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Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 12 November 1997

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10.59 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate one of the biggest issues that face us as we enter the next millennium: where people are going to live. I do not intend to speak for long, because I know how many other hon. Members wish to speak.

On entering the House, I was somewhat surprised to find how little national debate there had been about this subject, despite the last Government's paper entitled "Household growth: where shall we live?" and a report on housing need by the Environment Select Committee. Given its importance and relevance to every constituency, and therefore to every Member of Parliament, it is surprising what a low public profile the issue has had. Many of us have had to deal with housing development in our own localities.

Housing has slipped down the public agenda, despite fulfilling a basic human need, and is frequently perceived as a purely local and technical matter. Because of that, housing development figures are seen to be irrefutable and handed down from above, although they should be a key element in debate with the public. We all know that housing is one of the issues that should gain resonance during general elections, but recently it has failed to feature.

The Department of the Environment published the latest set of household projections in 1995. The figures predicted a 4.4 million, or 23 per cent., increase in the number of households in England between 1991 and 2016, and have been used to determine the level and location of new housing development across the country. What is emerging is the existence of localised planning disputes focusing on the specifics of individual sites and the question of where the housing should go. What is being missed is the bigger picture, and questions about whether the housing figures are valid or indeed desirable, whether their impact is acceptable in economic, social and environmental terms and whether they amount to a coherent strategy.

In my constituency, there is growing resentment about plans for thousands of extra houses, which has resulted in many letters in my postbag. For much of my time as a local councillor, I have been personally involved with development and planning, and I understand the frustration felt by many local residents. I believe that the time has come when we must be prepared to question the basis of the housing projections, particularly if we want to be a listening Government.

I want to raise three specific concerns: the validity and repercussions of the housing figures, the issue of sustainability and the role of public policy in housing. The current projection of 4.4 million additional households is based on the assumption that the future is simply a continuation of past trends, and, in particular, that demographic changes, migration patterns and social behaviour will continue much as before. That is admitted in the last Government's paper on household growth, although in other areas of policy such as road building the "predict and provide" approach is now being seriously questioned, primarily on grounds of environmental impact.

Research by Professor Glen Bramley of Heriot-Watt university has highlighted the circularity of the relationship between household projections and economic and housing market factors—the influence of the supply of housing on demand, and vice versa. That has much in common with the road-building and traffic debate.

Let me now deal with some of the specific factors that generate housing numbers: an aging population, the fact that younger people are leaving home earlier, the growing divorce and separation rate, the existence of more single-person households and migration flows across the country, essentially from urban to rural areas and from north to south. I am particularly interested in that last feature, because of the dynamic that migration causes in parts of the country. In the south-west, it generates development as much as indigenous growth. We must therefore subject the figures to thorough scrutiny.

Research carried out over the past two years by John Allinson of the University of the West of England on net migration into Gloucestershire raises serious doubts about the robustness of the net in-migration figures being used to determine the massive house-building programme, and an approach based entirely on past trends rather than public policy. In its structure plan, Gloucestershire county council assumes a net annual in-migration of 2,700 people, but Allinson demonstrates that the true figure is much lower. In his view, that is due to emerging societal sea changes relating principally to labour and housing markets.

The real significance of John Allinson's research, however, lies in what he has to say about migration patterns beyond Gloucestershire at regional and national levels. The overall implications are simple but dramatic. In Gloucestershire, planners are about to make provision for some 6,000 more houses than are required, thereby needlessly and irreversibly destroying hundreds of acres of green-field land. The reduction in net migration flows that is increasingly evident in Gloucestershire is being replicated in the other counties in the south-west and in other regions, and is part of a wider national trend. Moreover, public policy can have an impact on migration between areas of the country, and, in particular, out of our cities.

Although the research only examines the migration element of the household projections, that element accounts for more than half the predicted growth in Gloucestershire, and is therefore significant. However, there are other aspects of the key assumption that raise doubts about the overall soundness of the projections and the methodology employed. For example, the figures assume virtually no increase in the proportion of households in which people are cohabiting, which rose from 2.9 per cent. to 6.4 per cent. between 1981 and 1991. It is projected to have risen by only 0.3 per cent. between 1991 and 2016, which reinforces the thesis of a massive growth in single-person households.

The figures do not appear to have been adjusted for the estimated missing million people who failed to complete the 1991 census, thereby reducing the average household size and, again, reinforcing the thesis of a smaller household—a case of "Honey, I shrunk the household". That provides strong evidence that the household figures are open to challenge, are likely to be a significant overestimate and therefore need to be reviewed as part of a reappraisal of housing requirements.

Given the consequences for local economies, communities and the environment, the accumulated data must be acted on. The numbers will be affected, directly and indirectly, by policy decisions. For example, a substantial regional investment creating jobs eventually affects migration from, for instance, the north to the south. Social, affordable housing provision designed to meet the local needs of those on low incomes—the homeless and young indigenous people—is more effective than massive increases in housing supply at lower prices.

Similarly, changing patterns of student study may encourage students to stay in their home environment, and improvements in standards in urban schools may persuade families to stay in the cities. We therefore have serious doubts about trend-based forecasts that take the last 20 years, and roll the findings forward into the next 20 and make the result the main presumption behind housing needs.

Next, let me deal with sustainability. Notwithstanding the arguments, we must consider how the housing debate can be advanced. The concept of sustainability needs to be central. More clarity and a higher priority are required before its implications for economies, communities and the environment can be properly weighed within a modernised planning system. Associated issues of capacity and environmental impact assessment are also essential if we are to have more integrated evolutionary planning.

One way in which we could reduce development pressures without absolving ourselves of responsibility for unforeseen changes, while maintaining a coherent planning strategy, would be to introduce the phasing of land allocation for development. Programmed reviews of need would be built in, and, perhaps, land would be released on a sequential basis designed to enhance sustainability and the regeneration of local economies and communities, and to discourage cherry-picking of the best green-field sites.

Another associated issue is the use of brown-field sites in preference to green-field sites. In principle, that approach supports the notion that minimising the impact on the environment should largely determine the location of new housing. The last Government suggested in a White Paper a target of 50 per cent. building on brown-field sites, and more recently the United Kingdom round table on sustainable development has suggested a 75 per cent. target.

The identification of brown-field sites has posed difficulties, and local authorities need to make a greater effort. A system of incentives and constraints is required if less attractive or costly sites are to be provided. Nevertheless, those high targets are likely to prove unrealistic. Brown-field sites are not evenly distributed across the country, and the impact on the urban environment needs to be considered carefully.

