§ 3.21 p.m.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:
"Last July I made a Statement to the House about the Government's plans for a step change in our policies for building sustainable communities. Today, I am publishing Sustainable Communities: Building.for the Future, a comprehensive programme of action to take these policies forward. Copies are in the Library.
"The future of our communities matters to all of us in this House and I would like to record my appreciation to the ODPM Select Committee for the work it has undertaken on these issues, including its recent report on affordable housing.
"Much of the communities plan is properly about housing. But sustainable communities need more than just housing. They need a strong economy, jobs, good schools and hospitals, good public transport, a safe and healthy local environment, better design, more sustainable construction, better use of land and much more.
"The plan is part of the Government's programme to deliver better public services, strengthen economic performance, and improve our quality of life. The history of housing over the past 30 years shows that all governments have failed to meet housing need; all governments have failed to provide sufficient long-term investment; all governments have failed to deliver enough affordable housing, and all governments have ignored the mistakes of the past—when we built housing estates, not communities. Not only did we under-invest in our housing, we used land wastefully, and too much of what was built was of poor quality and poorly designed.
"In 1970, we were building nearly 300,000 homes a year. Today, it is half that. but demand has increased. The result is a legacy of spiralling house prices, rising land values and a shortage of affordable homes.
"In London and the South East more and more young people and key workers cannot afford to live where they want. They are being priced out of their communities. In other parts of the country—in the North and Midlands—the housing market has collapsed and thousands of homes face demolition.
209 "While private house building declined over the past 30 years so did the condition of local authority housing. By 1997, the repairs backlog on local authority housing was a record £19 billion. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, not enough was done. The problem just got worse.
"As more people moved into home ownership— many of them through the right to buy—local authority housing continued to decline. The 1.5 million right to buy sales since 1980 cost the public purse a massive £40 billion. And despite £29 billion in actual receipts, not nearly enough was invested in improving the housing stock.
"Local authorities were denied the money they needed to repair the homes of their tenants. Instead, capital receipts from right to buy were used to pay off the national debt.
"That is the legacy we inherited—fewer homes being built and the condition of the stock getting worse by the year.
"We decided the over-riding priority was to halt the decline. That is why we released £5 billion worth of capital receipts for housing refurbishment, why we established the major repairs allowance which released another £1.5 billion a year, and why we committed ourselves to make all social housing decent by 2010. And we are on track to do that, with over half a million homes already improved.
"So our first priority was to deal with the £19 billion backlog across the country. Now we must tackle the fundamental problems of high demand in the South and the collapse of housing demand in some of our most deprived communities.
"I shall deal first with the action we propose to tackle housing market collapse. I am talking about communities where properties have become almost worthless, where people on low incomes have become trapped in negative equity. In the worst cases, whole streets have been abandoned. In these places, there is no shortage of housing, but there is no sustainable community.
"Low demand requires a new approach, to recreate places where people want to live—not leave. This means not just tackling housing, but, where we can, rebuilding sustainable communities.
"We are already investing £5 billion over the next three years to help regenerate these areas, and we have set up partnerships in nine of the worst low-demand areas. And today I am announcing a new fund of £500 million to help those partnerships over the next three years.
"In some areas, the only option will be to demolish homes that are obsolete. We will make this easier for residents. Homeowners already get back the value of their home and the costs of moving. We now propose to increase compensation for the disturbance of moving home by over £1,000—the first increase since 1991. We also propose to prevent the automatic renewal of planning consents, which will reduce development on greenfield sites in low-demand areas.
210 "The issues in high-demand areas are different. Rising house prices and shortages of affordable homes, especially in London and the South East, are having a damaging impact on public services and the country's economic performance. We need a step change in housing supply, reversing the trend of the past 30 years.
"Two years ago, after extensive consultation, we said in RPG 9 that local authorities should provide for new homes at a rate of 62,000 each year in London and the wider South East. We put in place a plan, monitor and manage approach to planning, moving away from the failed predict and provide approach of the past. We said that if we used more brownfield land at a higher density, we could build more homes on the same amount of land.
"We are meeting our 60 per cent brownfield target and will continue to do so. We are also taking steps to push up density of build in the South East.
"These changes, together with the £350 million extra resources we are putting into improving planning and design, will increase the supply of new housing on brownfield land and the quality of what we build and where we build.
