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House Building

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2003

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4 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the important subject of house building in West Sussex. In doing so, I have a sense of déjà-vu, because way back in December 1997, one of the first Adjournment debates in which I spoke after my election was on the subject of the Deputy Prime Minister imposing what was then an extra 12,800 houses on West Sussex. He trampled over the West Sussex structure plan and imposed his extra houses on top of the 37,900 additional houses that we were expected to build over 25 years. We were talking about a number of houses equivalent to two whole new towns in the predominantly rural county of West Sussex.

The deposit structure plan that the Deputy Prime Minister overruled envisaged 54 per cent. of the new houses being built on brownfield sites and 46 per cent, on greenfield sites. The additional houses that were then imposed on the county meant that only 41 per cent. of the houses would be able to be built on brownfield sites, according to the predictions, and 59 per cent.—that is getting on for two thirds—would have to go on greenfield sites.

At that time, I and other hon. Members representing West Sussex constituencies warned against overdevelopment in our county. We do not have green belt and we have a great shortage of suitable building sites anyway, wedged as we are, particularly in the south of the county, between the downs, which stretch the full extent of West Sussex, and the sea to the south. We also lack many infrastructure elements, particularly with regard to transport across the county.

The measures imposed by the Deputy Prime Minister were in stark contrast to the undertakings given before the 1997 election by the Prime Minister. He said:
"We will put concern for the environment at the heart of policy making".
He added:
"Local decision-making should be less constrained by central Government."
That is in sharp contrast to what happened.

When the examination in public produced the structure plan, it said:
"Peripheral development could only be accommodated in the county at the cost of an environmental loss which is significantly greater than has happened in the past. The existing character of the county, which is now at a critical point, would be lost, and that would be regrettable."
In the debate on 17 December 1997, I referred to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which had commented:
"The draft West Sussex Structure Plan had been agreed by a careful analysis of housing and environmental needs in the county. It stood as a beacon of a more common sense approach to planning new housing development and its housebuilding levels, significantly below those set out in Government planning guidance, received independent official support… The new Government has made an appalling start to meeting the challenge of providing new homes in ways that renew our towns instead of concreting the countryside. This decision is both undemocratic and environmentally damaging."
At the time, in its report on house building levels, the CPRE predicted that the projected levels of new housing development could generate demands for more than 80 new quarries, extra water resources equivalent to 20 million baths a day and disposal sites for an additional 180,000 dumper trucks of rubbish a year across the country.

Another quote from the time of that report was from the Sussex Wildlife Trust, which stated that the news of the Deputy Prime Minister's action was
"a severe blow against local democracy. The EIP process appears to have been a waste of time and resources. The month of eloquent discussion and the winning of the argument count for nothing against an ill-judged government direction."
How right all those comments turned out to be.

Since 1997, we have had many more debates in the House on the subject of house building, not least that in West Sussex. The West Sussex Gazette and other local papers launched a series of save our countryside campaigns. Tens of thousands of people signed a petition, which they handed in at No. 10 Downing street with me and other hon. Members from the county. Now we see the pigeons coming home to roost. Virtually everything that we have warned about from 1997 onwards is beginning to come true. The target for house building in West Sussex ended up at around 46,500 houses to be built by 2016. On the basis of existing commitments, 13,670 houses have so far been identified, of which just over 4,500—a third—are on brownfield sites. Two thirds, over 9,000 houses, are to be built on greenfield sites, almost the reverse of the equation that the Deputy Prime Minister led us to believe that the Government supported. Government figures show that, nationally, more than 260 sq km of rural land is earmarked for development, while more than 280 sq km of urban land is going to waste and is unused.

In West Sussex, large-scale developments between towns and between towns and small villages are beginning to merge into each other, and the 22 strategic gaps across the county—which are particularly valued—are under threat of further development. Even flood plains, areas that have been judged by the Environment Agency to be at risk from flood, are not exempt from development. There are continuing pressures on the infrastructure with virtually no motorway in the whole of the county and increasing traffic congestion. We in the south-east of England are supposed to continue to be part of the economic powerhouse of the country, but we have heavily oversubscribed schools and some of the longest hospital waiting lists in the country, with enormous pressures on our GPs.

I want to refer particularly to one case in my constituency. That is the planned development for an area in the north of Worthing at the top of Beeches avenue. It is a small site of just under seven acres on the edge of the south downs above the A27. We need to have another debate on another day about the problems on that road. It is marginally outside the area currently identified as an area of outstanding natural beauty and on the edge of what could well become the national park for the south downs. Beeches avenue and the parallel road, Pines avenue, are cul-de-sacs, purely residential roads. To the east of them is the Lyons Farm shopping development, which should never have been built in the first place; it has been a blot on the landscape since the 1990s. The roads have unspoiled views to the downs, and it is agricultural land, used for public footpaths, grazing and bridleways.

