HC Deb 21 March 2000 vol 346 cc175-81WH

12 noon

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

I welcome this short debate on the implications for Hampshire of the Government's housing policies. I also welcome the presence of my right hon. Friends the Members for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd), my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) and the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). During nearly 17 years as a Hampshire Member, no other issue has so consistently generated so much concern among my constituents as new house building. We acknowledge that there are legitimate pressures for new housing, but not to the extent accepted by the Government. We also know that the vibrant economy demands a vibrant work force, but we do not accept the reasons that have so far been given for the urbanisation of so much of our countryside.

I am concerned about the number of houses to be built up to 2016. The south-east regional planning committee—Serplan—originally envisaged an annual average of 5,212 new houses in the county. The Crow report proposed a preposterous 8,450 houses each year. Subject to five-year monitoring, and based on previously proposed distribution, the Government now appear to be thinking in terms of approximately 6,500 new houses each year. It is not surprising that the county council dismissed that proposal as unjustified in a recent brief for Members of Parliament.

The situation is even worse in the north of the county. On 7 March, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) sought an assurance from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions that Berkshire would be able to say no to any new settlement south of the M4. In Basingstoke, we have nightmares about what we have dubbed "Readingstoke"—urban development devouring much of the remaining countryside between Basingstoke and Reading. My right hon. Friend was given no assurance, so we fear the worst.

The Secretary of State claims to have abandoned what he calls the old predict and provide system. In reality, he has done no such thing. He pretends, and asks us to accept, that he has introduced a new approach—plan, monitor and manage. There is no significant difference whatever between the two approaches. The planning process cannot be other than a combination of predicting, planning, monitoring and managing.

The Government have introduced a change that undermines strategic planning. On 7 March, the Secretary of State told the House: Local authorities should plan to provide 43,000 additional dwellings a year outside London, subject to regular review … every five years.—[Official Report, 7 March 2000; Vol. 345, c. 865.] However, the services that accompany housing development—education, health care, transport and roads—cannot be planned effectively and efficiently on the basis of a succession of five-year reviews, each of which is itself subject to review.

The planning of key infrastructure services requires greater certainty over a longer time span than five years. Five-year monitoring, of which the Government boast, is a fundamental flaw in their housing policy, from which Hampshire and other counties will inevitably suffer.

The Secretary of State told the House that the Government have set a national target that 60 per cent. of new homes should use recycled land or buildings. He added: planning authorities must in future give preference to recycling previously developed sites and empty properties—brownfield first, greenfield last.—[Official Report, 7 March 2000; Vol. 345, c. 863–64.] I fear, and I believe that my right hon. and hon. Friends will agree with me, that the Secretary of State's words are virtually meaningless for Hampshire and are certainly meaningless for the borough of Basingstoke and Deane.

The overwhelming consensus of informed opinion maintains that 60 per cent. of the likely new housing requirement cannot be achieved in the county by previously developed sites and empty premises. The cities of Southampton and Portsmouth are the only parts of the county where that figure could remotely be achieved. The paradox is that that is not where the bulk of the county's development is likely to take place.

In the parliamentary constituency of Basingstoke and the borough of Basingstoke and Deane, which is partly in my constituency and partly in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, we expect an absolute minimum of 7,500 houses over the next few years. The land has already been earmarked; some of it is being prepared for development. It is not being alarmist to say that that number of new starts could easily rise to more than 10,000 and the environmental implications of that are horrendous.

Local planners tell me that, with the currently agreed density of about 16 to 18 houses per acre, only 20 per cent. of the required new homes will be constructed on brownfield sites. If one reverses that, 80 per cent. of the house building requirement in the borough of Basingstoke and Deane has to take place on greenfield sites. Even with the higher density, to which the Government are so far only paying lip service, it is impossible to see how anything approaching their 60 per cent. target of brownfield new housing can be achieved. Even if it could be, the implications from such a concentration of habitation for the provision of health care, education, transport and roads are so enormous that there would be public consternation.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Is my hon. Friend aware that if the available brownfield sites in locations such as Gosport were to be developed, the road infrastructure and the other matters to which he has referred simply could not cope with the additional population?

Mr. Hunter

My hon. Friend reinforces my point. I do not know his constituency as well as I know my part of the county, but what he says about it marries with our interpretation and our concerns in the north of the county, so I thank him for that contribution.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

Order. I ask all hon. Members to address the Chair when they speak, not because I feel touchy about it, but because it means that the Hansard transcribers can hear what is being said and report it accurately.

Mr. Hunter

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise. I shall enjoy addressing you from now on.

In addition to the problems that my hon. Friend mentioned, there would have to be a total rethink of the provision of all service infrastructure if the Government's required housing density were to be achieved.

Derelict brownfield sites do not exist in the greater part of Hampshire, where new housing development is effectively synonymous with greenfield development. The emphasis of the Government's policy is wrong. With regard to the regeneration and investment that is associated with housebuilding, the needs of other parts of the United Kingdom are greater than those in Hampshire. We also need to consider the scandalous fact that there are 700,000 empty houses in Britain. The Chancellor could start putting things right today by reducing VAT on refurbishing empty buildings—the rate is currently 17.5 per cent. but it should be changed to the 5 per cent. rate that is charged on new house construction.

