HC Deb 07 March 2000 vol 345 cc863-80 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about national planning guidance for housing and my regional planning guidance for the south-east.

Over the weekend, hon. Members will have seen press reports relating to the statement. Much of what was reported had already been announced to the House in earlier statements, but I regret and denounce the leaks, as I have said before in the House, and I am doing all that I can to prevent them.

Today I am putting in place policies that will radically alter the way in which we build new homes in this country. I want an end to the wasteful, badly located and poorly designed house building that has gone on for the past 20 years. New housing developments can be well-designed, attractive, well-located and in sustainable places to live. They do not have to take up endless acres of our beautiful countryside.

In February 1998, I set out clear principles in my statement to the House on "Planning for the Communities of the Future". Let me remind the House of them. Everyone should have the opportunity of a decent home. We want to see thriving communities in our towns and cities—what Lord Rogers called an urban renaissance. Our housing plans should support sustainable economic growth in all regions. There is a need to use land efficiently. Land is a finite and precious resource which we must conserve wherever possible.

We must have greater respect for our countryside. That is why we have set a national target that 60 per cent. of new homes should use recycled land or buildings. That compares with the previous Government's target of 50 per cent. Finally, we must seek to reduce car dependence by facilitating more walking and cycling, and improve access between housing, jobs, local services and local amenities by planning for mixed use.

I am today publishing our new planning policy guidance note 3 on housing and our response to the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs on the draft guidance note.

Today's new planning guidance for England is not just for individuals, but for thriving communities. Important changes in life styles are taking place in England and throughout Europe, which are leading to an increase in households greater than the population growth. No one is asking members of the public to change their existing home, but new homes for additional households must provide the variety and choice to meet the needs of the future. I emphasise that 70 per cent. of new households over the next 20 years will be single person households.

Some will be youngsters setting up home. Some will be people living independently of their families. Some will be elderly people living longer. They will not all want, or be able to afford, executive houses in the countryside. Many will need well-designed, well-located homes for rent or to buy that are affordable and that give them a range of choice and a better quality of life. We must therefore plan for those changes.

First, the new sequential approach that is central to our new guidance means that planning authorities must in future give preference to recycling previously developed sites and empty properties—brownfield first, greenfield last.

Secondly, if we are to preserve our countryside and make the best use of spare capacity in our towns, we must make more efficient use of land.

Thirdly, housing must be more affordable. Too many developments make no provision for people on modest incomes. We shall enable local authorities to secure a proportion of affordable housing in larger housing developments, both in urban and in rural areas. That will benefit many single people, low-income families and key workers, such as nurses, teachers and others.

Finally, we must promote mixed-use developments, which integrate housing with shops, local services, transport and jobs. We need sustainable communities, not simply bricks and mortar.

These policies will apply across all the regions of England. Regional planning guidance will put them into practice. The first regional planning guidance will be for the south-east of England, but others will follow in due course.

The south-east is relatively well off, but it lags behind the most prosperous European regions. Moreover, just as in other regions, there are significant areas of unemployment and deprivation within London and the south-east itself. This Government, unlike the previous one, are determined to see fairer sharing in the benefits of growth both between and within regions. One of the reasons why we have established regional development agencies in England's regions is to tackle such disparities.

As I am on that subject, may I just lay to rest one myth perpetuated by the Opposition today, and repeated by the BBC? Let there be no doubt that demand for additional housing in the south-east is not the result of massive north-south migration, but mainly the result of migration within the south-east, particularly from London to surrounding towns and villages.

In deciding how many additional homes need to be provided, I have had to weigh very carefully the different views presented to me. Local authorities in the south-east—known collectively as Serplan, the south-east regional planning committee—proposed that, over 20 years, there should be up to 718,000 additional homes outside London. The proposals were examined in public by a panel led by Professor Stephen Crow, which concluded that provision should be made for 1.1 million additional homes outside London.

All Governments have to make judgments on such strategic issues. Serplan was understandably concerned about the number of new homes to be built in the south-east. However, it failed to take account of future housing needs; did not make provision for affordable housing or account for the growth of single person households; and assumed that there would be the same wasteful use of land as there has been in the recent past.

The Crow panel, for its part, applied a rigid predict and provide approach, and it did not pay sufficient attention to the capacity of London and the south-east to absorb and plan for growth sustainably.

I believe that we must take a different approach. I shall consult local authorities in the south-east on the basis that they should plan, monitor and manage housing provision in their region.

