§ Order for Second Reading read.9.33 am
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is the first opportunity that I have had to introduce legislation. For 25 years, I have signed the ballot for private Members' Bills. I have chosen all sorts of strange numbers, in the belief that I might come out of the hat in the top seven. This year, I did not bother with the numbers but just signed the book. To my amazement, I came in at No. 7, which I feel is quite an achievement after a quarter of a century. Some hon. Members never get this opportunity, Madam Speaker, so I am glad that your hand gravitated towards my number on the piece of paper.
First, may I thank my right hon. and hon. Friends for turning up to this important debate? I shall pass over the fact that there is only one Liberal Democrat Member present.
I hope that the House will recognise that I am trying, by legislating to deal with a new problem, to make our country a better place in which to bring up families. Where do we put the 3.8 million new homes that everybody says are needed by 2011? We have 11 years in which to find land for 3.8 million new homes. The Bill provides the ground rules for putting the new homes in the right place, making developments sustainable and maintaining the quality of life for existing communities.
Some hon. Members may think it strange that I am introducing additional legislation, given that, for the past 10 years or more, I have campaigned to deregulate. I have consistently and persistently campaigned to reduce the number of statutes, to repeal rules and regulations and to minimise the number of laws that intrude on every aspect of our life. The snag is, I am ensnared in this institution of which I am part. The Chamber is about passing laws, not repealing them. I would like to think that we could come here every Friday to find laws to repeal. However, as I am on the treadmill, I must instead add to the weight of statute law.
If my Bill becomes law, more and more officials will be employed for the purposes of regulation and enforcement. The consequence of passing law is that larger bureaucracies arise—the very thing that I have fought against consistently. Yet here I am, in a Chamber 1212 which passes laws, introducing yet another one. I hope that the House will forgive me. As is fashionable, I apologise for introducing what I hope will become another piece of legislation.
I have good reason for attempting to introduce new legislation. My Bill is not proactive; it responds to the situation that has been forced on us. We need more homes for our population. In the past, there was probably sufficient housing stock. Three or four generations often lived in one house. Today, the same four generations require between four and six houses, and often as many cars. In the past, grandparents lived with their children and their grandchildren. Today, with people living longer, one grandparent may be living in their own house, another in a residential home. Their children will have a household of their own, with their children. As those children grow up, the family may well split. The number of divorces and separations continues to increase, each resulting in the creation of two households instead of one. For every divorce or separation, an additional home is required.
Children used to stay in the family home until they were married. Now they leave the nest earlier to follow an academic course at university, or—as today's generation are more upwardly mobile, aspiring and materialistic than their parents—migrate to areas with better job prospects. The nuclear family, therefore, while in semblance still alive, is spread laterally across the country. There has been a shift from vertical integration, with three or four generations living in one house, to families being spread laterally over more than one home.
It is not only in this country that that is happening. The break-up of the family unit is occurring all over Europe. The resulting pressures are the same—more housing, transport links and health and education facilities are needed to meet the increased demand. However, there are fundamental differences. Mainland European countries have more land available, and they use it more effectively. They have different planning systems, and their housing tenure differs, with more property being rented and fewer individual freeholds owned.
In the United Kingdom, 67 per cent. of the population own their own homes, compared with around 41 per cent. in Germany and 54 per cent. in France. Buildings on mainland Europe are more appropriate to continental housing needs.
We must not conclude, however, that the need to build houses is a peculiarly British problem—it is a European problem. Our land values are higher than those of other European countries. Individuals in the United Kingdom are prepared to spend a higher proportion of their earnings on property than are people in continental Europe. The French spend more on food; we spend more on houses. The well-coined phrase "An Englishman's home is his castle" is apt. Everyone seems to want to buy his or her own home, to own land and to have a defensible space.
In many other European countries, houses are leased or rented, and there is an attitude towards property not found in the UK. Our approach to housing needs and how to pay for them must be more flexible than our "must-buy" psyche allows. A common European solution to planning and housing problems simply would not work in the UK because different countries take different approaches to sociological and demographic problems. The problem 1213 facing Britain is peculiarly British. The European Union principle of subsidiarity must apply, and Parliament alone must address housing and planning.
How can we tackle the housing requirement? We have had many debates about the numbers involved. Under the previous Administration, I was one of the Members who said that 4.4 million new homes for England and Wales by 2011 would be far too many. I was not afraid to say that that number was unsustainable. I challenged the figures and the mythology. I constantly questioned whether officials in Kingsway who dream up the figures had used the right science, and asked whether the Office for National Statistics could review the figures.
The science has become sophisticated, and predicting population numbers and where people will wish to live is a science that few understand. When the Conservatives were in office, we coined the phrase "predict and provide" as a means of justifying numbers. The science was to predict the numbers, and the aim to allow developers to provide the homes that statisticians said were required.
With the arrival of a new Administration, and following the national outcry over the 4.4 million figure and the discrediting of predict and provide, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions replaced that philosophy with the phrase "plan, monitor and manage". Whatever that may mean, it has allowed the Government to justify reducing by 600,000 the number of new homes required over the next 11 years. Despite the science practised in Kingsway, the 4.4 million required has miraculously dropped to 3.8 million.
How do we plan, monitor and manage? Surely, one can plan only if one predicts. One can monitor the number of new houses, but how can one manage once they have been built? With a little thought, it becomes apparent that plan, monitor and manage is nothing more than a new slogan. Like the emperor's new clothes, it makes no difference in practice, but it makes all the difference to statisticians who can justify a drop of more than half a million new homes. It is also a nice spin for the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions who, offering a new philosophy, can justify a reduction in numbers.
Planning policy guidance note 3, page 7, paragraph 8, is headed "Plan, monitor and manage". I do not know whether the House will understand it better than I do; I realise that I have some limitations, but the House may find that it has some too. It states:It is an essential feature of the plan, monitor and manage approach that housing requirements and the ways in which they are to be met, should be kept under regular review.That sounds very sensible. It continues:The planned level of housing provision and its distribution should be based on a clear set of policy objectives, linked to measurable indicators of change. These indicators should be monitored and reported in the RPBS'—regional planning bodies'—annual monitoring report. Such monitoring should be the basis on which the RPB periodically reviews and rolls forward its housing strategy. Review should occur at least every five years and sooner, if there are signs of either under or over-provision of housing land. Advice on the indicators which can be used for monitoring is set out in paragraph 77 and in PPG II.I hope that the House found that helpful, because I do not know what it means. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, 1214 the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), will explain it; it is good of her to be here. No Opposition Member quite understands it.
The Minister could also explain the difference between predict and provide and plan, monitor and manage.
§ Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)
May I suggest that PPG3 means that the Government are frightened of the large figures for housing that they have had to announce, particularly in the south-east? They are also frightened by reaction to the Crow report, and have consequently had to fudge the issue with obfuscatory language.
§ Mr. Steen
That is the answer, and I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for clearing the matter up immediately.
How have the Government responded to the shift in thinking from predict and provide to plan, monitor and manage? The response came in the shape of PPG3. It may sound more like a new Porsche than a major change in planning policy, but that is what it is. One can hear people whispering around the corridors, "Have you seen PPG3?", and everyone's eyes light up as they say that they have read it, but most of them do not understand it. It is an academic document that will be read by planners and politicians but few others.
In no way does PPG3 respond to the remarkable report by Lord Rogers, the head of the urban task force, entitled "Towards an Urban Renaissance". Nor does it respond to the splendid book that I wrote in 1981—"New Life for Old Cities"—which reached similar conclusions to those reached 20 years later by Lord Rogers. Nor does it solve the problem of how to deal with 200,000 acres of public vacant land—or dormant, derelict or under-utilised land, principally in our cities—that I raised in a book published in 1988 called "The Public Land Utilised Management Scheme", nicknamed Plums. That scheme echoes part of the approach of PPG3.
Twelve years ago, there were 200,000 acres of vacant land that would not have been developed but for financial incentives, and the situation is virtually the same today. My book was published when a Conservative Government were in office, and it therefore suggested a private enterprise solution. It promoted the use of private regional management companies to which all vacant public land in the region would be transferred on day 1. Owners would be given share certificates equivalent to the value of the land, and regional management companies would market it. The value of the land would increase as development took place. The value of the shares would increase when revitalisation happened.
The scheme would have had similarities with recent events in Hull, where the city council kept shares in the local telecommunications business—Kingston Communications Group. When it sold them, it received a huge windfall for the benefit of local people. The lesson is that investment pays dividends.
The baton was passed in 1988 to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer), and I am pleased that he has found time in his busy schedule to attend the debate today. When he was the Housing Minister, he took up my idea. As with water or electricity privatisation, land in public ownership would be regionally privatised and given to the private sector to 1215 market and sell. Local authorities would have received share certificates to the value of the land, and they would have made a killing. Unfortunately, the circular that my hon. Friend was about to publish was halted because he was promoted. That meant that the baton passed to another Minister, who had sterling qualities but not those needed to promote the circular.
§ Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)
Would not that fine idea have fallen foul of the previous Conservative Government's legislation on local authority-influenced companies, whereby the maximum shareholding that a local authority could have in a company was 20 per cent? Otherwise, the company would have been deemed to be part of the local authority, and thus subject to local authority rules on capital expenditure and so on.
§ Mr. Steen
The hon. Gentleman is extremely well informed. I am always surprised at the range of knowledge in the House. He makes an obscure point, but I am glad he has that information at his fingertips. He is right, of course.
When my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire and I were working on the matter, much land—for example, that in the midlands towns—did not belong only to the local authority; some belonged to the water board and some to the electricity, gas or rail boards. The amount owned by the local authority might have been 20 per cent. or less—it was not the same everywhere. However, that problem underpinned our thinking; it may even have been one of the things that resulted in my hon. Friend's promotion. It is a good idea to get the private sector to promote and sell land that has become stuck in local authority and public ownership.
That public vacant land is now private vacant land, because many of the public bodies which owned it in the 1980s were privatised. Overnight, public vacant land became private. However, the problem is that there is still much public vacant land.
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
May I help my hon. Friend by refreshing his memory? I have been reading his excellent book. It seems to me that the answer to the question put by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) lies in the introductory summary of the book. It states that there will be a newlimited company with a board of directors in whom the public wasteland is vested.It is not so much that the local authority would be a partner in a company where it would have to exceed the limits set on it by the previous Government, but that a new docklands-type of corporation would be set up—such a new separate public limited company would not have those limitations imposed on it.
§ Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)
I have not had the benefit of reading my hon. Friend's book, but I shall do so.
§ Mr. Soames
In that case, reading it will be even more worth while.
1216 My hon. Friend's idea is a good one. Of course, the Labour councillor mentality of those on the Government Benches will always look for a way not to do something. The way to carry out the idea would be to establish a new type of company, in which the legislation that prevents the circumstances referred to by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) would be waived in respect of a company holding such land for those and connected purposes.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I was terribly impressed with that brilliant idea. As it is incredibly creative, why does the hon. Gentleman not suggest that such a company should take over private vacant wasteland? We could have great fun. We could take over responsibility for any private land and create a company that would be extremely profitable—then, everybody could benefit.
§ Mr. Steen
I am always interested in hearing the hon. Lady's remarks. We should not rule out her proposal. There is considerable hoarding of private land in urban areas, so there must be some incentive for private enterprise to sell that land. If private owners do not sell their land, there must be either an increase in their rates—because they cannot hoard land indefinitely—or a device whereby public and private vacant land that is held for too long is marketed and sold.
I realise that some hon. Members might point out that that would be to deprive private owners of their land but, if our aim is to protect the countryside—it will become clear as I develop my argument that it is certainly my aim and that of my hon. Friends—we must package, in a regional development company, private land that has not been developed for, say, 20 years, as well as public vacant land. It would be worth considering that matter. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that creative and interesting idea.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)
Does my hon. Friend agree that although there is great suspicion, for example on the part of Lichfield district council that huge tracts of land in Birmingham, West Bromwich or the black country are not being utilised, part of the problem is that such inner-city land is contaminated? Because of that, it is difficult to sell the land at market value for housing and other purposes.
§ Mr. Steen
As always, my hon. Friend has foreseen the next paragraph of my speech. I was about to make that point, but I am grateful to him for raising the matter.
There is much land in public ownership that has acquired an artificial value, because every year the district valuer is obliged by law to carry out an uprating. The value of vacant, derelict or dormant land in public ownership is uplifted—the price goes up and up because the district valuer has to reflect its actual value. As a result, the value of the land often becomes so high that it is impossible for the local authority to sell it. If the authority tried to sell the land on the open market at a reduced price, it would be challenged by the district auditor who would say, "You are selling the land below the market price."
1217 That is a problem that Labour Members might use their creativity to consider, because at present artificially high values of public vacant land make it impossible for local authorities to sell it at a knockdown price—or even at a reduced price. There are no takers.
The problem has not been addressed by PPG3, which, rightly, requires local planning authorities to direct development to brownfield sites. However, the guidance does not make that mandatory or statutory. The sequential approach is questionable. Paragraph 30 on page 12 of PPG3 states:In identifying sites to be allocated for housing in local plans and UDPs—I do not know what UDPs are. The document is full of such odd acronyms—UDPs, RPGs, NLUDs—but no one explains what they are—[Interruption.] An hon. Member has just explained that UDPs are urban development plans.
The document continues:local planning authorities should follow a search sequence.That is another interesting phrase, but they are weasel words. What is a search sequence? The document states that the search sequence should start
with the re-use of previously-developed land and buildings within urban areas identified by the urban housing capacity study, then urban extensions, and finally new development around nodes in good public transport corridors. They should seek only to identify sufficient land to meet the housing requirement.I hope that the Minister will give me a wink to let me know whether I am right, because I am not sure whether that will mean that developers can build first only in urban areas and that planners can turn down greenfield site developments until the urban land is filled up. Does it mean that planners will be especially sensitive to brownfield sites, under local plans, but that when developers see those plans, they can apply for either urban or greenfield sites? Unless there is a no to greenfield sites until the brownfield sites are filled up, I do not understand what PPG3 will achieve.
I therefore do not believe that the problem is addressed by PPG3, which rightly requires local authorities to direct development to brownfield sites but does not make it mandatory or statutory. Although I welcome the recognition of the point that I made in the early 1980s, I do not understand how PPG3 will succeed unless there is a stick and carrot approach, involving financial incentives and disincentives.
The problem with PPG3 is that it is just planning guidance. It is also deficient in many respects—in matters not of detail but of substance. If we are to protect greenfield land and ensure that urban areas are developed first, something more radical, innovative and creative is required. That is what my Bill offers.
If the Government fail to support me, they will lose a unique opportunity to place on a statutory basis fundamentals of planning law and to direct the location of 3.8 million new homes which must be built in the next 11 years.
Above all, if my Bill fails, it will encourage the continued urban sprawl and what Professor Alice Colman described as the "rurban fringe". The rurban fringe is beyond the council estates of the outer city. It is not 1218 countryside but a wedge of spoilt land which is neither urban nor rural; it has been destroyed by the urban area and is not quite rural. My Bill would tackle not only the destruction of the countryside but the increase in the rurban fringe.
My Bill is therefore aimed at protecting our countryside from indiscriminate urban growth. It is both complementary to the Rogers report and consistent with PPG3; it adds to both. It embodies a practical approach and moves the process forward.
§ Mr. Fabricant
My hon. Friend is as generous as ever in giving way to me a second time. Does he accept that the Bill protects not only the countryside but the inner cities? Is he aware of the problems that exist in, for example, the United States, which has similar house ownership patterns to those in the United Kingdom, and where people have moved from the inner cities to the countryside or the rurban areas, thus creating no-go areas of deprivation in the inner cities? Does he agree that housebuilding of a good standard in the inner cities will ensure that inner cities continue to live?
§ Mr. Steen
I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of this, but I was fortunate enough to be given a scholarship by the State Department in the United States, and I visited 28 American cities in 29 days. That enabled me to write "New Life for Old Cities". Therefore, I am familiar with the point that my hon. Friend raises. It is a good point, and I agree with him.
Let me deal with my Bill, because I believe that the House wants to get on with it. My Bill will address once and for all the failure of successive Governments to motivate developers to revive rundown areas in towns and cities, principally inner and outer cities.
Central downtown areas containing small businesses and housing were demolished after the war, when the push by all local authorities was to build houses fit for heroes. The population of the inner city were decanted to the outer city where vast council estates were built, especially in the midlands and the northern cities. The more prosperous and the more upwardly mobile people moved to the new towns, beyond the boundaries of the city, and to the countryside, leaving in the inner city the poorest, the unemployed and the elderly. That pattern is unchanged. The doughnut has lost its jam in the middle, and the upwardly mobile—the skilled—moved out to new towns and the countryside.
As a result, many of our larger industrial cities still have depressed inner cities—and depressed outer cities, where there are large council estates. In the course of the transfer from the inner to the outer city, land and buildings in the inner city became vacant, dormant and derelict, in public and private ownership. During the 1960s and 1970s, much of it was in public ownership, in the hands of British Rail, the electricity and water boards and British Gas. They all had sites and sidings in towns and cities.
The ownership of land has now drastically changed: publicly owned land has moved into private ownership as a result of the privatisation of the utilities. Yet, oddly, 1219 despite 18 years of Conservative Governments' commitment to get rid of it, the amount of derelict land continues to increase.
In 1993, 600 sq km of land in England and Wales was derelict, vacant or under-utilised—an area the size of Leeds. The number of empty homes has increased: last year, there were three quarters of a million—772,300, to be exact. If all those empty homes were filled and all the land was filled, we would be able to reduce the figure for new build from 3.8 million to nearer 2.8 million. Similarly, if all derelict land were fully utilised, the countryside would be protected and vibrancy would return to our cities.
Bearing in mind that the urban areas of England grew by 40 per cent. between 1950 and 1990, the House will immediately recognise the importance of trying to use existing space before eroding the countryside and covering it with urban sprawl.
§ Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)
I very much agree with the thrust of what my hon. Friend is saying, but is he aware that the Country Landowners Association in particular is saying that in some way or other his Bill will forbid the development of, or make it impossible to develop, derelict and contaminated land in rural areas? That cannot be right, can it?
§ Mr. Steen
No, it is not. I have a high regard for the Country Landowners Association, but it has got that wrong, and I will tell you why it has got that wrong, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My Bill states that brownfield sites in district council areas—that means rural areas—must be filled before green fields are built on. I shall explain that in a moment. The country landowners may have misunderstood that, but I believe that if they listen to what I have to say, they will understand that they have got that wrong.
§ Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)
I am listening with interest to what the hon. Gentleman says, because on 16 December 1996 he said the following:The idea that green-field sites might end up full of tarmacadamed drives, stable blocks … and swimming pools seems to suggest that people who own their own land will lower the value of that land. Self-interest and private enterprise are hallmarks of the Conservative party, and deregulation is at the centre of our economic policy … the use of alternative land means that green fields go fallow. That is a tremendous burden on the public purse, and the money could be used for something useful.It seems to me that what he said in 1996 is diametrically opposed to what he has just said and to the Bill. He might like to comment on that.
§ Mr. Dismore
I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman says, because I was actually quoting from his own speech, in which he seemed to be suggesting that greenfield land should be used becausethe use of alternative land means that green fields go fallow,which he said wasa tremendous burden on the public purse, and the money could be used for something useful.Those are his words, and that seems to be entirely the opposite of what the Bill is about and what he has just been saying to the House.
§ Mr. Steen
I do not think that that helped the House any more than it did previously, but I hear what the hon. Gentleman says—[HON. MEMBERS: "What you said."] I heard what I said, but, with all respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am not quite sure what relevance that profound statement has to what I am saying now.
§ Mr. Dismore
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me try a third time. Basically, what he is saying today in his Bill—[HON. MEMBERS: "Slow down."] What he is saying in his Bill is that we should be using brownfield sites, not greenfield sites; but what he said in 1996 was entirely the opposite:the use of alternative land means that green fields go fallow.The words "alternative land" could in practice mean only brownfield sites, and the hon. Gentleman said:That is a tremendous burden on the public purse, and the money could be used for something useful.—[Official Report, 16 December 1996; Vol. 287, c. 735.]How can he say that in 1996 and say entirely the opposite now?
§ Mr. Steen
I think that the hon. Gentleman has missed the point. The most important thing is to deal with the Bill. I want to deal with clauses 1 and 2, which address a very simple issue—the identification of where vacant, dormant, derelict land is located, together with its size and ownership. Some land may not be derelict, but it can be under-utilised, and PPG3 rightly recognises the need to maximise land use.
