HC Deb 09 June 1998 vol 313 cc858-60
4. Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

What estimate his Department has made of the potential for siting new housing development in brown-field sites. [43228]

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

My Department has made estimates based on past performance. We also encourage local authorities and the regional planning conferences to conduct appropriate surveys. In addition, we have started to develop a national land use database, and we have set up the urban task force led by Lord Rogers to examine how authorities can best use previously used land.

Mrs. Spelman

What assurance does that give to those who live in the vulnerable green belt in my constituency that the Secretary of State is not simply shrugging off to the regions the responsibility for enforcement of a higher percentage of new builds on brown-field sites?

Mr. Prescott

I do not think that this Administration can be accused of shrugging off our responsibilities. In our first 12 months, we have published "Planning for the Communities of the Future", and we were the first Government to establish that 60 per cent. of future building should be done on brown-field sites. That is a clear commitment, and we have reiterated it constantly. We are completely satisfied with it, and Lord Rogers's urban task force will identify brown-field sites and begin to prioritise them for the building of houses.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

When does my right hon. Friend expect to issue guidelines on soil that will determine the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls—PCBs—organic chemicals, dioxins and radon gas on brown-field sites? That will be important to ensuring that the health of home owners and others who inhabit the sites will not be adversely affected.

Mr. Prescott

As my hon. Friend knows, the contaminated land study was published last December. I think that I could give a fuller answer, but I cannot at the moment. I will write to him.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

It is now some months since Ministers announced the abandonment of predict and provide. Many people in rural counties are concerned about the new-build housing allocations that are required of them. Can the Deputy Prime Minister give examples of reductions resulting from the Government's new position?

Mr. Prescott

One of the consequences of our policy since last May is that an additional 30,000 hectares of land will be added to the green belt. That shows the priority that we give the matter. We have left it, in the main, to the individual authorities and panels assessing housing to make the decisions. We have confirmed most of them, and one or two are before the courts. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment on those.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is getting a working definition of brown-field or, more particularly, recyclable land? Will he urge the urban task force led by Lord Rogers to produce one as soon as possible and say how it applies to rural areas, which also have recyclable land for use?

Mr. Prescott

I agree with my hon. Friend. That point is in the terms of reference of Lord Rogers's urban task force. We await its report of the end of this year to make such judgments.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Will the Secretary of State explain why, four months after his announcement in the House of a higher target for the proportion of houses to be built on brown-field sites, his Department is still engaged in legal action to force on West Sussex 12,000 more houses than any of the three political parties on the county council wants? Why has Hampshire not been allowed to cut the number of houses being forced on it? Is not this yet another example of Ministers taking the decisions at the centre against the wishes of local people and their elected representatives?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman served in the previous Administration. They could not make up their mind what proportion of houses should be built on brown-field sites. They started with 50 per cent., went up to 60 per cent. and then to 75 per cent., before reducing it back to 66 per cent. Whether in government or in opposition, the Conservatives are not clear about what needs to be implemented. We are satisfied that we have got the target right, and we will implement it.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

My right hon. Friend knows that I share his enthusiasm for bringing brown-field sites back into use. He will agree that, whenever a brown-field site is used for any purpose, pressure is taken off green-field sites. Will he use his characteristic charm and diplomacy on the Treasury, and on the Chancellor in particular, to ensure that we have the mechanisms to make brown-field sites competitive with green-field sites, because many of us believe that some tax help is needed to raise their competitiveness?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend knows that final decisions on taxation are left to the Chancellor of the Exchequer; that is normal in all Governments. We are discussing other measures in respect of taxation and planning controls that are important to achieve the overall objective. They are under active discussion and we will report to the House at the appropriate time.