Local authorities should plan to provide 43,000 additional dwellings a year outside London, subject to regular review not less than every five years. It is clear that, using the old 20-year predict and provide system, 43,000 homes annually would add up to 860,000 new homes in total. However, we have moved away from a 20-year plan to our new approach of plan, monitor and manage. No one can with certainty predict how many extra households will exist in 20 years. Our benchmark of 43,000 homes annually is approximately 10 per cent. more than the current rate of construction in the south-east. Professor Crow's recommendations implied a 40 per cent. increase.

Based on the advice of the London Planning Advisory Committee, London should plan to provide 23,000 new homes a year, the vast majority of which will be on brownfield sites. That is a 22 per cent. increase on current build rates and is accepted both by me and, I believe, by all parties. Local authorities should, therefore, plan for that amount of building.

Planning authorities should monitor against a series of indicators, such as house prices and changes in housing stock and vacancies. They should manage and, if necessary, adjust the rate of development in the light of such monitoring.

Additionally, I propose that 60 per cent. of all new homes in the south-east should be provided on brownfield sites. I am determined that we should take as little greenfield land as is necessary to provide the new homes that will be needed. Our proposals will save 42 square miles of countryside compared with Professor Crow' s—enough to build a city the size of Manchester.

Our proposals will provide homes for more people, but because of our policies for less land take, they will use no more land than the Serplan proposals. Our new guidance makes it clear that the Thames gateway will remain a focus for development. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) for his vision of a thriving Thames gateway. Under our plans, which will include an extension of the Thames gateway area and new delivery mechanisms, the area will become a hub for development and regeneration, with fast links to London and Europe.

After brownfield development, the most sustainable greenfield option is to build town extensions. In the south-east I propose that we should investigate the potential for high-quality, well-planned development in two main areas: Milton Keynes and Ashford in Kent. That will all be subject to further studies, which will be taken into account in the next review of planning guidance. For the longer term, consideration will also be given to the possibility of growth in the M11 corridor, including Stansted.

My statement strikes the right balance between competing demands. We are proposing the most radical changes since Labour's Town and Country Planning Act 1947. The old predict and provide approach to housing, which under the Tories gave us urban sprawl, out-of-town shopping and pepper-pot development, is dead. We have adopted a new, more flexible approach that will conserve greenfield land and improve the quality and design of housing developments. It provides for good-quality housing, good design and a range of choice that meets people's needs. I commend the proposals to the House.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's statement and I thank him for the advance copy, which I received just before Question Time. We have come to learn that when he has bad news to announce, it is briefed to the newspapers first and to the House last. It is therefore no surprise that we have already read what the Government would like us to believe in Saturday's and Sunday's papers. The Deputy Prime Minister says that he regrets the leaks, but the Minister for Housing and Planning was on the airwaves on Sunday and this morning briefing with the gist of the statement.

The statement will be greeted with dismay across the south-east. No matter how hard the Deputy Prime Minister tries to scramble the arithmetic, nothing can disguise the volume of housing being imposed against the wishes of local authorities on towns, villages and countryside in the most congested part of the country.

Of course we welcome the changes in planning guidance designed to encourage building on brownfield sites—although we do not believe that the proposals go far enough—and to give local authorities greater control over the type and character of the housing built locally.

I must however remind the House of the facts that lie behind the announcement. In response to pressure from the Government, Serplan recommended a total of 668,000 houses—not the figure that the Deputy Prime Minister has just quoted—to be built over 20 years. That is the equivalent of 33,000 a year. Professor Crow—the inspector appointed by the Deputy Prime Minister—then produced an alternative report recommending a total of 1.1 million houses, which is the equivalent of 54,000 a year. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that, although he talks about 43,000 houses a year and a five-year time horizon, the reality is that over 20 years that will add up to 900,000 houses—equivalent to the building of eight towns the size of Slough? That is substantially ahead of Serplan and will absorb green fields all over the south-east.

Is it not an inevitable consequence of building on such a scale that a large proportion of green fields will be lost for ever? How does the Deputy Prime Minister conclude that no extra green fields will be used up when he is planning to build 200,000 more houses than Serplan recommended? As housing is one issue that remains his direct area of responsibility, I have some specific questions for him.

Since the right hon. Gentleman states that emigration from London is one of the problems that he is trying to address, can he explain how much emigration from London and the town centres in the south-east is implied by his new target? What evidence does he have for his incredible claim that there is no implied migration at all from the cities of the north?

What are the implications of the right hon. Gentleman's projections for congestion in the south-east? In particular, how many extra miles of road will be needed? How many extra school places will be needed? How will the cost of that infrastructure be met? Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us—since it was leaked to The Observer on Sunday—what representations he has made to the Treasury regarding the possibility of lowering the rate of VAT on brownfield conversions, or is this yet another issue where he has been rolled over by the Treasury?

