HC Deb 22 October 1998 vol 317 cc1407-48

[Relevant documents: Tenth report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1997–98, on Housing (HC 495-I) and the Government's response thereto (Cm 4080).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

Madam Speaker

I appeal to hon. Members for self-restraint. I know that a number of hon. Members are interested and want to take part in the debates, but I am not able to impose a time limit as the debates are being introduced by Back Benchers and I do not want the limit to apply to them. I simply appeal for self-restraint.

4.10 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I welcome the opportunity to debate our housing report and the Government's response to it. I place on record the Committee's thanks to our Clerk and specialist adviser and to our advisers Richard Bate, Peter Chapman and Dr. Christine Whitehead, who gave us so much help in preparing our report. I also thank all those who sent in written evidence and those who came before the Committee to answer our questions—we are extremely grateful to them all. Finally, I thank all the members of the Committee, who worked so hard, and I apologise to the House for the fact that my co-Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), is unable to be here today—she is on a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation.

Our inquiry arose out of the previous Government's projection that an extra 4.4 million households would have to be catered for over the next 15 years or so, which represents an increase on the previous projections of about 1 million—that was the key to our inquiry. I was surprised that very few of the people who sent in evidence challenged those figures, even though they raised many other problems. One reason was that there was little detail on how those projections were arrived at. One of the most pleasing aspects of the Government's response was the promise that the next set of projections would include much more detail on how the figures are arrived at, so that there can be much more discussion about whether they are realistic.

If the projections are wrong, there will clearly be problems. If too many households are projected, rows of houses in parts of the country may contain empty properties, and it is extremely depressing to live in a road where some houses are uncared for and untended. It is important that we do not over-provide or over-provide in particular parts of the country.

Equally, it is important that we do not under-provide. If we do, it is almost certain that house prices will increase, which will mean that many people cannot afford to buy a house, giving rise to an increase in the demand for social housing. Ensuring that the projections are right and meeting those projections are extremely important.

The projections show that the extra dwellings that will be needed will be for young single people, for people in middle age who are likely to be living on their own—perhaps through divorce—and, of course, for the increasing number of elderly people.

One of the key questions is where those dwellings should go. There has been a great deal of argument about how many of them can go on to what are crudely called brown-field sites—areas of land that have been used previously. First, the Government suggested about 60 per cent, but the Opposition have looked for a rather higher figure than that. There was evidence to the Select Committee that, in some parts of the country, it would be easy to reach a higher target than 60 per cent.

I believe that we should be a little cautious about making predictions until we have much better information. One of the most useful things will be Lord Rogers's task force, which will carry out the compilation of a database across the country so that we know how much brown-field land there is. That is fundamental. Until we know how much land there is, we cannot prove how realistic the 60 per cent. target is, or whether a higher target can be reached in some parts of the country. I hope that that information will be available within the next 12 months at least.

If there is to be more development on brown-field sites, the Government have to work hard on the issue of contaminated land. The Select Committee on the Environment first looked at contaminated land over 10 years ago, and came up with a series of recommendations. The previous Administration looked at them, rejected them or altered them, but took very little action. I plead with the Government to get on with the regulations for contaminated land. We have to get on with providing the money so that many of the sites can be reclaimed. We will be able to reach a target of 60 per cent. or higher only if we put that in place.

We have to look at the way in which local authorities are hoarding land for industry. I made some inquiries around the local authorities in Greater Manchester about the amount of land they have in the hope of attracting industry to it. When one adds up all such land around Greater Manchester, one realises that it would be impossible to attract that amount of industry to the area, and, if that amount of industry could be attracted, there would be no way in which there would be sufficient people to work in it. Local authorities must make much more effort to hold back a realistic amount of land for the creation of jobs, which is extremely important, while releasing some of the land for housing. That would go a long way towards reaching the target of 60 per cent.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I share the hon. Gentleman's view about the difficulty of deciding how many brown-field sites are available, as opposed to green-field sites. I also take his point that surplus land may be marked for industrial use. Will the hon. Gentleman share with the House his view and that of the Select Committee on green belt land? Does he agree that, wherever the houses go, they should not go on established green belt sites?

Mr. Bennett

There is unanimity across the House that, as far as possible, green belt land should be sacrosanct. However, there is that little phrase, "as far as possible". That reasoning has been behind the tradition of green belt land, and the Committee and I did not deviate from that historical view.

I must point out that many of the people who gave evidence to the Select Committee did not want housing in their area, but they were still working hard to promote new industries and new jobs. I plead with local authorities, if they are going out to campaign to attract jobs to their area, to accept equal responsibility for providing houses for the people who will carry out that activity.

The core of our report is that we need urban regeneration. We need to make our cities and urban areas work. One of our recommendations was that the Government should produce a White Paper. I am glad that, earlier this week, they announced that we will get an urban White Paper. This is not just a matter for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions—the Deputy Prime Minister's Department—but one that goes right across the Government.

Regeneration of our cities must include ensuring that the schools are tip-top, and that we deal with crime and the problems that shops face. Regeneration means improving the whole environment, and many Government Departments need to play a part. I therefore hope that the White Paper will not suffer from departmentitis, but will receive full co-operation in its production.

If we are to regenerate our cities, we must regenerate some of their old buildings. The Committee was lucky enough to visit Poundbury to see the Prince of Wales's proposals for housing. However, I found more encouraging the work that he is doing with the Heritage Trust to try to bring back into residential use many of the old buildings in our cities. In my constituency, we have the Houldsworth mill project, which I hope succeeds. In the years that I have been in the House, many proposals have been made to bring that fine old mill into residential use, but they never quite made it. I hope that this time will be different.

I welcome the Government's response to the issue of revising the planning regulations, but quick action is needed. The Government have given a commitment to revise planning policy guidance note 3 on housing, PPG11 on regional plans and PPG12 on development plans. The release of land for housing is a crucial issue. At the moment, local authority plans have to include a five-year supply. Unless the Government move quickly, the danger is that some builders will race to use green-field sites, knowing that it will be difficult to use them in the future. I hope that the Government can reassure the House that they will move as speedily as possible to revise the planning regulations.

I mentioned the probable increased demand for social housing. The Committee was disappointed by the Government's response on social housing, although we may have been a little harsh in our report.

The Minister for London and Construction has made his reputation in championing the need for social housing, but his appearance before the Committee was disappointing. I understand that he knew the results of the spending review and we did not, but I reiterate that we need much more social housing than the Government are so far committed to providing. It is a disappointing cop-out to say that it is the responsibility of local authorities. If one local authority attempts to provide social housing, it is often taken up by people from neighbouring authorities that have made no provision. The Government need to set a much more realistic target.

The key to the whole process is continuous monitoring. I hope that the Government will report regularly to the House on how much new housing will be built on brown-field sites. It is very important that the Government succeed in regenerating our cities, because that would improve the quality of life for people who live in them, as well as stop the continual spread of housing into the countryside. I hope that we have a good debate on the report, and, more importantly, that we see action from the Government.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Does my hon. Friend agree that an essential measure to regenerate our inner cities and relieve the pressures on the countryside and green-field sites is fiscal incentives for the building industry? The imposition of value added tax on the regeneration of older properties and the zero-rating of new properties on green-field sites is an anomaly. If the position were harmonised, it would provide an incentive for the building industry.

Mr. Bennett

I agree. If my hon. Friend had read the report, he would know that we have made that point, and that we were pleased by the Government's response. It is crazy that there is no VAT on new building, and that anyone who wants to regenerate buildings within cities, or conversions of old mills or shops or whatever, faces the problem of paying VAT. We are tied by Europe, and we cannot abolish VAT, although that would be the best approach.

I am keen to keep within the promised 15 minutes. I recommend to the House our report, and many aspects of the Government's response. My plea is for action on implementing a sensible housing policy for the next 15 years, so that all our people can enjoy decent homes.

4.24 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who chairs the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, and his colleagues on a timely, important and interesting report. They have done the House a service. Partly in jest, I find it slightly puzzling that the Deputy Prime Minister should have strongly welcomed the report, given that it contains a number of veiled criticisms of his own actions, both in the text and between the lines. There is a bald statement that the Committee found the answers given to it by one junior Minister to be both "vacuous and disingenuous"

The report represents a thinly veiled attack on the dithering and inaction that characterise the Government's attitude to housing provision. The Committee's findings vindicate our consistent criticism of the Deputy Prime Minister's failure to address the problem of household growth and of the Government's inability to engage in joined-up thinking on the important issue of housing.

The report is a valuable contribution to debate. Although it is in places couched in soft language, it is in many ways a damning indictment of the complacency with which the Government have approached a critical issue. It is a call to arms to those of us on both sides of the House who care about the preservation of the countryside and the regeneration of our towns and cities.

I shall take the House through some of the Committee's key findings. I hope that the House will forgive me for indulging in some translation, so that hon. Members who have not had the privilege of reading the report in its entirety may have some of its flavour, stripped of the spin that Ministers and their advisers have sought to put on it.

The proposals in the White Paper "Planning for the Communities of the Future" are, in the words of the Committee, well-intentioned, but vague. The report states: We do not believe they will be adequate to achieve their aims. In other words, unless the Government decide to do something instead of just talking about the problems, the countryside will be swamped with new developments, and our towns and cities will suffer decay and deprivation. The report is certainly a long way short of the ringing endorsement to which the Deputy Prime Minister laid claim on Monday.

The report repeatedly stresses the need for a brown-field development target of 60 per cent. or more, to be applied as soon as possible. The Committee supports an interim national target…of at least 60 per cent., which should be applied in the coming round of Regional Planning Guidance, rather than over 10 years as the Government has proposed. If I may take the liberty of paraphrasing once again, unless the Government decide to do something instead of just talking, the green belt will not be saved, and our towns and cities will continue to be scarred by derelict sites. Again, that seems to fall short of the endorsement heralded by the Secretary of State.

The report continues: It is important that the target set should be challenging, e.g. 60 per cent. or higher—some witnesses thought 75 per cent. was possible". For the Government to state—as the Deputy Prime Minister did on Monday—that that constitutes support for the Government's 60 per cent. target is, to coin a phrase, both vacuous and disingenuous.

Our manifesto at the general election stated that we would set a target of more than 60 per cent. We have since pressed the Government to fix a target of two thirds. I hope that the Minister can rise to announce that, in the light of the Select Committee's evidence, he will increase the target to two thirds with immediate effect.

The report is not just critical of what the Deputy Prime Minister has not done. It attacks what little he has done to discharge his duties—for example, in relation to the task force which he set up under Lord Rogers. The report states: We are concerned as to whether the Task Force will be able to undertake the wide range of tasks it has been set … It must not be used as a means of causing delay. Again, the implication is clear. The Committee believes what Conservative Members have long suspected: as with so many other task forces and reviews set up over the past 18 months, the Government see this as a way of kicking the ball into the long grass and hoping that the problem will go away.

Mr. Bennett

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns

I will certainly give way to the Chairman, although I do not wish to give way again, because of the scarcity of time.

Mr. Bennett

Can the hon. Gentleman explain why the previous Government did not produce in the years after the target was put forward a register of how much brown-field land was available? If we had that information, everybody could put forward a realistic figure, not one based on guesswork.

Mr. Burns

I understand and have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is important not to overlook the fact that, at the same time during that time scale, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) was determined to ensure that more and more building was done on brown-field sites when it was feasible, so as to protect and preserve the countryside and green-field sites.

The Committee states: Central government must support local authorities when they restrict the use of green-field sites. Does the Deputy Prime Minister now accept that he was wrong on the principle of the issue to force West Sussex county council to cater for an extra 13,000 homes in its local plans, flying in the face of opposition from all three parties on the county council and of the advice of the planning inspectorate?

