HC Deb 03 November 1999 vol 337 cc205-28

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

9.33 am
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce a subject that is of great interest to my constituents. We debated this matter yesterday, and I believe that my right hon. and hon. Friends were absolutely correct to raise it. I am sure that we will continue to address the issue in the House as it is vital to the south-east.

We must consider the immensity of new house building that is planned for the south-east. Contrary to what was said in some quarters yesterday, 1.1 million new homes are planned for the south-east. There is no point dismissing that figure out of hand as nonsense, as the Minister did yesterday, or trying to minimise its importance. Although it is not the new total arising from the panel's report—that figure is also substantial—we must consider the overall figure, which has immense implications for the south-east. The 1.1 million figure is equivalent to building five new cities the size of Southampton in the south-east.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The figure that is equivalent to five new cities is the difference between Serplan's recommendations and those of the panel. The 1.1 million figure is really equivalent to 12 new cities the size of Southampton.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I refer anyone who wants to quibble with that figure to paragraph 7.35 of the panel's report, where it appears in black and white. Let us have no attempts to minimise the significance of that figure.

The increase is certainly important to my constituency and to the county of Hertfordshire. The Minister knows that I intend to explore in this debate the plan's detailed implications for Hertfordshire. I am pleased to welcome to the Chamber my right hon. and hon. Friends representing Hertfordshire constituencies, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) and for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), as well as many other hon. Friends who represent constituencies throughout the south-east.

The panel recommends that Hertfordshire should provide 88,000 additional houses between 1996 and 2016—which is a building rate of 4,400 each year. Under existing plans, Hertfordshire is expected to absorb 65,000 additional dwellings between 1991 and 2011, and some 19,000 houses were built between 1991 and 1996—so Hertfordshire is being asked to absorb no fewer than 107,000 new houses between 1991 and 2016. The panel's report suggests an increase of 42,000 new houses in addition to existing plans, so that is another new figure for Hertfordshire to absorb.

That is an immense figure, which is larger than any existing new town in Hertfordshire—and it is just the increase, not the total. The new settlement would be roughly equivalent to the size of Welwyn Garden City. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends from Hertfordshire agree that it will be particularly difficult for the county to absorb such new housing without affecting the environment by building in the green belt. Many existing settlements in Hertfordshire, and new towns that have been developed in the 20th century, do not have a large number of brownfield sites. The housing stock in Hertfordshire is relatively modern and not easy to convert, so few new houses will be delivered through conversion.

That is certainly true of my constituency of Hertsmere. As my constituents know only too well, it has proved extremely difficult to accommodate Hertsmere's existing new-build total of 4,600 houses without making incursions into the green belt. There is tremendous pressure on the green belt, most of which, thankfully, has been diverted. However, if there is to be further expansion on the scale envisaged, building on the green belt in Hertsmere is inevitable.

If divided between Hertfordshire local authorities on roughly the same basis as existing plans, the new plans would require Hertsmere to absorb several thousand—probably about 3,000—new houses. That is the equivalent of a new settlement the size of Radlett in my constituency—and it is only the new houses required by the report; never mind those required under existing plans. There is no way that such a development could be accommodated without building on the green fields that surround the communities in my constituency.

The green belt is especially valuable in Hertsmere, which is situated on the edge of London. Apart from existing settlements, almost all of my constituency is greenbelt land, and my constituents derive no comfort from the philosophy that has apparently been adopted in some quarters—even by the Government—that the loss of green belt in one place can be compensated for by the redesignation of greenbelt land somewhere else. The loss of the green belt in Hertsmere cannot be offset by the designation of more greenbelt land in another part of Hertfordshire, the south-east or even of the country.

That is a formula for devaluing the green belt and constantly shifting it further out. It is a rather bizarre philosophy. I say to the Minister that, if the same principle were applied to wildlife conservation, which is another responsibility of her Department, it would be a bit like saying, when one species becomes extinct, "Never mind; we can make up for that by adding another three species to the endangered list and, therefore, it is a triumph for conservation." The same principle applies to the green belt. We all know that, once the green belt has been lost, it is gone for good—that is concrete over green.

The panel's report contains worrying recommendations for the green belt, and I hope that they will be examined carefully in the House and elsewhere. It contains worrying recommendations for constituencies, such as Hertsmere, where the green belt is not the result of national and international intrinsic designation in the way that areas of outstanding natural beauty are. Such areas appear to be the only type of green belt that the report is prepared to put beyond the reach of developers. The recommendations in the report seem to contemplate explicitly a re-evaluation of the green belt in places such as Hertsmere. We have heard it before, but the message from the report is clear: the green belt is up for grabs.

Such a message is, in equal measure, very bad news for the quality of life of residents and very bad news for the environment. We should not lose sight of the fragility of the environment in the south-eastern counties, which have already been placed under great pressure this century. I understand from Friends of the Earth that, on average over the past 50 years, one species has become extinct every two years. Increasing urbanisation and fragmentation of the countryside and wildlife habitats have greatly contributed to that loss. More greenfield development in the south-east will only accelerate the process and create more and more pressure.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clappison

I trust that the hon. Gentleman represents a south-east constituency, so I shall give way briefly.

Mr. Love

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. For his information, I represent a London constituency, although my borough in the north of London butts on to his local authority.

I listened with interest to the concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed about the green belt. No doubt, other Conservative Members will express similar concerns. Why was that concern not expressed in the years of the previous Government? In the final year of the Conservative Government, 1,200 hectares of green belt were designated for development, but Conservative Members expressed no concern at that time.

Mr. Clappison

The hon. Gentleman may regret that intervention. He is going down the same course that was taken yesterday by the Minister for Housing and Planning, who made at some length the charge that the previous Government did not do enough for the green belt—Labour Members are nodding. We were criticised from pillar to post yesterday even though the previous Government, of whom I was proud to be a member, constantly sought to increase the amount of brownfield sites that were being developed.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Clappison

I shall give way to the Under-Secretary, but I have a further question. The Minister for Housing and Planning told us yesterday that the previous Government did not do enough. What did he say when he was Labour's Opposition spokesman in the last Parliament, when the Conservative Government designated 60 per cent. of housing to be on brownfield sites? He told "Planning Week" that the proposal to develop 60 per cent. of new houses by 2016 on brownfield sites was a "recipe for disaster". He said that it would create residential densities exceeding those during the 1960s and 1970s". As the Minister is rising to the bait that was foolishly dangled by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), will she explain just what the then Opposition meant by that?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's questions in my winding-up speech. I want to ask him a question now. Does he accept that, in every year of the final 10 years of the previous Government's term of office, there was a net loss of the green belt?