"Good planning means the right communities with the right homes and jobs in the right place. I emphasise "right place", because I want to make it absolutely clear that this is not homes everywhere and anywhere. This is homes in sustainable communities to meet the shortfall in supply—not suburban sprawl, not soulless estates, not dormitory towns.
"I recognise and share the genuine concern about our countryside. I remind the House that it was a Labour government who introduced the green belt. And it was this Labour Government who have provided access to the countryside and proposed the first new national park in the South Downs—which is being opposed by many Members opposite. And it was this Government who added an extra 30,000 hectares of green belt land—an area the size of the Norfolk Broads National Park.
"Now we are going further. Today I am giving a guarantee to maintain or increase green belt land in every region of England. We are creating a new body, the land restoration trust, to turn 1,500 hectares of derelict land in our towns and cities into new urban green spaces.
"We will provide resources for English Partnerships and the regional development agencies to reclaim over 1,400 hectares of brownfield land each year—an area the size of a typical town.
"In July, I announced four priority growth areas to help meet the shortfall in housing supply in the South East. Each of these offers an exciting opportunity for new design-led sustainable communities, such as the Greenwich Millennium Village and each maximises the use of brownfield land—accommodating growth in a sustainable way, with jobs, housing and regeneration going together. The Thames Gateway alone is the largest brownfield site in Europe. Plans for its development have been on the table for years.
211 "We must now turn these plans into action. So today, I am announcing new seed corn investment of £446 million. This will attract extra private investment. With our partners we will set up new local development agencies in east London and Thurrock, which will increase the pace of development
"We are also investing £164 million over the next three years in the other three growth areas: Milton Keynes-South Midlands; London-Stansted-Cambridge; and Ashford. The four growth areas, with London, have the potential to deliver 300,000 more jobs and an extra 200,000 homes over the next 15 to 20 years. We must take that opportunity.
"All parts of the country need affordable housing, both for rent and for purchase. We are making £5 billion of our housing investment money available for more affordable housing over the next three years. This includes at least £1 billion more for key worker housing—trebling the current rate of investment. And it includes extra resources for affordable homes built using fast-track, modern methods of building and design.
"We will also tackle the problem of empty homes. In London and the South East, 70,000 privately owned homes have been empty for over 6 months. This is not acceptable. The House will be aware that local authorities can lease empty properties on a voluntary basis. It is our intention that councils should be able to bring empty properties back into use through compulsory leasing, as recommended by the Select Committee. I also intend to allow local authorities to end council tax discounts on empty homes.
"Many rural areas also suffer from acute shortages of affordable housing. So we are increasing the number of affordable homes built in small rural communities. And we have changed the regulations to make it easier to keep homes bought under the right to buy for local people.
"The Government are committed to home ownership, which has increased by 1 million since 1997. But we also want to protect the social housing stock. The right to buy is one way to help people into home ownership. But there are others that do not involve the loss of a social home. I believe we could make better use of these schemes.
"That is why today I am asking the Housing Corporation to lead a new home ownership taskforce to advise on ways of helping more tenants into home ownership, using the whole range of existing ownership schemes, without reducing the amount of social housing.
"Sustainable communities need a safe and attractive local environment. We have already given local authorities an extra £1 billion in the local government funding settlement to improve the local environment and cultural services.
"I am now backing that up with more funding. Over the next three years we will give: £50 million for neighbourhood wardens to help people feel safer; £41 million to drive up the quality of skills and 212 urban design; £70 million for community-led programmes to improve neighbourhoods; and £89 million to help local authorities to transform the quality of their parks and public spaces.
"All this will be supported by the proposals we will bring forward in our forthcoming anti-social behaviour White Paper and Bill, tackling issues that undermine our communities.
"The most basic requirement of a sustainable community is a decent home. That is why we are making sure that tenants will be involved right from the start in decisions about how their homes are improved. It is why we are investing £2.8 billion over the next three years to improve council housing. It is why we are making the private finance initiative easier to use and providing £685 million of new PFI credits to refurbish local authority homes. It is why we are providing an extra £60 million to improve conditions in private housing. And it is why we are providing £260 million to tackle the problem of temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
"We also want to improve conditions for people in privately owned homes, especially older people and those on low incomes. As the House has often said, there are inadequate powers to tackle bad private landlords, who are making life a misery for too many of our people. I will publish draft legislation to license all houses in multiple occupation and introduce a selective licensing scheme to tackle bad landlords in low demand areas. In advance of legislation we are funding new pilot schemes to target bad landlords.
