HL Deb 11 February 1998 vol 585 cc1140-87

3.6 p.m.

Lord Marlesford rose to call attention to the case for combining the protection of the countryside with positive measures for urban regeneration in meeting Britain's future housing needs; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving the Motion, I should declare an interest as the chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. Recent government statements, rumours and targets about the need to sacrifice the countryside for development have sparked a great debate. It echoes that started by Clough Williams-Ellis 70 years ago in his book England and the Octopus. That was a polemic against urban sprawl, ribbon development and the destruction of the countryside. In 1928 that campaign aroused passions which led eventually to the post-war planning Acts—one of the two great achievements of the Attlee Government. That heritage has proved safe in the hands of the Conservative government.

Today's debate may make a contribution to dealing with widespread concerns, which certainly cross party boundaries. I hope that today we may be more positive and less divisive than was another place when discussing the same issue recently. I used the neutral word "concerns". In fact many people have reacted with emotional outrage at the prospect of large areas of our countryside disappearing under concrete. The Government should be aware that we are not discussing purely material matters. There is a spiritual dimension to these issues. I am so glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford is to take part in our debate. People really do care enormously. An opinion poll in 1996 showed that, after freedom, the countryside is what English people value most. That is remarkable given that almost 90 per cent. of the population of England and Wales live in urban areas-21 per cent. of them in the five largest urban areas in the south-east.

A main source of pressure on the countryside derives from the condition of our urban areas, particularly the city centres. When the vicious circle of urban decay and urban deprivation is complete, it is no surprise that people want to leave the cities. That is nothing new. I remember the dramatic way in which Michael Heseltine reported to the Tory Party conference on Liverpool, following the 1981 Toxteth riots. Yet for decades we have either neglected our cities or subjected those who live in them to architectural monstrosities in the form of raw concrete tower blocks during that shameful period of British architecture, which thankfully entered its twilight in the 1970s. I believe that the RIBA is now more enlightened.

At the same time we indulged in a programme of massive new development on greenfield sites. I refer to the new towns. I personally believe for several reasons it is arguable that at the strategic level the whole new towns programme was a mistake. First, the resources used could have been better applied to the revitalisation of urban areas, especially inner cities. That could have reduced many of the social problems which we suffer from today. Secondly, they actually sucked the life out of the cities. Thirdly, they encouraged car dependency, an obvious example being Milton Keynes which is really the Los Angeles of England and which is so low density that to live there without a car is almost impossible. Fourthly, the idea that they would be self-contained developments was usually a myth. There are as many people travelling to and from work in Crawley as there are residents working there. Fifthly, the quality of both design and construction of some new towns is quite simply so grotty that they risk becoming ghettos in which few people would aspire to live and others wish to leave. A visit to Peterlee is a depressing experience. Although new towns are history, they are history from which we should learn.

Perhaps a primary objective of government should be to reduce the rate of migration from our urban areas. However, there has for some years been a most pernicious policy known as "predict and provide". It was fed by the calculations of demographers and statisticians in the basement of Marsham Street who produced the official household projections for the now notorious target of providing 4.4 million new households between 1991 and 2016—a target which, when attacked, the civil servants promptly increased to 5.5 million. From this has followed the debate on the percentage which is to go on greenfield sites. We used to have a predict and provide policy for road building. That was blown out of the water in 1964 by Colin Buchanan in his famous report Traffic in Towns. But what a long time it takes to steer away from the iceberg! It was only in November 1996 that the then government reviewed and halved the road building programme, and that was largely for budgetary reasons.

I wish to say at once how pleased I was to read the article in The Times of 26th January in which the Deputy Prime Minister signalled the end of the predict and provide policy on housing and undertook that in future there would be more local flexibility in house building targets. The immediate problem, however, is that there are already in the pipeline important decisions on housing allocations under the county structure plans. Some of these pre-empt and run counter to Mr. Prescott's new policy. I have in mind West Sussex in particular where the Secretary of State actually overruled his inspector who had agreed with the objections of the county council.

I turn now to the need for affordable housing or, as I prefer to call it, social housing. The first point is that it is better to subsidise the person rather than the house. That was an important policy change made some four years ago by the Conservatives. I hope that the present Government will retain it. Secondly, such housing should be for rent in perpetuity. Social housing built for rent but then sold loses its primary function. Thirdly, housing associations are better providers of social housing than were local authorities in the days of council housing. Both the design and the materials are better and there is peer pressure to produce nice houses.

The plight of people working in the countryside is all too often overlooked. In rural areas social housing must take priority over executive housing. Let market forces, that is the price mechanism, allocate such land as can be made available in rural areas for executive housing and new second homes. If scarcity means higher prices, so be it. That is a price well worth paying to protect the countryside.

I come now to the green belt where there are particular threats. First let me stress that the green belt is not just to protect the countryside but to protect town dwellers from urban sprawl. No one would say green belt boundaries can never be moved; but there should be a stronger presumption against it. Green belt policy is a means of ensuring that local authorities, who on their own may be tempted to make unsound decisions on development, comply with the national interest. At present by their recent decisions to allow local authorities to release large areas of land round Stevenage and Newcastle, the Government are sending dangerous signals to both developers and local authorities.

As well as the urban centres much remains to be done to improve the urban fringe. For this the groundwork initiative, launched by the Countryside Commission 20 years ago, has done some inspiring work. We all know that developers prefer to use greenfield sites. They are generally cheaper and thus more profitable to develop. One should not blame the developers but that does not mean the community can afford to accommodate their preference. There are several ways of getting a community dividend from such development. One is by requiring the developer to provide for free something which the community wants, perhaps a new road, perhaps social housing, perhaps a village hall. It is called "planning gain". I am rather suspicious of it for it can all too often lead to planning permission being given where it should not be, especially if the local authority finds itself being offered a pet scheme.

Another method is to tax the development gain. This is again being discussed in government circles, but I remind your Lordships that the previous time a Labour government introduced a development land tax it was a mistake. The right way to tax such profits is through capital gains tax. But to be effective I believe the present rollover provisions on land, which mean that the landowner who re-invests in another asset can delay, and eventually avoid, capital gains tax, should be removed. Rollover has contributed to the rise in price of agricultural land to well above its farming value. For many farmers and rural landowners the temptation to offer their land for development at 100 times its agricultural value is irresistible. There is a particular regional dimension to all this. Much of the demand for development seems to be in the south-east and the home counties. It is on them that the largest housing numbers under structure plans are being proposed and sometimes imposed.

There is another important constraint on what should be allowed in such rural areas; that is, water. So far the new Environment Agency seems to be following its own predict and provide policy. It is abstacting more and more water from the aquifers in the south-east. As a result the water table is falling with catastrophic consequences for our rivers, for the tree population and thus the landscape. The agency should be advising the Government on the sustainability of their housing plans.

As regards modernisation of the planning system, yes we do need to speed it up. But we do not want bold politicians who decide to cut short the normal public inquiry process. We do not want Mussolini type decisions. Nor do we want the arrogance of the French bureaucrat who said, "If you decide to drain the marshes you don't consult the frogs". Nor should big schemes be decided on a three line Whip in the House of Commons. Nor do we want wealthy developers to be able to continue to threaten objectors or local authorities with costs or even damages if an initial planning refusal is overturned on appeal.

We must accept that there is not enough brown land to accommodate all the housing that will be needed. But urban capacity is not static; it is constantly evolving. It is a product of policy, of market demand and public attitudes. There is a great deal which, with imagination, could be made available. Much more could be found within the 400,000 acres which comprise the greater London urban area. What about the area of decaying warehouses between King's Cross and the Angel? What about those desolate and under occupied housing estates between Highbury and Camden?

Let us be bold. I have a suggestion. Let us close down RAF Northolt, which extends over 490 acres, costs £26 million a year to run and is used for 14,000 mainly VIP flights. Are those flights all really necessary? A redeveloped North lt, which is already on the London Underground system, could accommodate some 4,000 new households and probably produce about £200 million for the Treasury. That should be attractive for the defence review! I hope that this and other brown land in the military estate will be considered within the strategic defence review.

The MoD should as early as possible indicate to local authorities that it is considering disposing of land. It would be better that, when the time for disposal comes, the Ministry of Defence should hand over that land to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions which is more likely to take into account the environmental dimension for the alternative use of the sites.

In Britain, in comparison with some of our European neighbours, we can be proud of how we have looked after our countryside over the second half of this century. There is no better example than the 570 miles of our best coast land saved by the National Trust's operation Neptune. It is our urban areas which have been neglected and ill-treated. I only wish that the millennium projects had focused more on beautifying our city centres. By that I am afraid I do not mean the Millennium Dome.

The human body needs decent housing with the comforts which modern technology can provide. The human spirit needs inspiration, relaxation and beauty. I believe that the countryside helps to keep body and spirit together. I beg to move for Papers.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Macclesfield

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend the Minister responsible for the environment is only too well aware that the north-west of England, where 200 years ago the original factory cities and boroughs were created, has more polluted land, more brownfield sites, than any other region in England. Happily, we also boast some of the best scenery. I think of the lakes and the plains of Lancashire and Cheshire. So we in the north-west need no lectures on the importance of not using greenfield sites and developing brown sites, in particular from those people whose ancestors recklessly created the pollution problem in the first place.

However, as a banker for a clearing bank who over the years has authorised and funded literally hundreds of millions of pounds of urban development and some rural development in the north-west, I have developed what I think is a practical and realistic approach at the sharp end in as much as I have been anxious also to get my depositors' money back as well.

As a banker, if I helped my customers obtain planning permission on greenfield sites, the revenue so created would be substantial and funds could be allocated for social investment in terms of helping to build schools, roads, leisure centres, village halls and so forth. Indeed, that was the unwritten rule about getting planning permission on greenfield sites.

Alternatively, if one of my customers gained planning permission to build on a brownfield site, first, as a banker I questioned whether he could afford it. Secondly, was there a market for the inflated prices he would have to charge for whatever he constructed on that site after he had carried the onerous costs of cleaning up the land? Would we as a bank get our money back and would the business like to live with the contingency liability on its balance sheet, probably for ever, in terms of subsequent claims for pollution on that land or adjoining land? And it was unlikely that there would be any social investment as collateral to that development.

I am in favour of the principle of green taxes, but I fear that the developer would deduct the tax from his contribution to social needs and would come out of the transaction with exactly the same take as he would have done before the tax was introduced. Although the Treasury would receive the money in terms of taxes, society would lose out on the social investments which came as part of the planning permission.

To make green taxes work, we need plenty of carrots to develop polluted land. It is not by accident or design that polluted land is not developed. It is because it is so expensive to develop—expensive in terms of creating a bottom line. I do not talk about aspirational hopes or theory. I am talking about the practical day to day running of a business and making a bottom line.

I suggest that we consider waiving capital gains tax on the first sale of the development of what was polluted land; or indeed allow the corporation tax on the profits of the first five years to be waived and be transferable to institutional buyers if need be because the construction company sells as rapidly as possible to institutional buyers after developing the land. In that way, as we have no scarcity of brownfield sites in the north-west there would be no scarcity of developers. That I can promise you. There would be no scarcity of funders; they would be only too willing to fund. And there would be no need for public sector finance. There would be no real loss of revenue since the alternative is not to develop the brown sites. No change, no tax. But if the sites were developed we would have the benefit of more employment.

I have been here only two minutes and I am still learning the trade, as they say. I have already realised that I shall not receive a straight answer today, or perhaps on any day, from the Treasury. But perhaps I may beg all the Ministers concerned to impress on Treasury officials that this is a win-win-win scenario. We can develop brownfield sites rather than greenfield sites. The private sector can take the risk. The private sector can provide the funding and earn the reward. We could create more jobs. There is at least 20 years' work still outstanding in the north-west region alone. Consequently, we would collect more taxes and new Labour would reap the political rewards for an imaginative programme on that basis.

A related idea would be for the Department of the Environment to issue on demand scientifically produced pollution certificates so that existing owners who improved their land—by taking out from the land the pollution that might have been there for 200 years—could earn a pro rata reduction in their future capital gains tax as a reward for that improvement to society. I stress that it is for the Ministers to ensure that green taxes are for spending on green developments—I think in particular of brownfield sites—not for adding to any Treasury surplus.

My final point is that urban areas also need green corridors for citizens to enjoy, to allow the city to breathe, and, if planted with trees, to suck in carbon dioxide and belch out oxygen. Would not that be a nice change?

3.27 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I begin by declaring various interests. I am President of the National Housing Forum, Vice-President of the National Housing Federation and a member of a housing association, Western Challenge. Perhaps I may say how pleased I am to be taking part in my second housing debate in your Lordships' House having been introduced only in November.