What advice does the Deputy Prime Minister have for local authorities which are now preparing local plans that will have an effect far beyond the five-year period, or is this five-year review a gimmick to avoid focusing on the real target of 900,000 houses over 20 years?

What proportion of the new housing will be suitable for single people and elderly people living alone? Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the majority of houses will be multi-occupational, and that virtually all the houses built on greenfield sites will be multi-occupational? Is that not totally at odds with the Government's own household projections, resulting in the wrong houses in the wrong places?

Does the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledge that, with this announcement, he has given the lie to his own statement to this House on 23 February 1998, when he said in relation to housing that Decentralisation is an essential aim of the Government?—[Official Report, 23 February 1998; Vol. 307, c. 22.] Is not the fact that he has come down from his castle in Hull to tell people in Sussex, Kent and Surrey exactly how many houses will be built, despite the wishes of local councils, a vivid illustration that the system is actually more centralised than ever?

Is it not the truth that this is a black day for the south-east, a disaster for the countryside and a disaster for the inner cities? Is not the real truth that, with this announcement, the Deputy Prime Minister is forcing local authorities in the south-east of England to build the wrong houses in the wrong places against the wishes of almost all local authorities? Is not this truly the end of the Deputy Prime Minister's claim that this Government are the greenest ever?

Mr. Prescott

That is clearly pathetic. Also, the hon. Gentleman has taken no account of the statement I made, in which most of his questions were answered.

The hon. Gentleman seems to doubt that we can achieve the target figure and use less land or the same amount of land as in the Serplan report. It is an argument of density. In the south-east, there are approximately 24 houses per hectare. We are saying clearly that density can be increased to between 30 or 50 houses in urban areas where people want to live. We want to encourage people to live in better-quality communities in better-designed houses, and in urban areas and brownfield, rather than greenfield, sites. It is a simple calculation that the hon. Gentleman will have made in business, where he made most of his money. However, he needs to do it now in the political sense.

It is a bit much for the hon. Gentleman to criticise me and the Government on greenfield sites. We have increased the amount of greenfield and greenbelt land in this country since we came to power. He was a director of a company involved in the encouragement by the previous Administration of the growth of out-of-town shopping centres. There were 190 such centres in 1979, and 1,100 when the Conservatives left office. More greenbelt land was used by Asda and the rest of the out-of-town shopping centres than by any other developments in this country. At least the hon. Gentleman had the decency, when he was a director of Railtrack, not to speak on safety. It would have been better if he had had the decency not to talk about greenfield sites as a member of Asda's board, which was involved in the rush to build on greenfield sites.

The figures can be achieved through the monitoring and planning process that I have outlined. The hon. Gentleman made another mistake because he clearly had not listened to the statement. Under the old predict and provide policy, the figures were set for 20 years and then disaggregated down for a figure for every local authority to observe. That is wrong; it is much more sensible to set the figures for five years, monitor progress and review the results, and then make any necessary changes. That is better than imposing figures based on a 20-year prediction.

I liked the bit in which the hon. Gentleman said that I would be centrally commanding the situation and directing local authorities. The hon. Gentleman was not a member of the previous Government, but I shall give him some more information about what happened when the Tories were in power. In 1995–96, the Berkshire structure plan proposed 37,000 additional homes, but the Tories imposed 40,000 on the area. Kent county council proposed 113,000 additional homes, but the Tories imposed 116,000 on it. Bedfordshire proposed 47,200 additional homes, but the Tories imposed 49,300 on it.

In fairness, I shall also give the hon. Gentleman some information about our record. When 33,000 dwellings were proposed for Cheshire, the Labour Government allowed it only 31,000. Devon was faced with 83,000 dwellings, but we allowed only 79,000. Gloucester was faced with 53,000, but we agreed a reduction to only 50,000. That is the comparison with the previous Administration both in the establishment of targets and in flexibility when dealing with local authorities. We seek to work towards a solution, in contrast to the ideological requirements that the Tories imposed on local government.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that people in counties such as Berkshire—which, as he has pointed out, had 3,000 extra homes imposed on it over and above the Tory-controlled county council's allocation—will welcome the end of the discredited predict and provide policies? Does he recognise that we need affordable housing in the south-east, especially for first-time buyers and key workers in essential industries? For the south-east to survive and to be the engine room of our economy, we need a sustainable housing policy and an end to the absurd situation in my constituency, where two fire-fighters cannot afford to buy properties, because of lack of supply in the Thames valley, and have to commute from Lincolnshire and Dorset. We need to provide houses and homes at affordable prices for workers to sustain our essential public services, whatever area of the country we may live in.

