HC Deb 10 March 1999 vol 327 cc300-24

11 am

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter that is of great importance, especially to my hon. Friends, although there do not appear to be many Labour Members present. I can see the odd Liberal.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steen

I have not yet started and there is no way that I will give way to the hon. Gentleman now. If he sits still for half an hour, I shall give way to him.

Last December, I was fortunate enough to obtain a half-hour Adjournment debate on the housing projections and the 4.4 million new units that will have to be built by 2011. The Minister explained that the whole thrust of the previous Government's policy of predict and provide was to be replaced by a new and radical planning model, based on the principle of plan and manage—the new buzz words. I have been fortunate enough to obtain an hour and a half debate some three months later and the same Minister is here to reply on behalf of the Government.

I do not know why the Government wheel in their Jeremiahs on such occasions. On 9 December, instead of making an optimistic and constructive contribution, the Minister said that it was all too late, and that new Labour's new solutions would not come into play until the 4.4 million homes in the 1991 housing projections had been built. That is probably why he has been wheeled in by the Government. His sole role is to say, "Too bad. All those houses will have to be built. We will build them in the towns and in the villages. We will build them all over the countryside, wherever we can squeeze them in." That is probably why the Minister is before us today, and he will probably say the same thing again. I hope not.

The Government have been assisted by the Liberal Democrats on Devon county council who have just approved the Devon county structure plan, which gives the go-ahead for the building of 70,000 new housing units for the county between 1995 and 2011. If that plan is carried out, 90,000 new housing units in total will have to be built in one of the most beautiful counties in Britain. That will increase the population from 1 million to nearly 1.25 million, or by some 20 per cent. On 15 December, the Herald Express, the local newspaper in Torbay, claimed that the number of people living in Torbay is set to rise to 133,600 by 2021, an increase of more than 10,000. I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) is in his place, as one would expect, because the paper also pointed out that the population of Teignbridge is expected to expand from 116,700 in 1996 to 135,000 in 2021, an increase of 15.6 per cent. South Hams, a large chunk of which is in my constituency, faces a 17.2 per cent. increase, rising from 79,300 to 93,000. It is not surprising that the population of Devon will increase to 1.25 million. We are talking not about redistribution of the existing population but about a net increase.

Formal approval of the county structure plan and the Secretary of State's confirmation of the figures means that it will be difficult to change them. However, it is not too late to decide where the houses will go and at what speed they will be built. That is why the Government's plan and manage policy is critical. If it were applied, it would ensure that priority was given to building on brown-field sites. As things stand, there is little planning policy guidance and no attempt to ensure that developers are directed to build first in urban areas.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

The logic of my hon. Friend's point is that, if the Government are content to say that the previous basis for planning was wrong and that plan and manage is the way forward, they cannot refuse to impose their policy change on the present figures. The Government can take one position or the other, but the current situation is untenable.

Mr. Steen

I hope that the Minister heard that point, because he was engaged in a conversation. If he does not answer that point when he winds up, I hope that my hon. Friend will remind him of it.

As matters stand, the 4.4 million homes will be built under the housing projection. The structure plans have been completed in Devon, and the district councils now have to formulate local plans for the placement of those houses, paying regard to environmental sustainability— again, the new buzz words. I am glad that a few Liberal Democrats are present, because those are their buzz words, albeit they mean as little in reality as new Labour's buzz words, plan and manage.

The Government have a 60 per cent. brown-field recycling target. We accept that figure, although we would increase it slightly. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said that if we were in office, the figure would be nearer 65 per cent.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Would my hon. Friend care to comment on the fact that the term "brown-field" can mean different things to different people? As the Minister is well aware, the Labour council in the borough of Trafford is seeking to build houses on playing fields, which count as brown-field sites for the Government's purposes.

Mr. Steen

That is news to me, and I hope that it is news to the Minister. I hope that he will ensure that the council does not build houses on playing fields, but I fear that he will squeeze them wherever he can fit them in, including on playing fields. I hope that he will deny that and issue a PPG note on the issue. I am prepared to give way to him now if he would like to deal with that point.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

Following the convention of our Wednesday morning debates, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman focuses intelligently on the issues, instead of bandying abuse across the Chamber, which does not ensure a sensible debate on serious issues about how genuine housing need is met in a way that is sustainable and does not damage the countryside.

Mr. Steen

I would not have given way if I had known what the Minister was going to say. It was very unhelpful. I wanted him to deal with playing fields, but he clearly does not wish to do so yet.

The Government's 60 per cent. brown-field target is an admission of the fact that building in the countryside cannot continue at the rate that it has in the past. The aim is to recycle vacant, derelict, dormant, unused and brown-field land in our cities. That is nothing new, however: it was the aim from the 1970s onwards. In the 1980s, the Conservative Government set up a register of dormant, derelict, vacant, unused and under-utilised public land. I was much involved with that register and with what should be done with the 200,000 acres of unused vacant land that was then in public ownership.

In my excellent book "Plums", which I know many of my colleagues have read, I suggested that public vacant land should be auctioned off, with a covenant to ensure that it would be developed within five years. I proposed private regional development corporations, listed on the stock market and with the task of developing vacant land and public ownership profitably. The Minister for Housing and Planning at the time, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer), was on the point of acting to implement my proposals when, unfortunately, he was promoted. The privatisation of rail, water, gas and electricity all followed, and that switched much of the vacant land from public to private hands. Public vacant land became private vacant land and, as a result, the number of acres of public vacant land has dropped dramatically. However, the utilities still own much private vacant land that could be developed.

The brown-field recycling target is nothing new, only a variation on an established Conservative theme. The Western Morning News reported on 20 February 1999 that 58,000 of the new housing units planned for the west country could easily be built on brown-field sites in the west country. As a result, the figure for green-field building could be reduced and the figure for Devon could be reduced pro rata.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I apologise to my hon. Friend for missing the first few minutes of his speech.

The point from the Western Morning News about the availability of brown-field sites was taken from a report that has only recently been published by the south-west regional planning conference—the body that made the recommendation about the county structure plan numbers to Devon county council in the first place. Does my hon. Friend agree that, valuable as the report is, it would have been much more helpful if we had had such a report two and a half years ago when we began work on the country structure plan, rather than receiving it at the tail-end of the process, after the Prime Minister had issued a diktat to East Devon district council that it must now get on and plan those houses?

Mr. Steen

As always, my hon. Friend makes a telling and important point. One cannot deal with housing allocation if one does not have the information necessary to put houses in sensible, wise and productive places. I hope that the Minister will take that point seriously because it is a grave and important one that will add to this debate.

I have mentioned the problem of brown-field sites. Another problem stems from the failure to provide an arrangement by which local authorities can trade housing allocations. Districts cannot swap with districts, nor can counties with counties or regions with regions. North Devon might want to trade with the Torbay area—after all, both their councils are Liberal Democrat run—with the result that the houses planned for a highly congested and overbuilt area could be moved to one where there is more space.