For far too long the issue of housing has not been high enough on the political agenda. However, the bursting on to the scene of the figure of 4.4 million homes needed before the year 2016 has changed all that. There have been whole day conferences on the issue. There have been papers from many interested bodies, from researchers to interest groups, architects, planners, and so on. The momentum has gathered pace as the Government have made statements, and the Select Committee has taken evidence from a wide variety of organisations. We have been bombarded with evidence which makes it somewhat difficult to get our points across in six minutes.

There are four main points. First, I am concerned that if we are not careful the debate will degenerate into town versus country. We must not allow that to happen. We must develop policies, strategies and action to ensure that we build sustainable communities, whether those communities are in rural areas, towns, cities or conurbations.

Secondly, we have to recognise—as I am sure will be the tenor of today's debate—that planning alone cannot solve this problem. To use jargon, we have to be very much "into joined-up thinking"; the debate has to be wide, and government departments have to work together on this issue if we are to get people to understand what we mean by sustainable communities. We have been successful in convincing people about recycling and drink-driving. There is a big job to be done in this particular area in the same way.

Thirdly, we must be careful not to repeat past mistakes. Not only can we all recognise problems of design and quality, but there is a problem in predicting how people will live in 25 years' time and what the figures will be.

Fourthly, as a former housing spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in another place who has now taken on that role in this place, I am concerned that we meet housing need, particularly the need for affordable social housing. We have failed miserably over the past 25 years to deal in particular with youth homelessness. I am very pleased that the National Children's Homes are planning the House Our Youth 2000 project. To mention a point made by the noble Lord who introduced the debate, how much more sustainable that will be than the Millennium Dome. It is incredible, looking back to the years following the war, that we managed then to build an enormous number of homes of very good quality when Treasury coffers were almost empty and materials were short. Yet here we are in 1998, supposedly a rich country, and over the past few years we have not reached even half the estimate of affordable homes that are needed each year. Local authority waiting lists are increasing, and we still have people sleeping on our streets.

Others will debate greenfield taxes etc., as the debate continues. I wish to raise just two important issues affecting this debate. At the root of the debate lies the concept of choice and where people go to live. Somehow, we must try to widen that choice, so that not everybody wants to have a nice house on a nice site looking out over another greenfield site. That is not possible. So how do we go about it?

Last summer, the National Housing Forum produced a document entitled Living Places: Sustainable Homes, Sustainable Communities. It came up with many recommendations, but there are two in particular that I wish to draw to your Lordships' attention. One recommendation was that, The government and housing industry should launch a long term awareness campaign to develop consumer understanding in making choices based on sustainable housing criteria". The second was: Government should continue to build into the National Curriculum, concepts of social responsibility, community belonging and participation and the central philosophy of sustainability so that it is a theme throughout the entire educational process". I hope that, in replying, the Minister will comment on these two issues.

The other matter I wish to touch on relates to the growth figures. Last Friday in The Times, Sir Crispin Tickell, convenor of the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development, said that, the assumptions on which the [government] forecasts were made were spurious". We need to take a hard look at this matter.

Let us examine just one area—the growth in single person households. That growth is the result of a breakdown in relationships, or of people perhaps choosing to live singly. We cannot legislate to force people to live together or not to break up. However, we can examine measures to ensure that we encourage people not to do those things. That approach formed part of the evidence given by the Chartered Institute of Housing to the Select Committee. In particular, it drew the attention of the committee to the fact that the greatest increase in single person households was in areas of high youth unemployment. Again, I hope that the Minister will address that problem in replying.

What is clear from this debate is that the problem will not be solved by a few high-profile projects in a few selected areas. Never has it been more important for every government department to work together on this very important issue.

3.34 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, my text this afternoon is taken from the very book to which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred in his opening speech—England and the Octopus. Generally speaking, we have latterly made such a mess and muddle of our urban civilisation that fewer and fewer people remain willing to put up with its unpleasantness for the sake of its cultural and social advantages. So we are now proceeding, with the same recklessness, to disperse ourselves over the countryside, destroying and dishonouring it with our shoddy but all too permanent encampments. What we must do is try to make town life not only tolerable but attractive, and also show how one may in very truth genuinely escape to live in real country without offence and trampling underfoot and annihilating the very things that are so justly desired and so valiantly sought. That seems to be a remarkably precise definition of where we are 70 years on, and points us to at least one solution; namely, that the effective regeneration of our cities is one of the best ways of protecting our countryside.

I live in a city—a very small city. I can walk from my house to the cathedral, the railway station, the shops and banks, the hospitals, the museum and the arts centre. I can walk if I want to go out for a meal in the evening. I am extremely fortunate. But many others could be equally fortunate; there is much land in the centre of Hereford which is disused or under-used—we have our own brownfield sites. Despite valiant efforts by the city council, many flats over shops and offices remain empty and unused.

And city life is threatened—even in Hereford—by noise and the fear of crime. In other places that latter problem is very much more acute. There is antisocial behaviour and drug-related violence which dominates and ruins people's lives. I have said before in this House that the reclaiming of our towns and cities for civilised and decent living can best be achieved by recreating a true sense of community. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, mentioned communities, since they are so important. That is a process in which the local Churches are often crucially and valiantly involved.

But I also live in a diocese which includes the Marches, that land in Herefordshire and Shropshire along the Welsh Border which constitutes one of only three remaining truly tranquil areas in England. I am very conscious of the urgent need to preserve that tranquillity. It is very precious—and it is under constant threat.

That is not to say that we do not need some development in rural areas. Yes indeed, we need more affordable social housing for rent in perpetuity for local people. I am glad to say that many dioceses have been able to make glebe land available for precisely those projects. We need some economic growth which provides appropriate work near to where people live to prevent unnecessary travel, preferably related to agriculture, which remains a vital industry and which is itself potentially the best guarantee of protecting our landscape.

We do not need the further provision of speculative house building, which creates more unaffordable housing and which, in parts of Herefordshire, has already grossly exceeded even future targets. I believe that rural development needs to be concentrated in our small towns and key villages, in places where the infrastructure is already present and the need is to revitalise existing communities. A good example is in the small town of Tenbury Wells in my diocese, where the rural community council is embarking on a rural challenge project to combine social and economic regeneration following the closure of the one sizeable factory in the town. It will provide community facilities, work with young people and business support. It is interesting that this debate is to be partly about the definition of terms. That is, in most people's eyes, a rural project. For us, it is a bit of urban regeneration.

Our tranquil areas, on the other hand, need very special protection from any significant encroachment of housing. They also need protection from inappropriate agricultural procedures. Farming rightly receives very generous financial support. But, except in environmentally sensitive areas, very little of that money is directed towards environmental protection and the encouragement of biodiversity. In 1995 in Herefordshire, £4.53 per hectare was available for such purposes, compared with £18.49 for socio economic purposes and no less than £90.50 per hectare for direct agricultural support, mostly for activities which have environmentally detrimental consequences.

So we need to discriminate between different kinds of rural areas, between towns and villages, where appropriate, modest development is right and proper. and the truly deep country, so rare and precious, which needs a high degree of protection from insensitive and unnecessary development.

I wish to end with one horror story, not about housing but about roads. There is a place just across the Border into Wales from where I live where two main roads intersect. It was a peaceful junction with hardly any traffic. Two years ago a roundabout was constructed and a battery of street lamps erected in this remote, dark, peaceful place. What preposterous sense of priorities in public expenditure is represented by a decision to build a redundant roundabout and erect unnecessary and unsightly street lamps when we cannot afford to mend the leaks in the roofs of primary schools or pay nurses to staff empty wards? This debate is not just about town and country, it is about priorities in public expenditure.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to participate in a debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Marlesford. He is a friend of long standing and one whose concern about the sensible protection of the countryside I have known for many years. But that personal thought apart, the debate is extremely timely. It seems to me that Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, who have now been in office for nine months, cannot continue to try to look two ways at once. They cannot continue to assure us on the one hand of their deep concern about green issues and on the other to issue edicts about more houses in the countryside.

If noble Lords will permit me to waft them from the see or diocese of Hereford 150 miles south to West Sussex, perhaps I may explain to your Lordships how West Sussex is a perfect example of the paradox there seems to be in the minds of Ministers at the Department of the Environment at the moment.

It may surprise your Lordships to know that more than 50 per cent. of West Sussex lies within three areas of outstanding natural beauty: the Sussex Downs, the High Weald and Chichester Harbour. The county council recently produced a draft structure plan under which it provided for an additional 37,900 homes to be built in the county by the year 2011, one quarter on greenfield sites. This plan was the subject of a rigorous examination in public conducted by an independent panel appointed by the Secretary of State. My noble friend Lord Marlesford referred briefly to the problems of West Sussex. The panel recommended no change in the housing figures proposed in the draft plan.

However, the Secretary of State has now issued a direction requiring the plan to be modified and the housing figure increased by 12,800, on top of the 37,900 already provided for in the plan. He described the approach adopted by the council and supported by the independent panel and by the Royal Town Planning Institute as "flawed".

At the same time, the same department and more or less the same Ministers have instructed the Countryside Commission to start two inquiries: one into areas of outstanding natural beauty as a whole—all 31 of them—and the other more specifically into the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. Here I declare an interest as chairman of the board.

Of course, we are delighted to take part in the consultation exercises, but the underlying expectation from the public who have been consulted is that as a result they will not get 12,900 more houses; they expect to get more protection of their loved countryside, more security, more permanence, more security of the funding. In the case of the Sussex Downs there is a real danger. We are a strip of about 80 miles stretching from Winchester to Eastbourne. It may surprise your Lordships to know that 1 million people could walk to and from their homes to the centre of the Sussex Downs easily in a day. We have 32 million visits a year already, more people come to the Devil's Dyke than to Stonehenge. So we see a danger of the Sussex Downs being taken over by industrial and housing development.

If we look at old prints and drawings of the south coast and the south-east coast, we will notice that over the years the urban fringe along the south coast has expanded regularly northwards—it cannot go in any other direction—at the rate of one mile every 50 years. As the average depth of the Sussex Downs is four miles above the urban fringe, it is not difficult to calculate that in 200 years, at the present rate the whole of the Sussex Downs will be covered in concrete.

I say to the noble Baroness who will respond to the debate that the time has surely come when the department must cease trying to look both ways at once. The two themes are just not consistent. The Government must either abandon their green ambitions—I very much hope they do not—or they must move away from "predict and provide" to a very much more realistic assessment of the amount of housing in the countryside that is environmentally possible. As my noble friend Lord Marlesford said, that means looking for some massive scale alternatives in the development of brownfield sites and urban regeneration.

It will require a huge step of imaginative planning. It has been done in the States, in Boston and around Grand Central Station in New York. But there has to be affordable and social housing attached to it. If that is not done, I fear that we are now wreaking dangers to the countryside that our successors in 25 or 50 years' time will very much regret. They will think: "Why on earth didn't we see the dangers?".

There are two comforting phrases which are rather like the reform of the CAP, two mantras that we all say: environmental protection on one side, urban regeneration on the other. But I say to your Lordships that those phrases soothe our consciences but the words are not enough. We must now have action. I very much hope that in winding up the debate the noble Baroness will tell us something of the department's plans for action.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, if ever there were a topic for debate which combined both items of the portfolio that I hold—conservation and the countryside—it is this one which, I understand, is about the conservation of the countryside. I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for bringing it forward.

I am one of those who believes that it is impossible to have civilisation without our cities being set in a countryside which is in a dynamic relationship to them. The ideal cities of the past, the city states, had that relationship. The countryside and the city both had their separate cultures which were complementary. That is an ideal pattern which has been rendered today more or less impossible, largely, I regret to say, by the enlargement—not least by my party—of the fairly harmless ideal of free trade into an all-consuming monster. So in order to assure a healthy countryside we are doomed to invent more and more measures which involve subsidies and regulations that most of us would want to avoid.

We are almost all in agreement, I think, as to what we wish the countryside to be like. I start with one or two of those essentials which need no intellectual defence because they are obvious but which need practical and often legislative defence because in practice they are apt to go by default. The first is the need for biodiversity. Today we have elaborate philosophic arguments to support what any man—except that monster, honio economicus—feels in his bones. Our ancestors, especially the ancestors of many of us in this House, may have massacred animals by the game cart load. I remember in our house that the gong rung for dinner was suspended between elephant tusks. One started on a walk around the lake by passing between two whales' jaws. But it was thoughtless slaughter, exactly that. It never occurred to our ancestors that they might be exterminating species. Today we know better. We realise that we must so run our countryside that we encourage diversity of species.