Mr. Prescott

I agree with my hon. Friend and indeed we do wish to end the predict and provide model. In the plan and monitor guidance that we will give local authorities, we will make it clear that affordable housing must be given considerable priority, especially in mixed-use development, to ensure that it happens. That allows the Government to make a judgment about the plans and to work with the local authorities to ensure that the needs of all the people are met, not just those who want executive houses in the south-east.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

How can we have confidence that the Deputy Prime Minister has carefully weighed the two options before him, when it appears that he has merely split the difference between them? How can we have confidence that his statement is not another example of centralised planning, when he proposes 142,000 more homes than experts on the ground in the region believe are necessary? Does he agree that we should talk more about creating new homes than about building new houses? In the south-east, excluding London, there are 130,000 empty homes. Why are we not taking tougher action to bring those empty homes back into use? Why are we not taking tougher action to make better use of existing housing stock? Is it not crazy that we charge VAT on the renovation of buildings but there is no VAT on new build?

Finally, is not the Deputy Prime Minister just whistling in the wind in believing that most of these new houses will be built on brownfield sites? He must be prepared to take the tough action that is needed to ensure that most are built on brownfield sites. He must give support for brownfield site development, and also tax any developments on greenfield sites.

Mr. Prescott

Tax matters will be settled by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as the hon. Gentleman will know. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] All Ministers have to give that answer sometimes, especially before Budgets. It is the proper answer to give, although that is not to say that Ministers and Chancellors do not discuss such matters. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but such decisions are made by Chancellors.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I think that the housing targets can be achieved. I believe that they can, and without a greater land take than that suggested by Serplan. One has to make judgments about densities. I believe that more people will want to live in cities if those cities are good enough to live in. I do not think that we have achieved that yet, but that has more to do with the many other factors involved in community living, such as crime, education and the environment. That is why the planning guidance makes clear the need to achieve sustainable communities.

The argument over density or land take is very important. It was discussed by Lord Rogers in his report on "Urban Renaissance", and he made it clear that the density levels that have been set out would be possible.

In Europe, those levels are normal. In the United Kingdom in general—and in the south-east in particular—density levels are very low. No one would say that a village such as Poundbury was heavily built up, but 40 houses per hectare is the average there. The millennium village that we are planning will have 80 homes or households per hectare. That is the density range that can be adopted, and achieving it represents a challenge to builders, architects and communities alike. I believe that it is possible, and the regional planning guidance makes it clear that we should achieve that.

As for achieving the proposed density levels on brownfield sites, I have made it clear that local authorities and housing authorities will have to use brownfield sites in preference to greenfield sites. However, even if the target is for densities of 50 or 60 per cent. on brownfield sites, we all agree that that will mean that we end up with 40 or 50 per cent. on other sites, or on sites where there is existing accommodation.

I believe that we can achieve that target, which I set some time ago. Since the Government came to power, there has been an increase of 2 per cent. in the number of homes being built on brownfield sites. We have set the target for 2008, and I think that we will achieve it.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I am now looking for very brisk questions to the Secretary of State. Hon. Members should ask him only one, very brisk question, and I am sure that the Secretary of State will oblige with his responses.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

Is it possible for the map of brownfield sites in the south-east to be published? Also, many houses in my constituency—

Madam Speaker

Order. Given that so many hon. Members want to question the Secretary of State, I can allow only one question at a time. The entire House is getting to its feet to catch my eye, and I must safeguard the rest of the day's business.

Mr. Prescott

If it will help, Madam Speaker, I shall answer only one question at a time, even if more than one is asked.

Madam Speaker

That is very kind. Then you can select the question that you want to answer.

Mr. Prescott

That had dawned on me when I offered my co-operation, Madam Speaker.

The registration of brownfield land is an important matter. That is why we established the national land-use data bank. We hope to publish the information shortly, so that people can see where the brownfield sites are. I hope that that will help people to increase the pressure to build on those pieces of land in their areas.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

The Deputy Prime Minister has fingered my constituency of Ashford for large-scale growth—an act of environmental vandalism that will cause justifiable anger. Does he acknowledge that any large development in that area will inevitably be on greenfield sites? Will not his rhetoric today about brownfield sites first and greenfield sites second seem like only so much hot air unless he agrees to drop the proposals?

Mr. Prescott

I think that I made it clear that, although the priority is for brownfield sites, we envisage that there will be new developments as well. In that context, I mentioned Milton Keynes and Ashford. The recommendation regarding Ashford does not come only from me. The Kent structure plans of 1984 and 1996 both suggested that Ashford was an important area for economic development. I agree with them.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

May I tell my right hon. Friend that there are areas in the south-east, north of Hastings, where substantial housing could be built subject only to construction of a bypass? Will he consider, when the report comes out, allowing a bypass so that it can be used effectively for the building of houses?