"The step change I have described requires a different approach, linking housing with regeneration, growth, transport, public services and good design. It also requires major reforms of our system of housing finance. We must move away from the top-down approach of the past and decentralise our policies and programmes so we can deliver regional solutions to regional problems.
"I am pleased to tell the House that for the first time we are publishing nine regional daughter documents that set out what this action plan means for all our regions.
"As I said in July, we will move towards pooling housing spend in regional pots. Housing strategies will now be drawn up at regional level by new regional housing boards involving key partners. English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation will also work together at the regional and national level, so that finding the land is directly linked with providing the housing.
"This is a comprehensive programme of action for sustainable communities that I hope will command support across this House. It is backed with substantial resources—£22 billion, which is a 40 per cent increase over three years and more than double the plans we inherited. That is a step change in resources by anybody's standards, but it is just a start. This is an enormous challenge for all of us. It is about people and the places where they live. It is about raising the quality of life. It is about working 213 in partnership. It is about taking a different approach. It is about creating sustainable communities. I commend this to the House".
§ My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ 3.36 p.m.
§ Baroness Hanham
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the extremely long Statement. I ask the House's indulgence if I go slightly over the normal amount of time in an effort to respond to some of the points. It is a very important Statement, as the Minister said. It is a diagnosis of a now well-known situation. The pity is that the Statement was well leaked before today, so this is not the first opportunity anybody has had to think about the items in it.
Good housing and a decent home are a sine qua non for leading a reasonable life. I believe that everybody in the House accepts that. However, since this Government came to power, there has been a substantial reduction in the amount of affordable housing being built and the amount of money available to local authorities to do that. The Government's enthusiasm for home ownership— reiterated in the Statement—has been dented by their attitude to the right to buy, which, to all intents and purposes, they have railroaded into abandonment by reducing the discount from £38,000 to £16,000.
The Deputy Prime Minister rightly rails against the loss of communities and acceptable standards of housing in the North of this country. If there had been a little more enthusiasm there for encouraging home ownership as well as an earlier interest in improving the environment and the property, the situation might not now be so dire.
From what is being said, it looks as though many areas of such housing will now be jettisoned. However, many factors—such as loss of jobs, poor economic prospects and lack of industrial and commercial development—have exacerbated the situation. It would be helpful if the Minister would say whether the partnerships of which he spoke will address those particular difficulties in areas where he says that houses are to be demolished. What is to be put in their place? How is it to be done? How are the commercial and economic aspects to be addressed?
The area of immediate interest in the proposals is the development of extensive areas of housing in the South East in particular. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that at least 60 per cent of this vast new development will continue to be on brownfield land. I acknowledge immediately that the Thames Gateway is almost entirely brownfield. However, he neglects to say whether that percentage is sufficiently sustainable to fulfil the ambition in other areas where there is to be an extension of existing housing, such as Milton Keynes and Ashford. I say that because I am advised that, within the proposed London/Stansted/ Cambridge area, it will be impossible to fulfil the 60 per cent brownfield requirement as there is no brownfield land. Will the Minister therefore give the 214 House some indication of how that is to be carried out? I also remind the House that that is a part of the country where a new airport is proposed.
I am bound to say that there is enormous concern about continuing development on the green belt. I am sure that the Minister will have seen the comments of the Council for the Protection of Rural England on the amount of land that could be subsumed under these plans. It is estimated that land amounting to the size of several major cities could be lost. If that is correct and large swathes of land are concreted over, it will matter not one jot when the Government point out that they created the green belt.
The Statement also extols the virtues of communities and recounts the problems of those wishing to work in the South East, particularly key workers who cannot find housing. However, it omits to tell us how the Government foresee communities being formed in vast areas of new housing even if all the infrastructure is in place. I can tell the Minister from experience that it is a very difficult proposition to place together a vast number of people who do not know each other and have no connection with each other and expect them to live in harmony and form a sustainable community. What will be done to help with that task? Who will have responsibility for seeking those who wish to live in these new areas, particularly those entitled to social housing? How will the serious consequences of social alienation be prevented? It is instructive that—despite all this new housing and accompanying social problems and the need to build sustainable communities—the Statement contains not one word about local government.