Another "must" is the preservation of wildernesses and of beauty, touched on by the right reverend Prelate. It is not enough to have generalised goodwill when we are as overpopulated a country as we are and have developed slowly but surely a network of natural parks which we must not only protect but govern well. And here I make a plea to the Government that they do nothing in the interests of departmental tidiness which would lead to insensitive treatment of the national parks. I look forward to the speech of the noble Lord. Lord Norrie, which I imagine will touch on that subject.

A third "must" is not only the preservation of species, but also the welfare of those animals which we have tamed for various purposes. Battery farming, whether of hens, pigs or cows, is not only wrong in itself; it also creates eyesores and, if I may add, nose sores as well in the countryside.

Moving away from the "musts" to the mechanics, the preservation and development of the countryside need a healthily sized rural population. Villages need to be large enough to support pubs and post offices, village shops and parish churches so that those in their turn can support the villages. We are all aware of the problems of villages without a shop or an adequate bus service to the next conurbation up the line, the market town. And, where possible, as much of the population as possible should be involved in the chains which serve the basic tasks of the countryside—agriculture and all its ancillary trades and the preservation of the countryside itself. That is another reason why we should he encouraging family farms and smallholdings.

In that context I draw your Lordships' attention to the fascinating evidence given to Sub-Committee D in the past week by a professor from Munich who, while admitting that there was a net trend away from part-time farming in his part of the world, pointed out that it was the product of a balance between a heavy exodus and a heavy ingress. The same conditions are unlikely to apply here but I believe it is the sign of a really healthy rural community and one which we should try to emulate.

The population dedicated to the country does not need to be made up of people coming to spend quality time in second homes. Those people can, with time and tact, be valuable additions. But they drive up the prices of houses so that those who really need homes—the younger generation, say—cannot find affordable social housing. Second homes are basically an anti-social luxury and should be discouraged, to put it mildly.

Nor does the country need new housing estates. A great deal can be done by sensible infilling. We on these Benches have a colleague, Professor Pritchard, who is a councillor in Leicestershire. Before he became a councillor he carried out a survey and found a sizeable number of sites which could be used for infilling. He drew the council's attention to them. It was grateful and used them but pointed out that it was a one-off bonus. Five years later he became a councillor—as Liberal Democrats do these days—and conducted another survey. The result, miraculously, was the same number of sites again. There appeared to be a widow's cruise of sites. I am not sure what the moral of that is. It may be that if we act sensitively and take our time, the Lord will provide; whereas if we start being brash and plonking new towns about, the results will be appalling.

The English, and the British, countryside is a great heritage. We must treat it as such. It is not to be handed over to developers or even landlords—good though some of your Lordships are. And it is a great deal more worth spending money on than cheap food—as are its people, who should be guaranteed, by any healthy society, enough work of a worthwhile kind to keep them and us happy.

3.53 p.m.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

My Lords, I should first declare an interest in these matters by saying that I am an ex-farmer and landowner; I am now president of the Federation of Economic Development Authorities and chairman of the Rural Economy Group, which is both cross-parliamentary and cross-party. I believe in the need for economic growth and investment and support the need for a prosperous and diverse rural economy.

The matter being debated today is not the serious countryside issue that it is being made out to be. Ninety per cent. of the population of the UK are urbanised and want all the benefits of an urban life—jobs, schools, shops, transport and leisure. It is a question of how existing urban areas will continue to grow internally and at the edges.

The housing needs suggested by the Department of the Environment and discussed earlier under both governments of some 4.4 million homes are over the 25 years from 1991 to 2016. One million of those houses has already been built in the period 1991 to 1998. Over the next 20 years the demand will probably be in the order of some 20 million homes per decade. It is absolutely right that these matters are discussed now against predictions. Housing cannot be provided on demand but must be planned ahead in local and regional plans.

In the 1930s we built 3 million homes; in the 1950s, 3 million homes; in the 1960s, 3.5 million homes; in the 1970s, 3 million homes; in the 1980s, 2 million homes, and it will be around 2 million homes in the 1990s and no doubt in the early decade of the next century. The suggestion that that level of growth, which is lot lower now than it was soon after the war, will cover the countryside in concrete is absolute rubbish.

My experience and knowledge are in the north-west of England. There is more designated green belt in the north-west and the Midlands than in the whole of London and the south of England, and that amount doubled during the 1980s. In our towns and cities the effect has been to stifle natural growth; to drive development into valued countryside; to cause increased commuting from rural to urban work areas; and to prevent new, imaginative and innovative planning developments on the urban edge. It has provided solutions to transport, jobs and housing needs, and prevented the development of combined new development opportunities providing housing, jobs and leisure in one sector.

Most importantly, tightly drawn green belts have caused increased density in certain towns and cities which has brought pain in terms of traffic and pollution on the one hand and reduced the wealth to provide the money to find solutions on the other. A recent study by Business Strategy, an economic consultancy, reported in the Financial Times, showed that cities and towns with a well educated workforce and room for growth were best for creating jobs and attracting investment. Its study in the most successful towns in the UK showed that the key factors were low population densities, high rates of land change from rural to urban, low traffic congestion and quality housing.

Green belt policy has not protected beautiful, open English countryside. More usually it protects poor, unattractive land on the urban edge. The policy is causing particular problems where within the green belt there are derelict buildings and sites such as unused farm buildings, ex-airfields, hospitals and other institution buildings that are no longer required. Many local authorities are anxious to make improvements to such sites and see them bringing benefits to the community but are prevented by a blanket green belt policy.

A recent study by the London School of Economics, reported in the Economist, showed that green belt policy is bringing disproportionate benefits to the rich—that is, it affects those who already live in the green belt, rather than the community as a whole. In the eyes of many people it has become an elitist policy. During this century society has grown steadily richer and in the next century it will continue to get richer because it will be driven, as it has always been, by innovative technology and ideas and the desire by the people to become richer. That will continually increase the need for new homes, jobs and all the added luxuries that the future will provide in terms of leisure, health, fitness and, we hope, a more active old age.

The demand for land to provide all that will increase accordingly. It is not acceptable by the majority of people that the existing blanket central policy of the green belt should unnecessarily protect the urban edge and hold back those opportunities. In my view, it is time for a review—a proper assessment of what green belt policy has really achieved—which will take a sensible long-term look at how our urban areas will continue to provide the ever-changing needs of the 90 per cent. of British people who live there, and that well into the next century. That should be the benefit that will derive from this debate.

I conclude by saying that I very much agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, relating to a more innovative taxation system to encourage the better use of urban sites and to thank my noble friend Lord Marlesford for instigating this important debate.

3.59 p.m.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

My Lords, I wish to add my thanks to those expressed previously to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important topic today. The issue is how we can achieve sustainable housing development in sustainable communities. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton, perhaps I may give a little case study of the impact housing development has had on some of the most important wildlife sites in this country. The case study is that of the Dorset heath land.

Lowland heath land is a priority habitat for nature conservation in this country and is recognised internationally as one of the jewels in our nature conservation crown. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan drawn up by the Government identifies this as a priority for action and also identifies past developments and continued fragmentation, and disturbance from the development of housing particularly, as significant causes of heath land loss. Before 1960, urban development accounted for the loss of nearly 9,000 hectares of heath land in England—that is about 23 per cent. of its total extent—and Dorset in particular has suffered massive historical heath land loss since the 19th century. In the past 75 years three-quarters of the heath land in Dorset has gone. The impact of urban development has increased in recent times rather than diminished, with 37 per cent. of the recorded loss being in the 10 years between 1978 and 1987 and being primarily as a result of built developments. So I do not think we should underestimate what we can do to our biodiversity and our nature conservation treasures if we get the answers wrong on sustainable housing.

It seems to me that there are three issues here for us. The first is how much housing; the second is where it should go; and the third is what kind of housing it should be. We have moved away in many areas from the predict and provide model for a whole variety of issues. For example, we have now discovered that if you build roads you create more traffic. I am not saying that if you build more houses you create more households, but there must be an issue there in moving away from the predict and provide model.

Much of the predicted household growth lies in the increasing number of single elderly people living alone and also—I declare an interest being a single middle-aged person—people like me living in solitary households; what my honourable friend the Minister in another place called "refugees from marriage-. We are duty bound to question the shape of the society we see growing before us, with ever-growing numbers of single and sometimes very isolated households. 1 would suggest that innovative solutions to ways of living must be tackled if we are to deal with this issue in a rounded way. I am not suggesting that we all take up communes, though that might be quite fun at my age, but I believe that the idea that the social isolation of many people whom we see in our society today can be remedied by more innovative forms of housing provision is one that deserves attention.

Let us look at the issue of where we put our housing. We have heard some useful propositions today, particularly as to how we go about minimising greenfield developments and maximising Brownfield developments. I commend the sequential test approach which focuses the search for housing sites in urban areas in the first instance. I think also that the physical implications of meeting the projections on the ground through the planning system to avoid damage to important areas for biodiversity has to be looked at closely. Strong, effective and visionary regional planning is essential to identify important habitats and species in a region and ensure their protection and enhancement. Strategic environmental assessment of the likely environmental effects of housing must be an integral part of any system. We need properly to resource regional planning conferences if that is to be done effectively. We should also be brave about the outcome of some of these planning processes. Where there are likely significant environmental implications as a result of rigorous assessments by individual planning authorities, we should permit them to revise their housing allocation downwards.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. touched on the failure of past greenfield development levies. We should learn lessons from the past. Nevertheless, there is a case for investigating the potential for a properly constructed greenfield development levy with clear policy objectives and setting out potential environmental implications so that we can protect greenfield sites from damage. National and regional targets for increasing the use of urban land are worth considering and urban capacity studies are certainly important as part of the appraisal of development plans.

Another point we need to consider in terms of location is the impact on the use of natural resources in general. Many of the housing proposals we are seeing—this applies particularly to rural areas—are in parts of the country where water resources are already under considerable pressure from a whole variety of issues. Transport issues must also be taken into account if we are not to put housing developments in areas that will simply create the problems caused by pollution and congestion in transport systems.

My final point concerns the kind of houses we should be looking for. We have a unique opportunity over the next few years. We now know ways in which we can make our housing stock much more sustainable in terms of its resource use. We must expect that the houses we see built, wherever they are built and in whichever quantity, perform to the high standards of environmental design principles and, in particular, are low use in terms of water and energy conservation.

4.6 p.m.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, as we have heard this afternoon, the debate is not just about housing, or even about whether we build on greenfield or brownfield sites. It is a debate about how and where we and future generations should live. It is also about how we can use new housing to drive economic growth, which in turn leads to the social and environmental improvement of our towns, while avoiding damage to the countryside. In this complex debate I shall focus my attention on what might be considered to be two of the most important issues—the future of our towns and cities and the problems with the planning system.

The very title of this debate stresses the need to consider town and country together in deciding where we are to live. The exodus from town to country, at something like 300 people a day, underlies many of the tensions over greenfield development and growing urban dereliction. Our towns are decaying while our green fields are being built over. It is disturbing to see that at the end of each year there is more urban derelict land than there was at the beginning; and at the same time, we are still threatening 650 square miles of rural England with urban development.

We should not be despondent or think that we cannot influence these trends. As the Deputy Prime Minister himself has said: We don't believe that the patterns of the past should automatically set future housing provision. We believe changes in policy can, and will make a difference". I should be grateful to the Minister if she would confirm that the Government are committed to stemming this tide and are developing new policies which will help to achieve these ends. I am sure that with the right leadership and support future patterns of migration can be very different. They can work in tandem with both environmental and social policies. This will help regenerate our towns, reduce the need to travel and protect the countryside.

My noble friend Lord Marlesford has rightly referred to the crucial value of the British planning system. It is true that our crowded island is indebted to the planning pioneers, but we cannot rest on our laurels. There have been some who criticise planners for not providing enough land for building homes. Others have criticised the green belt for forcing development to leapfrog into sensitive countryside further away from our towns. My Lords, these are siren voices. We need to strengthen the powers of planning to steer more building to where it can benefit urban communities and relieve pressure on the countryside.

The green belt is a policy of the future, not the past. It is central to any strategy for urban regeneration. We cannot afford to see more green belt releases like those for 2,500 houses north of Newcastle and up to 10,000 houses west of Stevenage. There are fears that these are just the tip of the iceberg as evidence is now emerging that other local authorities are doing exactly the same in the West Midlands and Yorkshire. If we are to reduce car use and re-use brownfield sites, we need more effective protection of the countryside beyond the green belt and to introduce stronger tests before allowing changes to green belt boundaries.

Another priority for improving the planning system is to tackle what is paradoxically an oversupply of building land. Too many local authorities allocate land for development often a decade in advance of it being needed for building and permit too much new housing too quickly. The Council for the Protection of Rural England has highlighted one example where the rural parishes of South Herefordshire are expected to receive over 80 per cent. more homes than had been planned. This is all because too much rural land was allocated and too many planning permissions were granted for new houses in the early years of a long-term plan. Inevitably, this means that too many greenfield sites are built on and opportunities to use brownfield sites are lost.