I have been listening with much interest to the hon. Gentleman's speech. Does he agree that, to an extent, the use of brown-field sites is a question of urban renewal? If we built sensible housing—dare I say, what abroad would be termed apartments, and what people wish to live in in Paris—instead of building detached housing in the countryside, in which people are encouraged to live, we would kill two birds with one stone. We would renew the cities without destroying the countryside of which the hon. Gentleman has spoken so eloquently.

I agree with the hon. Member. Planning policies should reflect that, so that we prevent an attack on our countryside and make urban centres places where people want to live.

To degrade the quality of life in cities through excessive development will, ultimately, prove to be disastrous for the countryside, as it will inevitably lead to further migration.

If we are to wean people off the car, we must think hard about where development is placed, and how sufficient jobs can be created locally. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that that has been successful. Too often, the locus for new development is road systems, and jobs have to follow people. That results in settlements that are essentially commuter land. Sadly, where such developments have occurred, rather than adding to the social mix, younger people are driven out and jobs go with them.

Those features are only too apparent in my constituency. Stroud is currently having to implement a new county structure plan as well as attempting its own local plan. The area faces considerable constraints, because 50 per cent. of the district is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, another 27 per cent. runs along the Severn estuary, much of which is a site of international ecological importance, and a significant remainder of the district is prime agricultural land or has conservation area status. Less than 5 per cent. of the land is considered brown-field, much of which is already designated for employment purposes.

Outside those constraints, there are areas of immense sensitivity. The late Laurie Lee's Slad valley has no protective designation, and was subject to a recent planning inquiry, which was thankfully turned down. Does anyone pretend that that is acceptable?

Despite those constraints, this summer Stroud district council produced a draft plan for consultation. It has encouraged the involvement in that process of parish and town councils and the general public. In a survey of the entire district, 70 per cent. of those who responded supported a dispersal strategy as opposed to a new settlement, which was the favoured option of the county council initially and which would have had a devastating impact on the environment and on the economies of local market towns, especially Stroud.

Stroud district council is now attempting a bottom-up approach to resolve difficulties. It is too early to say whether that bold approach will be successful, but it must be the way forward, provided that the numbers are realistic and account is taken of the constraints.

There is a need to understand the specific dynamics of our rural areas, but that is not to argue that, as an alternative, houses should be crammed into cities. The message is that the future health and sustainability of the countryside is dependent on the health and sustainability of our cities.

We must revise the approach that resulted in urban and rural policies being entirely separate spheres, and we should examine the relationship between the two as a basis of a clearer vision of what both want. Protection of the countryside must go hand in hand with a strong, urban policy.

I want to comment on the planning system. I would argue for a proper, plan-led system to enable communities better to control their environment and to meet local needs, and to bring certainty into the process. That would overcome the policy and practice in recent years that allowed market forces to dominate.

One of my concerns is provision for windfall sites, which undermines the certainty of a plan-led system. The Council for the Protection of Rural England argues that windfalls should be adequately accounted for by local authorities. In particular, a plan-led system would provide for a specific number of homes to be built, which would reassure village communities that a precedent is not being created for excessive development in the future. A plan-led system should also allow proper provision for social housing to deal with homelessness and social exclusion, rather than having to rely on piggy-backing private development.

I support the Government's regional strategy. I advocate combining the capacity that it offers with the development of a broad planning policy with a bottom-up approach that involves people in the creation of sustainable, revitalised communities.

I would welcome a visit to Gloucestershire by the Minister, not to get him embroiled in protracted local issues, but to engage him in a wide discussion on the Government's thinking on how the planning system could be improved.

The Government have been criticised by the Conservative party for not listening to the interests of the countryside. I hope that, by initiating this debate, I have shown that Labour Members are genuinely concerned with the real issues of the countryside, and that we will play our part in this major issue. We have shown our concern through local Agenda 21—or Vision 21 as we call it in Gloucestershire—whereby factors such as sustainability have been discussed. In its own way, that could be a model for the future. It is through such initiatives and getting people involved that we shall begin to find answers to what otherwise seems to be an intractable problem.

Order. It is clear that several hon. Members are trying to catch my eye. Brevity will assist.

11.14 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). He even acknowledged that Conservative Members are suspicious that Labour Members have no care for the countryside. I was grateful for his contribution, and I shall listen carefully to ensure that the Minister agrees with him, and with the vast majority of Conservative Members, that we must do much more to preserve the countryside that we all enjoy, irrespective of whether we live in the country or the town.

I am not speaking from a NIMBYist "not in my backyard" position. I shall talk about the importance of preserving the countryside in my area, but I shall also refer to the commitment of certain villages in my constituency to the need to give some of their land for extra housing. The previous Government's commitment to the preservation of the environment was second to none. We shall be careful to ensure that that commitment is carried on by the new Government. The previous Secretary of State for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), said in a debate only last week that he could recall only one occasion on which he gave permission to build on a green-field site. The new Government have a lot to live up to. When she was Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher said that we were merely leaseholders of this land for future generations. It is a full, repairing lease, so we have a lot of work to do.

Conservative Members are suspicious not only of the private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), but of the Government's commitment to agriculture, especially in less-favoured areas. Agriculture is part of the countryside that we all enjoy. The £60 million in hill livestock compensatory allowances for last year will be taken away for this year, and that will be a terrible deprivation for farmers. That is one of the reasons why Conservative Members are so concerned.

There is much concern about the problems that new homes in the countryside bring with them. We have to put up with extra traffic from tourists and those who come to live in the countryside, and extra pressure is caused by the erection of telecommunication masts, wind turbines and pylons. The countryside is under attack not just from housing, but from other pressures.

Several reports over the summer—primarily in The Sunday Times—claimed that the Government are preparing to relax restrictions on the building of up to 2 million new homes in the countryside. The reports claimed that millions of acres of green-field land, such as the green-belt land between Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage, could be converted into housing estates.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the report of the Round Table on Sustainable Development, which said that 75 per cent. of extra housing could be built on brown-field sites. If the Government are sufficiently committed to that, it will be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) said that we should consider different ways of providing the extra housing that will be necessary due to changing demographics and people's changing needs.

It has been estimated that, without any restrictions, the countryside will have to find room for at least 2 million more homes. Current figures from the Council for the Protection of Rural England show that, 270,000 acres of countryside will each year be flooded with concrete by developers. That is equivalent to 250,000 football pitches. The CPRE reckons that, by 2016, an area the size of Hampshire will have been lost—and that is before the relaxation of current restrictions.

Imagine how much worse it would be if the Government allowed building on green-field sites. I do not dispute that extra housing is needed, but we have to be careful exactly where we put it all. How turning much of our green and pleasant land into an urban jungle will solve the problems of neglected inner cities is beyond me.

