last year, the present Minister for London and Construction told Planning Week that our target was "a recipe for disaster". Does the Secretary of State read Planning Week, I wonder? Has he talked to his ministerial colleagues? The Secretary of State now says that he wants to do better than 50 per cent. What is the Government's target now, and do they understand that, whatever it is, it will be credible only if it is backed up by decisions that are consistent with it?

New homes will be built on previously developed sites only if the Government send out the right signals. Developers respond to what the Government are doing, not to what they are saying—and what the Government are doing is removing old protections and destroying the countryside where people go for walks and enjoy beautiful landscapes, and where sometimes there is silence during the day and darkness during the night.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Amid all the rhetoric, does the hon. Gentleman recognise that in 18 years the previous Government did nothing to reform a planning system which was deeply centralised, which was top-down in principle and which offered nothing to local people who wanted it to reflect housing need, and the need for environmental sustainability and capacity in their communities? Does he also recognise that the present Government have sound policies, which offer, at regional level, an opportunity to make the system "bottom-up"? The previous Government sold the pass on planning development and housing development; this Government are taking major steps to democratise the system.

Mr. Yeo

Is there a 10-minute rule for interventions as well, Madam Speaker?

Madam Speaker

No, but I can ensure that hon. Members who make long interventions are not called to speak.

Mr. Yeo

I am grateful for that, Madam Speaker.

Let me tell the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) that it is not rhetoric when 10,000 homes are built on green belt in Stevenage. It is not rhetoric when 150 acres of green belt in the west midlands are covered by industrial development. It is not rhetoric when 2,500 homes are built on green belt outside Newcastle. Those are facts, not rhetoric, and they are facts which result from this Government's decisions.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

My hon. Friend has heard Labour Members mention the needs of local communities. Is he aware of the proposal for a new town at Broadclyst to house some 8,000 people? That proposal is on the agenda because Labour-controlled Exeter city council refused to carry out full audits of its brown-field sites. It has nothing to do with the community in my constituency; my constituents are happy with things as they are. The aim is to impose the requirements of city dwellers on those in the countryside.

Mr. Yeo

That is a powerful example of the way in which an urban-based Labour-controlled council is riding roughshod over the interests of people in the countryside and the long-term environmental interests of the area.

The Secretary of State has claimed that he wants to decentralise decision-making on many issues—including the regional provision of land to meet regional housing need. He recently wrote: Planning will remain clearly under local democratic control. In practice, yet again, the Secretary of State's actions belie his words.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) referred to West Sussex. The county council concluded that 37,900 homes could be accommodated by 2011—a view which was shared by the panel of experts appointed by the Secretary of State himself to examine the matter. Suddenly, the importance of local democratic control and the wish to decentralise decision making flew out of the window; the Secretary of State decided to inflict an extra 12,800 homes on the county.

I wonder whether the Minister agrees with the Labour leader of West Sussex county council, who said: This is the starkest possible illustration that the Government has no intention of trying to provide a greater share of the … new homes said to be required by 2016 on brown field sites rather than on green field sites in the countryside.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the basic problem for many rural areas such as Somerset, which I represent, is the methodology used to predict housing need, and the "predict and provide" philosophy that has been the on-going policy of both the previous and the present Government?

Mr. Yeo

No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. Regardless of whether the Government have a "predict and provide" philosophy, they will undermine the system if they bust apart the protection of the green belt, overrule their own expert panel and the all-party agreement on a county council, and force more and more housing. It is nothing to do with "predict and provide"; we must get the principles of the planning system right.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in the case of West Sussex and the examination in public, the results of which the Secretary of State unilaterally ripped up, the work and effort of the councils and environmental groups that went into that examination in public were described as trail-blazing, innovatory and of a very high level of technical competence?

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend points out what a disgraceful decision it was on the part of the Secretary of State to overrule that agreement.

The Secretary of State has claimed that the Government want to move away from the old "predict and provide" philosophy. Will he put his money where his mouth is and admit today that that is what he wants to do? He was utterly wrong at every stage in the case of West Sussex. Or is his claim that he wants to give up that system just so much green chatter dictated to him by the Prime Minister's office—words whose meaning he does not even understand?

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in addition to all that bad news about West Sussex, the decision taken means that 60 per cent. of those houses will be built on green-field sites?

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend is right to point out that that could well be the consequence of the decision.

I urge hon. Members from all parts of the House to join us in the Lobby, and to remember the views and needs of their constituencies. I urge Labour Members in particular to reflect on whether No. 10 shares the views of the Secretary of State. Might there perhaps be a change of policy just around the corner? Has the Prime Minister got wind of the possibility of a Conservative party campaign on the issue? Is this another example where the bumbling and confusion of the Minister responsible has forced the Prime Minister to step in?

The green belt is important. It serves both town and countryside. It will be destroyed at our peril, and the Conservative party will defend it. The countryside is important. It is not there to be covered in concrete. How can a Government who claim to govern in the interests of all the people be so consistently contemptuous of the views of those who live in rural areas?

The towns also are important. The people who live there deserve consideration, too. All those interests coincide.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)


Mr. Yeo

Too late.

Allowing developers a free rein damages town and country alike. The Government have made a disastrous start to their planning policy. They have already done irretrievable damage, but a change now would be better than nothing.

The choice was put simply last week by a Labour peer, the noble Lord Rogers, who asked: Are we going to revitalise our run-down cities by building in them or are we going to start abandoning them and building in the countryside? The Government could give the right answer to that question this afternoon, by admitting their errors and reversing their decisions on Newcastle, Hertfordshire, the west midlands and West Sussex.

The Government must give three assurances without qualification: first, that they will not weaken the protection of the green belt in any way; secondly, that they will raise the target for building new homes on previously developed sites to the Conservative party target of two thirds; and thirdly, that they will not again interfere with or overrule the decisions of independent planning inspectors or of local authorities seeking to protect their environment.

All those assurances are needed, whether the projected number of new houses is 2 million, 3 million, 4 million or 5 million. They will be needed, even if the old "predict and provide" method is scrapped. Those assurances are needed now. The Government can start to regain credibility on this issue only if they accept the Opposition motion, which I commend to the House.

4.14 pm
The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning (Mr. Richard Caborn)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

recognises that it was a Labour Government that created the planning system which has done so much to protect the countryside and promote sustainable development; welcomes the Government's continued commitment to protecting the countryside, including green belts, and to regenerating towns and cities; recognises that the Government is shortly to announce its decisions on the way forward on planning for housing; is confident that the interests of all citizens, both the 80 per cent. and more who live in towns and cities, and those living in the countryside, will be considered; welcomes the importance that the Government attaches to revitalising towns and cities and making the best possible use of brownfield sites and existing buildings to meet housing demand; and believes that the regional planning conferences should be given greater say in reaching decisions on the most sustainable solutions for providing decent homes in line with the Government's recently announced policy for modernising the planning system and using regional planning to find integrated solutions to the problems of economic development, housing and transport". For the past nine months we have heard nothing but scaremongering from Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, and today we have had to listen to the complete hypocrisy of the Opposition junior spokesman on the environment, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo).

If Conservatives are such defenders of the countryside, why did they lose so many seats last May in the general election? The reason is simple: people do not trust them. It was the Conservative Government who let the housing market collapse. It was the Conservative Government who left us with the legacy of urban sprawl, out-of-town shopping, derelict inner cities and building on the green belt. They failed to protect the countryside, and they know it.

Whole areas of open space in urban and rural areas have been devastated in the name of the free market. Let us get the facts right. We did not set the 50 per cent. target for new house building on brown-field sites, or the household projections. It was the Conservatives. We did not force counties such as Berkshire, Kent and Bedfordshire to increase the housing figures in their structure plans. It was the Conservatives. It was not this Government who axed social housing and let homelessness increase to a deplorable level. The Conservatives did that when they were in power. The fact is that poverty and deprivation have increased in the countryside under the Tories, and they did nothing about it in 18 years in government.

What we should be getting from Opposition Members is not a rant about protecting the countryside but an apology to the British people for failing to provide decent housing in rural and urban areas. The Conservatives did not plan ahead. They did not give two hoots about how we can achieve a proper balance between housing need and protecting the countryside.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk should look back at what he and his colleague, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) were responsible for when they were in government. Why have not the Conservatives put up their top man for the debate? This is their debate. They were trumpeted on Radio 4 this morning as the great defenders of the green belt. Where is the main man from the their team? Where is the shadow Secretary of State?

We had hoped that the Conservatives would tell us their policies, as this is their debate. In fact, their policies change daily. I think that they advocated a two-thirds build on brown-field sites on Radio 4 this morning. They advocated 60 per cent. yesterday. Why not go for broke, and go for 100 per cent? They are in opposition, and they will stop there for many years to come, because they have changed their policy three times in nine months. Quite honestly, they set the incredibly low standard of 50 per cent., but they did not reach that in 18 years in government.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

The Minister is being uncharacteristically unreasonable in his remarks. Does he applaud the setting up of the all-party future development group, which met last week and was co-chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew)? Does the Minister agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), who said at that meeting that to stop rural sprawl we must stop urban rot? Does the Minister not realise that urban rot is under the control of Labour city councils?

Mr. Caborn

The urban rot is there because of the previous Government's policies, which ran down councils and took all the powers from local authorities. The Opposition are the great defenders not only of the green belt but of local authorities—great transformations have happened in the past nine months.

The problem is that the Opposition have opted to give us the monkey and not the organ grinder to speak in this important debate. The House knows that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is an expert on this subject, as he has said so many times. If this is such a priority for the Opposition, why has he stood aside? Has there been a reshuffle on the Opposition Front Bench that we have missed? No, there has not.

I can tell the House why the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is not speaking today. It is not because he is too busy. Indeed, he is in his place. It is because he has a declared interest. One has only to glance at the Register of Members' Interests. The right hon. Gentleman cannot speak in today's debate because he is a non-executive chairman of the National House Building Council and a non-executive director of Aggregate Industries plc, a building materials and quarrying company. The right hon. Gentleman cannot speak in the debate because he has vested interests. It is disgraceful.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

I can speak in the debate, and of course I would declare my interests. The National House Building Council is not a building company. The Minister knows perfectly well that it is a standard-setting consumer body. Although I would declare my interests, I could still speak in the debate. However, I am leading the next debate on London Underground and transport.

How can the Minister accuse me of not speaking when the Secretary of State is not even here to listen to the debate? How can the Minister have the total hypocrisy to make such an allegation? Let me refer him to one particular issue. Why did he overrule the independent inspector's report in the west midlands and allow industrial development on 150 acres of green-belt land in my constituency? Why did he not have the courage to announce that decision in the House instead of doing so in the first week of the August recess?

Hon. Members

Answer the question.

Mr. Caborn

As the right hon. Gentleman has made such a long intervention, I hope that he will not be called to speak in the debate.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that his colleagues are being economical with the truth when they suggest that all or most of the new housing will be in the countryside. He knows that the green belt is protected. I am proud to say that previous Labour Governments laid the foundations of the planning system and the countryside protection that we have today.

Sir Norman Fowler


Mr. Caborn

I am not giving way. The right hon. Gentleman should not be so arrogant. I shall give way in a little while.

Previous Labour Governments created the national parks, extended the green belt and laid the foundations of the planning system that protects the countryside. Those foundations were laid down by the Attlee Government in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947.

Fifty years ago this week, Attlee's Minister of Town and Country Planning, Lewis Silkin, who represented Peckham—a good inner-city constituency like my own—set out the principles for today's planning system. On this very spot, he said that Labour had a duty to protect the countryside and provide decent housing for rich and poor alike. He said that it falls to us to secure a proper balance between the competing demands for land, so that all the land of the country is used in the best interests of the whole people".—[Official Report, 29 January 1947; Vol. 432, c. 947.] We reformed the planning system to protect the countryside, and we shall do the same again on the same principles.

Mr. Soames

The Minister accused my right hon. Friend and my party of scaremongering. Does he understand that a decision by the Secretary of State to overturn a faultless and scrupulous public examination of west Sussex county council's structure plan has caused great anxiety? Furthermore, does he understand that that decision already undermines the green-belt principles?

Mr. Caborn

If the hon. Gentleman listens, I shall explain how we shall address those issues. As I said, we inherited from the previous Administration a system of imposition from the centre. We have been following that system, but we shall alter it. Indeed, we have already started to modernise it.

The Conservatives had 18 years to deal with the weaknesses in the system: we began that process on 15 January. We have produced a consultation document on regional planning guidance. In a few weeks, we shall set out a new approach to household growth and sustainable development.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Caborn

No, I must make progress.

I do not wish to pre-empt the statement that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be making on housing and the countryside.

Mr. Sayeed


Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)


Mr. Caborn

I assure the House that we shall take an integrated approach, and we shall put in place new planning guidance and policies that not only protect the countryside, but benefit our towns and cities.

Unlike the previous Government, we are determined to make our towns and cities better places in which to live. That means proper, co-ordinated redevelopment and the release of empty spaces and properties at prices that people can afford.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)


Mr. Ruffley


Mr. Caborn

I shall not give way. [Interruption.] The Opposition have just asked for the debate to continue for an extra half an hour, and now Conservative Members are trying to intervene. They want to extend the debate, and I am trying to enable them to do that.

Sir Norman Fowler

It is our debate; we decide.

Mr. Caborn


It is a simple equation: what is good for our towns and cities is good for the countryside. Urban and rural areas are not separate, but interconnected and interdependent. It is no use dealing with the symptoms of urban sprawl: we must address the causes. We intend to do just that, by using a mix of planning guidance and new policy tools. We have no intention of ducking our responsibilities on housing need, and no intention of removing the safeguards on the green belt. We want to strike a better balance.

Mr. Jenkin

I have conducted a survey in my constituency on attitudes towards the green belt. People do not take a Luddite approach: they realise that some green-field sites will need to be developed. Would it be unreasonable to suggest that development on green-field sites should be held back until brown-field sites have been exhausted? It is cheaper and more profitable for developers to develop green-field sites before brown-field sites, which are often more expensive and more problematic. Will the Minister give that undertaking?

Mr. Caborn

All those suggestions and ideas have been considered, and the Deputy Prime Minister will make a statement.

Mr. Yeo

The Government do not know.

Mr. Caborn

It is not because we do not know, Tim. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Madam Speaker, I thought that I was in Committee. I have seen that much of the hon. Gentleman in Committee. He knows that we are consulting, and will respond to the consultation document that the Conservative Government issued before they left office.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I welcome the assurances that my hon. Friend has just given. Will he ensure that the message reaches councils in the north-east? In Sunderland, we have acres of period listed buildings that are sliding towards dereliction, while all around us local authorities, all of which are Labour-controlled, are busy granting planning permission for green-field sites. It will take intervention from his Department to ensure a change for the better.