These are difficult issues. Stemming the loss of people from urban areas and changing the way in which we plan for new housing do not have off-the-shelf solutions. But we can be quite clear that the current approach is failing on too many counts. The need for affordable homes from housing associations is not being met. Urban dereliction continues to rise. Home, workplaces, schools and shops are forced further and further apart leaving more people dependent on their cars. Rural landscapes are being lost.

The effects of building are even more insidious. They shatter the tranquillity of rural areas well beyond the edge of the new development. Visual intrusion, noise pollution and the dreaded orange glow of street lights from new housing schemes all reach out into the heart of the countryside. This cannot go on.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, this debate is not just about green or brownfield sites; it is about how and where we live. The priority for both town and country should be to find a more innovative and constructive way of planning new housing and to establish a more positive approach to urban life.

There are growing voices of concern and alarm that the Government are failing to take notice of the countryside. Those anxieties will come to a head on 1st March when well over 100,000 people are expected to rally in London under the banner of the countryside. I do not see that as being divisive, rather as a way of emphasising the need to see town and country together. The countryside is our heritage and the Government must understand the depth of feeling there is about it. They should listen to the voice of rural areas and they must not bulldoze through the opinions of local people or the green belt policy, which has done so much to preserve rural Britain.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, more than 20 noble Lords are speaking in this short debate, and in another place recently more than 30 Members spoke. This reflects the deep concern, extensively covered in the media, on the subject of housing policy. It is perhaps easier to say from these Benches than from elsewhere that the widespread apprehension at what the Government intend to do is matched by widespread unease at what the previous government did in presiding over the building of houses on so many greenfield sites and opening up permission for so many out-of-town shopping centres, which were measures that promoted urban degeneration. Despite their good work in setting up housing partnerships and development corporations, there is a serious deficit in social housing as against market housing.

The Government inherited a target of 4.4 million new homes between the years 1991 to 2016, of which only a few hundred thousand have been built, and an estimation that only half of them would be built on previously developed, or brownfield, sites. Alarm bells rang with the announcement last month of two major incursions into green belt land and the imposition of a higher target for West Sussex. Then came the Deputy Prime Minister's article in The Times, with its reassuring assertion that the planning system needs modernising and decentralising, and with its welcome emphasis on urban regeneration. It is to be hoped that next month's statement of intent will shorten the targets to, say, five-year tranches, and will permit local authorities to contribute to the methodology, based on their knowledge of local needs and social trends.

As with the remarkable change in public opinion about the road building, so this altered attitude to house building affects a broad spectrum and all political parties. In both instances it stems from a perception of how the countryside, especially in South-East England, has been carved up and reduced. This perception has been masked due to the undoubted success of our strict planning regulations relating to buildings outside urban and village boundaries, and to the protection of listed buildings.

Our countryside is still incredibly beautiful. But unless urgent restraints are imposed quickly on greenfield housing, we may yet live to see the doom envisaged by environmentalists of an earlier generation, such as the left-wing intellectual, C.E.M. Joad, who wrote in 1937: Thus the towns are throwing their ever lengthening tentacles of brick and mortar over the country; round every corner pops up a perky new villa, and the green face of England's landscape comes out in an enflamed rash of angry pink. In fifty years' time there will, in Southern England, be neither town nor country, but only a single dispersed suburb, sprawling unendingly from Watford to the coast". Mention of Joad should remind us that the quid pro quo of popular support for the countryside is greater accessibility to it, a subject which will come to the fore with the Government's promised Bill. Incidentally, I feel that it is important for country dwellers to appreciate that, in order to preserve what they want in matters of housing, as of agriculture and sport, they need to win over the hearts and minds of millions of town dwellers. I do not think their cause is helped by the proposition that they all understand the countryside better simply because they live in it. Few of them are associated with agriculture, and Joad's vision of a universal suburbia already exists in terms of lifestyle.

The other side of the coin is the question of urban regeneration. Obviously, brownfield sites are limited in number and size, especially in the South East. But one suspects that many more could be winkled out if greenfield sites were unavailable, or made less attractive to builders by fiscal means. Brownfield sites are very unevenly spread, and it may be better to maximise pressure on local authorities to find them, rather than to set arbitrary percentages. There is also a great potential from derelict and unoccupied buildings.

Urban housing is also more likely to appeal to those who are living without children, particularly the young and the ever-increasing numbers of the elderly and old. Thus it can be built at a greater density, which does not imply a return to the brutal architecture of the 1960s, but rather to the terraced houses that had existed previously, with their more congenial opportunities for communal intercourse. It is ironic that, in seeking solutions for the 21st century, we should be reverting to the 19th in terms of urban planning and the use of railways. The most expensive housing anywhere is in the terraced streets and squares of Kensington and Chelsea.

We are an affluent post-industrial society living in a confined space. Nearly all of us would like a house or flat of our own from the age of 18 onwards. If this aspiration can only be met by making unacceptable inroads into our restricted countryside, we should refuse to meet that need, just as it is now accepted that the projected needs for new roads cannot be met. If our present prosperity continues to increase, which cannot, of course, be taken for granted, then the need for more cars and houses is, in truth, insatiable. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on raising this important subject for debate.

4.19 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I wish to concentrate on one narrow aspect of this very important issue which my noble friend Lord Marlesford has so excellently raised. I refer to the validity of the Government's housing projections. I begin with the conclusion rather than the argument. I believe the projections to be wrong. I thought they were wrong under the previous government, and I think they are wrong, misguided and dangerous now.

I am not alone in taking that view. As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, Sir Crispin Tickell, the convener of the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development, has said that the assumptions on which the forecasts are made are spurious. That is his statement. That was not said by just anybody, but by the convener of the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development. He went on to say that they should not be used for planning purposes. It is hard to think of a clearer message that something is badly wrong.

Secondly, there is no doubt that the huge figures which then cascade down into county structure plans, borough planning and so on create a panic among planners which leads them to cast a shadow over large swathes of countryside as well as urban areas when we all know that the need is for small-scale development and for thinking small and not in terms of gigantic areas newly to be designated for planning and building.

Thirdly, I am as pleased as anyone to hear the Deputy Prime Minister say that it is now the end of "predict and provide" in housing. If that means anything—I hope that it does—it means that we say goodbye to the whole concept of huge housing predictions on which we then try to build a whole set of county plans. Fourthly, as we have heard, the figure of 4.4 million is for households, which is not quite the same as new homes and houses, many of which have already been built.

Fifthly—I should like to concentrate on this point—there are the figures themselves. It is clear that they should never have been bundled together in the way that they were. The figures were, I believe, the invention of officials in the Department of the Environment, some now retired, who looked upon their compilation as an interesting statistical task not really related to real life. First, it is clear, taking the content bit by bit, that the figure of 500,000 extra housing units allocated for immigration is wildly high. Immigration experts who have analysed it say that it is based on unrealistic assumptions. Secondly, there is the social housing content. Obviously, we want to see more affordable housing, but there is no doubt that the estimate of how much social housing needs to be built does not match the Government's expenditure figures or any intentions and plans in any other part of government. The estimate is probably way over the top. However, those are relatively minor over-estimates, probably accounting for between half a million and three-quarters of a million of the extra houses.

The big one is the question of cohabitation. There is absolutely no doubt that the figure of 4.4 million contains an assumption about the desire of people to live alone, in individual households. Many people do not want to live alone but are forced to do so by unhappy circumstances. The idea that living alone is a trendy and politically correct thing to do, which ran in high fashion in the 1960s and 1970s, no longer exists. The figures tell us that. Cohabitation is greatly on the increase again and has been since the early 1980s. The figures are telling the planners something that the planners have so far refused to listen to. The people are speaking to the policy makers, not the other way round. One estimate is that a proper, up-to-date projection of cohabitation trends today would suggest that we need 1.4 million fewer houses than we are forecast to need in the existing 4.4 million figure.

The figure also contains a heavy estimate for the move to the south. Again, that was a trend of the 1960s when people thought that you had to come to the south east. The jobs pattern is now different. Although there are still tremendous disparities in work availability, there is no doubt that the feeling that you have to move to the already overcrowded south east to look for a job has gone. People are now far less ready to rush southwards in search of a home and a job.

For all those reasons, and for several others with statistical weight behind them—these are not just fantasies or subjective arguments—the figure of 4.4 million, far from being too low as some civil servants have incorrectly suggested, is overdue for unravelling and reassessing. Why should one be worried about that? It is because at this moment, as we speak, county structure plans, county reviews, structure draft plans, new reviews and examinations in public are all rolling ahead. Indeed, they are rolling ahead at considerable cost to taxpayers and community charge payers. Public money is being deployed in large quantities, with a great deal of effort, agony and debate, for purposes which have been invalidated. It is vital that when the Government come to make up their mind on these matters, as I understand that they are to do shortly in the Green Paper, they take the bit between their teeth They should recognise that the structure plans are now based on unsafe, invalidated and discredited figures and ask for all structure plans, all examinations in public and all such procedures to be temporarily frozen so that we can reconsider the matter. We need to re-examine the figures in the light of serious statistical evidence instead of spurious evidence and on a basis of which Sir Crispin Tickell and others will approve, and then go ahead in a much more safe, secure and sound way.

4.25 p.m.

Viscount Hampden

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for introducing this important debate. I hope that he will not be offended if I tell him that whenever I have the misfortune to drive along the coast road from Newhaven to Brighton and pass through that terrible area of countryside despoilation, Peacehaven, I always think of the noble Lord—not because he is responsible for it but because he told us in a debate on the South Downs in your Lordships' House in July that it was when he was lost in Peacehaven that he saw the light and became such a distinguished member of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

I shall approach the debate in a slightly different way because I find myself in the rare position of trying to be helpful to the Government at the same time as being able to blow my own trumpet, something which has virtually never happened before in my life. If the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, can persuade her department to spend 25p on last Friday's edition of the Sussex Express, she will find a newspaper with a huge headline, Village Blueprint for a Rural Jobs Revival", with the sub-line, How Lord Hampden's business plan helped restore community life"— so, my spin doctors have been hard at work.

It is an important case history in that the village mentioned in that article, Glynde, is situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is also surrounded by farms which are all in an environmentally sensitive area. The hill just above the village is a site of special scientific interest and a nature reserve. The village is a conservation area and virtually every house is listed. In some ways, it is totally hemmed around by every planning constriction imaginable. Notwithstanding that, during the past 10 years, we have converted the 19th century granary into a small business area for making weighing machines, employing nine people. The dairy, built in 1887 by my great-great-grandfather, is now a warehouse and mail order business for pumps and valves, employing 30 people. The old mill now makes spiral staircases and employs 20 people. The old smithy has been restored and is now occupied by a skilled metalworker who makes all sorts of things on the forge. The next objective is to infill and develop the chalkpit at the bottom of the village. That is a fairly formidable blueprint.

In the context of this debate, it is important to note that one of the reasons for that success is that there is a railway station in the middle of the village. It is served hourly by trains from both Brighton and Eastbourne. That allows people working in the village to come in by train. The whole question of transport is vital to whatever development is planned for the 21st century.

I felt very strongly for the right reverend Prelate and his roundabout in deepest Herefordshire. We have exactly the same problem in Sussex. The more traffic that comes along, the more the highways authority has to take various actions to make the road safer. Instead of seeing a lovely conserved village, one sees nothing but road signs saying not to turn right or not to do this or that. The highways authorities do not seem to need any planning consents.

I should like to make two other points. The first relates to communities, about which the right reverend Prelate also spoke. Community is terribly important. As a child during the war and just after, I was brought up in south-west Wales and because my grandmother became tremendously involved in anything going on, I was well aware of the strong community feeling in both the rural communities of Carmarthenshire and in the mining communities of the Swansea Valley. It is important that such communities are maintained.

Finally, I should like to deal with the subject of green belt land. I believe that some years ago the Minister was the Member of Parliament for Welwyn and Hatfield. My grandfather's family came from an area just outside her former constituency. We no longer have an interest there. However, as members of my family drop off their perch we must make a solemn march to the churchyard there and bury them. It is a beautiful experience to leave the A.1 just 18 miles north of London and suddenly enter a most wonderful area of green belt just north of Welwyn where my grandparents lived. I very much hope that when the Minister replies she will realise just how important to us are these green belt areas.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Vinson

My Lords, I too am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for introducing this timely debate. He and I had the good fortune to work together on the Rural Development Commission throughout the 1980s when I was chairman and he combined membership of that organisation with that of the Countryside Commission. Having a leg in both camps is not an easy role but he filled it with distinction. I raise this point because where you stand on the subject of land use depends on where you sit or, perhaps more accurately, where you live. I hope that he will forgive me if on this occasion 1 take a somewhat contrary view to the CPRE.