Mr. Clappison

I have already made clear our philosophy on the green belt and how that differs from the Minister's. We sought to protect the green belt, and that is why we introduced the figures for conservation. The Minister is being foolish. Will she explain why the Labour party, when it was in opposition, opposed at every turn the previous Government's efforts to build more houses on brownfield sites?

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Is my hon. Friend aware that his fears were confirmed by a comment made as recently 29 April? The Minister for Housing and Planning said that in certain cases where it is desirable in terms of urban extension and sustainability, there may be a case for reconsidering green-belt boundaries."—[Official Report, 29 April 1999; Vol. 330, c. 531.]

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The posture that the Minister for Housing and Planning now takes brings to mind advice that I heard very early in my career in the House. I was told, "If you can't ride two horses at once, don't join the circus." The Minister is in danger of falling off his horses.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite unprecedented to build on 2,000 acres, as is happening in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley)? That will enable Stevenage to engulf the whole of that part of north Hertfordshire, potentially joining up Stevenage with Hitchin and with Letchworth. Hertfordshire does not want Stevenage to become Stetchworth or Hevenage. We want to preserve what Victoria Glendinning in her book on Hertfordshire described as the web of lanes with villages between. We do not want to lose that; we want to preserve it for the future.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we need to look to the future. We are looking for two things from the Minister, and I hope that that is not asking too much in the circumstances. First, we want her to understand what the new housing will mean for the south-east and its residents and how important the issue is. Secondly, we want her to show a willingness to consider alternatives, so that we avoid the environmental catastrophe that is in the making. We have reached the point where we need to consider and debate the alternatives to something that carries profound implications for our constituents.

Those of us in the south-east do not want to see acre after acre of green fields disappearing under concrete year after year. That is the prospect before us and we all have a responsibility to begin a serious and constructive debate on how we can avoid that. To do so is essential for the residents of the south-east and the quality of their lives, to which the green belt is so important, and for the sake of the fragile environment in the south-east. Those of us who represent constituencies in Hertfordshire and the south-east owe nothing less to our constituents.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)


Madam Speaker

Has the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) finished his speech? That was not the peroration that I expected.

Mr. Clappison

I was giving way to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells).

Mr. Wells

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I want the Minister to understand completely what the issue implies in my constituency. It implies the coalescence of Stansted airport, Bishop's Stortford, Sawbridgeworth and north Harlow to create a massive new city.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. His point adds weight to the submissions that I have already made.

The issue is of importance. The Minister has heard example after example from Conservative Members of the effects that such development will have on our constituencies. We are now looking for a constructive, serious and sensible response from the Government that shows that they are listening and considering the alternatives.

9.49 am
Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

I did not want intervene in the debate, because it is fairly early and south-east Labour Members have not had time to consider their opposition to the plans. We shall get together and discuss the issues.

I apologise for the fact that I was not present for the debate yesterday, but I was incensed by a Friends of the Earth press release which claimed that Labour Members—it named me among them—representing marginal seats in the south-east are under pressure from the Whips to conform and shut up on this issue in case we lose the election. As you know, Madam Speaker, Portsmouth—the part of the country that I represent—is lovely, but it is renowned as the second most densely populated area in Europe.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South—

Mr. Rapson

Portsmouth, North.

Mr. Chidgey

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) is a neighbour of mine, and a hard-working one. If he casts his mind back to the 1960s, he will recall the horrendous proposal to create a Solent city joining Southampton and Portsmouth. Just about every sensible person rejected it, and it was eventually thrown out. Does he share my concern that chapter 12 of the panel's report contains a section on Solent cities, with the very proposal that we threw out all those years ago? Does he share my concern about that, and will he join me in rejecting the proposal?

Mr. Rapson

Of course I share the concern about the possibility of any linking with Southampton, and the earlier remarks suggesting that the result would be a city five times the size of Southampton panicked me even more. I agree with the general concern, and our approach will be restrained and reasonable.

The city of Portsmouth is densely populated. I represent half the city, and there is little space to move. If I wanted to enter this debate to win the election, I would be saying, "Let my people free. We want the houses outside, in the greenbelt area." That would not be in line with Government policy, but for purely electioneering reasons I would be doing the opposite of what Friends of the Earth are claiming. I would be arguing for the right to expand and allow people to live in a reasonable environment.

It is not good for people to live in multi-storey flats, crammed together in council areas, cheek by jowl. The Opposition have not mentioned the alternative yet. If we do not build in the areas that are free to build in, not all the brownfield sites will be able to cope and it will be necessary to cram people into urban areas.

I am speaking in this debate merely to refute the completely false statement by Friends of the Earth that the Whips are restraining me. I do listen to the Whips and I do comply with most of what they say, but if I felt that I needed to change my mind, no Whip would be able to stop me—and my Whip is in the Chamber. I am too long in the tooth to be under pressure to that extent, but I am a loyal Member, and I make my own mind up. There should be another means of refuting the lies that have been perpetrated, printed and circulated.

Labour Members representing the south-east will get together to discuss their opposition to the plan. No doubt, as I am from Portsmouth, my views will differ from those of most of my hon. Friends. However, the debate will continue, and we shall come up with a concise plan. We shall discuss that with Ministers—instead of conducting megaphone diplomacy, as Opposition Members do, and shouting it from the rooftops purely for political gain.

Mr. Blunt

The hon. Gentleman is referring to the request that I initiated to all hon. Members representing the south-east to join together to invite the Government to reject the Crow panel's recommendations. Seventy of the 81 Members of Parliament representing the south-east who are not Labour Members agreed, but not one of the 36 Labour Members of Parliament for the south-east signed up to the letter. Surely the hon. Gentleman understands that the most effective way of putting pressure on the Government is for all Members of Parliament, regardless of party, to unite against this appalling threat to all our constituents in the south-east. Yet not one Labour Member chose to join other colleagues representing south-eastern constituencies. What conclusion are Friends of the Earth and electors in the south-east entitled to draw from that?