Mr. Caborn

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He knows as well as I do that we inherited that problem. It was caused by the underfunding of local authorities, which were starved of the cash and the power to intervene.

Three things will help us to achieve our objective. First, we will move away from the old "predict and provide" philosophy for housing. We have already done that for road building. We do not believe that patterns of the past should dictate the future, and we propose a new approach for translating household projections into regional planning guidance.

There has to be much more flexibility at the margins. The Government have every intention of ensuring that the new planning system offers the most sustainable options in meeting local housing needs. We have already stated how we plan to modernise the planning system to meet those objectives, and we will further elaborate on the matter in our forthcoming statement.

Secondly, we want to introduce a new system in which Whitehall will not impose its figures on local councils. Instead, we should like local authorities to work in partnership with the Government and to take responsibility for assessing their own housing needs. We want to decentralise power, so that local people can have their say in decision making on the provision of land to meet local and regional housing needs.

Thirdly, we want to avoid unnecessary building in the countryside by protecting the green belt and maximising the use of brown-field sites. The previous Government set a target that half of all new house building should be on brown-field sites. This Government, who have been in office for only nine months, are determined to do better than that. The previous Government were in office for 18 years and did not manage to reach their 50 per cent. target, and that was a poor performance.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Ruffley

If all that is true, can the Minister explain why—on 27 July 1997, in an informal briefing to The Sunday Times—the Minister for London and Construction said that he wanted to release for green-field site development areas such as Dorset and Suffolk? Is that true or not?

Mr. Caborn

My hon. Friend the Minister for London and Construction will be replying to this debate, and can be asked that question directly. However, his statements and mine have been exactly the same.

Mr. Yeo

The Sunday Times was wrong?

Mr. Caborn

I said that my hon. Friend and I have been misquoted, not only in The Sunday Times but—on the Radio 4 interview—in this debate by Opposition Front Benchers. If the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) believes that his question adds substance to the debate, he is wrong.

Mr. Sheerman

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on those three points? Like me, he probably realises the absolute hypocrisy of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who was part of the gang round the Thatcher Administration, who ruined so much of the English countryside. They failed also to tackle an incentive system to promote building on brown-field sites, whereas this Government will put their hand to achieving one. Is it not true that we will not develop the estimated half million acres of brown-field sites unless we make it more economic to do so?

Mr. Caborn

My hon. Friend describes extremely well the previous situation, which epitomises the previous Government's hypocrisy. I remind the House that—in contrast to what Conservative Members have been saying in this debate—88 per cent. of England's population live on only 12 per cent. of the land mass, and that 90 per cent. of—[Interruption.] If Conservative Members want to dispute those figures, would they please stand up and do so?

I repeat that 88 per cent. of England's population live on 12 per cent. of the land mass, and that 90 per cent. of that population is in urban areas. It is therefore vital that we focus our efforts on using as much brown-field land as possible.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

The hon. Gentleman talks about protecting the countryside, although about 100,000 new homes are projected for Devon, increasing its population over 15 years by between 45 and 47 per cent. Does he not realise that—if we are to protect the south-west's environmental benefits—such an increase is an impossibility? For the benefit not only of the countryside but of people from urban areas who want to come to the countryside, he must realise that it is impossible.

Mr. Caborn

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said, he would know that all those factors will be put into the equation. Conservative Members have obviously not listened to what has been said. Fundamental changes have been made in the way in which we deal with household growth. Moreover, local authorities are now allowed to use capital receipts to renovate rundown housing and to concentrate resources on areas of greatest need. Those changes are making a difference.

Mr. David Heath

I welcome much of what the Minister has said over the past five minutes or so about change of policy. Does he agree that the inevitable logic of that is to halt the structure plan process, which is occurring in counties across the country at the moment and which is reaching examinations in public in Somerset. for example, while new policy areas are brought into play, so that structure plans relate to new policy and not old policy?

Mr. Caborn

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman quite understands the system. [Interruption.] If he knew the system, he would know that it is a rolling programme and that it is reviewed every three to five years. Any mistakes that are made or any changes that take place can be factored in. A projection has been made over 25 years, and any new Government policy will be factored in.

We must improve the flow of information and intelligence at regional and local level on the number of potential brown-field sites. In our forthcoming statement, we shall be looking at how we can more effectively and accurately address the scope for brown-field site development. We shall also be looking at options for introducing new economic instruments and financial incentives to bring more brown-field sites into play.

The Government are committed to protecting the green belt and enhancing the quality of life in both town and country. Part of that means a good-quality environment. It also means decent homes, jobs and access to services. We cannot protect the countryside at the price of a poor environment for people who live in our cities. We are not going to do that. Our approach links urban regeneration with the protection of the countryside; that is bottom up, not top down.

Such an approach is getting overwhelming support. The Countryside Commission and the House-Builders Federation have welcomed what we are doing. This week, even the Council for the Protection of Rural England— which some Opposition Members have been using as a campaign front—said that our approach to housing and the green belt is to be welcomed. Irrespective of what Conservative Members have been saying, people are starting to understand that we are looking at the bigger picture: how to create more sustainable towns, make better use of brown-field sites, and protect the countryside and the green belt.

It helps no one, least of all those who live in the countryside, to pretend—as Conservative Members have in this debate—that hard choices about how and where people live do not have to be made. We all have responsibility for ensuring that the framework for achieving sustainable development is right, and that people are made aware of the choices that have to be made.

We are committed to protecting the countryside, but the countryside cannot be frozen in a time warp. People in the countryside need homes and jobs. With what we have heard from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the art of lies, damned lies and statistics has sunk to a new low. Let us hope that Back Benchers' speeches are a little more considered.

4.37 pm
Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I have in my hand the paper from the examination in public of the Somerset structure plan, which I attended last week. I commend attendance at such an event to any hon. Member. The experience leaves one in no doubt about the need for improvement and change in the process. I listened for three hours to what the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) might refer to as lies, damned lies and statistics on migration into Somerset.

Somerset faced an allocation of 50,000 extra houses, of which two thirds were not to meet the needs of the household formation of the people of Somerset, but were based on projections of the forward requirements of people—the net difference between those leaving Somerset and those wishing to move in. That convinced me that the present approach cannot be sustained. It is one of over-provision in advance and of over-allocation and licensing of sites. That is why I would be opposed to a green-field tax, which would allow development of green-field sites.

I have had the same responsibility as the Minister for urban policy and trying to regenerate our cities. I carried through the legislation on urban development corporations. All Governments and councils have a continuing responsibility to ensure more urban regeneration and development of brown-field sites.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England has pointed out the failure to address the issue of windfall sites. The number of brown-field sites is not static. They are not simply the relics of the Victorian or later ages. They arise continually with new developments. To ensure urban regeneration and to protect our countryside, we must have a greater concentration on the development of every brown-field site.

I was pleased to hear the Minister confirm what the Secretary of State said in The Times: that, in two or three weeks, there will be a new statement of policy. I understand that it will propose a retreat from the current "predict and provide" policy, and will change the emphasis in the process from top-down to bottom-up.

That calls into question the comments of my Somerset neighbour, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I listened to the chairman, who was conscientiously carrying out the examination in public. I felt it almost impertinent to intrude on a discussion between professionals under specific subject headings in the structure plan. It was very difficult for a lay person to intervene, even though I was trying to speak on behalf of my constituents and with the support of the other Somerset Members.

The chairman of the inquiry, together with the inspector, drew on Government circulars and on advice from the Government office for the south-west, which was represented at the structure plan hearing, about what he was allowed to do. Nobody in Somerset is under any illusions about the process being bottom up. Representatives of adjoining counties were also present at the public examination of the structure plan. Their main interest, it seemed to me, was to make sure that Somerset did not change anything, in case there were implications for them.

The structure is rigid, and needs greater flexibility. I have seen how the process has developed. I have also seen how strong the public reaction has become to announcements of future housing projections. There is a need for greater public consent and involvement in the process. We all know that nobody likes houses being built next door, and that there will always be opposition to any development, but there must be some broader public understanding.

Ministers of all parties have been trapped by a system that rolls on remorselessly. I accept that I have been part of that. I had responsibility for planning as the structure plan system developed. It is very difficult for ordinary people to plug into the process. There is a public gallery at the public examination, but the number of days that the inquiry sits, the hours that it sits and the division of the subject headings do not lend themselves to public involvement and understanding.

That results in a situation such as that which I have experienced. We had a public meeting at North Petherton—a village between Bridgwater and Taunton—protesting against the proposal to built 1,500 houses in what are euphemistically called two new villages. The proposal would effectively join Bridgwater and North Petherton. Together with another proposal to join North Petherton and Taunton, it would result in virtually 10 miles of continuous development in the heart of what is meant to be a rural county.

The county planning officials helpfully explained the background. The people tried to make it clear that the proposals were not acceptable to them. The officials were perfectly happy to explain the proposals, but said that they had all been decided on two years before and determined in the structure plan process. By the time the issue arrived in the sphere of consciousness of the local residents, they had no opportunity to achieve any change.

We are dealing not just with the present proposal for 4.4 million homes, but with a process which, unless altered, will presumably require another 4.4 million for the next 25-year period and another 4.4 million for the 25-year period after that. That will rapidly become unsustainable. We are aiming for the competing objectives of good housing in our towns and cities and an attractive rural environment.

We must move away from "predict and provide" and towards a shorter time scale. We should phase the processes forward to maximise the impact on brown-field sites and not allow a larger allocation of green-field sites, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) pointed out, are cheaper to develop and will always be developed ahead of brown-field sites.

The article by the Secretary of State contained many points that command widespread support, but he did not deal with approaching the issue on a shorter time scale, with a greater focus on brown-field sites. Rather than indulging in too much ribaldry about targets, I hope that all hon. Members will sign up to two thirds. What is wrong with a target of three quarters? We can at least strive for it, and create pressure for it.

The harbourside development in Bristol and the Bridgwater docks did not involve public money. They were developed because developers saw the opportunity to turn them into attractive urban environments. Urban regeneration need not always be expensive, and it can produce attractive urban living conditions.

4.47 pm
Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

I was appalled by the comments of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). His brazen attacks on Ministers did a disservice to politics and had nothing to do with the subject of the debate. He and his party should be ashamed.

My constituency has the downs to the north and the sea to the south. I asked the Council for the Protection of Rural England where we should build houses. It did not have an answer. There is no answer in my constituency. I should like to address the issue for some colleagues in West Sussex, who have been moaning about the decision. With the exception of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—he is no longer the hon. Member for Crawley—they were not around in 1994–95, when I was leader of Hove borough council and was trying to develop a harbourside site in Hove.

The problem that we had with infrastructure was simple. West Sussex county council, run by the Conservatives, was not interested in discussions about the development of that site. Over the past few years, it has blocked every opportunity to create a development there, time and again.

Mr. Loughton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Caplin

Yes, I should like to hear an explanation from a newcomer to the area.

Mr. Loughton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—also a newcomer to his seat—for giving way to me, because I could not allow him to get away with the complete nonsense that he was talking. Does he not acknowledge that the reason why Shoreham harbour, most of which is in my consistency, has not been developed is that he and his colleagues have said, "One more lorry? Over my dead body"? They have not allowed any more transport to get to the site, and, without that transport infrastructure, nothing can be built.

Mr. Caplin

That proves who is in charge and who is responsible for the environment. We say that we do not want any more heavy goods lorries, and the hon. Gentleman says that he does. [HON. MEMBERS: ""Yes, you do."] No, we do not.

I shall now talk about housing and retail superstores, which I notice Conservative Members have not mentioned. When I asked the Council for the Protection of Rural England the other day where we should go to build houses, the first thing to which it referred me was the 1995 document, "Where shall we live?"

That document was generated by the Conservative Government, and mentioned the total of 4.4 million new homes that the Minister has already mentioned. However, it did nothing but ask a question. It had no suggestions about how to deal with the issues. The Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for South Suffolk, did not give any explanation either about how the Tories proposed to deal with them.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)


Mr. Caplin

I have only 10 minutes, so it had better be short.

Mr. Gummer

May I remind the hon. Gentleman that in that document and in the material accompanying it we said that we would build at least 60 per cent. of the new homes on brown-field sites, and that I said further that we would hope to build 75 per cent. of them there. The fact that the Government have now stuck to a target of 50 per cent. means that my hon. Friend has had to say that when we are returned in four years' time his target will have to be downgraded, simply because, over the next four years the Government will not have done what we promised we would do, and were doing.

Mr. Caplin

I do not know which document the right hon. Gentleman has been writing or reading, but it is not "Where shall we live?" What he says is not in that document, I am sorry to say. Let me remind him and his hon. Friends that what the Conservative spokesman said earlier is that in 18 years of Conservative Government the figure rose from 38 to 50 per cent. He never accepted until this afternoon, or until the "Today" programme, or wherever he has been appearing, that the target should be higher for house building on brown-field sites. After all that time, the right hon. Gentleman has obviously got mixed up.

In my constituency, the problem is that we have a high level of homelessness, so we need to build new homes, but we cannot build them because we do not have the space. No one has the answer, and the neighbouring Conservative council is trying to block any development ideas.

Mr. Loughton


Mr. Caplin

Let me tell hon. Members what happened in the past. There was a proposal to dig up green land in Hove and build a superstore. Along came the developers with their ideas, and the local Labour party, of which I was leader in the late 1980s, objected. Even the local Tories objected with us. Then along came a Secretary of State and said, "Of course you can knock down the golf course and build a superstore". That was the Tories' policy, and they cannot deny it, today or ever.

What we have heard this afternoon has been not only hypocrisy but the arrogance that got the Conservatives kicked out on 1 May. It is still there now that they are in opposition, and it is about time they had some humility before the electorate and admitted their gross mistakes over the past 18 years, when they allowed concrete to be generated all over the United Kingdom. They alone were responsible for the developments in that time. Now, as in so many areas of policy, the Labour Government have to come along and clear up the mess.

The other day, I went to a meeting chaired by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), with my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon—

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)


Mr. Caplin

Sorry, Stroud; it is somewhere close by.

I was appalled by the comments made at the meeting. It was an attempt by the Conservative party to use the Council for the Protection of Rural England, a respectable organisation, as a front. I say clearly to the CPRE, "Don't be used by the Conservatives."

Mr. Loughton

What about Lord Rogers?

Mr. Caplin

Lord Rogers was there making a point, and he was perfectly entitled to make it. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) was not there.

Mr. Loughton

I was.