I particularly want to ask the Minister about the empty homes initiative and compulsory leasing by local authorities. The possibilities boggle the mind. Thousands of homes, particularly in London, are owned by companies or those resident or living abroad who must be perfectly entitled to keep their property empty if they so wish. The homes have all been bought privately and are owned privately. Do the Government intend to give local authorities powers to lease them compulsorily? On what basis can such action be justified? Will it depend on whether the premises are furnished? How is an assessment to be made of whether they are abandoned or just temporarily idle? There are, of course, empty homes within the statutory sector, but they would not require compulsory leasing; it is for local authorities to ensure that they are properly let. Even if the Statement explains nothing else—Statements sometimes fail to explain—I should be very grateful if the Minister would explain that matter.
Time prevents a more detailed look at this extremely important document. The Statement barely covers all of the points, although we have been promised nine supplementary documents to cover them. I note that most of the strategy relies on regional housing boards—yet another of the regional bodies that will ride roughshod over local authorities. How many of the proposals require primary legislation? How many of these matters will come back to the House for proper debate? If the proposals require legislation, will 215 they be included in the numerous Bills that we will consider. but most of which have started in another place?
§ 3.44 p.m.
§ Baroness Maddock
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement from another place on sustainable communities. Most noble Lords will disagree with very little in the opening sections, which outline the Government's vision and give a very good description of past failures and the sums that the Government are talking about investing in affordable housing. My first question, therefore, is how much of that sum can the Minister guarantee will be new money?
The Statement raises other questions, particularly on deliverability and sustainability. In the lifetime of this Government, there have been White Papers, Green Papers, task forces, Statements, strategies and reviews covering the many areas that will help deliver sustainable communities. How can we be sure that this is not just another Statement and another booklet and that the actual implementation will not be far too slow?
I turn first to the concentration on the South East. I agree that there is an urgent need to tackle the real problem of the lack of affordable housing in an overheating economy. However, what are the Government doing to "warm up" the economies of the other regions? I am acquainted particularly with the problems of the North East. The South East is set to receive eight times the cash that the five northern regions will receive. How will that help this overheated economy to cool down? Unless we are serious about helping some of the other regions, is there not a danger of reinforcing the overheating and the North-South divide?
Secondly, we welcome the recognition that infrastructure—schools, hospitals and transport— must come before the new homes and not after them. However, can the Minister tell us what step changes will ensure a reversal of a story that has been quite the opposite over many years of development in this country? Perhaps that is in the document, which I regret I have not yet had time to read. What I have picked up is that, in the important area of the Thames Gateway, the Government appear to have reneged on their support for the CrossRail development which is key to enabling people living in the Thames Gateway to reach the jobs to the west of London.
Thirdly, how can we be assured that brownfield development can continue and empty homes can be refurbished and brought back into use at the rate that the Government hope? The Government have not even tackled the old problem of equalising VAT between new build and refurbishments. Doing that really would be a step change.
We welcome the prospect of local authorities being able compulsorily to lease genuinely empty homes. However, how does the Minister square that proposal with the fact that, although local authorities will be 216 able to change the council tax regime and receive more money from empty homes, it does not appear that they will be able to benefit from that revenue?
I turn to sustainability, and first to environmental sustainability. Can the Minister tell us what mechanisms the Government will put in place to ensure higher standards of energy efficiency and alternative energy use in these new buildings? What steps will they take to integrate sustainable urban drainage systems? If nothing changes in all these new homes, we will create enormous demands for water and enormous drainage problems in these areas. Has the Minister seen that, despite the fact that the Government have put in place regulations stating that new homes should display their energy efficiency details in a prominent place, few builders are complying and sales staff on sites are very badly informed about that type of information? There appears to have been no step change there.
As for economic sustainability. how can we all benefit from the proposed developments? Some see this as a bonanza for developers, especially those who already have land which will increase in value. Should not the Government use future land values to raise finance for public investment by acquiring land for public purposes, rather than simply enabling local landowners to become what some are describing as "instant millionaires". People are genuinely worried about that.
As the Minister said in another place. we have completed far fewer homes than at any time in the past 77 years. Many people believe that that is because developers currently make more money by developing the land banks they already have. As I think has already been pointed out, that is particularly important in terms of money for social housing. Although the Government have doubled spending on social housing since they came to power, most of it has been swallowed up by increasing house prices.