In Plymouth, for example, acres of land are under-utilised. King William dock has thousands of feet of vacant, unused buildings. All over the country there are buildings, which, if fully utilised, would counter the never-ending push outwards to the countryside.
My Bill will highlight in an annual audit exactly where the land and buildings that are vacant, dormant, derelict or under-utilised are situated. It will put a searchlight on who owns the land and buildings that are not fully used. It will increase transparency, and I think that is just the thing that the new Administration would immediately seize on and applaud. As things stand, few people know where partly empty or under-utilised land is and they do not know why thousands of houses are unoccupied, why housing has been abandoned and why land has been left idle. The publishing of an annual audit locally will, for the first time, make owners sit up and face the publicity resulting from their hoarding of land and buildings. It is not an intrusion into privacy. If we are to save our countryside, it is an essential requirement that we use the unused land in our cities and that we fill the buildings that are empty.
1221 Local authorities will have to publish the audit. The aim is to bring pressure on public authorities and private owners not to hoard land or accumulate empty properties. The aim is to use what we already have. That is why clause 5 will place a duty on planning authorities to maximise their use of previously developed land.
My Bill will require local authorities to produce capacity studies and audits. The Government may well say—I can see the Minister already rehearsing her lines—that they do not need the clause because of the national land use database, NLUD, which is worth considering for a minute. It is a partnership between the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, English Partnerships, local authorities and the Ordnance Survey. Its aim is to collate and publish information on brownfield sites available for redevelopment.
The information has been collated and assimilated and, according to the Deputy Prime Minister, it will be published shortly, but will it? Rumour has it that there is a problem about ownership and that the Government have not got the legislative authority to publish information that identifies the owner of a site. If that is a problem, the Bill, if enacted, could provide that authority. Will the Minister say whether those rumours are correct?
NLUD should have all the information available. I say "should have" because that depends on whether local authorities have provided the information. NLUD is only as good as the information that it receives. That is unlike the provision in the Bill that will put a duty on every local authority to identify every piece of land and building surplus to requirements and publish details in an annual booklet that is updated regularly. The NLUD proposal is hit and miss, and akin to the national register that we had in the 1980s when we were in office and set up a national register.
I believe that NLUD is too remote from the people. Only developers will want to use it. If an audit is published locally and is available in local libraries, people will have better access to it. That is the proposal in my Bill. If the purpose is to use brownfield sites and derelict buildings, what better way is there than to ensure that local authorities produce the audit and publish it themselves rather than Governments centrally having to have that information? It is not that a central Government audit will not work, but that it will not work as well as publishing an audit locally at every local authority level.
People may think that that is a slightly prejudiced view, but, in his report, Lord Rogers said about NLUD:a national survey to compile consistent statistics will not cover the variety of local circumstances that can be addressed in a locally defined urban capacity study.Lord Rogers does not agree with NLUD; he agrees with my Bill. The Minister should take that point very seriously. One of the aims of my annual audit is to put community pressure on land hoarders to do something with their lands and buildings, and that just will not happen under NLUD.
It is far easier to infill urban areas where the infrastructure is already available if that creates fewer problems than greenfield site development. I was surprised therefore that, on Tuesday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not mention any incentive in the Budget to disfavour greenfield site development in favour of 1222 brownfield site development. If there is no financial incentive to develop brownfield buildings and land, developers will always use greenfield sites because it is cheaper. The House will know that no VAT is charged on new build, but it is levied on the materials used to renovate existing structures. That is a reduction of almost one fifth on the cost of new build and an increase of one fifth on the cost of redevelopment. That is an important point. In the Budget—[Interruption.] I can hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) talking and what he says is important. He says that the Chancellor told the House that there would be an inquiry into the costs of stamp duty.
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
I would like to help my hon. Friend. There was an opportunity in the Budget to change the levels of stamp duty on brownfield and greenfield land and to equalise the rate of VAT on the development of new build and repairing older houses. Unfortunately, the Chancellor missed the opportunity in the Budget to introduce legislation to do that, but he has promised an inquiry. The Government have been considering the matter for two years, but, regrettably, they are still considering it and have not acted.
§ Mr. Steen
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that explanation. That is just what I was going to say, but I did not have the words. The Chancellor missed a great opportunity because there will be no incentive to build on brownfield rather than greenfield sites.
I need to move on from my consideration of the first half of the Bill. I think that the House will have got the idea. Local authorities will publish an annual audit. It will be a booklet or a glossy report that one can pick up at the service station or the library and it will contain information on where the land and buildings are situated and on who owns them. It will create a strong community pressure that will be brought to bear on the people who own the land. For the first time, there will be a local index of who owns what. NLUD is a national register in the Department, which one can see on the internet, but it will not have much local impact.
§ Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)
If one accepts that such an audit is required, does the hon. Gentleman think that it should also include housing stock that is in need of repair and refurbishment and that is in danger of becoming derelict and vacant?
§ Mr. Steen
I am not against that at all. The Bill refers to land and buildings, so it may include such buildings in a wider definition. I want every local urban authority to feel responsible and motivated to create new vitality in towns and cities by identifying vacant land and buildings and by allowing community pressure to do something about that. A central Government register on the internet is remote and impersonal and can do very little to put pressure on the owners of land or buildings so that they 1223 release them for the good of the community. My audit will be transparent and act as a motivator to get land and buildings fully used.
§ Sir Nicholas Lyell
As my hon. Friend knows, I strongly support the concept behind the Bill. On the question asked by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), does my hon. Friend recall that, from the mid-1970s and onwards, Lambeth borough council had what it used to call "housing action areas". They were large areas of semi-derelict housing on which Lambeth council took no action, but which would have been identified under the proposals in this Bill?
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
I apologise to my hon. Friend for missing the first few minutes of his speech.
§ Mr. Paice
I am sorry that I missed the best bit.
I wholly support my hon. Friend's motives and objectives, but I want to challenge him because, several times, he has used the phrase "community pressure" as the means to encourage the owners of derelict land to develop it. Does he think that that is enough, or do we have to find a carrot to try to encourage development by some fiscal measure, such as a transferable development voucher to be used for urban areas rather than greenfield sites?
§ Mr. Steen
That is absolutely right. A number of measures are needed. A local annual audit, which is attractively produced and available for 25p in every newsagent and service station, is a start. We must have incentives: there must be a carrot for those who want to develop in urban areas and a stick for those who want to build on greenfield sites. It is criminal that we allow so many more acres of land to go under concrete when we know that there is empty land that could be filled and 750,000 houses are empty.
§ Mr. Maclean
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because I know that he wants to make progress. One point concerns me about clause 2. If he is to publish a readily available guide in every locality of every vacant and under-utilised building, will he not in effect be publishing a squatters' good hotel guide, with all the dangers that that implies?
§ Mr. Steen
That is an interesting question. I do not have an answer to it, but with the Government's help when we get the Bill into Committee, I am sure that we can find a way round it. However, we do not want to throw the baby out with the bath water, because the Bill has a lot to commend it, as my right hon. Friend knows.
I turn now to the countryside. My aim is the same as that of PPG3. I can see the Minister already mouthing the words, "We don't need this Bill. We have it all in PPG3." 1224 She is wrong because, as I have explained, PPG3 is wishful thinking and moonshine. It does nothing other than express sentiment.
§ Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough)
The hon. Gentleman will be aware, because he is experienced in these matters, that under section 54 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, every planning application has to be determined in accordance with the local plan and other material considerations, of which PPG3 will be one of the most significant. It is not just wishful thinking; it is policy guidance that will shape the determination of every planning application.
§ Mr. Steen
That is an interesting point, and I want to deal with it. Every local authority, with the help of the community, will produce local plans and draw rings round villages and towns for development land. They will try to satisfy the demand for the number of new houses and industrial buildings. PPG3 will be a factor in determining whether land should be developed, but if a greenfield site is in the local plan and designated for housing development, how will a planning authority say no to development on that site because it knows that there is brownfield land a few miles away?
§ Mr. Stinchcombe
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate also that PPG3 gives express guidance to local planning authorities as they draw up their plans, so it has an effect then as well.
§ Mr. Steen
I am grateful for this debate. When authorities draw up their plans, they must provide enough land for the housing requirement in that district. For example, my district council, South Hams, must provide enough land for 12,000 homes. It must draw round villages, hamlets, new towns and, obviously, brownfield sites. There will not be enough brownfield land to accommodate all those households. That is true of Torbay, which is also part of my local authority area. Probably between 30 and 40 per cent. of the housing requirement in the South Hams and Torbay will be met by brownfield sites, but the rest will have to be met by greenfield sites. The local plan will be therefore be partly brownfield, but mostly greenfield.
If a developer comes along in the first year of the plan and says that he wants to develop greenfield sites, will the planning authority be able to say that it will not give permission for greenfield site development until the brownfield land has been filled up, and would that decision be upheld on appeal? PPG3 is silent on that.
§ Mr. Soames
In this splendid Bill, my hon. Friend deals with a matter of cardinal importance, particularly to constituencies in south-east England. Is he aware that in West Sussex there is hardly any brownfield land at all? Although I know that it is a matter of interpretation, I think that PPG3 causes the job to be done better and is a good rather than a bad thing. However, can he suggest how, through the Bill, PPG3 can be made flesh by planners in an area where there simply is no brownfield land, without them resorting immediately to massive development on greenfield sites?
§ Mr. Steen
It cannot. My concern is that the requirement for nearly 1 million new houses in the 1225 south-east is too great and cannot be comprehended. If we do not use brownfield land, we will have to build on greenfield sites, unless boundaries can be crossed, and PPG3 is silent on that. In Plymouth, Exeter and Bristol, there may be more brownfield sites than are required. If the South Hams planners could jump over boundaries and say that Plymouth or Bristol should take more houses, that would be a way to use more brownfield land and reduce the impact on the countryside.
§ Dr. Whitehead
The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is most interesting but unfortunately is nowhere contained in his Bill, which simply refers to local planning authorities being subject to certain requirements in their own patch.
§ Mr. Steen
The hon. Gentleman is right, and the reason is simply that I have tried to make the Bill as uncontentious as possible and simple for anybody to understand. I knew that if I started talking about jumping over local authority boundaries, the Labour party would jump on me, so I decided to make the Bill so simple that nobody in their right mind could object to it.
I have spent nearly an hour on my feet, and I do not think that that is _too long, but there are many hon. Members who want to speak, so rather than go through another 10 pages of well-prepared notes, I propose to short circuit my remarks on the rest of the Bill. The House has got the idea of what I am about. HON. MEMBERS: "Good idea."] My hon. Friends think that it is a good idea.
Having dealt with the problem of land in urban areas, I want to move on to what happens when all the brownfield land has been filled. I am a little doubtful, however, that the new PPG3 takes such a sequential approach, because it is different from the draft PPG3, which suggested that there would be such an approach. The new PPG3 has weakened that slightly. Let us presume that brownfield sites in the cities and the countryside get filled up, and more housing is still required. That is where the next part of the Bill starts to bite.
First, any developer who wants to develop a site of more than five homes has to have in his application to the planners a statement that he has looked over the district and cannot find a more suitable brownfield site to develop. That is not dissimilar to the legislation introduced by the previous Administration about the impact of new legislation on small firms. There had to be a statement that the impact of legislation on small firms would be nil, or that there would be additional costs because of fire regulations and so on. This measure is similar. There must be an assessment by the developer that there is no more suitable piece of land in the district to develop. That encourages the developer to look for brownfield sites.
The most contentious part of the Bill—although, in many ways, it is the most important part—concerns infrastructure. In any planning application, the developer must satisfy the planners that sufficient infrastructure is available for the people moving in to the new homes. The thinking behind that is self-evident in some parts of my constituency.
In Totnes, the primary and secondary schools are full. In Kingsbridge, the secondary school is full to bursting. In Ashburton, the position is similar. Children from the 1226 new homes in Totnes must travel 20 miles each way in a bus because the infrastructure is not there. In Dartington, the sewer that was built in the 1920s and 1930s is inadequate to deal with floods. When there is a heavy downpour, the sewer overflows and backs up into the basins of the primary school.
The Bill states that new homes cannot be built on green fields or brown fields unless the planners are satisfied that the infrastructure can cope. That means not just school places and sewers, but recreation and leisure facilities. Many new towns have more and more homes, but fewer and fewer facilities for young people.
I believe that the Bill does something that PPG3 does not. Developers must ensure that there is enough room on the roads, and sufficient parking spaces and school places. Infrastructure also means the health service—doctors, dentists and hospitals. More and more homes are going into south Devon, with 12,000 going to South Hams. How do we cope when hospital lists get longer?
§ Mr. Dismore
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in condemning any person who, in developing agricultural land in front of their property, encroaches on to the public highways by perhaps a metre, thus reducing the amount of highway available to the public?
§ Mr. Steen
I will not condemn anybody; the hon. Gentleman can if he wants to. I am trying to encourage people and make life better, not worse.
Quality of life is also important, not only for those moving in, but for those who live in an area already. Nobody thinks about those people. However, new development on greenfield sites is not all bad news. Some villages will benefit from in-filling and new development. Many rural primary schools have suffered from reduced numbers of pupils, and village post offices have been crying out for opportunities for more business. New housing and in-filling will benefit those schools and post offices.
I give the House a warning. We cannot build new housing on the scale proposed without an enormous increase in the road network. Torbay is hemmed in by a totally inadequate road structure. The failure of the Government to fund the Kingskerswell bypass means that Torbay cannot absorb the number of homes planned for it. People moving in must realise that they may not be able to get their cars out of their driveways, let alone drive on the roads. In the summer, the A38 through Totnes back to Paignton—about 15 miles—is nose to tail on Saturdays. I foresee that, this summer, it will be gridlocked, with cars unable to move in either direction. Already the infrastructure in south Devon cannot cope.
Clause 7 will ensure that we do not go on building more and more housing without ensuring that the road system can cope. Planners have to be able to start saying no. Politicians have to back them up, from the Deputy Prime Minister to the local chair of planning. My Bill will encourage that.
In the past 20 years, the population of South Hams has risen by nearly 20 per cent. The west country has seen charabanc-loads of retired people moving in from the south-east and the midlands. The result is that the population has become out of balance. There are increasing numbers of retired people, and local people can no longer afford to live in the area. That means that the 1227 retired find it difficult to get help in their homes for cleaning, cooking and odd jobs. Local businesses find it difficult to recruit staff, as the young migrate out of the area that they cannot afford.
Clause 7 gives the planners and politicians a real chance to halt and re-direct new development to where existing infrastructure is not overstretched. That will help to reduce the price of homes, and more local people will be able to afford them. If my Bill becomes law, local plans would ensure that new development is not permitted where infrastructure is already under pressure unless the developer or public authority provides the additional infrastructure that is deemed to be lacking.
Developers, of course, will not have the finance for the additional infrastructure if they build just a few houses. If enough developers build a few houses, we end up with hundreds of homes and still insufficient infrastructure. PPG3 is silent on the provision of infrastructure. I suppose that the Government will say that that is because everyone knows that it has to be provided—but it is not, and it has not been.
Paragraph 5.2 of page 19—entitled "The Sustainable Development Strategy"—of the Devon county structure plan, states:The development strategy for Devon must be sustainable in environmental, economic and social plans.Of course it should be, but it is not. It continues:By explicit consideration of these longer-term issues through each stage of the plan-making process, the principles of sustainability and sustainable development have been carried forward into a development strategy in the policies and proposals which flow from it.Who writes this nonsense? It has no meaning or effect, and it does not work.
In spite of the laudable and appropriate sentiments, 90,000 new homes have to be accommodated in Devon, with some 12,000 in South Hams. As I explained, sewers are overflowing, schools are packed full, roads are crammed, dentists and doctors are not available and hospitals have ever-increasing waiting lists. Against that background, how can one possibly accommodate more people and more households? My Bill echoes the sentiments of PPG3, but will turn them into concrete rules on planning policy. PPG3 aims to achieve that but it will not.
Here is perhaps the key reason why my Bill is needed; this is the punchline. The Deputy Prime Minister has talked ofvariety and choice in housing to meet the needs of the future.That may mean moving away from the psyche of the "Englishman's home is his castle". If that is what the Deputy Prime Minister is saying, I am not sure that everyone will like it. However, there will need to be a change in attitudes to housebuilding and home ownership at the national level.
If a change in public attitudes is required, legislation is needed. Planning guidance used by developers and planning officers will not awaken the mass public conscience to the problem—or, indeed, to the solution. Mention PPG3 to most people and they will not have a clue what is being talked about. Law made by this House is clear and unequivocal. The public understand law; law is profound, made by the body that represents this country for the benefit of this country. Passing this Bill will send out a message that the Government are serious about saving our countryside and regenerating our cities.
1228 The Minister may well get up and argue that legislation is not required to change public attitudes, but that runs against precedent. When other sea changes in public opinion and perception have been needed—the equal treatment of women, race relations, abortion—law made by this House has been the foundation for such change. I do not suggest that my Bill is on a par with such classic pieces of legislation; I merely use them to illustrate the point that law has been and is used to change public perceptions and values. That is what the Deputy Prime Minister, rightly, wants. We fight attitudes as well as bulldozers. If attitudes to housebuilding and home ownership change, so will our attitude toward what bulldozers should be doing, from turning up our green fields to clearing up our brown fields. Law can achieve our shared goal: policy can deal with policy, law can deal with attitudes.
It has taken me 25 years to get a chance to introduce a Bill, and what I propose is both needed and wanted. If the Government want to help and make themselves popular by dealing with one of the major countryside issues, they can achieve that by adopting my Bill in recognition of the fact that that is what the nation wants. We have talked about the subject ad nauseam. In the 1970s, the Wilson Government launched schemes to revitalise the inner cities. I ran one of the programmes under the Home Office urban programme to revitalise urban areas and recruit young people to help in community work. In 1980s, the former Prime Minister Mrs. Thatcher released my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) to spearhead new approaches to urban regeneration. More effort is still needed. My Bill wrestles with the problem in a new way, not through Government diktat or through financial incentives alone, but through community pressure and market forces, coupled with legislation that makes greenfield development more difficult.
England boasts a landscape of priceless variety, from sweeping mountain vistas to gentle rolling pastures, from winding hedgerow-fringed lanes to broad expanses of wild moorland. Every square inch of our beautiful countryside needs to be protected from the constant threat of destruction or damaging development. My Bill will achieve precisely that: the Government ignore it at their peril.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
It is always a delight to follow the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). He adds greatly to our entertainment and it would be a sad day if, for any reason, his idiosyncratic delivery were ever lost to the House of Commons and we could no longer hear his speeches, which are interesting not least because of his ability to perform a 180-deg turn within the confines of one of them. The hon. Gentleman is a living example of the principle that he now appears to believe is most important: that is, having fled Liverpool for the delights of the South Hams, he believes that what happens in urban areas should be strictly divorced from anything that happens in areas such as the one he represents.
Long before the hon. Gentleman thought of moving to Devon, I was a councillor in the very area that he now represents. I hardly like to remind him that there have been not one or two Conservative Members of Parliament for that area, but hundreds of them. During their tenure, the very infrastructure that he now demands has never 1229 been made a priority. The sad story of Dartington primary school is well known to me, because my children went there. I was also, for my sins, a Dart commissioner, so I know that Devonians have, for many generations, been slinging their muck into the Dart. There was no functioning sewerage works until the 1960s. It used to be well known that most of the streams leading from the Dart and most of the springs in Totnes were so alive with every known bacterium that families had to have lived in Totnes for five generations to acquire any immunity to the water. People who lacked such an immunity came to a sad end. One of my favourite aldermen used to say to me, "There's nothing wrong with that spring, my dear—nothing wrong with it at all", but when we had it analysed, we discovered it was so solid with bacteria that they nearly walked out of the water on their own. Therefore, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not echo his calls for Devon to get new infrastructure; it has needed new infrastructure since the time of Drake, but none of its Conservative representatives have ever done much about it.
We should discuss seriously the issues of housing and the balance between rural and urban areas. The hon. Gentleman had difficulty with the word "suburbia", meaning the bit between rural and urban areas. However, most of us understand the implications of an expanding population and accelerating social change. It is no use wanting four generations to live in one house. Most of the working-class houses of my youth did not have room for four generations of one family, even in the highly insanitary conditions in which many people were then forced to live. The notion that people will do that now is not realistic: I have 10 grandchildren, I love them all, and I am delighted when they go home with their mothers and fathers.