Mr. Caplin

Well if he was, he certainly did not contribute.

The CPRE was being used by the Tories for their own ends. The House must stand up against such action. [Interruption.] I hope that if the hon. Member for South Suffolk sums up later, he makes a better speech than he did at the beginning—and if he does, he may like to comment on what I have said.

There are always tough decisions to take when one is in government, whether central or local. That has always been clear to people. Local authorities are capable of taking decisions in their localities. However, far too often they pass difficult decisions to the Government.

In modernising the planning process, we have a duty, as I hope the Minister who replies will say, to allow local authorities to make decisions and not to pass them up the line. If they pass decisions to the Government, often a bizarre inspector comes in and makes a ridiculous decision.

I shall give the House an example. About two years ago, an appeal was lodged concerning a golf driving range on an area of green land abutting my constituency. I went to the meeting as a councillor, to represent my constituents. Two applications had been made, one for a golf driving range, which would have been a tremendous development, and the other for a car park.

That was while the Tories were in power, and the inspector said, "You can't have a golf driving range, but you can have a car park." Yet today the Tory party is trying to persuade us that it cares for the environment. It is all pretence. The Tories never have cared for the environment, and they have concreted over more of the United Kingdom than the Labour party ever will.

4.56 pm
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

I start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) on his comments. They were well reasoned, and brought a better tone to the debate than that provided by the two Front-Bench speakers. The right hon. Gentleman took a strong stand on the subject even before the general election and opposed some of what the previous Government were doing, so, on that ground alone, he displays a measure of consistency, which is welcome in the debate.

Not many statistics have caused as much recent turmoil as the Conservative Government's adoption of the projection—accepted so far by the new Government—that by 2016, a total of 4.4 million new homes will be needed for newly created households.

I shall deal with those numbers first. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman somewhat sidestepped them. However, there are real doubts about the housing projections, and those doubts must be addressed, because once land is released for development it will be almost impossible to retrieve it from the developers if the numbers turn out to have been wrong.

I shall give one important example. There is undoubtedly a rising number of people living alone in Britain, for reasons such as divorce, and the facts that young people leave home earlier and old people live longer independently. However, the Council for the Protection of Rural England has rightly pointed out that the effect of a related trend, cohabitation, has been seriously underestimated.

During the 1980s, the number of unmarried couples choosing to living together more than doubled, yet the Government predict that over the next 25 years the number will remain virtually static. Given the fact that nine out of 10 people who leave marriages go on to cohabit with someone else, the Government's projection is, to say the least, conservative. It should be re-examined, because such figures make an important difference. If, over the next 25 years, the rate of increase in cohabitation continues along the 1980s line, 1.4 million fewer homes will be required.

Of course, even if the problems with housing predictions are resolved, it is likely that a substantial number of new homes will still be needed. I do not believe that anyone argues against that.

With development on such a scale, it is essential that the right kind of housing is provided: housing that meets the requirements of new householders. I believe that current policy is fatally flawed in that regard. The Environment Select Committee considered the issue last year and said: developers will naturally wish to build homes which will maximise their profits and … there may therefore exist a dynamic which will effectively inhibit the building of homes which are affordable by those on low incomes. Conservative Ministers would not accept that point at the time, because they believed that the market, combined with councils requiring developers to include some social housing, would be more than adequate. I believe that they were wrong.

The Institute of Housing, in a submission to the Select Committee, said that it was vital that the figure of 4.4 million should not simply be taken as a green light to developers, but that proper consideration should be given to where houses should be built, what types of houses are needed, and what local services and businesses should be located around them, to make the house a home in a successful, functioning community. Those powers no longer rest with the local authorities and are not exercised by Government.

On close consideration of the type of household that will develop in the future, it should be obvious that estates of big houses in the most beautiful areas of the countryside may well meet part of the demand for housing and satisfy developers' need for profit, but they will certainly not meet housing need, which is a different issue. That is especially the case for social housing: homes for the elderly and for single young people on low incomes, which will not easily be provided by the housing market.

Rural people are genuinely concerned about the loss of green-field sites around their towns and villages, but most are not NIMBYs. They accept that there will be changes in the character of the countryside, but reject the idea that the answer to housing need is to allow companies to build rows of large detached houses around every village. In Cornwall, there is certainly real support for homes for local people—every village survey has shown that—but not for ever more suburban semis catering to incomers and the rich retired.

The Conservative Members who still represent rural areas have been very agitated recently about development in the countryside, but the figure of 4.4 million was the product of the Conservative Government, who allowed huge rural development, and especially out-of-town shopping centres, often despite local refusals, and even overturning planning inspectors' reports.

Cornwall, including my constituency, suffered many such cases. I say suffered because, in an area in which many town centres are filled with struggling businesses, shoppers are being lured away. That is bad not only for the town centre business but for the countryside, because the more derelict town centres become, the less people want to live in them; so the move out into the countryside is encouraged. The new Government started to create policies to put that right, but, frankly, they shut the stable door long after the horse had bolted, and the existing permissions will be taken up for many years to come.

We must consider whether the fact that many people want to leave urban areas and have a different life style is a sign of the attractions of living in the countryside—despite the hours of commuting to which many people subject themselves—or of the policy in cities and towns going wrong.

Urban areas can and should be places where people want to live, even when they earn a larger salary. Indeed, some of the most expensive and desirable housing in the country—in Kensington or Bath, for example—is inner-urban and developed to an extent that would not be allowed by planners, who would say that it was too dense.

Improving derelict town centres, reducing traffic congestion and crime, and ensuring that schools and other services deliver high standards are steps that are necessary to slow out-migration and stop the creation of urban ghettos with a poor quality of life; yet much that the previous Government did achieved precisely the opposite. Conservative Members would carry more conviction if they acknowledged that they made those mistakes. The Conservative Front-Bench spokesman missed the opportunity to unite opinion across parties and put real pressure on the Government to make policy changes and call a halt to some of their recent decisions.

Regenerating urban areas is necessary if we are to relieve pressure on green-field sites by using land that has already been built on. The Secretary of State's promise in The Times yesterday to do better than the previous Government's target of 50 per cent. of new houses on brown-field sites is very welcome; but how far will the Government go, and when?

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if there is to be development on urban sites, land must be decontaminated, and that the initiative of councils such as Norwich city council in cleaning up the land where once proud factories stood is important and should be taken up more widely? Should not we compliment councils that do that and use biotechnological techniques to clean up land?

Mr. Taylor

I agree; we should. That is another issue which the Select Committee considered last year. I intend to propose one way in which we may release further funding to help local authorities with that process when there is no business that they can charge.

It would be easier to accept Ministers' recent decisions to allow development in the countryside if the Government had their policies in place; but they do not. Figures are being thrown around: not long ago, we heard that the figure of 4.4 million new homes might rise to 5.5 million; then it was back down to 5 million, and now Ministers say that they may drop targets altogether; and the 50 per cent. target for brown-field development might rise to 60 per cent., but, then again, it might not. The uncertainty undermines the attempts of local councillors, pressure groups and Members of Parliament to play their critical part in the development of sound policy.

There is a straightforward package of measures that the Government could adopt to stop unnecessary development in the countryside and revitalise our towns and cities. From what the Minister said today, and from the article by the Secretary of State that I read yesterday, I believe that the Government are heading in that direction, but they are again letting the horse bolt before they close the stable door.

When the Government's target for the proportion of homes on brown-field sites is finally set, we believe that it should be far nearer to the round table on sustainable development's recommendation that three out of four houses should be built on previously developed land. Incidentally, I commend the round table's study to any hon. Member who has not read it, because it not only sets the target but explains how to achieve it.

Development companies should be encouraged to invest in the clean-up of polluted areas, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) said, so that local people can once again put them to good use. Perhaps the most obvious measure of all, filling empty properties, could release 800,000 homes that are currently boarded up.

Such action cannot stand alone: it must go together with the regeneration of the town centre. Problems facing urban areas must be urgently addressed, as there is no point in building homes in places where no one wants to live. The Conservative party must consider its record on the problem of dereliction, if it wants to correct it.

We must recognise that building new homes is big business. When areas of land in beautiful countryside are released for development, that is where big business will go. We cannot change the fact that rural locations are attractive to developers, but we can discourage them from cherry-picking such sites—which are now both cheaper to build on and easier to sell—at the expense of urban regeneration.

Building on green-field sites is positively encouraged at present, because no value added tax is charged on new development, while the refurbishment of empty homes and offices carries the full rate. That financial incentive for concreting the countryside makes no sense. A green-field development levy is one way in which we could remove the financial advantages of building on the countryside and discourage unnecessary rural development. The money raised could be used to fund social housing and improvements in urban areas, encouraging people to choose to live in them. Indeed, it could fund the remediation needed to restore derelict land for development or could help to cut VAT on the renovation of old buildings.

Another sensible measure would be the rewriting of planning guidance to create a new development hierarchy. First preference must be given to restoring existing buildings for occupation; then we must develop brown-field sites; and only after that should we allow green-field development. That should be made clear not only through tax and financial incentives but in hard-nosed planning guidance that councils can use, in the knowledge that inspectors will back them up and Ministers will give them the ultimate support that they deserve.

Mr. Drew

Part of what the hon. Gentleman is saying is covered by the sequential principle. The difficulty that I have experienced—as have other hon. Members who have been councillors—is that an agreement is signed with one developer who then goes on to do a deal with a second developer, and that is where things go wrong. The policy must include a suggestion to make the agreement hard and fast, so that developers stick to the principle that has been agreed.

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman speaks with knowledge. The influx of councillors into the House at the general election may have done a lot of good, because their perspective is not always to follow what Ministers say is the reality, as against what they find the reality to be when they have to deal with it.

We must make the town a place where people not only come to for work, but want to live in. Many people depart for the country because they are sick of the fear that their homes will be broken into and are afraid that local schools will deliver poor results for their children. Making town centre living more attractive can be done by putting back green spaces, helping inner-city schools meet the highest standards, making public transport a far easier way than the car to get around town, and improving crime prevention.

The previous Government set a budget projection for regeneration which, for 1999–2000, was even lower than for 1998–99—and that figure was £300 million lower than the figure for 1997–98. They planned a £300 million cut in urban regeneration which would help people to stay in towns. The policy was not working.

The new Government have provided an extra £100 million, but have not restored the funding to where it was for 1997–98. They have looked hard at the work that is needed to invest in the cities and towns of this country to make them more attractive to live in. The biggest single task for the Government is to restore existing buildings and town centres, not to create new ones. Liberal Democrat policies of social investment are well designed to achieve that; Labour's steps in that direction—although welcome—are still too small.

We must put an end to the kind of situation that has outraged the people of West Sussex—about whom we have heard so much. The local authority studied housing need in the area and was backed up by an independent study. However, the Deputy Prime Minister overrode the decision and ordered the council to build 20,000 more homes than local people, responsible to their community, had shown were needed.

It has been pointed out in the debate time and again that the Government are falling into the trap of a long-term national target based on dubious assumptions. To say that a change later will solve the problem of the structure plans is simply not true. We will have to put up with years in which developers buy land that they earmark for development, but which perhaps they will not develop. However, the local authority is entirely unable to remove the developer because it could not possibly afford the compensation that would be involved if the Government realised that their policy was wrong.

As the debate has demonstrated, the issues surrounding urban development over the next 25 years are far from resolved. The Government's intentions are unclear and are causing a great deal of concern both to residents of rural areas and to those trying to find a decent place to live in Britain's cities.

The Secretary of State's article in The Times yesterday, entitled: The Green Belt is safe with us is a case in point. While saying that he wanted to keep the presumption against development in the green belt as strong as ever, he nevertheless saw "no need" to intervene in the plan to build 10,000 homes on green belt land around Stevenage, or again in Newcastle. We cannot judge that against the new Government policy, which we are told is on the way, because we do not know what the new policy is.

A complete moratorium on permitting major new developments in the countryside or green belt should be put in place until the Government have resolved their policy, which is, we are told, weeks or months away. Indeed, the Minister kept referring to a policy paper that the House has not seen. If the Government are serious about that—and I believe that they are—and if they want to protect green spaces around our towns and cities, the go-ahead for permissions on previously undeveloped land in the countryside and on the green belt, which their new policies suggest would not be given, should not be given now in the weeks running up to the publication of the new policy. That is a simple thing for the Government to announce, and it would take the tension out of the debate. If they wanted to take the pin out of the hand grenade that the Conservatives believe they have on this issue, that would be the way to do it.

My county of Cornwall fought and won the argument against a proposed 10,000 increase in house building, which came from the Government. The previous Government argued against the county, but the county won. It persuaded the inspectors who looked at the debate that the migration figures did not add up. We showed that the figures on which the present Government are still basing their policy certainly did not apply in Cornwall. I have no reason to believe that they apply anywhere else. The figures are not right. Ministers know it, the Opposition know it—so why allow these major developments to go ahead now?

5.14 pm
Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

The speech by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) was an important contribution to the debate because, in effect, he turned his back on decades of policies by the previous Government, which favoured planning free-for-alls. We are now struggling with the consequences of that. The fast buck has finally rebounded on the executive barn conversion.

We should remember that green-belt policies were devised by Labour politicians to protect the interests of Labour cities. The green belt was designed to preserve the city. That is the purpose of the green belt—to enable development and to create incentives for development in the cities themselves. The Conservative party should appreciate that during their 18 years in government, the opposite occurred. A tax and development system bled the in-town in favour of the out-of-town. It is with the consequences of that we are now grappling. Sprawl and rot go side by side, hand in pocket.

I took some comfort from what my hon. Friend the Minister said, because he indicated an important change in the emphasis of policy. However, it is important that we are clear that that change of emphasis has to be definite and quick because there is now too little time left to us to reverse the consequences of the planning policies of the Conservative Government. It is now essential that we tax green-field development and spend it on the inner city. The proceeds of that green-field tax must go to the inner city. Unless we do that, we cannot grapple with the consequences of the planning decisions that have already been made.

When I put that issue quite directly to the hon. Member for South Suffolk, his policy, I am afraid, was St. Augustine's policy: Give me chastity … hut not yet. The hon. Gentleman would not accept the case for the tax on speculative development in the green fields. Without that, we cannot make progress with the policy.

My city of Newcastle is a strong case in point. It is time to make planning strong and to impose tough choices on developers and speculators. I hope that the new Government will make it clear that no houses will be built on the area now allowed for development in the green belt in the city of Newcastle unless and until the taxes on that development are in place, unless the public transport corridors are in place with the finance committed and until polices about which we can be convinced lead towards the restoration of the inner city are in place and, beyond any mistake, seen to be working.

