HL Deb 30 November 1999 vol 607 cc718-21

2.58 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harryasked Her Majesty's Government:

How they reconcile their intention to build many more residential homes in south east England with the relative absence of brownfield sites and the creation of new national parks in the area.

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

My Lords, the Government will consider carefully the recommendations of the independent panel into the draft regional planning guidance for the south east, particularly the recommendations on the numbers of additional dwellings needed between 1996 and 2016 and the proportion which should be built on previously developed land. We will consider the recommendations and all the representations made on the draft RPG before consulting widely in the new year. The Government are introducing new planning policies and will shortly publish revised planning guidance on planning for housing. The proposed designation of the new national parks will have little effect on the total capacity of the region to accommodate new residential development.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I remind noble Lords of my interest as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. I thank the noble Lord for that reply. But is it not a fact that the Government seek to reconcile the irreconcilable? When will they decide that perhaps they should stop encouraging business and people to migrate to south east England? Has the Minister read the recent report of the South-East England Economic Development Agency that wishes to see the south east develop as one of the economic hot spots of the world? That is all very well. However, is not the end result likely to be too many houses, too many cars, even too many jobs, in the south east at the expense and impoverishment of other regions of Britain?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we believe that the total position of the south east needs to be assessed in terms of economic development, housing and transport. That is why this is a very difficult problem. We have to consider different estimates of housing need in the region. Various projections, some of which end up with different numbers, all indicate an increase in both population and inward migration to the south east. Most of the inward migration is not from the north of England, as alleged, but from London itself. The rest of the increased demand for dwellings in the south east arises from internal issues such as population growth and changes in household formation.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, in the light of the acute water shortages suffered in the south east during the long hot summers of the past few years, can the Minister say how the Government intend to supply water to an extra 1 million homes, especially as the aquifers are so low?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I understand that the appropriate water companies are taking measures to address that question. Clearly, natural resources as well as housing and road-building are very much part of a holistic approach to the future of the south east region, its position in relation to the rest of the country and the question of where development is most appropriate.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, in view of the fact that the issue is the proportion of brownfield sites to greenfield sites, can the Minister inform the House what success he and his officials have had in persuading councils and planning authorities to be more positive, even militant, in ensuring that a greater proportion of development in their areas takes place on brownfield rather than greenfield sites?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend will be familiar with the fact that the Government have a national target of 60 per cent of all new developments taking place on brownfield sites. We believe that within the south east, as in other regions, there is scope for a more substantial concentration of these developments on brownfield sites. It is the case that the south east has the lowest density of housing provision. There are also issues about density of provision, particularly the new provisions required within the urban areas of the south east.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, in view of the large number of houses in serious disrepair, as revealed by the latest house condition survey, does the Minister agree that high priority should be given to the repair of houses to meet future housing need and to make housing conditions better for people who presently inhabit those dwellings? Will the Minister try to persuade his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to alter the VAT rules which at the moment encourage new house building and deter people from improving existing houses?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I note the noble Lord's latter point, and no doubt I can relay it to the Chancellor. As to the state of repair of the housing stock within the south east, the noble Lord is right. We have provided substantial additional resources to local authorities and others in both the public and private social housing sectors to improve the state of household repair where there are existing inhabitants. The number of vacancies within the south east is very limited and will make only a small contribution to meet the total of new housing demand.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, when the Minister looks at the new policy will he also consider a point that I have raised with him in earlier debate; namely, that in the 40 per cent of greenfield sites to be used it is perhaps wise to use up small in-fill sites where the services and infrastructure already exist rather than take virgin fields?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in general the noble Baroness is correct. Guidance on development that takes place on greenfield sites needs to be geared to services and transport and water infrastructure, as the noble Countess just reminded us. Therefore, in general terms, although not in every case, the noble Baroness is right.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, do the Government acknowledge that this is not just a matter of numbers but whether the housing is affordable?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, yes. One of the problems of housing in the south east is that as a result of pressures prices are now beyond the reach of many people on average and below average incomes. That has a further distorting effect, and it is one of the aspects we must address. It is related to my earlier point about density of housing.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that this residential development will be in areas where there is work? If not, the amount of traffic engendered will considerably increase congestion on the roads in the south east.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is important that all these matters are taken together. Industrial and commercial development needs to be considered together with transport and housing development, thereby minimising the degree of pressure on transport infrastructure as well as housing.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in many areas of the south east, particularly the Thames Valley, there is so much demand for every service at the present time that life is becoming a positive hell and traffic management utterly impossible? Do the Government not understand that to imply and give planning permission for even more housing will only encourage development in the south east, which will cause further problems? That development should be located in other regions of the country where jobs and housing are badly needed. Will the Government do something centrally to enable this decantation of population and jobs to take place?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that lying behind my noble friend's question is the importance of recognising the pressure on resources in the south east. Development of regional policy in other parts of the country should be seen to complement whatever we do to relieve pressure in the south east. It is, however, possible to envisage a benign scenario for the south east where prosperity is still engendered, as the regional development agency wants, without adding to pressures in an unsustainable way. A more positive and rational approach to planning in the south-east region can be achieved through consensus among local authorities and businesses without the rather dire predictions suggested by my noble friend.