It has always been assumed that that would be the northern fringe of development in Worthing and that the town could not push any further into the downs. Worthing is already the largest town in Sussex. It has grown substantially over the past 20 years—it now has two MPs, such is its size. It is a mix of business and residential use, tourist and retirement use and it is deemed to be the most profitable place in which to do business in the whole country. In the local planning inquiry in 2000–01, the land in Beeches avenue was identified as to be kept as agricultural land. Soon after the draft plan was published, the inspector put his nose in and overturned the decision, saying that that plot of land should be earmarked for development. He said that any development there would be "hardly noticeable", and he largely ignored the infrastructure pressure problems that any development would have there.

In October 2002, I am glad to say that Worthing council unanimously overturned that objection by the inspector. The council was united. Hundreds of letters from local residents objected to the inclusion of the site in the local plan as a development site. An action group was formed for the Beeches avenue residents, the Findon valley society also objected, as did the CPRE and Worthing chamber of commerce. Everybody objected to that plot of land being earmarked for development. It was a victory for local democracy and the local environment, and it was right that we should all have stood up to the inspector's recommendation. The proposal would have ruined the scenery of the downs, and set a bad precedent for further development along the ribbon at the foot of the downs. The extra 90 houses which it was said could have been built there would have brought in an extra 300 people at a time when the local schools are mostly full, and most of the local doctors' surgeries have had to close their lists as they are oversubscribed.

Moreover, in the absence of a Worthing bypass, there is also the notorious problem of the A27. We have wanted such a bypass for the past 30 years, but the Secretary of State for Transport now refuses to see a delegation composed of me and my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and other local representatives from the town, although he has apparently recently met local environmental groups objecting to such a road. Congestion on the A27 is the worst that it has ever been. Access on to the A27 from Beeches avenue and Pines avenue is already virtually impossible, and the proposed new houses would add 60 to 70 trips an hour. At times, it has taken me five minutes just to get out of those roads—one can only imagine what an extra 60 or 70 trips would do to the traffic on the A27. The A27 also acts as a severance to access from the southern side of that road, where all the schools and amenities are located. There is no major road infrastructure attached to the proposals for development.

Other problems with the development include that of water supply, to which I will return later, and the fact that the area is also archaeologically sensitive. Moreover, in including this area for development in the inspector's recommendation, no regard seems to have been given to the sequential approach to development with other brownfield sites.

However, if local people thought that that was the end of the matter, they have been lulled into a false sense of security. The Government's pronouncements about the need for higher levels of house building have sent out a green light to builders and emboldened speculative developers. Consequently, earlier this year, Hargreaves, a local developer, put in an application for the building of 90 dwellings on that piece of land. I have nothing against Hargreaves; its job is to make a profit, and to take advantage of vulnerable spots in potential local development sites, and it is not fussy whether those are greenfield or brownfield sites. The Hargreaves application was for a mixture of two-bedroom flats and three, four or five-bedroom houses, arranged around a series of cul-de-sacs. The development would include no affordable housing, contrary to the local planning policy. No transport impact assessment was attached to it, and it therefore conflicts with the policy requirements of TR4.

There were 376 objections to the application. I am glad to say that the Highways Agency, which is responsible for the A27, raised objections and, on 29 April, Worthing council planning committee unanimously rejected the application. However, even before the application had been rejected, Hargreaves had lodged an appeal, which will be heard later in the year.

We now have a big fight on our hands. As with many such planning appeals, the odds are always weighted against local residents, and they will have to dip into their pockets to pay for legal representation to ensure that they can contest the appeal properly. Thus contrary to the plan devised by the local council, and despite the wishes of local people, local councillors and the town's two MPs, the development could go ahead. That flies in the face of the recommendations of Lord Rogers' urban taskforce report, which was so triumphed a few years ago.

