HC Deb 03 March 2004 vol 418 cc910-2

1. 7 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable local planning authorities to determine the number of houses built in their areas. As Sebastian O'Kelly, editor of Property on Sunday, says, Like distant thunder, war is coming to England's peaceful shires … Battle is soon to be joined between Government and those who want to save something of the villages and countryside in the South East. It is a clash that will pitch all the power of central government, and the artful pleading of self-interested builders, against local democracy. Sebastian O'Kelly exposed a Treasury report that urged the building of 2. 5 million more houses. As he said: To build them, the Government needs to overturn the planning process that has existed for 50 years: a process that has spared us again and again from the most appalling excesses of ill-thought-out, speculative development. National recognition of the Government's planning changes now extends to local communities. For instance, on 5 January, Castle Point wildlife action group wrote as follows: Like a lot of local people, we are very concerned about excessive development in the Borough, which is destroying much wildlife habitat and our quality of life…The Government's massive building programme will hugely exacerbate the problem. I congratulate the group on its care of our environment and wildlife, and I seek to legislate to reverse the Government's rapid move towards more building and less democratic local control over it. I should point out, of course, that not all new development is bad. We need more social housing in my constituency—perhaps 100 units or so—and more affordable housing for our children and for public sector workers, but we do not need the thousands of extra houses that the Government are trying to force on us.

Let me illustrate the change in numbers. Castle Point borough council had a target of 2,400 new houses, and although we are well over half way through the planning period, only 700 have been identified and built. That shows how extravagant the target was. Yet the Government now want to impose a massively ramped-up target of 4,000 on Castle Point, to be built by 2021.

Amazingly, though, Castle Point has got off lightly. Thurrock must build. an astounding 18,500 new houses, Basildon 10,700 and Southend-on-Sea 6,000; and so it goes on. The Government are further increasing the target for Essex's house building to an outrageous 6,500 extra houses every year right up to 2021.

The villain of the piece is, of course, the Deputy Prime Minister, who identified four growth areas: the fast-becoming-discredited Thames Gateway; Milton Keynes; Ashford and London; and Stansted and Cambridge. As the campaigning Steve Neale of the Yellow Advertiser put it, "Green belt loss looms" with 43,800 more houses earmarked for south Essex alone in the near future, threatening hundreds of acres of green belt. The Government seek to achieve that massive building by increasing density, packing them in and creating potential ghettos in a planning orgy like that of the 1960s, which created so many sink communities.

But the Deputy Prime Minister has a problem. Decent local councillors, who are responsible for making planning decisions, refuse to go along with the Government's plans to build over our beautiful green belt and destroy our quality of life. They do so for very good reason. Local councillors are directly accountable to local people. They live in their local communities and therefore have a vested interest in protecting their environment. They also want sustainable development, which means new jobs, new infrastructure and new investment in public services.

The editor of the Basildon Evening Echo hit the nail on the head on 28 January, writing: Without a new integrated system of roads and public transport, the Gateway is just a dead duck in the Essex mud. The cash required to establish the necessary transport development is…£1. 6 billion. Yet the Govt's road-finance plan fails to acknowledge the existence of the Thames Gateway. Or, for that matter, South Essex. Even now, we need improved infrastructure, particularly roads and public transport. We need public service improvements and investment in schools, doctors, dentists, sewage treatment plants and waste disposal. And we need to build up flood defences and stop building on flood plains. We need police stations that are open and offer access to the public, and more policemen on the beat to tackle thuggery and street crime levels that are entirely out of control and threatening to spawn dangerous vigilante responses, as I stated in the House last month.

Faced with the local difficulty of councillors and editors protecting their local communities, as they should, the Government are removing planning powers from democratic control in those communities and imposing Big Brother controls from above. The Government's Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill changes the system from one in which there is considerable democratic input with local councils making decisions within local plans that comply with county council structure plans, which in turn reflect Government planning guidance, into one in which the Government will impose a regional "SS"—spatial strategies—abolishing local control and structure plans completely.

Regional housing gestapos called regional housing boards will ensure delivery of the Government's massive increase in building, with cram-them-in densities and green belt destruction, whether communities like it or not. These "SSs" or gestapos, like all gestapos, are unelected, unaccountable, remote and faceless. Yet the Government present this new Labour policy as neighbourhood renewal and neighbourhood renaissance". They use facile language to cover their dubious intent. They refuse to listen to the people as they bulldoze through our local democracy and our environment.

The Minister for Housing and Planning visited my constituency a month ago on his Thames Gateway tour. He told the local papers that he wanted to protect and improve the environment on Canvey Island, which he described as having a "unique diversity". He went on to say: I am confident we can develop it. He did not seem to understand the irony and contradiction in his statement, which was reminiscent of the Deputy Prime Minister's exhortation that Labour's green belt policy was a great achievement and that they intended to build on it. The people of Castle Point did not need the Minister to tell them that they have a wonderful environment, nor that it needs protecting. They do need him to stop increasing the building targets that will destroy it. Sebastian O'Kelly made the argument against the increased building targets very well when he said that nothing much needs to be done to redress the alleged housing shortage in the South East. The housing market itself is already offering a solution. Thanks to high property prices in the South, for the first time since the Sixties the great cities of the North are coming back to life. Residents are flooding back to the centres of Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds and, now, even Liverpool. The whole of Britain's economy, that has been dangerously tilted towards the South East, is at last beginning to right itself and wealth is spreading through to the distant regions far more evenly. Do we really want to endanger this laudable trend by building masses of cheap houses for uncertain demand in the South East? We all know that when politicians stop listening, the public will vote them out. That is Labour's destiny.

In short, my Bill draws attention to the Government's increase in building targets, removal of local democracy and lack of sustainable infrastructure investment. My Bill would enable local planning authorities to determine the number of houses built in their areas. It would lead, therefore, to the protection of local democracy, a reduction in the number of new houses, higher quality development that is in touch with local needs, environmental protection and improved infrastructure. My Bill would truly safeguard communities. It simply puts trust where it should be—in the people—as opposed to Labour's Big Brother approach of imposing inappropriate targets and destroying democracy. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Bob Spink, Mr. Peter Lilley, Mr. Eric Pickles, Mr. Simon Burns, Mr. David Amess, Mr. Mark Francois, Sir Teddy Taylor, Mr. Andrew Rosindell, Angela Watkinson, Mr. John Baron, Ann Winterton and Mr. John Redwood.