Planning policy is now attempting to reverse the events of 20 years. Conservative Governments were happy to let developers buy bits of land wherever they could and put up little boxes. They paid no heed to locating those developments near transport facilities, schools, shopping or other useful infrastructure. They were quite happy to allow the development by private enterprise of any packet of land it could get its hands on, without making a correlation between such development and the interests of rural or urban areas. That could not be allowed to continue. Because of those policies, we in Cheshire now face real difficulties: the expansion of market towns has been such that it will soon be difficult for people to find school places, road space, shops and other facilities essential to a good quality of life. That is not because of changes that have occurred in the past three years, but because of the expansionist policy pursued by Conservative Governments.
For the first time, planning guidance makes a sensible attempt to ensure that serious consideration is given to the location of desperately needed new housing, how it will relate to other developments, and what developers should provide to enhance the quality of life of the people involved. All planning guidance emphasises that, if developers build estates in areas that have no public transport, or that are divorced from public transport routes, a car-using populace is thus created. People have no choice: Crewe has large estates where there are no shops and where, to get a child to school, a car must be used, no matter how 1230 broken down it is, because of the distance to be covered. Inevitably, that has an impact on the quality of life experienced in the whole area. PPG3 and the other guidance notes try to weave the different strands together in a coherent whole. That is a difficult task.
I believe that, today, we should not be considering the likes of the Bill—which, apart from anything else, does not appear to be the one to which the hon. Member for Totnes was speaking. We should be telling the Government that, having set out the three-dimensional jigsaw and having stated how they want all the pieces to fit together, they must take care to ensure that their demands for the future match up with the plans of the building and transport industries. That is not an easy task. Most developers hold land banks covering the sites they want to develop for as far as five years ahead. They think constantly about how to make a profit, which is their reason for being, and sometimes their interests will not match those of the local community. Most sensible developers are aware of their greater responsibility, and there has been an encouraging extension of dialogue between developers and central and local government. They are trying to concentrate on local needs and plans, and to relate what they are doing to the in-depth discussion that will inform the future of planning. However, there are still genuine problems, of which I shall highlight one or two.
Transport is essential to the argument. Schools are obviously vital, but transport is so fundamental that we should be putting tremendous pressure on developers to think about sites in relation to the way in which people move about. It does not matter how green the policies are, how middle-class the population is, or how many members of well-known pressure groups are involved; if every house becomes a two-car household, an instant problem is created.
That will be addressed only by the provision of good public transport, and someone must pay for it. In many areas, buses are disappearing. The problem is not just that bus services do not extend into new estates—they simply disappear. In his attempts to bring back rural buses, the Deputy Prime Minister rightly said that there should be support for new services, and he has now agreed that maintaining the network of bus services is almost as important.
The Government recognise that, but do the transport companies? Do members of the Association of Train Operating Companies realise that they must stop thinking in narrow terms about protecting their own tiny bit of the system, and start thinking about how they can get many more people out of their cars and back on to the train system? They will not do that with their present fare structure and their existing attitude towards the development of new, flexible services, and they will certainly not do it unless they get new rolling stock and a little more responsibility for planning their services.
Having thought through the problem, the Government are suggesting that the crucial issue is not only infrastructure in the sense of roads and transport facilities, but the development of jobs. Something that the hon. Member for Totnes did not say this morning, which he might have said, is that rural and market towns face a problem when they look for existing brownfield sites, not because they do not have them, but because such sites are used by facilities that may be marginal, but provide jobs.
1231 If small businesses are constantly subjected to pressure and told that they will be given £250,000 to shut down so that five houses can be built on their wood yard, that produces two results: development takes place on brownfield sites, certainly, but the local population is deprived of some form of employment. That balance must be considered with far greater urgency than some of the arguments that we have heard today.
The Government must seriously consider their attitude to what they call "clusters". I understand their desire for a developing—especially a high-tech—industry to attract others of its ilk, to set up a centre of excellence and to provide jobs for the future, because such new industries are capable of replacing older ones and attracting new investment. The difficulty is that the Government, in the person of Lord Sainsbury of Turville, have said that they believe that a cluster cannot be created, but must be nurtured. Lord Sainsbury gave evidence this week to one of the Select Committees. I believe that he ought to have reconsidered his position as a Minister.
Although the Government cannot nurture or create clusters of excellent industries, they can destroy existing ones. The case that I have in mind is that of the synchrotron in Cheshire. The message that has been sent to the scientific community, and above all to the population of the north-west, by the decision to allow the synchrotron—which is the only such facility in the United Kingdom, and which has been in Cheshire for 20 years—to move from its existing site southwards to Oxfordshire is that the Government are not only not capable of controlling new tech industries, but do not use their existing muscle to ensure that those facilities are retained where they are both needed and highly developed.
That is so short-sighted, damaging and unimaginative that the Government must think again. They still have time to do so. It is the taxpayers who will provide the bulk of the finance for the move of the synchrotron and its further development, and it is the taxpayers whose interests should be defended by leaving that site in the north-west and allowing it to develop naturally and attract even more science-based jobs.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She names her noble Friend in the particular context, but would not the decision have been taken by her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry?
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
As the hon. Gentleman knows, because he was an adviser to the previous Government, who adopted all the disastrous policies that we are discussing today, if a Minister has a special responsibility, as Lord Sainsbury has for science, he is presumably the person who takes decisions that affect science and the science-based industries. If that is not the case, someone should make that clear to the general public, who have a valid interest in such decisions.
The Bill is slightly confused. It is not necessary. The Government have at long last begun to think seriously about how to balance the myriad interests and bring them all together in a useful and civilised way. Because this country is a small island, our future lies in our learning to live together. The Government have day-by-day responsibilities to take decisions, such as the one in relation to the synchrotron, which will give plain guidance as to their long-term objectives.
1232 The Government are going in the right direction. In general, they are doing many sensible and useful things. Without being too cruel to the hon. Member for Totnes, I must tell him that his Bill does not substantially enlarge the horizons. If the Government are to keep on board the affluent areas of the south-west and the south-east, as well as the industrially energetic and demanding areas such as the north-west, they must think seriously about the day-to-day decisions that they take in relation to industrial development.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). The common sense that she brought to the debate is much to be welcomed.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on his good fortune in having the opportunity to present the Bill, and on addressing a particularly important subject, although one that has not gone undebated in the Chamber during this Parliament. Indeed, it is one of our most regular subjects for debate, with good reason. Great concern is felt across many parts of the country, including my part of the south-west, about the consequences of decisions taken back in 1995, which are now working through the system, and the effects that they will have on our rural areas.
If I have a criticism of the way in which the matter has been debated on previous occasions, it is that there has been an over-emphasis on the green belt. The green belt is important, but it is not the sum total of the concerns, as the hon. Gentleman made clear. Many important landscape areas far away from the green belt are being put under pressure by housing policy.
I also have a concern, which I express in the most gentle way, about the preponderance of contributions to the debate to date from hon. Members representing the south-east. Undoubtedly, that is the area where the pressure is greatest and where there is greatest new household formation, but concentrating on the arguments relating to the south-east, as has been the case in previous debates, means that there is a danger of the argument in the south-west, for example, being lost by default. It is undoubtedly the case that, if we do not have the framework for proper discipline, for every house that is not built in the south-east, an extra house will be built in the south-west. I am worried about that because I represent a south-west constituency.
We are considering an important matter. Sadly, the previous Government are culpable through their predict and provide policies. To his credit, the hon. Member for Totnes admitted that predict and provide was a disastrous policy. The numbers were unsustainable. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I was involved in the argument between local government and central Government. We failed to make an impression on the previous Government when we made the case for a more sustainable policy.
Our views crossed party lines. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) was in the Chamber earlier; I do not know whether he intends to contribute to the debate. [Interruption.] I am pleased to hear that he intends to do so, because our views of the effect of such policies on Somerset have been similar. When I was a member of the county council before 1997, and I qualified the structure plan and stated that the plan for the numbers that 1233 the south-west and our county were asked to accommodate was based on false premises and needed revision, the view received cross-party support.
My experience in local government was not in local planning. I greatly admire those who sit on district and borough councils and have to deal with local planning issues. It is an extraordinarily difficult task. Councillors who do that often receive insufficient credit for the care with which they formulate their arguments and the difficulties that they experience, not least through the process of appeal and local government inspectors being prepared to overrule local decisions and impose an alternative view, which local communities and councils do not support. I was involved with strategic planning, which was difficult enough.
We argued that the figures, which were produced for all sorts of reasons, such as lack of economic opportunity and inward migration not meeting the expected requirements, were deeply suspect, and that a better methodology was needed. Ministers are beginning to take note of such arguments, and I give them credit for the adjustment in Government policy. I am worried that it does not go far enough or act on existing structure or local plans, which are on deposit or have reached a later stage. There will be a time lag -during which plans that are destructive to the open countryside remain in place. However, a start has been made.
The hon. Member for Totnes asked pertinent questions. He is absolutely right about many matters. He considered urban regeneration, which is the other side of the coin from rural protection. We cannot have one without the other. It is a simple equation. Unless our cities are not only habitable but attractive places for people to live, the countryside will suffer further pressure. The means getting the social environment of cities right. Schools must provide a level of education that is attractive to parents. Public transport, to which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich referred, must be up to the task. A solid block of congestion through a city means that anyone who could possibly avoid it would not want to live there.
This country is different from so many countries in western Europe, where the social pressure is to live in the city rather than outside it, and there are rural depopulation problems, although we may eventually experience such problems if the agriculture crisis continues in the most rural areas. There is a lack of investment in the sort of infrastructure that makes it a pleasure to live in an inner city rather than a suburb or a rural area.
The hon. Gentleman also discussed the problems of unoccupied or under-occupied land and buildings. That is another crucial issue. It covers not only local authority and central Government land and property that is not used to its full capacity but that in the private sector. The move away from flats over shops in town centres is significant. Many town centres are devoid of life. That is a problem for the urban environment in the evenings when it sometimes seems that there is an urban wasteland in town centres. If people live in the town centre, above the shops, a community takes up that empty space and makes its home there.
The hon. Gentleman was also right to argue that we should be clearly predisposed to previously used land when possible. Our planning procedures should provide 1234 for that so that planning authorities consider the extent to which they can identify and make available previously used land. I am glad that we have not got into a futile auction in the percentages of brownfield sites in people's plans. That is a sterile pursuit that gets us nowhere. What matters is not the targets, but the outcomes. I am glad that we are making improvements, partly through the Government's urgings. I congratulate them on that.
The hon. Gentleman is right to consider the effects on infrastructure. Planning authorities constantly experience the problem of infrastructure development not keeping pace with the demand for development. I do not know whether that is a planning or a local provision problem. Which comes first: the responsibility of local authorities—including statutory undertakers—to provide the facilities that are needed to underpin new development when the planning has been determined or whether they have the resources to do the job? The latter is often a critical factor for many local authorities, especially as regards school places. It also affects policing, which has not been mentioned, the fire brigade and all the different public services that are needed to make a community effective.
We must also consider whether the necessary private sector services exist. We held a big debate on the future of sub-post offices. Shopping facilities and privately provided leisure facilities must also be taken into account. In the 1970s and 1980s, massive urban sprawl, with estate development that included none of the facilities that I mentioned, was too often created. People did not have access to private or public community facilities, or easy access to employment opportunities. That created an environmental problem of travelling to work across town or out of town. The result was a less satisfactory community.
I have a problem with what the Bill says rather than what the hon. Member for Totnes claims that it says. The hon. Gentleman takes an impressionist view—he is a sort of Vincent van Gogh of the Conservative party, although, happily, he has two ears—of his intentions and the extent to which the Bill provides for it. He may also take an impressionist view of the positions that he once adopted. I have serious anxieties about some of the wording in the Bill. If it is considered in Committee, those matters will have to be discussed carefully.
Let us consider urban capacity studies. There is nothing wrong with the principle. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich asked about how to determine the balance between housing and commercial and industrial usage. It is not correct to say that every bit of underused, pre-used land presents a housing opportunity. Clearly it does not and we need to have an internal debate about that.
We must consider the extent to which land is contaminated—that point was raised by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)—and what procedures local authorities should have to deal with such land. That is a big issue in some parts of the country, and I think that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) has experience of it in Hampshire. We must also consider the extent to which what would be useful land for housing development purposes is effectively taken out of the equation by contamination.
The Bill provides for audits of buildings and land and I have serious concerns about the definitions. It refers to "under-utilised buildings". What is an under-utilised 1235 building? One person's under-utilised building is a manor house with a couple in it as opposed to a two-up, two-down house accommodating a family of six. Listing all those in the property-owning class whose houses have insufficient citizens under their roofs is a rather Maoist concept. The hon. Member for Totnes said that the list would be published at 25p and available at every service station so we would be able to discover exactly who is in the property-owning class. Presumably, the next stage would be the red guards coming round to sort them out. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) has made a good point about that.
Ownership is also a difficult issue as land ownership changes all the time. How often should the ownership list be revised? Should we have an army of people whose job it is to provide a rolling register? I happen to believe that an overall and easily accessible land register should be established, but I am not sure that the Bill is the mechanism for doing so. However, local government and central Government should clearly understand what surplus land they own and the extent to which publicly owned property is unused. The lack of progress in so many local authorities on this issue always amazes me.
When I was leader of Somerset county council in the 1980s, I was astonished to find that it had no overall property terrier. There was no list of the land owned by the county council as it was all held by different departments. I put in place a comprehensive property terrier using information technology. It dealt with property holdings and took in a rolling review of property to check on its cost-in-use and the extent of the capacity for disposals. Every local authority should have such a terrier as a matter of course, as should central Government. Were such terriers to be established, we would find that a lot more land is available than we think. Although the Ministry of Defence has disposed of land recently—I am glad about that—it is one of the biggest offenders. For too long, and for its own purposes, it has hidden behind matters of national security to hold land and property that it does not require.
The Bill refers to maximising use of previously developed land, but we have a problem with definition. How is use maximised? What is the preferred density of use? Will that be determined at national level or would it be better decided locally? I do not know. We need to explore that and the assessment of alternative sites. I am worried because, at face value, the Bill could paralyse the planning process. I do not think that that is what the hon. Member for Totnes intends, but the reality is that we could end up with no decisions being taken about anything. On occasion, local government has a capacity not to take decisions if given the opportunity to do so. That is the danger of the Bill.
Clause 7 deals with the effects of development on the infrastructure. The hon. Gentleman has identified a crucial point, but what will be the practical effect of his chosen way of addressing it? I suggest that the proposal is a charter for every NIMBY protester in the country to say that they do not want anything to happen. Every development will have some effect on the infrastructure and some effect, professed or otherwise, on the quality of life of somebody somewhere. The art of planning is mediating between those conflicting pressures to make sure that the outcome is right.
1236 The hon. Gentleman spoke about the need for some development in rural areas. He is absolutely right. We do not want a dead, sterile countryside in which every village is protected by an envelope so tight that nobody can ever live there and village children can have no hope whatever of living in their own community, as that would effectively force them into internal exile in their own country. We want some development and some opportunity, but we do not want suburbanisation that changes the character of our rural villages and makes them quite different.
I fear that the Bill will not allow any development anywhere outside clearly definable urban pre-used sites. That would undo some of the measures that the Government have put in place through the latest planning advice, which begins to move towards a sequential view. The hon. Gentleman seemed unsure about whether he liked the sequential approach. I like it, and we need it for the release of land because it gives some control.
§ Mr. Heath
The hon. Gentleman clearly takes that view as well.
The Bill raises important questions, although it takes such a form that it is difficult to believe that it will achieve its objectives. However, that is not to say that it should not be supported as we must discuss many issues, one of which is the key factor that we cannot change our planning system and the attitude of developers entirely by planning means. There has to be a fiscal aspect and the big question for the Government is why the consultation process on how we deal with brownfield versus greenfield development in fiscal terms appears to have started only as a result of the Budget. Why have not we made more progress? What is the timetable for putting in place measures to deal with those issues and value added tax in respect of re-use and refurbishment of derelict property as against new build?
Local government issues also need to be addressed. One of my hobby horses in local government was precedent. We could not do what was transparently sensible as a planning authority because that would have set a precedent that would be used by others to breach the ramparts that had been erected against sensible development. Precedent comes up so many times in local government and we should address it.
The cumulative effect of applications is also an issue. Other than at the local plan and structural plan formation stages, local authorities can deal with single applications only on their merits, irrespective of the cumulative effect of a number applications. That poses a problem not so much for housing development, but for mineral development. An application may have a certain effect on the water table so what effect would half a dozen different ones for the same confined area have on the water table? Such consideration cannot be undertaken because it is outside planning law.
We need to consider the appeal system very carefully. Of course some system is needed in extremis, but local authorities constantly run scared and make decisions that they would not otherwise make simply because they are afraid that they might end up in a worse position after an appeal. We need a system that bolsters local decision making, except when that is irrational or unreasonable, not one that imposes an alternative view from the national level.
1237 The Government are beginning to address those issues, and I am glad that they are. Our debates over the past couple of years have improved all hon. Members' understanding of some of the issues, not least because of the influx, at the last election, of a number of Members with local government experience who know something about the practicalities. I look forward to more of the same, because we are not there yet. We do not have a fiscal framework that directs development to the right places, and we do not have a planning framework that is sufficiently robust.
The Bill is welcome in that it raises important issues, but, sadly, it does not address the practicalities effectively enough. That is not to say that we cannot improve it in Committee, should it reach that stage.
§ Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make a brief contribution, and for allowing me to make it early. I apologise for the fact that I may not be able to stay for the whole debate because of other engagements.
It is a pleasure to speak about the Bill, for which I have some warm feelings. It is a particular pleasure because this is the first time that I have spoken in the House about planning matters, although for 12 years prior to my election I seem to have spoken of little else. I must make some declarations of interest at the outset—first as a planning barrister, secondly as a columnist on Planning magazine, thirdly as the former chair of development control in an inner-London borough, fourthly as a life member of Friends of the Earth, and finally as chair of LPEG, the Labour Planning and Environment Group, a national organisation of Labour party members with an interest or expertise in planning and related issues. It was established by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) when he was Opposition environment spokesman. A couple of weeks ago, it publicly endorsed the campaign of the Empty Homes Agency for the availability of new economic and statutory tools to return more empty homes to use.
The interests that I have declared are not just interests; they represent several years of experience, and what I shall say now is the product of that experience—of the hundreds of inquiries in which I have participated, of the experts whom I have heard and cross-examined, of the consultations that I have had with developers, objectors and local planning authorities—some represented by Opposition Members—of the planning committee meetings that I have chaired, and of the planning applications that I have helped to determine.
In the light of that experience, I believe that the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) has done the House a great service. He has raised issues of fundamental concern. As he said, all the experts anticipate that we shall need to find some 4 million homes in the next 10 to 15 years. That is a huge potential need to be met on an island with limited space. As a member of Friends of the Earth, I do not just confess but positively assert that I want to protect habitats from bricks, mortar and concrete. I want as many houses as possible to be built in towns and villages rather than in the open countryside. I want them to be near transport hubs and near destinations to 1238 which residents can walk, rather than destinations that are miles away and accessible only by car. I want them to be built on brown fields rather than green fields. I want us to learn how to recycle land, just as we have learned to recycle glass, tin and paper.
I know that I am not alone in wanting those things—one has only to witness this debate and our recent political history, when Front Benchers of all the major parties outbid each other in terms of setting targets. If the Tories managed to build only four homes out of 10 on brown fields, we asked for six, and others asked for even more.
Yet as we have been saying all these wonderful things, and have all been agreeing on the laudable objectives, three quarters of a million homes have been standing empty. A quarter of a million have stood empty for a year or more. Those homes are not all owned by absentee landlords or speculative developers; some are owned by Government Departments, and 140,000 are owned by public authorities. According to a parliamentary answer that I received yesterday, 11 per cent. of homes owned by national health service trusts are empty. That is a shocking state of affairs. Some empty homes are owned by councils that are both local planning authorities and housing authorities, but that often do not even have an empty homes strategy to guide them.
Most experts agree that, as well as those empty homes, we could find a quarter of a million more in the spaces above shops in the high streets in our town centres. That is the most sustainable location that could be provided for new homes. Goodness knows how many more homes could be created in empty and derelict factories—not just Manhattan-style lofts for e-millionaires in Clerkenwell or Shad Thames, but homes for the homeless in the old boot and shoe factories in Wellingborough and Rushden.
The present position is madness. Four million homes are needed, and there is a cross-party political commitment to protecting green fields, yet still we see bulldozers in fields as urban properties stand idle, empty, underused and unused.
As I have said, I have warm feelings for the Bill. It is clearly well intentioned, and it strikes at a legitimate target. I only wish that it had been presented when Nicholas Ridley was Secretary of State for the Environment, and was lighting his bonfire of planning controls—introducing planning policy guidance 6, and positively encouraging the building of hundreds upon hundreds of out-of-town superstores accessible only by car. As I speak, they are still blighting the town centres and the atmosphere.