When the Minister replies, perhaps he will care to tell the House this, despite the answer which the Under-Secretary of State used as a dodge at Question Time on Tuesday to avoid the issue. To get away from the niceties of the sub judice rule that the Under-Secretary used, I am asking whether the Minister would care to answer the question on the principle rather than on the individual case.

How can that decision be squared with the words of the Select Committee and the Deputy Prime Minister's support for the report? How can such developments be squared with the recommendations and the Government's own rhetoric on transport? In particular, can the Minister explain how allowing major developments on green-field sites away from shops and other facilities contributes to the aim of reducing the need to travel? To judge from these glaring inconsistencies, the Government are scarcely capable of joined-up writing, let alone joined-up thinking, on the issue.

The Committee adds its voice to our own and the voices of numerous other interested bodies in calling for urgent revision to the Department's planning guidance notes, particularly PPG3 and PPG13. The Government have said that they intend to issue new guidance, and we welcome the commitment given in the Government's response to the report on Monday. The report rightly states that, without a clear planning framework, there will be uncertainty and the likelihood that in some regions the Government's policies on urban regeneration, integrated transport and sustainability will be ignored. When can we expect to see this new guidance? Does the Minister have any news for us on that during this debate?

Why, when the Deputy Prime Minister announced the 60 per cent. target as long ago as February, has there been no movement so far to start giving effect to that target? He increasingly resembles an archer with only a small target to aim at and a quiver as empty as his rhetoric. The means to replace his stock of arrows are within his own power and the longer he delays, the more people will suspect that he does not want to start shooting at all.

The report also calls for the Government to announce a strategy for meeting the target set by the previous Government for reducing the amount of empty property, and to issue advice to local authorities. I take the opportunity to add our voice to that of the Select Committee and remind the Government that Labour-controlled councils currently have the highest proportion of stock awaiting letting. The 10 authorities with the highest proportion of properties ready for letting or awaiting minor repairs are all, not unexpectedly, Labour-controlled.

Perhaps the Minister would like to tell us what plans the Government have to make sure that Labour councils bring their performance into line with that achieved by Conservative councils. Is he aware that the number of vacant dwellings is rising? There are now some 80,000 vacant dwellings under local authority management, accounting for almost 2.5 per cent. of the stock. How do the Government propose to tackle that major and growing problem?

Local authorities and the framework within which they operate will play a key role in determining the success of any strategy to bring more brown-field sites into use.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns

I am sorry—I will not give way, because time is short and so many other hon. Members wish to speak.

The Government may rest assured that Conservative councillors will continue to protect the green belt against development as long as they are not further hindered by decisions from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Conservative councillors in towns and cities will continue to urge the reuse of derelict sites and the clean-up of contaminated land. What measures does the Minister plan to introduce to ensure consistency across the planning system to give effect to the target of 60 per cent. of building on brown-field sites? Are the Government prepared to use their influence with the Labour-run authorities in our towns and cities, which control much of the brown land in question, to ensure that local authorities play their part in freeing brown-field sites for housing purposes? How does the Minister intend to encourage local authorities to allow brown land currently designated for industrial or commercial use to be used instead for residential purposes where feasible?

At present, planning law entitles local authorities to ask for contributions from developers towards the cost of overcoming genuine planning obstructions, such as widening road junctions or expanding the capacity of local schools. Conservative councillors will continue to seek fair agreements with developers for the joint funding of necessary local improvements.

Some local authorities allegedly abuse the system in order to finance unrelated spending. I understand that one local authority even demanded a contribution towards play areas from developers who were providing sheltered housing for the elderly. Such abuse discourages would-be developers from making applications to use brown-field sites. What will the Government do to prevent such seemingly sharp practices?

What line do the Government plan to take on the draft EU rules that will bar public bodies from contributing to pollution clean-up, and will insist that all land be returned to its natural state, regardless of its end use? When will the Government fix parameters for pollution clean-up, so that developers and local authorities know exactly where they stand?

The Government's response to the report is a poor attempt to paint it as an endorsement of their approach. That claim is not supported by a careful reading of the report. In fact, as the Deputy Prime Minister said on Monday, pretty much everybody claims to agree with the basic principles that we need more sustainable patterns of development and that we should minimise the use of green-field sites and maximise reuse of brown-field sites. The report exposes the hypocrisy of a Government who purport to defend the countryside and promote urban regeneration, while all the time taking decisions such as that in West Sussex, which undermine and frustrate their declared aims.

When the report was published, Friends of the Earth stated: the Select Committee has not been fooled by John Prescott's vague rhetoric. The Government's response represents more of the same. The Select Committee was not fooled then, and I assure Ministers that the House will not be fooled now.

The Government's response is woefully inadequate. Its so-called strategy for meeting demand for new housing has been exposed as a sham. It is a catalogue of delay, indecision and downright incompetence. Instead of trying to paint a gloss over the report and paper over the cracks in their failed approach, the Government should go back to the drawing board and urgently consider relaying the entire foundations of their strategy to meet the problems facing the countryside and urban regeneration.

4.38 pm
Mrs. Christine Butler (Castle Point)

The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has not moved the debate further on—indeed, it has been stripped of context. He has not given due consideration to the Government's response to the Select Committee report—a response that was broadly welcomed by Labour Members. The big strategy of sustainability is one that we must all endorse. To move matters on, it is up to all of us to engage in debate on the detail of how to implement that strategy.

The Government and the Select Committee require sustainability to be at the heart of the debate—sustainability in respect of environmental, social and economic concerns. I urge the Government, when considering local authority planning application assessments, to give as much weight to social and economic criteria as to environmental criteria. That is extremely important, because, if we are not careful, the debate will shift in favour of the environmental agenda, which must not be considered in isolation from the social and economic agendas.

A big issue that has not yet been properly addressed, but which is all too evident, is the existence of huge regional differences in need and capacity. There is an enormous difference between north and south in general, but I should like to highlight the case of the south-east, where some of the biggest problems are found. The expected provision in that area is approximately one third of the 4.4 million new homes that have to be built. That is a pretty tall order. I welcome the so-called brown-field task force, although I would prefer the term "previously used land" to "brown field", as I do not think the latter term is appropriate. The task force has been set up to examine urban capacity for regeneration needs, especially in the London area.

The problem is one not merely of providing more housing, but of creating balanced communities. It is important to pay attention to all an area's needs—economic, social and environmental. Ringing the London region are commuter districts. The majority of my constituents commute to their jobs. If that carries on, it will become unsustainable in terms of both transport and the provision of social housing.

I welcome some of the comments in the Government's response, but one or two issues need further detailed examination. In the context of fiscal strategies, there is a real need to redefine conversions, even though the Government would encounter great difficulty with the European Commission, and there would be a prolonged debate about the equalisation of the value added tax regime between new build and conversions. However, if it is at all possible to redefine conversions in the context of the need for new housing, it might bear down on the existing 17.5 per cent. VAT levy. That would be a great achievement.

A further issue with which we must take great care—one which Friends of the Earth and others might push without giving it proper consideration—is that of the green-field levy. It sounds like a great idea, especially if the money was to be put into brown-field site conversion and solving the problems that exist there. However, although I do not want the Government to abandon the idea, it should be a less immediate priority and the Government should give further consideration to the pros and cons of imposing such a levy.

Of the greatest urgency and importance are the new planning policy guidance notes. Already, local authorities are proposing and adopting plans, and regional planning conferences are at various stages of reporting and adoption. If we do not get the new PPGs in soon, we shall leave ourselves open to speculative developments on green-field land.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

The hon. Lady mentions PPGs, but does she not agree that the major problem facing the south-east is that 868,000 new houses are scheduled to be built in the south-east of England alone? I am sure that she would agree that the consequences, including the use of public funds for infrastructure, are far-reaching and should be addressed in the House now. Has the hon. Lady actually envisaged what 868,000 houses will mean to the whole of the south-east of England?

Mrs. Butler

I am following my own track and my own agenda. If I am allowed to continue, the hon. Gentleman will hear the answer to his question. The lack of attention paid to the issues dealt with by the Committee and to the smaller points that I am highlighting now is what really matters. We know what the figures are.

There has already been speculative interest in green-field sites in my constituency. The authority would like to reject that, but cannot do so, because of legal niceties. In 1951, a certain site received planning permission for mixed-use, retail and housing development. Try as it might, since that time the authority has been unable to reallocate land use policy in that area, even though the circumstances in the constituency and the wider region have changed dramatically. Why is the authority unable to act? The answer is that a road was built—one road through the whole site, with the result that the site holds developers' interest unfairly.

That is why I welcome a hint in the proposed PPG3 that the Government might be able to strengthen local authorities' resolve when applications for renewal are made. Perhaps huge compensation need not be payable to the inheritors of the land when the local authority can prove that the application is unsuitable. There should be a further requirement: if a proposal has not been entirely developed within a certain period, it fails, and a new application is required. The nonsense of digging a trench or laying a bit of tarmac on a site should no longer be accepted. There is a loophole, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to respond to these concerns as soon as possible, if that is appropriate.

Greater consideration should be given to the issues that I have raised. Local authorities are being stymied in their attempts to provide the most sustainable solutions within their own neighbourhoods and communities.

4.48 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

This is an important debate. I pay tribute to the Select Committee for its work on an important subject.

We are told that 4.4 million new houses are to be built by 2016. That is such a large figure that none of us can grasp what 4.4 million houses would look like. Is that equal to the whole of London or Reading? I wonder whether the Government are planning an exhibition on the Upper Committee Corridor to give us an idea of what 4.4 million houses would look like on the ground.

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

Those were the hon. Gentleman's Government's figures.

Mr. Steen

The Minister says that they were our Government's figures, but his Government have adopted them. I want to know how the Government came up with 4.4 million houses. Did the boffins in Kingsway think up that figure? What science do the officials profess to practise? Do they stick pins into lists of figures? What are their qualifications? Is there a special science for working out how many houses are needed?

Mr. Bennett

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the process has gone on for many years? The interesting point is that officials have got the figures right over time.

Mr. Caborn

Thirty years.

Mr. Bennett

They have got the figures right for 30 years. It is dangerous to poke fun at the figures. We are keen that there should be more background information about the figures so that people can analyse them, but their track record is extremely good.

Mr. Steen

I would hate to argue with the hon. Gentleman, who was my pair many years ago and whose interest in and illustrious track record on the environment and housing is well known in the House, but the fact that figures have been allegedly proved right over 30 years does not mean that the projected figures are correct. The process has worked only because it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy—we go on building houses and people move into them. That does not mean that the figures are right, or that the science is right. The Select Committee could do the House a great service by inquiring in detail into the science and deciding whether it is flawed.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to a document published in 1997 entitled "The Economic Determinants of Household Formation—A literature review", which the previous Government commissioned in 1996. It contains a great deal of information about the variables used in the prediction of future household growth and need. The figure has not, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, been plucked out of thin air. It was defended yesterday by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who shared a platform with me at a meeting. The right hon. Gentleman is well apprised of the fact that a great deal of work has gone into calculating the figure and the hon. Gentleman should understand—

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

Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is far too long.

Mr. Steen

It was not only far too long but unhelpful. It would be wise if I did not give way again because of the danger of spurious remarks distracting the House from the important points that I shall make. [Interruption.] It is good to hear that those on the Government Front Bench are particularly verbal and volatile today—that always means that one is dealing with points that worry them. Clearly they are concerned about what I shall say and they are trying to stop me saying it, but I shall not be deterred.

I have challenged the acceptance of the figures regardless of which Government proposed them. I am not afraid to say that I would challenge a Conservative Government if we were in office. Unfortunately we are not, so I am challenging the Labour Government to question the figures. I will not dwell on that point.