Mr. Rapson

I was incensed when I read in a newspaper that I had refused to sign the letter. I do not even recall receiving an invitation. [Interruption.] Conservative Members probably got loads from Conservative central office, but I never received one. I did not know who Crispin Blunt was; I had to look it up. Madam Speaker, it is difficult to accept an invitation if you do not receive it. Proof of postage is not proof of delivery. I could be telling a fib, but I am not. I did not know that I was invited.

What would I have done, had I been invited? I can argue my case, and the people whom I represent want more housing. Conservative Members say, "We signed up to 'Building a World Class Region: an Economic Strategy for the South East', we want to expand our economic development base and we want new industries to come in—but we do not want any more houses!" The fear might be that if more people live in Conservative areas and county areas, more of them might vote, and more might vote Labour or against the Conservatives. They may do so in greater numbers when the new leader comes. Therefore, if the invitation had been received, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) probably would have had an acceptance from me, because I do not worry about going into the lamb's den—I would not call it the lion's den—and I am not frightened of meeting anyone.

The debate has enabled me—not to make any sensible suggestions; you did not expect that, Madam Speaker, because you have been here long enough to know better—to defend my position and to say that Portsmouth, North will be represented at sensible discussions with our Labour colleagues in the south-east to try to encourage our Government to see our view and not to go off half-cock, as the Opposition are doing, as usual.

9.56 am
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

First I wish to resist, on behalf of Kent, this extraordinary expansion in the numbers of houses required, not least on ground of water provision. How on earth can the Government square their demands that the water companies cut prices—partly, in our area, by postponing the building of new reservoirs—while wishing upon our area a quantity of houses for which there is simply no water provision? That is hardly an example of joined-up government.

My main argument is that, however many houses we eventually have to accept for demographic reasons and so on, we cannot continue to rely on existing planning methods. At the moment, speculative builders are compelled by the planning laws to take each field as it falls vacant—or as they can get hold of it or take it out of their land bank—and bid for as many houses as possible, regardless of local preferences. It is very hard for councils to define the type of house—

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

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rowe

I shall take one intervention. I am trying to be brief.

Mr. White

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why planning changes in the 1980s forced developers to take that route, and how the Conservative Government caused many developers to take such a view?

Mr. Rowe

As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, no doubt, I do not feel that we have ever, in this country, got right the business of working out where houses should go and the type of houses that we should build. That is not something to be laid at the feet of any one Government. What is crystal clear is that the Government, who are continuously losing credibility as they try to blame everything on their predecessor, have no serious proposals to make on the issue.

Why, for example, when so many well-off retired people choose to spend their money on sheltered housing of the type that McCarthy and Stone or English Courtyard put up, and when, at the other end of the income range, there is such a huge demand for almshouses that one cannot get into them for love or money, does no one appear to feel that it is necessary to build the type of accommodation for less-well-off people that that demands? If it were properly provided, it would make tremendous savings in social services and other support services. If we want joined-up government, we must think across budgets.

I suspect—I have no idea whether it is true, but we should certainly try to find out—that many in single-parent households, which are partly to blame for the new increase in the number of households, would be a great deal happier in accommodation that has various shared facilities, such as a communal room in which to entertain, than being compelled to live in detached, tiny properties where they feel so isolated that they often get into further difficulties.

Builders sell what they sold the last time. The planning system creates artificial shortages, so there is virtually no choice for purchasers. They buy what is available, to which builders say, "We have sold all that we have built, so it must be what everybody wants." As a result, very little effort is made to break the mould, and many builders still sell houses like those their grandfathers built, except with modern appurtenances such as new kitchens.

I have played a role in the campaign for lifetime homes—the building of new houses that allow for level-entry access, enabling disabled, old or frail people easier use of their homes. I am very pleased to welcome the new planning regulations, which have gone some small way towards that.

Too many people live in absolutely foul homes. Local authorities and housing associations are simply not prepared to do them up because, on some unspecified day in the future, they are to be redeveloped. That means that, for a whole generation, some families live in the kind of house that we would not tolerate for ourselves. We have inspectors for pigsties and hen coops, but, as far as I can see, very ineffective inspection mechanisms for people's houses.

Such problems are partly because no Government—this Government have shown even less interest in doing so than their predecessors—will trust people with resources. The idea of giving them a small amount of money to try to improve their housing environment is tried occasionally in odd places, but when it is deemed a success it is never generalised because, in the end, local authorities do not trust people.

Why are we so totally unimaginative about the provision of granny accommodation? It is extremely difficult for people to extend their houses to provide for their elderly relatives—mainly because of planning laws. Why are we so reluctant, for example, to enable people to erect temporary houses? Modern mobile homes provide admirable accommodation for various elderly people. I have seen such housing work extremely well, yet planning regulations are against it. That is fatal.

Last night, we heard the Government's extraordinary argument that more provision in the south-east will benefit the poor. When carried to the extreme, that suggests that the entire population of the United Kingdom could move to the south-east.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's aim of imposing 250,000 new homes on Kent, while, as he said, the Environment Agency is preventing the expansion of water provision and the water regulator is trying to prevent the extension of reservoirs, is absolute nonsense, and that the Government ought to think again?

Mr. Rowe

My hon. Friend confirms the point with which I started: such an argument is as arid and ridiculous as one can imagine.

The Government's argument is exactly comparable to the Deputy Prime Minister's desire to punish motorists so that they will use public transport: that from a man who has never seen Victoria underground station in the rush hour because he drives around in his ministerial car.

10.4 am

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

One of the things that I have found distressing since the publication of the Crow report is the lack of a rational debate about housing in the south-east. I found it disturbing that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) said that the entire United Kingdom population could move to southern England. I seem to recall a former Tory Cabinet Minister saying, "Get on your bike and find a job! Come to the south-east." The hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that.

Another argument seems to be that we can beat market forces. I am a little confused when I hear that deployed by Conservative Members, who argue at the same time that market forces cannot be beaten when it comes to jobs or old-style industries in which people could lose employment.

Mr. Blunt

I was under the distinct impression that the House did precisely that on Monday on behalf of a firm in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Mr. White

I have always argued that we should intervene in the market; it is the Conservative party that has always argued that we should not.

It is important that we get beyond the rhetoric of this debate and yesterday's, and get down to what we want to achieve in the south-east. Reference has been made to the south-east England development agency report. The south-east might be top of the economic activity league table in the United Kingdom, but it is not top of the table in Europe. Over a long period in the early 1990s, we were falling down the table quite rapidly. It is also important to consider the jobs and skills base in the south-east. Then, we may begin to consider housing.