The Minister is bound to say that that is not his fault, because those figures originated from the Office for National Statistics in the late 1980s and the then Secretary of State for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), handed them down to the regions. At this stage, I shall not argue with the Minister about the figures—we have already gone around that course—although, as I have said, I think that they are suspect and are based on the predict-and-provide philosophy. They are treated as though they are divine guidance. My criticism is of the way in which the figures are handed down vertically: Government, regions, county, district, parish. There is no lateral integration and no way in which local authorities can deal with each other and trade in housing figures.

The ONS figures are merely a repetition of past trends. Past performance is not a guide for future demographic trends. The current structure plan is formulated on the basis of what has happened in the past. Can that make sense for the future? Surely, such calculations must be unreliable. For example, in the 1980s we believed that the economy would continue to grow and that that trend would never stop. Banks lent more and more money so that people could buy land and houses, and prices went up. However, it all went terribly wrong and many people burned their fingers; millions ended up with negative equity and debts.

The housing forecasts are based on exactly the same flawed assumption: that whatever happened in the past is bound to repeat itself in the future. Predict and provide— the basis for those housing forecasts—has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I pointed that out to the Minister last December. The buzz phrase is no longer predict and provide, but plan and manage. At the moment, it is merely a buzz phrase; the predict and provide approach continues to hold sway in planning credence. What is the point of changing the whole basis for housing number predictions, if there will be no effect until the date of the next structure plan? The Minister protests that the Government are doing something, but what is it please?

The figure of 4.4 million new homes for the United Kingdom—and 438,000 new homes for the south-west and 90,000 in Devon—should not be considered as a target that must be reached, but that is how planners and local politicians continue to regard it. The truth is that those figures are not targets, but merely projections—an informed guess or an estimate of what might be needed. The use of those housing figures as targets is the reason why councils and developers struggle to build houses, so that the targets are fulfilled at any cost.

It is just like the building of the M25; that, too, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. We thought that building a huge road around London would put a stop to gridlock and end traffic problems, but more and more cars used the road and the traffic jams are legendary. It is the same with house building; the more houses are built in an area, the more people come from outside to live in them and the more the demand increases.

Does the Minister agree that the figure of 4.4 million is not a target, but a projection; and that such projections forecast the maximum number of housing units that can be built if all the conditions are right? Why was there nothing in yesterday's Budget to give incentives for developers to build in towns and disincentives to them to build in rural areas? Furthermore, if that was a recognised aim of the Government, planning appeal inspectors could refuse permission to build on green-field sites by arguing at the appeal stage that there were plenty of brown-field sites left for development in neighbouring towns and cities. That would discourage developers from using the appeal process as a form of blackmail against councils that are afraid of spending council tax payers' money to defend such appeals.

Under the present system, councils and Government alike are obliged to allow developers to build wherever they want within the local plan area. In addition, councils feel pressurised by a time scale that forces them to allow building by a certain date; they are obliged by law to find sufficient land to designate for house building to fulfil the housing targets that have been handed down to them. The local plan highlights where those houses are to be built, but contains nothing to prioritise the use of brown-field sites in urban areas. That is because different local authorities deal with urban and rural areas and they are not able to liaise over the housing figures.

Councils should strengthen the incentives for brown-field site building by telling developers, "Until you find the building of sufficient infrastructure to serve this new development and to provide good quality of life for the residents, there is no way that we shall give you planning permission". If that were the case, South Hams—an area whose natural environmental beauty has been recognised by no less an authority than the House of Commons Library and which has been described as one of the most beautiful places in England and Wales—could say no to developers. Furthermore, the local council would be assured that its decision would be upheld by planning inspectors on appeal. That would force developers to look at towns for building purposes—the Plymouths, Torbays, Exeters and Bristols.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He says that houses should be built not in South Hams, but in Torbay, of which he represents a quarter; and no doubt he does not want those 3,000 to 6,000 extra houses to be built in Brixham, Galmpton or Broadsands. The hon. Gentleman is being honest, so he is saying that those houses should be built in areas such as Occombe valley, Cockington or Preston Down road. The hon. Gentleman nods his head; I am grateful to him for that confirmation.

Mr. Steen

If I was nodding, it was because I was getting bored with the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

The "not in my backyard" principle is a good planning principle because it expresses self-interest and there is nothing like self-interest to ensure that the right decision is reached. Clearly, the right decision is that it is better for those new homes to be in the hon. Gentleman's constituency than in mine.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steen

I shall give way when I have dealt with the points made by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders).

There are many badly designed homes and buildings in Torbay, as the hon. Gentleman will agree. Torbay has grown like Topsy. If there was better planning and better design, the space could be used more productively.

Mr. Tyler

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has abandoned his main thesis, which concerned the inadequacy of the predict-and-provide approach. We all now realise that the previous Government's failure to move away from that principle is why we are in the current position. Will the hon. Gentleman turn westward and consider the circumstances of his hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), who is determined to have an even larger development on green-field sites than is currently proposed? What does the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) say to his neighbour?

Mr. Steen

The hon. Gentleman raises a perfectly acceptable point. I must not be drawn too far from the thesis of predict and provide, as he was clearly following it with interest. I hope that the Minister will withdraw his unnecessarily unkind remarks about my not getting involved in a serious discussion. I see the Minister smiling. I am sure that he was overcome momentarily and is now back to his normal, happy self.

It is not for me to answer the hon. Gentleman's question. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) is well known for his oratory, clarity and good sense. I am sure that, when the time comes, he will be able to respond to that point.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

The time has come. Does my hon. Friend agree that the real glory of Devon is to be found not just in Dartmoor, in the rolling hills of South Hams—which he and I are privileged to represent—or in our coastline, but in our beautiful, picturesque villages? We do not want a new town or to see existing villages overwhelmed by new building. We must protect and preserve our existing villages in south Devon at all costs.

Mr. Steen

That is the right answer. The only snag is that, in the 1960s and 1970s, the planners and the county council in Devon said, "We want to protect villages and hamlets, but we realise that we can do that only by ruining one area completely by building a new town". I used to represent that new town of Ivybridge, which is now in my hon. Friend's constituency. It was a tiny hamlet of 1,500 inhabitants but now has 12,000 or 13,000 inhabitants. If that was the only place ruined, one could accept it. However, the planners not only ruined Ivybridge but have continued to build in all the villages and hamlets that they said they would not touch because they were building a new town in Ivybridge. Will the Minister address that important issue? If a new town is built outside Plymouth—large or small—will the hon. Gentleman put an embargo or guillotine on any further attempts by planners and local politicians to build in the villages or hamlets? That is the real problem.

I do not want to be drawn too far away from the point that I was pursuing. We must find a way of forcing developers to consider building in towns. I mentioned Plymouth, Torbay, Exeter and Bristol before the hon. Member for Torbay jumped up. Unlike their American counterparts, our cities are grey, often unfriendly and not fun places because they empty at the end of the working day when everyone rushes home to the suburbs. British cities are like doughnuts: they have empty centres where the jam used to be. Jam is made by combining a mix of ingredients: by including all ages, lifestyles, earning levels, types of marital status and so on. Our cities need to be vigorous, vital and exciting places in which to live and work.