When the Opposition were in power, a Bill such as this would have made a real difference, but this Bill is not being debated in those circumstances; it is being debated now, just weeks after the Government's introduction of PPG3—the most significant advance in planning guidance in respect of housing for a generation. Through PPG3, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has implemented many of the good intentions in the Bill, but in more workable ways—as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out in what I thought was a very good speech. It is clear from the Bill, however, that the draftsman not only could not have seen PPG3, but had not anticipated it, notwithstanding the four documents that led to it: "Planning for the Communities of the Future", "Planning for Sustainable Development", "Towards an Urban Renaissance", and the consultation draft of PPG3 itself.
1239 From those four documents, it was already apparent that new planning imperatives were being developed following the 1997 election. It was clear that a new PPG3 was coming, and that it would direct more new development towards brownfield sites and away from greenfield land. It was clear that it would direct new housing towards existing urban areas. It was clear that it would do all the things that the Bill seeks to do.
§ Sir Nicholas Lyell
The hon. Gentleman knows what he is talking about, but the key aspect of the Bill is the fact that it will provide a study and a public record of all the land that may be available. Does PPG3 do that?
§ Mr. Stinchcombe
I shall come to that point in due course.
In its published form, PPG3 has fulfilled each of the expectations that its precursor documents created. Even the most cursory reading of it demonstrates that. Paragraph 2 tells us that local planning authorities shouldgive priority to re-using previously-developed land within urban areas, bringing empty homes back into use and converting existing buildings—converting them into homes, that is—in preference to the development of greenfield sites.Paragraph 21 states the Government's commitment to those ends—a commitment toconcentrating most additional housing development within urban areas;a commitment tomaking more efficient use of landand tomaximising the re-use of previously developed land and the conversion and re-use of existing buildings.It speaks ofassessing the capacity of urban areas to accommodate more housing; adopting a sequential approach to the allocation of land for housing development; managing the release of … landand reviewing not only all local planning policies, but
planning permissions when they come up for renewal.Paragraph 23 sets the formal target about which we have been speaking for so many months—the building of 60 per cent. of additional housing on previously developed land. PPG3 goes on to tell us exactly how that target can be achieved: through the sequential approach. In so doing, PPG3 pre-empts much of the Bill. The elements that it does not pre-empt are in any event not very good, as I hope to show.
§ Mr. Gray
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say, most of which is good sense and has cross-party support—with two exceptions. First, he ignores the seamless continuation of the policies of the previous Government, at least since 1992, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) came to the Department of the Environment, through until now. PPG3 is merely a revision of a previous PPG. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that something new happened in this context on 1 May 1997.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman's point about PPG3 being fantastic may be true, but it has no statutory power. The Bill proposes that the principles in PPG3 should be put into law.
§ Mr. Stinchcombe
I absolve the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) of much of the blame that 1240 I attached to his predecessor, Nicholas Ridley. Even when the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal was Secretary of State, however, he did not introduce a sequential test for housing. He may have done so for retail property, but not for housing. That is a significant change. Indeed, it is so significant that it is the very purpose of the Bill. When the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State, he did not do it, whereas PPG3 does. Thank goodness a Government have been elected who will put into practice what the hon. Gentleman says is common sense and on which both our political parties agree.
§ Mr. Stinchcombe
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that illuminating intervention.
I shall take the House briefly through the Bill, clause by clause, to show either that we have already delivered its intentions or that they are unworkable or impractical. Clause 1 requires urban capacity studies to be carried out. Paragraphs 24 and 27 of PPG3 already require such studies. Clause 2 requires land use audits; we have already started work on the national land use database.
§ Mr. Stinchcombe
I have given way several times, and I want to make progress because many other hon. Members want to speak in the debate.
Clause 3 requires local planning authorities to take into account such studies and audits when preparing their plans. In paragraphs 29 to 34 and others, PPG3 already requires local planning authorities to undertake just such a systematic approach to plan making, and gives us detailed advice on how to do so and how to achieve the 60 per cent. target.
Clause 4 requires the Secretary of State to publish guidance to all local planning authorities. PPG3 is exactly that guidance. Clause 5 imposes on all public bodies a duty to maximise the use of previously developed land. In paragraphs 21 and 22, PPG3 uses the wordsmaximising the re-use of previously-developed land,and gives advice to local planning authorities on how to do so. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said that PPG3 does not have statutory force. It does, through section 54A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Under that section, anyone who makes or determines a planning application has to take into account PPG3 and all the national guidance applicable to that proposal. Therefore, it has appropriate statutory force in a plan-led system.
Paragraphs 57 and 58 of PPG3 provide new density standards which are higher, and so they should be. Gone are the days when we considered that all dense developments must be the product of cynical or greedy developers engaging in urban cramming. We now recognise, as a result of Lord Rogers's report, that dense developments can be vibrant places in which to live. We have learned the lesson that other cities across the globe learned many years ago—that, when properly designed, even high-rise buildings, can be nice places to live.
1241 The failures of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s should not prevent us from developing well-designed, high-density developments in appropriate places for the next millennium. We have learned that the common parts do not have to be on the outside of council blocks—they can be put on the inside, and balconies with views can be put on the outside instead of passageways and stairs. We should go that far but no further, unlike the Bill.
The Bill would impose on all public authorities the statutory duty to maximise land use when making planning applications. That would be unworkable for the reason that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome explained. It would freeze up the planning process and ensure that public authorities would not be dealing with other matters to fulfil their legitimate public functions, because they would be doing their land use audits instead.
Clause 6 is also misguided. It requires the assessment of alternative sites for development whenever a planning application is made to it for five or more houses on undeveloped land. I have a certain sympathy for that clause, but I do not think that it could possibly work. What about the greenfield sites that have already properly been allocated for residential development through the local planning process, and in respect of which we want proper, comprehensive development? Four million homes will have to be built not just on brownfield but on greenfield land as well. Some of the allocations will be, and should be, on greenfield land.
I have to declare an indirect interest because my father-in-law owns some such land. In Wellingborough, 4,000 homes will have to be built. The question was asked where they should go. Following the intervention of environmentalists, it was decided to put them next to the railway station, which is the most sustainable location. Not all the sites were brownfield—some were greenfield—but they were rightly allocated for development because they were in the best possible environmental location. Having made that decision, it would be absurd for every planning application to build on that allocated land to have to go through the statutory procedure required in the Bill. It would be prejudicial to the proper and comprehensive development of those sites, and would fly in the face of section 54A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which requires us to decide in accordance with the plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
The hon. Member for Totnes focused greatly on clause 7, the infrastructure clause. He said that PPG3 is silent on infrastructure, but it is not. Paragraph 31 requires local authorities to consider the capacity of existing and potential infrastructure, and mentions exactly those factors that the hon. Gentleman mentioned: public transport, water, sewerage, other utilities and social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. Infrastructure considerations are not only in PPG3, but in every local or unitary development plan that I have ever seen. I cannot conceive of a planning application for which those factors are not proper material considerations always to be taken into account. Clause 7 therefore also misses the target.
Clause 8 requires local planning authorities to make available for inspection by the public all the relevant documentation. As far as I can remember, ever since the 1242 access to information provisions were inserted in the Local Government Act 1972, the public have had the right to see the documents that the local authority holds.
§ Sir Nicholas Lyell
The hon. Gentleman has reached the point at which he could answer my previous question. The Bill anticipates a proper register. If that is provided under PPG3, will there be a nice clear register that people can see?
§ Mr. Stinchcombe
It is a good moment for me to deal with that point. Notwithstanding some of my criticisms, I still have warm feelings about the Bill. The urban capacity studies that all local authorities are required to undertake as a result of PPG3, as well as the information gathered for the national land use database, will enable us to achieve exactly that. It will not be directly through PPG3. Other action will have to be taken to assemble all the information and then to use it wisely. By raising that issue in the Bill, we can tell the Minister that that is what we want. If we have studies nationally and in all local planning authorities areas, we must ensure that the information that we gather is assembled, assimilated and used wisely. I appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention.
§ Mr. Phil Sawford (Kettering)
Clause 2 provides thatDetails of the ownership of buildings and land identified in the audit shall be published as part of the audit.Clause 8 provides that such documents should be available at reasonable cost. Has anyone tried to put a figure on that? With the shifting patterns of ownership—shared ownerships, corporate ownerships and even disputed or contested ownerships—it is a huge task to impose on a local authority to determine the exact ownership of the land and to publish it at reasonable cost. At what cost to the local taxpayer? How much will the glossy brochures in local garages cost? That cost should be carefully examined when considering the Bill.
§ Mr. Stinchcombe
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It would be a hugely expensive exercise to pursue the Maoist tendency of the Conservative party, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome identified. There are more practical ways to achieve the desirable objectives. Through the national land use database, PPG3 and the urban capacity studies, we will be able to do the job more quickly, more cheaply and better. However, as I have said, I still want us to make best use of the information that we then gather.
The Government should introduce three additional measures. First, the tax regime needs to be altered so that we can better fulfil the laudable objectives of new PPG3. At the moment, that regime stands in the way of achieving those objectives. Good though the Budget was, there were a couple of omissions. It is crazy that there is no VAT on building new homes on green fields but that it costs 17.5 per cent. in VAT to refurbish empty homes.
All hon. Members know that it is more expensive to build on previously developed land in any event. We do not want economic tools to put a further obstacle in the 1243 way of recycling land. We want them to encourage the recycling of land. Therefore, I urge the Government to look swiftly at that issue.
§ Mr. Gray
I thank the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) for allowing me to intervene.
I must correct the hon. Gentleman slightly. There is no suggestion that VAT is charged on building on brownfield land. VAT is charged only where there is refurbishment of existing buildings. That is what Lord Rogers seeks equivalence on. Does he agree with him that that equivalence should be at 0 per cent., or does he propose that the Chancellor should impose a 5 or 10 per cent. tax on new housing?
§ Mr. Stinchcombe
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's first point. I am aware of what VAT is attached to, but I welcome the clarification that he gives and the chance to correct the record to that end. Personally—it is dictated in many respects by European law in any event—I think that we should have equivalence of VAT at between 5 and 7 per cent. However, we must get rid of the existing disparity, whereby there are tax incentives to build new houses on green fields and tax disincentives to refurbish existing buildings in urban areas.
Secondly, at the risk of looking like another stealth taxer, I think that local authorities should be empowered to charge double council tax on homes that have been empty for more than a year for no good reason. It is acceptable for people to say that they have a good reason for a property being empty and to demonstrate it, but if they are sitting on empty homes for no good reason, when there are homeless people and when we are building in the countryside, something should be done.
Thirdly, I believe that every local authority should be required to develop its own empty homes strategy. Many already do, but not all. Wellingborough borough council is developing one—East Northamptonshire district council has established its strategy—but many local authorities have not gone even that far. As they are often the housing authority and the planning authority, that is lamentable, especially when so many of their homes still stand empty. As long as they stand empty, we should not stand idly by.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my contribution.
§ Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe). He has warm feelings towards aspects of the Bill. In the best traditions of Friday debates and private Member's Bills, I find myself sharing his approbation of the Bill and, indeed, many of his reservations.
1244 I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on coming high in the ballot and on, after 25 years, having the opportunity to ride his hobby-horse, which he has been riding throughout that time. He was one of my mentors when I came into the House in 1979. I remember him coming to my then constituency, Hemel Hempstead, to talk about this subject.
I hope that the key point of the Bill—perhaps only the key point—will find its way on to the statute book. Unless the Minister can satisfy me that that is not necessary, we need a little statutory prod to get the key point home. I hope that the Bill will be narrowed to that focus and that, in about three or four clauses, it will find its way on to the statute book.
What is the fundamental point? As Disraeli said—no doubt other people said it, too—what people want in politics is information. That is what we need with regard to the wide political problem of housing development, urban regeneration and protection of the countryside.
The Bill's fundamental point is that information should be ascertained and published. That is what clause 2 asks for. It says:Each local planning authority shall … prepare and publish an audit of derelict, vacant, under-used and under-utilised buildings and land in their area.I do not want to quibble about the precise wording. The clause may be a little too prescriptive, but I should like such a study to be carried out. I would like the local authority to publish it, although not necessarily every 12 months; that may be a bit too much. Those who are responsible for the public utilities, which used to be in public ownership, but which now for good reasons are in private ownership, should be expected to rally round and to provide information about the land and buildings in their ownership so that the register can be built up.
Clause 8 says that local planning authorities should make that information available for inspection at reasonable cost. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Sawford), who I know has local authority experience because I have heard him speak before on the matter, talked about excessive cost. Private Members' Bills should not impose such costs on local authorities or anyone else. They should make simple suggestions that will do good. That is at the heart of the Bill.
I do not know the answer to my next question, but I raise it for the Minister in the hope that it will be noted by her officials and that she will be given the answer. Once we have identified where the land is, information on its ownership will be available probably through the Land Registry. I do not know to what extent the information on the registry is publicly available, but I have always thought that there was a case for some wider availability. I do not want to break too many barriers of private information, but that might provide a way in which to obtain information for those who were seriously interested in such developments at a reasonable cost.
§ Mr. Gray
I am slightly concerned about the part of the Bill on information. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are, I think, of one mind on the aim of saving the countryside, but surely the production of lists and information of the type that the Bill describes and that my 1245 right hon. and learned Friend praises is an excessively bureaucratic and costly way in which to cure the problem. Providing a list does not necessarily provide a solution.
§ Sir Nicholas Lyell
I normally agree with my hon. Friend. I think that it is just that I do not understand exactly what he is saying. If we do not have a list with a map attached that shows what land we are talking about, it will not be of any help to anyone.
§ Sir Nicholas Lyell
May I continue? I am sure that my hon. Friend will develop his reservations in his speech, which I hope that he will make shortly. We must have something that people can look at so that they know what they are talking about in any particular area.
I suppose that I should declare some sort of interest. I have done nothing like as much planning work at the Bar as the hon. Member for Wellingborough, but I have done planning work in the past. It is possible that I might do so in future. I and my family own, or in future, may own small or modest amounts of property, which might be affected by the Bill. I make that clear. What I am asking for probably militates against my immediate interests, but that does not absolve me from declaring the interest, so I do so.
Let me come back to the reasons for having a nice, straightforward register indicating these areas of land. We should not necessarily let the best be the enemy of the good. Something that covered 80 or 90 per cent. would be a real help. It would give an opportunity for smaller developers to be involved, and for competition. Excessive bureaucratisation and over-elaborate planning guidance mean that developers have to be bigger and bigger to succeed in this area. The smaller developers find it more difficult to obtain the information and more expensive—or too expensive—to carry out the necessary studies that the Bill would add to. That is disadvantageous.
As areas develop and small towns are provided with bypasses—rightly, under the previous Government—the land between the outside perimeter of the town and the bypass tends to get infilled. That is sensible, but, sadly, it is often badly done. The quality of the planning is not good enough, partly because it tends to be done by big developers who do not have the time and energy to concentrate on the detailed planning. Information means opportunity, opportunity means competition, competition means higher standards. Those are all thoroughly Tory principles, which I hope will find an echo throughout the House. I know that other parties will say, "Don't claim these good ideas just for yourselves", and I am very happy to spread them around. They are wise principles.
I want to say a word about how this may help Bedfordshire, part of which I represent, and the scale of the problem there. Many hon. Members have talked about the Crow report and the problems that the Deputy Prime Minister is having to tackle—which we would have to tackle if we were in power—about how to place all these homes. We are deceiving ourselves by saying that we are likely to achieve 60 per cent. of building on brownfield sites in many areas. The Government would be deceiving themselves if they seriously believed that that could be 1246 achieved in Bedfordshire. Even with the greater intensity of building that is permissible under PPG3 in relation to the housing development projected for Bedfordshire—which is an increase under the Crow report from 43,000 to 64,000 dwellings—it would be only just possible to get the 43,000 dwellings on 50 per cent. brownfield sites. The figure of 60 per cent. is pie in the sky in Bedfordshire.
When I asked the Deputy Prime Minister about this when he made his statement the other day, he said that the Government were modifying the Crow recommendations and that I was exaggerating. I hope that I am. Crow suggested an extra 21,000 dwellings. The Government have not published their figures, but the newspapers suggested 15,500. If the increase is anything like as much, the figure for what can be built on brownfield sites will reduce to nearer 30 per cent. I did not make these figures up—I got them from our non-political experts on Bedfordshire county council. That is the sad fact. That is why it is so desirable to know that brownfield land really is available across the country, and to have it published, as the Bill suggests.
Knowledge of this nature will be valuable with regard to urban regeneration in the inner city. I used to live in Lambeth, and people did not know what was available. There were also old political battles—dragons that are now slain—and the desire for huge municipalisation clogged up the proper development of Lambeth for 10 or 15 years. I am glad that that is no longer the case. None the less, knowledge of what derelict and brownfield sites are available in an inner-city area such as Lambeth or in a country market town such as Biggleswade will be helpful in enabling the greater densities of building and the better development of either of those communities.
Urban communities, large or small, have a head start with regard to the local transport infrastructure. In a town such as Biggleswade, one can pretty well walk from many of the sites to the centre, and vice versa. There must be a great deal of under-used property, sometimes on the first or second floors of buildings, which nobody has thought of using but which could provide high-quality residential development, particularly for older people. I am pushing in that direction myself—I was brought up in London until I was about 16, and then lived in the country, where I have remained for most of my life except for the 10 years when I had a house in Lambeth. I can quite see that in later life it might be more pleasant to live in London. There are parts of London that could be developed to house far more people, not just in the centre, but out in areas such as Brent. The Bill would help, by making it clear where places, which are at present unattractive but have huge potential, could be developed by a whole host of small, largely private, developers doing good things and allowing a thousand flowers to bloom.
I hope that the Bill will be considered in Committee. I would be very sad if it were talked out, although I have no reason to believe that the Government wish to do so. I hope that there are 100 of us here, if necessary, to see that it gets through. However, I want to see the Bill narrowed down in Committee. Without being precise, I want it narrowed down to roughly clauses 1, 2, 3 and 8. I simply want it to result in the register. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes put the idea in his book in 1981. It was a good idea then, and it is a good idea now.
I was grateful to follow the hon. Member for Wellingborough. It is one of the strengths of the House when hon. Members, from whatever party, bring with 1247 them a deep knowledge of a particular subject. He did so, and illuminated the debate. However, I think that his answers to my questions show that, although PPG3 is benign, it will not do the trick. There should be a statutory requirement for local authorities to obtain the information for the registers and publish them. It would take too long, it would be too diffuse and it would not work, without the prod that the Bill provides.
In summary, I support my hon. Friend's Bill. I hope that it will get into Committee, and that, when it does, he will wipe away all the dross, the over-prescriptive material, the extra burdens on would-be developers and on local authorities that some of the clauses would provide. I hope that the Bill will be focused on its central issue, and that the Government will accept it. There is a great deal of cross-party support for the Bill's central notion, and I wish it well.
§ Helen Jones (Warrington, North)
I welcome some of the remarks made by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), although it is a little intimidating to follow both him and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) who have such knowledge of planning law. I speak not as a planning expert, but as someone who represents an area that knows all too well the difficulties of balancing the need for housing with the need to preserve our environment.
I am from Warrington, which is a growing town, as it has been for many years since the area was designated for new town development. The borough consists of the old central areas of Warrington and large areas of new town development. Sizeable parts of my constituency are built on former greenfield sites. As the area has developed, we have become ever more conscious of the need to protect the green belt around it and open spaces within it.
We have experienced considerable transport problems as the area has grown, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough said, the situation was not helped by the previous Government's policy of allowing much out-of-town retail development. We are currently fighting to preserve Peel hall, one of the last open spaces in north Warrington, from development.
Because of my background, I am well aware that the Bill seeks to tackle a serious problem. The organisation of future development must be addressed, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on his efforts to raise the issue. However, I have serious concerns about whether his Bill—he seemed almost to discuss a different one —will achieve its ends.
I wonder whether the Bill is necessary in the current climate. In large part, it seems to duplicate the guidance in PPG3, which local authorities are required to follow. The carefully constructed strategy laid out in PPG3 was subject to wide consultation and has the support of many local authorities, including mine. It requires authorities to produce housing capacity studies and to release land for housing sequentially, with brownfield sites taking precedence over greenfield sites. In doing so, authorities must have regard to the capacity studies.
The policy was carefully drawn up and has wide support. Because some of the Bill's requirements are so imprecise, it would confuse rather than aid the process.