If we accept the figure of 4.4 million homes, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy and we should consider how it will affect the south-west, where 438,000 houses are to be built. The Devon structure plan, which includes my constituency, proposed 90,500 homes. That was not enough, and after a public inquiry, the figure was raised to 95,000.

The South Hams, which comprises the majority of my constituency, will have 13,500 additional new dwellings by 2011. That is curious because the House of Commons Library concluded that my constituency is one of the most beautiful in Britain. It did so by examining the number of environmental beauty categories into which the Totnes and South Hams area falls. It has the heritage coastline, areas of great landscape value, areas of outstanding natural beauty, sites of special scientific interest, the Dartmoor national park, conservation areas and so on. How could 13,500 houses be built in such an area without destroying green fields or eating into special environmentally protected areas? Furthermore, it is said that a further 300 acres is needed for employment land and, within the area covered by Devon county council, 3,000 acres is needed for employment land.

It is argued that new homes will be required to house the existing population. I challenge that. We are told that the vast increase in the number of houses is simply necessary to provide for a larger number of individual households, mainly because of divorce, which will create a need for 40 per cent. of the new homes. In addition, 30 per cent. of the new homes are needed because people live longer and another 30 per cent. are needed for young people who leave home and move around the country for work purposes.

I was told that the housing projection for the South Hams is intended to rehouse people who already live there. I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to this point. In 1981, the population of South Hams was 69,993. By 1997, the number had risen to 80,200—an increase of about 18 per cent. By contrast, the population in the whole county of Devon increased by 5 per cent. only. It cannot be that more than 90,000 new houses are needed to redistribute the existing population if there are dramatic increases in population numbers. The population increase in the South Hams has been out of all proportion to that in the county and in the south-west. In no way is that redistribution; it is plain inward migration.

More houses are needed because people come from other places with their families, pets and motor cars to live in Devon, not because overcrowded households need more space. In the three months ending March 1998, 8,233 additional people moved into the county. Since 1988, 8,000 people have been moving into the county every three months. Only during the economic crisis in 1991 did the figure drop. That means that 32,000 people move to Devon every year. That is why the new houses are needed—not to rehouse local people, which is entirely another matter. The county council says that 90,000 new houses are required for local people. That is not true; it is a figment of the planners' and statisticians' imaginations.

My experience supports that. On Saturday afternoons when I have little else to do, I knock on doors at random. That is one of my hobbies, and I should declare it as an interest. Oddly, I find that most of the people whose doors I knock on are newcomers, not people who have moved from other parts of Devon.

Adding to the population rather than redistributing it creates enormous pressure on the local infrastructure. For example, the building of new houses has been banned in Dartmouth because the sewerage system cannot cope. In Ivybridge, the sewerage system is backing up because so many people use it and the facilities are not sufficient.

The Government's housing projections, if implemented, would destroy tens of thousands of acres of green-field land, but in the South Hams they will eat into the special categories of beauty that the House of Commons Library has highlighted as particularly important.

One of the greatest ironies is that the very beauty that attracts people to my constituency will be destroyed by the buildings that they are intending to occupy. Who is running the county council? I am afraid that it is the Liberals. Who is running the Torbay unitary authority that governs part of my constituency? Again, it is the Liberals. Who is running the South Hams district council? I am afraid that it is the Liberals.

On 30 July, the Liberal county council whipped in all its councillors to attend a debate on the structure plan. They approved the Government's structure plan for the building of 90,000 new houses, despite strong opposition from the Conservatives. That occurred on the afternoon of 30 July. In the evening of 30 July, the Liberals launched a campaign opposing the 90,000 figure that they had approved that afternoon. They are now running around Devon organising meetings and campaigning against the proposal that they passed on the afternoon of 30 July. That is a good Liberal story, is it not? The Liberals talk about sustainable development, but those 90,000 houses are unsustainable. They talk about environmental sensitivity, but they are not the least bit sensitive to the environment.

I must now conclude. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] I am glad that Labour Members have enjoyed my comments and are ready to respond to them.

I propose a solution to the problem. The Government could ask the local authorities in Devon to agree on a sustainable figure. The Liberals on the Devon county council said that they passed the Government's structure plan because they feared that, if they did not, the Government would increase the figure. If the Government would tell Devon county council, "We will not increase the number of houses, so go back to the other local authorities and come up with a figure that you think is sustainable", the Government would not have to call in the plan. That outcome is inevitable, as the plan would have disastrous consequences in a county as beautiful as Devon—and certainly in the South Hams.

My proposal amounts to a more democratic way of handling the matter. When the Minister replies perhaps he could consider what I believe is a very sensible approach: asking the local authorities to provide a more sustainable figure. I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope that my comments have been helpful to the House.

5.1 pm

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

I welcome the report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee and the recommendations contained therein. I compliment Committee members on the huge amount of work that they have undertaken in compiling the report. I understand that they have seen at least 30 sets of witnesses and received more than 200 memorandums. It has greatly assisted those hon. Members, like myself, who do not serve on the Committee to see the depth of consideration that Committee members have given to these important issues.

Contrary to the assertions made by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), I consider the report to be an example of joined-up thinking and joined-up government. It raises issues regarding not just housing but the sustainable development of communities. It will ensure that new housing developments take account of environmental and transport factors. A key recommendation in the report is that housing should be located close to people's places of employment so that they do not have to travel great distances to work. That recommendation is essential to regenerating our towns and cities.

The report is a good example of cross-departmental thinking and it begins to touch on many important issues. It also echoes many of the recommendations in the report of the social exclusion unit, "Bringing Communities Together". We must tackle some very serious issues, not simply housing matters, if we are to regenerate and renew many inner-city areas.

In the limited time available, I shall concentrate on the Committee's recommendations regarding urban areas and inner cities because my constituency is one of the poorest and most deprived inner-city areas in the country. In inner cities our problems are not about a shortage of land, but more about the breakdown of families and communities and the wholesale migration of owner-occupiers, leaving behind dereliction and decay. That is a very difficult issue to tackle in the long term.

I believe that housing must play a major role in urban regeneration. Housing constitutes 80 per cent. of development and is the key to improving our communities. We must bring empty properties back into use. The report's recommendations regarding harmonisation of value added tax on renovations and conversions are crucial. We must ensure that, as far as possible, there is a level playing field for new developments and conversions.

There are several problem areas in Salford which illustrate some of the difficulties that the report tries to tackle. I shall touch briefly on some of them. The Broughton area has a huge problem with small terraced housing. There has been an influx of private landlords, and owner-occupiers have moved out of the city. Indiscriminate letting policies of housing associations and private landlords have produced nuisance tenants who have driven out the majority of good, decent people who formerly lived in those communities.

We are beginning to regenerate the area. A joint single regeneration budget project with our neighbours in Manchester is working well, but it is difficult to encourage private developers to help us. I am delighted that the report highlights the action by English Partnerships to provide incentives and gap funding for developers to encourage them into our inner-city areas. Their assistance is crucial if we are to stabilise our communities and give local people some hope that things will change and improve. We must convince them to stay in our inner cities.

The recommendation for sequential planning consideration, whereby developers must show that they have considered using previously developed land before they are allowed to develop new sites, will be incredibly helpful in inner-city areas. However, we must question the future of small terraced housing. I received a letter only this week from a constituent in Kersal, which is an area of such housing. It is just one example of the hundreds of letters that I receive on this subject. My constituent explains that she is the owner of a two-bedroom terraced property which she cannot sell. She believes that the main problem lies with builders and property developers who are flinging up estates of semi-detached homes with carpets, curtains and gardens which cost about the same as her terraced property. Many first-time buyers are opting for those new starter homes rather than the traditional terraced housing. That leaves us with the real problem of how to encourage occupation in many such areas. Wholesale slum clearance is clearly not an option: it is too expensive and it destroys communities. However, in many parts of the north there is a real question about the relevance of terraced housing.

Another part of the city that has suffered huge problems in recent years is Seedley and Langworthy, where all of the problems of our inner cities—crime, unemployment and poor education—coalesce. We have produced a Seedley and Langworthy action plan which is designed to tackle those problems. Housing is a key regeneration factor and relies on the concept of a partnership of local people. That partnership is led by the community and involves business, voluntary groups, housing associations and a private developer. We have also almost persuaded a building society to join us to talk about how it can contribute to housing regeneration. Building societies are notoriously reluctant to become involved in regeneration, and I am particularly proud that we have been able to secure that assistance.

The action plan for Seedley and Langworthy is not just about housing; it is about education, health and jobs. It proposes the establishment of a community housing company so that local people can determine who lives in the area and how best to achieve regeneration. It is a 10-year plan because we recognise that many problems will not be solved overnight: we will require improvements, year on year. However, local people are determined to tackle the existing problems.

There are just 3,000 homes in the area, and 600 of them are empty. They have been boarded and bricked up or torched and left derelict and in decay because good, decent families have been driven out by crime and other inner-city problems. We must bring those properties back into beneficial use: that is the key to sustainable regeneration.

We must also tackle the problem of private landlords. The report says that the private rented sector has acted as a safety valve. That might be true in some areas, but the private rented sector in Salford is the source of much deterioration and decay. My heart sinks whenever I see a "For Rent" sign in my constituency because I know that it signals that another area is in decline. The owner-occupiers have gone and the absentee landlords and nuisance neighbours have arrived. I know that they will drive people out and that we will see properties boarded up, bricked up and torched. It is almost a logical progression. We must break that cycle of decay that is apparent in so many inner-city areas.

I have written to Ministers requesting regulations governing licensing. I would like to see housing benefit sanctions applied to some absent landlords—there is nothing more effective than hitting them in the pocket. Absentee landlords receive housing benefit and they do not care to whom they rent their properties. They do not manage their properties properly and they are not responsible landlords. I am not referring to every private landlord, but in many parts of my constituency a great deal of that goes on.

The city has a voluntary registration scheme for landlords and about 50 per cent. of them have signed up, but it is the good ones who sign up, the bad ones do not want to be involved. They do not want to be responsible for their properties. The issue must be tackled. Housing benefit sanctions, although difficult to impose, would concentrate minds wonderfully and I urge Ministers to consider them seriously.

We have a lot of hope in Salford. Although there are many problems, we are tackling them together. There is a long way to go, but the provision of decent, safe, warm, affordable and high-quality housing will be the key to our city's renewal and the urban renaissance that is categorised in the report. I welcome the prospect of an urban White Paper which will bring together our thinking across a range of Departments and provide a key and catalyst to urban regeneration.

Cities can be exciting and vibrant places. It is not true that the countryside is the rural idyll and that cities are bad places to live—they can be full of life, the arts and culture. They can have a real buzz. I want my city to have that buzz and to come up from the bottom. We have reached rock bottom and there is only one direction in which to go. We are coming up and fighting back, and I know that the Labour Government will give us the best chance that we have had for the past 20 or 30 years to regenerate our city and make Salford a better place to live, work and bring up families. We are determined to work on it together.

5.10 pm
Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I welcome the topical nature of the housing report and part if not all of the Government's response to it. However, I should like to highlight some issues on which I feel that the Government's response is weak or possibly unhelpful.

First, let me turn to the housing projection figures. The report calls the estimate of 4.4 million new homes the best one there is", yet in a report in The Guardian on Monday, senior Government sources are quoted as saying that 5 million new homes would be a more realistic estimate. If that is the view of senior Government sources, and given that it will be significantly harder to identify sites for that increased number of new homes, it should be out in the open and not hidden away in the inside pages of The Guardian.