Mr. Prescott

It is an important question. We made it clear in the White Paper on transport and in the plans that we hope to bring before the House shortly that bypasses can play an important part in economic regeneration as well as environmental considerations and housing. I made that clear in statements to the House as well. Bypasses are an essential part of what we call the sustainable communities.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

If Elmbridge borough council in Surrey does not think that it can meet the targets originally set by Serplan, how on earth can it meet the targets set by the Deputy Prime Minister today, when there are no brownfield sites left in the borough?

Mr. Prescott

I hope that after what it has heard today the council will look at my proposals. I will be discussing the implications with local authorities, but that takes me back to density. Their concern was that they did not have enough land. These proposals for households are greater than those proposed by Serplan covering the whole of the south-east, but by using higher densities local authorities can achieve the building of more households without taking more land. As to whether we can force them, the previous Administration was pretty good at forcing local authorities to accept their housing projections, even though they were against them.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Will my right hon. Friend accept the congratulations of Labour Members on a very skilful performance on the tightrope? Will he confirm that not building sufficient houses will lead to house price inflation, with a disastrous effect on the country's economy, while building too many will ruin our green fields? Will he also confirm that high-density housing will be provided with services so that we do not make the mistakes made in the 1960s, resulting in high-density housing and poor services for the people living in it?

Mr. Prescott

I record my appreciation to my hon. Friend for the work done by the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. We have responded to his Committee's report today, and it was helpful in arriving at some of these deliberations. Anybody reading the Committee's report will know that many of the issues that I have mentioned today were debated in that Committee, and very often supported by its members. I am grateful for that.

House pricing is a matter of great concern which needs a great deal of attention. It is also associated with the shortage of available houses. There are a number of reasons, but that is one of them. For the life of me, I cannot accept the Tories' proposal that the decision should be made by local authorities. A local authority has only to say that it believes in housing but that it should be built in another authority's area. If they all refuse to have any housing development in their areas, that will result in a phenomenal increase in house prices and do very little to meet the needs of ordinary people trying to secure homes.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking to the House this afternoon that no further planning of houses will be allowed in West Sussex without the incremental improvement in infrastructure that is so long overdue?

Mr. Prescott

In sustainable communities, matters other than houses have to be considered, such as transport, housing design, and density of housing. I am trying to bring a more flexible approach to bear on them. One authority in West Sussex was proposing to reduce development by 25 per cent., which was totally unacceptable. I hope that these new proposals will be more acceptable to the local authority and that it can achieve the kind of housing development in the area that it wants.

Mrs. Christine Butler (Castle Point)

Which constituencies or local authorities will be in the extended Thames gateway? I thought that I heard my right hon. Friend say that he was committed to an extension of the Thames gateway area. As a person from south Essex, I would be delighted if south Essex were to be part of it.

Mr. Prescott

It is right that we said that we will extend the Thames gateway area. We wish to change the rather loose arrangements for its development, and I shall be making an announcement shortly about the new development body for that area.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I welcome the reduction from the Crow proposals, but the Secretary of State's statement will be taken badly in my area because it seems as if there will be many more houses than under the previous Government's plans. Will he confirm that Berkshire will be able to say no to any new settlement south of the M4, although I think that he will say the opposite? Does not his statement mean that he will drive not just his two Jags and one Rover, but a bulldozer across the face of rural England, deeply scarring the countryside?

Mr. Prescott

Welcome back.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) is not cheering.

Mr. Prescott

At least we can laugh at what the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) says.

In reality, all authorities in the south-east will take account of my guidance, which is more flexible and better than the predict-and-build approach previously taken. I think that it will help local authorities, and I hope that they will approach development more co-operatively than they did in the past. The right hon. Gentleman's local paper, the Wokingham Times made it clear that it is crucial to have a mix of homes to suit everyone. The present plan does not provide that, but we intend to do so.

Mr. Paul Clark (Gillingham)

Most level-headed people in the Thames gateway area of north Kent will welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and recognise the opportunities that it presents. Does he agree that many brownfield sites that we want to see developed to their full potential require substantial investment on infrastructure and on opening up before major development can occur? What robust bodies and mechanisms does my right hon. Friend envisage to provide that within the Thames gateway?