Mr. Mark Oates (Winchester)

Does the hon Gentleman agree that the Chancellor could also introduce a greenfield levy, which would dissuade builders from building on greenfield sites? That positive step would help, especially in Hampshire.

Mr. Hunter

I do not know—or care very much—whether we should introduce deterrents in relation to greenfield sites or offer incentives in relation to brownfield sites, but we need a fiscal balance to tempt developers into the urban environment.

The Environment Committee recommended two years ago that the 60 per cent. figure for brownfield development should be a requirement, not a guideline or an aspiraton. That figure would determine the amount of development in each planning authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) is introducing a private Member's Bill that would require local authorities to undertake urban capacity studies and to publish audits of derelict, vacant or underused sites.

When the Secretary of State made his statement on 7 March, he sought to reassure, but he failed to do so in relation to Hampshire. He gave the figure of 43,000 houses a year in the south-east outside London. Previously proposed distribution means that the associated provisions will increase the requirement for Hampshire by more than 1,200 houses a year, compared with the original Serplan proposals. The Secretary of State's plan, monitor and manage concept is nothing new and his five-year strategy will undermine the planning and development of key service infrastructure. From Hampshire's point of view, his objective of 60 per cent. brownfield site development is a confidence trick. It is small wonder that the people of Hampshire are angry and disillusioned with the Government.

12.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I am hesitating because the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) informed me before this debate that two other hon. Members wanted to speak, but that does not appear to be the case. No matter.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He raised an important subject that is of concern to the Government and to local people, wherever they live. Housing provision in structure plans is always likely to be contentious with regard to the amount of provision to be made and to the location of new houses. Those who seek to ensure that housing needs can be met—the Government and those at local level—and those who live in areas where future development may take place usually have competing views.

The hon. Gentleman outlined some of his constituents' anxieties, which arise predominantly in relation to the proposals in the review of the county structure plan, which is due to be adopted later this month. The document identifies four major development areas. The proposal is that they will be the principal locations for new housing development in the period up to 2011. One of those areas, as he acknowledges, is Basingstoke.

I know that progress on the review plan has not been straightforward. It was introduced by the county council in 1996 and initially made some progress through the early stages, including its examination in public that year. The panel report followed in 1997, when two new authorities were created in Hampshire, as a result of which the review plan became the joint responsibility of Portsmouth and Southampton councils, together with the county council.

The authorities reached substantial agreement early on how they might deal with the recommendations made by the examination in public panel. However, as I said, the conclusions on housing provision provoked contention between the authorities, and there followed a long period during which they failed to reach agreement on the overall level of housing provision. I mention that because there is a history of contention at local level about some of the issues covered in the plan. Later, I shall challenge the hon. Gentleman's assertion that the issues faced by his constituents in Basingstoke are solely the result of a top-down approach by the Government to what the response to housing need in his county should be—they are not.

Central to consideration of the plan is the extent to which it conforms to regional planning guidance, as outlined in RPG9. The current guidance, which the review plan must take into account, was published in 1994. It covers the period from 1991 to 2006 and sets out indicative figures for housing provision for the region, down to county level. The housing requirement for Hampshire is given as 6,133 new homes a year over that period.

At the outset, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State lodged an objection to the review plan. He considered that the proposed provision, which was substantially below that suggested in the regional guidance, needed full justification. The first modifications introduced by the three structure plan authorities in May 1999 proposed a base-line figure of 80,290 dwellings for the plan period from 1996 to 2011. Those were to be distributed among the districts, including the major development areas. A reserve figure of 10,000 dwellings was also proposed for land that would be released, if needed. My right hon. Friend objected to the proposals because he considered that the arguments put by the authorities were not sufficiently strong to justify a level of provision that was 14,000 dwellings lower than that indicated by the regional guidance. He also objected to the fact that the reserve provision of 10,000, which should have been allocated on an indicative basis, had not been allocated on that basis in the development plans.

The structure plan authorities responded positively to the objection and produced further modifications in October 1999. Those modifications proposed an overall provision of 94,290 dwellings and, within that, a reserve provision of 14,000 dwellings distributed around the districts, as required by the guidance. My right hon. Friend considered that that met his earlier objection and did not oppose the new policy, which was designed to allow the release of the reserve provision. I emphasise that use of the reserve would be justified only when there was a compelling argument for it. In other words, it is headroom and not necessarily part of the core provision.

The distribution of the reserve allocation has meant that some authorities in Hampshire now have an additional requirement that was not present when the structure plan authorities produced their first modifications in May 1999; Basingstoke is one such authority. Within its allocation of 12,060 dwellings for the period from April 1996 to March 2011, provision is made for a major development area of 4,000 dwellings in the period from 2001 to 2011.

