HC Deb 14 March 2001 vol 364 cc1149-57

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

11.25 pm
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

My purpose in seeking the Adjournment debate tonight is twofold. First, I want to draw attention once again to the rising tide of concrete, bricks and mortar that is flowing over Oxfordshire. Secondly, I want to draw attention to the Opposition's proposals for dealing with this problem and securing a measure of relief.

Lest it be thought that I am exaggerating when I speak of a rising tide of concrete, bricks and mortar, let me simply state the bald figures. Over the past decade, Oxfordshire has been the construction site for some 23,000 new houses, and over the period immediately ahead, until 2006, it will be required to accommodate a further 14,000, with another 11,700 to come by 2011. The two decades between 1990 and 2010, in other words, have seen the equivalent of the construction in Oxfordshire of a new city the size of Corby, with some 50,000 new inhabitants.

I said that I was seeking to draw attention once again to this problem, not only because I have been an active member of the parliamentary campaign against overdevelopment in the south-east led by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and because I have supported my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) in this campaign, but because I raised this matter in the House only a month ago. That was when I undertook the delicate parliamentary task of presenting two contradictory petitions at the same time, without backing either. The two petitions neatly illustrate the very difficult situation facing Oxfordshire and, in particular, the town of Didcot in my constituency and its surrounding villages.

Over the years immediately ahead, Didcot faces a requirement to build another 3,200 houses, over and above the 5,000 that have been built there over the past decade. One of the petitions that I presented was from residents to the west of Didcot, urging the Deputy Prime Minister to call in for ministerial decision the proposals to build the new houses on Didcot's western fringe. The other was from residents to the north of Didcot urging the right hon. Gentleman to do no such thing, but to uphold the county council's decision to go west rather than north.

On both sides, strong passions have been generated, friendships sundered and once cohesive local communities sharply divided. Each side passionately believes that the development must go to the other side. Neither side seriously asks why there should be development on this scale. All regard it as a kind of visitation, and every eye is directed to Whitehall, some with trembling hope and others with frowning apprehension, to see which way the ministerial juju-man will jump. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us. This will not be the end of the story, of course. Whatever the Deputy Prime Minister decides, we can be sure that a flurry of actions for judicial review will be unleashed.

I do not know what it would take to prove to the Under-Secretary that Oxfordshire, like many other areas in the south-east of England, faces a crisis of suburban overdevelopment. Certainly, that is what local people believe, but perhaps their subjective feelings will cut no ice in the eyries of Whitehall.

Let me suggest three objective reasons for believing that what is happening in my part of the world is excessive and unnecessary. First, there is the fact that Oxfordshire simply cannot meet both the Government's target for new housing and their target for new build on so-called "brown" land in built-up areas. The latter target is supposed to determine the location of at least 60 per cent. of new housing. However, between 1996 and 2000, only 48 per cent of new development in Oxfordshire was on brown sites. This was not, I assure the Under-Secretary, for want of trying on the part of local planning committees. The problem is simply that Oxfordshire is not a long-standing urban area, it has relatively little built-up brown land and over recent decades the pressures of development have been such that almost all the brown land that has been available has already been built over.

That is just one piece of evidence that shows that Oxfordshire is being overdeveloped. Let me suggest another. Between 1991 and 1999, the county's population increased by 45,000 Some 41 per cent. of that increase can be attributed to natural change, or the normal demographic development of the local population. However, a striking 59 per cent. of that additional population represented net civilian migration. Oxford city, which accounts for roughly two fifths of the county's population, cannot expand further because of its green belt, so the bulk of the substantial growth in the number of incomers is being channelled by the planning system into three or four primary areas of development, one of which is Didcot. The effects of overdevelopment are experienced not only by existing populations, but by new residents. Too much has been happening too quickly. The new developments are too crowded and too lacking in necessary infrastructure.

Where do the incomers come from? It is sometimes suggested that counnies such as Oxfordshire and towns such as Didcot have a duty to expand as they are the new growth points of the national economy. Last year, however, no more than 12 per cent. of Oxfordshire's new residents came from what might be termed the declining industrial north. In contrast, some 42 per cent. came from elsewhere in the expanding, post-industrial south-east. The overdevelopment of Oxfordshire occurs only partially at the expense of draining away active workers and the stunting of growth prospects in the north and the midlands. It is occurring mainly to reduce the pressure for better housing in the inner cities and other areas in the south-east.