Secondly, on the national target for development on brown-field sites, and perhaps anticipating the contribution from Conservative Members, who no doubt will be calling for a target that is higher than 60 per cent., it is worth reminding the House of their record in government. Under the Tories, an average of about six in 10 homes were built on green-field sites, so the shadow Minister was right the first time when he said that the Tory Government were intent on developing more homes on green-field sites. It is a pity that they have discovered only recently that there is more to be gained by defending the countryside than by building all over it.

The Liberal Democrats do not consider a 60 per cent. target for development on brown-field land to be particularly ambitious. If the right policies were in place, more could be achieved. For instance, the Council for the Protection of Rural England argues that the capacity of cities and towns for new housing is a matter of policy rather than physical constraint. The 60 per cent. target should be an interim target, a stepping stone to a tougher target of 75 per cent.

Thirdly, there is the problem of defining brown-field land. The Government need to refine their definition and make a distinction between sites previously used for housing or industrial developments and ex-MOD land, such as abandoned airfields, which may mostly comprise of green fields. Establishing a new category of land in the development hierarchy, which we have dubbed taupe-field, would enable such sites to be considered for development after consideration of recycled land. The definition could include, for instance, land adjacent to an out-of-town development or situated by a road of at least B status or used for specific purposes. The development hierarchy would then prioritise conversion of old buildings; then development on brown-field sites; then taupe-field sites; and, finally, green-field sites.

That might help to defuse the controversies surrounding proposed developments, such as the proposal for 50,000 new homes on ex-MOD airfields near Cambridge. The new definition would also address some of the Select Committee's concerns that, by promoting Brownfield land, regardless of its location, we continue to encourage unsustainable forms of settlement. Fourthly, a new planning policy guidance note 3 must be issued without delay. It is the simplest means of ensuring that the desired changes to planning policy are implemented forthwith. Otherwise, building on green-field land will continue apace. The Government must provide a firm date by which it is to be published. The Department's best estimate today was that it would be some time early next year. I encourage the Minister to give a more precise date.

Fifthly, one must consider the role of the regional planning conferences which are to spearhead the Government's approach to the provision of future housing. I agree with the CPRE that there is no demonstrable commitment to move away from the policy of "predict and provide". The regional planning conferences have apparently received no advice on how to plan other than according to that policy. They are under-resourced and lack any statutory basis, so they are ill-equipped to deliver the Government's strategy of "plan, monitor and manage".

Sixthly, other hon. Members have mentioned the need to reduce migration. I agree with the Government that strong urban development is needed to slow down or stop net out-migration and that there is a key role for the regional development agencies. I support the policy, but we need a clear statement from the Government on whether the improvements to health, education and transport will be delivered regardless of the economic downturn and its effect on Government spending plans. The provision of better hospitals, schools and transport in urban areas would help to stop that migration.

There is one last area to consider that has been touched on today—tax reform and financial incentives. Tax changes could influence dramatically developers' choice of green-field or brown-field sites, but I fear that the Government have yet to take action. For instance, on the green-field development levy, the Government is considering the use of economic instruments to further our planning objectives but no decision has yet been taken as to whether to proceed. I find that response disappointing.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if a levy were charged on building a house on a green-field site, the price of those houses would go up to take account of the tax? That would provide an incentive to those who wish to build executive-style homes in out-of-town development areas, so a green-field levy would have the opposite effect to the one the hon. Gentleman describes.

Mr. Brake

That is not necessarily the case, particularly in locations where there is direct competition between building on green-field sites and building on brown-field sites. The competitive nature of the market will ensure that those house prices remain broadly the same.

The figures supplied by the Civic Trust suggest that some £200 million per annum could be raised by a 10 per cent. levy on green-field land values. If 75 per cent. of that money were spent on cleaning up contaminated land, the remaining £50 million per annum would purchase nearly 15,000 acres of arable land, which I understand from the Library is the equivalent of 53 Hyde parks. Each year we could purchase that quantity of land on the back of the green-field development levy and provide green lungs in urban and rural areas.

There is also the VAT anomaly. Why should people pay 17.5 per cent. on the conversion of properties and no VAT on new build? The Government's response is mixed. In response to an Adjournment debate, Helen Liddell commented that the VAT issue is complex, and a reduced rate could only be applied to social housing, not all housing.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should be referred to by constituency.

Mr. Brake

The then Economic Secretary to the Treasury, now the Minister of State, Scottish Office, with responsibility for education and industry, said that in March. She felt that the move would result in taxation loss and was not convinced by it. A few months later, in May 1998, a junior Environment Minister said that a refurbishment VAT cut was under consideration. In their response to the report, the Government say that unifying VAT would help to provide a more level playing field for conversions". There is clearly a need for a statement from the Government on their stance in relation to the VAT anomaly, and whether they intend to remove it. There are almost 800,000 empty homes and 800,000 potential homes in England situated in buildings suitable for redevelopment. That underlines the importance of evening out the anomaly as soon as possible.

There is also the matter of roll-over capital gains tax. As hon. Members may be aware, there is a loophole that allows farmers to purchase additional land and thereby to escape capital gains tax. That encourages building and tax evasion.

Site value rating is a subject close to Liberal Democrat hearts, which we like to mention when the opportunity arises. Will the Government consider replacing the uniform business rate with site value rating, a system that taxes the value of land rather than the use made of it? That would encourage landowners to make use of their land, rather than leaving it derelict.

Finally, I accept that limited progress is being made on maximising development on brown-field sites, but the Government must move further and faster. With 110 sq km of countryside disappearing under concrete every year, every week's delay in implementing the Government's new policy means that a further 2 sq km of countryside are lost for ever. If they continue to procrastinate, the Government's legacy to future generations will be row after row of identikit homes marching across down and vale. They will never be forgiven.

5.21 pm
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

The Select Committee's support for the Government's proposal that at least 60 per cent. of new homes should be provided on brown-field sites arises from a view of housing as a critical part of regeneration, and of regeneration as linked to jobs, training, transport, environment and the provision of social amenities. The key question is whether we have the mechanisms and policies to achieve that in the shortest possible time.

We are in a period of great change. We are embarking on a policy of integrated regional strategies. We are doing that through the creation of regional development agencies—which, I remind the Opposition, were strongly opposed by them—and through the development of regional chambers. In the draft guidance to regional development agencies published earlier this week, they are asked to adopt an integrated approach to the economy, employment, social exclusion and physical decay. The strategy is to be drawn up in co-operation with the regional chambers. For the first time there is a clear statement, guidance and structure for a regional policy on integrated development, to improve housing, the economy and the environment.

I must, however, express concern about the regional planning conferences, which are to assume increasing importance. Can the Minister assure me that the guidance given to regional planning conferences will ensure that they act in harmony with the regional economic strategies to be developed by the agency in co-operation with the elected regional chamber?

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Ellman

I am sorry, but, in view of the time constraints, I cannot.

Exciting regeneration is currently under way in Everton, a deprived part of my constituency—an area where there is much dereliction, male unemployment stands at 37.5 per cent., and 80 per cent. of pupils in the partnership area involved are eligible for free school meals. Hope university college is spearheading a multimillion pound investment, transforming the disused area of the listed St. Francis Xavier school and the site around it into a major centre for arts, drama and economic development, together with accommodation. Nearby, the private sector is converting the listed disused Collegiate school into flats for sale, and near there the Riverside housing association is converting a disused listed Georgian terrace into a mixed-use development—shops, offices and flats—for a combination of rent and shared ownership.

The result of all that activity is the provision of much-needed homes on brown-field sites, educational opportunities, jobs and an improved environment, giving hope to people currently living in an abandoned and largely derelict area. Achieving that development has been a complex task. A wide variety of funding sources have been called on—for example, English Partnerships, European funding, the Housing Corporation, the college and private sector funding.

Much has been achieved, but how much more could be achieved there and in similar areas if we had a comprehensive policy, with the mechanisms available for that policy to be used for inner-city regeneration? The steps that could be taken include reducing the 17.5 per cent. VAT on conversions, recognising the need to plan for and provide affordable housing, dealing with land assembly and contamination, recognising the new regional development agencies as an important resource for the locality, and harnessing public and private sector funding.

I see much that is encouraging in recent Government policy statements. The document "Fair deal for communities" and the report on a new approach to deprived neighbourhoods advocate joined-up thinking in situations of social breakdown. I am encouraged by the announcement of a new urban White Paper by the Secretary of State earlier this week, which shows that we are ready to adopt such thinking as part of mainstream policy. In that way we can meet housing need to its maximum on brown-field sites, regenerate the inner cities and build a new future for communities in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.

5.26 pm
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). Several other colleagues who have served with me on the Environment Committee over the past 18 months have spoken in the debate.

May I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who puts up with our personal foibles and our use of hyperbole on some occasions with remarkable good humour and tolerance? All members of the Committee are grateful to him for it. It must be a particularly difficult job to be the Darby to the formidable Joan supplied by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who is sorry that she cannot be in the Chamber today for the debate, but who approaches the issues that we discuss in the Select Committee with a refreshing robustness of mind.

That is reflected in the report, which goes to such great lengths to criticise—fairly heavily in some parts—what the Government have done. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich would be the first to acknowledge that she was ready to do so, were she in her place this afternoon.

The criticism in the report is slightly unusual, as most of our discussion tends to achieve virtual unanimity. The report was agreed unanimously by the Committee. Despite the cross-party banter that we have heard this afternoon, the issues that we are discussing are issues which we as a nation must examine, and are not essentially party political.

On the number of houses that we will require between now and 2016, I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who went to great lengths to rubbish—a rather unpleasant word—the figures. In Committee, I went to some length to try to find holes in the figures produced by my former colleagues, the excellent civil servants in the Department of the Environment, but no amount of effort on my part could produce an argument to show that 4.4 million was necessarily wrong. Indeed, I was horrified to discover that the likelihood was that the figure might even be higher than 4.4 million new households, based on the statistical projections which were being used. It is probably not all that sensible at the start of the debate to assert that the figures are wrong. They appear to be correct, as far as statistical projections can be correct.

A more interesting question is why there will be 4.4 million new houses. The answer, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, is primarily the breakdown of families, which is accelerating at such an alarming rate, and because children are tending to wish to leave home earlier than they did when I was a youngster. My experience was that one stayed at home until 21, as I did when I was at university; I stayed at home to begin with in Glasgow and thereafter moved to a bedsit for a number of years. I would never have contemplated having a flat or a house probably until I was well married and into my 30s. Indeed, I did not own any property until I was 35.

That frame of mind has perhaps changed. People nowadays tend to leave home much earlier and then to demand from the nation some form of accommodation at the age of 16. I do not believe that that is right. I do not necessarily believe that society should provide enough houses to accommodate all of the tragedies that come about as a result of family breakdown. If we were to restrict to a degree the availability of new housing in the places where people wanted to be, youngsters might be encouraged to stay at home for a little longer. That might even help some families to stay together which otherwise would fall to pieces, given the availability of somewhere else to go.

Leaving aside the number of houses that are required, we must make better use of the houses that are currently available. At April 1997, there were 767,000 empty homes in Britain, most of them in the private sector. Of that total, 81,000 were local authority homes, a large proportion being controlled by the Labour party, which must look to its own front gardens before it does anything else. There were 27,000 empty housing association homes and 19,000 empty homes belonging to other public sector bodies, mainly health authorities and the armed services.

Most of that accommodation—767,000 homes—is usable. The previous Government produced targets to reduce that total stock of usable empty housing by 3 per cent. per annum. I challenge the new Government, who are so proud of what they are doing in areas such as housing, to better the previous Government's targets. If they believe that they can do that, let us see them doing it. For example, what about 5 per cent? Perhaps they might start with some of their socialist friends. For example, my Labour-controlled local authority in Swindon has a significant number of empty homes. It is important that the Government look first to their own laurels.