§ Mr. Steen
I thank the hon. Lady for what she has said. As a Back-Bench Member, I received £200 towards the 1248 drafting of the Bill. It is not drafted marvellously. I was helped by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which did a tremendous job, and the Clerk of the House and my research assistant, but the Bill is not perfect. I do not have at my disposal the battery of advisers and draftsmen available to the Minister, and I am perfectly prepared to make necessary amendments in Committee. With the Minister's help, I am sure that we can get the Bill right.
§ Helen Jones
I hope to touch on some points that concern me, but I fully accept the difficulty of drawing up a private Member's Bill without the necessary resources.
The national land use database supports the policy in PPG3 and is the most comprehensive audit of previously developed land and buildings ever undertaken. The Bill seems to duplicate it. Local authorities are required to recycle existing buildings as well as land—a major policy change that the Government supported by the hon. Gentleman never sought to make. Authorities are also required to review land already allocated for housing to ensure that it meets the new approach set out in PPG3.
In addition to duplicating much existing provision, the Bill has not benefited from extensive consultation with local authorities. I accept that the hon. Gentleman could not undertake such consultation himself, but the Bill is flawed. Clause 1 requires a study of the capacity of previously developed land. However, the Bill contains no assumption about housing density. That seems to set authorities an impossible task. They cannot decide capacity without taking a decision on density. The Bill could make matters worse than they would be under PPG3, which gives local authorities guidance on avoiding inefficient development and seeks more high-density housing.
Under the Bill as drafted, local authorities would make their own assumptions on housing density, so any capacity study that they produced would be much more likely to be challenged on appeal. That would result in more uncertainty and greater cost for everyone involved in the planning process, including council taxpayers.
The clause sets no time limit for the study. Nor does it require authorities to take account of future sources of previously developed land. The capacity study would have no guidance on building density and we do not know how far ahead the provisions would apply. That sets local authorities an impossible task.
There is no requirement that the study should relate to regional or strategic planning processes. That is an essential requirement for areas such as the north-west, where cities such as Liverpool or Manchester are losing population, while other areas, such as Warrington, are gaining it. Unless there is a strategic planning process to underpin those assumptions, we cannot do what I and many Members representing north-west constituencies believe to be essential: concentrate future building in those cities, while avoiding extra building on greenfield areas outside towns such as Warrington and the market towns of Cheshire, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred. We must do that if we are serious about using brownfield sites.
An authority-by-authority approach with no provision for regional strategic planning is likely to be seriously damaging to areas such as the one that I represent. Furthermore, it will not address the problem of the decline of the inner cities.
1249 The clause includes no provision for the required audit to relate to the national land use database. There is no definition of expressions such as "under-used" and "under-utilised". The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) spoke of the possibility that the provisions might apply to mansions in which one couple were rattling about. I know that that is not what the Bill intends, but that is what it could be taken to mean. We need to get those terms right, otherwise we shall impose on local authorities a duty that is impossible for them to fulfil. We would set up a system that would generate constant disagreement and possible legal challenges.
The requirement to publish details of the ownership of all land included in the audit is not sustainable. Other hon. Members have already referred to the possible costs involved. There would be a serious problem in tracing the ownership of some small parcels of land that are not registered. I am dealing with a problem in my constituency where there is a serious difficulty in finding out who owns a particular piece of land.
All local authorities encounter that problem from time to time. However, under the Bill, they would have to spend much time and money tracing ownership of what might be extremely small parcels of land. If they did not do so, they would be in breach of their statutory duty, because there is no concept of reasonableness—of a local authority making reasonable inquiries. If the Bill is to work, that must be included. The provision, as drafted, is not a sensible way to develop the planning process, nor would it be a sensible use of the time of local authorities.
Clause 7 requires that development applications that havea significant impact on the existing infrastructure shall be accompanied by an assessment of that impact.That provision duplicates the guidance set out in PPG12; local authorities are required to take that matter into account both in preparing their development plan and when deciding on applications. However, the provision goes further. It requires that an authority shall approve an application only ifit is satisfied that the existing infrastructure … will be able to meet the demands made upon it by the proposed development; or … is capable of being altered to meet those demands without detriment to the quality of life of existing residents or damage to the natural beauty and amenity of the area.What does that mean?
The hon. Member for Totnes rightly said that, in some cases, development could improve the quality of life—for example, by bringing new pupils into village schools and new customers into village shops—but it is at least arguable that any increase in traffic is detrimental to people's quality of life, so without provision for public transport, no planning application for development could be granted because car use would automatically increase.
It is also arguable that the natural beauty and amenity of an area is damaged by any building. I originally come from Chester. I am sure that the Celtic inhabitants thought that the natural beauty of the place was seriously damaged when the Romans built a wall round it. I am sure that the mediaeval inhabitants thought that they would prefer to have a nice open space in the middle of Chester than to have a great cathedral plonked on it. I exaggerate, but in response to any application it could be argued that damage 1250 would be caused. We end up with a clause that means very little and would be unenforceable. I fear that local authorities would become embroiled in endless appeals and endless litigation.
In short, the Bill, as drafted, is well intentioned but does not give us a sensible planning policy. It will add nothing to the Government's policy of encouraging development on brownfield sites, and would lead to confusion where there should be clarity. As a result, it might actually damage our prospects of preserving green spaces. It imposes duties on local authorities that are so ill-defined that they cannot be fulfilled, and could lead to further appeals and a substantial amount of litigation. It may, of course, enrich lawyers. As an ex-lawyer, I have nothing against enriching lawyers, but I cannot see that the Bill will help to preserve our environment, and it will need substantial amendment if it is to be effective. In the absence of such amendment, I cannot urge my colleagues to support it.
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
As an acknowledged non-expert, I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) rather than my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) or the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), both of whom obviously have great expertise in this subject area.
However, I am delighted to be named as a sponsor of the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). I share his antipathy to legislation and regulation, and I agreed entirely when he said that it would be infinitely better if we spent our Fridays repealing, rather than introducing, legislation. However, when it comes to pressure on the environment, I am guilty of standing on my head and abandoning my instincts, because I want the Bill to become law largely in the form in which my hon. Friend has proposed it to the House.
On one point in his opening remarks, I did disagree with my hon. Friend—when he seemed to take as a given the necessity to build 3.8 million houses by 2016. He then examined the theology of Kingsway, which had produced that information, and drew attention to the fact that the 3.8 million figure had been arrived at by a miraculous decrease from 4.4 million.
It seems to me that, ultimately, those figures are the product of sticking a wet finger in the air, and they are inevitably estimates—estimates about people's behaviour, trends that can change, and factors that can be influenced. This is where I have the most profound difficulty with the current approach to planning. The hon. Member for Warrington, North spoke about a strategic plan for her area—the north-west—and about the need to regenerate Liverpool so that the factors that are producing the rush from Liverpool to Warrington may be affected; yet ultimately, all our planning is decided by the one overwhelming decision that there will be 3.8 million new houses by 2016. Everything cascades from that.
Where I quibble with my hon. Friend is on the first principle. We should attack the factors that create the need for new houses. Why do we need 3.8 million more houses? Is it because our population is growing? No, it is not. We need many more houses because people separate and do not stay together for as long as they did. The House can take measures, through the tax and benefits 1251 system, to support marriage and to encourage people to stay together. We can deal with the factors that lead to the demand for more homes.
We can address the issue of people leaving home earlier and setting up homes on their own. We can put in place incentives through the tax and benefits system to encourage people to stay at home longer before they set up home away from their parents. We can examine the factors that mean that old people live on their own for longer without support from their children. We can start to get to work on the factors that drive the demand for so many houses. If we can do that, the problem that we all face will not be so dramatic as the challenge that we face now, particularly in the south-east and the south-west.
§ Mr. Gray
One way that we could achieve those useful social aims would be by restricting the availability of housing. If a house is not available in a local area, the children will not wish to leave home when they are 18. They will be forced to stay at home even if they do not want to. That might even help to keep families together.
§ Mr. Blunt
There is something in what my hon. Friend says. For example, in Italy, young men traditionally stay at home with mamma for much longer than young men do in the United Kingdom. One of the reasons for that are the planning regulations. In many parts of Italy, there are beautiful landscapes for which there are very restrictive planning regulations. In a sense, such regulations mean that people are encouraged to stay at home. If extra housing is not readily available, that factor falls out the equation.
§ Dr. Whitehead
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Does he accept the concept of affordable housing? If houses are not available at prices that people can afford, that does not necessarily mean that people will stay at home with mother or father—they may not find a roof over their heads at all.
§ Mr. Blunt
We have to examine the position. The population of the United Kingdom is 59.2 million. Will the population be 68 million by the time that we have built all the extra houses? No, it will not, so do we have a homelessness problem in the sense that the hon. Gentleman suggests? We do not; we have a problem with where people live and the style of life that they choose to lead. We should address those factors, because they underlie the problems that we have debated today and on many previous occasions and that the Bill will help to address.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. The difference between predict and provide, and plan, monitor and manage is, in the end, almost meaningless. The whole policy is dictated by the numbers of extra houses set by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Those houses will be built, because the housing inspectors who sit in judgment on planning appeals will have at the back of their minds—whatever PPG3 says—the fact that the Government have said that they should be built and have provided the overall numbers.
That has happened in the south-east, where figures for extra houses have been provided. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) drew attention to the 1252 fact that we have not had such a debate about the south-west, because we have not got the numbers for the south-west yet. The south-east is the first part of the country for which figures have been provided. If we consider the patterns of migration from the south-east to the south-west, I agree that the south-west faces the problem on exactly the same scale as the south-east.
People in the south-east feel so strongly because the numbers for extra houses in the south-east have been made known. Serplan recommended that there should be 668,500 extra houses and that figure was based on an accommodation with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Serplan did not want 668,500 houses to be built, but all the local authorities involved were trying to find a way to buy off central Government, who were trying to impose a number on them, and find a figure that would be acceptable for the whole of the south-east.
Professor Crow had a different mindset and said that the priority must be economic growth. He advocated a "let it rip" approach to housebuilding in the south-east to support unimpeded economic growth, so we ended up with the idea of 1.1 million new houses. The Deputy Prime Minister split the difference, and we now have a target of 860,000 houses to be built by 2016. That drives what will happen thereafter because I understand that on Monday—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—we will be told the allocation per county. The counties will then have to make allocations for the planning authorities, which will have to make the best of a bad job.
In the end, although PPG3 and other guidance will set a sequential test and so on, it will not make a significant difference because it will not change the fact that those houses will be imposed on local people, whether or not they want them. Their representatives, in trying to raise people's quality of life, will not be in a position to make a proper judgment in the interests of all residents.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) mentioned affordable housing, and of course that is an important issue for local representatives, but they cannot afford to ignore the need to provide housing for people who have traditionally lived in that area and are priced out of the market. They will need to find houses for nurses and others working in public services, who are not as well rewarded as others. Those public services are essential, and if an area has only houses that cost a minimum of £500,000, nobody will be left to provide those vital services.
Those issues can be better decided by local people and their representatives, who are accountable to their electorate, than by central Government producing a number that cascades down through the system.
§ Mr. Gareth R. Thomas
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there is a particularly serious lack of affordable housing in London, where the average house costs £159,000 and first-time buyers have to pay an average of £120,000? On public services, will he acknowledge that London has the severest problems caused by the cost of housing and the need for more units of affordable housing?
§ Mr. Blunt
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the situation in London is patchy because some areas have enormous economic pressure and others are subject to 1253 serious economic and environmental challenge. That is a complicated picture, but my hon. Friend's Bill will help us to understand that by providing transparency.
Labour Members have criticised the approach taken by the Conservative Government in the 1980s, not least under the stewardship of the late Lord Ridley. To a degree, looking at the picture now, one has to agree that perhaps things went wrong. However, one of the joys of the Conservative party is that it contains two trends—it has a liberal wing and a Tory wing—and is able to respond to the changes required in the environment.
In the 1980s, people rightly aspired to the freedom of choice provided by out-of-town shopping centres, and that is what consumers were demanding. The sort of houses that were being built were what people wanted. At that stage, the debate about the environment was not as intense as it is now. That intensity is due to the fact that, as the environment has changed, people have begun to say, "Enough! There are enough out-of-town shopping centres and greenfield developments." That is why policy changed, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said, in 1992. That is why the trend of policy now is a continuation of what happened under the stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer).
The Bill comes at a time when the pressure for development in the south-east and the south-west is becoming intolerable. That is why the issue is at the front of our minds, and why the Bill deserves consideration.
The Government have failed to address the factors that drive the housing projections, and they have yet to get to grips with urban regeneration. There is a sort of schizophrenia in the Government, which one sees sometimes in the personality of Ministers. The instinct of the Minister for Housing and Planning, I believe, is to develop; he has a liberal approach to these matters. He believes that the south-east must be the economic motor of the UK, and that is why the numbers have been pushed up as far as they have been by the Deputy Prime Minister. I deplore that, but other Ministers see things differently.
The Government are trying to grope towards a solution. I do not doubt their good intentions, which are shown in PPG3 and the evidence given to the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. However, they have, so far, failed to deliver the instruments that will enable change to take place. That is what the Bill does.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough quite properly criticised the Budget as a missed opportunity in terms of VAT, stamp duty on brownfield sites and a special development tax on greenfield sites. These instruments were available, but the opportunity was lost.
The people of the south-east are crying out for restraint in development, yet they will be told to get on with building more new homes which they know they cannot cope with. The context in which the House considers the Bill is so important. When central Government instruct one region to meet its share of the national housing projections, the message is simple—in the end, it will have to build those houses, pay the environmental price and suffer a reduction in the quality of life.
If the Government continue to pursue that policy, the House will owe it to future generations to do everything that we possibly can to alleviate the worst effects of the 1254 overall policy that is driven by the housing projections. The Bill could play a key role in that, and ought to command support from both sides of the House. The criticisms so far have been about the detail, and I hope sincerely that hon. Members will support the Bill, so that those criticisms can be debated properly in Committee. There seems to be agreement on the overall objective.
The Bill could put power in the hands of people in the form of information. That information could then condition the attitudes of their local representatives. We need transparency.
Ministers have been stubborn in their insistence that 60 per cent. of all new building should be on brownfield sites. I commend them for that; it is not enough, but at least they have upped the target and said that they intend to stick to it. However, that target does not change the reality on the ground. Local authorities, particularly in the south-east and the south-west, will struggle immensely to meet that target with the development required of them by Ministers.
The urban capacity studies that the Bill would require local authorities to undertake would inform the debate. If Ministers are to ensure that even the 60 per cent. target is met, it is essential to ensure that each and every brownfield site is meticulously considered and no area left undisturbed before the all-too-easy option of greenfield development is allowed.
We have a duty to protect our green fields from development. However, all too often, our planning controls are insufficient to cope with the ever-increasing strains on the infrastructure, and the threats to our green fields and the environment.
I raised with the Minister the issue of telecommunications masts; one example where the planning process permits the environmentally friendly option—that of base stations being forced to go on existing structures and buildings—to be too readily overlooked. The powers in that respect have not been explored adequately, with the result that there has been an explosion in the number of masts. I am sure that we have all received complaints from constituents about the associated health risks and the impact on their visual enjoyment of the environment. The Bill would ensure that all environmentally friendly options to preserve our environment are explored and every effort is made to spare greenfield sites before construction commences.
I conclude with an example drawn from the area on the boundary between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). The previous household projection numbers cascaded down through the county and on to the borough of Reigate and Banstead. That borough, already the most congested and developed part of Surrey, had a higher housing target imposed on it than any other borough in Surrey. Regrettably, there was a Liberal-Labour coalition running the borough council at the time. The borough now had to find room for those houses. The Horley masterplan was produced, whereby half of the houses were to be built on the boundary of Horley on farm land and green fields partly owned by the county council.
Local people took up the issue. Douglas Simpson of the Meath Green Protection Society carried out his own brownfield audit of Horley as it stands. Through imaginative schemes, including building on existing car parks and moving the car parking spaces to areas above 1255 the railway, Mr. Simpson found in Horley—a small town—room for 2,000 houses on previously developed land. It is wrong that such a study of brownfield sites in Horley had to be undertaken by a member of the public. With that exercise, Mr. Simpson has triggered an interesting debate about the Horley masterplan and the alternatives to building 2,600 houses on greenfield land extending right to the boundary of the green belt on the A23 corridor—the narrowest part of the green belt around London. It should not have taken a member of the public to initiate that debate.
The informatioln that Douglas Simpson had to find should have been available when the development plan was drawn up. The Bill would make such information available to all members of the public. It would enable the debate that every community must have to be properly informed and the planning process to be transparent. The Bill would provide the necessary statutory power to make the commitment to maximise the reuse of previously developed land and empty properties work locally. The Bill is proactive, although my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes might not like that description, given his attitude to regulation. It will make information available.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) described development as a jigsaw, and the Government face the challenge of putting together a huge number of pieces of policy. The Bill addresses only one piece of the jigsaw: the provision of information—knowing what is there so that we can make use of it. We cannot simply rely on PPG3 and good intentions. We must put information into public domain through statute.
The Bill changes "should"—a word that appears repeatedly in PPG3—into "will". It is in the interests of future generations, who will inherit the environment that we create, that we place on local authorities a duty to provide information to their constituents. I am delighted to support the Bill and I hope that it reaches Committee.
§ Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)
It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) as the third non-expert in a row. That is all to the good and what Parliament is all about—the more non-experts, the better. I have a great deal of sympathy with his opening remarks about his suspicions about the global housing figure. My gut instinct tells me that it is far too large; it does not accord with common sense, population growth, population mobility, or changes in family composition.
I cannot say that I go along with the hon. Gentleman in his touching faith in keeping marriages together through tax incentives. Most marriages that I have witnessed breaking up would not be kept together with manacles, never mind tax incentives.
I am also not convinced by the hon. Gentleman's generalisation—I hope that I quote him correctly—that people in the south-east are crying out for restraint in housebuilding. That is only partly true. It would apply only to those who were content with their current housing. Part of the problem in the south-east and elsewhere—I shall speak mainly about elsewhere—is precisely the number of people who, for one reason or another, are not content with their present housing, whether they have a house or not, and want to move out into the sort of areas that the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) seeks to protect.
1256 I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Totnes and agreed with much of it. I noted his statement that he wished he were in the Chamber on Fridays repealing legislation, which was echoed by the hon. Member for Reigate. If they proposed the repeal of section 28, they would receive a great deal of support from Government Members.
Although I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Totnes and support many of his aims, I cannot support the Bill, for the reasons already stated by my hon. Friends. It would duplicate much of what the Government are doing through PPG3 and the national land use database. It would overlay and confuse the work already being done by many local authorities—not all, no doubt, but many.
Some clauses would be unworkable, and most of the Bill is otiose. There is little in it that has not been addressed elsewhere. I shall not go through the Bill in enormous detail, except to say that the Government are already committed to doing much of what is set out in clause 1.
The hon. Member for Totnes was rightly worried about the dense and meaningless wording of many of the documents to which he referred. I share those concerns, but paragraph 22 of PPG3, which states thatThe Government is committed to maximising the re-use of previously-developed land and empty properties and the conversion of non-residential buildings for housing, in order both to promote regeneration and minimise the amount of greenfield land being taken for developmentcould not be clearer as a central commitment by the Government.
Clause 2 is already under way. Clause 3 goes without saying. Without it, clauses 1 and 2 would be pointless. That applies also to subsection (2) of clause 3. Clause 4 is already being done.
Clause 5 is already being done, but I shall comment on the wordingpublic bodies shall seek to maximise the use of previously developed land,which also appears in clause 3(2). Why does the clause not simply state "shall maximise"? The words "seek to" significantly weaken it. I advise the hon. Gentleman to reconsider that, if the Bill goes any further. I can hear the voice of my local senior planning officer saying, "Well, Col, we sought to maximise it. Unfortunately, we couldn't quite do it, but we assure you we tried."
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that I was out of the Chamber when he dealt with clause 6, which would require a local planning authority to go through the hoopsfor five or more dwellings.The hon. Gentleman is right. Like many hon. Members representing rural areas, I have bitter memories of the old days when an agricultural worker's dwelling got planning permission in the green belt, and one suddenly found that it had 12 bedrooms, two stables, garage room for six cars and so on. Five dwellings with gardens of an acre apiece and 10 bedrooms are different from five sheltered accommodation bungalows or a row of five terraced houses, which are built to fulfil specific needs. Clause 6 is therefore nonsense.
I am also worried about clause 7. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that the existing infrastructure would have to be adequate for any development of greenfield sites.
