HC Deb 08 March 2000 vol 345 cc209-14WH 12.30 pm
Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

In view of the Government's announcement yesterday on housing in the south-east, this debate is timely and the Government will probably be making decisions about housing in Norfolk in the next 10 days.

Any policy for housing in Norfolk or any other essentially rural county presents two key, and often contradictory, issues. The first is that current plans based on predict and provide, or more fashionably, in that wonderful Sir Humphreyish phrase, on "plan, manage, monitor", require a massive expansion in the number of new houses in rural areas. If that happens, much of our countryside and rural environment will be irreparably damaged.

The second issue is the high cost of housing, which makes it increasingly difficult for local people to afford to buy or rent their own homes. The 1999 survey of rural trends by the Countryside Agency noted that throughout the 1990s the gap between the need for affordable homes and those being built widened significantly.

I want to address both those issues. I turn first to the need, or perceived need, for new houses. The new housing requirement for Norfolk in the period from 1991 to 2016, as assessed by SCEALA—the Standing Conference on East Anglian Local Authorities—which represents the local authorities of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, is for 86,000 new houses. That is made up of net inward migration from outside Norfolk of 54,000 people, a net natural loss of population, which is the number of people dying over the number being born, of 5,000, and an increase of 37,000 due to a reduction in the size of households, which is an increase in the number of single-person homes.

The Government's panel subsequently increased the number of houses needed from 1995 to 2016 by 5,500. That gives a total of almost 100,000 new houses, which is a huge increase. Building those houses is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they are built, they will of course be lived in, and people will move into Norfolk, often from more urban and developed areas. That flies in the face of the Government's protestations that there is an urban renaissance and that they are encouraging more brownfield development.

Moreover, the Government's apparent conversion from predict and provide to plan, manage, monitor, which they announced yesterday, rings a little hollow in view of the plan for the south-east, which I hope will not be duplicated in East Anglia.

Most of Norfolk's countryside is still unspoiled and special. The countryside should not of course be preserved as it is in perpetuity—it will evolve—but it should not be built on and concreted over for all time. Housing brings with it more cars, wider roads, new roads, more pressure on schools and hospitals, more employment problems and more pressure on natural resources and, especially in Norfolk, on water.

New development must be sustainable. Sustainable development is not, as Professor Crow dismissively described it, merely a fashionable expression used as a device for saying no. Let us take the example of water. Norfolk is one of the driest and lowest-lying parts of Britain. The available water depends on aquifers, which store winter rain and are a finite resource. As the demand for water increases, the water available for the environment decreases. The expanding population of East Anglia, together with a per capita increase in water consumption, had led to a doubling of public water supply in the past 30 years.

Although there is still much that can be done to prevent wastage and to encourage more judicious use of water, there is only so much that can be achieved by managing water demand. In addition, given that part of the demand for water in Essex is met by the River Ouse in Norfolk, it has yet to be demonstrated that development levels in Essex will not have an adverse impact on Norfolk's water environment and resources. There will therefore be genuinely unsustainable growth in the demand for water if housing development is not kept to lower levels in Norfolk and Essex.

I do not want to see Norfolk becoming suburban and its rural character being eroded. I would not want a latter-day John Betjeman to write a poem about Norfolk in the same vein as his poem about Slough, but I fear that if the Government's housebuilding plans proceed apace, that is precisely what will happen.

There is a further problem with new housing in Norfolk. The Government have rightly stated that 60 per cent. of all new housing should be built on brownfield sites. I support that requirement, but in a rural county it will be much more difficult to achieve that proportion. SCEALA estimates that only 36 per cent. of new housing will be built on brownfield sites in Norfolk, with the remainder being on greenfield sites. That is another strong argument for reducing the number of new houses in Norfolk so that the brownfield percentage can increase.

It is also important that the release of greenfield land should take place only after what is called sequential testing. In simple terms, urban and brownfield sites should be used first, and greenfield last. So long as greenfield development is an easy option, developers are bound to avoid more difficult investment in brownfield sites. In that regard, I hope that the Government will consider reducing VAT on repairs and developments on brownfield land.

I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for adding that it is not only the location of new housing that is important, but its design and quality. Planners currently have the powers to prevent unsuitable alterations to listed buildings, but if buildings are not listed planners are powerless to prevent such alterations as putting PVC window frames into a Victorian house. Councils can do no more than give advice. As one of my constituents, Miss Fran Weatherhead, has aptly expressed it, at present it is a matter of hoping that owners will be sensitive to the appearance of their property and are not out for a quick fix. The planning rules for conservation areas in particular should be tightened to prevent inappropriate modifications being made to older houses.