Those who, like me, live in deep rural areas understandably want to prevent further encroachment but we should also respect the views of those who are much less well represented on the national scene and have no spokesman: those yet to own a home and those who want to trade up. We often sneer at the works of speculative builders but the demand for homes remains insatiable. Others possibly have the same aspirations that we fulfilled many years ago. In this country houses are very expensive, and the prime reason for this is the high cost of land. I should like to develop that point in one moment.

It is often overlooked that there is a cost to the green belt and a cost to land rationing. If you ration any commodity you force up the price. The astronomic price paid for farm land by developers reflects both demand for and the shortage of land, principally caused by rationing through the planning system. In this country the land value of a house—in other words, the value of the plot on which it is built—often represents up to 50 per cent. of the total price of the property, particularly in the south of England. By contrast, in mainland Europe and America, where land is far less severely rationed and more available, the land value of a house in the same kinds of areas is about 25 per cent. or often less. Thus, the overall cost of building homes in this country is about one quarter higher than it otherwise would be if building land was not so severely restricted.

This in itself is bad enough but the economic management of the United Kingdom is conducted principally through the use of the interest rate mechanism. Because we use monetary rather than fiscal controls our interest rates are often much higher than they need to be relative to inflation. We may successfully or unsuccessfully control the economy in this way, but the overall effect is that mortgages are higher than in many other countries and thus the cost of buying a home is higher and less affordable to those on marginal incomes.

Taking these two factors together, it is not surprising that many people cannot afford a home and that such a high percentage of the population are on housing benefit—something that has not been mentioned today—with all the tax and welfare distortions that come with it. But the primary factor remains the price of land due to the shortage of land induced by the planning system. In a nutshell, the price of the green belt is increased homelessness and millions on housing benefit. Greenery has a cost.

I do not for a moment advocate that we do without planning, but we need to recognise its consequence. Many of the speeches today have advocated the development of brown land, but there are snags. The reason speculative builders do not build on brown land is that it is difficult both to accumulate and to build homes cheap enough relative to demand. Like many, I hope that it may be possible for the Government to introduce legislation so that local authorities can accumulate brown land more easily and sell it on. However, whatever the price, demand will remain limited unless the social conditions that are found on or near many brownfield sites can be improved. Few people, including members of the CPRE, will want to live there if they remain areas of insecurity, with muggings, theft, graffiti and all the other factors. Houses on brownfield sites simply will not sell unless the social conditions are made amenable. It is not surprising that the demand for greenfield sites remains and is likely to remain unmet.

I believe that a limited subsidy is necessary if brownfield houses are to be affordable, not I hope by taxing greenfield sites, as has been suggested, which would merely raise the price even higher, but I suggest by letting society share in the huge windfall benefits that often fall to landowners of newly-designated greenfield sites. I am attracted to the idea—I wish it were mine—that planning permissions should be auctioned and that the landowner, along with anybody else, should bid the local authority for the right to develop that land. In this way much of the planning gain would flow back to the local authority and these funds could be, and I hope would be, earmarked for the development of brownfield sites in inner cities. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister thinks of that concept when she comes to reply.

Meanwhile, I believe that on balance the Government are probably right, as the late Nicholas Ridley was right, to allow limited greenfield developments in the proportions they have advocated. Any government must recognise the legitimate demand for new housing and balance the concern over further encroachment onto rural areas against the needs of those who do not have a home of their own—those who will not be able to afford a home unless the price of land is kept down by keeping the supply up. This is the inescapable dilemma of an overcrowded island.

4.37 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for introducing this fascinating debate. In thinking of what to say I recalled the response of Gandhi who, when visiting this country in the 1930s, was asked what he thought of British civilisation. His response was, "Yes, it would be a very good thing." I shall concentrate my remarks on what I believe to be the social fragmentation over the past 20 years and the problem that I hope the new Government will be able to tackle; that is, the creation of a society in which people want to live together not only as families but as communities in a mutually supportive way.

I believe that it is worth looking at the ability of the planning system to work. Twenty years ago I worked in a factory on the edge of Trafford Park, the largest industrial estate in the whole of Europe. Next to the factory was a greenfield site devoted to agriculture. Today that site has been completely built upon following the development of a massive out-of-town shopping centre. The project is reaching completion. The developers obtained planning permission and all the relevant regulatory approvals from the previous government. I pay tribute to the previous government that, having given Dumplington planning approval, they changed the rules and said that massive out-of-town shopping developments should not in future go ahead because they were deemed to be antisocial. It is a pity that they did not stop Dumplington. Changing the planning rules can effectively change the way in which development takes place. I am very glad that the Government have signalled their intention to carry out a radical review of the planning system to ensure that it meets not only today's needs but the future needs of society.

I was amazed when the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said that the assumptions underlying the grand total of 4.25 million extra households over the next 15 to 20 years were completely wrong. One of the difficulties we face is that the assumptions made by the statisticians on the basis of the experience of the previous 20 years are probably right.

The projections talk of 4.25 million new households. One can see a large number of households of elderly people, single persons, and those caused by the fragmentation of married relationships, with the consequent splitting up of families. Very few noble Lords have spoken about the desperate plight of people at the bottom of our society who live in dismal housing conditions. We must recognise the need for improved housing for them. We need to improve standards in our new housing.

I hope that over the next 10 years of this Government's existence we shall see a change in the way society is organised and structured. Two things are needed. First, we must reduce the imbalance in income and wealth between the top and bottom of our society; and, secondly, we must deal with the horrendous social problem of mass unemployment. I was pleased to hear my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey reiterate at the Dispatch Box today the Labour Party's and Government's commitment to full employment, however that may be described, as he said.

Many of the previous government's policy actions led to social fragmentation. I shall give just one example. It is the crazy social security system which puts more money into the pockets of an unemployed couple with children if they split up than if they stay together. The Government have started to tackle that problem by getting rid of the single-parent premium. There is some concern about how they did that, but we must tackle the elements in society that cause fragmentation. I wish the Government well in their future policies to build social inclusion rather than fragmentation.

4.43 p.m.

The Earl of Radnor

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Marlesford for introducing the subject of greenfield building and—this is a new term for mebrownfield non-development in the centres of our cities. That is very much in the news at present. I put my name down for the debate, probably unwisely, because I panicked when I saw that 4.4 million houses were going to be spread over the English countryside. I had not realised that that forecast was made in 1992, and as the noble Viscount, Lord Hampden, said, has probably been overtaken by events and is not as accurate as it might be. I must declare an interest in that on my land I have developed and am developing in various places. I do not believe it involves greenfield sites in the accepted sense of the word. I am also involved in farming in a large way and with forestry. So I sit on all sides of the fence.

As a farmer I was disappointed that I heard nothing about food in the countryside but a great deal about biodiversity. No one mentioned that gobbling up the land detracts from agriculture, which adds a great deal to our GNP. I was fascinated, and I always will be, to hear about sustainable housing. I long to know what an unsustainable house is. Does it fall down, or what? No one seems to be able to tell me that.

Greenfield sites are more attractive than brownfield sites. They are the darling of the builder and the developer so far as concerns money making. The brownfield sites remain in the cities because they are unattractive to develop. Money does not come from them. It has been said, but not emphasised, that they have all sorts of disadvantages. One is that people do not want to live there. Soil pollution—a relatively new worry for builders—often exists and causes a great deal of trouble. There is the expense involved in dealing with light agreements, parking and so on.

At some stage the problem must be tackled. We cannot go on creeping across our country. Sussex has been mentioned. I was tempted to suggest to the noble Lord who was worried about Sussex, although he is not in his seat, that he might send some of his houses to the north-west, where apparently the noble Lord, Lord Wade, has plenty of room for them.

Something positive must be done. The noble Lord, Lord Vinson, said that there must be some element of subsidy, or, as has been mentioned, an agency to buy up these brownfield sites so as to resell them. There must be some incentive to develop the brownfield sites, or they will continue to proliferate while we go on taking a little more of the green land.

I have no objection, although I cannot see the best form in which to do it, to the greenfield site owner or developer paying in some way or another for the enhancement of the brownfield sites so that the city centres will pull their weight. The figure of 28—households or people—has been mentioned. Such development would swallow up a fair number of households. So much for that. I shall not branch out into the social habits that have caused the need for so many more homes.

We should not forget that there are also brownfield sites in villages. Our villages are straggling affairs, of tremendous charm, built up over the ages, with houses of all descriptions and periods. There is tremendous resistance to filling in the gaps which exist. When I was a member of Sub-committee D we dealt with such matters. The great catchphrase then was the "NIMBY" factor—not in my back yard. If anyone wanted to build anything they were told that it was not possible. I have been told by a noble Lord that the latest in-word is "BANANA"—build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything. That is very much the attitude towards life in the countryside.

Finally, I shall take a glance into the future. There has been a tremendous move towards shopping in supermarkets. It has happened quickly. It has been immensely efficient. It started in the towns and it is now out-of-town. Mr. Gummer wanted the shopping centres to be in the towns. That has now been reversed. Four or five of these super or hyper-markets within a provincial town of about 45,000 people will kill the shopping centre. They will probably satisfy all the needs of a large catchment area. There is another brownfield site coming up which might be useful for housing: shops will have gobbled up the greenfield sites, and they will eventually become brownfield sites which could again be used for housing.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, we must all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for arranging this debate and for the admirable speech he made in introducing it. I pay tribute, too, to the CPRE, over which he presides, for its tireless campaigning to alert people to what is going on. I warmly agree with him on the value and fragility of the countryside, which is as precious to town dwellers as it is to those who live in the country. The greatest threat to the vanishing countryside is the spread of housing, which steadily converts country to town. An area the size of Bristol is urbanised every year.

We are seven years into the 1991-2016 period of the now notorious predictions in the November 1996 Green Paper. Central government pressure on local authorities to build more and more houses has transformed many towns and villages for the worse. An attractive old town such as Ledbury in Hereford is now surrounded by new housing estates of identical, tightly packed, box-like houses. The same is true of many other towns, small and large.

I would like to stress the neglected problem of water supply. The water companies told the Government last November that they could not supply all the planned new houses because too many of them were projected in areas with water shortages; 2.3 million in the most drought hit regions of the east and south-east. Water suppliers have no right of veto on developments and are often not even consulted about them. We must pay much more attention to this aspect of the problem, otherwise we shall be building houses without water or ruining our already threatened rivers. I should welcome reassurance from the Minister on that point.

The new Government have already had a change of heart. Although at a meeting the other night I was able to remind Mr. Meacher that he had said that the last thing we could ever wish to see would be the "Los Angelisation" of the UK countryside, initially deep concerns were aroused last year by remarks by junior Ministers. For example, Mr. Raynsford said that restrictions on building up to 2 million homes in the countryside must be relaxed since it was simply not acceptable to make people live in urban environments in unacceptable ways just to protect the countryside. Some of those remarks encouraged the unworthy thought that perhaps the House Builders Federation had given £1 million to Labour Party funds.

There was a very strong reaction, spearheaded by the CPRE's notable full page advertisement on 28th November. The outcry seems to have rung alarm bells in the higher echelons of the Government and resulted in an entirely new and very welcome line propounded by the Deputy Prime Minister, notably in his article in The Times on 26th January. But my experience as a diplomatist has taught me that what usually matters is not what people say but what they do. And what Mr. Prescott has done—or failed to do—in West Sussex, Stevenage and Newcastle has not so far been reassuring.

Furthermore, 2.2 million new houses in the countryside would mean six new cities the size of Bristol. This is a grim prospect. There seems no reason why we should not build most of them in cities and towns, which might well suit many of the single people or couples who like to be near shops, restaurants, pubs and cinemas. All the evidence is that there is plenty of capacity for this without what is called "urban cramming" or building on parks or playing fields. The RIBA has suggested a brownfield agency and has launched a brownfield initiative. We need to convert spaces above shops and make more use of redundant industrial buildings.

It is vital to make life in cities more attractive, safer and less polluted and to halt and reverse the haemorrhage of 300 people a day. But transforming our cities will take time. The problem is, however, immediate and urgent. It is at present much cheaper and easier for house builders to build on greenfield sites. What the Government must do is to introduce in next month's Budget economic instruments to discourage building on greenfield sites and encourage building on brownfield sites. I was glad to see that Mr. Prescott seemed to favour that. Twenty-five years ago, Philip Larkin wrote in a poem called "Going, going": For the first time I feel somehow That it isn't going to last, That before I snuff it, the whole Boiling will be bricked in … And that will be England gone". Our new Government now have a chance to prove him wrong. I profoundly hope that they will take it.