In that context, is it not extraordinary that in Newcastle recently permission was given for 2,500 new houses to be built on green-field sites despite the fact that in the centre of the city 4,000 lettable properties were empty? Why do we not fill empty lettable properties in Newcastle first before we give planning permission for 2,500 homes to be built on the green belt surrounding the city?

Making better use of existing stock will not happen by chance. We can force local authorities, housing associations and private owners to make better use of existing stock only if we restrict the availability of new stock. If developers are constantly providing new stock in addition to the nation's current stock of housing, people will go to live in the new stock. If we say to developers, Look, you have a choice; you can either build on a green-field site or in the inner city", they will build on green-field sites. After all, it is so much cheaper and the homes will sell so much better.

People want—wrongly, I think—to live in suburban Britain on a green-field site. The only way in which we shall persuade developers to redevelop inner cities is physically to restrict the amount of green-field land that is available to them. As long as that land is available to them, they will use it. We must find ways of restricting much more heavily the use of green-field land that surrounds our cities.

In my constituency, there is a proposal—it has been put up by the socialist local authority in Swindon—for 17,500 new houses to be built on the land between Swindon and Wootton Bassett. However, the centre of Swindon—an old railway town—is entirely run down and a huge amount of redevelopment is necessary. People will go into the centre of the town if we say that the rural buffer zone that currently surrounds Swindon is as powerful as the green belt would be and developers may not build within it. I welcome the Government's response to rural buffer zones and other local designations. It would seem that the Government may move towards giving such zones and designations the same power in law as green belt land.

I issue a word of caution on brown-field land. It seems that there is a slight pre-supposition that all brown-field sites may be built upon. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) mentioned Ministry of Defence sites, and in my constituency I have several redundant Royal Air Force and Army sites. It would be wrong to build houses on those sites because they are green-field sites. They are in the middle of the countryside and there is no infrastructure attached to them. There are no shops, pubs, schools or roads. There is no nothing. They are, to all intents and purposes, green-field sites. The fact that they were used for something else should not be a presumption that they should be built upon.

The Government have not responded to the points made in the Select Committee's report about villages. At risk of being called a NIMBY, I shall refer to my village of Slaughterford in Wiltshire. It is a tiny hamlet within which there are 30 residents. It is proposed to build 14 executive-style homes in the village.

Mr. Caborn

It is amazing how we all live in these places.

Mr. Gray

The hon. Gentleman says that from a sedentary position. It is indeed amazing how we all live in these places, and I am delighted that I live in one. The Minister must come to visit me at Slaughterford. I shall try to lay on the best hospitality that I can when he does so. If the Minister comes to Slaughterford he will find a hamlet which has been untouched for 100 years. There are 30 people living in it. However, there is a proposal to build 14 executive-style homes at a cost of £600,000 each on a disused mill site in the village. Slaughterford has no roads save two miles of single track needed to get there. There is no public transport and there is no school, no pub and no shop. There is nothing at all. There are a few tiny properties and there is the proposal to build the new houses on the mill site.

The developers are using the Government's response to the Select Committee and their talk about brown-field sites as a possible excuse to build the new homes. I say that villages should be built on only when local people have the need of somewhere to live. I think particularly of the children of agricultural workers, who need to stay in the villages. They are local people and they need to live locally. That is fine. Let us have a little bit of infill. Against that background, £600,000-worth of executive-style homes in a remote Wiltshire hamlet ain't what the Government should be encouraging.

Other than that, I wholly endorse most of what the Government have said about their preference for brown-field sites. However, like most of my hon. Friends, I regret that the Government have been so timid in going for 60 per cent. They should have endorsed our target of 66 per cent. if possible. I have slight worries about how genuine the Government are being in their preference for brown-field sites. They give lip service in favour of these sites, but, at the same time, they allow building in Stevenage, West Sussex and Newcastle, and who knows where else. The decision to build 17,000 houses round Swindon will be an interesting touchstone for the Government's attitude towards new housing in country areas.

It seems that the Government have the right ideas. The report says that they probably have the right ideas—vague but nevertheless the right ideas. In the immortal words of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), they need to sharpen up their act and save our countryside from the bulldozer.

5.37 pm
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I thoroughly enjoyed the contribution by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears). Many of her comments apply almost equally to my constituency although perhaps to a lesser degree.

I welcome the Select Committee's report. The conclusions and recommendations are much in line with my own thinking. The statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the White Paper, which was produced earlier this year, are also to be welcomed, particularly the commitment to a 60 per cent. brown-field and 40 per cent. green-field future for housing land allocation. My anxiety is about how that policy is to be implemented. I am therefore pleased to note the recommendation in the Select Committee's report, which goes a long way to addressing the dilemma. I refer to the Select Committee's comment at the end of paragraph 245 on page xvii, which reads: We strongly agree with those witnesses who argued that there must be a restriction on the amount of greenfield land available for development if developers are ever to make full use of the brownfield land available. I could not agree more.

The Bradford unitary development plan, like others, makes far too much green-field land available. In a beautiful part of the Aire valley near Silsden in my constituency, it could allow 1,500 additional houses in green belt. The development would almost double the size of that mainly Victorian industrial village, remove for ever its character, urbanise yet further that green and pleasant part of our Aire valley, and leave schools, roads and other facilities unable to cope without massive injections of public money. The Silsden town action group, with support from me and the parish council, will oppose any detailed planning applications as they arise.

I want to touch on two other green-field sites in my constituency's part of Bradford's UDP. Manor Garth, which has always been regarded as common land in Addingham in the Wharfe valley, was designated in the UDP as village green space. Unfortunately, the owners saw a sizeable profit coming their way if it was zoned for housing. They appealed, and the Department's inspector under the previous Government agreed that their land should be available for housing. In the teeth of opposition from the parish council, the civic society, the local authority and me, there is a strong possibility that eventually, this much cherished field, which allows views of some interesting ancient buildings, will be lost for ever.

An almost identical situation prevails at Leeming, a hamlet close to the village of Oxenhope. Again, the landowner, on appeal to the inspector, was able to change a field from village green space to housing land and, at a stroke, enhance the potential size of his bank balance. I and Oxenhope village action group, the parish council and local councillors oppose any development on the site.

The UDP review is starting to roll again. I hope that my constituents will take a much more careful and critical view of it than they and their councillors took four and a half years ago. I also hope that the next plan will be under the guidance of the Department, which will be implementing the recommendations of the Select Committee report.

To show that all is not doom and gloom in my constituency on the planning and housing front, I shall mention a few minor triumphs. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing visited us during the recess and saw two schemes funded by the single regeneration budget. The one in Keighley town centre is now complete, with family homes available at affordable rents. The other is at Oakworth road, where Hillworth lodge, the old and much detested workhouse, will be converted and enhanced to form a mixture of maisonettes and houses for older people and families. Plans to create a living-over-the-shop scheme of apartments in the town centre are being explored. I hope that they will eventually take shape. Those schemes will help regenerate and enhance Keighley town centre and the quality of life of those living there. Unlike the three green-field developments that I mentioned earlier, they are made up of homes that local people on low incomes will be able to afford.

Many brown-field sites and unused buildings could be used for housing if there were incentives for developers to consider them instead of the rich pickings of green-field sites. Keighley has many former mills standing derelict, and there are the unused warehouses on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, which British Waterways is anxious to offload.

Nearer the centre of Bradford, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh), lie the historic Lister's Manningham mills, where once the finest velvets were manufactured. The Victoria and Albert museum had thought of moving its south-east Asia collection there, which would have been welcomed by the local community, but, alas, that will not happen. What better way to use the building than to create hundreds of well-designed flats at affordable rents? Such a development has taken place at Saltaire in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) in the old mending and burling shed of Salts mill, alongside imaginative conversions of other parts of Salts to health authority offices, a Hockney art gallery and various attractive shops. It is a well-thought out conversion and use of what was becoming another derelict mill.

There is so much that can be done to provide homes without losing vast areas of our countryside. Our Government are moving in the right direction. Where there is a political will, a practical way can usually be found. The report points us in the direction of that practical way. I congratulate the Committee on its thorough work and excellent ideas.

5.44 pm
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

The Committee has produced a report and made recommendations that ontribute significantly to the housing debate, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss them.

In Hampshire, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), and, perhaps, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) know, we are facing a nightmare scenario. According to regional planning guidance, we are threatened with 56,000 houses. More than 25 per cent.—15,000—are destined for Basingstoke. Borough officials tell me that 76 per cent. of those must be built on green-field sites because of the lack of brown-field sites in the town of Basingstoke.

There was an interesting variation of view between my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I agree that 4.4 million may be the best estimate. I, too, have spent some time studying the various statistics that make up that estimate. I, too, find puzzling points which I shall tell the House about and ask my hon. Friends to contemplate. One is that in the period considered, there is a phenomenal anticipated increase in the number of European Union citizens working in the United Kingdom. The figure rises to 850,000, which means that we will have immigration not equalled even at the height of West Indian immigration in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the estimate does not take into account UK citizens who go to work in other EU countries.

Another puzzling feature is the extraordinary slow-down assumed in the number of cohabiting non-married couples. We know from the census that in the 10 years before 1991, cohabiting unmarried couples increased from 2.9 to 6.4 per cent. of households, more than double, but for the 15 years covered by this estimate, the increase is only 0.3 per cent. It is very puzzling to think what social reason will lead to that extraordinary change. In those two respects, I believe that the estimate is likely to be suspect.

There is common ground on at least one aspect in this debate: priority must given to brown-field site development and urban regeneration. I regret that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) is not in his seat. He and I seldom agree. This time we do, and I regret that he is not at hand to share the moment. His evidence to the Committee was telling and was closely reflected in the speech by the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears). His testimony laid great emphasis on the urban dereliction in his constituency and he wrote of the imperative of creating penalties to deter green-field development and incentives to promote inner-city development.

I take seriously the warning by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire about green-field tax, but I believe that the Government should look positively on incentives to make inner cities habitable again. For that reason, I share the Committee's concern that Lord Rogers's task force should not be used as a means of causing delay. As the House-Builders Federation advocated in a helpful note that I received this morning, measures should be introduced long before we see Lord Rogers's report next year.

I regret that to date the Government have gone for a rather miserly proposed target of 60 per cent. of development taking place on brown-field sites, to be achieved over 10 years. I welcome the Committee's recommendations that the target should be at least 60 per cent., and should be applied during the coming round of regional planning guidance rather than over 10 years.

I noted with interest that the Committee said that there would be regional variations, and that in some regions brown-field development could be close to 100 per cent. but that in all regions it should be at least 40 per cent. If that became Government policy it would be good news for the people of north Hampshire. If borough officials are right in saying that brown-field sites to accommodate even 40 per cent. of the proposed development cannot be found, such a target would require either a significant lowering of the county's requirement for new housing, or a fundamental redistribution of new housing within the county. I suspect that even with that, 40 per cent. could not be achieved. The county council is right to urge the Government not to force the 56,000 houses on us but to look for a lower figure; 42,000, which is itself a considerable number, is the target it advocates.

I share the Committee's conclusion that most new homes should be built in suitable urban areas, that brown-field sites or converted buildings should be used, and that the provision of green-field sites for development must be severely restricted.

I shall throw out a word of caution about edge-of-town development. There are two dangers associated with it. West of Basingstoke there is an outline proposal to build 5,000 or so houses, and the provisional plans show an uneconomic use of land. It is imperative that if we go in for significant amounts of edge-of-town development, the land must be used economically. The example of Poundbury, with an accommodation density of 15 or 20 units per acre, shows that it is not necessary for excessive quantities of land to be used. That should be borne in mind when edge-of-town development is being considered.