That will not happen if developers continue to build on green-field rather than brown-field sites. By doing so, they make the urban sprawl worse—compounding the problem by attracting the more upwardly mobile members of society out to the suburbs, leaving behind the poor, the elderly and the ethnic minorities. Many of our cities are drab and dreary because of permissive planning policies that encourage building on green-field sites, which constantly robs the cities of the kind of people who could invigorate them—the upwardly mobile. We must ask what building by numbers is doing to our countryside as well as what it costs the taxpayer to build the extra infrastructure required by green-field developments.

The Devon county structure plan demands that two new settlements be built on green-field sites. One of them would be built near Plymouth and the settlement of 2,500 housing units would constitute 35 per cent. of the current demand from Plymouth. However, will that local demand be met given that, despite the fact that its supposed aim is to meet existing demand, the new town will be advertised all over the country? If taking up the Plymouth overspill is the real aim, why not build on existing vacant land and fill existing housing in that city? Why not put under-utilised sites to better use? There are many of them: shops with a vacant upper storey, vacant land in both public and private ownership, and disused dockland sites. Plymouth is a good example of an unplanned city that has grown up by accident rather than design.

Why are we not regenerating our cities? In the 1960s and 1970s, the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, launched several urban development initiatives, including the urban programme, the community development project, the education priorities and the young volunteer force, of which I was a director. Those initiatives switched the rates from rural to urban areas in order to finance the needs of rundown inner cities. The Labour Administration in the 1970s switched the rates from rural areas to urban areas in an attempt to regenerate them, and I welcomed that move.

In the early 1980s, my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), then Secretary of State for the Environment in the Conservative Government, launched a crusade to regenerate our cities. Fortunately, I was the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree at the time, so I benefited from that policy. Yet our inner cities continue to empty outwards simply because people can move into a never-ending supply of housing built on green-field sites.

Green-field development prompts the need for schools, shops, sewerage, telecommunications, transport, medical and hospital services and leisure facilities. Who pays for that? It is not the developer. The developer simply connects the houses to the local sewerage system and possibly installs a few telephone and electricity lines. There is a myth doing the rounds that green-field development is much cheaper than redeveloping rundown areas in the towns. It is not cheaper: it is a question of who pays.

Green-field development is not cheap for the taxpayer, who must pay for all the services that new communities require. The only person for whom such development is cheap is the developer, who buys the land, builds the buildings and connects them to the main services. That is why green-field building land is so expensive to buy. I am told that Plymouth brown-field sites sell at about £50,000 per acre, while green-field land outside Plymouth sells for £800,000 an acre. The fact that it is so disproportionately expensive should alert us to the fact that something is wrong. Developers must be, and are, making good profits—so much so that the high cost of green-field land is worth paying.

It is left to the public authorities to pay for the long-term infrastructure and employment provisions of new communities. The council tax payer and the central taxpayer pay. Who pays for the buses that will have to serve the new areas? Is it the developer? No, it is the taxpayer. Who will pay for a new sewerage plant that might have to be built? Is it the developer? No, it is the water rate payer. Who will pay to resurface the roads and build new ones to cope with the extra traffic? Is it the developer? No way. It is the taxpayer, through the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

When the new green-field developments are advertised in the national newspapers and people—many of them retired—flock to the west country, who will pay for the extra hospital services needed to cope with the influx of elderly people or for the schooling of young families? Is it the developer? Of course not, it will be the taxpayer. Moving people from the cities to the suburbs costs taxpayers money. Who pays to decommission schools and other services in the town and set up new ones in the suburbs? It is not the developer, but the taxpayer.

Why should the taxpayer be drawn in behind the developer who makes the profit on green-field land development, leaving behind problems of declining cities and infrastructure costs for others to deal with? If developers want to build on green-field sites, they should provide the necessary infrastructure. However, there is another problem: developers can pay only if the development is big and profitable. They can pick up the cost of green-field development only if that development is large enough to generate sufficient money. That is why planners advocate building new towns: two dozen starter homes will not make enough money to enable a developer to build a road or a school.

The infrastructure is already in place in our cities. So why build on green fields, destroy the countryside and create endless unnecessary problems when pleasant homes can be built in the towns at less cost to the taxpayer? It is only bureaucracy that is preventing such development: the bureaucracy of handing down housing figures from Whitehall based on the predict-and-provide policy, the refusal to allow local authorities to trade with each other and the Government's failure to implement their brown-field sites policy.

There is no point arguing about the housing figures: rightly or wrongly, they are being treated as targets by the Government and by the Liberal Democrat-run Devon county council, which has rushed to approve them in the face of Conservative opposition. My argument is about where those houses will be built. I object to the inflexibility of the planning system. Once the figures are handed down from Whitehall, like the ten commandments from Mount Sinai, they are set in stone—mostly in our green fields.

I welcome house building—we need it and local people need it—but it needs to be in the right places. I welcome the building of houses for young people in urban areas so that they can bring back vibrancy to the centre. I welcome the regeneration of ugly urban areas into pleasant residential spaces convenient for young and old alike and close to existing shops, schools and hospitals. I should like to stop the brain drain in which young people continue to leave in droves counties such as Devon and other parts of rural England and retired people flock there in their place, occupying many of the green-field housing developments. I should like enlightened developers, guided perhaps by Government funding, to reclaim poisoned or brown-field land and build land-efficient houses on it.

Mr. Burnett

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steen

Does the hon. Gentleman think it wise to intervene?

Mr. Burnett

I think it is very wise. Will the hon. Gentleman treat us to his rather idiosyncratic views on fiscal or taxation proposals on development property?

Mr. Steen

I hoped that the Chancellor would treat us to those yesterday, but he did not. If we are to shift the emphasis of building to regenerate our urban areas, clearly there must be tax incentives for the developers, and there are none at present. I was severely disappointed yesterday because I was looking forward to the Chancellor, in his giveaway Budget, giving away what we want.

Mr. Burnett

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that his last debate on this matter was attended by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—a most distinguished former Chancellor of the Exchequer—who distanced himself from the hon. Gentleman's proposals? Does he further recall the chaos that followed the introduction of development land tax and development gains tax?

Mr. Steen

I am glad to say that I do not. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) would have been present today—he wanted to contribute to the debate and support what I am saying— but unfortunately previous engagements prevented him from attending. The hon. Gentleman could have asked him that question if he had been here.

I shall recap because other hon. Members want to speak. The figures are not targets that have to be met by projections; they are not the holy grail. The Government are repeating exactly the same pious imperatives that the Conservatives did in the 1980s. They are pulling out and dusting down the vacant land registers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and if they are not doing so, they jolly well ought to. They were right to state that many houses could be built on brown-field land, but the whole initiative has been precluded from the current structure plans. We do not want jam tomorrow; we need it today.