My city has undergone similar growth to Reading, Wokingham and the Berkshire area over the past 30 years, but, because it was planned, and the development corporation and private investors worked together, the city works. We do not have the congestion that is suffered around Reading, Wokingham and Newbury.

The question is one not of providing no more housing or of concreting over everything, but of what is appropriate.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Concrete cows?

Mr. White

I point out to my hon. Friend that the growth of Milton Keynes has resulted in the planting of 22 million trees. There is more green space in the city than in many urban areas. Having planned properly, such space has been built into the city.

If we are to have jobs and provide quality of life, we must have a more rational debate. Just to say no is a fair response, but would result in rising house prices in urban Portsmouth and any other town in the south-east. Demand would still be apparent, but supply scarce. It is a basic law of economics that prices would rise as a result. Conservative Members may not mind that, but I argue that that is how to cause social disruption and chaos. It would not solve the economic issues in the south-east, such as the creation of jobs. In some rural communities, particularly villages, simply saying no leads to people having to move away from their parents and grandparents, losing continuity with their families.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

I think that every Conservative Member accepts that there must be some additional housing; the question is how much. These plans are absurd and without precedent. The hon. Gentleman talked of green spaces in Milton Keynes, but does he not realise that the plans will close all green gaps between rural settlements in my constituency and those of many Members on both sides of the House? Local people will not accept that their concerns and wishes are being overridden by the Government—

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

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making an intervention, not a speech.

Mr. White

I do not know the particulars of the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and I would not dream of commenting on it. However, a blanket decision to build no housing or to build everywhere is the wrong approach.

Before I entered the House, I was chair of the Local Government Association planning committee, and before that, the planning committee of the Association of District Councils. I had to discuss with Conservative Ministers planning guidance notes on behalf of local government. The concerns that have been expressed this morning were not the concerns that we heard from Ministers at that time.

In Castlethorpe, a village in my constituency, the building of an extra dozen houses kept open the local school, pub and shop because there was sufficient economic activity in the village for those facilities to keep going. If you are saying that there should have been no development in that village—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Chair does not say anything in these debates.

Mr. White

My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the Opposition are saying that there should be no development, the village would have lost its pub, shop and school, and we would have heard from the Opposition an outcry about the rural economy such as we heard last week. That is a direct result of their blinkered policy and knee-jerk reaction.

Mr. Gale

What we are saying is that the Government seek to foist 250,000 new homes on Kent, without taking into account the fact that the people living in those homes will require water, sewerage, education and so on. When will the Government join up and bring together the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and other relevant Departments to make provision before the proposals are put through Parliament?

Mr. White

If the hon. Gentleman is saying that there should be proper planning provision for water, schools and infrastructure, I entirely agree. However, if he is saying that the Serplan figures as presented were not a political fix by the Tory-run county councils in the south-east of England going against their officers' advice and coming to a political conclusion before presenting that report to Government, he is not living in the real world. That is exactly what happened under Serplan. It was a political fix and an attempt by Tory councils in the south-east of England to embarrass the Government. Professor Crow did a good job in exposing the fact that Serplan deliberately distorted the figures in an attempt to provoke an argument with the Government.

Mr. Hoyle

Does my hon. Friend agree that before any planning application and during the discussions, one of the bodies consulted is the water authority, which is asked whether it can provide enough water and deal with the sewage for any proposed development? That is the way in which the planning system was set up by the previous Government. If the Opposition now want the water companies to be taken back into public hands, I support that, but the companies' rules clearly state that they must be notified of planning applications.

Mr. White

My hon. Friend makes an important point, contrasting the policies of the previous Conservative Government with the present knee-jerk reaction of the Conservatives in opposition.

In my city there are 750 families in temporary accommodation. Opposition Members say that we should not be dealing with that problem, but they are wrong. In respect of Milton Keynes—I am not speaking of the south-east generally—Professor Crow's report is balanced and offers sensible suggestions regarding the way forward for the Milton Keynes-Bedford triangle.

One of the Opposition's arguments is that the green belt is sacrosanct and should not change. I remind hon. Gentlemen that it was a Labour Government who created the green belt in 1947, opposed by some of the predecessors of the current Opposition. If hon. Gentlemen think that everything in the green belt is a green field, they obviously do not know what the green belt looks like in some areas. If swapping parts of the green belt is beneficial for the local community, and if the local community wants to do so, as has been done—to be fair to the previous Government, they allowed that in certain circumstances—that is a reasonable position.

The fact that there will be more green belt as a result of the changes in Stevenage is a positive development. I would argue that the green belt ought to be extended. There is no green belt round my city, but the concept of linear parks has been devised, which did more than a green belt would have done. The debate must be conducted on a more rational basis. Economic issues should be at the heart of the debate and should be taken more seriously than has been the case hitherto.

The Opposition imply that the Government have already reached a decision on the Crow report. All that has happened is that Tory counties dominating Serplan have put forward proposals, an inspector has sat in public, heard evidence and made a recommendation to the Government, to which they have yet to respond. It is hardly a case of the Government telling councils what to do. The Opposition suggest that the Government will accept every dot and comma in the report, but I should be surprised if they did.

May I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that when the Government consider the Crow report as it relates to Milton Keynes, they view it as a sensible way forward? Growth will take place because market forces dictate that—I find it strange that Opposition Members think that they can defeat market forces—and if market forces dictate that growth will occur, it should be sustainable, planned and locally accountable. I hope that the Minister will apply that in respect of Milton Keynes.

10.17 am
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on initiating the debate. For the sake of brevity, may I say that I entirely endorse his analysis of the Crow report.

We debated the issue yesterday, and we return to it today. I hope that that sends a clear message to the Government that we will not let the matter drop. I make no apology for returning to it yet again, as it is supremely important to my constituency since the unprecedented approval by the Government for the building of 10,000 houses in the green belt west of Stevenage in my constituency.

That decision will be devastating locally for the environment, and for transport, the resources and facilities of our area, but it is not just an issue of local importance. It affects not just Hitchin or Hertfordshire. It affects the entire country, wherever there is greenbelt land. Planning proceeds by precedent. If the decision is allowed to go ahead, it will be cited as a precedent elsewhere.