1257 That would preclude any deal between a local authority and a developer to introduce a development that had its own infrastructure. That happens all the time. I appreciate that schools present difficulties, but developers almost always provide physical infrastructure such as sewers and roads. If such a development were necessary in a small part of the green belt, the Bill would prevent it.
The provisions of clause 8 are already under way, especially through the scrutiny of local authority development plans. However, I support clause 9, which covers interpretation. If the hon. Member for Totnes removed the other clauses and left clause 9, I would support the Bill.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to discuss one of the crucial problems of the new century. It has given rise to a briefing from the Country Landowners Association, with which—probably for the first time—I mostly agree. However, the CLA makes one statement, which, if not silly, is mistaken. It states:The Government's stated aim of "urban renaissance" is laudable. This should not be at the expense of the needs of rural areas.The Government have to base their policy on the simple and obvious truth that the needs of rural areas depend on urban renaissance. The Deputy Prime Minister recognised that years ago; the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) has talked about it for years; and the hon. Member for Totnes also acknowledges that.
Unless the population of the United Kingdom—the majority of whom live in urban areas—are content with the quality of life in those areas, people will strive to move out. That is human nature. Most of them will want to move not to isolated rural areas—they will not move to the middle of the Pennines or central Wales—but to the green areas that surround major conurbations. They often want to do that to retain their jobs and the richness of leisure services that exists in cities. We all want it both ways.
That trend vastly increases commuter transport. That other major problem is intimately related to the subject of our discussion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made clear. Unless we can encourage urban renaissance in all our cities and urban areas—not only London or Manchester, wonderful though the metro is—the pressures for emigration to rural areas will become irresistible. Perhaps they already are.
I appreciate that I am stating the obvious. However, it bears endless repetition. The problem will not be tackled by those who have already moved to a rural area trying to pull up the drawbridge behind them to prevent others from getting in. It will not be solved by the persistent efforts to create division between rural and urban communities. That can do nothing but damage to our overall social infrastructure. We live in a small country, not Canada. Its rural and urban communities intermesh in many different ways.
A simple thesis underlies the Bill of the hon. Member for Totnes. He wants to prevent more people from moving to the countryside. He realises that, to do that, he must prevent the building of the homes that are necessary to house them there. He knows that more homes are needed. His proposed solution is to compel local authorities and developers to use brownfield sites in urban areas. The Bill specifies "previously developed urban land".
1258 The CLA briefing points out that there are many previously developed sites in rural areas. That is true of my constituency. The Bill does not include them.
§ Mr. Pickthall
If the Bill gets that far and if such an amendment can be drafted, simply removing the word "urban" would solve the problem. There is much previously developed land in rural areas such as Ministry of Defence sites, old Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions sites, old countryside works of all kinds and old railway works, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Houses have been built inside a former quarry in my constituency. Although that sounds terrible, the development is very attractive.
I do not know the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I presume that his local council would not be greatly burdened by the responsibilities that the Bill would entail. However, his former constituency in Liverpool would be mightily burdened and those responsibilities, which most authorities already undertake in one way or another, would be enormous for a city the size of Manchester. Having said all that, his basic thesis is not far wrong, with the exception of the word "urban". However, the Government are seeking to achieve what the Bill describes. Why do we need to duplicate that?
In essence, the Bill says that urban local authorities will have to undertake huge extra activities at substantial expense to themselves to protect the countryside. The towns and cities would pay, through work and expenditure, for the benefit of the countryside, although I am not saying that that is entirely wrong as a philosophy.
§ Mr. Blunt
Is not the hon. Gentleman trying to have the argument both ways? First he says that those studies and everything else are happening anyway under the Government's proposals, then he says that the Bill would impose a huge extra expense by forcing urban authorities to go through that process. Surely we all agree that the process should take place. He says that it will happen under Government policy, but the Bill would make it happen. It will happen anyway. He cannot run both arguments.
§ Mr. Pickthall
I always try to have it both ways—do not we all?—but the Bill would involve local authorities in work of some kind. I shall not quarrel with anyone about the amount of work, but they would already have been instructed by PPG3 and by other Government planning guidelines to do precisely such work or work that would cover those examples.
I want to say a word about previously developed land. An element of the problem of locating sites for new homes concerns the comparative reluctance of developers to use existing brownfield sites. I sympathise with remarks made from both sides of the House about the need to adjust the tax regime to help with that, but the nation's stock of brownfield land, if I may put it that way, happens to be primarily in regions and sub-regions that are by no means overheated and in which fewer houses are required overall.
I would like Government thinking to encompass two types of brownfield site. The first is damaged land. In my part of the world, such land would have had a mill on it 1259 and could be remediated—that word is used in the Government documents, although I do not know where it comes from—inside usual planning applications and development gain. The second is seriously contaminated and deeply difficult land such as the chemical dump that destroyed an entire village in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Twigg). The sites of old tanneries that deposited poisons on land for decades are another example. An MOD site in my constituency is radioactive because large amounts of luminous paint were used there during and after the war and other sites have clearly been badly contaminated by the work of industries associated with the nuclear industry.
It is clearly beyond the means of a local authority and a developer to clean up such sites. That is a task for the Government at national and regional level and I hope that they will establish a fund to be used by the regional development agencies—and eventually, I hope, by regional government—to tackle those monstrosities directly on environmental and development grounds. That should be—perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell me that it really is—part of the RDAs' strategic land development role.
§ Mr. Loughton
Given his comments about badly contaminated land, would the hon. Gentleman take issue with a recent press report that the Government are considering making the present owners liable for cleaning such land up, whether or not they originally contaminated it many years earlier? Does that not provide a disincentive for owners to clear up, or indeed to take on contaminated land in the first place?
§ Mr. Pickthall
That is a good question. It depends very much on the circumstances in which the contaminated land was acquired. Anyone who buys land that is substantially contaminated is potty unless he or she has a plan, and the money, to deal with it.
Such sites are sometimes owned by local government. It costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, sometimes millions, to clean them; if they are not cleaned, they eventually become a danger to those living nearby. I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that the sites are cleaned, and to put aside resources for the purpose.
The Bill seeks to put a sticking plaster over the problem, but does not and cannot tackle the root causes, although the hon. Member for Totnes did so in his speech. The central difficulty is the vast amount of economic development in the south-east—the "golden triangle". Other regions are much less pressured; some are even still mildly depressed. There is still room for development in the north-west, south Yorkshire, the west midlands and the north-east, and, owing to the industrial histories of those areas, they contain a substantial amount of previously developed land.
However, people who want to move out of London, in particular, want to move to the greener parts of the home counties where they can expend their energies demanding better transport systems to take them into and out of central London. The Prime Minister is right to say that the economic and social divide is within the regions themselves. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows as well as anyone, it would be hard to find a sharper contrast than 1260 that between Moss Side in Manchester and Alderley Edge in Cheshire, only a few miles away. In my constituency, extremely deprived and problematic estates in Skelmersdale are within half a mile of extremely well-to-do villages such as Bickerstaffe and Newburgh. Nevertheless, there is still a huge divide in the country. To describe it as the north-south divide is too simple; for this purpose, the "north" must include the midlands, and possibly Bristol, Southampton and Plymouth as well.
Planning for new homes takes place over a substantial period, especially when it involves the construction of new towns. From the north-west, where we have at least two uncompleted new towns in central Lancashire and Skelmersdale, we view proposals for new towns in the south-east with some amazement. The disparity is, of course, to do with jobs: where there are new jobs, investment and new enterprises, the demands for housing and infrastructure will follow.
Governments have tried for decades to lure businesses into the regions, sometimes with success and always at great cost to the taxpayer. Smaller-scale operations by local authorities such as mine have been quietly successful in many areas, but they have not produced vast new development. The geographically bottom-heavy economy of this country is difficult to deal with, precisely because of the pull of the "golden triangle"; but one part of the whole puzzle is entirely within the control of Government—and that is, in fact, Government.
I would like Government to consider, over the same span of time as their housing plans, the removal of Ministries from London to the regions. I saw a very good "Yes, Minister" sketch on that subject some years ago, which might have put the Government off contemplating the idea, but it is not particularly problematic to locate a Ministry in each of the English regions in an age of electronic communication. Ministers and their teams could probably all be housed in one of the existing buildings, such as the Treasury, and could be in constant aural and visual contact with civil servants in, say, Liverpool just as easily as if they were on another floor in the same building.
Many huge buildings in Westminster would consequently be available for other purposes. Some of them are only fit to be museums, but others could be adapted as homes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) suggested. I would quite like a flat in Richmond house: it would be a good idea.
Many civil servants would object to such a move, but there would be certain blandishments. They would be able to buy a four-bedroomed house with a quarter of an acre of land in Lancashire for less than the price of a one-bedroomed flat in central London. They would be almost guaranteed a good school in whichever direction they looked. House prices in London would fall to some extent, and would rise in the regions. The country would become more balanced in respect of that vital motor of the economy.
Young people who are attracted into the golden triangle to work in the civil service would find opportunities closer to home. The substantial brownfield resource in the north of England would be mopped up, and commerce would be attracted north, south-west and east. Interest rates would no longer be bullied by the south-east housing market.
1261 I realise that that is grossly over-simplified, but it is within the Government's control over a decade—and we are talking about building millions of houses in a decade. It would enable us to argue that the country no longer needs kellies—we had them as children, I do not know what they are called now—which are bottom heavy and all the weight is in one place: in this case, in London and the south-east.
I referred to the unhealthy and artificial campaign to make urban and rural areas opposed and antagonistic polarities. That campaign is based on an untruth. A large proportion of our population live in suburbs—even very small towns have suburbs—that benefit from the virtues and are subject to the problems of both urban and rural areas. Many people live in the country and work in urban centres, so have a stake in both.
West Lancashire is typical of many other constituencies. It is a large horticultural and agricultural area with a small market town in the middle, a new town in one corner, a dozen villages, and 20 or so hamlets sandwiched between Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Preston. All the transport links are between the major towns, and pass through West Lancashire, serving the rural areas. Because they go from Preston to Liverpool and from Wigan to Southport, my area has a rail service, but it does not generate enough activity for its own rail service. Many residents in my area use Manchester and Liverpool for work, but more so for cultural and sporting activities. There is massive pressure for development in the green belt, because the bulk of the constituency is green belt.
We face particular problems to which the hon. Member for Totnes alluded. A deal was suddenly on the cards for Newburgh, which is a village of about 1,000 people. A developer wanted to provide a bypass for the village, which is badly hit by heavy traffic, in return for permission to build 380 houses. I wanted the bypass, but I and the people of the village strongly opposed it on the simple ground that it would entirely change the nature of the village. There was no problem with the school or transportation: it was the fact that it would no longer be a village. Such planning problems are not easily spelt out in the Bill.
The large MOD site in my constituency is up for sale and about to be developed. It is in a large village—a small town of about 6,000. The site is on the edge of the village, sandwiched between the countryside and the canal. Again, the proposition is attractive because it is a brownfield site and building those houses would relieve pressure on the district council to build on green belt elsewhere, but it would change the nature of the village. We must examine carefully the infrastructure that is required and what will happen to the quality of life there.
I will not labour the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, but there is vast scope for new homes in cities, if people want to live there. There is vast scope above shops and offices. I walk to work every day in this place along Rochester row; I have done so for some years. It is a fascinating street. It has empty, semi-derelict buildings. They are vast; there is an old police station there, too. We could probably house 200 or 300 people in there if there were the incentive to do so through taxation and planning policy.
1262 We all have a stake in the quality of the countryside, no matter where we live. That means that we all have a stake in towns and cities, no matter where we live. The presumption behind the Bill is that we should squeeze expansion of households into urban areas. That would be to ignore the needs of some rural settlements—to do him justice, the hon. Member for Totnes recognised the point—to expand at the margins to maintain the mix of population and the micro-economy. It may be less damaging to develop in the countryside in that way than to allow a steady expansion of urban centres, which the green belt was set up to stop.
The level at which those complex and interacting consequences are best tackled is the regional level. It is not too fanciful to claim that the best argument for regional government is that for a regional strategy for land use. The Government cannot and should not instruct people where to live. To the millions whose idea of a decent life is living in a bustling urban environment, we owe the urban renaissance that Lord Rogers has outlined and that the Government are pledged to. To the fewer millions, whose idea of the good life is quiet, clean air, good schools and the small, tightly knit communities of rural areas, we must say that it is important to preserve that quality of life as best we can, but all our citizens are entitled to aspire to it and to have an equal chance of achieving it. The Bill would not help them.
§ 1.2 pm
§ Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), whose speech caused me some concern. He spoke for just under half an hour. When a Labour Member does that on a private Member's Bill day, one knows that the Whips' fingerprints are on it. Indeed, I see one of them ensuring that other Members on the Government Benches talk the Bill out, although I am not sure whether they want to talk out this Bill or the one immediately afterwards, as they may by now have learned that attacks on the countryside and field sports do not work well for the Government.
§ Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)
Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the second is the tactic, it will be welcomed?
§ Mr. Baldry
Indeed, but, sadly, I suspect that the Whips' tactic is for Government Members to talk out this Bill, which would merit getting into Committee.
The hon. Member for West Lancashire talked about moving Government Departments to the regions. He represents a north-west constituency. He would do well to cajole the Government, whom he supports, supposedly, not to move those Departments to the regions, but—as is happening with the synchrotron project—to stop moving projects to the south-east. The Government are reinforcing the bottom-heavy aspects that he alluded to. There is concern among those of us who represent constituencies in the south-east about the inexorable pressure for housing in the region.
I commend the Bill. I am sorry only that my speech today will not attract as much attention, either locally or nationally, as my comments to the House yesterday, but the Bill is excellent.
Only this month, the overwhelming majority of residents in a village just outside Banbury called Bodicote voiced their concerns in a petition that I presented to 1263 the House. It is a typical example of the pressures in the south-east. Bodicote has existed since the Domesday book; it has taken from then until now to reach 850 homes. Within two years, it is planned to build a further 1,100 homes in that village. That is simply unsustainable. Indeed, if I could afford it, I would love to send every Labour Member a copy of George Orwell's book "Coming up for Air" for them to reread. It is an illustration of how much of the home counties was built over during the 1930s and 1940s. Unless we take steps to mitigate those pressures, much of what is left of rural England will disappear under the same pressures.
Another problem is that much of the language is almost incomprehensible to the average elector and others. Mention is made of PPGs, regional planning guidance, structure plans and local plans. How on earth do we expect constituents to understand code terms such as PPG3? It is the only way that we can talk in this respect, however. In any event, there is much that I welcome in the new PPG3. It puts an end to predict-and-provide planning and replaces it with a more monitor-and-manage approach. That can only be good news. It introduces a sequential approach that places a presumption on using urban sites before rural ones, and requires urban capacity studies to be undertaken by local authorities. It improves quality and reduces land take, and favours urban extensions to new settlements. That provides a solid base for regional planning guidance. However, PPG3 has left unfinished business, which is important to good planning and which regional planning guidance should include.
I do not intend to talk in detail about the exact number of houses that the Government plan to impose on the south-east. They have settled on an unsatisfactory, split-the-difference compromise between Serplan and Crow. It will mean too much housing for a region that has already grown dramatically. Housing provision in my constituency has risen by 70 per cent. since the early 1970s. Between 1981 and 1996—a comparatively short period—the district of Cherwell grew by nearly 30 per cent. When in the history of our country has one seen that level of growth?
A recent cartoon, I think in The Daily Telegraph, showed a family opening a box of the board game, Monopoly. It was the south-east edition, and the family were buried under the miniature houses. That cartoon got it right. The Government have resolved on more house-building in the south-east than the region can sensibly bear. I do not think that they have listened to the legitimate concerns that have been voiced. More needs to be done to alter the approach that we take.
In a statement to the House earlier this month, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions said: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.—[Official Report, 7 March 2000; Vol. 345, c. 863.]To that end, apparently, the new PPG3 has been produced. Although I welcome elements of it, it does not radically alter the way in which we approach housing.
There is much in my hon. Friend's Bill to be commended. It is no more than plain and simple logic to require an assessment of local infrastructure. With regard to the effect of the PPG on Oxfordshire, for example, the 1264 road network in rural north Oxfordshire is already under considerable pressure and suffers from a lack of maintenance. The capacity of the three junctions on the M40 in my constituency already poses serious problems much of the time. Yet the plans for the south-east and for north Oxfordshire do not seem to take account of this plain and simple logic.
Had these measures been in place in addition to PPG3, an assessment would have shown that north Oxfordshire cannot cope with the increased demands on its roads, water, sewerage, waste, health and educational facilities. It would have shown that such house building cannot be sanctioned within the existing facilities without detriment to the quality of life of local communities.
The Bill would empower the bodies that are best placed to make such assessments—the local planning authorities. It would require any application to a local planning authority that is likely to have a significant impact on the existing infrastructure to be accompanied by an assessment of that impact. That seems a very sensible measure.
Sir Crispin Tickell has said that development should meet the needs of present generations without compromising the needs of future generations. Sustainable development obviously needs sustainable infrastructure. The Bill would ensure that planning permission would be granted only if necessary additional infrastructure could be provided without burdening the public purse. Part of north Oxfordshire's problem is that improvements in infrastructure have, inevitably, lagged behind where public funding has been required. For example, the Government's settlement to the county council results increasingly in failing roads all over our rural network.
A debate last year in the other place on the south-east regional planning committee—Serplan—showed where the Government are going wrong. Lord Whitty, Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, said:We are both concerned to see sustainable development at the centre of any plans for economic growth.However, the Government blatantly ignore the genuine concerns of those who rely on the economic prosperity of the south-east. PPG3 brushes aside the congestion and pressures on services and infrastructure that the south-east is already experiencing. Instead, the Government pursue a policy intended to promote economic growth at the expense of quality of life. PPG3 will have the ultimate effect of choking off economic growth and preventing the south-east from realising its full economic potential.
The Bill would go a modest distance towards helping to avoid that. It would focus developers' attention on towns and cities in which infrastructure already exists and where tens of thousands of acres of land are not fully utilised. It would not choke areas, but would reduce the pressure for greenfield development in the countryside. PPG3 may aim to do that, but it misses the target in the south-east.
In the debate in the other place, the Under-Secretary said:There is general agreement that we cannot go on building in the laissez-faire pattern which has occurred in recent years, above all in the south-east.We would all agree with that, but not allowing those who represent the south-east to have a say in what is imposed locally is much worse than laissez faire. That does not 1265 provide better resourcing for regional planning bodies that are running on a shoestring. It does not allow for better collection and monitoring of assessed projects. Nor does it increase resources given to forward planning and monitoring in local authorities. It makes no commitment to a new concordat with local planning authorities that would combine hand-holding and help during preparation of development plans with formal comment or objections where the guidance had not been followed.
As the Council for the Protection of Rural England points out, we cannot let a draft development plan proceed in 12 months' time without an urban capacity study. The Government have consistently been told that that will happen, but it will not if the Bill is enacted. In its 17th report, the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs said that it did not believe that regional bodies would have sufficient resources. The Government responded with woolly words, but did nothing.
In the other place, the Under-Secretary said:We may have to concentrate on more limited areas and a more structured approach.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 December 1999; Vol. 1798, c. 251.]Surely a structured approach would require some timetable for planning in the south-east and a published action plan for implementation of PPG3.
No official summary has been offered of the significant shifts in policy, and no attention has been drawn to the changes required. Nor is there any intention to publish best practice guidance on key aspects or, as the CPRE notes, on urban capacity studies and existing land allocations. The Government have been told time and again that those things are needed. It is clear that the planning system will be unable to cope within the time scale envisaged in PPG3 and that it will struggle to produce structure plans and local plans to deliver proposed growth against inevitable public concern and opposition.
PPG3 has trumpeted the sequential approach, but what will be the major gain if it continues to put tremendous pressure on the green belt? My constituency has only 24 hectares of brownfield capacity. One does not have to be a planning expert to realise how little brownfield land is available in north Oxfordshire. Without Bills such as this one, PPG3 contains little that would ease the pressure on greenfield sites, on the green belt and on remaining green areas in countries such as Oxfordshire.
Many of the Bill's proposals would put responsibility into the hands of local authorities. I welcome that move, although it is disappointing that such ideas have not already fulfilled their potential. Two years ago, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions told the House:Decentralisation is an essential aim of the Government.—[Official Report, 23 February 1998; Vol. 307, c. 22.]However, that has not happened in planning. Local authorities are not being given the chance to make more local decisions.