Talking about jam brings me back to my earlier image of our cities as doughnuts that have no jam in the centre because the planning process has encouraged green-field site development. Cities will be neglected as long as we continue to encourage developers to make large profits on green-field sites because they do not have to pay for the infrastructure costs.

The Government claim to be passionate about the environment. The Liberal Democrats claim to be positively frenzied about sustainable development. Those are meaningless claims because there is no yardstick against which new developments are judged. Some areas of this country—south Devon is one—have reached the maximum size that is possible without there being an adverse effect on the quality of life of the people who already live there. Surely that must be the meaning of sustainable development.

If people's lives are affected by a flood of new housing and new people, the quality of their life changes—and that cannot be sustainability. That is why I have great problems in understanding why the Liberal Democrats on Devon county council talk about sustainable development when they continue ploughing up the land for houses. Perhaps one of the Liberal Democrats present, who have been eager to intervene, could tell me what sustainable development means to them, because it is not working.

Developers cannot be expected to provide infrastructure if the size of the development does not generate sufficient profit for them to do so. The planning gain has to be substantial if new sewers, hospitals and roads are to be built by the developers who cause the need for them rather than retrospectively by the taxpayer. Most of that much-needed infrastructure is already in place in our cities.

Building new towns in east and west Devon will make matters worse. They will further empty the population from the cities and cost the taxpayer an enormous sum in building new services for them. That is not to mention the cost of decommissioning old infrastructure in abandoned urban areas. I remember that, in Liverpool, schools in the inner city were constantly being closed, which cost a fortune. Taxpayers would have to meet the cost of decommissioning all sorts of infrastructure in Plymouth, Exeter and other cities as the people moved out.

It is likely that national advertisements will continue to encourage people from outside the county to drift to the south-west. That rise in migration into Devon is currently at the rate of between 32,000 and 35,000 people a year. That is equivalent to seven or eight times the population of Totnes—or Kingsbridge, which is in my constituency—entering Devon each year. Those figures have been rising as we build more and more houses.

The Government cannot be excused for failing to recognise what is happening and how it will damage the beauty and quality of the environment in the south-west. The Liberal Democrats have even less excuse for letting that damage take place under their very noses. They have approved a massive programme of unsustainable development, and they are answerable to the electorate in Devon for what they are allowing to happen. That electorate must remember that they will have an opportunity to get rid of the Liberal Democrats on 6 May.

Mr. Sanders

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steen

No, I have given way enough.

Buzz words such as "plan and manage" are fine, but they are meaningless if they allow the building of 90,000 houses all over Devon. Such a level of house building is simply not sustainable. The Liberal Democrats know that; the Government know that and I know that. Politicians in authority and the Liberal Democrats in Devon have no excuse for not taking action to stop that house building. They have the means but not the will or the inclination to stop it.

Mr. Sanders

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steen

No, if the hon. Gentleman wants to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he can make his own points, provided that I do not go on for too long. There are politicians without backbone and the Liberal Democrats are good examples. They are always passing the buck.

It is not too late for the Government to ensure that new homes, many of which are needed for local people, are built in the right place. Our cities are crying out for new investment, new enterprise and new opportunities. The countryside is Britain's finest asset. To concrete over thousands of acres in the next 12 years will be environmental vandalism of the worst possible kind. The electorate will not forget that betrayal at the next general election.

11.36 am
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate on well-worn territory. I initiated a debate on this subject last year, and I have intervened on the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) in a half-hour debate. Some of us are interested in these issues and continue to battle on.

My stance is fairly well known. I support the Government's approach, but I have not been uncritical on certain points, including housing numbers. I shall concentrate on the household projection and its implications, but first I shall set the issue in context because the Government have done much good work and have had a difficult task given the problems that they were left by the previous Administration.

I was interested to hear the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning to a conference of the Economic and Social Research Council on 2 March, and I heartily agree with many of his remarks. It is only too clear that, unless we take action, we will face difficulties in future. I support, as I am sure all hon. Members do, the movement away from predict and provide and the emphasis on brown-field development, with the 60 per cent. target. I should like to know how the Conservative party could raise that figure, because it has a history of having much lower targets.

There is undue criticism of the Rogers task force. I invited the task force to Stroud. It is doing much good work, but it is not yet ready to complete its report. We shall find out what the report says about fiscal measures and planning changes and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will then deal with those. Perhaps now is not the right time for that.

The Labour party is committed to considering the whole area of planning guidance. A number of consultation papers have been issued and I am sure that hon. Members have responded. We look forward to the results. We view the emphasis on the regional dimension as an important departure which should be heartily supported. In a nutshell—I use an analogy from another policy area—we are seeking a firmer, faster and fairer method of planning and implementation.

We have a sword of Damocles hanging over us in the form of the 4.4 million household projection. There is a rumour—perhaps it is now more of a prediction—that the figure is likely to increase when the Government issue their new projection. Paraphrasing the argument of the hon. Member for Totnes, I juxtapose the encroachment into the green-field areas, while our inner cities continue to decline. We must grapple with that problem and turn a lose-lose situation into a win-win situation.

We have long experience of the problems in my county. The debate so far has focused on Devon and Cornwall, but the pain is felt in Gloucestershire and in my district, Stroud. Any meeting on housing is always packed with members of the public, who have an understandable interest in the subject. I congratulate the councillors who have tried to grapple with the issue; it is not always pleasant.

We heard reference to NIMBYism. One person's self-interest is another person's demoralisation and the denigration of his area. The planning process must work properly, or the less privileged will lose out and those who have no voice will always be dumped on. As a politician, I am not prepared to see that happen. We are in politics to do something about it.

There is a need for balance. We must conserve our landscape, where appropriate, but we must also allow evolution in rural as well as urban areas. That means building not on every green-field site, but on appropriate sites in an appropriate way. I shall return to that theme later.

The central tenet of my argument is that there is a fundamental difference between the need for housing and housing need. Recently, we have concentrated on the need for housing, and on delivering what developers tell us there is demand for. We have failed to grasp that those in real need are being let down, in both rural and urban Britain. Contrary to what has been alleged from the Opposition Benches, I have villages where people are crying out for social housing and where the young people are being driven out. That is social exclusion of the worst kind. Why should future generations not be able to carry on living there?

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)


Mr. Drew

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene, but I am sure that he will understand that I want to keep my remarks fairly brief. Perhaps he will catch your eye in due course, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There is social exclusion, unfairness and unsustainability. If a village is not living, evolving and moving, it is not a place where many people want to live. They do not want their villages pickled in aspic, to remain as they were in the 19th century. That is not sensible.

Experience has shown that, if development is carried out properly, it can work well. Too often, the problem in rural Britain is that a development is proposed which may include affordable housing or even social housing, the principle is agreed to and the planning application is allowed, but suddenly the developers change their mind and propose a development of four or five-bedroomed executive homes. Lo and behold, the very people for whom the housing was intended are excluded. There are many examples of that, which the Government must tackle.