Throughout my 16 years in Parliament, there has been pressure on the green belt in the area that I represent. I have appeared at public inquiries whenever proposals have come forward, and we have seen every one off. Not a single acre has been lost to house building from greenbelt land in my area. However, this decision creates the biggest-ever precedent of which I am aware for building in the green belt. By approving it, the Deputy Prime Minister has driven a coach and horses—perhaps I should say two Jags and all their horsepower—through the sanctity of the green belt. Unless his decision is reversed or restricted, it will be quoted in every constituency where there is greenbelt land.

I want to warn hon. Members that those pressures will be accentuated because of the Crow report. The Government must reject it, for the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere.

Mr. White

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lilley

I will give way to the soon-to-depart Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White). His speech will not go down well with people in his area.

Mr. White

If my getting here was unlikely, my return will disappoint the right hon. Gentleman even more. He said that the Government have already made a decision on the report and then he asked them to reject it. When did the Government agree the Crow report?

Mr. Lilley

I was referring to the Government's approval of a planning decision for 10,000 houses on greenbelt land in my constituency.

The Government should reject the Crow report. It is strange that they refused to do so yesterday, and we shall see whether they refuse to do so today. The report is contrary to their policy of rejecting the predict-and-provide approach. It is strange that they do not reject it, because it conflicts with Lord Rogers's urban task force, which the Government set up, and with the will of the vast majority of people.

When I first took the Deputy Prime Minister to task for approving the decision to build up to 10,000 houses in my constituency, he justified his approval by alleging that there was local democratic support. That was nonsense. It had been steamrollered through the county council by the Lib-Lab coalition, which had an overall majority of one. The council knew that it could not count on that majority because some of its members, rightly, were prepared to rebel on the issue. The standing orders were changed and the matter was put through a sub-committee where there was a majority. The council undemocratically refused to let the matter come before the full council. That decision was steamrollered through with the approval of only 14 out of 72 members on the council in Hertfordshire. It was never democratic.

Since the Deputy Prime Minister cited democracy as his reason for giving approval, the Conservatives have regained control of Hertfordshire, not least because of that issue. The Conservatives have also regained control of North Hertfordshire district council by a thumping majority, also because of that issue.

There is massive public disapproval of building on the green belt. There is massive public concern about the Crow report. The Government should reject it, and do so rapidly. They should at least return to the already very high projections that were being worked on before. If they do not, they will find that many Labour Members, who are not present today, who refused to sign the letter asking the Government to reject the Crow report, will not be back here after the next election.

10.23 am
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing this important debate. When the news of the Crow report was released in Hampshire, there was genuine shock and concern among my constituents and constituencies across the entire Hampshire region. It was one of the few times since I became a Member of Parliament that my telephone began to ring quickly after an announcement. It is because of that shock and concern that I am disappointed with the quality of the debate last night and this morning. We appear to be listening to a history lesson on party politics about who said what and how much greenbelt or brownbelt land has been built on. Some speeches have tried to blame a certain party for this development.

I can say categorically that my constituents and others in the south-east do not want this to be turned into a cheap party political issue. They want to see a way forward to solve some of the difficulties that we all face in our areas as Members of Parliament.

Mr. Rapson

I want to thank the Gentleman because, when this issue broke, he was the first person to contact me. I appreciated that because he wanted to talk constructively about the way ahead. The hon. Gentleman is trying to keep this out of the political arena and work constructively.

Mr. Oaten

Hon. Members may laugh, but, among Hampshire Members, there has been cross-party support, Tory and Labour. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) has responded to a letter from me to take part in this debate. I appreciate the fact that, across Hampshire, we have managed to keep politics out of this issue. That must be the way forward if we are to serve our constituents properly.

Hampshire Members are concerned that, over a couple of years, Hampshire has gone through a process of battling with the difficult figures that have been imposed on us. We have just agreed on a figure of 56,000 homes for the Hampshire area. That took considerable manipulation of public opinion. It was difficult to persuade people that that figure could be accepted—most of the community were, like me, against it. Therefore, one can imagine the horror when, having agreed on 56,000, we are told one week later that the figure for Hampshire should be 169,000, making it the highest figure of all the south-east counties.

Mr. Love

Does the hon. Gentleman reject the collective nimbyism of the Conservative party? If so, does he accept, as the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs does, the robustness of the figures showing the need for additional housing over the next 20 years? Does he also accept that if we do not build that housing, people will go without?

Mr. Oaten

People need housing in the south-east and I do not take a nimby approach, but I am concerned about the public's confusion.

We hear some encouraging noises from the Government. We hear that they do not want to build on greenfield land, that they want to protect the countryside, reduce traffic growth, encourage bottom-up planning and address the difference of the balance of growth between the regions. They also want to try to end the policy of predict and provide. The public hear those announcements and are encouraged, but the report from Professor Crow contradicts all that. It is no wonder that the public feel confused and let down by their politicians.

The Government's response to the report presents the Deputy Prime Minister with the first opportunity to demonstrate that he means some of the rhetoric. I hope that, when the Government respond—perhaps the Minister will do so this morning—they will show that the language that they have used will be matched by their response to the document.

The biggest area in which the Crow report is out of sync with moving Government opinion is on the whole issue of predict and provide. We know that predict and provide is a hit-and-miss approach to housing. We know that if the figures are wrong and there is building on greenfield land, it can no longer go back to being greenfield land. It is a dangerous approach, which we reject. However, some individuals argue that such housing would be a good thing for the south-east. We are seeing the development of some organisations that are arguing that the south-east should be the powerhouse of Europe, that it should be in the top 10 regions of Europe and that we should be moving forward and making it dynamic region.

I do not want the south-east to be one of the top 10 regions in Europe if the price for that is ruining our countryside, clogging up our roads even more and making our schools too full. That is not the approach we want. Of course we want economic advantages in the south-east, but quality of life is a much more important principle than some of the economic gains. If the price of that is building new houses, I reject that approach.

We should also be looking at a balance of economic gain among the regions. Pushing the south-east forward in the way that is being suggested by some of the housing figures and documents I have read is not the right way forward. We need to balance the north-south divide. I am sure that hon. Members who represent seats in the midlands and the north would welcome some urban regeneration and progress in their areas.

Even if we believed that we needed these housing numbers in the future, in reality, what we would get would not meet demand. In the future, we will need more homes for single and elderly people. A great deal of demographic evidence suggests that that is correct. The Crow report is a green light to developers to build four and five-bedroom executive homes on greenfield sites with no infrastructure next to them. That is not where our new homes and our future population need to be.