Newcastle's historic centre is in a state of decay. There are hundreds of thousands of square feet of 19th-century commercial property—property that is capable of conversion into precisely the sort of housing that young single people would wish to live in. But there is a price tag for that and unless we make the economic incentives strong enough, it simply will not happen. In many ways, Newcastle is a city divided, rather than united. It has examples within in it of some of the highest quality of city living anywhere in Britain, and some of the worst.

Unless those problems are looked at together, we shall not make sense of this. Some inner-city neighbourhoods in Newcastle are popular, and people wish to live in them. In other inner-city neighbourhoods, which are running down, owners cannot find buyers, landlords cannot find tenants and the city council is engaged in a policy of clearing its own property. In the past five years, 1,000 social houses in the council sector have been pulled down.

Shortly, the Government are to take us forward into new health, education and welfare policies. We must see the links between those changes in policy and in the planning policies that we are discussing. Newcastle has 8,000 empty properties—4,000 in the inner-city west end of Newcastle alone, part of which I represent. Figures announced yesterday show that for results Newcastle is in the bottom six of local education authorities. There is a link between those two things. Those things can be tackled. They can be changed—indeed reversed—but powerful policies across the board are needed to do so. Please let us see the links between different types of policy.

Newcastle is a great party city, but some parts of my constituency have the highest crime rates in England and some of the highest insurance costs, which go with them. Those two things are linked. Those problems can and must be tackled. More than one in four households in Newcastle are workless. The Government propose to tackle that issue, and when they do so, and are seen to do so, we shall have viable inner-city neighbourhoods.

Twenty thousand people in the city of Newcastle receive incapacity benefit. Newcastle is fourth from the bottom of the league for incidence of cancer. Death rates for young men in Newcastle are increasing because of dangerous life styles, the impact of drink and drugs and the lack of secure prospects. Those critically affect the welfare of certain neighbourhoods. If we address that problem—if we tackle sprawl and its economic underpinning, the rot of our social and human infrastructure—we can make cities viable, and if we do so we shall never need the proposed building on the Newcastle green belt.

However, while money is made too easily by sprawl, rot will continue to spread. I hope that my Government will take it upon themselves to have planning policies in the bold colours of both red and green. Those colours should go together if we are to allay people's fears. The answer to these planning problems is to bring new heart, hope and life back into the inner city.

I hope that the Government will say clearly, in the debate and in the statements that are to follow it, that they will lift from the brow of Labour's inner cities the crown of unnecessary sprawl, and that they will lift urban neighbourhoods, which need and deserve support, from their cross of growing greyness. Housing policy can play an important part in Labour's policies of welfare reform and environmental protection, but unless the links between those policies are made we shall continue the policy of sprawl. I urge the Government to defend the green belt, not in the interests of the countryside—although that may well be necessary—but in the interests of the cities.

5.23 pm
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

I heard much in the speech by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) with which I would agree, but I find it difficult to understand why it is a satisfactory solution to the problems to tax, rather than stop, development on green-field sites. I should much prefer it if we started by asking ourselves whether development should take place.

I do not blame the Deputy Prime Minister for not being in the Chamber today; the speech of the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning would have been as painful for him to hear as it was for many hon. Members. However, he was not here for another reason: as far as we can tell, the decisions with which we profoundly disagree were taken by the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, and I am sorry that the latter is not now in the Chamber to listen to what I hope will be an explanation of why those decisions were so arbitrary and so harmful.

It would be quite possible for us to carry the whole debate by blaming one another—going back over the past 20 years, looking forward and thinking about this, that and the other—but the fact is that, during the past four or five years, no one would have given permission for 12,000 houses outside Stevenage, joining Stevenage with its nearest town. This is a new kind of policy. Perhaps the Government intend to change that policy now that they have discovered that it is incredibly unpopular, but it is a new kind of policy.

Similarly, the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor), who spoke so much sense, mentioned that Cornwall had been able to prove to an inspector that the figures that had been handed down were wrong, and the Government upheld the inspector. In the case of West Sussex, that did not happen. The council, on an all-party basis, proved to the inspector that the figures were far too great. The Government turned the inspector down and, as their supporters said, betrayed the Labour party locally.

Therefore, I do not think that it is unfair to say that the case that the Opposition are making is not about yesterday or about the Town and Country Planning Acts or numbers of houses, but is based on the actual decisions taken by the Government in the nine months in which they have been in power. Even if the Labour party hates everything that the previous Government did, it must also be worried—if it is being fair in any way—by the decisions that the Labour Government have taken.

I found the article by the Deputy Prime Minister in The Times yesterday very difficult in one sense. I yield to no one in the praise that I have given the Deputy Prime Minister for his support of the environment internationally. He has been kind enough to reciprocate, but his policy has in fact been a continuance of a policy and a bipartisan policy and I am very pleased about it, so in a sense I am sorry that I must criticise the Deputy Prime Minister on this issue.

However, it is no good writing articles in The Times in which one pledges to defend the green belt when one has just agreed to a large series of buildings in the green belt round Newcastle, when, in the delicate way in which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central put it, that is quite difficult to justify, given the number of empty houses that there are in the middle of that green belt.

I believe that the Labour party has failed to understand how the market works. Developers will not develop the inner cities if they have the chance to develop outside; that is the fact. Previously we did not have a target of 50 per cent; that was the figure that we were reaching from 38 per cent. I said clearly that we would do 60 per cent., but when the round table on sustainable development said that it felt that we could do 75 per cent. and produced the figures, I said that if that stood up I would go for 75 per cent. It is on the record that that is what the Conservative Government said.

I am happy for Labour Members to say that we did not achieve that, but it does not help their case because, until the article in The Times, they said that they would not even try. They did not have a policy of 60 or 75 per cent. [Interruption.] The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning is constantly saying that he is misquoted. To be misquoted once may be considered an accident; to be misquoted twice and one begins to wonder whether he was ashamed of what he said and wished he had not said it.

Again and again, the Government have said that they accepted what they referred to as the previous Government's target of 50 per cent., and it is no good their now pretending that they have not. The article in The Times makes precisely that point. The Deputy Prime Minister now says that the target is 50 per cent., but that they hope that they will do better. Therefore, there has been a change of tack on that.

If the private developer is to do the job that we want him to do, there must not be an easy option. Governments will not find good places in inner cities to build houses by having great lists of brown-field sites, changing every day, as the Council for the Protection of Rural England rightly said that they should. Governments will not achieve the building in that way. The people who find such sites will be the people who will make profits out of them. It must be made profitable for them to do so, and that will not be achieved by allowing profits to be made more easily in another area.

That is why it is important to set a high target and not to argue about the figures. I wish that I could have suggested figures below 4.4 million. It is in the Government's interests to have a lower figure. I accepted the figure of 4.4 million because, having looked at all the opportunities for reducing it, I could not truthfully suggest that a lower figure would be likely. But that does not affect the argument, because we will have more homes than we would wish to accommodate. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the majority of them at least are built in the inner cities.

We have two problems—inner-city deprivation and dereliction, and the need for more homes than we would like to build. Those two problems can solve each other. It is perverse that so far the Government have not tried to solve those two problems but have exacerbated them by agreeing to build in the green belt, which the Conservative Government would not have done and did not do. The Government have changed the policy.

But the situation is worse than that. The Minister for London and Construction gave it away. He will talk as if protecting the green belt and the countryside is a selfish activity by people who are lucky enough to benefit from it. That is what he has said and his articles have shown it again and again. [Interruption.] I am careful not to accuse him of the things that he plainly has not said. That is why he put the finger on Dorset and Suffolk.

Some Labour Members are even more adamant than that. One day, I spoke with the leader of Stroud district council on the telephone and I asked him why he wanted to build in the beautiful Painswick valley—the only access to Stroud which is so far unspoilt. He said that everybody else has had to have houses, so he did not see why they should not have some houses as well. Despite living in an area of outstanding natural beauty, they felt they should have the houses as well.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer

No, I am about to sit down.

If we want sustainable development, we do not want a Government who change the policy; we want a Government who force people to build in the town.

5.33 pm
Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester)

I have never before listened to so much phoney outrage and pious untruths as I have heard in the past hour and a half. Where have Conservative Members been for the past 18 years?

Since May 1980, I have chaired a local planning committee. It was the build-anything-anywhere planning policies of the previous Conservative Government which led to acres of green land going under a sea of concrete. It was the Conservative Government's policies which led to the destruction and the desecration of our city centres and to the dependency on the motor car. It was the Conservative Government's policies which impoverished our countryside.

In Chester, with the support of local people, Labour councillors consistently opposed out-of-town retail parks and leisure complexes. We turned them down only to find, months later, that the Government-appointed inspector carrying out Conservative Government planning policies allowed the appeal and there was absolutely nothing that we or the local people could do about it.

It was not only the green-field sites on the edge of the city that were affected. We have spent 18 years and a lot of public money—so far, fingers crossed, successfully—defending the Sealand basin, a valuable green space in the heart of the historic city of Chester which has been nibbled away round the edges. It is not only the green fields on the outskirts of our cities that need planning protection; we must also tighten planning protection for the valuable green spaces in our city centres.

I was born and brought up in the countryside, and the previous Government's disastrous policies affected the rural areas, too. The enforced sale of council houses and the complete unwillingness of the Conservative Government to invest in social housing have led to most Cheshire villages nowadays being little more than dormitories for better-off commuters working in Manchester or Merseyside. Gone are the village schools and shops and the sense of community.

The household growth timebomb has been known about for a long time. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) knew about it. He spoke about it several years ago at a conference that I attended. But the Conservative Government did nothing about it. A roof over our heads is a basic human right and I am sure that most experts would agree that, whatever the figure of potential new households—be it 1 million, 2 million, 3 million or 4 million—probably 40 or 50 per cent. of those people will need social housing.

One of the Conservative Government's worst legacies is the 5,500 people on the housing waiting list in the fairly affluent city of Chester. That is hardly a good testament to their Government.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Russell


If we do not grasp the nettle, poorer families will continue not to have a roof over their heads because house prices will spiral.

The new Government have made a good start. We have released £800 million of capital receipts, but in my city and in most other cities the state of the housing stock is so appalling that most of that money will have to be spent on repairing and renovating existing stock, not on creating new units.

After 18 years on a planning committee experience, I firmly believe that the system is too rigid. We need more flexibility and I hope that the Government will consider the possibility of a use-class order for social housing. At the moment, we have no mechanism for controlling the type and tenure of housing.

I was pleased to hear that the Liberal Democrats support the idea of reviewing the tax position. If concrete is poured over green fields, the development is VAT free, whereas if one converts an old building for residential use, the full tax rate is payable. Given that this Government's hallmark is fairness in taxation, I hope that Ministers will at least be prepared to consider removing that anomaly.

Local authorities have been criticised in a number of quarters. Chester local authority has carried out a brown-field audit and has innovative plans to regenerate the inner city—to build on the old gasworks and put houses on the old canal basin. There is enormous potential, as there is in many of our cities, to re-utilise the floors above shops for housing. They may not be suitable for families, but they are certainly suitable for young people, particularly students. They are ideal for single-person households.

I have read all the Government's documents and believe that we face enormous challenges. We cannot deny that the number of new households will grow. How are we to accommodate them? As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central asked, how will we create safer, more vibrant city centres where people want to live? How will we support sustainable, living communities in our countryside? How will we protect our wonderful built and natural environments?

We cannot walk away from those challenges, and we cannot repeat the mistakes that the Conservative Government made in the past 18 years. The key to meeting those challenges is improving and modernising the planning system. I am delighted that the Government will take an holistic approach—the system has been crying out for it for years—by bringing together economic development, transport, housing and the environment. The Labour party laid the foundations for modern planning 50 years ago and has always believed in planning. Some 10 years ago, I spoke at a planning conference when a previous Conservative Minister of State said that he did not believe in planning at all. He is still a Member of this House, although he is rarely seen here now.

Fifty years later, I have every confidence that the new Government will create a new co-ordinated planning system, which will improve the quality of life for everyone in the 21st century.

5.42 pm
Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

When I heard the Minister of State introduce the debate, I realised immediately that policy in this area was on the move, but was unclear about where it was moving to. There were occasional protestations of good intentions, but, by and large, I had the impression that there was no policy at the moment.

I read what the Deputy Prime Minister said in the newspaper yesterday, and realised that most previous statements on that subject were now inoperative. We are told that, in a few weeks' time, some further announcements and guidance will be issued. Meanwhile, I agree with my right hon. and hon. Friends that, unfortunately, in the first nine months of the Government's period in office, some fairly startling decisions have been taken.

The reaction to the dramatic decision to allow large-scale development on green belt land near Stevenage and Newcastle, which was criticised by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), has driven the Government to realise that the cavalier way in which they have been proceeding so far cannot be sustained, and that they must reconsider the policy.

The Minister of State tried to disguise his difficulty of having no policy to outline today in response to this debate by making an extremely belligerent attack on the previous Government's record. That will not impress Labour party supporters in rural and urban areas who support the principles of conserving the green belt and the countryside. Demand for change comes from all sides, against a background where most people know what we should aim for.

Obviously, we should begin by trying to regenerate inner-city areas. If the Government can build on the excellent record of the last Government, going way back into the 1980s with the setting up of public-private sector partnerships, urban development corporations—much of the regeneration resisted at the time by Labour councillors in many cities—good luck to them. Newcastle upon Tyne, like Nottingham and many other cities, bears all the signs of successful urban regeneration in the past.

The principle of building on brown-field sites underlay the policy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) when he was Secretary of State for the Environment. If that can be built on, all well and good, but belligerence is uncalled for.

Mr. Caborn

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke

I shall give way just once, but, like everybody else, my speaking time is limited.

Mr. Caborn

Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman read the two documents that we issued on 15 January, "Modernising the Planning", which is a policy statement, and "The Future of Regional Planning Guidance", which is a consultation paper? We are trying genuinely to deal with the points that Conservative Members have raised and bring them into the public domain. I presume that he has read them, and will be contributing to the debate.

Mr. Clarke

I found the documents bland and uninformative. They contrasted somewhat with the Government's decisions, whether they were taken by the Secretary of State or the Minister of State. I am waiting for a better document to be issued, in the light of the hints dropped in yesterday's article and today's debate.

The Government should build on the city regeneration which we started, and get rid of the remaining dereliction. Naturally, there will be some development in suburban and rural areas, because some is required. We expect some household generation in rural communities, because new families there must be provided for. We even expect the development of some light industrial employment in the countryside to help the rural economy. However, we all strive to get the balance right. It is avoiding the point to embark on extraordinary attacks on what happened in the past 18 years.