The Government are proposing to build thousands of houses in the wrong places. I should like to stress that point to the Under-Secretary. The Minister for Housing and Planning said last February that seven out of ten new households forming over the next 20 years are likely to be single person households". He went on to say that many will be only too pleased to live in town centre locations, close to shops and entertainment as much as transport links". In the light of those comments, will the Under-Secretary explain how building thousands of houses on green fields in my constituency will fulfil such needs?

The situation that I have been describing, which exists in Didcot and Oxfordshire, is, of course, not untypical of many other parts of the south-east. It suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with the processes and procedures that have brought it about. The Government carried out their own review of those procedures in their first couple of years in office. They decided to maintain and take forward, with some minor changes, the planning arrangements that are at the root of the problem. Radical new thought has come not from new Labour and its Liberal allies, but from those on the Opposition Front Bench. That development is creating for the people of my constituency a clear choice at the forthcoming general election. I hope that this debate will help to underline that choice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) is to be congratulated on his far-reaching proposals for the reform of our over-centralised planning system. On behalf of the Opposition, he proposes to act within a few months of the return of a Conservative Government to abolish the procedures that impose national housebuilding targets such as those that have driven the overdevelopment of Oxfordshire.

Discretion on local development will be given to local authorities, which will decide how much new housing there should be, where it should be located and what sort of houses should be built. They will be required to secure sufficient new accommodation for forecasted local population growth, but incremental building to support economic development will be a matter for local people to decide. The district councils will be in the lead, while the county councils will have a strategic co-ordinating role. At the same time, the views of town and parish councils will be given greater weight and local residents will be given a right of counter appeal when a proposed development breaches due process or a duly adopted comprehensive local plan.

I have no doubt that such a radical departure from the half century-long tradition of centralised planning, which goes back to the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, will attract some scepticism. Indeed, we may hear something of that from the Under-Secretary. Such scepticism about the radical decentralisation of the planning process expresses the conviction that local people and their local representatives cannot be trusted to make planning decisions from a perspective that transcends their own narrow self-interest. The underlying thought is that decentralisation will be a charter for nimbyism. My retort is that nimbyism is a product of the existing, over-centralised system, in which responsibility has been transferred from the local level to the distant centre.

In such a system, everyone feels that they must fight as hard as they possibly can for their own immediate interest—nimbyism—because that is what everyone else will do, but in the end the decision will be taken from on high. Nimbyism is an expression of powerlessness. If we learn once again to trust the people, we will, I believe, be surprised by the level of responsibility for wider interests that they will show when they have real power in relation to those interests.

Meanwhile, I hope it will not escape the notice of my constituents and electors in the Wantage constituency—at Didcot and its surrounding villages in particular—and in Banbury, represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), who is in the Chamber with me tonight, that the Conservative party's policy will give an opportunity for a fundamental rethink of all large-scale planning proposals that have not yet been decided by the time my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) kisses hands at Buckingham palace.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) for raising this subject, because this debate gives me the opportunity to reply to him, not only on the issues relating to Didcot and Oxfordshire but on issues that he has raised in relation to Conservative party policy on these matters.

The planning criteria in Oxfordshire are exactly the same as those applied to similar counties in the rest of England, although every planning case is considered on its merits. I am aware that the process of deciding on the location of new housing in Didcot, in particular, and the provision of new housing in Oxfordshire generally, has caused anxiety to some of the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

I am also aware that the hon. Gentleman was placed in the difficult position of having to present two opposing petitions at the same time, while representing the opposing views of his constituents. He was trying to face in two directions at once. In so doing, he has opted out of facing up to some of the challenges that face Oxfordshire and Didcot in relation to providing for people who need and want to live there. That is the issue at the heart of this debate.

I know that progress on the alteration to the Oxfordshire structure plan for Didcot has not been easy. In August 1998, the Oxfordshire structure plan for the period from 1996 to 2001 was adopted. The county council was unable to agree a housing distribution figure around Didcot, which the hon. Gentleman will know is on the boundary of the South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse district council areas. The Oxfordshire structure plan was, therefore, published with a separate figure for Didcot of 5,500 dwellings, but stated that an early alteration to the plan would settle the housing allocation round the town.