Finally, how sustainable are these proposals if they are to be quango led rather than community led? I do not understand why the Government are so focused on the undemocratic Conservative model of urban corporations which the Deputy Prime Minister himself opposed when he was in opposition. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that this vision is sustainable and deliverable and that it really will be a step change.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, I welcome the welcomes given to the Statement, variable in extent as they often are in your Lordships' House. But I am grateful for them nevertheless. I appreciate that they were genuine.
Many important questions were rightly asked. The Statement is important and significant. It is probably one of the most significant statements relating to housing and sustainable development that this Government, or any government, have had the opportunity—perhaps even the privilege—to make.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, asked a number of important questions. She mentioned leaks. We are not responsible for leaks. People speculate 217 about the contents of a Statement. She questioned our approach to home ownership and right to buy. I make it plain from the outset that we continue to support right to buy. We have sought to iron out the wrinkles that have led to some abuse. We are committed, and continue to be committed, to ensuring the widest possible opportunities for home ownership. The Statement makes clear that we shall set up a home ownership task force to consider ways in which we can extend home ownership other than through the mechanism of right to buy. Although right to buy has been successful, it has absorbed a massive public resource—some £40 billion, as I said.
We are deeply committed to partnership. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, questioned our commitment to local authorities. I do not share her interpretation of the Statement. We believe that local authorities are absolutely central to the plan. That becomes clear when one studies the plan. I am aware that noble Lords will not have had the opportunity to study the details of the plan. A Local Government Bill currently proceeding through Parliament contains measures to ensure that decisions on these issues are taken locally, that bureaucracy is reduced and that there will be a much greater focus on improving people's quality of life. For example, the legislation will enable councils to fund major improvements through borrowing without government consent under a new prudential borrowing system and will enable councils and businesses to work together much better to solve local problems. Those provisions will make a significant difference.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, asked how much legislation would be needed. We are taking steps to enable a legislative programme to be put in place to allow key partners, especially local authorities, to deliver the action programme effectively. The report states on page 58:We have three major Bills already in Parliament and will be publishing a fourth shortly".All of those Bills relate to the role of local authorities. They will have a major and important role to play, as they have in the past.
I do not take overly kindly to criticism of our programme from the Benches opposite. The Conservative government made a major contribution to the present housing situation and our ability to develop sustainable communities. As a former chair of a housing committee and leader of a council I recall the year-on-year cutback in funding to invest in social housing, carry out repairs, cut the backlog, put new investment in place and deal with many of the problems that arise in the private sector. It is worth repeating that we inherited a £19 billion backlog of repairs in the affordable housing sector. Since 1997 we have taken steps to put that right. We are on target to achieve many of our objectives in that regard.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Hanham and Lady Maddock, mentioned green belt land and the need to ensure that we made best use of brownfield sites. We have stuck to our promise to ensure that development is focused on brownfield sites. We set a target of 60 per 218 cent in that regard. We have stuck to that target and we are on course to attain it. We have put important measures in place to ensure that the green belt is not just protected but is expanded. I knock on the head the myth that we intend to relax planning controls for green belt land. That is not the case. We are determined to stick to PPG2 which states that protecting the countryside from encroachment is one of the main purposes of including land in the green belt. That is precisely what we have done.
As the Statement made clear, we are committed to new parks. After all, a Labour government introduced the system of national parks. We are creating a national park in the South Downs. I believe that many of us are proud of that and are pleased to be associated with it. There is a presumption against inappropriate development within green belt land. That is a significant assurance. Since May 1997 there has been a net addition of some 30,000 hectares to green belt land which has been widely welcomed. By increasing density of build in the South East, as the Statement indicated, we can achieve our targets. I should have thought that that would be widely welcomed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, asked whether the proposals would be funded by new money. The relevant announcement was made last July. The allocation of money is set out clearly. I refer to the breakdown of figures in the document. We shall allocate £22 billion for housing, planning and regeneration. The plan indicates our priorities in considerable detail. I believe that the proposals are sustainable. I understand and recognise some of the issues that have been raised, particularly with regard to overheating. We shall obviously have to be very careful in that regard. However, we are faced with the awkward conundrum of high demand in the South— a desirable part of the country that is economically successful vis-à-vis the regions of Europe—and the need to have a more than adequate supply of affordable housing, especially for key public service workers. Our strategy must comply with our desire to drive up standards in the public services and to have an adequate labour supply in that sector.