To summarise, there is a danger that we are building so many new houses that Norfolk's character will change. Policies must take more account of sustainability, protection of the countryside and the regeneration of brownfield land. The Council for the Protection of Rural England said: Planned expansion of the south-east— and, I add, the whole of East Anglia— spells sprawl and congestion in the region and continuing decay and social exclusion in other parts of the country. I turn now to affordable housing. The Prime Minister's performance and innovation unit drew particular attention to this, and I hope that the Government's much-delayed rural White Paper will address this vital issue. In my constituency, many local people can no longer afford to live where they were born. In part, that has been caused by the number of second home owners, who own up to well over 50 per cent. of the houses in some villages. That has an effect on prices and on the viability of the local community.

There is no easy solution to high house prices, although I appreciate the force of the argument that local people should be able to get on to the housing ladder. I believe strongly that second home owners should pay the full council tax, not 50 per cent. as at present. That should be at the discretion of the local council, and the additional tax raised should be ring-fenced and made available for low-cost, affordable housing. That would be fair and would remove any local resentment. It would be levied only in districts where there is a concentration of second homes, and the proceeds would help local people on low incomes or with special needs who want to live locally. I am pleased that North Norfolk district council shares that view, and I am disappointed that the Government have so far shown such little interest in it.

In 1999, North Norfolk district council commissioned a housing needs study. It concluded that there is a need in North Norfolk for between 2,250 and 3,200 additional, affordable dwellings. The survey had similar results to those of the earlier and much wider-ranging CPRE report "Housing with Hindsight", which was published in 1996.

It has become clear to me that greater provision of social rented housing is the only practicable means of providing affordable housing for local people. I therefore support the efforts of North Norfolk district council to secure between 25 and 30 per cent. of social rented housing on eligible developments of more than 1 hectare or 25 dwellings. It is also right to adopt a flexible, negotiated stance with the developer, and not just a uniform, dogmatic one. There will of course have to be proper and transparent safeguards.

The Government are also suggesting exceptional developments of affordable housing in villages, outside agreed structure plans. For transport, employment and environmental reasons, those should be very exceptional and treated with great caution unless it can be shown that there is both overwhelming need and acceptance among the local community.

I have drawn attention to the dangers of building too many houses in the countryside and to the need for affordable housing for local people. I make one last point: please will the Government leave local authorities alone and allow them to make their own decisions? Yes, they should give guidance, but they should also trust locally elected councillors to make the right decisions and stop second-guessing them. Let the housing policy for Norfolk, which will so much shape the county in future, be determined by people living in and representing what is still the finest county in Britain.

12.42 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

As the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) rightly said, this is a very timely debate. He has raised important issues and represents a beautiful area of the country. I greatly sympathise with much of what he said; indeed, much of it is Government policy.

It always cheers me up to hear a Tory Member calling for more public spending on social housing. I gently point out—I do so only gently because he made a very moderate and sensible speech—that the problems that he described are in part a consequence of the social and economic policies pursued by successive Conservative Administrations, whom perhaps he and certainly many of his friends still support.

If you deliberately set out over a long period to redistribute wealth from the less fortunate to the fortunate, you are not entitled to be surprised when you find that some people can afford two houses and many cannot afford one. If you enthusiastically promote the sale of council housing—in Norfolk, a huge part of the housing stock has been sold in the past 15 or 20 years—and at the same time discourage the building of any more, you are not entitled to be surprised that there comes a day when many people can no longer afford to live in some of the more attractive areas of the country. That of course has implications for the provision of services—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

Order. I have never promoted the sale of council housing, particularly in Norfolk. When the hon. Member uses the word "you", he refers to me.

Mr. Mullin

I certainly would never suggest that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I recall—I am sure that it is within your recollection—when we had four successive Governments who did so. All I am doing is gently pointing out that that policy had advantages and that it is no part of the present Government's policy to reverse it. Indeed, the genie is out of the bottle; it is impossible to reverse. However, there were consequences, and the hon. Gentleman referred to some of them.