In the Whiteley area of my constituency, I have seen what can go wrong when greenfield sites are suddenly covered with such executive homes. There is a development of nice homes in Whiteley, but no community. There are no postboxes or telephone boxes, no bus routes through the development and no community centre. The local schools cannot take the children who live in that development, and there is pressure on the GPs in the area. There is disquiet about traffic problems, because there is chaos day in, day out from traffic trying to get into the area. Those problems were caused because the planning was ill thought through. Homes are built on green fields without the infrastructure being put in place.

Mr. White

One problem is that the type of housing to be built is not a planning consideration. Social housing should be a planning consideration, so that the authority can dictate what type of housing should be built in a particular area.

Mr. Oaten

The hon. Gentleman is right. We should find ways of building more affordable homes in the south-east.

If we are to avoid the Whiteleys and the big greenfield developments that do not work, we must provide more affordable housing. We should build more housing in villages, so that our youngsters can stay there. We need housing to ensure that young professional couples on fairly small salaries can afford to live in those communities. In Winchester, the price of housing is phenomenal and out of all proportion. We must have much more affordable housing in the future.

Will the Minister please consider the report carefully? This is not a party political issue: it is about what the south-east needs. The report will not deliver the homes that we need in the south-east. We need a more creative solution, and I hope that the Government will consider that carefully.

10.31 am
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I should like to follow the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) by giving practical examples of where the planning process is going wrong and where it will go further wrong. In the villages of Beltinge and Broomfield in Herne Bay in my constituency, planning applications have been submitted for hundreds of houses. No consideration has properly been given to the fact that there is insufficient water and primary health care provision, that the junior schools in Herne Bay are bursting at the seams, and that the secondary school is over-subscribed and the children have to travel out of the town past their nearest school to another school to obtain their education.

The Environment Agency, for its own ludicrous reasons, is trying to prevent Mid Kent Water from extending a reservoir. The water regulator, under pressure from the Government, is trying to cut the investment by Mid Kent Water in capital projects by a massive 40 per cent. Southern Water, which is responsible for the disposal of sewage in the area, is also having its capital expenditure cut. The Government have cut their contribution to Kent county council's funds, leaving less money for investment in education, while the council is having to find £5 million to subsidise asylum seekers under a programme that the Government have failed to get to grips with. That is not joined-up government.

Crow proposes to impose 250,000 homes on the county of Kent with no consideration of how water, sewage services, medical care or education will be provided. Unless and until this joined-up Government can do joined-up writing and read joined-up writing, this project will be an absolute disaster. I urge the Government to review and reject the Crow report.

It was said earlier that the previous Government had rigged Serplan to reduce the number of houses. Let me tell the Minister and her Back-Bench colleagues that I and others fought furiously the then Minister, our former colleague Robert Jones, when he tried to impose even those figures on the south-east. The current proposal is not a step too far, it is a mile and a half too far and it cannot go ahead.

10.34 am
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) that the proposal for 1.1 million new houses in the south-east over the next 20 years, including 150,000 extra houses under the latest plans in my county of Essex, is environmental vandalism and is unacceptable because of the strains that it would place on the infrastructure. Soulless communities would emerge from such a mass of housing in my county.

If these plans were to go ahead, Essex would have to provide more than 150,000 extra homes. That is 7,500 extra homes a year, which is equivalent to 62 square miles of land in Essex. Under the existing structure plan for 1996–2011, Essex was expecting to build 78,600 new homes. Under the current proposals, as upgraded by the Crow report, there would be a 43 per cent. increase in those projections. Similarly, under the structure plan proposals, 12,000 houses were expected to be built on greenfield sites. Under the latest projections, 46,000 houses would concrete over greenfield sites in Essex.

Mid-Essex would be expected to take a disproportionate amount of the housing for the county. Villages such as Boreham, which is about four miles from the outskirts of Chelmsford, would become a suburb of Chelmsford because of the 11,000 homes that would be built in the north-east of the town. The whole of the A12 corridor would have to be built on to meet those targets. That is wrong and unacceptable, and the infrastructure could not cope. Soulless new housing estates would be built, and that would lead to acts of vandalism through mindless boredom because of the sheer numbers. I urge the Government to reject the report.

10.36 am
Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing a debate on this subject. His constituency marches with mine. It is not possible to read speeches into the record, but I should like Hansard to repeat my hon. Friend's speech under my name, deleting Hertsmere and replacing it with South-West Hertfordshire, because I have the same problems as he has. The idea of covering 28 sq km of Hertfordshire in concrete is unacceptable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) sent a good letter to two-Jags, our Deputy Prime Minister, complaining about what was happening under Serplan and Crow. Some Liberal Democrats signed it, because they know a good thing when they see it. Despite the brave words of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson), no Labour Member signed it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) has explained the change of balance and control in Hertfordshire. The Liberal Democrats supported the Labour party in the county. In Hemel Hempstead, which was an impossible seat for the Conservatives to win as it was a strong Labour seat, this was the No. 1 issue and a Conservative councillor was elected. In a perverse way, I welcome these proposals, because the Labour gains in the general election will melt like snow at the next election.

I can read into the record the comments made by practically everyone connected with planning. They condemn what is going on, except the House-Builders Federation, which of course is in favour of it. The chairman of the environment committee in my council, Jane Pitman, said: I am absolutely stunned. The figure is an early Christmas present to the developers. I have had letters from my two councils warmly praising the stand that we are taking against these developments.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made the point that there is no provision for water, schools, health care and sewerage. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) is wrong. The water companies have a legal obligation to supply water to houses, and they cannot block that.

I detect a political spin. The Government produced figures to Serplan from a smoke-filled room and there was a huge outcry. What have they done? They have got a tame professor and an appointed panel, and have come up with an even larger figure. In the fullness of time, the Government will reject Crow and everyone will say, "What a reasonable, kind Government to go back to Serplan"—go back to a plan that will create a new town next to my right hon. Friend's constituency.

I do not believe that these proposals will wash. They will not work. It will mean electoral gains for us, but will be a disaster for South-West Hertfordshire.

10.40 am
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing the debate. He was, as always, assiduous in presenting the concerns of his constituents. I also welcome the Minister to her relatively new job. This is her second outing on the subject of the debate in as many days, and I assure her that it will not be her last.