I look forward to further questions. I recognise that I have not responded to all of the points that were raised and I hope that I shall be able to pick up some of them.
§ 3.59 p.m.
§ Lord Hanningfield
My Lords, I refer to the two areas that the Minister mentioned that are situated near to communities in Essex. I am leader of Essex County Council. I welcome his remarks about the Thames Gateway but perhaps he will go into the detail of the infrastructure that is required. We all believe that that area contains brownfield sites which should be developed. We can do that provided we receive funding for infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals. Considerably more investment is required to achieve those objectives than has been mentioned today. Will the Minister comment more fully on the 219 Thames Gateway? We all accept that that area has much to offer in terms of providing housing and employment in the South East.
The area that particularly concerns me, and on which I would like the noble Lord to comment further, is that now described as "London—Stansted— Cambridge". The paper is about sustainable communities. We already have communities in Epping, Harlow, Stortford and Stansted, and I read in the evening papers last night that Bishop Stortford might get 40,000 new houses. That sort of conjecture and discussion needs to come to an end.
As my noble friend Lady Hanham said earlier, we already have the prospect of the largest airport in the world at Stansted, one twice the size of Heathrow. Communities are under extreme threat because of that. The conjecture is an added burden on everyone along the M11, from Epping to Cambridge and onwards. We are talking about sustainable communities, but that is destroying communities. We need to know what the Government plan for the area.
The Minister referred to using local government. We would like to be more involved. At the moment, we feel bypassed. The Government keep making Statements such as this, but we feel that we do not know what is happening. For the benefit of those excellent communities, we must have some more answers now, because they are being destroyed at the moment. Perhaps the Minister will give me a few more answers on that.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, for his intervention and, in recognising his long and valuable service in local government, for the importance of the questions that he asked.
We have set out the plan, the targets and the funding that will be available. In essence, the key is that we need to work very closely in partnership with local authorities and the RDAs. Some of the detail will need to be worked through in that consultation and in the development of the plans.
I do not know whether the noble Lord picked this fact up, but £446 million will be set aside for Thames Gateway with the new development agencies. A Cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister will plan for the development of the Thames Gateway. Clearly, there is much work to do to build up the detail. We will have to consult and work with all the agencies and bodies involved with that.
I very much welcome the support that Thames Gateway has attracted, as we think that much can be achieved there. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred to the fact that much of the land—nearly all of it, in fact—was brownfield and suitable for the sorts of development that we envisage to tackle housing shortages in that part of the South East. She also referred to existing capacity.
I want to make it plain that there is no return to the old days of predict and provide. For all authorities, not only in the South East, we will ensure that we work to the figures provided in the regional planning guidance.
220 We will also take a long-term view, as we need to plan for the long term so that we do not end up with a situation like that that we inherited as a government, which we all acknowledge has created difficulties.
The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, also raised questions about the London-Stansted-Cambridge corridor. That growth area links areas with strong economies and job-growth potential. As we identified in the plan, there are very significant employment and housing opportunities in that area. We need to study the potential and work with the agencies and local authorities involved.
I recognise the noble Lord's point about Stansted airport. That will have to be dealt with using existing approved plans. Future decisions on runways and so on are awaited in the airports White Paper. Within that corridor, there are important priority transport areas, such as the M11 improvements near Cambridge and Harlow. There are other considerations relating to the east-west rail connections and the need to ensure that we continue to improve routes in and out of London, so that the infrastructure is in place if we are to see the sustained growth that is possible there.
Again, there will be consultation. The RDAs, local authorities, central government agencies, development bodies and so on will need to work carefully together to get things right, so that the sensitivities of local people are met and matched. It is important that we take the plans forward with the maximum support to fulfil the needs and obligations of future generations also. If we do not meet and match them, we will fail future generations in their aspirations.
§ Lord Bridges
My Lords. I invite the Minister to clarify the reference to brownfield sites in the Statement, to which he referred more than once in his reply to questions from the Opposition. Is he aware that much unease and dismay has been caused by the Government's decision to classify gardens in villages in the rural countryside as brownfield? Can he tell us that that interpretation will not be followed in the ambitious and far-reaching programme contained in the Statement?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, I recognise the importance of allaying the concerns to which the noble Lord referred. It would probably be best if I took that particular question away and looked at the issue that has been raised, because I want to ensure that my answer is precise and meticulous.