Following the adoption of the structure plan, South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse district councils carried out public consultation and technical work, but reached different conclusions on the direction of growth at Didcot. That is germane to some more general points that I shall make later. In December 1998, Oxfordshire county council resolved to recommend growth to the north of the town, in South Oxfordshire district. The decision was finely balanced, and I understand that the committee voted by a majority of only one to recommend the north of the town.

In November 1999, as the hon. Gentleman said, an examination in public took place over four days to consider the Didcot housing issue. Representatives of the Government office of the south-east attended all the sessions, but made it clear from the outset that it was not the role of the Government to comment on the proposals, because although this was a structure plan alteration, the scale of the proposals was site specific.

In January 2000, the panel report on the alteration was published and it recommended growth to the north-east of the town. The panel attached considerable weight to the agricultural land issue, which was of higher quality to the west of Didcot than to the north, although it also felt that other issues were finely balanced. Although it considered the western option to be slightly better related to the town, it determined that the best and most versatile land issue outweighed that factor.

The county council considered the panel report, but it was not bound in planning law by the recommendations. In March 2000, the county council rejected the advice of the panel and allocated the bulk of housing mainly to the west of the town. The statement of reasons published with the proposed modifications explained that the county council had changed its view as the western option had the advantage of better integration with employment sites and with the town centre, saying that that outweighed the disadvantages of building on best and most versatile agricultural land.

As the hon. Gentleman said, requests were made at the time—to some extent, those continue—for the Government to get involved in the structure plan alteration, but we reiterated the view that it was a matter for Oxfordshire county council. We made it clear that the structure plan alteration should set an adequate framework to ensure that local plans responded positively to the new approach to planning for housing set out in planning policy guidance note 3.

We want sufficient housing land to be provided, but the priority is to re-use previously developed land in urban areas, bringing empty homes back into use and converting existing buildings rather than using greenfield sites. [Interruption.] Do hon. Members want to intervene rather than comment from a sedentary position? I am happy to take an intervention.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

The hon. Lady gives the impression that there is brownfield land available to be developed in Oxfordshire. There is not. Whether it be in South Oxfordshire or in Cherwell district, new development will have to take place almost entirely on greenfield sites. It is as simple as that. The idea that development can mystically and magically take place on existing brownfield sites is mistaken.

Ms Hughes

We accept that not all development can take place in urban areas or on brownfield sites. How much development should take place outside existing sites depends on the overall need for housing land, the capacity of existing urban areas to accommodate additional housing and the efficiency with which land is developed. Where development has to take place outside urban areas, we look to local planning authorities to utilise the most sustainable option. The Government have been assured by Oxfordshire county council and South Oxfordshire district council that PPG3 issues would be fully taken into account during subsequent local plan preparation.

The hon. Member for Wantage referred to the overall housing figures for Oxfordshire. We acknowledge that we face considerable pressures in the south-east, and the figures for Oxfordshire have been arrived at through the same planning criteria as is used for other counties in the south-east.

Last year, the Government published for consultation proposed changes to the regional planning guidance for the south-east. We have listened to comments and we have strengthened our policies for delivering urban renewal, providing affordable housing, avoiding profligate use of land, promoting a living countryside and encouraging development east of London in the Thames gateway.

We have given local authorities the tools they need to achieve that. PPG3 contains a clearly stated presumption that previously developed land and existing buildings will be re-used for housing before consideration is given to developing greenfield sites. We have separately published advice on better design of development and on undertaking urban housing capacity studies. We have also made available guidance on how to manage the release of land in such a way as to minimise unnecessary loss of greenfield sites to development.

I want to say something about the hon. Gentleman's more general points about the relevance of his party's policy to some of these difficult issues. Far from meaning the concreting of the south-east, the Government's policies will mean less profligate use of land, brownfield before greenfield development, and the delivery of our national 60 per cent target for new housing on brownfield land. It is not the' Government who are putting the south-east under development pressure; the pressures are already there, and it is a sad state of affairs when a representative of the area ignores them and pretends that they can be diluted out of existence.

Given that the pressures are there, the question is how they can best be managed. The issue is how housing can be provided for people who need and want to live in the south-east. They are not predominantly people who are moving from other parts of the country; they are people who work in the area and need to live there, or the sons and daughters of those who already live there and may have done so for some time.