I have already seen what plans to build on small villages can do to an area. The hon. Member for Stroud talked about his constituency; 75 per cent. of my constituency is an area of outstanding natural beauty. That means that, in many ways, there is much more pressure on the rest of the constituency. People think that there is a straight demarcation line: they are either in the AONB or outside it. Of course, much of the area leads up to the AONB, so it is all part of the countryside that people enjoy.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Does he accept that in constituencies such as his, or mine on the fringe of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty and green belt, there is reinforced pressure for development because they lie just beyond the fringe of areas where restraint is obligatory?

Of course I accept that. Because they enjoy the countryside in the area of outstanding natural beauty, people live as close as they can to it; it is on their doorstep. They do not realise that, as all this building is going on there, they are helping to scar and to encroach on AONBs and to damage the very thing that they love, so we have to be guarded about that.

On villages with surrounding AONBs, as I have said, in my constituency Barrow has taken on more than 200 houses. That does not sound like a lot, but it is double the size of the village. Clitheroe, another area around my constituency, is one of the larger market towns and it has taken on several hundred houses, which are dotted all over the place. Each application does not sound like an awful lot—some are for only about 70 or 100 houses—but they all take up different green-field sites dotted around the town.

One green-field site is taken up after another, although each application is for only one more green-field site. Over years, several green-field sites have been taken over. They are disappearing by stealth, and we must guard against such applications.

In Ribchester, a brown-field site has been used for extra housing: it is a mixed development of affordable housing and less affordable housing. I have no problems with that at all, although there was much concern among villagers about all the extra housing coming in. However, the new development has married well with the village.

Longridge has also given over some extra fields to housing. As the name would suggest, Fulwood—which is near the Preston end of the constituency, which is more urban—was at some stage a wood. Now we can drop the word "wood" and just have the word "full", because just four green-field sites are left.

The Commission for the New Towns owns those four fields. I and residents in the area have had many meetings with the CNT, trying to appeal to it. We know that it has an obligation to get the best price for the land, and one of the ways in which to do that is obviously to secure planning permission for houses on it, but we have asked the CNT to be a little compassionate and to have regard to all the extra housing that has been built in the Fulwood area—some "lungs" are necessary for all the people who have moved into the extra housing. We have had some constructive meetings with the CNT, and I hope that they will continue.

My constituency has also suffered from the fact that three large institutions have virtually all closed, apart from one that is now half in operation. They are former mental institutions of the Victorian style, which housed 3,000 patients. As they have closed, they have become ripe for sell-off and for housing then to be built there. Because those large institutions were not too far away from other villages, which used to supply much of the work force, there is now tremendous pressure for the old hospitals to be flattened and for developments of 1,000 houses to be put on those areas, with little regard to the fact that there are only 500 houses in the neighbouring village.

Again, we ask the Minister to consider those sites carefully. No one is discounting the fact that, once the hospitals disappear, building can go on to the footprint of the old hospital site, but people resent green fields around the old hospital being given up so that extra housing can go on to those green-field sites as well, totally swamping the old villages, with little regard for the infrastructure, never mind the fact that doctors' surgeries and schools cannot cope with the extra numbers.

One of the deals is to say to developers, "You can put on these extra houses so long as you give us extra money to build an extra school." It is called planning gain. I plead with the Minister: there is such a thing as non-planning gain. One of the reasons why people go to live in or visit the countryside is because conditions in cities and towns are not replicated there. Certain people, as we have already heard, want to live in cities and towns, and we have to regenerate those areas to ensure that they can do so. It is done in other countries and we should be looking to do it more here. That will also work as a safety valve for less building in the countryside, so that people can come from cities and towns and enjoy the countryside as well.

I ask the Minister, therefore, to consider carefully those old hospital sites. Many other institutions are past their sell-by date and there is now tremendous pressure for them to be turned into something else. Another one, called Whittingham, an old mental institution, has been flattened and there is tremendous pressure to put 1,000 houses on that site as well. There are about 500 houses in the local village, and villagers are protesting. We have the support of the local council to ensure that the development is down to about 375 houses, so it is not true that we do not want any houses there. We accept that some building will take place, but we ask for sensitivity to ensure that the developments are as small as possible.

I shall now bring my remarks to a close because I know that many other hon. Members want to speak about the problems in their constituencies, and the more people talk about their anecdotal evidence, the stronger the case will be. In many cases, building on green fields is viewed as cheaper, but it will have an enormous cost, which will be borne by all of us and by future generations, if we allow it to go ahead. Those future generations have no say at the moment and we have to speak up on their behalf as well, so that they can enjoy what we are enjoying currently.

11.26 am

I support much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has said. However, representing an urban constituency, I view the issue of the 40,000 to 50,000-plus new homes to be developed in our county from a slightly different perspective.

Perhaps I feel a little sensitive that my constituency, the city of Gloucester, might be an easy target for the new developments and the tens of thousands of new homes that we have to accommodate on our doorstep, because the recent history of growth has been one of incremental development on the boundary of Gloucester. Often, housing estates have sprung up on the edges of the city, where the agenda has been set predominantly by developers rather than by the communities that have to sustain themselves for future generations.

I have another anecdotal, but perhaps briefer, example. Quedgeley in my constituency has about 10,000 residents. It is a big new development on the southern part of Gloucester city. It was originally developed as part of Stroud district, but the residents, being so close to Gloucester, needed to rely to on Gloucester for services, for transport and for everything that is required to sustain a community.

Eventually, therefore, the city boundaries were changed and Quedgeley became a welcome part of our city. However, the people there now feel let down because, over time, they have realised that they have nice houses, but little else. They have a poor transport network after bus deregulation, few community services, few pre-school services and poor shopping facilities.

Abbeymead is another big estate that has been bolted on to the east of the city. It comprises very nice houses—predominantly three to four-bedroom or smaller detached houses that attract young families. Yet, once again, it is a developer-led settlement rather than a community-led settlement, so residents have little access to good public transport. There is no pre-school provision for under-fives, and shopping facilities are bad. The developments that have sprung up around Gloucester have been bolted on to the edge of our city and are developer-led. We should be building communities, not simply houses.

Gloucester has learnt some sharp lessons from the new developments. The Government should provide a lead, centrally and at county level, and address the housing puzzle with more vision. The previous Government left us in a mess. We are now looking to the new Labour Government not simply to puzzle out where to put new houses, but to have a long-term strategic vision of where future communities should be.

It is often convenient for rural areas to avoid any development by shunting developments on to the urban fringes, but that is storing up problems for the future. I understand that those living in beautiful rural areas do not want large developments, but nor do we want to take what often seems to be the easy option—shoving new developments on to the edges of cities without any real consideration for the needs of the communities.

