HC Deb 04 April 2000 vol 347 cc795-8
6. Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

What plans he has to increase housing density in the south-east of England. [116147]

The Minister for Housing and Planning(Mr. Nick Raynsford)

Planning policy guidance note 3, which we issued on 7 March, makes it clear that local authorities should plan for quality development and more efficient use of land. They should avoid housing densities of less than 30 dwellings per hectare net and encourage developments of between 30 and 50 dwellings per hectare net. Those policies are also reflected in the draft changes to the regional planning guidance for the south-east, which we published on 27 March.

Jane Griffiths

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to increase housing density in areas such as my constituency in the heart of the Thames valley, in the interests not only of sustainability, but of affordability, so that key workers such as nurses, teachers and bus drivers can afford to come and live in such areas?

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend makes two valid points. First, she highlights the importance of concentrating development in brownfield sites and of contributing toward urban renaissance, both of which form a crucial part of our planning policy guidance on housing and our regional planning guidance for the south-east. Secondly, she emphasises the importance of doing more to house people in need, who have difficulty obtaining housing in areas of great pressure, such as the Thames valley. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is shortly to make a statement on our housing Green Paper, in which we expand on our policies to meet those objectives.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister back to the House after four weeks' absence. Now that we know what was in the Budget, we understand why he disappeared to Brazil. We also understand why, unusually, there was no Budget debate on Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions spending—there is to be hardly any DETR spending.

Will the Minister for Housing and Planning explain his arithmetic on the question of housing densities? Does he recall that the Government's proposed building rate will force councils in the south-east to build 900,000 new houses in the next 20 years, and that the Government insist that 60 per cent. of those dwellings should be built on brownfield sites? Will he confirm that 60 per cent. of 900,000 means 540,000 new houses on brownfield land? Does he recall the House of Commons Library estimate that only a maximum of 10,000 hectares are available on brownfield land? Can he tell us, therefore, what density level is needed to build 540,000 houses on 10,000 hectares, and how that compares with the density levels that he just cited and those already achieved in major cities such as London and Manchester?

Mr. Raynsford

May I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box? He has shown a certain reticence about appearing since his appointment. He has clearly misunderstood the main thrust of PPG3 and our regional planning guidance for the south-east. Predict and provide, which was the hallmark of his party's Government, is dead. We are no longer producing 20-year projections of housing.

The hon. Gentleman knows that we are concentrating on annual build rates, which in the case of the south-east is 43,000. Looking at the figures, he will realise that there is a plentiful supply of brownfield sites to meet the needs of the south-east over the next five years. His figures are wrong. In future, he should do his homework before coming to the House.

Mr. Norman

The figures are not mine—they come from the House of Commons Library. They are the Minister's figures, and it is a matter of pure arithmetic. He has not attempted to answer the question, so let me answer it for him. The answer is 54 houses per hectare—higher than the figure that he cited, and higher than the density achieved in London. That target is regarded as wholly unachievable by every council leader in the south-east. Incidentally, it is no good the Minister speaking about five years, since every local council has to produce a structure plan for 10 years or more.

As that level of density is unachievable, does the Minister concede that many thousands of extra houses will be built on green fields? While we are about it, will he say who will pay for all the knock-on infrastructure—2,000 km of extra roads, 300,000 new school places, and 3,000 new hospital places? How will he deal with the extra commuting and congestion in the most congested parts of the country? Is it not time that he recognised that his entire policy is not just a disaster for the countryside, but unaffordable? As the Deputy Prime Minister said to the Prime Minister, fancy dancing with figures is counterproductive.

Mr. Raynsford

It seemed to be quite a long time before the hon. Gentleman got to the point. May I remind him that what he is suggesting comes a little rich from the party that was represented by greenfield building all over the south-east, out-of-town shopping centres, motorways driven across countryside, and by the contempt for the environment in the south-east which characterised the term of that party in power?

The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand that our new policy means the end of predict and provide. It means annual build rates, not 20-year projections; concentrating development on brownfield sites; and getting higher quality developments in the cities as part of an urban renaissance. It is about time that his party woke up to the reality, rather than looking back to the disaster that the Conservatives caused when they were in office.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

Will my hon. Friend comment on the view that a greater density of housing requires a lower land take? Has his Department done any work on the relationship of higher density to lower land take, particularly in the light of the various figures put forward for housing in the south-east, and in view of the land that has already been allocated for housing in local authority plans?

Mr. Raynsford

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have taken action where the previous Government did nothing, by publishing the national land use database to give us basic information about the availability of land on which plans can then be drawn up for development on brownfield sites. We will take that forward, as the NLUD needs to be improved over time. It has made an important start, but we can do better. Through capacity studies, we will also develop a closer analysis of what can be achieved. I emphasise to my hon. Friend that the key objective is to produce high-quality housing where people will want to live, in order to enhance our urban renaissance policy and to protect the countryside from unnecessary development.