A successful balance has been achieved in my constituency. A third of my constituents live in essentially suburban areas of the city of Nottingham, while the rest live in a rural area, scattered over the countryside of southern Nottinghamshire. The local planning authority provided land for development and, with the healthier housing market, a lot of development is going on. Attractive new housing is being built at Gamston on the edge of the existing conurbation, without prices going out of control. Some of the bigger villages were expanded, with a certain amount of barn conversion. There was some out-of-town shopping development, but I am glad to say that, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal was Secretary of State, he brought an end to unrestrained development of that kind.

What has happened so far has resulted in a reasonably satisfactory balance. With some development permitted, the green belt has been rigorously defended throughout the past 18 years. We have had no serious setback on green belt policy.

Mr. Caborn

That is not true.

Mr. Clarke

It is in my constituency.

The threat that we now face, in the light of current policy, results from the Government's recent decisions, alongside the planning approach hitherto adopted. The present policy cannot be sustained when one considers what "predict and provide" threatens to inflict on us all.

The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) criticised the basis of predictions. We have all been challenging those predictions. In this short speech, I shall not repeat the arguments set out in an extremely good article in The Times yesterday by Nick Nuttall. Not all the points he made were good, but many of them required answers.

I detect from what the Minister said that he will give up the top-down process of seeking to forecast until 2016, which produced the unlikely result of 4.4 million households, and allow much more local discretion for local provision over shorter time scales. What has happened locally so far has a tremendous top-down content. At county level, the trouble is that far too many predictions assume that one can extrapolate from the developments and movements of population of the past 20 years precisely what will happen for the next 20 years. That is not necessarily the case.

The Nottinghamshire structure plan demands provision for 69,250 dwellings in the county by 2011. The expected increase of population, itself a little challenging, is only 50,000. It is expected that the formation of smaller and smaller households will continue—I agree with the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell—on a scale that looks increasingly incredible. Worse, the distribution within the plan assumes that growth will continue where it has in the past.

The plan has acceded to pressure that growth should be permitted in the most prosperous and attractive parts of the county, not those crying out for development, such as the north of the county where the coalfield closed down. Of the total, 14,400 dwellings are supposed to be provided in Rushcliffe, compared with places that need development, such as Mansfield, which is to provide 8,000, or Ashfield, with 8,500. Nottingham, which has a much bigger population, is to provide only 8,000 new dwellings.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal said, the developers whom I want to develop parts of my constituency find it attractive to be given such an invitation to move into the green-field sites of Nottinghamshire, where it is easier to sell properties for more money without the difficulties of urban regeneration and development of brown-field sites in north Nottinghamshire or in Nottingham.

If my local planning authority is to be asked to provide 14,400 new dwellings, all the talk of targets for brown-field site development is ridiculous. It is difficult to find a brown-field site in my constituency. One closed colliery has been earmarked for industrial development. Other than that, development can go only into the countryside. That will have a disastrous effect on the character of the neighbourhood.

If the policy is to change, if we are to abandon the predictions and go for a shorter time scale, may we have an assurance that where structure plans are in place or local plan inquiries are forthcoming, the whole thing can be revisited? Can not only the national but the local targets and their distribution be regarded as up for sensible debate again?

I hope that the Government will also live up to their commitment to put alongside their approach to planning their approach to transport and to the roads programme.

Mr. Caborn

We are.

Mr. Clarke

It is not happening in my part of the world.

The reason why "predict and provide" must be abandoned for housing allocations is that it appears to have been abandoned for the road programme. To give another example from my constituency, the large-scale provision that the planning authority in my borough is supposed to make is supposed to be made along the trunk road corridor of the A52, which leads from Nottingham to Grantham. Unfortunately, all the projected improvements along there have been postponed, and, so far as I can see, postponed indefinitely.

I recently had a meeting with Baroness Hayman. The prospects of the A52 improvements coming back into the programme are next to nil. I myself urged other schemes on her, to save them from the axe—

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


5.52 pm
Barbara Follett (Stevenage)

I welcome the chance to talk again about Stevenage, this time not about our prowess at football but about the land to the west of the A1(M). Many people do not like that land being referred to as Stevenage west.

While I welcome the long overdue evidence of environmental concern from Conservative Members, I fear that it owes more to perceived political advantage than to any real desire to protect the countryside. Conservative Members can shake their heads for all they are worth; they look like my granddaughter's Noddy doll. Their howls of protest would be more convincing if they were not criticising the very policies they formulated and followed in government less than nine months ago.

I found the speech of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) eloquent and clear, but it was also clearly hypocritical.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That term has been used on several occasions, not only by the hon. Lady but by other hon. Members. It is not a description which I want used in the Chamber. We should use more temperate language.

Barbara Follett

Thank you for correcting me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal. He was perhaps a little bit economical with the verityé. Only 14 months ago, it was he, as Secretary of State for the Environment, who said: even accommodating more housing in our towns and cities, as we … must"— I agree— means that some development on green-field sites will still be needed. That is unavoidable."—[Official Report, 25 November 1996; Vol. 286, c. 46.]

Mr. Gummer

Will the hon. Lady point out the difference between a green-field site and a green belt site? I know of no circumstance in which I have ever suggested that we should allow green belt land to be used in that way. That is the basis on which I made those remarks, and on which I attacked the Stevenage decision. I was therefore being neither hypocritical nor unclear about the truth.

Barbara Follett

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that semantic slither.

"Unavoidable" was exactly the word used by Hertfordshire county council when, after months and months of trying and public inquiry, it failed to find the space for the final 10,000 houses of the 65,000 that it had been set to find by the previous Government. It had managed to put 55,000 houses on brown-field sites. It had stacked them into the towns, but it could do no more. It had to start considering other areas, unless it was to build, as was suggested, on one of the few parks in Stevenage and one of the even fewer parks in Watford.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

Does the hon. Lady believe that that has happened because existing policy is being followed? If the policy is about to change and the Government announce the changes that they have suggested, does she think that the permission given in respect of the green belt area should be reversed?

Barbara Follett

Hertfordshire county council knew that there was a correlation between overcrowding and crime and between overcrowding and violence. It knew, as did the former Secretary of State, that some building on green-field sites was unavoidable, so it chose the least worst and most sustainable option: 1,500 acres to the west of the A1(M) near Stevenage. The land is in the constituency of the right hon., but recent, Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). Before the general election, he was the Member for St. Albans.

The site has several advantages. It is close to public transport and to Stevenage, whose economy will benefit from the extra demand. Despite the confident but deeply inaccurate interventions of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), it will not merge with Hitchin. To prevent such a merger—believe me, the citizens of Stevenage do not want it either—Hertfordshire county council released 5,000 extra acres into the green belt to compensate for the 1,500 that it had removed. I remind hon. Members that the amount of green belt land in Britain has doubled since 1979—something for which the Conservatives can take credit.

That move will ensure that the green belt—which, I remind Opposition Members, was introduced by a Labour Government—will fulfil its original purpose of preventing the coalescence of towns.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Barbara Follett

No, I have given way fairly already.

Although I welcome the "predict and provide" philosophy outlined by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I should point out that Hertfordshire county council is already following that policy in Stevenage west. Contrary to the scaremongering by Opposition Members—especially the chronically misinformed Member for Mid-Sussex—the council is to build only 5,000 houses on the site by 2011. If 5,000 more houses are needed after that, they will be built, but the council is hopeful that they will not be needed.

I commend Hertfordshire county council and Stevenage borough council for their courage in tackling the difficult problem of marrying two demands: first, the demand for more housing and more social housing; and secondly, the demand to preserve the countryside of England. They have done the impossible, and they are to be congratulated.

6 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

At the beginning of her speech, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) more than insinuated that the fear in constituencies about the potential loss of the green belt was being stoked by the Conservative party. In my constituency, that is completely untrue—we do not need to stoke such fears.

My constituency is just south of the M25, and close to London; the A3, A24 and A25 run through it, and it has good public transport links. The population are acutely aware of any shifts and changes that they fear will threaten their green belt, because it is precious to them. Over the past few months, the confusion and the actions of the Government have brought that concern to the fore in the minds of most of my constituents, and it is clear from the local press and from my mailbag that they are desperately concerned. Let me touch on some of those actions—only a few, as I have but a few minutes.

There have been some constructive speeches from Labour Members, and especially constructive speeches from Conservative Members—in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). We have mentioned that the big four giveaways with which the press are running are the ones that have caused greatest concern. Mole Valley is part of Surrey and is therefore right next door to West Sussex, and the big jump in the figures, which is one of the big four giveaways, has frightened the people in my area. I hope that the Minister will give us considerable reassurance on that point.

A variety of articles, either apparently stimulated by comments from Ministers or supposedly written by Ministers, have added to the confusion. There have been indications that PPG2 and PPG6, both of which were tightened up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, are being eased back. That can be seen in the press and from comments by builders and supermarket chains.

Mention was made of the Local Government Finance (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill and of the fact that £800 million was being released. In fact, not a single penny from capital receipts, but only borrowing capacity, is being released; but that, seen in combination with regional development agencies, is an item of concern to people in my area.

Many of them use the A3 and, as they approach Tibbet's corner in London, those with longer memories recognise and remember that those were once green-field sites, until the Greater London council and the London county council got hold of them. There are now 15,000 dwellings on those former green-field sites—hence the desperate concern. The compulsory purchase order powers of the regional development agencies are frightening, especially when combined with the changes in the capital rules affecting local authorities, which may want to duplicate the build-out policy operated under the GLC and the Labour party in London.

The review has been mentioned and waved at us in the Chamber. I have read the review documents—twice—and they do not help to calm anyone's fears. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe said that he had read them and found them bland, but he was being polite; they are so bland and so broad that anyone with half a degree of cynicism would recognise that they could be perceived as giving an opportunity to change the planning system surreptitiously in such a way as to threaten the green belt. That is how the review is seen by my constituents, and we need reassurance.

There have been a few red herrings: the one that amuses me is that of putting on a tax—not taking a tax off one area, but putting on another tax. That might suit those who wish to build on green-belt and green-field sites in my patch, because they may be able afford to buy there and pay the tax, but it certainly will not help those who cannot afford to do that. If there are to be tax changes, it should be take off, not put on.

I am being especially succinct and looking at only one aspect of this issue—the reason for the fears. The speech by the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning did not help—it was belligerent and abusive. We want to know that the green belt is secure. We also want to know that inner-city regeneration is to be implemented. Sneers and criticisms were made about recent Conservative Governments and the way in which they have changed inner-city areas. I implore those Ministers who now have responsibility for that area to go back and look at the many successes. Those successes built on a learning curve, and it would do Ministers a lot of good to go and look at them.

Ministers should start with the development corporations and, for example, London docklands, where the GLC failed, and where an innovative approach changed the whole system and brought housing with a variety of tenures to a dilapidated, appalling area in the centre of London. The system progressed as local authorities joined in and recognised that it was moving forward positively.

The result has been dramatic changes in places such as Manchester, Liverpool, Tower Hamlets, Greenwich and so on. Change is progressive: I hope that Ministers can learn that, at the end of the day, we must turn brown-field sites in our inner cities back into positive places that are attractive to live in. That is success, and part of it is keeping our green belt sacrosanct.

6.7 pm

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Before entering the House, I was chair of the Local Government Association's planning committee and, as such, I was one of the people who challenged the previous Government to justify the methodology behind the figures for household projections announced by the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I represent a partly rural constituency and I regret that what should have been a serious debate on a serious topic has been trivialised by some hon. Members who spoke earlier.

I was somewhat perplexed when examining the record of the previous Secretary of State, who said that he believed that laissez-faire planning was the right way to proceed; that local planning authorities were an obstacle to growth; and that he wanted there to be a massive increase in out-of-town shopping centres, because that was the right way to regenerate the economy. That record is at odds with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) when introducing the debate. It is also strange that a record number of sites of special scientific interest disappeared under the Conservative Government. I make one exception in my criticism, in that I recognise that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal did make significant changes in some of the planning policy guidance notes that he issued. PPG6 was a major improvement, as was PPG13.

As I have said, I challenge the methodology involved in the household projections. Other hon. Members, notably the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor), mentioned the need to change the top-down approach to a bottom-up approach. The hon. Gentleman also pointed out that different social factors had not been taken into account in the figure of 4.4 million. Our policy on regional development agencies, and the changes in environmental and social policy—especially social changes relating to crime and our welfare-to-work initiative—will have a major impact on where people want to live, and on the regeneration of our inner cities.

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal said that, after he had taken into account all the issues raised by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell, the lowest figure that he could recommend was 4.4 million. We should also not forget that every calculation in the past has been an underestimate rather than an overestimate.

We cannot separate today's debate from the debate about regeneration, and we must recognise that there will be different solutions for different parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) spoke about the needs of inner cities, but rural areas also have needs. Some farming constituents to whom I spoke recently pointed out that the villages were no longer rural, by which they meant that they had become dormitory villages from which people commuted into the local town.

We need to ask what the role of villages will be in the next century—and, indeed, what the role of towns will be. We should have a rational debate about that. The projection relating to increased car use stimulated a public debate about how our transport system should be changed. Similarly, the 4.4 million projection has at least generated a serious public discussion about ways of dealing with housing stock.

We are not just talking about 4.4 million homes. The projection refers to an increase in the number of elderly single women, and also to the substantial number of single young men. Those, apparently, are the groups which most need extra housing—although there is no suggestion that they should be put together. They require housing other than the standard housing that has been provided over the past 10 or 15 years. The executive-type housing that is most profitable will not be right for the people about whom we are talking.

Mr. Drew

We are now dealing with either a negligible increase or no increase in population size. That makes a significant difference to the type of property required, and to where it needs to be. Migration forces are the biggest single influence.

Mr. White

I entirely agree.

A tremendous amount can be done for cities and towns. The regeneration of our run-down inner cities is a great challenge, which many local authorities have already taken up. I should point out to Ministers that the previous Government's Treasury rules hindered many developments. I am thinking here of development corporations. The clawbacks that are imposed if local authorities develop land hamper growth and regeneration.

The House Builders Federation has said: The social and economic consequences of not building enough houses are being ignored by many commentators. Many people will not be able to afford their own home, or will live in unacceptably crowded conditions, if we fail to build enough homes in the right places. That is another key point which is often missed. We are not just talking about building the right number of houses; we are talking about quality. One of the mistakes that we made in the 1960s was to build tower blocks and other kinds of massive housing far too quickly. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past 18 years, but it is also important that we do not repeat the mistakes of the 1960s. We should build quality into our inner cities—and, as I said, many local authorities are doing that.