More than half Gloucestershire comprises areas of outstanding natural beauty or green belt land. It would be very difficult for Gloucester to absorb many more new developments by bolting them on to the edges of our cities without longer-term vision and a strategic approach to developing communities.

There are difficulties, because we have to rely on private developers. We know what we want in our cities—it has already been mentioned by Opposition Members. We want to develop inner-city areas—flats above shops, small low-cost housing units for single people and elderly people. We want some of the run-down areas in the city to be redeveloped. However, we have to rely on private developers. When they can choose between regenerating an inner-city area with derelict streets or building profitable estates bolted on to the outskirts of cities, we all know which option they will take. We want development in Gloucester to be from the inside out, not bolted on the outskirts of the city.

We are looking to the new Labour Government to take a firm lead, as I am sure they will, in clearing up the mess that we were left by the previous Administration. We want an approach that goes beyond physical planning, reliance on private developers and current planning arrangements. We need a joint strategy to encompass housing, employment needs and transport to create large self-sustaining communities and a regional policy that meets that vision.

I want to be able to reassure local communities in Gloucester that it is not simply a puzzle of where to put 40,000 to 50,000 new house and shunting them between rural and urban areas. Therefore, I am asking the Government to reassure the people in my constituency that there is a long-term vision of building communities that takes us into the new millennium considering all the elements that a new community needs, including employment, community facilities and giving local authorities the power and encouragement to deal with private developers and look at the real needs of the communities that they serve.

11.33 am

I thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for initiating today's debate on an issue that affects rural constituencies and suburban ones such as mine.

The hon. Member for Stroud has already explained why there will be an increase in the number of households. That there will be is indisputable, but there is doubt about the number of homes that might be required. A figure of 4.4 million has been mentioned, but it is possible to reach another figure—some 500,000—and I shall explain how.

The 4.4 million figure was projected in 1991. Since then, up to 1 million homes may already have been built, so we may be talking about a requirement of an additional 3.4 million. The figures assume inward migration. Historically, there have been periods when there has been no inward migration, so it is possible that 500,000 fewer dwellings may be needed. Assumptions have been made about the increase in the number of single households. If half the built-in increase actually occurs, a further 600,000 homes may be knocked off the estimate. Finally, there are 800,000 empty homes, so that figure can be taken off the list.

If we subtract all those figures from the original 4.4 million, we are left with 500,000. My calculation illustrates the wide range of figures that could be used, and the discrepancy makes it extremely important that the Government re-examine the figures.

The figures were produced in 1991 and the Government should not assume, six years later, that 4.4 million homes continue to be required and that new settlements and towns should be built throughout the country on the basis of figures that could be significantly out.

There may be a danger of wishful thinking getting in the way of facts. I appreciate that we are working on the previous Government's figures, but are not the projected housing figures reviewed every three years? Were not the present figures reviewed in 1995? Is it not also the case that they are based on Government statistics that were collected in 1992 and that the three most recent projections underestimated the growth in housing need? Is the hon. Gentleman not being a little unrealistic in hoping that we can reduce the figure simply be adjusting the mathematics?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I was saying only that there is some debate about the accuracy of the figure of 4.4 million. I am not suggesting that only 500,000 new houses are required; simply that there is a difference of view among experts about the figure. For that reason, the Government should consider a phased release of land rather than do everything in one go.

I agree that the figures are based on historic data that are merely projected forward. No clear methodology or model is employed in calculating the figures. As the Guinness advert says, 33 per cent. of all statistics are made up on the spot. One gets the feeling that the mechanical model of projecting from historic trends is not the way to discover our housing needs. The figures must be right, otherwise we will build on our green acres and all will be lost.

The Government should re-examine the projections, otherwise builders will embark unnecessarily on a massive building programme.

I should like to know whether demand can be reduced. The previous Government attempted to use social engineering with back to basics, but I am not suggesting that route. Demand cannot be reduced by social engineering, but something can be done about the 800,000 empty homes. The Government should support initiatives such as the above-shop scheme. In the past couple of days, my local council has set up an empty homes hotline that people can call if they have inherited a home that they are not using or are aware of a dwelling that has been empty for a number of years. Such schemes should be encouraged.

Can housing demand be influenced by the Government? Undoubtedly—even if they influence only inter-region migration. As the hon. Member for Stroud mentioned, the Government could increase employment and prosperity in certain areas, thereby reducing the need for migration. An integrated transport policy could help to ensure that currently inaccessible places are easier to reach, and make people want to remain there. The Government should examine also the reasons for inter-region migration.

If we accept that millions of homes are required, should we build them? We are back to the predict-and-provide question. Unlike roads—to which one can provide an alternative in the form of public transport—we cannot provide an alternative to a roof over someone's head; housing has to be provided.

If we provide housing, where should it be built? Brown-field and green-field sites have already been mentioned. The Government currently believe that perhaps 50 per cent. of new housing can be built on brown-field sites and that the remaining 50 per cent. can be built in other locations. Other experts hold a different view—that possibly 60 per cent. of new housing can be built on brown-field sites and that 40 per cent. can be built in other areas. There is a good case for choosing and running with a target. Perhaps the Government should consider a 60 per cent. rather than a 50 per cent. construction target on brown-field sites.

Whether homes are built on brown-field or green-field sites, there will be some common requirements, some of which the hon. Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham) outlined. Matters that require consideration include transport, health provision, education, social services, water resources and a host of other issues that will have to be considered at the time.

In my constituency, in the ward of Wandle valley, there has been massive private residential development. The only problem is that general practitioner services have not kept pace and many people now find it extremely difficult to get on to a GP's list. We must consider all the implications before we start a building programme on either brown-field or green-field sites.

It is environmentally preferable to build on brown-field sites. As technological advances are made, it will be easier, and I hope cheaper, to decontaminate sites. In my constituency, a BP chemical plant is being redeveloped as a model housing estate, with which we are very pleased. Moreover, commercial advances will make decontamination easier. Recently, an organisation with which some hon. Members may be familiar launched a commercial insurance scheme under which it provides land certification and developers with cover for potential risks associated with decontamination work.

Such developments will make it easier to develop brown-field sites, but we must ensure that jobs follow those developments. There is no point building homes on brown-field—or even on green-field—sites if there are no jobs. Furthermore, development will have to go hand in hand with regeneration of town centres. As hon. Members have said in this debate, brown-field site developments can help us to regenerate inner cities and other urban areas.