§ Baroness Billingham
My Lords, I warmly welcome the report on sustainable communities. It is a marvellous blueprint for decent homes and places for people to live. By implication, looking at the sums, it will involve more than a decent amount of money to enable the aspirations to become reality.
Perhaps I ought to remind noble Lords that I chair an urban regeneration company in Corby in the Midlands. As a result, I have been awaiting the report with enormous interest. I am pleased because our crucial blueprint for Corby—we launched the master 221 plan only last week in this House—is very much reflected and in step with the ideas in the document on sustainable communities.
Given the points raised around the Chamber, I should state quite clearly that the urban regeneration company is made up of a consortium of local authorities at county council and borough level, government agencies such as English Partnerships and EMDA and so forth, as well as the local communities involved. Everything that has come out of our master plan has come from the demands of the local community. We are not telling people what they want; they are telling us what they want, and we are responding to it. I believe that the plan has the potential to have an enormous impact in future.
The Thames Gateway is important, but the work being done in the Midlands is equally important. It is worth noting that places such as Corby have very low unemployment. We are an open door in that one thing that differentiates us from areas around us is that, where other communities might be somewhat wary of an influx of newcomers, we want to build 28,000 new homes almost immediately—as soon as possible. We look to the document as a source of funding.
I have two questions for the Minister. First, "sustainable" must surely mean having rail links. A weakness of our regeneration company is that at the moment Corby does not have a passenger railway station. I think that I read that £164 million was earmarked for Milton Keynes and the South Midlands. Will some of that money go towards providing that essential rail link which would unlock much of the potential of our scheme?
Secondly, while others will be nervous of the projected influx, we are more than ready, willing and able. Will the Government look at us as a pilot scheme, to see how some of their ideas in the document can be shown to work within the Corby dimension? We would be delighted to act as a pilot for that project.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, is one of the most proactive campaigners on behalf of Corby and the surrounding area. I take to heart her comments, particularly that about the fact that much of the plan is based on good local practice and experience and on tried and tested strategies that have been melded together in our thinking to ensure that we meet the challenges of the future. The plan constitutes a brilliant opportunity to succeed because it is based on good local experience. It must succeed not just because it is an important government objective but because it aims to meet the needs of the future and to tackle problems from the past.
The noble Baroness made two points, the first of which was about the value of rail links. It is plain to all that we want to ensure that rail links are well maintained, and established and developed where they are essential. I obviously cannot give a specific response to her pitch for the rail link that she 222 mentioned. The partnerships that are in place and those involved in planning and implementing the communities plan will want to consider that in detail.
Secondly, the noble Baroness asked why Corby and its immediate environs could not be used as a pilot. That will be one of the considerations taken into account by local partners when establishing the overall plan. One of the unique features of our approach is that we have developed a regional plan for implementing and taking forward the programme for each of the nine regions. Our approach does not simply involve a national plan that is focused on one part of the country; there are nine simultaneous regional launches. The local regional documents are a good read and give a better feel for the way in which the scheme will be carried through. I am sure that Corby will be active in the Government's considerations and that the partners involved in implementing the strategy will play a full part.
§ Lord Sutherland of Houndwood
My Lords, I welcome the Statement's approach to government aspiration and planning—it is a fine Statement. I should declare an interest: I am non-executive chairman of the Quarry Products Association. As a result, I have a sense of the volume of traffic—heavy lorries—that will be generated before a development is completed. Will the Minister give an assurance that as part of the planning process, thought will be given to how that transport flow can be managed in order to minimise costs and disruption to the areas of a conurbation that abut on to, for example, the Thames Gateway site?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for his question. When developments are taking place, local environmental impact is obviously important. Many local authorities have "good builder" schemes in place, by which there is an agreed partnership with those involved in major construction projects to mitigate and manage the impact of the development on the local environment. That must be part of the planning process when the physical aspects of the communities plan are rolled out in detail. I am sure that we shall take careful note of the noble Lord's experience and knowledge in this field.
§ Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest: I am chairman of the Housing Corporation. I am sure that the Minister will join me and other Members of the House in expressing how regrettable it is that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was not here today to deliver the Statement, due to a family bereavement. As some of us know, he has put hours of work into the communities plan.
That plan involves a step change. None of us has yet had the chance to study the document and the nine supporting documents. There is still much work to be done. Perhaps in that alone, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that it would be good to have more time in which to debate this detailed and complex issue, which covers so much.