The nub of my speech is that, on the one hand, we have a Government and a planning process using language such as PPG3, structure plans, county plans and local plans, while on the other hand, housing numbers are increasingly imposed on local communities from above. Local 1266 communities—local councils and villages—say, "Surely, we should be able to decide how fast and to what extent our towns and villages grow."
Communities in areas such as north Oxfordshire see more and more fields disappear—inexorably and irrevocably—under concrete, while, a few miles up the road in the west midlands, they see acres of empty, derelict brownfield sites that are not being developed. If we allow that process to continue as we move through the century, more and more of England will disappear under concrete. George Orwell's book "Coming up for Air" will apply not just to parts of the home counties, but to the whole of England.
The Government have not applied the imagination or vision needed to tackle the problem. It is most important that we adopt a policy in which local people decide on the extent to which their communities grow and on the amount of housing that is imposed on them.
§ Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on introducing this subject in a private Member's Bill. Many of us know of his sincerity and of his deep thought about the matter; he has demonstrated that today. Indeed, over many years, he has shown almost stakhanovite devotion to the issue—even during the period when his Government were producing opposite policies on cities, urban development and the planning process. If we were to base our decisions on the Bill on the person who is promoting it and on the sincerity and thinking that had gone into it and then apply those principles to all legislation, the statute book would look different. None the less, we are dealing with a Bill and that is what we must address.
It is no accident that the title of the Bill conflates the aims of urban regeneration and countryside protection. They represent the centre of the debate on land use; in urban regeneration, we bring about the protection of the countryside through the repopulation of the city. By building houses and amenities in urban areas, we roll back the trend for development in areas outside the urban zone. That is the context in which the great Greenfield-brownfield debate has sprung up. If we can develop mostly on brownfield, previously used land, greenfield land can be saved from the development and the countryside will be safe.
There are two versions of that straightforward argument: one is simple, the other is complex. Both make similar claims on the surface; they agree on some headline actions, but their eventual aims are different. The simple version is as follows. Put everything on brownfield sites in cities—indeed, require development to take place only on brownfield sites except in exceptional circumstances. Then little development will take place outside cities and those who live in the country can continue to live their present pleasant lives, untroubled by further development or problems on their doorstep.
The complex version holds that the debate is actually about sustainability—the extent to which the ecosystem can continue to carry, provide a good standard of living for, and house in reasonable conditions, the population of the country as a whole, without in the process destroying or compromising the environment or the climate, bringing about irreversible and detrimental changes.
1267 Those two versions look a bit like each other, but one is a general principle—what would a sustainable planning system that accommodated all of us look like?—and the other is a particular principle: how can the particular living conditions of some people be protected at the expense of others? My suggestion is that the Bill fits the latter description. That was not fully reflected by the way in which the hon. Member for Totnes presented it. The Bill provides particular solutions and is not capable of universalisation.
I shall argue that, ironically, such an approach is ultimately unsustainable, and the horrors from which it seeks to protect its particular constituency will, if its advice is followed, be visited upon that constituency, in the end, to a greater degree than if it had originally pursued a less particularistic strategy.
Some Labour Members have argued—I suspect that others will as well—that the Bill should not proceed, simply because it is unnecessary, as most of the things that it suggests should be done are already in train. That is a seductive argument, but not a sufficient argument in its own right. One might ask—indeed, it has been asked frequently in the debate—"If that were so, what is the harm in proceeding with the Bill? It would simply stand alongside, and possibly reinforce, what is there already." That is not a good reason for legislating, and it is, or would be, a waste of a valuable opportunity to place some good legislation on the statute book, but it is an arguable point.
I shall argue that there is a greater problem with this proposed legislation than the fact that it duplicates existing arrangements. When its promoter defends what is proposed, it should be incumbent on him to explain why he wants to place on the statute book something that has already been done. He claims that particular elements—we have heard this morning about one particular element—would be additional, but we need more explanation than that.
We have heard this morning some analysis, especially from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), of the duplication in the Bill. It is indeed striking. I shall not list every element of the Bill that duplicates existing planning policy guidance, but I shall point out that planning policy guidance requires local authorities and planning authorities to do things. Planning policy guidance documents are not simply good advice that may or may not be looked at. In every clause, there is a striking parallel with either PPG3 or, in some instances, PPG12.
The national land use database was mentioned. The criticisms levelled against that database, which is still at an early stage of its development, are not justified. The first Government statistical service information bulletin to be issued on the subject says that this is the first attempt to create such a database. Information has been produced, quite remarkably and co-operatively, by the vast majority of local planning authorities, but further information will be sought, developed and published on the database. It is estimated that the database has already received information about almost 16,000 hectares of previously developed land in England now lying vacant, and also—this is germane to arguments that hon. Members have made about remediation—about more than 17,000 hectares of derelict land that require some form of remediation.
1268 Therefore the exercise has been a success, and the information is there. An important point that has emerged from the debate is that development of that national land use database, possibly to make it available at filling stations for 25p, would be a valuable way of ensuring that the information that is being collected is available at a local level so that decisions may be taken, but it would not require new primary legislation to allow that to happen. I hope that this debate will send the message that making such information available is possible and that it is a desirable way forward.
One of the most depressing factors in my dealings on the issue is that—despite the fact that all the material is there in planning policy guidance, the national land use database and changes in legislation—the concerns of people in the south-east about the direction and extent of housebuilding in that part of the world have been used by the Conservative party and other interests as a blunt instrument with which to bash the Government. To do that, those wielding the instrument have been forced to omit from their account most of the measures that have been taken or are being taken so that they can maintain the claim that a mad Government are hellbent on concreting over the whole of the south of England. Frankly, only if one completely ignores the existence of PPG3, the sequential test, the brownfield register, the targets for the use of previously built land, the capacity studies, the infrastructure tests and so on, can one really maintain that attack.
On the basis of my analysis, one can come to one of two conclusions about the Bill. The first is that its promoter did not know that such measures had been taken. We have heard an interesting explanation that the Government spotted the Bill and quickly put PPG3 into place. That is a conceivable, if not likely, explanation. The alternative conclusion is that the people who suggested the Bill to the promoter knew that such action had been taken, but wished to make out that the Bill is the only bulwark against a beastly Government who are determined to do terrible things to southern England. As has been made clear in the debate, that is not true.
However, can we leave it at that? Can we simply say that the Bill duplicates what the Government have already done? I do not think that we can, because the Bill's main fault lies in the mechanisms that it leaves out, and we have heard mention of them. To summarise, the Bill's approach to how we do things nationally might be described as the view from South Hams. It requires action from local planning authorities, and only local planning authorities. It lives in a world where all that is required is that a brownfield register is set up in each area, and only in each area. When a planning application comes in, the register is compared to the application rather like a swatch of curtain material against a paint sample and—hey presto—the greenfield site is saved. Reality does not work like that and if it did, the consequences would, as I have suggested, eventually be the opposite of what the Bill's promoter affects to intend.
A simple initial point is that the supply of brownfield land is by no means equal in all points of the country. Regrettably, it is by no means equal to the pressure for housing in those parts of the country where such pressure exists. It is instructive to learn from the national land use database that, although nearly 48 per cent. of all previously developed vacant and derelict land was in the north-west, north-east and Yorkshire and the Humber, 1269 only 22 per cent. was in the west midlands and the east midlands. In the remaining regions, only 7 per cent. was in the east of England, 10 per cent. in the south-west, 10 per cent. in the south-east and in London, only 4 per cent. There is an enormous disparity between where the brownfield land is situated and where the pressure for housing exists.
Urban areas are not coterminous with local authority boundaries. If one is serious about planning housing so that it is mainly developed in urban areas, one has to start from a proper understanding of what an urban area is. We can say what is urban when it comes to the inner areas of large conurbations, such as London, Manchester or Birmingham, but I am not sure that we can say the same about smaller free-standing cities such as Southampton, Plymouth, Leicester, Nottingham. In those and many other areas, the real urban zone—the organic city—extends beyond the boundaries of the city council.
Southampton, the city that I represent, has a dense urban core, and the real city has perhaps twice the population and several times the area of that core. The suburbs, which are associated with the city and dependent on it for jobs, entertainment, shopping and other activities, are under the jurisdiction of another local authority. The Bill does not take that into account.
Each local authority, such as Southampton, Eastleigh and the New Forest in my part of the world, will conduct the study and look up the site register. What will happen then? Will it reject a proposal because there is no site? Will it go ahead with it when it might be better to take into account land in the city zone as a whole? That is why we need an element of regional and structural planning, which is apparently missing from this mechanism. A major fault of the Bill is that it uses the word "urban" without defining it or what role urban zones are to play, and says that all housing can, in some general undefined way, be built in those zones.
Furthermore, the Bill seems to envisage each local authority wrestling with these problems in isolation from all the others. That echoes what seems increasingly to be the Conservative line that every local authority decides on development in splendid isolation and seeks to send it elsewhere, regardless of the consequences.
I am reminded of an epiphany that occurred at a meeting that I spoke at in Southwater near Horsham. Various campaigning groups had banded together and proudly announced at the end of the evening that they would stop all development. The chairman was substantially on their side, but had to remind them that, logically, they could not all win. That is the central flaw in the Bill.
The urban regeneration to which the Bill's title refers requires much more care in its progress than is entailed by simple urban cramming. That may look good to rural or semi-rural dwellers for a while but, if the city is crammed and there are no amenities, no sites for jobs, no open space and no reasons to stay, eventually it will surely spill over into its rural surroundings, to the detriment of all. We need sustainable urban regeneration, which requires much more care than is apparent from the mechanisms in the Bill. The report by Lord Rogers's task force, many of whose recommendations have already found their way into planning policy guidance, admirably underlines that fact.
1270 In locating new developments in free-standing cities, we should try as far as possible to develop land that has already been used, but what will happen? Some previously used land is in the middle of nowhere. Do we use that land? We have already had a debate today about whether brownfield means urban sites. The hon. Member for Totnes said that a simple amendment to the Bill could include brownfield sites in non-urban areas. However, that would cause a separate problem.
If the eternal sequential tests suggested by the Bill are applied to local authorities in rural areas, we may well develop brownfield sites that are unsustainable. A number of former airfields, mental hospitals and Ministry of Defence sites are in the middle of nowhere, have no links with any urban zone and are not urban extensions. If we put housing on those sites, they would simply become dormitories with long transport extensions that people would use to drive into the city in an unsustainable way. The Bill appears to suggest that in some circumstances we might do worse than we would if we tried to develop in urban zones under existing provisions.
Serious, sustainable urban planning should consist of planned urban extensions, close to existing amenities and with short, sustainable transport patterns. However, those may occupy greenfield sites, while the unsustainable communities in the middle of nowhere would occupy brownfield sites, and the Bill logically suggests that we choose the latter.
Is building of any sort in rural areas to be stopped because the place is not urban and there are no greenfield sites? Of course we should seek to develop within the footprint of existing built communities, but that is not what the Bill says. If we simply shut up shop, particularly for affordable housing in rural communities, the social effects will be catastrophic. Only the very rich will be able to afford to live in those green havens. I imagine that they will want their houses and cars repaired, their drains cleared, their ride-on mowers serviced and their golf courses maintained. However, no one earning the kind of income available from those jobs will be able to live near enough to do them. Maybe the villagers will club together to bus people in from the nearest city once a month. I hope that I never see that scenario.
The Bill is not just a duplication of what is already there. It goes beyond that, by replacing a well-worked-out national, regional and local partnership in planning with what turns out to be a simplistic and ultimately self-defeating mechanism that might well play well in South Hams, but would be a disastrous wrong turn for our nation were it to be implemented across the country. I urge the House not to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
It is always a daunting experience to follow the learned doctor, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), as I have done so often in Select Committees. He used terms like "stakhanovite"to describe the tendencies of previous speakers. I am sure that he knows what a stakhanovite tendency is, but I certainly do not. Most of the rest of his 1271 speech was extraordinarily learned and reasonably well argued, if a little beyond the immediate ken of some of my constituents.
§ Dr. Whitehead
The word "stakhanovite" comes from the Soviet coal miner Stakhanov, who hewed more coal in one day than any other Soviet miner in history and, as a result, was given the Order of Lenin.
§ Mr. Gray
I am grateful to the learned hon. Gentleman for putting me right on that subject. My contribution will be less elevated and perhaps less elegant than his.
I wish to speak on behalf of my constituents and others across England who are concerned about this issue—people such as those in Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, who showed their concern last night by throwing out the Labour-controlled council and replacing it with a Conservative council on a 13 per cent. swing, which, if replicated in a general election, would return the constituency to Conservative control.
I broadly accept and welcome the principles of PPG3, which follows the principles laid down by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who put in place the original PPG3 and changed Conservative policy on planning. We who first put the principles in place are preserving the countryside. I am pleased that the Government have followed those principles.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for choosing this subject for his Bill. It is good that he opened up the debate, and I hope that the Government will listen carefully today and then, I hope, in Committee.
What we do in the next 20 years in terms of building in England will be with us for 1,000 years. Truly, this is a millennium issue. Archaeologists and town planners will look back 1,000 years from now and will talk about what we are doing in terms of planning today, in the same way that we very often talk critically about our predecessors in the 19th century and earlier.
§ Mr. Tom King
People talk as though this is the final plan, but this is the plan until 2011 or 2016. The indication is that the plan thereafter is to do it all again. When one reflects on that, one realises how critical this issue is. My hon. Friend was a little dismissive of PPG3, which failed to mention more about affordable housing and infrastructure provision—two key elements that must be taken into account in any further planning and development.
§ Mr. Gray
My right hon. Friend makes some powerful points. We are discussing not simply a process that will stop in 2011, but what will happen thereafter. Unless we get the principles right now and lay down the way in which we want to live on this small island of ours, future generations will not thank us.
It is worth reflecting on some of the correct principles that the Bill attempts to address. First, it is right that there should be equality of economic prosperity across the United Kingdom—it is not right that there should be economic prosperity here in the south-east, in my own area towards the south-west and in other parts of England, while we remain perfectly content to allow less prosperity, or greater poverty, in the north of England and in Scotland 1272 and Wales. Our planning policies must lay down ways to establish equality of opportunity across the country. I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides would agree.
Secondly, we must find ways to revive our inner cities. The Bill goes some way toward achieving that. In Paris, the inner city is elegant, well-built and prosperous, whereas the outer city is less prosperous. We have generally done it the other way around and allowed our inner cities to decline. That must be reversed. I suspect that there is agreement on that principle as well.
Thirdly, we must preserve the nature of our small market towns. I am concerned that towns in Wiltshire such as Chippenham, Malmesbury, Wootton Bassett and Corsham may be engulfed by new housing—often homes in the "executive style", which is an expression I dislike intensely—almost all occupied by commuters into Swindon, Bath and Bristol. We must find ways to preserve the character and nature of market towns while accommodating economic prosperity.
Fourthly, we must save the countryside, both as the primary area of food production and for its amenity value. Just about everyone would agree with those four principles of development. However, my fifth principle of planning policy is more controversial—deliberately so. The presumption is made that it is the nation's duty to provide the quality and the type of housing that people want, in the place that they want it and at a price that they can afford to pay for it. The first part of that statement is fair enough, but I question whether the rest is a reasonable aim of planning policy.
Should we provide the desired quantity and type of housing that people want where they want it and at the price they can afford? We do not do so at present—one only has to look at Mayfair. We think it perfectly acceptable that the smallest property—a bedsit—in Mayfair costs £1 million; no one says that we should change planning policy to ensure that housing is available in Mayfair for all who want it. However, when we discuss the rest of the south-east of England, we appear to accept the necessity of providing the type and quality of housing that people want, where they want it and at the price they can afford. That presumption is exactly what leads to the trickle-down effect currently seen in planning: we state how many houses we need and where we need them.
§ Dr. Whitehead
The difference between Mayfair and south-east England is that one can still afford to live relatively close to Mayfair, whereas commuting distances in south-east England, were the entire region to become unaffordable, would mean that no one was able to get where they needed to go, whether to work or for some other reason.
§ Mr. Gray
The hon. Gentleman is correct. I was using Mayfair as an extreme example of a general principle, which is that, if we accept that it is right to provide affordable housing, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We in the south-east are prosperous, so we build more factories; we find that we have not enough houses for the people who work in those factories, so we build more houses. Then, we have lots of people, but some of those factories disappear, so more businesses have to be brought in to employ the people. In the meantime, huge factories lie empty in other parts of England, such as the north-east and north-west, poverty increases in such areas and they have a housing surplus.
1273 We must ask ourselves whether it is right to provide the number of houses people want at a price that they can afford to pay. Perhaps it is not right. Perhaps we should engage to a greater extent in social engineering—an unpleasant expression, but apt—in an effort to spread prosperity throughout the nation and to reduce congestion in the south-east.
§ Mr. Letwin
My hon. Friend has identified the kernel of the issue, but does he agree that the problem is even more severe than he describes because, as prosperity grows, there could be an almost limitless demand for second homes? On the thesis that he correctly exposes as that which underlies the Government's present policies, we could presumably build 20 million second homes all over the countryside.
§ Mr. Gray
And, as my right hon. Friend reminds me, in Somerset, where there are large numbers of second homes. In-corners seeking second homes, particularly in the west of England, create huge pressure. That problem must be addressed.
On the question whether we must give people the sort of homes that they need in the place that they need them, and the suggestion that that may not be a moral obligation, I would make an exception in the case of the sons and daughters of local people who wish to continue to live in the same area. That is perfectly reasonable. There should be affordable lower-cost housing, for which the exceptions policy in PPG3 allows, so that local people can live in those areas. That does not mean executive-style homes for commuters to move into.
§ Mr. Letwin
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a problem with such affordable housing? We do not live in a totalitarian state, thank goodness, and once houses are built, it is not easy to ensure that they are always occupied by the people for whom they were designed.
§ Mr. Gray
It is by no means easy to ensure that that is the case, but if that were a principle underlying the planning system, there would at least be a presumption that local authorities might find a way of doing it.
To some extent, when the Conservatives were in government we put that idea in place by ensuring that the right to buy would not apply to housing associations in settlements of less than a certain size, to make sure that we maintained affordable rented housing in some of our smaller villages. That is a worthwhile principle, although my hon. Friend is right.
In Malmesbury, a highly desirable Cotswold stone town in my constituency, for example, there are so many outsiders coming in that the smallest house costs a fortune, so local people must move a long way away. We must get away from that phenomenon, and one way of doing so would be by writing a principle relating to affordable housing into the planning policy, although I accept my hon. Friend's point that it may be difficult to work out how to do that.
1274 That brings me to a more general point. Under our present planning system, some faceless bureaucrats somewhere come up with the number of houses that we will need. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes questioned the basis for those projections and he is right to do so. Nevertheless, the figure produced by the faceless bureaucrats is divided, broadly speaking, by the number of counties in England. Each county is told that it must take X number of houses, the county then divides them up among the district councils, and it ends up with North Wiltshire district council being told that it must take 12,000 houses.
That takes no account whatever of the need in North Wiltshire, the economic prosperity in North Wiltshire, or the land available in North Wiltshire. It takes no account of anything at all, apart from some central stakhanovite civil servant who says that, by a process of arithmetic that is always too complicated for him to understand, North Wiltshire will take 12,000 houses. The fact that those houses might be needed more elsewhere is ignored.
That brings me back to the economic equality argument. Here, I risk trespassing on a number of very worthwhile businesses, which want to develop in areas such as mine, where there is already low unemployment. I would argue that that is not necessarily helpful. We do not necessarily need the Showell industrial park just south of Chippenham, because Chippenham has almost zero unemployment.
By building a huge new business park, we invite lots of new entrepreneurial businesses, which is great economically, and bring in lots more people. Meanwhile, in the north of England and elsewhere, large areas of factory space and housing are empty and there is general economic decline. Only by being more controlling through the planning system can we encourage businesses to go to areas that need the business more. That brings me back to the Bill.
The planning system is centrally controlled. The Government run it, and decisions trickle down to the people who have to live with the consequences. We should reverse the process and tell local people that their representatives—district, county and parish councillors—will determine their economic necessities; that they will decide what land they have available; and that they will know the sort of people who look for housing and will therefore know the sort of housing that is needed in the area. If the result of that democratic process is fewer houses in, for example, North Wiltshire, than the faceless bureaucrats in Whitehall tell us that we need, so be it. We can force business and housing into the areas that have the requisite capacity only by such means.
I fear that I have one or two minor worries about the Bill. I have warned my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes about that. It is a good Bill, because it focuses attention on crucial matters. However, I am worried about the production of the register of vacant land. It is important to know the location of vacant land, but I am concerned that it would be easy to believe that a list and a map of vacant land would solve the problem. The problem could be solved by other means, which I shall describe, but the mere production of a register would not resolve it. Indeed, it might make matters worse, because many civil servants might tell themselves that producing the register, keeping it up to date and making it available to the public would somehow make life better. That is not necessarily the case.