There is undoubtedly insufficient brown-field land. We must therefore consider building on other land—on what I have described as taupe-field land. For hon. Members who do not know it, taupe is a mixture of brown and grey. Taupe-field sites are those on which there is already some development, such as a road or a retail or industrial park. If we run out of brown-field land, perhaps we should consider either taupe-field sites or land on which there has been limited development, such as Ministry of Defence land.

It is probable that all hon. Members in the Chamber favour greater development on brown-field land. The problem is that much of it is contaminated. Does the hon. Gentleman have any idea how we might decontaminate brown-field land and therefore be able to build on more of it?

In my constituency, BP has very successfully decontaminated land by removing topsoil and cleaning the environment. Decontamination has already happened. I do not think that there are any problems with decontaminating some land.

As a last resort, green-field sites will undoubtedly have to be used. Organisations that one would never have expected to support such development are already saying, "Yes, it will have to happen, because a limited amount of land is available for development."

I should like Ministers, first, to review the housing projections. They must be reviewed, regardless of whether they are made on a three-yearly basis. Secondly, the Government should also back an empty homes campaign, spearheaded by all local authorities. Finally, if development happens, as it must, it should happen—in descending order—on brown-field, taupe-field and green-field land.

11.45 am

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in a debate on a matter that is of such great concern to my constituents in North Swindon. I know that our concerns are shared by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown). I too should like to add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on initiating this important debate. As he rightly said, the housing need projection could change the face of the country and transform the way in which we live. I therefore agree with him and with other hon. Members who have spoken that that figure requires greater scrutiny.

Some housing increase is clearly required. The Government must also tackle the legacy of homelessness that they have inherited from the previous Government—an objective on which they have made a heartening start. Equally, new housing may have to be provided because of changing living patterns. The sheer scale of the numbers, however, is causing concern. It is projected that, by 2016, more than 5,000 new homes will be required in every constituency in the country, with all the consequent pressures on the local environment and infrastructure.

In Swindon, pressure on our green-field sites is already intense, and our share of the projected numbers could turn an already intolerable situation into an impossible one. I am sure that we are not alone, because numbers on such a scale amount to a revolution. I hope that no hon. Member would embark on a revolution without the most rigorous analysis of all the issues.

Much of the national debate—although not in the Chamber today, I am pleased to note—has focused on where new housing should be built and on the correct balance between green-field and brown-field sites. Although that is a vital issue, I should like to focus today on what, logically, is a prior issue. How certain can we be that we really need to make provision for quite so many homes? The answer must be: not very.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and other hon. Members have said, the numbers have been reached by trend-based projections, which are extrapolations based on past behaviour. The evidence is that that technique has not proved wholly reliable. Between 1981 and 1992, for example, projections for annual household formation between 1991 and 1996 varied by almost 100 per cent.

Will such reliability really provide the basis for paving over our fields? I hope not. I suggest that public policy should never be too narrowly based on projections derived from highly complex sets of assumptions about human behaviour in 20 years' time. Will such projections really provide the only justification for concreting over our green spaces? Again, I hope not. I fear, however, that that is precisely what we will do if we allow the figure of 4.4 million new homes required by 2016 to be the driver of our housing policy.

As my hon. Friends and Opposition Members have pointed out, the figure is based on assumptions about social trends, which could easily turn out to be wrong in a society that is increasingly characterised by rapid change. Even relatively limited areas in the assumptions could have significant consequences for the figures.

In a study published in August, the city firm Credit Lyonnais Laing estimates that more than 1 million homes could be removed from the projection total if different, but realistic, assumptions are made about the growth in single unmarried households and a return to nil migration. All the experience of government in recent years tells us that, the more complex the calculations, the more likely they are to be wrong. These calculations are very complex. The more the Government depend on such calculations, the more likely they are to make mistakes.

Of course a start must be made somewhere. It would be wrong of me to cast aspersions on the validity of the methodology; that is not the point. The point is that government is an iterative process. It has to respond to the way in which complex forces interact with each other. We must not let a mathematical formula alone transform our landscape and our environment.

The hon. Gentleman, my parliamentary neighbour, is making a very cogent case for looking very carefully at projections. Does he agree that, if we over-provide, such over-provision—for any of the statistical reasons that he has enunciated—could become self-fulfilling?

Yes, I agree. That is one of the reasons why I am so worried about the apparent reliance on the figure.

It is clear from all the speeches in this debate that policies to implement the current figures will have a dramatic impact on this country. Surely there should be a more fully informed public debate on whether the people want their lives to be transformed in such a way.

Why cannot the Government produce a spread of scenarios based on realistic variations of key statistical factors, showing the impact of each scenario on the projected housing need and the resulting implications for the environment? With such a range of scenarios, we would be in a position to start making democratic decisions about whether we want to try to influence the key factors driving housing demand to produce a different outcome from the one we currently foresee. We are not helpless; there are all sorts of options. We have heard several in this debate—not least, encouraging the more efficient use of housing stock.

Whether we can make better use of housing stock is a very important issue. The need for 33 per cent. of the 4.4 million homes is due to a change in behaviour, which would suggest that we could make greater use of conversion. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should be looking at the tax structure? There is a huge disincentive to convert homes because value added tax has to be paid—whereas it does not on new homes. Does he agree that the Government should be considering that?

I certainly agree. That is precisely the sort of measure that we need to factor into the figures to produce different scenarios for consideration by the people.

The Government have already signalled that they are prepared to make judgments and hard choices about the way in which people live for economic, social and health reasons. Should not we also be prepared to consider such action for environmental ones too? The election of the Government on 1 May revealed that people wanted to take their future back into their own hands. Now is the time for the Government to help them to do so over one of the most important issues facing the country. If we get this wrong, our children and our children's children will pay the price for generations.

A poet summed up the risk far better than I can—a man who contemplated Britain from his library in the town now represented in such a distinguished manner by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Philip Larkin wrote:
  • "I thought it would last my time
  • The sense that, beyond the town,
  • There would always be fields and farms.
  • For the first time I feel somehow
  • That it isn't going to last
  • That before I snuff it, the whole
  • Boiling will be bricked in
  • Except for the tourist parts
  • And that will be England gone:
  • The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
  • The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
  • There'll be books; it will linger on
  • In galleries; but all that remains
  • For us will be concrete and tyres."
I urge the Government to heed his warning and look again at the figures.

11.54 am

I welcome the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing a debate on this very important subject. He made a detailed speech about the statistics and analysis underlying the housing requirement. I do not propose to go too far down that route.

The hon. Member for Stroud will know that the previous Government received expert advice that there would be a growth in the number of households from 19.2 million to 23.6 million between 1991 and 2016. The hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) and for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) cast some doubts on the statistics. It will be important for the Minister in his winding-up speech to say whether he agrees with the projection.