Our policies, and the draft revised regional planning guidance, mean that no more land than that which local authorities already propose to use would be used to provide housing for people in the south-east. We are not producing a higher figure by stealth. We want to build the prospect of review into the system, which is a sensible approach-unlike that of the Opposition, who believe in fixed long-term figures.

We propose that that the of provision should be reviewed within five years at the most, in the light of monitoring, urban capacity studies, and studies of potential growth areas proposed at Ashford and Milton Keynes. It is premature to specify what provision might be after, say, 2006, but at present it is expected to be about 43,000 dwelliigs a year in the whole area.

We consider that the overall figure of 39,000 homes a year for the south-east outside London represents a realistic level of provision. We have taken a range of factors into account, including household projections, deliverable housebuildiing rates, the needs of the economy, and the capacity of the region to absorb growth as well as the impact of our policies for urban renaissance. We try to pay careful attention to environmental capacity as well as need: that is why we are emphasising the importance of building around existing conurbations, recognising environmental constraints and the need to avoid "pepper-potting" around the countryside.

Let me repeat to the hon. Gentleman that migration from north to south is a very small component of the demand for homes in the south-east. Most of the growth in housing need relates to people who already live in the region. It is a reflection of changing lifestyles, such as the growth in single-person households. That is where most of the increase in housing demand originates. Those involved include young people who want to set up home for the first time, and elderly people—who now live longer—wishing to remain independent. Those people are already there, and it would be irresponsible to deny them the prospect of housing.

We have agreed that fixed-term housing targets should not be imposed on local planning authorities. That was the policy of the last Administration, who, for example, directed Berkshire, Bedfordshire and Kent to increase their housing numbers, and imposed 20-year fixed figures through regional planning guidance notes. Unlike that Administration, we have adopted a system that recognises changing circumstances. Under our system of plan, monitor and manage, reviews of the housing strategy are triggered when required, in response to monitoring information—as a minimum every five years, and sooner if there are signs of under or over-provision.

I should like to deal now with the kernel of the hon. Gentleman's exposition of Conservative party policy—that local authorities should be able to veto all new housing developments in their local area. The policy states: we will abolish Whitehall targets for building new homes", with local authorities left to assess and meet the needs of their local population". The local veto proposals amount to a NIMBY's charter. They are unworkable and they would cause chaos. Local authorities would be under no obligation at all to meet the needs arising in the area of any other authority that could not be met. Inter-regional planning and strategic planning across a region would be impossible. There would be no burden sharing and there would be an effective freeze on the movement of people and business. I think that that would deter investment and damage future economic prosperity. It would also push up house prices in areas of high demand and reduce the provision of affordable housing, thereby denying homes for some of the sons and daughters of local people.

It is quite unreasonable to expect local authorities acting alone to take decisions on housing provision in the regional interest. The difficulties that planning authorities have in agreeing where housing provision should be made is well illustrated by the problems that Oxfordshire county council and the district authorities of South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse had in agreeing where housing should be provided in the Didcot area. That in itself is a case study of the difficulties facing local authorities when presented with those challenging issues.

I do not deny for a moment the difficulties of the south-east, but willingly acknowledge them. However, I do not agree at all that it is reasonable to respond to those difficulties, which are basically a need for housing, by saying that it is best for each local authority to determine what will happen in its own area and only what will happen in its own area. It is vital that we retain a system that requires each local authority to accept in a corporate and shared manner some of the responsibility for the needs and future requirements of the region as a whole. That is the type of system that we have tried to institute and on which we are making progress.

I think that that approach is a much more mature way of addressing those difficult issues. It makes demands of local authorities and requires them to work together both with their neighbouring local authorities and with regional planning authorities. I believe, however, that if each region is seriously and maturely to address the current and future housing needs of the region as a whole, that is the only way forward. I also think that the Conservative party policy that we have heard expressed so far on those issues would be a recipe not only for chaos, but for a total abdication of responsibility for the housing needs of future generations in all our regions, but especially in the south-east, where there are particular pressures.

I regret to tell the hon. Gentleman that I do not share his view about the way forward on those issues. I also do not think that Conservative Members have a realistic, meaningful and truly sincere approach to policy on those issues. I think that their policy would leave many families, and the children of many families, without any prospect of setting in the area where they have grown up.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve midnight.