The hon. Gentleman raised three issues. The first was about the policy of predict and provide, which is no more appropriate to housing than it is to motorways, and of which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister formally announced the death yesterday—although I think that it died some years ago. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the shortage of affordable housing in Norfolk. Thirdly, he touched on the possibility of increasing the council tax on second homes.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend set out the Government's position on predict and provide. We are abandoning it in favour of a more flexible and sustainable approach which takes account of a range of factors, including demographics, the capacity of the region to absorb growth and the impact of our policies on urban renaissance. We shall regularly monitor the indicators of housing provision instead of setting a target that will apply over 20 years. We shall monitor the market and demand for affordable housing and review the situation in order to adjust provision if indicators show that more or less housing is needed.

The new planning policy guidance note sets out the key elements of the Government's policy, which encourages greater choice for different sizes of household, greater affordability and more mixed development. It encourages the less profligate use of land—we have seen some very profligate use of land in many modern housing developments—and of course the use of brownfield sites before greenfield sites.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the national target for the use of brownfield land is 60 per cent., although there will obviously be local and regional variations. I understand his point that there is likely to be less brownfield land in his area of the country than in others, although substantial brownfield sites in Norwich, King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth are an obvious place to start. We are also anxious to see high-quality housing development and more imaginative thinking among planners and developers about designs and layouts.

That represents the most fundamental review of planning and housing for a generation, and sets what we hope will be a new, sustainable approach to planning, which demands the integration of planning, housing and transport, which is desirable, just as the hon. Gentleman said. I entirely agree with him.

On affordable housing, we are providing an additional £5 billion of resources in England over this Parliament to provide new social housing and to improve existing stock. That of course includes investing receipts from the sale of council housing, which the previous Government declined to do.

This matter is not just for the Government. Local planning authorities have an important part to play in increasing the provision of affordable housing. Unduly restrictive planning policy can drive up house prices and force more people to seek social housing, besides increasing the cost of providing it. Planning policy can also operate constructively to promote sustainable development by, for example, promoting re-use of derelict urban land and buildings, increasing housing densities and reducing the need for the use of the car.

Planning policy guidance note 3 recognises, however, that unmet need for affordable housing is a material planning consideration that may be taken into account in formulating development plan policies and in deciding planning applications. Planning authorities are encouraged to adopt policies that indicate targets for major sites and the intention to negotiate with developers the inclusion of affordable housing on sites above a given threshold.

Affordable housing policies may also be used to influence the mix of market housing, to ensure that more of it is in reach of people on modest incomes and to deliver housing for shared ownership or social letting. For the latter, Government guidance is that transfer of serviced land or completed houses to a registered social landlord is the best way to ensure that they remain available for social letting.

Norfolk county council obviously recognises such guidance. The county has recently adopted a structure plan, which says: Where there are local jobs and services or adequate public transport is available, affordable housing for those in need may be provided by seeking a proportion of affordable housing in larger schemes; and exceptionally— the hon. Gentleman referred to this— granting planning permission for affordable housing on the edge of or within villages on land not otherwise identified for development. The county and district councils may seek to build on such an approach in their local plan as it comes up for revision. The North Norfolk local plan already contains such policies, but the council needs to take account of the new framework set out in PPG3 when it comes to revise the local plan. However, I accept that the planning system can make only a limited contribution—initiatives are required from other parties, including landowners and developers.

For 2000–01, the county of Norfolk has been allocated £25.4 million for its housing investment programme, which is a 46 per cent. increase on the previous year. North Norfolk has had an increase of 61 per cent. Those are substantial increases. As I said, one of the reasons for the shortage of affordable housing is that so many council houses were sold off under the Conservatives.

On giving local authorities discretion to charge full council tax on second homes, there is a case for reviewing the 50 per cent. discount. That matter was considered as part of a general review of council tax in the local government White Paper published in 1998. The conclusion at that time was that, generally, council tax was working. There are no plans to make changes in this Parliament, but the hon. Gentleman's point has been raised by other hon. Members representing areas in which there are large numbers of holiday homes and we shall keep the matter under review.

Incidentally, it always makes me nervous when Tory Members of Parliament ask for tax increases because I know that, were the Government to do as the hon. Gentleman suggests, his right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front and Back Benches would jump up and down claiming that we had imposed another stealth tax. I hope that he has cleared his suggestion, which struck me as sensible, with the shadow Chancellor.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk made a sensible speech containing useful suggestions, many of which are contained in current Government policy. Many but not all of the problems that he describes are the consequences of social and economic policies pursued in the past by Governments whose members have, even now, not entirely repented of their ways. The Labour Government are doing their best to grapple with those consequences, but success will take some time. The genie is out of the bottle, but we are working on the problem and making progress.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I call the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) to start the next debate.

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