The second danger associated with edge-of-town development is that people may be encouraged to think that it will not generate traffic. That is not so, and it will not be so in the north of Hampshire, in the greater M4—Thames corridor.

We have high employment, at least at the moment, and a highly skilled work force. High employment encourages job mobility, and people are prepared to drive 30 or even 50 miles to their places of work. If the current plans proceed, and about 15,000 houses are built around Basingstoke, it will be wrong to imagine that most of the people living in them will necessarily work in the town of Basingstoke. Traffic will be generated as they travel to their employment in various parts of the greater area.

I welcome the fact that the report has raised these issues, and I hope that the Government will reflect the Committee's recommendations in their policy decisions. I also hope that their wider response on housing and planning will extend to reversing damaging decisions that have already been made and giving unqualified protection to the green belt, and that they will commit themselves to a target of at least 60 per cent. for brown-field development.

5.54 pm
Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley)

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to have been called in this debate as well as in the previous debate on the future of the countryside. What characterised both debates, and the considerations of the Select Committee, was an increasing consensus among the political parties, the professionals giving evidence to the Committee, and even the Government in their response to the report, that the future protection of the countryside is intimately related to the protection of cities and towns. Urban renaissance depends on keeping the countryside as the countryside.

My only quibble with my right hon. and hon. Friends in government is over the speed at which things should happen. I know the north-west better than the areas that Opposition Members have talked about, so I shall use it as my example. At a stroke—I hate using that phrase, because of its political pedigree—one could, by announcing that there would be no future housing developments on green-field sites, give Manchester, Liverpool and the other towns in the north-west the biggest boost imaginable.

There is an alternative to an urban renaissance, and it is the urban dark ages. The future of our cities is on the cusp, on the edge, and immediate action is needed to make the developers who have invested their money in turnip fields and grass in the areas around our cities dedicate that money, and their creative resources, to the cities.

Fields are bought up by the big housing developers as land banks for programmes that will go on for 30 years. While those resources are tied up in the countryside, the developers are not bringing their ingenuity and their contributions into the cities. Eventually, if they are allowed to concrete over the countryside, they will severely damage it. We want what people who watch American football call a "hurry up" offence.

I associate myself with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears). My constituency is in almost exactly the same socio-economic category as Salford, and I would like to deal in detail with the mechanisms that lead to the problems in the terraced streets. If we understand those mechanisms, some solutions can be applied fairly quickly.

One of the housing facilities in my constituency is not voluntary; it is called Strangeways. It is possible for somebody to come out of Strangeways, collect his money and set up as a private landlord. He will buy a house in a terraced street and get somebody—preferably, from his point of view, an undesirable neighbour—to rent it.

The landlord will get a capital return on the house within two or three years, sometimes less. If he puts his anti-social friends in, he can drive property prices down so that eventually nobody wants to live on either side of the whole of a terraced street. Such people can drive the prices of houses that cost £30,000 or £35,000 in the late 1980s down to £3,000 or £4,000. They then buy up the street. Nobody wants to live there, but housing benefit pays for the people who do live there. The local authority then has the problem of compulsorily purchasing the houses at values three or four years out of date.

There must be a solution that stops public money being used to destroy parts of our inner cities. I do not believe that any other service comparable to the private rented sector is so completely deregulated. People can come out of prison and do what I have described. They are providing a service, and there is no recourse for tenants apart from the courts.

We need a body like the one that oversees housing associations to regulate landlords and stop undesirables, as we do with publicans. To sell us a pint of beer somebody has to be of good character, but anybody can make people's lives miserable by becoming a private landlord. We need regulation and bodies for people to go to that will stop all that.

I do not want to pretend that all private landlords are bad; they are not. However, there are some operating in my constituency and other constituencies in Manchester and Salford, such as Madina, who make real efforts to drive house prices down.

Adjacent to terraced houses in my constituency—which are becoming increasingly difficult to let and which need Government action—there are council houses which are also difficult to let for similar reasons. Manchester city council is considering a proposal to knock down an estate where, only three or four years ago, families were living happily, and some families had been there for 22 years, since the estate was built. What happened? About three years ago, a group of drug dealers got on to the estate, and all who could move out did so. The local authority is considering demolishing the whole lot. I hope that it reconsiders.

One of the reasons why the families moved out was that it took the local authority—which is good on these matters, and is better than many others—18 months to get the people out. There is no mandatory right for a local authority to get rid of the worst tenants, and we need a change in the law to provide that right. The proposals from the housing department in Manchester and from my colleagues when I was on the city council—to have provisional or probationary tenancies—have been unpopular in the housing world. We sponsored that idea for housing associations, and we want it for council tenants.

I never thought that I would stand up in this Chamber to ask for less security of tenure for council house tenants. However, in estates in my constituency and most other inner-city constituencies one will find that tenants want the security of having the ability to evict those people who make their lives miserable, either by selling drugs or by other forms of anti-social behaviour. We need to change the rules; that will make a big and immediate difference in the city.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and other hon. Members that cities are the future of this country. It will grow and thrive economically only if we make the cities work. If we neglect them, as we have done in the past, the whole economy and the whole of our society will fall into decline. We have to start, and there are things that we can do immediately. I hope that my Front-Bench colleagues will take action as soon as possible.

6.1 pm

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

I was privileged to serve on the Committee and I pay tribute to the Chairman, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), and other colleagues with whom I worked. This is an important report which I hope receives better coverage in the media. The report is about an absolutely crucial subject to all of us and, as many have commented, the view reached was largely bipartisan. I do not think that this is fundamentally a party political issue.

I wish to refer to some issues which, perhaps, were not greatly focused on in the report. The first is the rather crude macro-point that putting one third of all new housing and further economic concentration in the south-east is not acceptable in the long term. However, anyone who takes that view must accept that the market must be allowed to operate to some extent to make it more attractive for business to go elsewhere. Simply, if we restrict supply, house prices will rise, and that will have an economic impetus in terms of what companies do and where they locate. As the Committee Chairman pointed out, there is a lot of trying to have one's cake and eat it. Local authorities want economic development, but not the housing. The other side of that is that one must allow the market to operate if we are not to restrict supply.

I am in the camp that is somewhat sceptical about the numbers. We are talking about a long time ahead to be predicting. The figures are trend-based, and who is to say that trends will stay the same? There are many other areas of activity where trends have changed dramatically. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) referred to the growth in cohabiting and the assumptions of massive net immigration to this country. Some 80 per cent. of the growth is projected to be made up of single-person households. However, a recent important survey of young people showed that 84 per cent of 20-year-olds want to get married and have a normal family unit. If anything, they were reacting against some recent trends.

The Government are laying down the figures too much—it is all slightly "1984". It is convenient for bureaucrats and developers to have plenty of scope—say, five years forward—to organise. I believe that supply is, to an extent, creating demand. It is interesting that the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) made that point in referring to the destruction of the value and usage of perfectly good traditional terraced houses.

I hope that we are not changing the buzz words from "predict and provide" to "plan, manage and monitor". I welcome the White Paper, but I have seen nothing that amounts to a fundamental change. We are still playing the old game of "predict a number" 20 years forward. We will need more flexible management of the numbers if we are to fine-tune the system.

I had a long conversation with the executive of Redland who is responsible for the company's derelict land. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of urban land for redevelopment. The company wants to sell the land, but there is a planning nightmare because it is still a zone for industrial usage. Many authorities do not have their structural plans in place, and there is a five-year agony in trying to get planning permission. The system needs a bomb under it. There is masses of such land and there are willing sellers. However, many of the inefficiencies of the planning process stand in the way of getting the land used.

In my constituency in West Sussex, we suffer from the green belt—it restricts building, as it were, in Surrey and tips it over the border into West Sussex. There is a pull-push between the two counties. One might suggest that, for larger cities in the south, the answer could be to extend the radius of the green belt from 35 miles to 80 miles. At present, we have had an explosion of far-distant dormitory rural suburbia—almost the worst possible result for the future.

Architecture is terribly important, and Poundbury has been cited. The report was critical of new settlements, but if one goes to Bath, one cannot criticise a "new settlement" which was built 200 years ago. How is it that, 200 years later, we are not capable of building a beautiful, substantial new city? Surely we must be able to do that. Design and architecture matters should not completely rule out new settlements.

In my part of the world, there is an extremely competent county council—both its civil servants and its political representatives—and I am extremely sceptical and concerned lest power move even further from the county councils and cities with which people identify to regional development agencies and Government regional offices.

I do not believe that the Deputy Prime Minister really intended to approve those extra houses for West Sussex. I believe that the Government office for the south-east took the decision because it was concerned that it would set a dangerous precedent for other counties. I suspect that the Deputy Prime Minister may not have been fully aware of all the implications when he gave his approval. I make a plea to the Government to try to find a face-saving way of reviewing the decision. The Government know that the courts rejected the judicial review on a matter of law concerning the Government's power, not on whether it was a good decision.

The report found six important territories contravening the decision. It rightly recommends that a detailed environmental sustainability appraisal should be at he centre of planning policy before starting. West Sussex has been a pioneer of that, as we know. One has to have proper consideration, consultation and examination in public to support the structural plan, with full cross-examination. West Sussex was the only authority to do that.

The report calls on central Government to support local authorities and not to undermine them in restricting development on green-field sites. West Sussex has moved from 60 per cent. brown to 60 per cent. green, on the increase in the figures—an area that has already more than doubled its population in the past 25 years. Also, West Sussex has a huge water supply problem. In the summer, we have water rationing and water levels are sinking, with many lakes drying up. Long term, there is no evidence that we will have sufficient water.

The report cites the bottom-up approach. As the Minister knows, 45,000 people in West Sussex have signed four or five petitions—people of all political parties. Is not that approach in line with getting the in-depth views of the community?

Finally, on travel, what is known as the Cinderella line runs down to Arundel, and long may it so remain as it has preserved the southern half of West Sussex from being a commuter area. Only in the east of the area do we have such a travel facility.

Let us forget the party politics. I ask the Government to find a discreet way to review the decision. We do not want pious words and good intentions. Let us really try to make it happen.

The report highlights six key issues. As the Chairman of the Select Committee pointed out, there is an urgent need for intermediate Government guidance on the redemption of contaminated land. I happen to know of some land in Somerset that was banned because it was contaminated, even though the metal found was in fact from the Stone age.

Another issue is the importance of getting a move on and implementing the 60 per cent. target now rather than over 10 years. Let us copy the French and get a move on to redefine conversions for value added tax. It cannot be that difficult. Let us also allow local authorities' structural plans to restrict migrants. Finally, there is no need to be in a hurry ahead of Lord Rogers' report. Those are the key issues on which we should get a move on, and they have cross-party support.

6.11 pm
Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

We are discussing one of the most crucial issues to confront Members of Parliament. I feel sorry for the Minister in some ways when I consider what we are trying to do. We have to regenerate our cities and stop the degeneration that is taking place. We must protect our green fields and countryside. However, at the same time we must meet housing need. Looked at in that way, it is a challenging task.

Alongside that task, policies on transport, crime prevention, public service provision, the environment in general and employment must be developed. That is the nature of the task and without such associated policies the urban regeneration that we want simply will not take place. It cannot take place in a vacuum—the Select Committee Report, which is good, made that important point.

The report builds on the guidelines in the Government's paper, "Planning for the Communities of the Future", recognising that new policies are necessary. The Government recently published their response to the Select Committee report, which demonstrates that they are not static, but are responding to the arguments with fresh thinking and a willingness to move forward. The new policies, when fully in place, will represent a truly radical change in planning—I think of that famous phrase, "joined-up policies"—and will be a tribute to the Government.