In welcoming the further modifications by the structure plan authorities, my right hon. Friend made it clear that he did not oppose the objective of the new reserve allocations policy; he did not comment either way on the distribution proposed. It is for the structure plan authorities, with their local knowledge, to distribute structure plan provisions in the district, and they are best placed to undertake the task. They must take into account the principles of sustainable development as set out in the policy guidance and consider where major development is to be located in relation to existing or proposed public transport infrastructure, so as to minimise reliance on the car.

In future, development plans will be reviewed in the light of the new regional planning guidance, which the Secretary of State will issue for consultation. It was announced that the proposed annual rate of new dwellings in the south-east outside London will be 43,000 houses a year. Better use of land and better layout will reduce the land take so that new allocations of land will not be needed. It will be for the authorities, supported by their new powers, to plan the mix and location of housing to meet the need for a wider variety of dwellings and to reduce land take at the same time. I hope that Opposition Members will support the authorities in that task and not propose a return to past policies.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke made some political points about the expected regional planning guidance and the 43,000 houses. As he knows, the regional planning guidance process is expected to lead to an agreed regional target for net additional dwellings, subject to review. The Serplan estimate was discussed in examination in public, but in the panel's view it was an underestimate of need and capacity. We agreed, but not to the extent that the panel suggested.

I reject the hon. Gentleman's contention that plan, monitor and manage is not new or that it is a subterfuge. It is a fundamentally new approach and, in implementing it, we propose a rate of growth for the south-east outside London of the rate to which he alluded. It is an on-going rate of development and it will be reviewed every five years.

I take issue, too, with the hon. Gentleman's contention that incorporating a review process creates uncertainty. It does not; it means that we can respond flexibly to the real world. We can say not that we must have X number of houses, come what may, by 2016, but that at present our assessment of local need and of the gap between need and provision is that 43,000 dwellings a year for the first five years will meet the need but circumstances may change and we will review the situation. That is planning with flexibility, not with uncertainty.

I want to dispel the myth that we are planning only for the next five years and abandoning any responsibility for the longer term. The regional planning guidance will not be a five-year plan; it will show the rate of building to be applied through the plan period, which will be reviewed at least every five years and sooner if circumstances warrant it. The annual rate represents a benchmark that is monitored continuously and reviewed every five years. It is regrettable that the Opposition cannot accommodate an approach that, on account of its potential for flexibility and responsiveness on the part of the Government and local planning authorities, deals with a big issue—a situation of genuine need. Opposition Members appear to want a completely rigid approach.

Let us consider the Opposition's approach. It does not seem to admit that X number of houses will be needed by 2016. It is an approach that says, "We do not want any more housing in our area. Let parochial interests alone determine the amount of provision." They claim that it is a more responsive, bottom-up process, but in practice it is little more than a NIMBYists' charter. It battens down the hatches, saying, "Sorry, we are full up in Hampshire. We do not want to recognise the needs of local people."

Mr. Hunter

The Minister has entirely misunderstood the point that I made. The service infrastructure has to be planned in advance and I point no further than to the provision of primary schools. The problem in Hampshire is that planning and delivering a new primary school takes a number of years and I dare say that that applies all over the country. If a local education authority does not know what the demand for primary school places will be, how can it decide in advance to invest the money in building primary schools?

Ms Hughes

The recently published planning policy guidance PPG3 makes clear the extent to which the infrastructure of all kinds that will be needed to support further housing development in all parts of the country must be a material consideration at all levels of the development planning process. We recognise that, but the fact that the infrastructure does not exist to such an extent at present does not mean that our response should be not to plan for more housing. Instead, we must consider how to accommodate those difficult issues and competing imperatives, and consider ways to plan flexibly and responsively for housing need and the need for consequential planning.

Mr. Viggers

The Government came to power prating about integrated transport. The Minister's speech would have carried more conviction if she had mentioned the contribution that integrated transport could make to ameliorating the housing situation in Hampshire.

Ms Hughes

That is an extremely important issue, which the Government have pressed strongly. It is dealt with in PPG3 and has been anticipated by the planning authorities. They have tried to accommodate it in the plans that we are discussing. They propose that 30 per cent. of the anticipated housing need be met mainly around the four areas designated for major development. They are located on major transport modal corridors and were selected precisely because they reduce travel by private transport and maximise the potential for using the existing transport infrastructure.

On the brownfield issue, when the proposed changes to Serplan's draft regional planning guidance are published next week, it will be seen that areas such as the Thames gateway and other areas for economic regeneration will be given priority. That will apply in Hampshire, too. There is also the unrealised potential for Hampshire to reconsider the designation of land in its current plan and further to increase the provision for housing on previously used land. The 60 per cent. brownfield target is a national target. We have always acknowledged that the figure will not necessarily be achieved in every county and perhaps not in every region. It is a national target and there will be local variants in the extent to which the contribution to that national target is reached. These are complex issues, but unlike the previous Government we are not ducking them. We are proposing a thorough, robust but flexible approach to some of the most difficult problems that face people in the hon. Gentleman's area and nationally in the next 10 to 15 years.