223 From our point of view—housing is our raison d'être—one of the major changes in the government document is the recognition that sustainability is not just about housing; it also involves hospitals, schools, transport and the local infrastructure. The document covers that.
Regional housing boards will be critical. We have seen the end of local authority and housing corporation funding for housing. There will be a single pot, the distribution of which will be discussed within the regions and sub-regions. That will involve local authorities, economic generators, the regional development agencies, the Housing Corporation and the government office in the region. That is a step change and it is up to those organisations to make the arrangement work.
As a corporation, we are delighted to be given the responsibility of examining in a taskforce—I hate that term—or in a group all areas in the private and public sectors involving home ownership. That is another step change. There are many models out there but many of them are not used. We welcome that step change.
I return to where I started; that is, the sustainability issue. We and other agencies have been closely involved in developing the plan and we welcome the openness of the discussions. In view of the fact that this approach involves several government departments, has the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister secured commitments from other departments that they are part of the plan in terms of health, housing, transport and infrastructure? If not, the plan will not be deliverable.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, I place on record two observations at the outset. First, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and extend our tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I know from personal experience—I have worked with the noble Lord for some time—of his personal commitment to housing and to tackling housing issues. He was particularly proud of this Statement and all that is in it, and he has worked long hours to hammer it out. The Deputy Prime Minister and the team in the ODPM that has been working on it have spent much time putting the building blocks in place and working out how they cover all the angles. This is a genuinely holistic approach to many of the problems confronting the nation.
The other tribute that I place on record is to the noble Baroness, who has been tireless in her efforts with the Housing Corporation. She has played a key part in ensuring that the plan is deliverable. Her advice and wisdom has been brought to bear to ensure that this is a practical Statement with practical outcomes. I do not underestimate the hard work put in by the noble Baroness and the Housing Corporation in getting us to where we are.
The noble Baroness asked the key question: will the departments pull together to ensure that this approach is deliverable? The answer must be yes. I welcome the opportunity to advance it today and I welcome future 224 opportunities for us to debate the communities plan and ensure that it is kept on track. We must ensure that all departments work closely together when planning communities to ensure that those communities are sustainable. That requires putting transport in place— thinking about traffic—addressing the need for a community centre and ensuring that buses are available and that doctors are in place in surgeries. We want to create and generate healthy communities. We can best do that by working together to pool resources and activities and by having a shared outcome and a shared vision. That is key; yes, those commitments have been given and, yes, we intend to ensure that they are kept to.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, will the Minister return to the question of my noble friend Lady Hanham and explain a little more about the issues raised in paragraph 328 of the paper, which refers to the leasing of empty properties? What defence will an owner of a property have when compulsory leasing is arranged? How will that happen and what do the Government envisage? What will be the definition of an empty property that is owned privately? Will the Minister also say more about building so many houses in the Stansted area in a sustainable way in terms of retaining the green belt in that area?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, I consider it to be a scandal that properties have been empty for as long as they have and that the matter has not been tackled. Members of another place were very mindful of the issue. Empty properties are a vast untapped resource and we need to bring them into use. That is one of the clear objectives of this document and it is why we are adjusting the ability of local authorities to recover moneys against empty properties through council tax.
There will need to be consultation on the operation of the compulsory leasing scheme. Clearly, questions such as, "What is an empty property?" will have to be carefully thought through. There is no simple and easy answer to the noble Baroness's question with regard to that point. We shall be sensitive to the concerns raised about empty properties because we are required to get the matter right. On the other hand, I am sure that the noble Baroness will recognise that we must make good use of our stock. Every home that we can bring into occupation and use means that we can reduce the amount of building on land which can be better used for other economic purposes. That helps to ensure that we protect the green belt.
I know that the noble Baroness will not be entirely happy with that answer. But the detail needs to be worked through because it is a desirable objective. I am happy to invite the noble Baroness to repeat a point that I may have missed.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, how is it sustainable to build so many houses at Stansted and yet retain the Government's pledge to maintain the green belt area there?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, we made the objective clear. We do not intend to build on green 225 belt. That is our approach and we must stick to it. Obviously, important representations will be made locally when the plans are worked out. The partners who implement those plans will need to ensure that green belt is preserved. That is the Government's objective. We have added to the green belt, and I do not believe that any previous government can make that bold claim.