Mr. Prescott

It is indeed important to secure proper investment for the Thames gateway. The previous Government took a good initiative, and we are supporting and extending it. The connection of any major investment in development with transport communications is important. Ashford and the Thames gateway are closely connected with the channel tunnel rail link, which we had to rescue following its collapse under the previous Government. The link is now on budget and on time, and that will allow it to play a major role in development of the Thames gateway and Ashford. Regional development agencies will also have a major role to play, and they have already begun to plan development, a process that will be helped by my statement.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

Will the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions look again at the potential damage that his proposals are likely to cause to the green fields of Bedfordshire? Does he recognise that, to achieve a mere 50 per cent. of development on brownfield sites, the present figures already take his density increases into account? If the extra 21,000 houses proposed by the Crow report were built, the figures would be closer to 30 per cent. brownfield development and 70 per cent. greenfield.

Mr. Prescott

I think that I made it clear—most people heard me—that I do not accept the Crow report's recommendations. I have given my reasons for that. The numbers that I have accepted are compatible with the land take of Serplan, and are a good compromise, which should be welcome to all concerned. Brownfield sites have a higher priority than greenfield sites but, even under the previous Government, something like 50 per cent. of households were built on greenfield sites—the inevitable implication of having a target of 50 per cent. on brownfield sites. We are attempting to improve the position and have moved from 50 to 52 per cent. We have set a target to 2008, and we are going in the right direction. My statement will provide a major impetus for development on brownfield sites.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

While my right hon. Friend's first regional planning guidance has been on the south-east, will he confirm that the criteria announced in his statement are national, and that the principle of brown field first, green field last and a rejection of overdue reliance on increased traffic density will be in his mind when any case comes before him?

Mr. Prescott

Yes, I can confirm that. I made a national statement about the principles that will apply to housing. My right hon. Friend knows that each region sets its own plans, and those will be produced presently and publicly discussed. When each one comes to me, I shall take the same approach to it as I do to plans for the south-east region.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

As Southend-on-Sea is outside the Thames gateway, we will be exempt from this massive house-building programme. However, if the Secretary of State decides to include us, will he give us a guarantee that extra cash will be provided for secondary schools, bearing in mind that there is not one spare space in any secondary school in my constituency? Will he make extra cash available to provide the necessary facilities if Southend is included?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the support of essential infrastructure such as education. As he must be aware, we have put a considerable amount of money into education. As we implement the plans, we shall continue to take into account the problem that he describes.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

In Dartford, in the Thames gateway, 80 per cent. of housing is being built on brownfield sites. Our target is 86 per cent.—20 per cent. will be for social housing. When we build new communities, as we are doing, can we ensure that the character of existing communities is protected and enhanced?

Mr. Prescott

It is important that we do that. Indeed, the essence of sustainable communities is that we maintain and build on their existing life. I want to see greater community spirit in some of our housing areas. We have built many soulless estates—with more concern for the construction of houses than for the construction of communities. The emphasis in this plan is on building communities.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

How can the Secretary of State pretend that his policy is brown field first, green field last, when his first major action was to approve the largest-ever house-building programme on greenbelt land—10,000 houses in my constituency? As the electorate have turfed out the Lib-Lab coalition of concrete merchants from Hertfordshire county council, why does the right hon. Gentleman persist in giving approval to this plan? Does that not discredit his pretence that he does not believe in central direction? Until he changes his mind, he will not be believed on planning matters—in Hertfordshire or anywhere else in the country.

Mr. Prescott

I appreciate the point made by the right hon. Gentleman. He has made it on several occasions. However, it was his authority that recommended the programme; the planning inspector endorsed it and I endorsed the principles that they set before me. The programme also involves a major transport corridor—like the channel tunnel rail link and Ashford. It forms part of the attempt to ensure that there is growth and development around transport corridors.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

Given my right hon. Friend's support for affordable housing, can he assure us that any new homes that are built will have the support of local authorities, so that the authorities can rent them out and we do not have to rely on housing associations? In many cases, council rents are considerably lower than those of housing associations. That is real affordability.

Mr. Prescott

Those are important points—we are most concerned about such matters. We want to work in partnership with local authorities to provide affordable homes. Indeed, we shall shortly produce a housing Green Paper which will deal with the very real problems that my hon. Friend has mentioned.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

What guarantees can the Secretary of State give about the integrity of the green belt?

Mr. Prescott

We have always made it clear that a Labour Government introduced the principle of the green belt. We have considerably increased the green belt since we came into office. That is a good indication of our desire to maintain it.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, and the fact that he has rejected the Crow report, and so will many of my constituents. He is aware that in West Sussex, which borders my constituency, there have been 10 years of commercial and retail store building—none of those projects involved house building. That is why we need to build more affordable housing in Sussex so that people can have proper and effective places to live.