I note in passing that the Minister does not have the benefit of the presence of the Minister for Housing and Planning beside her today. No doubt he is tied up, if not with affairs of state, at least with the campaign of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) for the post of mayor of London.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Next year, draft regional planning guidance will be published, and then there will be a period of consultation. Would it not be sensible if, during that period, the new Minister visited the counties concerned as part of the consultation, and heard at first hand the concerns of local people about the impact of the proposals on counties such as Oxfordshire?

Mr. Waterson

I agree. I think that Ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, should make their own contribution to breaking down the north-south divide in this regard.

One of the casualties of the reshuffle in which the Minister was promoted was the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). Like the Deputy Prime Minister, Conservative Members regret his passing. Now there was a Minister who knew all about development on the green belt.

Yesterday, the Minister ploughed through her script, refusing to take interventions and ducking many of the questions raised by my hon. Friends. Today, as luck would have it, she has the opportunity to put that right. Yesterday, she spent an inordinate amount of time attacking the record of previous Conservative Governments; I hope that, today, she will tell us about the future.

When it comes to the environment, Labour Members say one thing and do another. They used reassuring words before the election about protecting our environment, but, in office, the reality is very different. Halfway through this Parliament, it is plain for all to see that two key policies are failing: Labour's regional policy, and its policy to encourage more new development on recycled or brownfield land.

Labour set up an urban task force chaired by the eminent Lord Rogers, which reported with some 105 recommendations. At the last count, the Government had implemented only one, and that only on a pilot basis. Lord Rogers also had some uncomfortable things to say about the current direction of Government policy. The task force concluded that the Government had no prospect of achieving even their own target of 60 per cent. new development on brownfield sites on the basis of existing policies. That, it thought, could be achieved only through a shift of the regional balance of wealth and opportunity to regenerate the towns and cities of the north and the midlands. This is the first recorded example of a Government being sunk by its own task force.

Professor Crow's report, of which we have heard a great deal this morning, makes it clear that the target for new housing on recycled land is to be reduced from 60 to 50 per cent.

This is also a tale of two Britains. It is, to say the least, ironic that, last week, the eight regional developments agencies delivered their 10-year blueprints to the Deputy Prime Minister against a background of growing turmoil over the Government's plans for massive new house building in the south-east and elsewhere. In my so-called region of the south-east, the RDA has come up with a range of proposals to make the south-east "a world-class region" and one of the top 10 in Europe. No doubt that will be welcomed in the pockets of relative lack of prosperity in the south-east, but what does it mean for parts of the south-east that are already in danger of economic overheating, let alone those in less fortunate parts of the country which were hoping that the Government's policies would help them to catch up? Whatever happened to joined-up government?

Now, in very short order, we have seen two dramatic developments: the publication of Professor Crow's panel report, and the leaked report from the Government's performance and innovation unit. The latter is very worrying, because it advocates a loosening of planning controls on development on farm land, stating that the presumption within national policy against development of best and most versatile land should be removed". We have heard a great deal about the conclusions of the Crow panel about the alleged need for 1.1 million more homes in the south-east before 2016.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Crow proposals are wholly unrealistic? The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) articulated the concerns of all of us who represent Hampshire constituencies. During the 1990s, an average of 5,800 dwellings a year have been built in Hampshire, including the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton, and, if the Crow requirements are to be met, 8,500 will need to be built per annum. That is simply not attainable.

Mr. Waterson

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The suggestion that there should be a 64 per cent. increase in the south-east over and above even the projections of Serplan is quite barmy—the equivalent, as we have heard, of five cities the size of Southampton. As the Council for the Protection of Rural England has pointed out, the Crow report puts more than 430 sq km of rural land—an area larger than the Isle of Wight—under the threat of urban sprawl.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

The Conservative Opposition have spoken against housing on greenfield sites. Do the same arguments apply to commercial development on such sites?

Mr. Waterson

There are major considerations relating to new commercial development on greenfield sites, but this debate is primarily about housing.

The debate casts a penetrating spotlight on the accelerating migration from north to south in our country. As I have said, this is a tale of two Britains with an ever-widening gulf between them, and of Ministers who are apparently unwilling or powerless to reverse the trend—but reverse it we must, unless countless acres of green field are to be concreted over for ever. That is why we are proposing a different planning regime in areas that are already prosperous, and whose infrastructure is under pressure. The aim is to relieve pressure on those areas, while encouraging regeneration and economic development in other areas so that the brightest and the best will not move south, but will stay where they are to make their own contribution to that regeneration and development.

Here we have two flagship Government policies that are in crisis—that are clearly failing. The results are potentially catastrophic. We have heard today of the likely effects on a number of constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere described the problems faced by Hertfordshire, and many others representing constituencies in the area have made similar points. We have also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and from South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page), and we heard a powerful speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who mentioned the 10,000 new homes planned for his area.

My hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) both asked where these new homes are supposed to go. How is an infrastructure that is often already strained to bursting point supposed to cope? What is to be done about roads, schools, hospitals and natural resources such as water? The Government's policy makes a mockery of sustainable development.

Nor are these concerns limited to Conservative Members. A letter signed by nearly 70 Members representing constituencies in the south-east, organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and delivered to the Deputy Prime Minister last Friday, bears the signatures of Liberal Democrats as well as Conservatives. Sadly, it does not bear the name of a single Labour Member. Do Labour Members not care about the likely effects on their constituents in areas such as Crawley and Milton Keynes, or are they too cowed by their Whips?

Some, however, are made of sterner stuff—for instance, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who, referring to plans to build more housing near Newcastle, said in February last year: I put it to my right hon. Friend that that sort of madness is deeply ingrained and must be stopped rather than merely discouraged."—[Official Report, 3 February 1998; Vol. 305, c. 826.] Let us hope that the hon. Gentleman's translation to being a Minister in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will bring some sense to bear on the Government's policies.

In yesterday's debate, the Minister for Housing and Planning was pressed more than once to disown the panel's report. He refused. Indeed, he rather ominously went on to claim that densities in the south-east were the lowest in the country. In an earlier debate, he accepted that there would be more encroachment on to the green belt. Are Ministers preparing a way for the massive new development foreshadowed by the report? Why are Ministers so determined not to disown it? Why can they not welcome the common-sense approach advocated by us—in short, a common-sense revolution in planning?