The figure is, of course, only a projection, which can always be revised. If it is revised downwards, we would all be pleased. None the less, the projection was made on the basis of expert advice, so it is incumbent on the Minister to say clearly whether he accepts it or questions it in the way his Back Benchers have.

The previous Government received the expert advice from very good sources. I say to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington that that advice was considered by the then Select Committee on the Environment, which did not question the projection. In fact, it said that there was a consensus among experts that the figure might be an underestimate.

When the Government receive such expert advice, they have to be responsible, act on it, and be open. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) for his openness. He acted on the best advice available. For him, the question was not so much how many, but where. He set about planning in the most sustainable and environmentally friendly way. As the last Secretary of State for the Environment, he was a great friend of the environment. My speech will concentrate on the environment.

In meeting the housing requirement, it is vital that the planning system responds to the challenge and, if at all possible, steers development away from the green belt. I am very troubled, as a Member representing Hertfordshire, by the way in which the county and some borough authorities have responded to the planning process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, Hertfordshire county council has allocated for development 1,000 acres of green belt between Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage. That is of great concern throughout Hertfordshire. As the House will know, the green belt in Hertfordshire and the south-east generally is an extremely sensitive issue.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is an incentive to build on green-field sites, since the cost of them—if one can get hold of them—is often much less than that of brown-field sites? Did the previous Government ever think about doing something about that?

As the House has already heard, the previous Government signalled to developers that they should try to avoid green belt sites. The House has also heard how very difficult it was to get permission for green belt sites from the previous Government. Indeed, the Opposition are a little troubled that the present Government have already given permission for a significant green belt development in Birmingham.

I return to the issue of Hertfordshire, which is important to me as a Member representing the county. I am concerned about not only the county development but the borough development in my constituency. My local authority first responded to its requirement of 4,600 new homes by issuing a draft local plan that identified three green belt sites. One was a particularly sensitive part of my constituency in Borehamwood—land known as Woodcock Hill north of Barnet lane in Borehamwood— where there are very strong green belt reasons for not allowing development to take place.

There was a significant campaign against development on the site in my constituency. I pay tribute to the Elstree and Borehamwood Green Belt Society and the Woodcock Hill Open Spaces Forever—WHOSE—campaign. They have persuaded the local authority to think again and, in the latest version of the draft local plan, part of the site has been removed—although I regret that part of it is still to be built on.

Unhappily, my local authority is now planning to build on another six green belt sites—building into the open countryside in some cases—against strong green belt considerations, in places such as Cherry Tree lane in Potters Bar and Watford road in Radlett, affecting the village character of Radlett and the green open spaces around Potters Bar. We value our green open spaces in Hertsmere. As hon. Members who have travelled through the area know, it contains the first green spaces on routes out of London.

The issues that I have raised are the responsibility of the local planning authority. Like many others, I have made my representations to it. I want the Government to give a strong signal to the planners, who are deciding how the housing requirement will be met. It is incumbent on the Government to send a clear signal that the green belt needs very strong protection.

I should like a strong restatement from the Minister of the importance of the green belt. One or two recent Government statements, made under the pressure of debate or radio interviews, have not put as strong an emphasis on green belt protection as they might have done. We know that appearing on the "Today" programme can put one under pressure. However, the Minister said in an interview on that programme that the green belt was
"up for grabs in the sense that it is always up for grabs. There are planning guidances to say that you can build on green belt in certain circumstances."

The Minister was a little modest in stating the protection that Government policy affords the green belt. Under the previous Government, green belt policy was embodied in planning policy guidance 2, which says not simply that the green belt can be built on in certain circumstances, but:
"There is a presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt unless very special circumstances exist which outweigh the harm caused by the development. Proposals in draft plans that would result in releasing land from the green belt must be fully justified. The Government are committed to protecting the green belt and encourage the recycling of land in urban areas wherever possible to meet development needs."
We need a robust re-statement from the Minister of the importance of the green belt.

We also need a commitment from the Government to consider the targets for brown-field development. We have heard about the targets set by the previous Government. In 1995 we set a target of half of all new development taking place on brown-field land. We thought that that needed to be looked at again and revised upwards. We were considering moving up to 60 per cent. The Minister knows that we received good advice from the Council for the Protection of Rural England and from the Round Table on Sustainable Development that as much as 75 per cent. could be achieved.

I ask the new Government to consider that expert advice carefully, particularly that from the round table, which was promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal under the previous Government as a source of good, independent, impartial advice to the Government. If any Government ever needed such impartial advice rather than cheerleading, the present Government do. They should consider that advice, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable, as it was for the previous Government. I ask the Minister to look carefully at the targets. I know that it may be a little early for a definite reply, but he should give us some indication that he is giving the ideas a fair wind. The green belt is of fundamental importance to my constituency, as it is to the rest of the country, particularly the south-east.

12.2 pm

The debate has been a partial re-run of the debate initiated by the Conservatives last week to express concern on behalf of our constituents. In that debate, as today, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) questioned the figures for household projections. He was joined in that today by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills). They are both issuing a serious challenge to their Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) asked whether the Government accepted the projected figures. That was answered in last week's debate by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), who said:
"We do not dispute the figures."—[Official Report, 4 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 211.]
Extraordinarily, there seems to be an orchestrated campaign by some Labour Members to undermine those figures. Perhaps the Minister will take a different line from that taken by his Under-Secretary last week.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere issued a plea on behalf of the green belt. Today we have the advantage that the Minister against whom the charges on the green belt are being made will come to the Dispatch Box to answer the debate. I shall not detain the House too long, because we are eager to hear what he has to say about the green belt, and his answer to the charge that he has been playing fast and loose with it.

Our suspicions were increased in last week's debate, because our motion included a charge against the Government of weakening planning controls designed to protect the green belt. That point was not answered in the Government amendment or in the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has said, the Minister's words on the "Today" programme on 30 October have caused considerable suspicion. During that interview he repeatedly and pointedly failed to confirm the strong presumption against building on the green belt, which was the cornerstone of policy under the Conservative Government, who doubled the amount of green belt and dramatically increased its protection.

Recent Government actions have also given rise to concern. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions decided arbitrarily to overturn the recommendation of his independent inspector following a public inquiry on the development of 140 acres of green belt land in Birmingham, near Sutton Coldfield.

That is not for housing.

Under the Conservative Government, the green belt was sacrosanct, both in respect of housing and in respect of industrial use. It is amazing that the Minister is suggesting that the green belt is not safe against development for industrial purposes, particularly if an inspector has followed the plan-led system put in place by the Conservatives.