Hon. Members


Mr. Prescott

I note that Opposition Members are shouting "Rubbish" at my hon. Friend's claim that there should be affordable housing. That is precisely the point. The Opposition seem to be more concerned about executive housing than about homes for ordinary people. Affordable housing is our priority. The land should be provided and there should be decent communities. That is what we intend to do; it is fundamentally different from the record of the previous Conservative Administration and from the intentions of the Opposition.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

The Deputy Prime Minister should not hear imaginary voices. In West Sussex, he has increased by 30 per cent. the number of homes that the inquiry recommended. Will he increase further the figures that he managed by legal tricks to get through judicial review, and will he protect the Goring gap?

Mr. Prescott

It is amazing that a former Minister should talk about legal tricks when he must have received legal advice and acted on it. I know that lawyers cannot always be trusted, but Ministers must take the legal advice that is given to them.

In the new approach to the matter, local authorities should consider our proposals carefully and enter into co-operation. That will provide a better housing solution than the one that we have at present.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford)

I welcome the positive news in my right hon. Friend's statement that there is a possibility that there will be an area of plan-led expansion in the Bedford, Northampton and Milton Keynes triangle. That is potentially the most sustainable approach to this issue. Will he assure me that there will be thorough local consultation on how the plans are developed and that there will be an attempt at all times to match jobs with new housing to achieve the sustainable outcome that we all need?

Mr. Prescott

It is important to identify growth, prosperity and jobs along with the developments in housing. We established the regional development bodies to consider precisely how we can develop indigenous assets in the regions and, at the same time, reduce the differentials in growth that exist within regions. The development agencies, the planned reports and the studies that we are conducting will, I hope, bring all those matters together. We cannot have a happy community with high levels of unemployment. Jobs, prosperity and community development go hand in hand.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

In east Kent in general and in Herne Bay in particular, water supplies are scarce, primary and secondary schools are full, doctors' surgeries are full, the secondary road system is inadequate and police services are at full stretch. We are trying to reduce housing density, but the Deputy Prime Minister has just announced that he intends to increase it. Has he discussed that with the Secretaries of State for Education and Employment and for Health, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Home Secretary? Has he got their consent to go ahead with this ludicrous plan?

Mr. Prescott

Clearly, all the problems that the hon. Gentleman described did not start on 1 May 1997 when the Government came to power. He knows that it takes a considerable time to solve the problems that we inherited from the previous Administration.

Mr. Gale

Two years, and 10,000 asylum seekers.

Mr. Prescott

In two years, we have made considerable advances in investment in public services, transport and in the channel tunnel rail link, the plans for which collapsed under the previous Administration. To that extent, we will take into account regeneration aspects and growth factors. As I said earlier, we have to take account of the growth in school numbers and we have an obligation to do so. Indeed, much of our money has been provided to reduce class sizes. All those factors are an important part of community development. The hon. Gentleman referred to the problems of growth. I want more balanced growth and our proposals will help to achieve that.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition's argument is unsustainable? If the health service were under pressure and suffered from a lack of nurses because they could not move to the south-east, it would be unsustainable to make a stark argument about further development. My right hon. Friend's proposals will be a means of achieving mixed communities with affordable housing and will help to contribute to a health service of which we can be proud.

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The connection between the health service and other public services will determine the character of the communities in which our people live. I said that key workers will have to be provided for in areas such as the south-east, and I would like to see that point covered in the housing plans that are brought before me. The local mix in communities is important, and I made that clear in the statement. We will require communities to attempt to achieve that, because we must avoid the mistakes that were made in the past. There were huge estates for one class and other estates for another class and the different communities never came together.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

Some of the 43,000 homes in the south-east will, sadly, be lost each year because of the increase in the ownership of second homes. What is the Secretary of State doing to end the peculiar anomaly under which it is rather easier to buy a home as a second home than it is to buy it as a first home? Second homes have half the council tax that is charged on the same house if it is used as a first home.

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about housing finance. We are looking at many issues, including housing benefit and the differential in council tax on second homes to which he referred. Those are matters for serious consideration. My statement today deals with how we can provide sufficient homes for people, and statements will be made later about those other matters.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on dumping the Crow report. May I ask him—

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

Get on with it.

Madam Speaker


Fiona Mactaggart

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in densely populated areas such as mine—the most densely populated constituency in Berkshire—there will be sufficient flexibility to meet local needs? One important local need is for large houses for poor families, and a second need was highlighted just yesterday in a letter to me from the chief constable of the Thames Valley police, who said that he is unable to maintain a full-strength force in Slough because of the cost of housing.