The problem of the dereliction of urban Britain is not confined to the cities. In the market towns of my region, there is much evidence of the need for regeneration through sensible housing policies, including the possibility of people living over a shop. There are too many barriers, social and economic, to such development. I hope that the urban task force under Lord Rogers will offer new ideas to move it forward.

The difficulties originate in the ever-growing number of housing requirements. I am a critic of the trend-based forecasting on which the Office for National Statistics relies. My argument is that what happened in the past is not necessarily what is happening now, let alone what will happen in the future. I know that consultation has been offered, to examine alternative methodologies and mechanisms. I welcome a debate on alternative approaches to projections.

I readily agree that projections are necessary for planning. If we do not know what we are planning for, it is difficult to know whether we are delivering what is required. However, there is a need for alternatives such as the bottom-up approach, and ways of dealing with issues such as net migration flows, which are particularly relevant in the south-west.

Household projections are not the same as housing projections. I readily admit that questions of social engineering arise, about which some hon. Members may feel uneasy. If the Government are not prepared to consider such matters, who will? We need to understand the effect of the growth in single households. That is not a good thing in itself, although it may be what people want. An analogous case is that of the motor car. We know that more and more cars will eventually lead to increasing congestion and misery.

I have outlined some of the issues that the Government must take up and introduce into the planning procedures. They have a difficult task, but they have made some movement. We need new planning procedures sooner rather than later. I hope my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will tell us that those will be discussed shortly. We all have a part to play. People feel that they have been excluded in the past, and they have strong views to express. I hope that the debate today will take matters forward.

11.46 am
Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

As the dust settles on Mr. Brown's Budget, we should reflect on two missed opportunities—the absence of a green-field development tax, and the absence of any moves towards equalising the VAT on new build and conversions. Those measures would have helped to reduce the rate of urbanisation, which is running at a rate of 110 sq km a year, and increased the percentage of new homes built on previously developed land, which all parties in the House support.

Such measures would have helped the Government towards their somewhat unambitious target of 60 per cent. of development on brown-field land and reduced the impact on our countryside of the 4.4 million or possibly 5 million—I believe that an announcement is expected shortly—new homes that will be needed by 2016.

The absence of any measures to equalise VAT on new build and conversions will make it virtually impossible to bring into circulation the hundreds of thousands of empty homes in England and Wales. That view is supported by the Empty Homes Agency. I spoke to its chief executive, Ashley Horsey, this morning. He said: The Government claims to be promoting brownfield development and looking for an urban renaissance. Such action is meaningless if they are not prepared to take real effective action. It is worth reminding hon. Members of the facts about empty homes. There is a 4 per cent. vacancy rate in the United Kingdom. That is the equivalent of almost 800,000 empty homes. In Holland, the vacancy rate is 2.3 per cent. By matching Holland's vacancy rate, we would create 300,000 to 350,000 new homes.

There are also empty flats above shops. According to a report produced by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, about 1,500 flats were created above shops between 1992 and 1995. Assuming that conversion has continued at that rate, about 20,000 flats could be created above shops.

Office conversions offer further potential accommodation. Estimates suggest that 20,000 flats could be created in London. Assuming that that figure could be doubled across England and Wales, there is the possibility that a total of 400,000 new homes could be created from office conversions and by utilising empty homes and flats above shops. That figure represents 10 per cent. of the need. We can all imagine how much safer and more attractive our cities and towns would be if those empty homes were brought back into use. By ruling out a green-field development tax, Gordon Brown has sent the wrong signal—

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

Order. That is the second occasion on which the hon. Gentleman has made such a mistake, and I hope that he will not do so again.

Mr. Brake

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

By ruling out a green-field development tax, Chancellor has sent the wrong signal to developers.

Mr. Drew

Until we have the urban task force's report, no recommendation is in place as to how that would take effect.

Mr. Brake

I thank the hon. Gentleman and I note what he says.

Mr. Brown's Budget was—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman continues in this way, he will have to resume his seat. He knows the conventions of the House.

Mr. Brake

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Chancellor's Budget was, without doubt, a bad Budget for brown-field sites; but other developments could make the Government's task of minimising the environmental and aesthetic damage of new housing estates harder—the creation of the regional development agencies.

In evidence to the Environment Sub-Committee yesterday, the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning said that the RDAs' role would be to make good the economic deficit in the regions. That is a perfectly valid objective for the RDAs, but another must be to ensure that development is sustainable. That objective is given much less prominence.

Mr. Burnett

Does my hon. Friend agree that we have had a monumental dollop of hypocrisy from the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen)? Does he recall that the previous Government dictated—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must always have temperate language in the House. I would not associate the hon. Member for Totnes or any other hon. Member with hypocrisy.

Mr. Brake

The RDAs will have to track an environmental indicator—the percentage of new homes built on previously developed land. But that is only one such sustainable development indicator. The RDAs will have to pay regard to many more economic indicators.

With the proliferation of the different bodies that will operate at a regional level—the RDAs, the regional chambers, the regional planning conferences, the regional government offices and Whitehall—the potential for confusion about household projections and the preferred locations for development is enormous.

Confusion is the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is a bloody battle between the RDAs and the regional planning conferences, with the former seeking to promote industry and housing in an environmentally sensitive area, and the latter fighting any such development. The potential for chaos is not helped by the Government's unwillingness to state whether regional planning guidance or the RDAs' regional strategies will be pre-eminent.

I hope that PPG11, which is to be reissued at the end of the consultative process, will clear up some of those uncertainties, but the draft has not made a good start. It says: the Regional Planning Bodies should work with the Government Office and other stakeholders to establish the level of housing required to meet the region's housing needs. In making this assessment the Government's latest published household projections should be taken into account. It goes on to say: the Regional Planning Bodies should take a realistic and responsible approach to future housing provision", and once the housing requirement in RPG has been established and confirmed by the Secretary of State". That still smacks of intervention by the Secretary of State. We might yet find that the corpse of predict and provide makes a full recovery on the mortuary slab.

One final aspect which has not been given sufficient consideration in this or other debates about household projections and new residential developments is water provision. As more water is taken from the environment to meet increasing demand, more and more wetlands are drying out. That has been confirmed in reports produced by English Nature, the biodiversity challenge group and the Environment Agency in recent years.

All the new households that will be built will need water, and it is estimated that about 214 million litres a day will be needed. London will need an extra 25 million by 2016. Yet the water supply is already stressed and any further increase in demand will exacerbate the problems, and probably cause drying out on other sites as well.