The current planning policies are causing houses and jobs to be planned in different areas, thus exacerbating transport problems and increasing growth on the edge of towns. Other factors, such as housing subsidies, have an impact on the quality of build, and such support needs to be directed toward brown-field sites. We should also recognise that brown-field sites are not all the same. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned the problem of contaminated land. We must deal with that problem if we are to achieve the target of 75 or 80 per cent. on brown-field sites.

Other hon. Members raised the key issue of finance. While it remains cheaper to build on green-field sites, developers will concentrate on such sites. Brown-field sites must be made economically attractive. Various solutions have been suggested, from taxation to strengthening the planning powers of local authorities; but there are other possibilities. In the 1940s, when a Labour Government introduced planning powers, they also created new towns, which have proved a successful way of diverting pressures from other towns and accommodating growth. The role of new towns should not be forgotten. By carefully selecting the green-field sites that can accommodate growth, we can relieve much of the pressure on other sites. I commend what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done in Stevenage, which will help many parts of the south-east.

We have heard a good deal of rhetoric, and a good many cheap political attacks, but there is a real debate to be had. There are no easy solutions, and we must make serious choices about how we are to live in the 21st century. The real debate is about what type of towns we should have in that century—what the quality of urban living should be, and what our life style should be. If we tackle those issues seriously, I suspect that there will be a great deal of consensus across the parties, but cheap political attacks such as we have heard today do everyone a disservice. I hope that, following today's debate and following the Government's announcement of changes in planning and household projection policy in three or four weeks' time, we can engage in a sensible debate and start to create the necessary consensus.

6.17 pm
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I support the motion. I hope to show why I reject the Government amendment, and to expose the way in which the Government have failed to protect the countryside, especially the green belt.

My constituents can judge the Labour party only by its actions. I invite the House to consider its decisions in national and, more particularly, local government, and I hope to expose its intrusive policy with regard to the green belt. In the Vale of York, there is a proposal for an incinerator site in Rufforth, on a green-belt site within a mile of three centres of population—Rufforth, Knapton and the city of York. A park-and-ride scheme is also proposed at Rawcliffe. The proposal ignores residents' views, despite a hugely expensive consultation exercise. There are rumours of a new town of possibly 25,000 homes between Thirsk and Ripon. I ask the Government to consider the infrastructure that would be required to accommodate those new houses. Access to all facilities would be necessary—to roads, schools, and hospitals, and especially to water and sewerage.

I was elected to represent the Vale of York by a sizeable majority on a platform that supported filling in brown-field sites before we touch green-field or green-belt sites. I urge the Government to examine options for accommodating a projected 4.4 million new households in England by 2016. I query the basis for such projections. The household projection process is at best an inexact science. Those targets must remain subject to continuous review, with the aim of achieving the best possible fit between projected housing demand and land allocation.

In meeting housing demand, priority must be given to affordable housing in villages and rural locations for those engaged in less well-paid rural employment. There is a specific lack of planning mechanisms to safeguard land for affordable homes. The Government must redress that gap.

There is a singular lack of clear commitment to green-belt policy, as evidenced by decisions to allow local authorities to proceed with major green-belt releases around Newcastle and Stevenage. There should be stronger justification for altering green-belt boundaries. At the very least, the Government's policy shows that Stevenage and Newcastle have more in common than a football draw: they are both victims of that negative Government policy.

My main concern in the Vale of York is that planning decisions by the City of York council have involved various irregularities. I refer to the incinerator that it is proposed to build on a green-belt site in Rufforth. The proposal is currently subject to review by the local government ombudsman. A highly irregular procedure was followed, which does not show the Labour party in its best light. The City of York planning committee overturned North Yorkshire county council's local development plan, by which the City of York remains bound. In addition, the City of York rejected its own local development guidelines and its chief planning officer's recommendations.

What assurances will be given tonight to those living in the Vale of York, that the green belt will be protected from Labour party policy in national or local government? I hope that when the Minister winds up the debate, he will give my constituents some reassurance that the green belt will be preserved.

6.22 pm
Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley)

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. The future of our cities is closely linked to our treatment of the green belt, green-field sites and the countryside. One of the characteristics of the United Kingdom is its urban life. It has a higher density of cities than any other country in Europe. Since the second world war, Governments of all political colours have been cavalier in their attitude to our cities as assets.

It was extraordinary to hear the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) attack the Government in his speech. He forgot about the damage done to cities by his Government in the late 1980s. He forgot about the out-of-town shopping centres, the latest of which will open outside Manchester in Dumplington later this year and put people in my constituency out of work. He forgot about the removal of billions of pounds' worth of rates and revenue support grant. In short, he forgot about the attack on the inner cities.

It would be better if hon. Members on both sides remembered that and considered the other side of the equation. Having been involved in leading a city council for many years, I know that not everything that city councils have done in terms of urban regeneration has been perfect.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning said that the Government would get rid of the "predict and provide" model. That is a mathematical system which is consistent in its own terms, but there is great uncertainty about whether it relates to anything in the real world. If that model is to be rejected, I urge my hon. Friend to examine in detail what happens in cities. People who have developed the model say that it works less well as the amount of detail increases.

I refer to my experience in helping to redevelop Hulme, with the support of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), and the hon. Members for South Suffolk and for Salisbury (Mr. Key). Those hon. Members helped and, I believe, learnt from trying to redevelop Hulme. When we looked at Hulme, we found the mistakes of the Labour Government in the 1960s, a Conservative Government immediately afterwards, a Conservative council and a Labour council that had provided industrially built housing.

The most striking feature, which helps us to understand what has been happening in the cities, was that that area had previously had about 180 dwellings per acre. The industrially built monstrosities hastily provided by parties of both political persuasions represented fewer than 12 dwellings per acre. It is not surprising that all the community facilities that glue a city together—the churches, the public houses, the transport system—started to fall apart. There were simply not enough people, and the situation was designed to encourage crime.

When we considered what we wanted to develop instead, we found that under a Labour-controlled council, many of the policies coming out of our engineers department and planning department were not helpful in designing the sort of houses that people wanted to live in. We had to turn round a series of policies to ensure that we achieved housing densities of 30 to 40 dwellings per acre. That is not extraordinary in the history of cities elsewhere.

Engineers want turning circles at the end of roads and extra parking spaces. In one of the poorest parts of the city of Manchester, the planning department suggested one and a half to two parking spaces per dwelling. The actual car ownership in that area was less than one in three. It is not surprising in those circumstances that low-density development results.

We turned that round. Hulme, in the constituency of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), is now an attractive place for people to buy houses or to live in social housing. Further development is still needed, but it is working.

If we return to the numbers game, when one looks at the figures and the number of brown sites, it is difficult to know what densities people are talking about. I suspect that if we consider the supply of land available in the cities and multiply it by densities of 30 or 40 dwellings per acre—in city centres, greatly increased densities are possible—the balance between what can be provided in urban areas and in the countryside switches to a much higher figure than exists at present.

Building up those densities not only protects the countryside for the benefit of all of us; it helps to make the city work again. It helps to make transport work. If 1,000 dwellings were created in warehouses and office blocks in the city centre, over a year, 4 million car journeys would be saved, assuming that people commuted on average 10 miles into the city centre. That is an incredible saving. It is a matter not of better transport, but of no transport, because people are near their place of work. Because of the way in which cities have developed, some of the most attractive sites next to the city centre have become some of the least desirable. We need to improve that and get the density right, so that public transport works and makes a profit—or balances the books, depending on who owns the transport system.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the figures. Development is bound to be more difficult in the city. It has a bad image, but that is being improved by cities such as Newcastle, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. We are all trying to improve its image, but it will never be an even playing field when it is easier to develop out of town. Certainly until they work properly again, cities need grants—whether from taxation on green-field sites, via the council process or special development grants—to make developers realise how they can make a profit and provide houses within the city in which people want to live.

The time it takes for planning applications to go through came up several times in the debate. I have been involved in a number of major planning applications, some of which were connected with housing. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have said that the planning process must speed up. We have to get the balance between the country and the city right, but we must also ensure that people are given decisions quickly, so that there is certainty.

We all agree, across the House, on the problems that face our country: unemployment, poverty, crime, drugs, the environment, pollution, education and how to make it better. Cities are often seen as a problem. I believe that cities are the centre of creativity. Much of the intellectual capital and the gross domestic product of this country have been developed in cities. We shall all be the poorer if we do not make them work. We have an opportunity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) said, to combine dealing with the problems of the city with the protection of the countryside, to make our cities work better. We shall all benefit from that.

6.32 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I am sure that the House listened with interest to the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) and his case study of what he did in a particular part of the city while leader of the council. As I have two children who study at what I call "Boddington's university" in Manchester, I have more than a passing interest in that city being safe and successful.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) not only on introducing the debate but on the manner in which he did so. He performed a singular service to the House and to the country. Not only did he articulate the concerns in the country about the real threat to the countryside but he chose Opposition time in which to do so. He also exposed the great uncertainty in Government policy in this critical area.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has noticed, but the terms of the Prime Minister's motion reflect almost exactly the terms of early-day motion 681. That says quite a lot about the Government's response to the debate. They know that the concerns on these matters are not confined simply to the Opposition Benches but are reflected on the Government Benches as well, among the newly elected hon. Members who are temporarily representing Conservative parts of the country, who found it necessary to respond to these concerns.

I am sorry that the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning is not in his place to listen to the rest of the debate. No doubt he will listen to the wind-up speeches. He does not seem to understand why his speech went down so badly with Opposition Members and why it failed to ignite with Labour Members. He is a decent chap, but he did not perform at all well. If I may, I shall take just one point.

The Minister invited us all to be reassured that the Government plan to safeguard the green belt, and reassured us that concerns expressed by Opposition Members are wholly without foundation. We are not at all unreasonable in finding those reassurances unacceptable.

Two examples were given by my right hon. and hon. Friends, to which the Minister made no reply whatever. It is a material consideration that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) has had a decision overturned, so that green-belt land will now be concreted over in Sutton Coldfield. The Minister had the opportunity to explain how that complied with his new policy, and failed signally to answer it.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) challenged the Minister on the decision to allow a further 12,000 houses in Sussex, the Minister failed to respond to that as well. I remind the Minister for London and Construction, who is present, that a joint statement from the leaders representing all three parties on West Sussex county council said: This is the starkest possible illustration that Government has no intention of trying to provide a greater share of the 4 million new homes said to be required by 2016 on brown-field sites rather than on green fields in the countryside. We do not understand, nor do we accept, the Government's assurances, because they are at variance with their practice hitherto. If they are saying, in the light of the meeting last week and the early-day motion, that they have changed their policy, so be it.

In my constituency, development pressures have long been apparent in the northern part of Aldershot. It is now a matter of great concern to us. Before the boundary changes at the last election, the Aldershot constituency included a large rural hinterland, which is now part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the shadow Chief Whip. The area lies beyond the metropolitan green belt west of London and thus was targeted for growth early on. The temptation for developers to leapfrog the green belt was far too great, so the whole of the Blackwater valley has become part of the fast-growing sub-region under the south-east plan of 1970.

Although the growth policy is now defunct, development pressure continues, and may well intensify. Already, much of the area has been suburbanised, with peripheral expansion and the replacement of perfectly good old houses with dense infill. That has led to a serious loss of character and identity. The infrastructure is simply not there to accommodate such extensive infill, the pushing of houses into what were formerly the gardens of larger houses, and the bolting on of estates. These are villages. They have village facilities and village roads. They do not have the benefit of the infrastructure to cope.

Our remaining green-field sites are under threat of options from developers, who promote them as so-called omission sites at local planning inquiries. An inquiry is under way at present with developers queuing up to stake their claim in the planning lottery. One of the reasons for that flurry is the stranglehold of housing land availability. Planning policy guidance note 3, of March 1992, effectively said that local authorities should provide a forward plan of five years of housing stock. That may sound reasonable, but it has effectively become the developers' gravy train.

The requirement for a continuous supply of land for housing usually refers to green-field sites. Sites within settlement boundaries are not normally counted towards the total, which is calculated on a five-year basis. Sometimes, sites fail to come forward as planned and a shortfall occurs. As a result, developers can appeal and argue for their site to be released so that the five-year supply is maintained. Local planning authorities cannot plan properly because of the constant fear of appeals to the Secretary of State in the event of a land supply shortfall.

To some extent, PPGI has changed that. The February 1997 guidance provided for local authorities to allocate the maximum amount of housing to previously-developed sites within existing larger urban areas, which have access to a range of transport and other facilities, while protecting open space, playing fields and green spaces in cities and towns. All political parties welcome that policy.

I shall conclude, as I know that others wish to participate in the debate. I believe that the Conservative Opposition have touched a raw nerve in the Government, exposing the inconsistency of their policy. However, I hope that the Government will learn from that and live up to the assurances that they have sought to give the House today about protecting the green belt. I hope that they will be serious about urban regeneration, which affects not only the inner cities to which the hon. Member Blackley referred, but towns such as Aldershot, which could do with some regeneration. The urban regeneration programme which is under way will be helpful to such towns. I share the view that it is not a matter of country versus town; the town and the country have a common interest in safeguarding the green belt and realising the regeneration of our towns.

6.40 pm
Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

One of the advantages of being called to speak late in the debate is that one has the chance to listen to the full range of arguments. However, the disadvantage is that many of the points that I wished to make have already been raised.

We have heard various arguments from Opposition Members about the number of houses that will be required in the next 20 years and where they should be built and many sound reasons why they should not be built in their constituencies. We have heard hard-luck stories about why certain planning decisions have been wrong. However, Opposition Members have made no attempt to find a solution.

We need a significant increase in the number of houses in Britain in the next 20 years. No hon. Member has seriously challenged that assumption. We have heard nothing but moans and groans from Opposition Members about why there should be no new development in their constituencies. They have made no attempt to solve the problem.

We need more houses because people need decent homes. If we do not build more houses, there will be house inflation, rent increases and a shortage of rented accommodation leading to homelessness, social division and poverty. That cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. Sooner or later, someone has to face up to it. At least the Government have the guts to make a stand on the issue.

My constituency of Dartford in Kent Thameside has been grappling with the problem for some time and is close to reaching a solution. The planning framework for the Thames Gateway envisages up to 30,000 new homes in Kent Thameside in the next 30 years. At least 22,500, or 75 per cent. of them, will be built in my constituency. Between 80 and 90 per cent. of the new housing will be built on brown-field sites. That will help to protect the green belt elsewhere in Kent and the south-east. Kent Thameside offers a solution in terms of finding space for new housing.