4.54 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Marlesford for his excellent introduction to this important debate. There is, indeed, a need to protect the countryside and I speak as an incomer of some 10 years' standing in a village with a complete and sustainable life of its own. We are fortunate in being almost entirely self-sufficient, but I am sorry to say that there are a number of renegades who go off to shop in the maze of supermarkets which have been fertilised locally by shoppers' greed, the car culture and the planners.

The out-of-town supermarket and its vast carparks are conveniences which the public greatly desire—I use the word advisedly—and they fulfil a need that is unhealthy and damaging to the stability of society. They attract people away from placing their daily business in the country towns, which are consequently decaying. They are setting themselves up as all things to all people, competing with the hardware and chemist shops in the small villages. By their very nature, they increase the social menace of the culture of car dependency. Perhaps I speak with the approval of the noble Earl, Lord Radnor.

There is, I believe, a case to limit the planning consent for supermarkets according to the number of people in the catchment area; it might be 25,000 or 50,000 people per supermarket. However, something needs to be done, otherwise all the available building space will soon be absorbed by those monoliths with their Dallas-type architecture and carparks.

Having got that off my chest, an opportunity would present itself to deal with the decaying inner city. Pedestrian-only areas and the concentration of small businesses and workshops would provide a community with an integral lifestyle, allowing work and leisure to be applied in the immediate vicinity of each other. And shopping locally would be simple and comfortable. There would be no car to start, but perhaps a local bus or a short walk. Inner-city decay is a challenge to our society. Regeneration is possible with a transformation of the lifestyle of whole communities. There are enormous areas of unoccupied, run-down, inner-city housing which needs to be rebuilt.

One of the great improvements of the Thatcher era was the promotion of home ownership. However, there are several sides to that equation. Home owners do not provide a mobile labour force. They also have considerable debts to the building societies, sometimes up to 100 per cent. of equity. That makes for a vulnerable lifestyle and an impediment to other long-term saving activities which would benefit society.

Let us suppose, for instance, that the Government found a method of limiting mortgages to 60 per cent. There might be a remarkable transformation. Savings would increase; more flats would be needed for the young to rent; they would be in the inner city near the cinemas and the pubs; and there would be a very mobile labour force. As I said they would not need a car to get to work.

Another limitation would be reduction of CGT on the sale of agricultural land for building sites. A £20,000 site goes for £200,000, which doubles the cost of the property for sale. That has already been mentioned by several noble Lords. I venture a suggestion in the light of a remark made by Mr. Richard Caborn in another place: We shall also be looking at options for introducing new economic instruments and financial incentives to bring more brown-field sites into play".—[Official Report, Commons, 27/1/98; co1.165.1 I am indebted to the CPRE and to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for research for that quotation. The CPRE rightly claims that we are not building anywhere near the number of affordable homes required. We are all agreed on that point. This debate is providing a remarkable range of answers.

It seems that the Government are foreswearing the principle of predict and provide which has proved to be inaccurate in the prediction and unable to provide the type of housing that is actually required. To that extent, we must welcome the New Labour approach to the problem.

We need to regenerate village life and provide local shopping facilities. Shopping in the village will reduce the weekly trip to the supermarket and regenerate the village post office. Again, that would reduce the use of the polluting motor car. Above all, it would generate local jobs in local industry. There is a scarcity of cheap rented accommodation for the young in all areas and that needs to be on brownfield sites which are available in the interstices of local areas. We need small plots for small housing. I have two plots immediately behind my own house which are not being developed merely because the builder is waiting to sell them for £300,000 rather than building cheap flats on them, much to my advantage.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of small companies and rural industry to the maintenance of a sustainable countryside. They are the target of larger organisations and need protection. Some local councils have been persuaded by supermarket chains to sell off, for example, the newly redundant cattle market in return for creating more parking facilities in the town. That is a waste of brownfield sites. Moreover, the supermarket car park is occupying ever more valuable brownfield sites needed for housing. Planning rules need to be overhauled and priorities reviewed unchanged.

There is another factor which may change the countryside scene; that is, the replacement of CAP support for the farmer. Extensive farming will call for more labour to manage alternative systems of farming and expanding the new schemes for entertaining the public and providing access to less intensively used farm land. Therefore, there will be a continuing call from local communities in any event. That will be beneficial in that it will halt the decay of village life.

However, I add one caveat to that. We need to ensure the maintenance of some land within the city boundaries. We need to protect allotments and school playing fields at all costs. It is good that this subject is under a much-needed review and I wish the Government success in their endeavours.

5.1 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in expressing my appreciation to my noble friend Lord Marlesford for bringing this matter before us this afternoon. I begin by declaring an interest as a farmer and landowner in the county of Essex.

During a 28-year career in local government, I watched the evolution of housing policy over a long period. It is housing policy which lies at the root of our debate this afternoon and not a debate about town versus country. I have seen local planning authorities constrain developments until the Government have found irresistible the pressure for additional development and have called for large areas of land to be released.

It is a regrettable fact that in shire areas most people wish that housing development would go somewhere else. Meanwhile, professional planners have the task of trying to resolve the conflict between the constantly rising economic and social aspirations of the community at large and the natural wish to preserve the countryside. Too often, the community says that it wishes for one result but by its actions it lives by a different ethic. We must preserve town centres but at the same time we flock in ever increasing numbers to out-of-town shopping centres that make the economic viability of town centres less and less sustainable.

We must restore and develop brownfield sites in metropolitan areas. Yet vast numbers of people, given the opportunity, would move into the countryside if they could. We do not live in a dirigiste society. Even if the planning Acts go some way towards that. we should not wish to go further than they already do. Therefore, we must be careful what we are about.

The development of brownfield sites is not easy. I well remember going to study the Docklands area of London when I was on the South East Economic Council under the chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, who I am pleased to see in his place. He will remember it well. It was an area of dereliction and deprivation on both sides of the river from the Tower of London downstream to beyond Greenwich and Beckton.

The relevant local authorities would not agree and much of the land was owned by public bodies which made redevelopment difficult by assuming very high land values because of the proximity of the City of London. I shall not bother the House with our recommendations, except to say that eventually they were largely implemented and the obstacles were removed. Today, 25 years later, regeneration continues apace. However, there is still a great deal to be done.

I use the example of the Docklands simply to illustrate that the issue is not straightforward and wishing for something to be done does not make it happen. I hope that the Minister will look back at that exercise to see what can be learned in relation to her plight today.

By and large, there are no overwhelming planning constraints on brownfield site development but we must face the fact that there may be other difficulties. The most obvious is regional disparity. Professor Peter Hall, who is a leading authority, said: What we already know is that prospects vary across the country: the Greater Manchester conurbation is full of brown-field holes and here a 60 per cent. target"— that is, for brownfield development— may be realistic. In London this appears to be a pipe-dream". It is in London and the south-east that the housing problem is at its greatest. Brownfield sites in other regions cannot help us here in this region.

On a different subject, much more might be done by renovation and improvement of the existing housing stock where it is estimated that there area million houses unoccupied, ¼ million of those in long-term non-occupation. However, if one wishes to make a simplistic comparison, repairs and renovation carry VAT while new construction does not. Therefore, in many cases the renovation of an existing building will cost virtually the same as new build. There is a price penalty to be paid. Again, I wonder whether the Minister will bring that anomaly to the attention of her right honourable friends in another place, perhaps with a view to removing the anomaly without increasing the cost, if I may put it that way.

Finally, I return to the figures for housing demand. Much publicity is made of the 4.5 million new homes needed but little is made of the fact that 1 million of those have already been built. That is the good news. The bad news is that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, speaking to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee housing inquiry in another place, stated last week, with explanations, that that is an underestimate by about 0.5 million. I can only say to my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford that expert opinions differ on those matters.

I pity the poor planners who must try to make sense of all that. I am glad that it is no longer my responsibility.

5.8 p.m.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Thomas of Macclesfield mentioned the ravages of the industrial revolution. Those were manifest, particularly in the north of England, as he mentioned. Both Manchester and Liverpool, simply in order to clear their slums, had to export more than million people into areas outside the city. We know that ever since the war, under successive governments, through the subsidy system, massive deck-access flats were built which were wholly unsatisfactory, havens for crime and all sorts of social problems. They have had to be demolished and, of course, are still being paid for by the tenants.

Urban areas have been talked about today, but they are not homogeneous. If we look at election results in big cities over a period of time, we find that the western constituencies—that is, the constituencies on the west side of big cities—tend to be Conservative and on the east side they tend to be Labour. Why is that so? It is because the prevailing winds in this country blow from west to east and all the rubbish, the pollution, and so on, goes to the east side. Therefore, those who are rather well breeched. or more comfortably off, tend to migrate to the west, leaving the working class to put up with the rest.

That fact was demonstrated recently. The House of Commons statistical section recently published a brief about a report entitled Mortality by Constituency. It reports the results of a survey carried out by researchers at the Department of Geography at the University of Bristol. I should declare an interest here in that I am a graduate of Bristol University. However, it will not surprise your Lordships to know that I only got a lower second. The figures in that report show that mortality varies from one constituency to another. In fact, in the constituency of Bristol West, you are less likely to die before the age of 65 than you are in my old constituency of Bristol South.

Bristol West has had a massive green lung called the Durdham Downs for many years. Development there is absolutely forbidden under an Act of 1861. Indeed, that downs Act of over a century and a third ago protects that green lung. The equivalent area in Bristol South is filled with playing fields and is being steadily nibbled away by development. Given the health record which I mentioned, what is the latest proposal for development on this green lung which is being chipped away in Bristol South? It is a bus depot. Only yesterday the British Lung Foundation issued a report about the cost of air pollution. It says that the most dangerous air pollution identified is, PM10—the microscopic particles mainly emitted by diesel engines". The latter cause all sorts of things; indeed, the diseases which follow from that situation are a hypochondriac's dream. That is the latest suggestion for the people of Bristol South, who are already handicapped in that respect.

If we are to consider the whole question of planning, we need to think about the machinery involved. It is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. In the particular instance to which I referred, the posting of a letter about the proposal, which did not go out until Friday by second class post, meant that the recipients had already lost one quarter of their complaining time by the time the letter was delivered to their homes. I should also mention the way in which the proposal was advertised. Notices were placed seven feet above the ground, mainly on a dual carriageway where the speed limit was 50 mph and where there were no residential properties. It simply is not fair to expect people to co-operate with such a system.

We wonder why people are not interested in local government, but the way in which some planning matters are conducted by local authorities is one answer. We ought to consider that aspect because there has been a recent development in Bristol; namely, those concerned flogged off the airport so that they could have a bit of money at their disposal. Moreover, in an article in the Western Daily Press of 23rd January, Councillor George Micklewright (the leader of the city council) said: It's very important in circumstances such as this to get a feel of the views of the Bristol public". One of the suggestions was to build a new swimming pool on the Filwood site. However, a little later on in that same text, we find, tucked away, reference to the fact that the move could mean the closure of several other pools. The article then goes on to list the names of four separate local pools. People can walk to those pools in their lunchtime. They can also walk there from their homes and have a swim. If such a swimming pool were to be built in Hengrove Park, that would not only take money off the middle class from North Somerset, but also everyone else would have to get in a car or use some form of transport to get there. It does not make sense. When my noble friend the Minister replies, I hope that she will deal with some of these more local points.

A few weeks later, on 31st January, there was a report in the Evening Post about the response to that consultation, which asked for people's views. It said: Scores of readers phoned or wrote in … with their views … The flood of letters followed a call by [the local] council leader". Any Chief Whip worth his salt could organise that sort of response at the drop of a hat. We really must take consultation much more seriously. As I said, I hope that my noble friend will deal with such matters in her response. In particular, there is the recent publication on 14th January from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport saying that all local authorities must look seriously at the selling off of this sort of playing-field land, even before the Government bring in legislation.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Marlesford on bringing forward this debate today. I should also declare an interest. I am a former poultry farmer, now retired, but we still have a family interest in a farm in Suffolk.

I should like to begin with the challenge of urban regeneration. My home town of Leicester is currently in the middle of such a programme. A 30-acre site in the middle of the city was compulsorily purchased at a cost of some £9 million and the ground cleared at a further cost of £7 million to £8 million; the money coming from City Challenge and English Partnership respectively. The site will comprise an office block, a business park, 71 units of social housing, 131 dwellings for private rent and a 240-bedspace hall of residence for De Montfort University. None of this would have been possible without a huge injection of public funds. Because of the complexity of the site, a former scrap metal yard, and of the many organisations involved, the lead time before development can take place is considerable.