However, as the Minister knows, the transition from one set of planning policies to another is the problem and it is causing many of us to receive a significant number of letters in our post bags. The Minister knows Nottinghamshire well and I thank him for coming there to talk to local authorities and Members of Parliament about our problems. Our structure plan dates back to 1996 and was agreed according to the policies of the past. Having been allocated housing figures, the districts are busy identifying land to meet them.

Gedling borough council is running a public consultation exercise to explain the process, but people in such areas as New Farm and Stockings Farm in Redhill are concerned that inappropriate development on green-field sites will take place despite the changed approach reflected in the Select Committee report and the Government's new policies. My constituents often tell me that they hear that policies have changed nationally, but that the change is not having the impact that they want locally. In fact, some of the old policies and guidelines are still being used, which makes little sense to them—or sometimes to me, either.

The Minister has responded to such concern by telling Nottinghamshire local authorities that they can reallocate some of the housing between themselves if they can reach agreement; I thank him for doing so. However, it is difficult for them because the new policies are not in place. For example, Nottingham city council wants to build new houses, reclaim derelict land, convert offices and old factories to housing, use space above shops and so forth, as I am sure councils in Manchester, Glasgow and all our other cities wish to do. Under the existing financial regime, that is difficult. There must be changes in taxation so that we can regenerate Nottingham and our other cities and, at the same time, protect green-field sites where appropriate. Furthermore, in Nottinghamshire the changes that we need in taxation and grant policies have a bearing on some of the old coalfield and industrial areas. Without the changes, 4.4 million five-bedroom houses will be built to meet the need for 4.4 million households; and houses that would meet people's needs in city areas will not be built.

The Select Committee report draws attention, at page 83—it is actually written in roman numerals and I had to look it up to ensure that I did not make an idiot of myself—paragraph 278 to the fact that the Department has always wanted to ensure that sufficient land is available at all times at the expense of so many of its other policies, for example on sustainable development, transport, the environment and the use of recycled land. The Select Committee and the Government are saying that we need a phased release of land to ensure that an adequate amount of brown-field and, where appropriate, green-field land is available. Sequential planning is crucial to ensure that the brown-field sites are developed first and that developers do not take the easy option of using green-field sites—that is what they will do if we leave it to them.

The central problem, particularly in Gedling and in Nottinghamshire in general, is speed, which is of the essence. While I understand the difficulties of moving from one set of policies to another, we are in the transitional phase and the old policies seem to be grinding on. Paragraph 270 of the Select Committee report states: There is no need to hurry into granting planning permission for greenfield development before Lord Rogers' Task Force has reported on the scope for using recycled land before PPG3 and PPG13 have been revised and before the implications of the Integrated Transport White Paper are taken into account. All those matters are crucial if we are to meet our policy objectives.

I know that the Minister is doing all he can and that he is aware of the problems. Our policies are changing and moving forward. As I said, we must ensure that all the joined-up policies are working together. In some ways, it does not matter who is in government—this is a difficult issue. However, we have a new Government bringing in new thinking and new policies to meet the challenge. If that challenge is met, our cities will be regenerated, our green-field sites will be protected, and there will have been a truly radical change on which the Government can look back with pride.

6.19 pm
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I do not want to rehearse what has been said, but I shall add one or two points. The report is extremely valuable and the debate is timely. The question is not so much the number of new homes—we have yet to find out how far future trends will be a reflection of the past—as what, in planning terms, a bottom-up approach means in practice.

On the old predict-and-provide approach, there would be 71,000 additional commitments in Cambridgeshire, but only 25 to 30 per cent. of that number can be provided by using recycled land and windfall opportunities. If the minimum commitment is 40 per cent., we shall not, on the example of Cambridgeshire, be able to build 4.4 million new homes.

On the bottom-up approach, South Cambridgeshire district council rightly responded to the draft regional planning guidance by undertaking an environmental capacity study, which considered those matters mentioned in the report—environmental sustainability, transport infrastructure, water resources and the infrastructure of public services. It makes little sense to propose, over the 20 years from 1995, a 40 per cent. increase in the number of new homes in a district that is already the fastest growing in the country. A bottom-up approach is not only about who makes the decisions, although that is important, but about the method by which one arrives at the numbers and decides where the new houses should be built.

Even if there were nil growth in the area and no net migration, the affordable housing proposals would give rise to 13,000 extra commitments. If we constrain supply, we must find a more consistent way in which to sustain affordable housing so that local people are not driven out. What is the point of social housing if not to reinforce people's opportunities to stay in their familiar community structures?

I am unhappy at the thought that the green belt should be pushed further out to prevent the creation of dormitory communities. In my area, the green belt exists not only to protect the rural villages outside Cambridge; it protects the city itself. If the green belt is pushed out as a result of new building on its inner edge, the historic city centre will be destroyed. The Committee's recommendation that we should focus on building in urban areas does not always apply. For example, Cambridge's historic characteristics would be destroyed if we were to allow urban sprawl or excessive urban density.

We must consider other mechanisms, which will vary from place to place. In Cambridgeshire and parts of East Anglia, we may have to look constructively at the role of market towns. Where development is proposed, we shall have to consider the public transport options.

I am concerned about the decision-making mechanisms, despite the Government's talk about decentralisation and taking decisions closer to the people. The draft regional planning guidance from the Standing Conference of East Anglian Local Authorities will be put forward for public examination in February—it will be the first such public examination. However, as we shall not have the new draft PPG3—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—what is the point of the public examination? How can we know how the new tests are to be applied?

I do not agree with everything in SCEALA's draft guidance, but it is better that such documents should be agreed by locally elected representatives than be comprehensively second-guessed by independent panels. We may know who is on the panel, but what is the rationale behind having a panel that overturns the decisions of locally elected representatives only to hand back its structure plan to the county council that did not subscribe to it in the first place?

We must apply the bottom-up approach to ensure that local democracy generates the answers and that factors other than predict and provide are taken into account. We must take on board all the integral factors to find out how many new homes can be accommodated without destroying the environment of the area for which the planning was intended to provide a solution.

6.25 pm
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

I fail to recognise the green-crusader credentials of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). I remember desperately attempting, as a local authority leader during most of the time in which the Conservatives were in government, to combat out-of-town shopping developments, only to find that the then Secretary of State for the Environment was giving out planning permission like confetti, with the results that we see today. I hope that the Conservative party has changed its tune, but I fear that, in the long term, it has not.

I also failed to recognise Conservative Members' descriptions of the report as an attack on the Government. The report strongly supports much of what the Government are doing. Indeed, I was delighted at the Government's response, which endorsed and took further much of what the Committee said.

The projection of 4.4 million extra households between 1991–2016 is robust. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) confirmed, members of the Committee looked up to the figures—they may not be entirely accurate and there may have to be changes, but, essentially, we believe that they are robust. When the Government said that they wanted to end predict and provide, the response from some quarters was that the 4.4 million figure was no longer important and that people could do their own thing regardless of any overall effect on housing need. That response was misplaced.

Our understanding of how the figures work has changed—for example, we know that windfall sites are much more important than was thought. Nevertheless, it is important that figures on future housing need retain some shape; if they do not, we shall all live to regret it.

The 4.4 million houses should, ideally, be built on brown-field land—the Government's target is that 60 per cent. should be built on recycled land. In the early 1990s, 30 per cent. of completions on brown-field sites were outside urban areas, so we must be wary of the figures—brown field is not simply, as the Government know, an alternative to green field. We should add another dimension to the concept and specify that the brown field is urban—we should be looking at brown field sites in urban areas. As we have heard, there is a case for different targets in different parts of the country.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Whitehead

I am sorry, but, because of the lack of time, I will not give way.

What do we mean by urban? A local authority boundary does not determine what is urban. The real footprint of a city is often outside its local authority boundaries. Local authorities must collaborate in deciding how housing should be placed in urban areas. People cannot point to a city centre and say that that local authority should build all the houses. It needs collaboration between authorities and I regret that, in certain parts of the country, that collaboration on decision making does not seem to be present.

On social housing, our report mentions our concern that there appears to be a considerable gap between likely provision and likely need. I am disappointed by the Government's response to the issue of social housing. We shall not be able to build new social housing by relying only on the private sector and private letting, or by relying on planning gain or local authorities overwhelmingly putting money into keeping their housing stock going—important though that is. We need more social housing to be built and we need an accurate understanding of the figures in order to understand how the Housing Corporation can be funded and how local authorities can respond.

I know that the Government are currently reworking the research figures. I ask them to ensure that those figures are produced shortly so that we have an accurate fix on what we need for social housing. It needs to be dealt with urgently. If we get the figures wrong, the people involved cannot just go somewhere else in the market; they will have nowhere to live. We all have a responsibility to get that part of the equation right, together with all the other parts.

6.30 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Even if the Select Committee regarded the Government's paper as being somewhat vague, nobody could accuse the Committee of having produced a vague report. I believe that both sides of the House feel that the Committee has produced a comprehensive and interesting report with a number of thought-provoking ideas.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), I am extremely concerned about the implications for Hampshire of the dispute between the county's view, which proposes 42,000 houses as the requirement to meet the county's domestic need, and the belief of the unitary authorities in Portsmouth and Southampton that 56,000 houses, as proposed by the Government, are necessary to meet the needs of incomers as well as the county's domestic requirements. I understand that there is to be a meeting with the Secretary of State next week. I hope that he will be able to resolve the matter so that we can get on with it. It is clear that it would be much better for Hampshire if any proposed new planning policies could be introduced quickly. If they are not, the loss of green-field sites will continue and the resulting chaos will be regretted in the rural areas of Hampshire that are currently under threat. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

The report talks about the concept of environmental capacity. I understand that the Government are reasonably receptive to that concept, but there is no real guidance on what that means and how it can be applied. We have to consider whether we can regard an area as being full up. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Mrs. Butler) mentioned the pressures in her area. All of us in the south-east are subject to enormous pressure. There will come a time when we have to decide whether an area is full up.

The recent experience of West Sussex is not very inspiring in that respect. The county council lost its judicial review in the High Court because the Secretary of State has discretionary powers. Although the county council had prepared an environmental capacity study, the Secretary of State said that it was flawed. How do we know that it was flawed? The county also claimed that further housing growth would seriously jeopardise its rural environment, and designated areas received much sympathy from the presiding judge. However, he held that the law was on the side of the Secretary of State and that he could do nothing to help. The county has had to appeal to the House of Lords.

The time has come when we have to decide that an area is full and that its services and environment cannot take any further expansion. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) that this is a case where the market really can apply. If prices rise to a sufficient level, people will be forced to go elsewhere. That will be of benefit to other parts of the country, that are looking for economic and social development, which will not happen if we continue to concrete over the whole of the south-east and those areas that are currently under pressure. If that were to happen, the point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer)—he made some interesting comments about the inner cities—would be met as well. The inner cities would become much more attractive because the developers would not be able to place their money anywhere else and the cities would become somewhere to invest and make a useful return.

That brings me to an important point that the Committee made in paragraph 246. It said that local authorities should also adopt a helpful and imaginative approach to proposals for urban developments, particularly in respect of their density, layout and the number of car parking spaces they require. I endorse that strongly. Rushmoor borough council in Aldershot has done a tremendous job and put that into practice already. A big site by the railway station could have been used for a supermarket, but, instead, 200 flats and houses were built there. The number of car parks allocated for those units was half that applied elsewhere. That is one practical suggestion from the Committee that is being put into practice and which should be put into practice elsewhere in the country.

6.36 pm
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Given the shortage of time, I shall be brief. I congratulate the Select Committee on taking on such a challenging topic and producing such a comprehensive report. Despite what the Opposition spokesman said, I believe that the Government produced a full response, which follows on from the White Paper by explaining how Government policy will take things forward.