The new housing envisaged will serve all the needs of the community. It will include executive housing, affordable housing and low-energy housing. However, development on brown-field sites has abnormal costs. Local planning experts inform me that between £150,000 and £200,000 per acre is required to regenerate brown-field sites into a usable state. The additional costs inevitably affect the economics of development. For example, developers are currently being asked to provide land for new school buildings. To date, Dartford has been the most successful Kent authority in respect of extracting contributions towards building new schools.

Developers are also being asked to provide 20 per cent. of social housing in new housing areas, and we are working on that. Kent cannot possibly fund all the necessary transport infrastructure, so developers are also being asked to help fund a comprehensive public transport network.

There are added planning complications from developing constrained urban sites. There was a need to tackle the barriers to development on brown-field sites in Kent Thameside. That will remove considerable pressure from other green-belt sites in Kent. It will also enable the Government to make progress towards economic development, integrated transport and sustainable development in the Thames Gateway.

We have a vision of how a brown-field site can be returned to productive use. The Kent Thameside partnership has brought together three local authorities—Dartford, Gravesham and Kent county council—the university of Greenwich and the private developer Whitecliff, which is an amalgamation of the land holdings of Blue Circle Industries and the finance and development expertise of Lend Lease, an Australian company. That has led to the creation of one of Europe's largest shopping centres—Bluewater—in a disused quarry. So far, it has attracted £1 billion in inward investment and there will be 7,000 new jobs when it opens next year. It has all been achieved without Government funding.

In order for any development to be sustainable, it must have a proper infrastructure. It can succeed only if it is an attractive place to live, if it is accompanied by employment opportunities, if it has proper leisure facilities and, above all, if it has environmentally sound and workable public transport links.

As I have pointed out, regeneration is not a cheap option. The cost of regenerating brown-field sites significantly reduces the planning gain that can be obtained by selling land to the private sector. However, the private sector cannot do everything, given the abnormal costs of developing brown-field sites and the significant infrastructure costs. Similarly, local authorities are not in a position to pick up the bill. Increases in population do not show until the next 10-year census, thus having no effect on standard spending assessments or rate support grants, while demands for services increase relentlessly. Business rates are passed over to central Government. Even a boost to local jobs through the creation of new industries ends up costing local authorities much more than they ever reap in return.

We can deliver sustainable development in Kent Thameside almost entirely on brown-field sites, thus easing pressure on the green belt, but it is neither cheap nor fully self-funding. However, it offers the opportunity to bring together large parts of Government policy to act as a magnet for inward investment and an engine room for the economy of the south-east. We need the opportunity to become truly a blueprint for the nation.

6.46 pm
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

I have been an hon. Member for only nine months, but I was appalled by the Minister's speech. He completely failed to address the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and by the motion. He failed to address the genuine concerns of members of the public.

People are worried. Ministers can talk about having a modernised, integrated, sustainable, co-ordinated, co-operative regional development partnership, but that cuts no ice with people when, week after week, the Secretary of State takes decisions to concrete over vast sections of the green belt. It is not Conservative words that are causing concern among people who are worried about the countryside; it is Labour actions and the Government's decisions to destroy the green belt in Sussex, the midlands, Hertfordshire or Newcastle.

The debate is important as it enables us to raise those concerns. It is clear from the Minister's speech that he does not understand what the problem is or people's genuine worries about the decisions that the Government are taking.

People are worried about the future of the green belt, green wedges, open spaces and the countryside generally. They are also interested in the future of our towns and cities. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) was absolutely ŕight to refer to the need for a balance between the countryside and the towns and cities. Perhaps he should look closely at the motion in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and others. We seek a balance between regenerating and renewing our towns and cities, and ensuring that planning decisions such as those taken by the Secretary of State do not destroy our countryside and our green belt.

The Minister must acknowledge the importance of Government decisions—not just those on whether a housing development or an industrial development is allowed on green-belt land. If the Government are to achieve the regeneration of towns and cities, they will have to consider carefully decisions on out-of-town stores, for example. They must put PPG6 into practice and not allow the development of out-of-town stores that would destroy the retail heart of many of our towns and cities. That is essential if we are to achieve the balance of which a number of Labour Members and many Opposition Members have spoken.

There are many exciting ideas for regenerating our towns and cities. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of discussing with members of Maidenhead chamber of commerce their exciting ideas for preserving, developing and regenerating the town centre to include not just retail but some residential development, so as to bring people back into the heart of the town. Such schemes would take the pressure off green-belt development to some extent. People in my constituency are concerned that the Government are not preserving and protecting the green belt, and they are not comforted by the statements of our Liberal Democrat-controlled local council.

I hope that, when he replies to the debate, the Minister for London and Construction will address people's concerns about the Government's actions, and that he will recognise the need to balance life in our towns and cities with life in our countryside. He should be committed to encouraging the renewal of our town centres, and accept the need to ensure that other planning decisions, such as those on out-of-town stores, are taken in the light of that commitment.

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning did not recognise people's fears about the Government's plans for the green belt and for our countryside. The Minister for London and Construction should give us comfort, and should reassure us that the Government intend to protect the green belt, because we cannot take comfort from any of the Secretary of State's actions or from the Minister's statement this afternoon.

6.51 pm
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I shall keep my remarks short and to the point. The debate has proved that this particular dog will not bark, and it certainly will not bite. The Conservative Government own many of the problems that are coming home to roost. It is important that we understand who is to blame.

However, I want to begin on a positive note. I welcome the many good speeches that have been made in the debate. It is easy for some of us who have been involved in these matters for a long time to score cheap party political points, but what is required is a serious, national debate. We have added to that debate today. I had feared that we would undo much of the good work done at the all-party meeting last week, but we have not. Many hon. Members made excellent points that I hope will be listened to not just in the House but in the wider world, and I hope that their constituents will take note of what they are trying to do.

I have consistently argued that the housing numbers are excessive. Others argue that 4.4 million houses will be insufficient. They allege that we are failing to provide enough social housing. Those of us who have attended a public inquiry or examination in public will know that the housing numbers can be used to defend the plans being submitted. They can also be used against a council if sufficient allocation is not made. I have been accused by developers of failing to provide sufficient allocation. Whether we like it or not, under the present system the numbers can be crucial.

I welcome a return to a plan-led, bottom-up, localised system. Local authorities should decide their own destiny, and should take responsibility. I am sure that all hon. Members have case histories of local planning decisions that were so sensitive that the council was willing to pass them to the Secretary of State. That is just as unacceptable as a central diktat overruling a council when the local feeling is that the council was right.

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has tweaked my tail. Having done his research over the telephone, he knows a lot about Stroud. One day, I shall invite him to Stroud. In my part of the world, we do not have green belt: we have areas of outstanding natural beauty. However, the same logic applies. In protecting some land, we make other parts of the countryside more vulnerable.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the best ways for the Government to protect land is to address the problem of empty properties? In Holland, they achieve a 2.3 per cent. vacancy rate, whereas our rate is 4 per cent. If we were to achieve 2.3 per cent., we would create 340,000 homes without the need to build any of them.

Mr. Drew

The hon. Gentleman's point is well made. There is not one solution, but a series of different ideas, all of which must be tried. We owe that to our present and future constituents. We must not shut the door and pretend that people cannot come in. We cannot ignore the fact that migration is the major driving force. We must see whether societal changes can help us over this difficulty.

I support a plan-led, bottom-up system. Local communities can determine their own destiny, and can participate carefully and thoroughly in the planning process. One of the disappointments of the past 18 years was that the planning system was abused and came into disrepute. Many people feel passionately about these issues, because the system has let them down. We know that the best way to pack a hall is to talk about development issues. The difficulty is that we must move beyond the protest movement to come up with solutions. That is beginning to happen, and a national debate has now started.

I intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) to make a point about the brown-land solution, which we all want. An increase in the level of brown-land development to 50 per cent., let alone to 60 or 75 per cent., can be achieved only if it is recognised that in parts of the country it is difficult to find any brown land. That is the difference between the rhetoric and the reality. It is easy to say that there will be no development in areas that have no brown land, but that is as unfair as saying all development should be dumped on the cities. There should be a balance.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) said so eloquently, we must revitalise the cities if we are to protect the countryside. We can redevelop our cities by using creative thinking and by applying the sequential principle of encouraging developers who use green-field sites also to redevelop brown land. I hope that Ministers will consider that type of idea.

The House has had a good debate—which we can now take onwards and upwards.

6.59 pm
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

In this debate, Conservative Members have struck a chord with the people. That has been demonstrated by the great interest shown in the debate by my right hon. and hon. Friends, by the quality of their speeches and by the fact that the original 7 o'clock end of the debate has been extended by half an hour to allow fuller debate on an all-important subject. I thank and congratulate my right hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford), for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for putting pressure most effectively on the Government.

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning—I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber to hear the Opposition's reply to the debate—is not a good listener. Today, he was certainly a bad-mood bear. He started at rock bottom and he never recovered. He refused to answer any of the challenges or questions, and he even refused to answer a most reasonable question, asked by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)—whether he thought that it was a good idea to establish an all-party group to discuss those all-important issues.

In making a ludicrous personal attack on my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), the Minister showed only his ignorance about the general and regulatory role of the National House Building Council.

The Minister said on many occasions that he did not want to anticipate the Deputy Prime Minister's forthcoming announcement. Could it perhaps be that he did not want to contradict the forthcoming announcement, as he has done in the past? Was his bad humour perhaps a cover for his confusion?

The debate has therefore achieved the Opposition's purpose of bringing the Government to account on a critical policy sphere affecting the quality of life of so many of our citizens. Opposition Members have been alarmed by Ministers' statements about the green belt and by some of the decisions on appeal—particularly those in which Ministers have overruled planning inspectors to allow green-belt development or have refused to intervene to prevent it.

In a debate on the subject on 12 November 1997, the Minister said: I should make clear the fact that the target for reusing previously developed land remains at 50 per cent., the same as the previous Government's official target. Although the Green Paper floated a figure of 60 per cent as an aspirational target, and the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development even suggested 75 per cent., we have not changed the target. He went on to say: I can set targets, but if targets are not realistic, it is stupid for Governments to set them. I have set a target of 50 per cent"—[Official Report, 12 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 867–68.] In this debate, Opposition Members have harried and put pressure on the Government. Although we have not succeeded in bringing the Deputy Prime Minister to the House to reply to the debate, we received a signed article from him in Monday's edition of The Times. The article repeatedly states that the green belt is safe with the Government. However, it also becomes clear in the article that the Deputy Prime Minister is overruling his own Minister's statement of 12 November 1997 to the House. We do not congratulate and thank the Deputy Prime Minister for much, but we congratulate and thank him for that.

We saw that the Deputy Prime Minister's article in The Times began with the amazing statement that When we say as a Labour Government that we won't run away from difficult decisions we mean it. That came as a bit of a surprise to those of us who had read the revelations in the previous Friday's Local Government Chronicle about the Government's plans for local government.

In a letter to the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Local Government and Housing apparently said, We need to be particularly careful in how we present the issues in the consultation papers … We should avoid boxing ourselves in too soon … but we will need to make it clear that more extreme options are ruled out. The Minister went on to say that her plans may be presented as conflicting with expectations created by the announcement of the review, coverage in the local government press and the approach we have taken so far. There is a danger that … our new partnership approach to local government which we have proclaimed loudly to considerable acclaim from our own Backbenchers and local government would quickly break down". The Government's review of local government finance is all about running away from difficult decisions—on capping and council tax, and on business rates and central control. Why should we believe that the Government are not running away from the difficult decisions on the issue of household growth and development in the countryside?

In the article to which so many hon. Members have referred in this debate, the Deputy Prime Minister went on to say that People need decent homes to live in and they want to choose where to live … The number of households is growing faster than the number of people … If we fail to provide for household growth we risk making homes unaffordable and increasing homelessness. No right-thinking person would disagree with any of those platitudes. However, the key soundbite, which was developed by the spin doctors and led to a headline article in The Times was about moving away from the old predict and provide philosophy in housing just as we have done in road building". I was sorry that it seemed that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe was almost taken in by the Deputy Prime Minister's statements. I submit to the House that, on close analysis, the Deputy Prime Minister was not really moving away from a "predict and provide" policy so much as engaging in transferring blame to the people. Later in the article, he said that he wants to involve the people and local authorities in discussing the issues of new household formation. However, unlike the Government's approach to traffic—in which they talk about addressing the causes of traffic growth—there is nothing in anything that the Deputy Prime Minister or any other Minister has said that addresses the issue of the causes of new household formation.

More serious is the humbug of the Deputy Prime Minister's statement that the Government want a system that is less rigid, more democratic and more sustainable". That expression of good intention is totally at odds with the Government's decision to overrule the conclusion of the regional panel of experts that West Sussex county council should accommodate 37,900 more homes by 2011. The Secretary of State decided that the county must provide an additional one third. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal so succinctly said, that was an amazing intervention by a Minister. The House has not heard any justification of that decision or any explanation of how the decision will fit in with the Government's stated policy. We wish to hear those explanations in the Minister's reply.

If the Deputy Prime Minister means by "less rigid" more unpredictable, we can anticipate where it will get us, because the extraordinary decision in West Sussex was unpredictable. However, I am at a loss to comprehend how he thinks that the decision was "more democratic" or "more sustainable". What could be more democratic than a clear policy argued out at a public inquiry with an independent panel sitting in judgment? What could be more sustainable than a policy that recognises not only the need for more housing but the environmental impact of having too much housing? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater said, serious people go to panel inquiries, contribute to the debate and examine the evidence—as he did in the Somerset inquiry. It is beyond belief that, after all that process, the Government should come along and completely tear up the inquiry's decision.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater made a number of excellent points. I hope that Ministers will respond to his suggestion that there should be a shorter time frame for green-field allocations, perhaps coupled with a longer time frame for brown-field site developments. The current system is causing green-field allocations to be gobbled up more quickly by developers than the more difficult brown-field sites. His suggestion certainly merits further consideration.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal drew attention to all the contradictions in Government policy and reminded us of the outstanding way in which he developed a truly sustainable policy. It is a matter of great regret that the Government have not been following that same policy.

Judging from the terms of the Government's amendment, there seems to be confusion among Ministers about the difference between green belt and green field. We saw during exchanges in the debate that Ministers do not seem to understand that there is a difference. The amendment refers to the Government's continued commitment to protecting the countryside, including green belts". What about the green belt that is not open countryside? Under Governments of both parties, it was a cardinal principle that the green belt should be protected in its own right because it is a break in continuous development. Issues relating to it are separate from those relating to the countryside. As soon as the Government say, "We shall not protect the green belt which is not countryside", people will despoil the land, and use it for storage and car parks. Over time, people will say that the land is such an eyesore that it must be built on. Previous Conservative Governments had a consistent policy to oppose such development.