The project began in 1993 and should be completed by the end of this year. It is an exciting project and a good example of what can be achieved. In addition to this project, three others are going forward, thanks to money from City Challenge. Perhaps I may just mention one of them; namely, the complete refurbishment of a former hosiery mill into one and two-bedroom accommodation.

Those projects would not have been possible but for the commitment of many people; for example, government agencies, local authorities and the developers. We need to make our cities safe and secure places to which people will wish to return and live. While recognising the success of those projects, one has to acknowledge that urban regeneration will not provide for all our housing needs. Villages, too, need to grow, thus enabling them to be vibrant places in which to live and work.

Statistics have already been quoted today and I, too, should like to highlight one particular sector. In 1961, the population of one-person households under pensionable age was only 4 per cent.; by 1994 that figure had risen to 12 per cent. In the same way, one-person households of over pensionable age rose from 7 per cent. in 1961 to 15 per cent. in 1994. Clearly the growing need has been for smaller units of housing as both starter homes and for the older population.

Many older people wish to remain independent. Throughout our area we have seen a growth in complexes of bungalow accommodation. Indeed, 30 or more have been built. They provide secure accommodation, supported by a resident warden/manager and are often developed with the support of local housing associations. It is important that these are easily accessible to local shops and that they have access to bus routes, so as to ensure that residents do not feel remote.

We have seen great changes in country life. Nearly 40 years ago I attended Moulton Agricultural College near Northampton. At that time some 65 students took the one-year general farming diploma course. Today only 12 students are on the equivalent course. Others cover specialised subjects such as animal welfare, countryside management, equine courses, horticulture and farm mechanisation, to name but a few. These changes are reflected on many of our farms today. Fewer people are employed. Diversity, contracting out and specialisms have taken over. Two of our neighbouring farmers in Leicestershire have diversified. One converted a former pig unit into stabling where people keep their own horses and a thriving centre has been established. The second has developed a farm centre to which the public come to see at first hand the animals in their natural environment and to learn about the countryside. Visits from schools are a regular feature. Rural businesses like these must be encouraged to develop, particularly at a time when the rural sector is under such financial pressure.

In a recent address to the Farmers' Club on 27th October the Minister's right honourable friend, Jack Cunningham, said, Our first objective will be in relation to the health and well being of people and the environment and that is our long term objective". I am sure we all welcome that statement. We must make sure that before large-scale development takes place existing houses, whether in town or country, are fully used. Shops and offices should be taken into consideration too. We look to see a balance between the protection of our countryside and provision for future needs.

Flexible approaches must be key in our future policies, with a balance between town and country. It is not a question of town versus country. There must be the opportunity to create new jobs and to encourage businesses to thrive while at the same time conserving our countryside for future generations. I thank the noble Lord for introducing this important debate today. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

5.21 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Town and Country Planning Association, although I realise that most of what I have to say derives more from my experience of chairing a London borough planning committee and a London-wide planning committee. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and my noble friend Lady Maddock, I welcome the balance intrinsic in the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, whom I also thank for introducing this important subject.

Like many speakers, I think it is quite essential that we avoid polarisation. I believe that it is possible to be pro-town and pro-country. This was a subject which could well have been debated heatedly before the general election. I suspect that there was something of a tacit agreement between the political parties that we—I include my own party in this—shied away from the issue. Perhaps it is one that is liable to create so much heat that it needs to be debated as far from political imperatives as possible. However, I have been interested to note that since the general election in May there have been many expressions of doubt about the housing projection figures and about structure plans on the part of those who supported them before the general election.

Before this debate I wondered whether we would be lobbied by those who support urban interests. I believe that many of your Lordships will have received briefs from those who lobby on behalf of the countryside. I do not mean to indicate that I reject their help; that is not the case at all. My noble friend Lord Beaumont said that perhaps there was more lobbying for the countryside because, historically, the countryside needed that. I believe that there are inner-city interests which need to be better represented than has been the case, although the passion shown by the noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton, on behalf of urban interests is probably equivalent to half-a-dozen pieces of briefing information.

The Minister's department of course covers both town and country. Is it correct that national parks may move from the responsibility of that department to MAFF? I have heard a rumour about that and I would not welcome that move. It is important that decisions about the location of housing, about development and about the protection of different parts of our land must command general support. There is concern about the information that underlies the projections and about the statistics. There is a lack of confidence in the projections. Despite my brutal comments about the previous government, I understand the points made by the noble Lord. Lord Howell.

I wonder whether it is possible to use information systems—which have developed so rapidly over the past few years—to give us something nearer to rolling projections and to give us much more up-to-date information. I understand that the most recent government land use statistics, which were published last autumn, covered the period from 1985 to 1992. That is not helpful. My noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley referred to land available for infilling in Leicester. In London the 1992 capacity study appears to have underestimated the amount of windfall land which would be available by a factor of four. In other words, there have been four times as many windfall sites available—that is, sites which were not anticipated as being available—as were expected. The planning system has failed to keep track and it is not serving us well. I hope that when we have a new authority in place in London it will be able to replicate some of the work undertaken by the GLC, because not everything that the GLC did was bad.

As has been said, trends change. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, referred to those of us who may be refugees from marriage. I have seen suggestions that those of my generation who left college and shared flats for a number of years will again share flats with our contemporaries when we are feisty old ladies. I remember having a conversation with a school friend about the commune we would create when we were elderly.

There is a lack of confidence not just in the figures but also in the planning system, which seems to run behind itself. I support a plan-led system, although I have great doubts about the presumption that implies in favour of development. However, the plan-led system needs to be more responsive than it has proved to be over the past few years. I have recently seen a planning brief about a site in Cambridgeshire which is currently a US airfield. The planning brief noted that such a site was likely to create employment opportunities. But the need now is for housing. This is in an area where unemployment is extremely low. The work that we are doing in local government and at a regional level is not moving sufficiently fast. We need targets and we need mechanisms. We need targets not just in terms of numbers but in terms of the kind of housing that is to be provided. A number of speakers have mentioned that.

I do not believe that the planning system can be a panacea. It cannot be a substitute for public investment, but it has an important role to play. We also need targets as regards the change of use of buildings. I wonder whether we yet have sufficient information about whether offices that are being converted into accommodation fulfil a housing need. Perhaps this is just a London matter, but I wonder whether the large office blocks in central London that are being converted into flats are simply providing second homes and are not meeting a real housing need. It is right that we have to look at maintenance. Otherwise we are storing up problems for the future. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, mentioned VAT. He suggested equalisation.

In referring to sustainability and what we mean by it, I congratulate the Minister on being the first Minister I have heard talk about the integration of land use and transport, a factor that many of us may have taken for granted but which has not been articulated by government. As regards the integration of land use, housing targets and social sustainability, I share concerns about town planning and the quality of towns. There are some horrible examples in the United States from which we might learn. Urban sprawl there has turned more or less into a series of concentric rings of electronically gated wealth and deprivation. In London we have been unable to balance the interests of the east, which suffers because of the muck blown by the winds across central London, with the economically overheated west.

Points about fiscal mechanisms—incentives for development on brownfield sites—balanced with taxes on greenfield sites are well made. The Treasury should contain itself long enough to look seriously at hypothecation. The imaginative ideas put forward today by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Macclesfield, and others should be pursued. The Treasury might well say to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that if Northolt is to be developed, it will have to go for the highest price, and that might not be to a housing developer. Let us send messages to the Treasury as well as to the Minister's department.

Before today's debate, it was said to me that one might welcome the day when there is a march for urban regeneration as well as a march for the countryside. I share part of that thought, but I go back to where I began. Let us seek as far as possible not to be confrontational. Let us work both for the countryside and the town. I am glad that that thought has underlain so much of what noble Lords have said today.

5.32 p.m.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, like many other speakers I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Marlesford for introducing the debate. It is timely to debate housing and the countryside. The topic, and particularly the countryside, has been in the forefront of many Englishmen's minds for many years. Talking to my noble friend before today's debate, I was interested to hear him say, "I want to refer to a book. You have probably never heard of it. It is England and the Octopus by Clough Williams-Ellis." The right reverend Prelate referred to it too. I replied, "I have heard of it." I bought a copy in a second-hand bookshop which the author had presented to Lewis Silkin whom he described as his mentor and, who answered many of the prayers of an Edwardian 'Angry Young Man' a generation ahead of Conservation Year 1970". Not only has there been concern in the past. There is legitimate anxiety about what the future holds for the countryside and in particular the green belt. It is right to bracket town and country together. Since classical times it has been recognised as an ideal that there is an essential harmony between town and country and that they should be complementary and not antagonistic. I see myself as a countryman who likes the town. I must, however, declare an interest. I am a farmer and landowner in Cumbria. Some of my land is within the Lake District. I have from time to time made land available for housing and may well do so again in the future. I have also been a member of the Lake District Planning Board and I am ex-president of the Friends of the Lake District.

The issue at the heart of the debate today—it has not been specifically articulated—is this. Is the development of brownfield sites a way of squaring the circle? Can we both promote the interests of the town and of the country through implementing the same policy? If we can, it is a prize worth gaining.

I wish to talk about the town. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside. The noble Lord, who is not here today, has made one of the themes of his life's work that towns should be exciting, rewarding and fulfilling places in which to live and work. That is not possible if towns are rundown and derelict, if upper floors of buildings are unused and left to decay, and if there is derelict land surrounding whatever activities are going on. Towns must have amenities. They must have the appropriate mix of uses and activities. That inevitably involves the development of brownfield land.

Equally, I believe that urban areas cannot simply be allowed to spread. One of the most important characteristics of the green belt is to act as a kind of corset about the built-up part of our country. Without some such constraint the pressures to develop the town will be reduced or even disappear.

The green belt was originally established to protect the countryside, not, I suspect, against large-scale development of the kind we have discussed today—much of that is a modern phenomenon—but to stop ribbon development, urban sprawl and the sporadic disfiguration of parts of Britain which were much loved by many people of different classes and conditions.

While we believe strongly in the green belt, it is wrong to say that one must never build on it. My noble kinsman Lord Hampden mentioned developments in a village which clearly contributed physically and economically to the community in an entirely beneficial way. We should also not muddle the green belt with greenfield sites. They are different. We must remember that on occasions green belt policies may lead to over-development in suburban areas, and possibly even to the leap-frogging of the wrong type of development out into the countryside, but I believe that the green belt policy has served the country and towns well.

Against that background, I return to the subject of brownfield sites. We must encourage the development of brownfield sites. When Members on this side of the House were in government we had targets which increased with regularity to ensure that more brownfield rather than greenfield sites were developed. In addition—I take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Macclesfield, and the noble Earl, Lord Radnor—we must make it attractive in real terms for people to develop the land. It is not a matter of terms relative to other forms of development. It must be made as attractive and cheap as possible.

Perhaps I may digress for a moment. One of the reasons that the Millennium Dome project looks so enormously expensive is that some 200 acres of completely poisoned land are having to be decontaminated. Most of it will not be used for the purposes of the dome. It is an important piece of inner city regeneration. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, we must make sure that the Treasury realises one simple home truth: it cannot have the money and the development. It has to be one or the other. Where do its priorities lie?

My noble friend Lord Howell and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred to the statistics on which our government's policy was based, and threw doubts on their validity. I shall be interested to hear the views of the Minister about the statistical basis of the current projections.

On another occasion in a different debate in this House, I said that one of the points of a general election was to get a new government. And when you get a new government you get new policies. The party opposite skilfully conducted its affairs to gain an emphatic success in the last election. I wish to give credit where credit is due. One of its successes was to make very considerable inroads into traditional Conservative areas.

The traditional antipathy and distrust often displayed towards the party opposite was set aside. I have to confess that there were many instances of some of my own party being its best allies in bringing about that situation but that is another matter. However, the confidence that existed in May last year has now evaporated. People are concerned and anxious about what the new Government are doing.

We have heard talk of the big new planning consents granted around Newcastle, in West Sussex and in Stevenage. One that has not been mentioned is Sutton Coldfield. What does that mean for the protection of the countryside? Does it mean that the green belt policy is dead? I am sure that the noble Baroness will explain. I do not doubt that the policies are still in place. But the reality is that when planning consents of this kind are granted the public cease to believe in the Government's commitment to preserving the countryside and to redeveloping brownfield sites in the inner cities.

We hear from the Government—I refer in particular to the article by the Deputy Prime Minister—that the planning system is to be modernised so that it becomes "less rigid", which I am sure is a good thing. It is also to become "more democratic". Who would wish to argue against that? And "more sustainable". Everyone must be entirely supportive of that, too. We are all in favour of such concepts.