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend raises the issue of affordable houses, whether for key workers or for those who do not have much choice and are forced to live in greater density in their existing home. Our policy is designed to try to find affordable homes for more people, and it will hopefully reduce the problems that she has mentioned.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain how, when those numbers are disaggregated down to the level of planning authorities such as that in Reigate and Banstead, the policy behind the figures is anything other than impose and deliver?

Mr. Prescott

As in the old plan, the local authorities represented in Serplan will in discussion with us. One of the fundamental differences is that we have replaced predict and build with the monitor and manage approach, and the programme will last only five years. Local authorities feared that they were being forced to accept figures and build houses according to a 20-year prediction about which they could not be accurate. The five-year approach will give greater flexibility, and we will discuss it in the normal way with local authorities through Serplan.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the housing situation in the centre of Ellesmere Port, but he may not be aware that there are 800 empty privately owned properties. Will he, as part of the strategy for the reuse of property, encourage the Housing Corporation to look for imaginative solutions for bringing those homes back into use? They would make ideal starter homes and take some of the pressures off counties such as Cheshire.

Mr. Prescott

Yes, that is an important point. It is a matter of considerable concern that there are about 750,000 empty houses in the UK, very few of which are in the south-east or London. We have established a national empty house agency to work with local authorities, and I believe that £160,000 has been provided to help that process. We want to ensure that there is affordable housing, and using existing housing areas and converting existing properties have an important part to play in developing communities and achieving the balance of 60 per cent. of new houses on brownfield sites and 40 per cent. on greenfield sites.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

The Deputy Prime Minister has announced his intention to impose a large number of new houses on my constituency. Will he confirm that, in answer to questions from my hon. Friends, he has not undertaken to provide funding for the schools, hospitals and roads that we will need once we have all those new houses and new people?

Mr. Prescott

The first point is that we have not imposed any figure on any local authority at this stage. We have made a judgment as to what the annual figure should be. The previous Administration set that figure for 20 years; we say that it should be set for five years. Discussions will take place between the Government and, in this case, Serplan, which represents the local authorities, about how that figure may be distributed. Serplan has suggested the number of houses that will be imposed on the hon. Lady's area. We have to agree to that. New houses will be built in all local authority areas; it is the proportion that must be decided.

Mrs. Laing

What about the funding?

Mr. Prescott

As to the finance, Governments have responsibility to provide the finance for education and infrastructure. We are putting billions of pounds into the infrastructure in the south-east. It might not be in the hon. Lady's constituency, but it is considerably more than under the previous Administration.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Central to the Government's hoped-for success of their policy must be the Secretary of State's enthusiasm for terraced housing, which in today's jargon is high-density, low-level development. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that it is possible to build 165 homes per acre or 400 homes per hectare? If so, does he realise that that necessarily means gardens for only a few, communal hallways and on-street parking? Overarching all that, does he accept that the success of his policy must depend on pretty radical proposals being delivered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a fortnight?

Mr. Prescott

With regard to density, our emphasis is on high-quality design. I have pointed out that, although the average density is 24 houses per hectare, on the millennium site it is 80 houses per hectare. On Georgian terraces, there is high-density housing, but those are desirable properties. The Poundbury development, to which I referred, has a density of about 40 houses per hectare, but it has gardens and is highly desirable. That is the challenge to the designer.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at some of the designs being produced, varying from the high-level designs into which we put a great deal of money a long time ago, to low-level and medium density, perhaps two or three storeys. The required density can be achieved, provided that the quality of design is good. That is the key factor, which is why we are giving it so much attention.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the term "brownfield" cannot be used to describe sports fields, open spaces or landscaped gardens? Will he give an assurance that there will be no double standards in the Government, and that he will instruct the Ministry of Defence, the national health service and others selling off land to follow the brownfield criteria that he put forward?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which we emphasise in policy planning guidance note 3. Land owned by local authorities, the Ministry of Defence or any public body should be in our national databank and should be taken into consideration.

Mr. Burns

Can the Secretary of State tell me unequivocally what the impact of his statement will be on a place such as West Chelmsford, which is expected to build 11,000 houses and where there are not enough brownfield sites for 60 per cent. build? Over the past week, we have seen proposals for 3,200 extra homes in villages such as Margaretting, for more than 1,500 homes on rural greenfield sites in the west of Chelmsford, and for others in the north on greenfield sites. What changes will there be?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The 60 per cent. brownfield site that we have agreed is a national figure and will vary from area to area. In London it could be as much as 80 per cent., but areas outside London, such as those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, do not have that proportion of brownfield site available. That is why we have set a national figure. Through Serplan, we will consider how to distribute those homes. All Governments have had to face the fact that, in order to meet the need for affordable housing, some houses will have to be built on greenfield sites.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you, Mr. Prescott. We must move on.