Mr. Gummer

Did my hon. Friend notice that the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) said that, to distinguish between the green belt and green-field sites was a mere scruple, a matter of no importance? Has not our defence of the green belt been fundamental? I remember only one occasion on which I gave permission—in very specific circumstances, due to jobs—for the green belt. The green field is different, and there are different arguments about it. Was not the hon. Lady entirely wrong to allow her own constituency to be raped in such a way?

Mr. Chope

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. If he had still been Secretary of State for the Environment, he would not have allowed the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) to get away with it. It is sad that her Government refused to intervene to protect the people of Hertfordshire. The Labour party was not the only party to be involved in the decision; the Liberal Democrats were right up to their necks in it as well.

It has become apparent during the debate that Ministers have been listening too much to the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin). It is clear from his comments that he has captured the ear of the Government. He says that there is no space for any more development in Hove and that Hove needs to develop more in rural West Sussex. The attitude that he demonstrated in his remarks is indicative of the way in which the Government are pandering to anti-countryside feeling. The consequences of that for more enlightened Government Members, such as the hon. Members for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), and for the inner cities and urban areas are dire. I hope that Ministers will not listen to the hon. Member for Hove again. The way in which he attacked his hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) was incredible.

The debate has highlighted once again the yawning gap between what Ministers say now and what they said in the past; between the new green rhetoric and the actuality; and between the picture that the Government paint with phrases such as The green belt is safe with us and the reality of their actions on the ground, where they override their own inspector to allow green-belt development. Is it any wonder that speculators are driving around our countryside seeking out landowners and paying them handsomely for options to buy land on which they expect to be able to obtain planning permission for development, as my hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said?

Both the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning and the Minister for London and Construction have spoken publicly against 60 per cent. of development or more going on brown land. The Minister for London and Construction described that proposal, which was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, as a recipe for disaster. The Minister spoke out against the creation of residential densities exceeding those during the 1960s and 1970s, and said that there is a serious mismatch between where the brown-field sites are and where the housing demand is. That is totally compatible with the Government's decision on land in the green belt outside Newcastle.

In replying to the debate, the junior Minister must say whether he still stands by his opinion that putting 60 per cent. of new development on brown-field sites is a recipe for disaster. Will he explain and justify the decisions concerning West Sussex and the green belt outside Newcastle, and the amazing decision to overrule the inspector in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield? Will the Government admit the errors of their ways, and make the green belt sacrosanct and development in open countryside development of last resort?

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

I very much welcome this debate. [Laughter.] I do, indeed. The subject of household requirements and how they are to be met is hugely serious and deserves the fullest and most careful consideration, which the Government are giving it. It is not a matter for scaremongering or sloganising, which is what we have heard from too many—although not all—Conservative Members. We are talking about people's need for homes, how we should protect the countryside and regenerate our towns and cities. We are discussing how we can achieve more sustainable development and improve the quality of people's homes and surroundings—whether they live in towns and cities or in the country. We are talking about how we can reconcile people's freedom of choice with responsibility for the environment.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire)


Mr. Raynsford

Many speeches in the debate have recognised the complexity of many of the issues. There were several thoughtful speeches. I would single out those of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and of my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who grappled with the considerable difficulties in reconciling often conflicting objectives in achieving a valid planning policy. This is a serious matter and deserves serious consideration.

Other Opposition Members questioned the validity of the projections of 4.4 million households. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Members for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) and for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) all did so. I remind them that those projections were published by the previous Government and have been supported by two independent inquiries. Most previous projections have been underestimates. Evidence available to us—already seven years into the 25-year time frame—shows that there is no rational basis for amending the estimates.

Some hon. Members highlighted the importance of social housing provision and the real need for more effective regeneration policies in the inner cities. My hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) and for City of Chester (Ms Russell) all focused on their areas and the need for more housing and for regeneration—and quite right too. There was a focus on the need for more devolution of decision making, especially by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin). We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) and for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) of their care for achieving properly integrated and well-planned developments that will meet the needs of their areas.

We heard a certain amount of scaremongering about the green belt from Conservative Members, such as the hon. Members for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford) and for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I was disappointed that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) also veered into that territory. He made the rather extraordinary claim that he had never sacrificed the green belt when in office. In a moment, we shall see the veracity of that claim.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

The Minister suggested that the estimate of 4.4 million homes was backed by independent reports and that all previous figures were underestimates. When rural planning is rationed and there is never as much building as developers would like, would not almost any figure be self-fulfilling? Builders will take up whatever opportunities they are given. The price may be affected, but the quantity of building will not.

Mr. Raynsford

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation considered that in detail in its inquiry into planning for housing in the early 1990s, shortly after the projections were made. It concluded that there was no real basis for challenging the figures. Those who have looked at the issue most carefully do not agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Page


Mr. Raynsford

The Government are committed to maximising the opportunities for reusing brown-field sites. There are many things that we can and will do. We shall try to ensure a more level playing field for building on brown-field or green-field sites. That is why we have said that we want to open up a discussion on whether economic instruments can play a part in that. Secondly, we must encourage local authorities—

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not a tradition of the House that the Minister who initially answers Opposition day debates attends for the wind-up? It is fully five minutes since the Minister started his speech. The Opposition wind-up started at 7 pm. There is no sign of the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning. That is particularly irritating, because he has refused to see Conservative Members on issues such as the development of considerable amounts of green-belt land in Hertfordshire to the west of Stevenage.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Who is on the Government Front Bench at the end of a debate is not a matter for me. It is entirely a matter for the Government.

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend has a commitment in Amsterdam, as part of our European presidency. He would have been here had the debate not been extended at the request of the Opposition.

Mr. Page


Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)


Mr. Raynsford

The Government are committed to encouraging local authorities and private developers to use more imagination in the development of brown-field sites. The report from the round table on sustainable development—

Mr. Davies

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the Minister who introduced the debate had an appointment abroad before the end of the debate—an extraordinary state of affairs demonstrating extraordinary priorities—would it not at least have been reasonable for him to have presented his apologies when he spoke, rather than leaving his hon. Friend to pick up the pieces at the end?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have already explained that that is not a matter for me. We are only taking more time out of this debate and the next.

Mr. Raynsford

I shall now have difficulty in responding as fully as I should like. Conservative Members will have to accept that I shall not be able to take interventions from them because of their abuse of the procedures of the House to score points.

The Government must encourage local authorities and private developers to be more imaginative in using brown-field sites. The report from the round table on sustainable development suggested that many authorities could do more to assess the suitability of brown-field sites in their areas and make better use of them. They should explore the scope for raising densities or reducing car parking provision in appropriate cases, particularly near town centres.

We also believe that the regional planning conferences and local authorities may be able to play a bigger part in achieving the best use of brown-field sites. The previous Government were the great centralisers. We want to decentralise decision-making whenever possible. We have already announced our proposals to extend the scope of regional planning guidance. Greater regional involvement in handling the household figures is an attractive option which we are seriously considering. There must also be greater regional input on how much recycling is feasible.

However much brown-field development we achieve, some new homes will need to be built in the countryside. Even with a target of 75 per cent. of new homes on brown-field sites, as Conservative Members have sometimes argued, there would still be—

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) tried to intervene three times on the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning. He has tried to intervene four times now, but has not been allowed to do so. What is the point of having a debate if Ministers will not reply to reasonable questions?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Whether Ministers give way is entirely a matter for them.

Mr. Raynsford

As Conservative Members well know, I am only too willing to give way when there are no time pressures. When confronted with deliberate abuses of the procedures of the House by hon. Members who have raised spurious points of order, it is right that I should try to complete my speech and do justice to those—unlike the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh)—who have been in the Chamber throughout the debate.

Even if we opted for a target of 75 per cent. of new homes on brown-field sites, as Conservative Members have sometimes argued, there would still be around 1 million new homes to be built in the countryside.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Raynsford

This is an abuse.

Mr. Nicholls

I think that this may be a proper point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When responding to the debate, are not Ministers supposed to sum up the contributions made from both sides of the House? How can the Minister pretend that he is doing that when he is reading—albeit badly—from a typewritten script?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order for me.

Mr. Raynsford

That most recent intervention—from someone who has not had the decency to attend the debate—was typical of the hon. Gentleman.

As I was saying, there would still be 1 million homes to be built in the countryside. Are the Opposition willing to face that fact? Do they accept the projection of 4.4 million households? If they do not, they should explain why their Secretary of State published the figure and supported it. What target do they want for new homes on brown-field sites? Their figures go up and down like a yo-yo. Two years ago, in their housing White Paper, they suggested 50 per cent. That figure was repeated in the Green Paper issued by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, although he hinted that he might wish to raise it to 60 per cent. The Conservatives then talked about 75 per cent. Today we are told that they propose two thirds-66 per cent.

Mr. Yeo


Mr. Raynsford

I shall not give way. Sit down. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Minister has said that he is not giving way.

Mr. Raynsford

What has happened in the past nine months to change the previous policy? What is the basis for all the different figures?

Mr. Yeo

I am grateful to the Minister, who has finally given way, after an extraordinary display of discourtesy from him, and one from the absent Minister. Our policy was to achieve a steady increase in the proportion of houses built on previously developed sites—up from 38 per cent. in 1985 to 50 per cent. when we left office. We campaigned on a manifesto commitment of more than 60 per cent. Today, we have confirmed that our figure is two thirds. What is the Government's figure?

Mr. Raynsford

As my hon. Friend the Minister said in his opening speech, we shall make our policy clear in a paper to be published in the near future. The Conservatives may change their figures on a whim simply to provide a convenient soundbite, but there is no serious research behind their figures and no authoritative justification for them. We have heard no sensible proposals tonight that would enable them to get near to the figures that they are plucking out of the air.

Presumably, even the Conservatives recognise that, whatever target is chosen, some green-field development will be necessary. It does not take great feats of mental arithmetic—although the hon. Gentleman probably cannot manage work it out—to realise that even 66 per cent. leaves 34 per cent. still to be provided on green-field sites. Where would Conservative Members want that development to go? The answer from the Tories, sadly, has become all too obvious—the old selfish Tory attitude, "Anywhere, but not in my back yard." That is their policy.

If we are to have a sensible debate on the issue, we must recognise that not all development in the countryside is necessarily bad. Many rural communities are crying out for additional housing and other developments so that they can stay alive. It could provide their residents, especially those on low incomes, with affordable housing, better facilities and more jobs.

Of course, the development must be good quality. Developers and councils must work together to produce plans that enhance a sense of local identity that improves the sense of local community. Furthermore, some towns and large villages are especially suitable for sensible development—if, for example, they are located in good public transport corridors, and residents are therefore not dependent on the motor car to get to work—on the grounds that that is what sustainable development may mean.

A key factor—

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has been here for most of the debate.

Mr. Hayes

The Minister talked about—

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 178, Noes 297.

Division No. 140] [7.30 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Ballard, Mrs Jackie
Allan, Richard Beggs, Roy
Amess, David Beith, Rt Hon A J
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Bercow, John
Arbuthnot, James Beresford, Sir Paul
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Body, Sir Richard
Baker, Norman Boswell, Tim
Baldry, Tony Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Brady, Graham Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Brake, Tom Kirkwood, Archy
Brand, Dr Peter Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Brazier, Julian Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Breed, Colin Lansley, Andrew
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Leigh, Edward
Browning, Mrs Angela Letwin, Oliver
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Lidington, David
Burns, Simon Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Burstow, Paul Livsey, Richard
Cable, Dr Vincent Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Cash, William Loughton, Tim
Chidgey, David Luff, Peter
Chope, Christopher Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Clappison, James MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) McIntosh, Miss Anne
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) MacKay, Andrew
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Maclean, Rt Hon David
McLoughlin, Patrick
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Madel, Sir David
Collins, Tim Malins, Humfrey
Cotter, Brian Maples, John
Cran, James Mates, Michael
Curry, Rt Hon David Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Dafis, Cynog May, Mrs Theresa
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Moore, Michael
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Moss, Malcolm
Duncan, Alan Nicholls, Patrick
Duncan Smith, Iain Norman, Archie
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Öpik, Lembit
Evans, Nigel Ottaway, Richard
Faber, David Page, Richard
Fallon, Michael Prior, David
Fearn, Ronnie Randall, John
Flight, Howard Rendel, David
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Robathan, Andrew
Foster, Don (Bath) Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Fox, Dr Liam Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Fraser, Christopher Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Gale, Roger Ruffley, David
Garnier, Edward Russell, Bob (Colchester)
George, Andrew (St Ives) St Aubyn, Nick
Gibb, Nick Sanders, Adrian
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Sayeed, Jonathan
Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair Shepherd, Richard
Gorrie, Donald Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Green, Damian Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Greenway, John Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Grieve, Dominic Soames, Nicholas
Gummer, Rt Hon John Spicer, Sir Michael
Hague, Rt Hon William Spring, Richard
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Hammond, Philip Steen, Anthony
Harris, Dr Evan Streeter, Gary
Hawkins, Nick Stunell, Andrew
Hayes, John Swayne, Desmond
Heald, Oliver Syms, Robert
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Horam, John Taylor, Sir Teddy
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Thompson, William
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Tonge, Dr Jenny
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Tredinnick, David
Hunter, Andrew Trend, Michael
Jenkin, Bernard Tyler, Paul
Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Tyrie, Andrew
Viggers, Peter
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Wallace, James
Keetch, Paul Wardle, Charles
Key, Robert Waterson, Nigel
Webb, Steve Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Wells, Bowen Woodward, Shaun
Whitney, Sir Raymond Yeo, Tim
Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Wilkinson, John
Willetts, David Tellers for the Ayes:
Willis, Phil Mr. Stephen Day and
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton) Mr. John Whittingdale.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House recognises that it was a Labour Government that created the planning system which has done so much to protect the countryside and promote sustainable development; welcomes the Government's continued commitment to protecting the countryside, including green belts, and to regenerating towns and cities; recognises that the Government is shortly to announce its decisions on the way forward on planning for housing; is confident that the interests of all citizens, both the 80 per cent. and more who live in towns and cities, and those living in the countryside, will be considered; welcomes the importance that the Government attaches to revitalising towns and cities and making the best possible use of brownfield sites and existing buildings to meet housing demand; and believes that the regional planning conferences should be given greater say in reaching decisions on the most sustainable solutions for providing decent homes in line with the Government's recently announced policy for modernising the planning system and using regional planning to find integrated solutions to the problems of economic development, housing and transport.