1275 We do not need to make registers—that is the old Stalinist, centralised way. We must give people incentives to build on vacant land and provide disincentives for not building on it. Other suggestions occur. We have discussed the differential in VAT between new build and refurbishment. We must correct that; I believe that it should be zero, the figure that Lord Rogers proposed. Otherwise we are considering a tax on housing, which I could not contemplate supporting. We must find a way of equalising the VAT.
A vacant land tax is worth considering. If someone chooses to keep land vacant for no particular reason, perhaps he should be taxed on it. We could consider a council tax on empty homes. It is possibly right to pay a little extra on a house that is kept empty for lengthy periods for no particular reason. In that context, I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who talked about flats above shops and the Empty Homes Agency. Both were initiatives of the previous Conservative Government.
I do not support a greenfield tax, but we could possibly consider a tax on building on greenfield sites. However, my inclination is that that is not the best policy because it would give the builders an incentive to build larger and more expensive homes to eat up the tax that was charged on them.
Compulsory purchase orders on brownfield sites in inner-city areas were mentioned. We must find ways to improve the CPO system so that developers can lay their hands on large parcels of land owned by a variety of owners, many of whom will have disappeared.
We should restrict greenfield development. If we do that, we are not following the slightly bureaucratic route that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes proposes in the Bill, but harnessing the natural instincts and strengths of the private sector. We should tell developers that we have proposals that will help them to make a profit by making use of vacant land. We should encourage businesses to go to areas where they are needed, not to areas such as mine where they are not needed as much. We should harness the energies of the private sector, encourage development where it ought to happen in our great nation and discourage it where it should not, namely on greenfield sites.
I welcome the broad thrust and principles of the Bill. It is a fine measure. I hope that the Government will give good time for its consideration in Committee and that they do not try to talk it out today. We shall note carefully the amount of time that the Minister takes to reply. We hope that she sits down at twenty-nine and a half minutes past two o'clock. We look forward to that. The Government must not talk out such a valuable Bill.
Some serious work needs to be done to improve the aspects that I have described. By and large, the principles behind the Bill are sound. The Conservative party has always subscribed to them. I am sure that an incoming Conservative Government—the result in Broxtowe last night encouraged me to believe that that may be around the corner—will give effect to those principles.
§ Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)
I welcome the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I share his views on the need for equality of economic opportunity around the regions, 1276 although I suspect that our opinions on the helpful impact of regional development agencies, which are beginning to be part of the solution to the problem of the delivery of that equality of opportunity, are slightly different.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). I have had warm feelings towards him this week because as part of my research for Monday's debate on access to the countryside and the right to roam I read his contribution to the debate on the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, which he piloted through the House. He stood out against the pressure applied by the Country Landowners Association against opening up access and delivered an effective right to roam across Dartmoor. I relish the opportunity to support the Bill's aspirations, which he described so well in his opening remarks.
Who could not want to protect greenfield sites from development if brownfield sites exist? Who could not want to champion the regeneration of urban areas? It seems entirely sensible to focus developers' minds on derelict, vacant, under-used and under-utilised buildings and to recognise that infrastructure such as access to general practitioners' surgeries, schools and so on is needed to support housing developments.
My constituency is an example of suburban splendour at its finest and the countryside creeps in at the top end, in Pinner Green and Hatch End. There is a strong community and village feel to parts of my area and green open space is cherished as much in my constituency as it clearly is in that of the hon. Gentleman. A powerful example of that point is the campaign to prevent field and recreation ground being developed under Hillingdon council's proposal to stick some 100 houses on open land cherished by people in Roxbourne, Rayners Lane and South Harrow in my constituency. That successful campaign used an argument similar to the point made about infrastructure in clause 7.
As well as cherishing the open space in my constituency, people in Harrow recognise the great pressure of housing need to find sites for new housing in the area. The hon. Gentleman and others talked about the 3.8 million new homes and where to put them and we could usefully have explored the type of stock that we need. Should it be executive, affordable or social housing? I contend that affordable and social housing must be the priority. Although I recognise that there is a balance to be struck, discussion of how to deliver affordable and social housing stock has been absent from the debate.
To show the seriousness of that omission, 1,251 households in my borough had been accepted as homeless by the end of December 1999, 126 were in bed and breakfast accommodation and our total housing need is for 2,268 households. That graphically illustrates the housing pressures in my borough. The problem is reflected throughout London as 184,000 households are on waiting lists, 6,500 people are in bed and breakfast accommodation and the use of temporary accommodation has risen by 30 per cent. across the city.
On 1 March in Westminster Hall, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) made the telling point that the average price for a London house is now some £159,000. On average, first-time buyers have to pay £120,000. That clearly has an impact on public sector professionals, as is evidenced by the skills shortage in London. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn 1277 and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), the Labour candidate in the London mayoral election, has rightly identified it as a key problem.
The issue of housing density is missing from the Bill. We should consider that, and also the need to refurbish and redevelop the housing stock that is available. In my constituency, the Rayners Lane estate is in particular need of refurbishment.
The Bill's aspirations are laudable, but, as others have pointed out, the new PPG3 and the new national land use database have already achieved its key aims. As for infrastructure, we already have PPG12, which recognises its crucial importance. I think that we would be better to stick to PPG3 and the land use database than to introduce a Bill which I think will only cause problems and confusion for local authorities. I welcome what the hon. Member for Totnes seeks to achieve, but I think that it is already being achieved by existing Government policy.
§ 2.2 pm
§ Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)
As I recently detained the House through the night at the Dispatch Box, it is perhaps appropriate for me to speak for only two minutes today. I want to make two points, each of which will occupy one of those minutes.
My first point was alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). The Bill must be seen in the context of not just the current plans, but the fact that they are to continue. In my area in Dorset, which is not untypical of the south-west, the provision of housing is increasing by about 64 per cent. in the period 1981 to 2021. That rate of increase would give us 700,000 new houses—1 million in Dorset as a whole—by the 22nd century. If any hon. Member is under the misapprehension that that is socially or environmentally tolerable, he or she should think again about what it would mean. In fact, it would mean adding approximately seventyfold to Dorchester, the main town in my constituency.
Anyone who knows a rural area will realise that we face not merely a problem, but the onset of an environmental catastrophe, and in that context I welcome the Bill. However—this constitutes no criticism of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen)—I regard it as a small, timorous step on an extremely long journey involving major and radical measures, some of which have been mentioned by my hon. Friends.
In particular—this is my second, and very brief, point—I think that we will have to reverse the burden of proof. We shall need to create a symmetrical planning system, in which it is no longer the case that only the developer can appeal—and usually, if he is rich enough, prevail—against the local authority. We need a system in which local residents too can appeal, and sometimes prevail, against the developer. Until we achieve that symmetry, I do not believe that we shall be able to feel that the planning system is fair to our environment or to local people, or have a means of checking the helter-skelter development to which I have referred.
§ 2.4 pm
§ Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)
We have had a first-class debate. I have learned a lot, and I think that others have as well. I congratulate my hon.
1278 Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), not least on his prescience in coming up with the Bill well ahead of the publication of PPG3 by the Deputy Prime Minister.
My hon. Friend is something of an expert on the subject, and has been for many years. Mention was made earlier of his booklet, entitled "Plums" and first published in 1988 by the Conservative Political Centre. It is a masterpiece; I believe that copies can still be obtained from the Conservative Policy Forum, as it now is.
We believe that the Bill contains much of merit, and we greatly hope that it will go into Committee. There has been an impressive array of knowledgable speakers in the debate. Great talent, gravitas, bottom and depth has been shown by the many contributions. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) rightly drew attention to the problems of nationwide integration and the pressure on developers to make adequate provision for transport. She also said that it was short-sighted of the Government to site synchrotron in the south rather than in the northern part of England.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made an interesting contribution, with his reference to the Vincent van Gogh impressionism of the promoter of the Bill and his interesting talk about the Maoist red guard. He rightly and appositely said that children should be able to live in the communities in which they were born and brought up. That is certainly a problem in many rural areas, particularly in his constituency, as I know.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) made a knowledgeable and thoughtful contribution, and has obviously had many years of experience in planning law. He said that he had warm feelings toward the Bill, although at times they seemed to become rather arctic. He had some interesting views on the better use of land, and alluded to the report by Lord Rogers, although it should be pointed out that the Government have taken up only one of the proposals in the urban renaissance report.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), with his customary skill and expertise on this subject, said that what the Government need, despite PPG3, is a statutory prod in this direction. That is exactly what the Bill attempts to provide. I was also interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), who referred to resentment in the middle ages about Chester cathedral being plonked in the middle of her home town. Mediaeval town planners have much to commend them to Ministers today. The principle of walk to worship in the middle ages by siting houses around the church or cathedral as the centre of the community has lessons for today's transport systems.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) rightly said that the problem with the whole housing issue is that, as it is put to us at the moment, everything cascades down from the demand for 3.8 million houses that we are told that we need, and that will be to the detriment of the south-east of England.
The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) made some interesting comments about contamination. I believe that not enough is being done about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) rightly said that we need a policy whereby local people can decide how their communities grow. He knows much about that subject. It is absolutely right to empower local communities, and that view was echoed by my hon. 1279 Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who is also an expert from his time as an adviser in the Department of the Environment and as a member of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs.
Attracting houses and businesses to the south-east corner of the country has a magnet effect. It brings more people to the area, which creates further skill shortages and a shortage of housing space, thus driving up house prices. It is a catch-22 situation.
If the Government are true to their word—especially if the Deputy Prime Minister is true to some of his more articulate words when he presented PPG3 and the response to the Crow report earlier this month—they should support the Bill and work constructively with my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes to bring about many of the improvements that he wants.
In his statement to the House on 7 March, the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about giving preference to recycling previously developed sites. He said that housing must be more affordable, and that we must promote mixed use developments. That is exactly what the Bill aims to do. Above all, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes recognises that maximising better use of derelict land primarily in urban areas brings mutual benefits to both town and country. It is not a one-way street.
The first two clauses deal with local authority urban capacity studies, which will be revised from time to time, and the audit of derelict, vacant and under-used land. They extend the work of the NLUD—the national land use database—which was first published last year. It revealed that brownfield sites identified so far could accommodate more than 325,000 new dwellings at current density levels. There is doubt, however, about what constitutes brownfield land. We need to define usable brownfield land. The Government have some work to do there. The Bill would help.
Recently, the leader of Bromsgrove council pointed out that identified brownfield sites included a disused railway station in the green belt and a smouldering landfill tip—hardly sites that will be used for building houses. Where brownfield site studies identify railway car parks as potential housebuilding land, again, that surely will interfere with the programme of nodeing transport links and encouraging an integrated transport policy, about which we hear so much.
Clause 3 is about local authorities having regard to urban capacity. There is merit in the clause. It will allow better scrutiny of applications involving planning gain. Too often, local authorities pocket a cheque from developers who want to build unsuitable executive homes, or a do-it-yourself retail centre, for example, in return for funding a new leisure centre, despite the fact that the area is crying out for affordable starter homes and is already prone to rush-hour congestion.
I cut to clause 7, which is particularly interesting and important. It deals with infrastructure, an especially moot point in the south-east of England, where my constituency is located, and in West Sussex, which is to have about 60,000 new houses, which is why the county council took the Deputy Prime Minister to the High Court: that is simply not sustainable. It is a question not of plonking 60,000 concrete boxes on the countryside, but of overcrowded schools, the longest waiting times for diminishing hospitals, a lack of roads and east-west access 1280 across the counties of Sussex and, in particular, a lack of water supply, due to the downs in the two Sussex counties. Too much building has involved sprawling estates with no sense of community or community heart, lacking new schools, community centres, mixed shopping and mixed occupancy.
When I asked the Deputy Prime Minister for details of what account had been taken of the requirements of schools and hospitals in my county, he was found lacking. It seems odd that we can predict all the new houses that will be required, but that no work has been done about the infrastructure requirements and planning that will be needed to go with them.
Government inaction and, in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister's inability to back up his hot air about putting the environment at the heart of Government by securing real financial commitments from his colleagues, particularly the Chancellor, make the Bill even more necessary. On 21 February, we were told:the deputy prime minister met the chancellor yesterday to urge him to introduce value added tax on new housing to encourage developers to modernise old buildings rather than build new ones.Mr. Prescott wants next month's Budget to impose a tax on the construction of new homes on greenfield sites. The move would be accompanied by a cut in VAT on refurbishment.What did we get in the Budget?—a big fat zero. We still have 17.5 per cent. VAT on brownfield refurbishment. We are promised at best a study into preferential stamp duty for brownfield development. Stamp duty at 1 per cent. on properties of less than £250,000 is no substitute for 17.5 per cent. VAT. The figures do not add up. In the Budget, precious little money for transport has been hypothecated from the rise in road fuel duties.
Yet again, the Deputy Prime Minister has failed to make his mark on a Budget. Perhaps he should have sussed by now the tactics of No. 10 Downing street in sending him abroad at a sensitive time around the Budget: last year, it was the Maldives and India; this year, a rather strange trip to Rio.
In conclusion, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes on the immense amount of work that he has done, not just in the past few weeks and months, but over many years in his two decades in the House. The Bill makes a good contribution to what everyone agrees is a very important debate. It has been made all the more necessary by the increasing failure of the Deputy Prime Minister to have any influence on the Chancellor on the need to take the environment more seriously. I urge the Minister to have the courage of her convictions and to let the Bill undergo the closer scrutiny of a Standing Committee.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)
I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) that this has been an interesting and informative debate. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for presenting his Bill, and I thank my hon. Friends, and Opposition Members, for their contributions. The hon. Member for Totnes said that this was the first time that he had presented a private Member's Bill. It is a particular pity, therefore, that on this occasion the Government cannot support it. I shall clarify why that is so.
1281 Some of the reasons for our response became apparent in the debate. I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's expertise and long-term interest in the subject. Indeed, it has been referred to as his hobby-horse. However, some of the speeches by Conservative Members showed that this was not so much a hobby horse for them as a Trojan horse—something through which to bring in their own, not very well hidden, agenda of clothing in statute the "not in my backyard" mentality that some of them support. They are using the Bill not as a way of dealing seriously with the complex and multi-faceted issues that are inherent in the question of how to provide housing for our people in the future, but as a mechanism to prevent any further building of homes in their own areas, irrespective of the needs of local people.
Conservative Members also showed a failure to comprehend the difference between plan, monitor and manage and predict and provide. That is a crucial issue, because they fail to take into account the real world in which people's behaviour over time does not necessarily conform to the science of prediction—which, as many hon. Members have said, is in any case an inexact science. The plan, monitor and manage process is designed to take the real world, changing circumstances and changing behaviour, into account.
We also saw the failure of Conservative Members to understand planning law and the role of planning guidance, which was so ably explained to them by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe).
§ Mr. Letwin
Does the Minister think that there are, from a national rather than a NIMBY point of view, limits on the amount of house building in the countryside? If so, what are they?
§ Ms Hughes
The limits are constraints imposed by physical structure and by all the issues that hon. Members have mentioned, including infrastructure. The planning process has to take those constraints into account. That is the purpose of the plan-led approach to housing development that the previous Government failed to develop when they had the opportunity, but that this Government are serious about strengthening. It is the only way to have a consistent, relevant and coherent approach to the many difficult and complex issues that are inherent in the question of how to provide housing for our people in the future.
On a superficial reading, the Bill might seem reasonable. Indeed, I accept that many of its underlying objectives are reasonable. They are consistent with Government policy, which already covers many of the objectives that the Bill sets out.
I am not unsympathetic to the Bill's objectives, but some of our objections to it have been outlined ably by my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) and for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). First, the Bill duplicates the policy that the Government are implementing through PPG3. Secondly, it would confuse local authorities because it is imprecise and some of its requirements are too general. Thirdly, that imprecision results in proposals that would be impossible to put into operation.
1282 The fourth objection is the most important. As the hon. Member for Totnes has said, other issues could be dealt with by redrafting, but we object to the Bill in principle. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) identified a fundamental disagreement about the need for legislation on those matters. It is ironic that Opposition Members contorted their principled opposition to legislation in general to argue that statute is necessary in this case. We feel that legislation is not necessary and that it would not be the most efficient and effective way to achieve objectives that we share with the hon. Member for Totnes.
§ Sir Nicholas Lyell
Does the Minister agree that one of the Bill's central objectives, detailed in clause 2, is that each local planning authority shouldprepare and publish an audit of derelict, vacant, under-used and under-utilised buildings and land in their area?Can she assure us that PPG3 will achieve that?
§ Ms Hughes
I shall come to clause 2 in a moment. I shall not have time to deal with every clause, but shall discuss the major clauses addressed by hon. Members.
Clause 1 relates to urban housing capacity studies. The Government are in favour of such studies by local planning authorities. PPG3, which is already in force, requires authorities to undertake urban housing capacity studies as part of their development plan reviews. Some authorities have already undertaken studies. I agree that authorities need to be proactive if they are fully to implement the policy framework of PPG3.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) made clear, local planning authorities already have general powers under the Town and Country Planning Acts to undertake surveys for development plans. No further enabling power is needed. The difference between Government policy and the Bill is that the hon. Member for Totnes wants such studies to be a statutory requirement. The Local Government Association and the Planning Officers Society have demonstrated to our satisfaction that that is not necessary, not because we can trust them, but because planning law does not require it. The guidance in PPG3 is sufficient because it requires planning authorities to produce urban housing capacity studies and to release sites for housing sequentially. We do not support the use of statute when we can achieve our objectives through partnerships between local regional planning bodies and central Government.
Clause 2 proposes audits ofderelict, vacant, under-used and under-utilised buildings and land.That has already happened. English local planning authorities have already made returns for the national land use database, which gathers information annually. The database is the most comprehensive audit of previously used land and buildings ever undertaken in England. Conservative Members make protestations and express concern but now, when we came into power, it was an enormous shock to find that the previous Government, who had stressed their concern, in theory, for greenbelt land—although they did not deliver it in practice—had no way of knowing about the potential for building on brownfield, previously used land. They kept no record of that information, either nationally or locally.
Although NLUD is compiled on a voluntary basis, the response rate and co-operation of local authorities has been remarkable—more than 95 per cent. That impressive 1283 record shows the commitment of local planning authorities to making progress on identifying the potential for using brownfield land.
§ Mr. Steen
I am extremely sorry that the Minister will not support the Bill. That is a terrible mistake; it makes me very upset. We have put much work into the Bill; it is the right way to proceed. As the years go by, we shall see whether she is right.
The important point was made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell): will local authorities publish the records that they produce for NLUD?
§ Ms Hughes
I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question in a moment. I do not agree that that is the important issue. What is important is that we have a national picture, which is as complete and as accurate as possible, of the location of previously used buildings and land that can be built on. If local authorities want to publish such information locally, they can do so, but the true imperative is that the national picture is as complete as possible.
The hon. Gentleman said that he wants every local authority to feel responsible for identifying and releasing such land. We agree. However, the mechanism that he wants to introduce—making it a requirement for individual local authorities to do so—would have several disadvantages.
It would not produce the quality of information that we receive from the national register; nor would it produce information with the consistency that we can ask for through the register. The quality of information acquired 1284 simply through the summation of those local publications would be fundamentally different from that in a nationally co-ordinated register.
In response to some of the questions from Opposition Members, let me say that the national register will indeed produce details of ownership. That will not constrain publication. The information will be available on a website; each site will include an address, land-use decisions—including outstanding permissions, the area and size of the land and details of whether the ownership is private or public. The website will not name the owner, but it will designate the ownership.
The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) said that we needed a nice, straightforward register—that is what we shall have. This is the first year in which we have used the process; it is still developing. We shall extend our requirements for information so that we create a complete and effective national database.
That is the way forward. We neither want nor need piecemeal information that local authorities produce for themselves. We want a comprehensive national picture of the potential for building on brownfield land. That is what NLUD does. Every local authority has participated, exhibiting an unprecedented degree of co-operation. That is a good example of local authorities and Government working together. To get local authorities on side is the only way to produce an effective database.
Several Members referred to infrastructure. Opposition Members will not find infrastructure in PPG3, because it is in PPG12, issued in December 1999. PPG12 explicitly recognises that the provision of infrastructure is very important in development, especially major new developments, and explicitly says that by "infrastructure" we do mean all those issues that the hon. Member for Totnes raised—education, health, community facilities—
§ It being after half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed on Friday 19 May.