I am not going to give way, because I hope that the Minister will have a chance to respond to the debate and will take some interventions from Conservative Members, if, as we fear, his responses are not satisfactory.

We are told that the Government are considering the 700 responses to the Green Paper, "Where shall we live?", Perhaps it would have been better titled, "Where will you live?", because most of us know where we wish to live, and we choose to live where we want to live. Some of the comments from Labour Members have shown that there is a danger of telling people what to do. I have chosen to live in the countryside, in a semi-rural area. I do not wish to deprive other people of the chance to do that, but I recognise that we should be concerned about the destruction of the existing environment.

One of the concerns in East Dorset at the moment is that the Government's response to the East Dorset draft plan said that the proposed densities were not high enough. Coupled with the rather vague definition of brown land, that means that people who live in houses with gardens are threatened by substantial infill development that would dramatically alter the character of those areas and would, ironically, increase the pressure for more people to live in the countryside.

I hope that the Minister will tell us when the Government will produce some conclusions and stop the general chit-chat on the issue. The time for action is now.

12.8 pm

I wish to thank most of the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, because it has been very constructive. I shall set out the base line for the debate—the Conservatives' best record, in 18 years, for building on brown-field sites was 40 per cent. Miraculously, within six months of leaving office, they have improved that to 75 per cent. That is definitely gilding the lily.

Will my hon. Friend note that the previous junior Minister at the Department of the Environment, who lost Hemel Hempstead—the area that I now represent—at the election, is now employed by a construction company? Will he also note that intensive research to try to identify brown-field sites in Hertfordshire has proved unavailing?

My hon. Friend's comments have been noted by the House and will appear in Hansard.

I first wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on initiating the debate today. As has been mentioned, it was covered in part in the Opposition day debate on rural life.

The housing problem is a major issue facing society today. I would love to come to the Dispatch Box and say that no new houses need to be built, but that is not the reality. It is not the Government who are changing social patterns—that is happening out there in the real world. The Government have to accept that and respond to it. Many opportunities will arise from the growth in the number of households, and some have been mentioned this morning. Mixed development is an exciting prospect, and I have visited imaginative mixed development schemes in Liverpool and Manchester. The Government will encourage those.

I hope that the White Paper will be supportive of regional development agencies and will address the need to improve economic growth and tackle underperformance in the English regions. I hope that it will also suggest ways to relieve those areas in which economic development is overheating and to bring areas that are under-utilised closer to the average. I hope that the Government will be positive and constructive in the White Paper and the Bill that will be introduced later in the year.

I also hope that hon. Members will contribute to the White Paper on an integrated transport system, which will be important for the environment and for the issues that we are discussing today. While we accept that the market has a role to play in housing, we believe that the Government also have a role to play. Unfortunately, the previous Administration abdicated many of their responsibilities.

The main concerns for my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud are whether we believe the household projections and, more particularly, whether we need to plan for the number of households that they suggest will be formed. He has also, rightly, raised the special concerns of his constituency, where the projections require decisions to identify how and where housing should be provided, not just how much. I will try to address each of those issues in turn.

It will be useful for the House—because there seems to be some misunderstanding—if I explain what the household projections are, how they are arrived at, what they say, and how they are translated into development plans. In many areas of government, we do not have the luxury of looking a long way into the future and trying to plan for the changes that we expect will happen. The household projections do just that. They enable local authorities to estimate in their development plans the additional housing that they should provide in the next 10 years or so.

The first stage in the process involves assessing the population of the country using the census and the regular sub-national population projections, which are updated every two to three years. Migration trends, which have been mentioned by several hon. Members, are taken into account in that assessment, and local authorities are consulted about the accuracy of the trends. The evaluation is a rolling programme that is updated every three to four years. The result is a demographic picture of the country for up to 25 years into the future.

The second stage involves turning the population projections into household projections. That is done by dividing the population into five types of household, and projecting the trends in their formation rates into the future. Figures are available for every county and metropolitan area in the country.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that the problem is not with the overall methodology but with the application of the methodology to specific areas, especially rural counties such as Gloucestershire—which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned—and my local county of Somerset. We cannot sustain the projected migration levels without employment. We cannot sustain the use of brown-field sites when they do not exist in our rural counties, but building on green-field sites would change our counties' character completely.

I hope to clear that point up later in my speech.

Finally, local authorities meet at regional planning conferences and, using the household projections as their starting point, try to assess how the growth patterns in their region can best be managed. We will examine that issue carefully in the next year, and we will consult about how to strengthen regional planning. We are committed to the plan-led system, although we believe that it needs modernising. Regional areas need strengthening, as the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) suggested when he mentioned economic development in the regions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government were bequeathed a centralised planning system, in which local people had little opportunity to participate in the fundamental decision making at regional and county structure level? As part of his welcome proposals for reviewing regional planning operations and the possible introduction of regional development agencies, will he consider ways in which local people can have the first instead of the last say in the crucial housing needs and the environmental capacity of the areas that they know so well?

That is an excellent intervention, and we will consider those issues when we consult on the modernisation of the plan-led system. [Interruption.] I say that genuinely, although the hon. Member for Christchurch is sniggering. The Conservatives never offered the people proper consultation. During their 18 years in office, people had to take it or leave it. We do not behave like that. We genuinely consult people and take their point of view into account. I may also say that I will probably take up the offer by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, and launch the consultation on the plan-led system in his constituency.

Will the Minister accept that every planning policy guidance note was subject to the most thorough consultation process before it was implemented?

My comments about consultation were in a wider context. The plan-led system exists, and planning guidance will continue to be subjected to consultation among those whom it will affect.

The regional planning conferences decide how much new growth their urban areas can take and broadly how much should go on brown-field sites and how much on green-field sites. If the Secretary of State is happy with their decisions, the advice is formally turned into regional planning guidance by the Government office. Following that, counties and local authorities use the regional planning guidance as the basis for preparing their plans. At each stage, the projections are again tested and distributed by the authorities. So where all the housing goes eventually—green-field or brown-field sites—is decided by the local authorities. It must be stressed that that is where the decision is taken.

It is unfortunate that the debate still seems to be stuck on the question whether we believe the projections, or whether we need to meet demand. That ground has been examined in detail on numerous occasions, especially in the previous Administration's Green Paper "Household Growth—Where shall we live?", which has been mentioned already today. That document stated in no uncertain terms that large-scale household growth was a fact driven by social, demographic, and cultural changes and that we should address how we can manage the problems, or grasp the opportunities that the growth presents, rather than focusing on "not in my back yard" attitudes.

I understand the principle of using the projection model, but I am concerned about the lack of academic investigation of the social drivers. Where does what is happening in society come into the numbers and the model?