But what do those terms actually mean? Can the noble Baroness tell the House precisely what a "less rigid, more democratic, more sustainable" planning system will look like? It throws doubt on the integrity of the arrangements that are in place now. I am not sure whether we are to see regional development agencies as part of that process, or whether they are part of a separate process that will run in parallel. However, when one looks to the Bill to see how and where they will operate, I confess that I am none the wiser. Are they to be big bodies with sharp teeth? Or will they be mere ciphers? What does it mean for people when they are considering these types of issues in their localities the length and breadth of the country?

We have had a very good debate. However, we want clear answers to three serious questions. The first is: are the Government serious about promoting development on brownfield sites? Secondly, are the Government seriously committed to the green belt? And thirdly, are the Government committed to a future planning system which is less rigid, more democratic and more sustainable? Will it be a planning system that can deliver to the people of this country?

Against that background it is not merely a question of fine words from the department. What we all want to see are the actions on the ground representing the physical manifestation of the policies that the Government ostensibly espouse.

5.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on securing this debate, and on provoking a debate that has been better-tempered than its recent parallel in another place. In many ways our discussion has been more considered. It has recognised some of the complexities and issues with which we are dealing, and which, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, pointed out, are not straightforward. There has been recognition that it is unrealistic and does none of us any service to pretend that these are simple matters of town against country, or simple matters in which party political point scoring or creating false conflicts will be the way forward.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that in that spirit I shall resist going into the record of the previous government in relation to brownfield development. However, I cannot refrain from pointing out the effects of their policies in regard to out-of-town shopping developments in particular, which have had a profound impact on many of the areas of concern that were highlighted in today's debate.

The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that the Government should be judged on their actions and policies. All I ask is for a longer period than nine months to be taken into consideration, and for us to be able to answer some of the questions at slightly greater length and when the House and the country have had more opportunity to see the results of policies in action.

In that sense, my only quarrel with the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, relates to the timing of this debate. We have made clear that we shall be making a statement very soon, particularly on the issue of household growth. I cannot anticipate that statement: therefore it would be difficult to answer some of the specific points raised during the debate, though I will do my best to do so. I hope that I shall be able to persuade noble Lords that we are moving forward with positive measures to promote urban regeneration, to meet future housing needs and to protect the countryside—and to take those three strands forward together and balance them against each other rather than to see them as "either/or" matters; if we do that, we will not serve the needs of the whole community. I welcome the emphasis on community and communities in the remarks of many noble Lords who contributed to the debate.

I was interested to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford point out that in many ways the most effective measure to protect our countryside is the regeneration of our urban areas. There is an inter-relationship. I was disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, was slightly dismissive in his aside about the Millennium Dome. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, made a very relevant point. The noble Lord took up the difficulties referred to by my noble friend Lord Thomas of dealing with contaminated land and the cost of reclaiming such land. I was disappointed because the millennium project is not merely about the dome. On the site of the Millennium Village there was once a gasworks which left behind a legacy of seriously contaminated land. That land has been cleaned up and is to be developed as a model of exactly the type of sustainable community development on a brownfield site that many speakers have said is needed. They mentioned the need for the integration of housing, employment and transport and the need to produce sustainable answers. Good design and mixed use—the sort of urban renaissance that will be of value not only to those who dwell in cities and towns but also to those who value the countryside—is tremendously important.

But when we talk of regenerating towns and cities it is not simply a matter of making physical improvements. Fundamentally, it is a question of making them better places to live and of taking action on a whole range of policies to improve the quality of life of local people and break into the vicious circle of urban deprivation to which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred.

In that context, I hardly need remind the House of the emphasis that the Government are giving to education. We are providing the environment and incentives for the creation of more jobs. We are taking measures to tackle crime—not least the proposals currently being debated in this House in relation to the Crime and Disorder Bill. That approach will produce the quality of environment in our cities that will make them attractive places in which to live. We have to offer people choice—real choice—in these areas.

Any strategy for improving these areas must tackle the issue of poor housing. Our capital receipts initiative will release nearly £800 million of additional resources over two years to support housing and housing-related regeneration schemes, the majority being devoted to social housing. The issue of affordable social housing has come up again and again in today's debate.

There has also been mention of transport. Safe, efficient and affordable public transport, with measures to reduce reliance on the private car, is vital to improving the functioning and environmental quality of our urban areas particularly. Improving our transport systems by making them more sustainable and better integrated will also help make our towns and cities more attractive places to live. Transport is a key factor influencing the location of any new development, particularly housing. I shall fulfil the expectations of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and say that that is why it is important to have greater integration of land-use planning with transport policy. I hope that the House will see in our Integrated Transport White Paper, to be published in the spring, policies for bringing that forward.

The need for regeneration is not confined to our urban areas. That point was made during the course of the debate. Many rural communities have been affected by the great changes that have occurred in agriculture and by the rundown of traditional industries.

The Government, like everyone in this House, want to see a living countryside, not a rustic museum. We want to protect the countryside, especially the outstanding landscapes and wildlife sites. But people matter too in the countryside and need homes and jobs as well as beautiful surroundings. A healthy rural economy will, in turn, help to support exactly the conservation that we all wish to see and to combat social exclusion and poverty. Those are issues to which the noble Lord, Lord Wade, referred.

The regional development agencies will have an important role to play in this, addressing local needs and priorities, bringing a regional dimension to the support for local business, the small businesses that, as was pointed out, are so important in the rural economy and help to increase employment opportunities.

Much of the debate has inevitably focused on the question of how much new housing is needed, and where it should or should not be placed. As I said when I started my contribution, the Deputy Prime Minister will be making a statement in the next few weeks setting out the Government's proposals for addressing household growth in the light of responses to the previous administration's Green Paper on the subject. I am afraid that we shall all have to be patient for a little longer on some of the key questions that have been raised in today's debate.

It has been fascinating to hear the different contributions involving figures. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, understated the position beautifully when he said that there was a difference of view. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, rubbished the figures completely. It is not as easy as saying that the issue of household growth and the projections for household growth are simply the figment of some fevered imagination of a civil servant in Marsham Street. Household growth projections in the past have turned out to be underestimates rather than overestimates. The population is still growing. Young people want to set up homes on their own. The elderly want to go on living independently in their homes. The commune proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, may look an attractive proposition but some of the huge institutions for the elderly were not attractive and independent living is not something we should turn our backs on. It means that there will still be a demand for new housing which a responsible government cannot simply ignore. However, I recognise the complex social factors pointed out by my noble friends which affect household formation. We must obviously take that into account.

While in no way underestimating the importance of protecting the countryside, we must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of letting the debate become one-sided. We know that damage to the countryside can be caused by new housing, particularly where it is not sensitive to locally generated needs in places with already established housing and communities.

We must not neglect to consider the effects of building insufficient homes or of local authorities not providing for the housing allocations that are needed. The effect could be to drive up house prices, making housing less affordable, and to force many households to share or to give up their aspirations to the kind of housing that many of us take for granted. The less well off may not always have had so loud a voice in these debates, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. But a government like ours, committed to combating social exclusion, cannot and will not ignore their interests. That is why I come back to what I think has been the theme of the debate, that we must have a balance.

On the general question of how to accommodate household growth nationally, I was fascinated by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton. He pointed out that it is possible to exaggerate the scale of the challenge. The annual rate of house building over the next two decades that would be needed to meet the current projections of household growth in full would be some 175,000 a year. That is much lower than the average rates in the four decades from 1950 to 1990, which peaked at 300,000 a year in the 1960s. I remember Harold Macmillan promising half a million homes a year and it being seen as a great social policy. Perhaps it was 300,000; I did not think he managed the half million, but we could go back to the archives.

It is important that we should look carefully at the predictions but that we do not write them off completely. The investigation that the environment committee in another place is currently carrying out into household growth projections will be useful.

We need to remember that 89.6 per cent. of England is rural. Urban areas—and that does not just mean cities but includes our larger villages and both small and large towns—cover only 10.4 per cent. of England. Even if the household growth projections were met in full, on current patterns of development that would reduce the area of England that is rural by only 1.3 per cent. But the key point on which much of the debate tonight has focused is that if local authorities could improve their use of brownfield sites the reduction would be much smaller.

It is important to recognise that some of the pressure for household growth is in rural areas. People want to find homes and jobs locally, rather than having to move to towns and cities. A crude bar on development in the countryside would do more harm than good to the interests of those who live there.

We have also heard a great deal of concern today about the green belt. As has been pointed out, the countryside beyond the green belt—which is the majority—is also vulnerable to development pressures. Development in the open countryside is already strictly controlled, especially in statutorily designated areas. The problem of leap-frogging is not so much about protecting the countryside as finding the most sustainable location for new developments. The reality which has been recognised by some of the contributions today is that in some cases a green belt location may offer the most sustainable solution. That, I believe, is the case with the county council's plans in Hertfordshire.

I was asked about the Government's policy on the green belt. We believe that it is a valuable and long-standing tool of planning policy to which we are committed. Like any tool, green belts are designed with particular purposes in mind, chief of which is to prevent urban sprawl. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, we are concerned to protect the countryside as a whole. We do not intend to become obsessed merely with the narrow issue of the present boundaries of existing green belt. We must look at the objectives behind it.

It has always been open to local authorities exceptionally to adjust green belt boundaries. Any proposals for change must be the subject of full public consultation. My own department would need to be satisfied that all alternatives within the urban areas contained by or beyond the green belt had been fully considered. That is how we have approached all cases which have arisen since we came to office, and that is how we propose to continue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about responsibility for national parks. At the moment, that rests with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The comprehensive spending review of countryside and rural policy is examining all aspects of the objectives and delivery mechanisms of the policies on the countryside, including institutional arrangements. The review is ongoing and I cannot say anything more definite before it is concluded in the spring. However, I note what the noble Baroness said. and some of the reactions to her remarks in the House.

Perhaps I can deal also with the issue raised by the noble Earls, Lord Clanwilliam and Lord Radnor, concerning the development of supermarkets, which have played a key role in some areas. We made clear our commitment to the policies in Planning Policy Guidance Note 6 of focusing retail development in existing town centres wherever possible and to applying the sequential test so as to explore neighbourhood centres and edge-of-centre locations before considering out-of-town locations. The number of approvals for out-of-town shopping centres dropped dramatically since PPG 6 was introduced. But, as in all planning matters, the effects take a long time to filter through.

In today's debate there has been a broad consensus that we should make the best possible use of brownfield—or previously developed—sites. There are certain things which we, as a government, can do to help councils and builders in that respect. In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, former MoD sites clearly offer good opportunities for redevelopment, including housing. However, planning authorities must take into account other uses, such as employment, as well as the issues of sustainability and accessibility—points raised by the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I can assure the noble Lord that the MoD and DETR co-operate closely on policies of disposal of redundant MoD sites. However, I do not believe Northolt has been declared a redundant site.

We must encourage local authorities to be more imaginative in using brownfield sites. But I do not believe that putting new housing on every urban site is the answer. There may be occasions when that is not the most sustainable solution, and I return again and again to the central issue of sustainability—the links with public transport, for example, are particularly important.

We should not be looking to put housing or other building developments on every urban brownfield site. The quality of urban areas may be improved by "urban greening"—making use of spaces between buildings as well as open spaces in towns and cities. That point was picked up by my noble friend Lord Thomas of Macclesfield. That should be an integral part of any development or regeneration project in order to avoid the dangers of urban cramming.

The noble Baroness. Lady Hamwee, raised the issue of what we know about brownfield sites and how up-to-date our information is. We are proposing to put in hand studies and research which will, within the next year or so, give us a much better picture of the opportunities for brownfield development. We also want to look at and open up discussion on whether economic instruments can play a part in that. I was interested in the comments of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Macclesfield and many other noble Lords who referred to economic instruments, some of them more imaginative than others. And I would disappoint the House if I did not say the usual mantra that we listen carefully, but at the end of the day taxation policy is a matter for the Chancellor. However, I took on board the issues concerning recycling the money as well as the land that were included in the question of hypothecation.

I know that I am overrunning my time and perhaps I can write to one or two noble Lords who raised specific questions—my noble friend Lord Cocks. for instance.

It has been a most interesting and constructive debate. I am pleased that discussion moved away from the frankly empty posturing we have witnessed in recent months, and the trading of figures and targets without regard for actual achievement against such targets. I have tried to give a flavour of the positive measures this Government are taking to regenerate our towns and cities and to improve the quality of life for those living in urban and rural areas alike. The challenge we face in dealing with household growth is considerable: it will call for good judgment and hard decisions and this Government will not shy away from those decisions. There is an enormous opportunity before us to reshape our towns and cities by encouraging new development which is sustainable while protecting the countryside.

6.6 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate for their many and diverse views. Like all good debates, many of the views conflicted. I particularly thank the Minister for such a helpful wind-up. In answer to the question as to timing, I hope that the debate may be an input for the Government in producing their policies in a few weeks' time. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.