To cope with the increased demand, new reservoirs and new river transfer schemes will be needed. It is essential that the Government issue new planning guidance to planners to ensure that water is seen as a constraint on new development. That is in line with the recommendation of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, which stated: water supply should become a major part of the consultation and planning process. Planning authorities should be given the power to insist that water efficiency measures are included in new houses and to refuse developments where they are concluded that it would not be possible to provide adequate water supplies without damage to the environment. That national planning guidance must be produced quickly to address issues such as from where the water resources would come and how any additional water demands would be met.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will respond positively to some of my concerns in relation to a green-field development tax, VAT equalisation, RDAs, regional planning guidance and water resources, but he will find it hard to convince the House that the Chancellor's Budget has not scuppered the Government's chance of hitting their 60 per cent. target of development on brown-field sites


Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

I share the privilege of representing a constituency in what I hope hon. Members will agree is probably the most beautiful county of Devon. In the few minutes available, I want to tackle some of the issues concerning where the new houses can be built, because some misleading statements have been made about the extent to which the cities can accommodate them.

The space as well as the distance are two of the attractions that generate the desire among constituents of many other hon. Members to go and live in the south-west, and particularly in Devon and Cornwall. As the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), said in a debate instigated by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on 9 December 1998, we do not live in a Maoist society in which we can ban such migration.

The population projections take account of population change and household formation, and that includes migration. Migration into Devon always comes under the closest scrutiny. For the reasons that I have mentioned— space, distance and beauty—in-migration is a significant factor in some parts of our county, but not within the Plymouth sub-region. Our principle need is for housing to meet the needs of our existing population.

Plymouth is an attractive city. The Shell guide praises its waterfront as one of pre-eminence in the world, and The Independent lists Plymouth as the 26th most interesting place in the world to be at the millennium, alongside other cities such as Moscow and Paris. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but there are good reasons for that, to which I may return in another debate. I mean The Independent, not the local rag The Sunday Independent.

The aspiration of many hundreds of thousands of people is for country living in small villages and towns, or something more remote on moor or coast. I prefer city life, but I understand why many of those bringing up families and seeking a peaceful retirement should make such a choice.

If the hon. Member for Totnes and his colleagues believe in choice—I think that they do—he must respect those who chose to move to join us in the many privileges that we enjoy. I hope that he also seeks to represent the interests of those most in need, particularly housing need, in his constituency.

The hon. Gentleman will have noted paragraph 6.12 of the report from the panel that conducted the public examination of the Devon structure plan, which states: Having regard to the various representations on this matter, the Panel find that there is no convincing evidence to conclude other than that restricting new house building would serve not to stop immigration but to significantly worsen the living conditions of those at the lower end of the housing market. The report continues: the Panel fundamentally rejects the view that somehow under provision is not a significant problem. Under provision is likely to hit those most in housing need in the community and damage the housing prospects of the next generation. The projections for Plymouth predict growth, not from migration, despite the attractions of our city, but from changes in the household needs of the citizens of Plymouth. Meeting those needs will be challenging for us. The structure plan for Plymouth proposes that 6,800 dwellings should be built between 1995 and 2011. Plymouth city council has said that it will seek to provide those dwellings within its boundaries, but that is clearly a tough target. In all previous analysis, the council identified potential for 5,500 sites, and that figure has been based on existing allocations, estimates for conversions of properties into flats and windfall opportunities on small sites.

An extra 1,300 dwellings on top of that known potential is also a tough target. The council is working hard to apply the Government's philosophy, which is identified in the White Paper "Planning for Communities of the Future". However, even with greater use of recycled lands, it will still be pushed to accommodate 6,800 dwellings, especially because, where redevelopment of poor housing is to take place—often because that housing is unfit and poorly laid out and of an inappropriately high density—the aim will rightly be to reduce density and maintain our precious and, many of my constituents would say, too few, open spaces.

One can say that some debates are timely, but I do not believe that of this debate. On 26 February 1999, the Devon structure plan was adopted by the five strategic authorities. They agreed that the housing proposals in the structure plan would stand, but there is also agreement that they should be closely monitored under the Government's provision of "plan, monitor and manage", as outlined in the White Paper. All five authorities are seeking to progress the structure plan positively. They are committed to a proper process of monitoring and review in the light of future events and the requirements of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

At regional level, the planning guidance for the period to 2016 is being considered. That, too, will provide a proper framework within which the interests and concerns of our local authorities and the constituents of Plymouth, Sutton and of Torbay—as well as the interests and concerns of the constituents of the hon. Member for Totnes—can be properly addressed. I urge the hon. Member for Totnes to take an early flight, as I did this morning, on a clear day and to reconsider, in the light of the space that he would observe beneath him, the contrast between the vast spaces of his constituency and the high density of the population of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson).

I reject the endorsement of the hon. Member for Totnes of the narrow-minded NIMBYism of some of his constituents, many of whom are the very same people who have sought to exercise their choice, as he did, to migrate to our beautiful county of Devon.

12.4 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on raising this issue and on his masterly exposition of the current situation, particularly in Devon. The beauty of his constituency is second only to that of my constituency. I look forward to visiting his constituency, before it all disappears under concrete.

As my hon. Friend explained, how typical it is of the Liberal Democrats to say one thing about the environment and do something quite different when they are in control. In my constituency, the local Liberal Democrats forced through planning permission to overdevelop Beachy Head, which is a major attraction for visitors to my constituency.

Mr. Burnett

Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is something rather incongruous about the position taken by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen)? Does he recall that a housing figure for Devon of more than 100,000 units was dictated by the previous Government? Devon county stuck to its guns and the Secretary of State has agreed to slightly more than 70,000 dwelling units.

Mr. Waterson

I always think that my hon. Friend is noted for his congruousness. The very best of the hon. Gentleman's case is that his colleagues on the council have collaborated in those overdevelopments.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for putting his finger on many of the central issues. He has long service in the House and told us some of the background to recycling land, which is nothing new. However, I suspect that his excellent book "Plums", which I read a long time ago, is out of print.

My hon. Friend described how predict and provide had been replaced by plan and manage. How right he was that these figures should be treated not as targets, but merely as projections, and he drew attention to a central point— the Government's failure to implement their brown-field site policy.

There is considerable expert and political argument over the projection of 4.4 million homes needed by 2016. We have heard that that figure may increase. However, the Government's view seems to be that that is the best available figure in all the circumstances. Conservative Members remain highly sceptical, particularly bearing in mind the fact that there are supposed to be 1 million empty dwellings in this country.

Where are all those new homes to go? The Government still seem to be fumbling for a policy. In the meantime, there are constant encroachments on the green belt, often with the connivance of the Secretary of State. The worst example is the go-ahead given for 10,000 new homes on green-belt land near Stevenage. Nearer my constituency, the Secretary of State is forcing West Sussex to build 58,700 new houses by 2011. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes about the parlous situation in and near his constituency.

Nationally, if new housing continues to be built on green-field sites at the present rate, an area the size of Suffolk will disappear under concrete by the time today's school leavers reach retirement age. The green belt must be protected if we are to avoid urban sprawl, and I am proud that, under the previous Conservative Government, the size of the green belt was doubled.