We say that decisions on local planning should be made in and by local communities that are affected by those decisions, with minimum interference from Ministers and civil servants. The Government say that they no longer believe in predict and provide, but they cling to housing figures that are being dictated from on high.

It comes to this. The evidence is overwhelming. The Government seem prepared to preside over a bricks-and-mortar invasion of the south-east to allow the concreting-over of vast swathes of our countryside, destroying some ancient and picturesque communities. How can we reach any other conclusion when Ministers refuse to disown the panel report's conclusions? I call on the Minister to come clean on the Government's attitude to the report and to take the opportunity to declare that it is wrong-headed, dangerous and wholly unacceptable in a democratic society. Will she grasp that opportunity now?

10.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on his choice of subject for the Adjournment debate. I listened carefully to the tone of his speech. It is sad that he was badly let down by the speech of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, which cut across a reasonable effort—which I was prepared to try to rise to—to begin to have a sensible and constructive debate about the issue.

Housing in the south-east has been, and will remain for some time, a source of intense interest. That is absolutely right. People are worried about the effects of unconstrained house building. Several Members have voiced their concerns about the effects that it might have on different communities.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere made a plea that, in my response, I would demonstrate an understanding of those concerns and a willingness to approach the matter with full seriousness before the Government give their response. I am happy to give him those two assurances, but I make a plea to Opposition Members: they should recognise that serious and extensive consideration of the complex issues involved is needed, and that they should not resort to knee-jerk reactions, in the way that many have.

Mr. Clappison

I am grateful to the Minister for saying that she is listening, but I also asked her to look at the alternatives. I specifically invited her to look at the common-sense alternatives that have been suggested by the Conservative Front-Bench team. May I gently give her the following warning? If the Government do not do that, they will face a wave of anger in the south-east that is even bigger than the wave of anger coming from the rural communities.

Ms Hughes

We will consider what the panel report says and say what we think about it. That will include other options.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hughes

No. I will make a little progress and then I will be pleased to give way.

I outline why my plea for serious consideration of the issues is important. The debate on housing in the south-east illustrates the potential conflicts that we all seek to resolve. The south-east needs jobs. It needs to be competitive in the international economy. I am surprised to hear that the Liberal Democrats do not want the south-east to be among the top 10 European regions. We should not pull down the shutters and tell firms to go elsewhere. The south-east supports London—

Mr. Oaten

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hughes

I will carry on for a moment and make my point. The hon. Gentleman has had his opportunity.

The south-east supports London, one of the few world cities of immense financial importance. The combined pull of London and the south-east ensures that the United Kingdom stays attractive to international investors. It is all in the melting pot in the debate on the south-east—jobs, housing, regional imbalances, international competitive, the strength of the UK economy. It is a big picture.

Therefore, we need to continue to attract high-value enterprises and employment to the region. Employees will need decent homes to live in. Employers need to know that they will be able to attract good-quality workers who can live in the area in which they work. Although we will increasingly support efforts to bring the economic attractiveness and capacity of other regions up to those of the south-east, we must not allow ourselves to constrain the south-east to the extent that it fails to realise its economic potential for the UK as a whole.

Mr. Oaten


Mr. Howarth


Ms Hughes

I give way initially to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten).

Mr. Oaten

I make it clear that the Liberal Democrats of course support economic vibrancy in the south-east, but not if the price is housing on green fields, clogged-up roads and infrastructure that cannot cope with that development.

Ms Hughes

The record will show that the hon. Gentleman said that, if the price was too high, he would not want the south-east to be one of the top 10 European regions. That is a serious matter for the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Howarth

The Minister has accused Opposition Members, and I include the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), of a knee-jerk reaction. That is not so. The Serplan proposals have been debated for years. There has been careful consideration of all the factors that she has mentioned and now Professor Crow has come along and thrown the whole thing into turmoil—the whole south-east is in turmoil as a result of that man. It is incumbent on the Government to say that they will swiftly consider—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That intervention is far too long.

Ms Hughes

I will deal with that matter when I come to it in my speech.

We need to recognise that people in the south-east will also suffer if we do not provide housing. House prices will rise and poorer members of communities will be squeezed out. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) alluded to the social problems that can occur.

At the same time, we are conscious of the need to safeguard and enhance the environment of the region. Environmental quality is an important attractor in its own right. There is superb countryside. We want to retain that landscape and biodiversity.

Previous Labour Governments developed the planning system precisely to enable the countryside to be protected and to get away from sprawl. Let us contrast that planned approach with the years of Tory failure. I will not go into that in detail again. We rehearsed it last night and Opposition Members' interventions have taken my time, but they know the record and it stands for anyone to see.

The problem is that, having built inertia to sprawl and car dependence, the Opposition and their local authority members do not like the consequences. The tragedy is that they are trying, Canute like, to stop the drift from towns, hoping that attempting to stop housing developments in the face of housing needs will solve their problem. The Government have set about revising policy to allow more sustainable development—sustainable in environmental, economic and social terms.

We are revising planning guidance. We have introduced the new deal for transport, the urban task force—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) approached the Chair and stated that I had been unfair to him because I had shortened his intervention. It is my duty to ensure that interventions are short. The occupant of the Chair is even handed with every hon. Member, no matter which part of the House in which they sit. I put that on the record. I certainly do not wish hon. Members to come to the Chair and to tell me what my duties are and what my job should be.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will not take up the time of the Minister because I know that she has to respond to the debate. I will refer the matter to you privately afterwards, if I may. I apologise if I have—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order. If the hon. Gentleman has any worries or concerns about my conduct in the Chair, he should take the matter up with Madam Speaker.

Ms Hughes

It is unfortunate, given the manner in which I was prepared to approach the debate, that the antics of Opposition Members have severely curtailed my time and that I cannot make some of the reasoned points that I would have wished to make.

Let us get a couple of things straight about the panel report. The Government did not produce the Serplan report, as the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) contended. The Government did not produce the independent panel report. That report was prepared after an exhaustive examination in public. It sets out its case strongly.

Mr. Page

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hughes

No, I will not give way to anyone else.

The panel heard the views of different interested parties in the region. It listened carefully to those views and Opposition Members know its conclusions; I will not rehearse them. The Government will respond to Serplan and the panel report when we are ready, which will be as soon as possible. We do not want the matter to drag on and we consider seriously the views of Opposition and Labour Members.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We now come to the next debate.

Back to