I want to talk about housing numbers. Some of us on the Labour Benches continue to challenge the numbers, but we realise that there are problems in so doing. We would like to see the Government's proposal for a six-stage scheme as an alternative to the trend-based forecast put into play as soon as possible. It gives an alternative a chance and gives people who want to see bottom-up planning some confidence that alternatives can be put in place.

There are some people who believe that circular projections—the self-fulfilling prophesy that people will move into the houses that are being built—cannot be tracked nationally, but they can operate locally. I support the emphasis on a regional approach. We have not yet seen the competence of real regional emphasis. There will be a need to provide proper guidance and the proper level of support for that to operate effectively.

The Select Committee report makes much of the difference of opinion between those who see the problem as being one of too much housing land and those who think that there is too little. That is simply due to a dysfunction in the provision of housing. We cannot pretend that there is much in common between the market for housing and the provision of affordable and, more particularly, social housing. We must face up to those problems. They are not two sides of the same problem.

I now want to deal with phasing sequential planning and brown-field development. I urge the Government to be a little braver. Rather than saying that they are just looking at the ending of a five-year land supply, they should accept that there are considerable merits in protecting green-field sites and forcing the sequential principle forward.

There is much that we can do to look at alternative places to build in rural Britain. The "Planning and Affordable Housing" document does not get much publicity, but I am pleased to see it. It ends the threshold, which means that in small village communities, social housing can be provided as part of the overall number of houses. We no longer have to have a minimum of 20 or 25 houses before insisting on a developer taking some interest.

Economic measures are important. The proposal for a green-field levy is worth investigating and testing properly and I was interested to note that a report by the Civic Trust suggested that the concept had merit. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, hypothecation could allow urban regeneration and, at the same time, we could deal with council tax anomalies, not least of which is the second home problem. Although Members of Parliament gain from the current position, it has an appalling effect on many rural areas. We have had a good debate and the issues have been well aired. The report is timely and I commend the Government on their response to it.

6.40 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is my neighbour in Gloucestershire. I endorse his comments about predictions of the number of houses that will be required, because I also have doubts about them. Trends change, including the divorce rate, the number of people living alone, the age at which young people leave home and other factors affecting mobility, which makes the figure questionable to say the least.

To address the need for houses is to ignore the need to protect the countryside. I am as aware as anybody of the need to provide homes for people, because, before I entered the House, I carried out a large project for the homeless. They were homeless not because they could not find homes to buy, but for other social reasons. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) said, if we continue to build at the current rate, the countryside will fill up. When that happens, will we then try to provide homes in a more sustainable manner? If so, why not address the problem now?

The word "sustainability" is over-used and under-obeyed, but the Government should interpret it to mean providing for the needs of today's generation without prejudicing or compromising the needs of future generations. To protect future generations, we must take a radical approach now and not merely pay lip service to sustainability. Destroying the countryside—and creating increased traffic and social problems—while ignoring the needs of inner cities and town centres, is not sustainable.

The pressure to build more and more houses causes many problems in Tewkesbury, which has been forced to accommodate far more than its fair share of housing recently. That has led to the destruction of several attractive villages. Part of the reason is the difficulty that some districts have in providing brown-field sites. Pressure to build in Tewkesbury has led to land that had been declared unsuitable being reconsidered. For example, people's allotments and green-field sites have been built on, and other land, which if built on would lead to villages coalescing, is now being considered for the same fate. I endorse the comments made by the Council for the Protection of Rural England that the local environment must be taken into account when building in rural areas. Sustainability means developing brown-field sites and derelict sites and empty and old buildings, not destroying the countryside and ruining lives.

I do not wish to be party political, but I believe that the Government's policy is inadequate. The Government adopted the previous Government's projected figure, but they did not need to do so. The Government have set up regional agencies without giving them the full responsibility to protect the environment and have also set a worryingly low target for building on brown-field sites. Regardless of party politics, the planning of the building of new houses needs a radical rethink if it is to be sustainable.

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

I congratulate members of the Select Committee on their useful and timely report. I am delighted that the Government are able to agree with many of the Committee's conclusions; that is reflected in our response to the report. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), the Chairman of the Committee. As the former Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee, I know how difficult it can be to obtain unanimity—I say that from experience and with some bruises—but only unanimous reports carry real weight. This report is unanimous, and must be taken seriously.

The underlying message from the Committee is clear: we must face the fact that people must have an opportunity to live in decent homes. Not before time, we have a growing cross-party consensus on how to plan future house building in a sustainable way that drives the urban renaissance agenda. A clear consensus on that has emerged tonight.

It is not a matter of green-field versus brown-field sites, urban versus rural or country versus town. The Government's response makes it clear that we must rise above NIMBYism, although some hon. Members have tried to draw the drawbridge up tonight to protect their villages. The contribution by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) for the official Opposition did not show much consensus, and there were a couple of other exceptions, but I hope that we can take the political opportunity to stop urban decay and the urban flight. If we can do so, we can solve many of the problems that have been highlighted tonight.

Mr. Flight

The rural flight.

Mr. Caborn

No, I mean the urban flight to rural areas. The hon. Gentleman should think about the situation.

The Government accept the key recommendation by the Select Committee, that we should publish an urban White Paper. We share the view that, by revitalising and regenerating our towns and cities, and creating an urban renaissance, we will take the pressure off the countryside and bridge the housing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The household projection figures have been one of the main topics of discussion tonight. The Committee last looked at the issue in 1995–96, when it broadly accepted the methodology, and I welcome the fact that the confidence in it has been reaffirmed. I hope that we can put to bed for good the fruitless arguments about the figures. The Government have tried to be as helpful as possible about the next set of projections. The Committee recommended that the Government publish with the next national household projections an analysis which shows the effect of small changes in the assumptions underlying the projections. In response, the Government state: The Department notes the recommendation and will publish suitable sensitivity analyses alongside the next set of household projections. It is in everybody's interest to ensure that the figures are understood, and the analysis accepted.

I welcome the Committee's support for our national land recycling target of 60 per cent. I do not know where some hon. Members have been for the past 18 years, but if we hit 60 per cent., it will be 10 per cent. better than the Conservatives did in their 18 years. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman has attacked us, although we have been in government for 18 months, but the analysis of brown-field utilisation that we shall publish in a few days' time will prove acceptable.

We accept that there is more to be done. We intend that the regions should establish their own targets through regional planning guidance. I expect them to engage in that process with some urgency. I agree with much of what has been said. That problem will be resolved not in Whitehall, but in the regions and local towns.

The Government are trying to introduce innovatory ideas. The millennium village is on a contaminated site at Greenwich, and my hon. Friend the Minister for London and Construction tells me that that site received an award last night for the decontamination work done there. We are looking into the problems left at Allerton Bywater by the rundown of the mining industry. We are trying to increase the size of that village to give it some economy of scale. We want to resolve the problem without people having to move out. We are trying, in innovative ways, to bring brown fields back into use and to introduce better planning. We will genuinely try to hit the 60 per cent. target.

I welcome the Committee's support for our approach to the provision of regional housing. The regional planning conferences have an essential role to play. We intend to set out a timetable for production of regional planning guidance, and we expect the regions to stick to it and to produce responsible and realistic plans for accommodating housing requirements in their areas. There must be certainty. Everyone says that certainty is needed in the planning regime. Central to that certainty will be having everyone in the planning system adhering to the timetables that we shall evolve after consultation with the parties involved.

We are keen to maintain momentum towards decentralisation of power. As the Committee's report stresses, power comes with responsibility. We genuinely want to devolve powers to the regions so that we can have a bottom-up process. The same is true of local plans. We must respond to the challenges to the Government and to society.

Let me turn to the way forward. Our policy statement last February made it clear that our first choice for new development is that it should be on previously developed land, preferably in urban areas. That sequential approach is long overdue, and we want authorities to explore options fully before they propose urban extensions or the release of other green-field sites. That will be covered more extensively by the revised PPG3.

The Select Committee rightly posed more detailed questions about how we will deliver. Let me fill in some of the gaps. As our response to the Committee makes clear, we have embarked already on an extensive programme of policy initiatives, as set out in "Planning for the Communities of the Future" and "Modernising Planning".

The urban task force, under the guidance of Lord Rogers, is examining the difficulties of redeveloping our urban areas, which have been graphically described, particularly from my side of the House. The task force contains a broad range of expertise drawn from all the professions involved in the debate, from developers to environmentalists. We look forward to receiving Lord Rogers's report in the first half of next year, but he has made it clear this week that he will produce an interim report at the turn of the year.

Work on compiling the national land use database—the equivalent of a Domesday register for the 21st century—is already well under way. The initial results are due next March. It is gathering on-line data about every previously developed site in the country, and I assure the House that that is no mean feat. We will soon know how many previously developed sites there are, and we shall be able to keep that information up to date. Rather than speculate about the ability to reuse brown-field land, we shall shortly have factual information to inform our land recycling policy.

We have a full programme of revision for planning policy guidance. Our response to the Select Committee refers a number of times to the updating of the guidance note on housing, known as PPG3. We are grateful for the Committee's proposals on that document, and we shall factor them into our considerations. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) will be the first to have a public examination. I intend to produce PPG3 before that, hopefully by the turn of the year. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will appear at the public examination, and I will ensure that he has the revised PPG3 in his hands.

We are working on other planning guidance, such as the notes on transport, spatial planning and regional planning. We are also working on issues such as compulsory purchase and the use of economic instruments. We need a comprehensive approach, so that we can answer serious structural weaknesses in this part of society.

It has been made clear this evening that we need an holistic approach to urban housing policy. The problems will not be solved through the planning process alone. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was able to announce on Tuesday that the Government have accepted the Select Committee's recommendation to publish an urban White Paper. We expect to do so next year.

It is 20 years since there was an urban White Paper. My right hon. Friend remembers it well, because he was parliamentary private secretary to the then Secretary of State, Peter Shore—now Lord Shore—and he was deeply involved in that paper. Regrettably, the Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s failed to advance many of the ideas that flowed from the White Paper.

Debates on Select Committee reports must be kept above party politics, but we have heard a little hypocrisy in the debate. Lord Tebbit used to say, "Get on your bike, come to the south-east and go to where the jobs are." People came, but now the Conservatives complain because we have to house them. Lord Tebbit has not spoken tonight, but he spoke volumes years ago, and we are grappling with the problems he left us. The overheating of the south-east arises from the type of economic policies pursued by previous Administrations.

The Labour Government have a new vision for a new set of urban issues. We seek thriving communities that provide jobs and provide homes that are attractive and pleasant to live in. We are determined to drive an urban renaissance. We are determined to turn our cities back into places where people want to work, live and play. The urban White Paper will link key strands of Government vision for an urban renaissance. It will embrace our programmes for education, employment, health, housing, the problem of social exclusion and transport. It will be the most comprehensive and far-sighted programme of urban renewal since our last White Paper in the 1970s.

It has always been Labour Governments who have addressed the real problems of land use planning. It is 50 years since a Labour Government put the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 on to the statute book. It was a Labour Government who introduced the national parks. It was a Labour Government who introduced the green belt. All that the previous Administration did was to take concrete mixers to build out-of-town shopping centres, and allow more development on green belt and green-field sites than any other Administration ever allowed.

I welcome the report.

6.57 pm
Mr. Bennett

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Traditionally, at the end of debates such as this, the Chairman of the Select Committee responds to fill up a bit of time. However, there is virtually no time left over, so I will just thank the Minister for his responses, both in writing and at the Dispatch Box.

I thank, too, all those who participated in the debate, particularly those hon. Members who did not serve on the Committee. Too often, debates on Select Committee reports involve the members of the Committee talking about their own report. It was refreshing to hear that so many other hon. Members had taken the trouble to read the report and to participate. I regret that there was not enough time to allow everyone to speak who wanted to.