A great deal of the Government's hopes are pinned on the development of brown-field or recycled sites, but there is growing evidence that their faith is misplaced. Their declared target is for 60 per cent. of new developments to be built on brown-field sites, which is a belated increase from 50 per cent after sustained pressure from Conservative Members, among others. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary laughs, but he may remember his description of a target of 60 per cent. as a "recipe for disaster".

We have suggested two thirds of new development as a target and, according to the Select Committee, some witnesses suggested that 75 per cent. is feasible. Let us be fair and judge the Government on their stated target.

Mr. Sanders

Is not the problem that brown-field sites tend to be where people are migrating from and green-field sites are in the parts of the country to which people are migrating? That is true nationally and in Devon, where the brown-field sites are in Plymouth. People do not want to move to Plymouth, however, and the green-field sites are in the county, which is where people want to live.

Mr. Waterson

The hon. Gentleman is being a little over-simplistic, but there is a problem of mismatch as he describes.

Let us judge the Government on their stated target. The problem is that rhetoric and reality have parted company. The Government's performance in respect of brown-field sites is still limping along on a figure of 53 per cent. That is not so much urban renaissance as a new dark age, with concrete being poured indiscriminately.

What has become of the draft consultation version of PPG3? The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), said on 3 February that it would be with us shortly. He is stretching the word "shortly" a little, but no doubt he will tell us when we will see it. What has happened to Lord Rogers and his task force? I am delighted to learn that they visited Stroud, and no doubt there have been other sightings of them; but when will they produce something with which we can grapple?

We hear a great deal about a "sequential" approach to planning, but that in itself may cause delays and problems. The Under-Secretary may be aware of a study published recently by the Civic Trust and the House-Builders Federation, which focused on 54 potential brown-field sites identified as long ago as 1986. The study discovered that only 39 sites—72 per cent.—had been developed at all in the intervening time, and that only 29, or 54 per cent., had been developed for housing on either all or part of a site. It concluded: The Government's target of 60 per cent. of new homes to be built on recycled or brownfield land will not be realised unless action is taken to learn from past failings and the process is improved and strengthened". The study helpfully lists a series of problems that arose in many of the case studies. It mentions the problem of contaminated land, and what it describes as a lack of flexibility, creativity, technical and market knowledge in some local authorities", which, it says, can "hinder … public/private partnerships". The whole question of land assembly is often crucial to such developments. It is not a happy story.

Mr. Nicholls

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Waterson


The Under-Secretary may also have seen "An Urban and Rural Renaissance", an excellent document produced by Shelter. According to the document, Current planning and housing policies are failing to ensure the provision of sufficient affordable housing". Shelter makes clear just how many improvements in the planning system are needed to deal with the problems. All too often, that system fails us in terms of the identification and use of brown-field sites. Such studies are important, and worrying.

In his remarkable speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes made an excellent point: he said that there should be an incentive for developers to build in towns, and a disincentive for them to build in rural areas. I could not agree more; how sad that the Government, in the shape of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, ducked the issue only yesterday.

Perhaps the Under-Secretary has noted, and will comment on, an excellent proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). My hon. Friend has suggested a system of tradeable tokens, whereby a developer who built a home on a previously developed site—a brown-field site—would be awarded a token and, as well as obtaining planning consent, those wishing to build on green-field sites would be required to produce two such tokens before they could do so. That would easily, and with minimal administration and costs, deliver the two-thirds target to which Conservative Members currently aspire.

Conservative Members are working hard—that is an example—to protect our environment and to come up with practical, constructive solutions to the problems that any Government will undoubtedly face in this regard. I can promise that we shall continue to drag the Under-Secretary and his hon. Friends to the House until they finally develop a proper and workable policy of their own, to replace the incoherent shambles that lies before us now.

12.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate, and on his persistence; he has raised this issue before. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) observed, his was a remarkable speech, in which he made a number of valid points with which I wholeheartedly agree. He produced a passionate defence of the case for building in cities and regenerating them for the urban renaissance, and for the use of brown-field sites. I entirely agree with him, and hope to say more shortly about what the Government are doing in that regard.

However, the hon. Gentleman showed a certain Jekyll and Hyde tendency, which was most obvious when he delivered what was probably the most emphatic endorsement of NIMBYism that I have ever heard in the House. I do not think that I have previously heard anyone describe "not in my back yard" as a good principle. I believe that I have quoted the hon. Gentleman correctly. He also slightly glossed over his own career pattern, which rather contradicts the course that he has urged on us. He wants us to ensure that there is no move towards green-field building, and to concentrate on brown-field sites. He forgets, however, that, as a former MP for a brown-field constituency in Liverpool, he has gone in exactly the opposite direction—to the green fields of Devon.

Mr. Steen

Regrettably, the boundary commissioners completely destroyed my constituency of Liverpool, Wavertree. Every one of my five wards went into a new constituency, which is now run by the Labour party. I would have stayed in Liverpool had I had that chance.

Mr. Raynsford

I am tempted to say that I hope the hon. Gentleman will have an encounter with the boundary commission in the near future that will enable him to renew his acquaintance with brown-field constituents.

I am afraid that, in a number of respects, the hon. Gentleman did not fully recognise the extent of the changed agenda that the Government are already introducing, which is making a significant difference. I shall give the figures, but, for the moment, suffice it to say that Devon is a very good example of the flexibility of our new system—which, by the way, is "plan, monitor and manage": the word "monitor" got left out. It is working far better than the old predict-and-provide approach that characterised the last Government.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was no scope for local authorities to trade housing targets or housing levels. There is, and the new system provides a very good framework. The hon. Gentleman has a particular problem with the household projections. He also has a problem with how the housing situation in Devon could be better managed. I shall take each point in turn. As he knows, we have changed our approach to establishing housing numbers. Our new draft PPG11—which was entirely misunderstood by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake)—sets out our proposals for improving the preparation and content of regional planning guidance. It represents an important step in the modernisation of the planning system, and reflects our commitment to decentralised decision making and integrated policy making to achieve sustainable solutions.

The new arrangements give more responsibility to local authorities, through regional planning conferences, in the preparation of regional planning strategies. They should lead to increased regional ownership of the policies, and increased commitment to their delivery. Instead of the Government, the regional planning body will be responsible for preparation of the draft regional strategy, which will include proposing the amount of additional housing that will be needed in the plan period.

The new arrangements provide a more open and inclusive process for the determination of planning issues at regional level. The new strategies, including the new housing figures, will be tested at a public examination before an independent panel, whose report will be made public. The procedure has been piloted in East Anglia, where a public examination of the draft planning strategy for the area was completed last month. The regional planning guidance for the south-west is still at the pre-draft stage. One of the key tasks of the new-style regional planning guidance will be to advise on the overall level of housing and its distribution within the region, with the aim of making full use of previously developed land.

In assessing the housing provision required for the 15 to 20-year period covered by the strategy, we expect the regional planning body to work with other regional stakeholders to establish the level of housing required to meet the region's housing needs. In the making of that assessment, the Government's latest published household projections should be taken into account—that is perfectly logical and reasonable—but we are not insisting that they are targets, as the hon. Gentleman seemed to think. They are projections, and should be treated as such.