That is factored in in a number of ways. I cannot go into the detail now, but it is in the household projections to the year 2016.

I was about to say that, since the 1920s, every projection for household growth has been an underestimate. Moreover, in 1995 the Environment Committee's inquiry into housing need went through the entire methodology of the way in which such figures are arrived at. It is not for me, from the Dispatch Box, to direct, but all I can suggest is that, if Select Committees wishes to revisit that methodology and the rest of what the Select Committee did in 1995, it is open to it to do so.

I cannot give way again. Time is moving on.

Many people still criticise the system, but no one produces viable alternatives. With all due respect, it was a bit of a back-of-the-fag packet calculation by which the figure was brought down this morning from 4.4 million to half a million.

Those who suggest that local authorities should not make adequate provision for projected housing demand often seem to ignore the consequences. People must realise that serious under-provision would mean house price inflation, as demand bids up prices—and the average price of residential development land in England is already £250,000 per acre.

That would mean an increase in the Government's social housing bill, because more people would be unable to afford their own homes, and because land prices would continue to rise. It would even mean an increase in homelessness as some people were forced out of the system altogether, and, with fewer homes to go round, an increase in sharing would become a reality, so many people could be forced into living together against their wishes. Those factors must be considered.

I should make clear the fact that the target for reusing previously developed land remains at 50 per cent., the same as the previous Government's official target. Although the Green Paper floated a figure of 60 per cent. as an aspirational target, and the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development even suggested 75 per cent., we have not changed the target. The key issue, however, is that, whatever recycling target is proposed, by whatever Government, a certain proportion of growth will still need to take place on green-field sites.

Am I to take it that the Minister is not listening to the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development, and is ignoring the consultation and the figure that it gave? He will know that the target of 50 per cent. is only slightly higher than the 47 per cent. that was achieved in 1992. Will he think carefully about giving a lead for urban regeneration and brown-field development by setting a target?

I can set targets, but if targets are not realistic, it is stupid for Governments to set them. I have set a target of 50 per cent. and if we can achieve that, and more, I should welcome the fact. If we could get 100 per cent. of development on brown-field sites, I would welcome that—but all the evidence from the previous Administration, as well as our present advice, suggests that it is not achievable.

What I have said so far is very general. What does it mean for local areas, for local people in Stroud and the rest of Gloucestershire? As my hon. Friend will know from his time as a Stroud district councillor, Gloucestershire county council is reviewing its structure plan. In that process, it has to take as its starting point the housing requirement figure agreed and published in the regional planning guidance for the south-west. That figure is 53,000 additional dwellings between 1991 and 2011. It was based on the previous set of household projections, not those issued in 1995, which provide the basis for the 4.4 million additional households.

The consultation draft Gloucestershire structure plan was published in May 1996. It accepted the regional planning guidance figure of 53,000, and allocated 8,900 additional dwellings to Stroud for the period 1991 to 2011.

No, I cannot give way, because if I do I shall not be able to get through my speech, and hon. Members have already asked me to answer some of the questions.

I shall deal with that, too.

Following its consideration of the responses to the draft plan, Gloucestershire county council does not intend to proceed further with it. I understand that it is now in the process of preparing a new plan, which it intends to place on deposit for public consultation on 12 January. That plan will be subject to scrutiny at an examination in public, which the council intends to hold next June. That will give everyone concerned about its content an opportunity to question the county's proposals.

Stroud district published a local plan consultation document last July, which accepted the housing requirements in the draft structure plan. After taking account of houses built since 1991, existing allocations and an allowance for windfall sites, the council identifies a need to find land for a further 3,800 new dwellings between now and 2011.

The consultation draft considers ways in which the requirement could be met, and identifies 12 potential housing sites. I understand that the largest of those, covering about 200 acres in an area of outstanding natural beauty to the north of Stroud, in the Painswick valley, has been very controversial locally. My officials in the Government office for the south-west have commented that the consultation paper did not consider how the proposed development in the Painswick valley could be reconciled with the objectives of designating areas of outstanding natural beauty; nor did it provide any local justification that might override the national importance of the designation.

I understand that the district council intends to publish a deposit version of the plan next summer, so my hon. Friend and his constituents will have a further opportunity to make their views known. The district council will have an opportunity to reconsider its proposals, and if it does not, objectors have the right to debate the issue before an inspector at the local plan inquiry. That is a good illustration of the process of checks and balances.

The household projections feed into the consideration of housing requirements in regional planning guidance, which, after debate at the regional level, allocates housing requirement figures to the counties. The counties then propose how much housing should be provided for in their areas by district, and that is tested at the examination in public into the structure plans. The structure plan figures are then further tested in the course of producing the district-wide local plans through public consultation, and ultimately at the local plan inquiry. That also shows that it is for local authorities to determine how and where new housing should go.

The new housing creates both problems and opportunities. District councils cannot simply decide which field should be developed next, or what sites can be found for redevelopment. The need to look ahead to 2011 ensures that they must address the question of what will prove the most suitable and sustainable pattern of development. The choices must be local, unless there is direct conflict with national policy. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud would agree that is how things should be.

I now come to the question that the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) asked about urbanisation. The urbanisation projections should be put into perspective. The most recent projections suggest that the additional housing from 1991 to 2016 would mean only about an extra 1.3 per cent. of the whole of England being urbanised by 2016, bringing urbanisation to a total of 11.9 per cent. It is on that 11.9 per cent. that 88 per cent. of the population would live. That hardly sounds like the concreting over of the countryside that some Members would have us believe is taking place. There would still be as much green belt as urban land.

There is growing concern about the green belt, but let me put that into perspective. The green belt has doubled in area over the past 20 years, whereas the amount of land in urban use has increased by just over 10 per cent. in the same period.

Four times as much land has been added to the green belt over the past 20 years as we expect to urbanise over the next 20 years. The policy on green belts, however, has not changed. It is in PPG2: there is a presumption against inappropriate development in green belts. However, local authorities have always been able to make changes to the boundaries of green belts through the development plan process. That allows for public participation. If local people consider that the most suitable approach, we must think carefully before intervening.

Overall, we have very tight controls on development in this country, with 35 per cent. of our land area designated, as areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks, sites of special scientific interest or other special protection areas. In addition, more than 15 per cent. of land is protected as high-grade agricultural land. The countryside, we believe, is not unprotected.

The household projections are at present the only logical starting point for calculating the housing requirements in regional planning guidance and subsequently in development plans. However, they are only projections, incorporating our best understanding of recent social and demographic trends, including migration. They operate on a rolling basis, and can be challenged by local people before they are put into practice.