Mr. Nicholls

The Minister has spoken of a policy shift towards planning, monitoring and managing. Is not the logic of that change in policy such that it should be applied to the present situation in Devon? If things go ahead as planned, Devon will be transformed; it will be wrecked and ruined out of all recognition. The Minister has made a policy change on which I compliment him— now let him follow through the logic.

Mr. Raynsford

Clearly, with any change of policy there needs to be an orderly progression from the existing procedure to the new one. That is what we are doing. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me when I come to Devon, he will see that the operation of the principles that underpin the Government's new approach is having a positive impact in Devon. I hope that he will recognise that.

As well as looking at the Government's figures as guidance, not as a target, we expect regional planning conferences to undertake urban capacity studies to explore the implications of changing policies and standards, which would reduce the land take of new development while securing attractive residential environments.

Against that background of need and capacity, the regional planning body should be able to take a realistic and responsible approach to future housing provision. It must be prepared to justify its views fully in public at the examination—that is fairly obvious. The structure plan and unitary plan authorities will, of course, be party to that process, so there is plenty of scope for them to negotiate and to discuss the apportionment between them.

Mr. Steen

The problem is that the west country is run by the Liberal Democrats. They control the county council, the district council and the unitary authority, so it is the Liberal Democrats talking to each other.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman displays a curious degree of ignorance of local politics. Is he not aware that the distinguished city of Plymouth is a Labour-controlled authority? He appears to have a complaint about the process of democracy. We are all here courtesy of that process and we should respect the verdict of the electorate.

The presumption is that, once the housing requirement has been established and confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State following the public examination, structure plans and unitary district plans should focus on the broad distribution and location of growth. The essence of the plan, monitor and manage approach is that both the assessment of housing requirements and distribution within the region should be kept under review. If there are signs of either under or over-provision, we expect both RPG and development plans to be reviewed accordingly. We need to work together in ensuring that the new approach is developed in as constructive a context as possible.

I want to deal with the points that were made by the hon. Member for Totnes about the Devon structure plan and the county's proposed new settlements adjoining Exeter and Plymouth. As I have mentioned, household growth is a fact and it is for local authorities in each area to find the best possible solutions for managing the growth sustainably. We cannot turn our back on the need to house people, and I do not think that any hon. Member would suggest that.

The Devon structure plan was not imposed by the Government; it was proposed and adopted by the local authorities on 26 February. That outcome shows that the plan, manage and monitor approach is flexible, while maintaining our commitment to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity of a decent home. That approach is based on a thorough analysis of the available evidence.

The structure plan has raised two main issues: the overall figures for new housing and proposals for two new communities, one near Exeter and the other near Plymouth. Obviously, I shall concentrate on the one near Plymouth. First, I shall look at the overall housing provision. Regional planning guidance figures were agreed by the authorities in 1994 under the previous Government. They indicated 83,000 extra houses in Devon between 1995 and 2011, based on 1989 household projections. The independent panel that examined the plan in public in 1997 tested it against more recent 1992-based projections. Unusually, those projections were lower than the 1989-based set, and the panel therefore recommended 79,000 extra houses, a reduction of some 4,000 on the previous figure.

The five structure plan authorities published modifications in October 1998—at that stage, under the present Government. They proposed a lower figure still of 75,800 houses, 3,200 less than the figure that was recommended following the examination in public. There were two reasons for that. First, actual house building during the 1990s was well below the rates that were projected both in regional planning guidance and by the panel: during 1995–97, a period for which figures were not available to the panel, 2,100 fewer homes than the projected number were built. Secondly, it was felt that the achievement of Government objectives to reduce vacancies in the housing stock would absorb more of the extra households—an estimated 1,100 more.

After careful consideration of those proposals in the light of our new policy, spelt out in "Planning for the Communities of the Future", the Secretary of State accepted that the county's proposal for 75,800 houses did not need to be raised. We accepted its case that lower than expected house building during the mid-1990s did indicate a lower requirement for the period to 2011. That should not be taken as a precedent for other counties because circumstances vary from county to county.

Mr. Sanders

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford

I will in a moment.

House building rates can be affected by a variety of factors—for example, land availability or other supply-side problems. The circumstances in Devon do not suggest supply-side limits to house building. In addition, the county level, 1996-based population projections that were published by the Office for National Statistics in December 1998 show a further small reduction in projected population growth for 1996–2006, which weakens the case for raising provision.

Mr. Sanders

I want to clarify that point and get it on the record. Is the Minister saying that the amount of housing that has been accepted by the Government is less than was originally predicted under the previous Government and, therefore, that the comments of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) were less than accurate?

Mr. Raynsford

Yes, I can confirm that, but I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman could not have drawn that conclusion from what I said. I thought that I had made it clear that that was the case.

We do not regard new communities as free-standing new settlements, as described in "Planning for the Communities of the Future." As proposed, they are distinct, compact new neighbourhoods close to, and with good links with the two cities concerned.

Mrs. Browning

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford

I am afraid that I cannot give way to the hon. Lady. I know that she is greatly concerned about the matter, but I have only three minutes left and I have important matters to cover. I am sorry.

On the plan for Plymouth, no precise location has yet been proposed and no name has yet been given to the new settlement, but it is proposed that the development might be between half a mile and three miles from the urban edge of Plymouth.

The independent panel endorsed the new community proposals as potentially the best way in which to secure balanced and sustainable communities with the proper level of services and facilities. The Exeter community is related to large-scale employment development and a rail freight terminal proposal. The Plymouth one is being developed to meet the need for accommodation for people from Plymouth, which was graphically described by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy).

The whole aim is, of course, to ensure that we concentrate development in areas where it is appropriate and sustainable, rather than allow indiscriminate development across a wide area of rural Devon, which clearly is the concern of the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), whose comments on the proposals, from what I have seen, have been entirely responsible and appropriate. The alternative to new settlements would be indiscriminate and unsustainable housing development. I do not think that anyone would welcome that.

The way forward lies in building on the positive options for meeting housing requirements and for protecting the countryside. There is far more common ground than is sometimes acknowledged. Everyone wants to see as much land recycling as possible and more sustainable patterns of development, to protect the countryside, to regenerate urban areas and to ensure that people are properly housed. The Government are developing that agenda as proactively as possible. There is much more work to be done to help authorities to develop that agenda.

We have a full programme of revising the relevant PPG notes. We will shortly publish the draft PPG3, which will detail policies to underpin our recycling target. We expect authorities throughout the country, including authorities in the south-west, to do their bit to maximise land recycling. We are also working on other planning guidance notes, such as those on transport, and have published draft guidance on regional planning and development plans.

The Government are acting positively, seriously and responsibly in dealing with an important agenda. That contrasts with the previous Government—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. We must now turn to the next debate.