Other controversial large-scale housing developments taking place in Worthing and West Durrington, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West, should mean that, by 2006, there will be an extra 700 new dwellings in Worthing, even without Beeches avenue, whereas the local plan assumes that only 400 dwellings will be needed by 2006 to comply with Government targets. That level of building also seriously conflicts with the eighth report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on "Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions". The report says:
"Building more homes is not a panacea and the impact of such a housing programme on the environment could be unsustainable. The impact of developing so many homes in the South East, one of the most densely populated regions in Europe has not been fully assessed."
One of the experts giving evidence to the Committee said:
"I think it is very simple: we are piling far too much activity and too many expectations into South East England, and in terms of environmental capacity it is like a vessel overflowing. We cannot take any more in South East England."
One of the conclusions of the report was:
"The Committee is not convinced that the enlarged house-building programme can be accommodated in the South East without seriously affecting the quality of the environment. Before new house-building targets are approved, the likely impact on the environment must be appraised within the Government?s sustainability criteria."
I am afraid that all that is happening in Worthing and the rest of West Sussex. Developers who previously took options on land and strategic gaps are now exercising them and buying the land outright. That is not helping to solve the problem of the shortage of affordable housing for key workers in our county. Almost no support money for key workers is coming into the county, and there are fewer police in Sussex than there were in 1997. They are not being helped by the lack of affordable housing. There is a chronic shortage of nurses, doctors and social workers: again, that is not helped by the shortage of affordable housing.

In short, Government policy is promoting the irreversible concreting over of Sussex countryside, to which Lord Rogers' report and the sequential processes are making little difference. It is making houses even less affordable in our part of the country, and is adding to the economic overheating in the south-east, which is always going to benefit from its geographical position, from its proximity to the continent and from the influence of the city of London.

Worst of all, this is part of the systematic destruction of the treasured environment and landscape of West Sussex that can only further tarnish the quality of life for many of my constituents and other residents of West Sussex, who have chosen to make our county their home and want it to remain so. They do not want it to metamorphose into an even more concreted-over and congested urban sprawl.

It is time that the wishes of local people, acting with representatives of their local communities, were respected and responded to, and that they counted for something. I shall stand shoulder to shoulder with my constituents in and around Beeches avenue, north Worthing, in opposing this unreasonable development. It sets a very bad precedent. I hope that the Minister will support that stand if local democracy, or what remains of it under this Government, still counts for anything. I warmly invite him to visit Worthing and the rest of West Sussex to see some of these developments, and to see for himself the strength of feeling.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on his success in securing the debate on house-building levels in West Sussex. It is an important matter not only for West Sussex but, as he implied throughout his speech, for the south-east in general.

I start by eschewing his pleasant invitation to visit West Sussex and Beeches avenue in particular, which is the subject of a planning appeal for non-determination. The examination in public has just reported on the West Sussex plan, which may well cross my desk or the desk of someone else in the Department as that process comes to fruition.

I was going to tag on to the end of my speech that I would be more than happy to see a group of people from Worthing or West Sussex to talk through these issues, which are important, or to pop down to Worthing to have a look at some of the developments. So, I may take up the hon. Gentleman's invitation, but not until the assorted processes of planning and inquiry have been completed. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that I cannot comment on the details of specific development proposals or those that are still outstanding from the examination in public.

I regret that a serious issue that causes concern is being treated politically. If I am to believe the hon. Gentleman, everything that the Government have done about it has brought doom, gloom and concrete for the people of West Sussex. I do not share that belief, nor do I share the notion that, by implication, the thrust of the "Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future" statement on 5 February is all about concreting over the south-east. I accept that there are real concerns in West Sussex, as there are in other areas in the south-east and in London, which we are seeking to address, but to caricature it as concreting over the whole countryside is not terribly useful for the purpose of the debate.

The hon. Gentleman knows that West Sussex county council is preparing its replacement structure plan and I thank him for the potted history of the last round in that exercise. I share some of his concerns—not about specific developers on specific sites—about appeal processes, concurrent applications and applications that have not been determined at the local level going straight to appeal to bypass the process. We are seeking to deal with all those issues through our planning reform package.

There are several ways in which we will afford discretion to local authorities to deal with applications that are tantamount to abuses of the systems. For example, some developers make one application to the local democratic planning authority and another to go straight through the appeal process. There is also development by stealth, where an application is made and another one, which has minor modifications, rolls in straight after it. Under the present system, such an application has to be treated as a totally separate process and the process goes appeal, application, determination, appeal, application and determination. It is like a dice game until the developer gets what he wants, which cannot be the right way forward.

I suspect that the eighth report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government—this is at my peril because I am appearing before it in a couple of weeks—contains some serious flaws, which we will take up with the Committee. We have made the point in the media that the report was unfair on the substance of the sustainable communities plan. It did not give sufficient weight to the statutory duty in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill to create a sustainable framework that takes full account of the ecological and environmental dimensions of any planned application. Its interpretation of the plan was rather shallow, which is a matter for regret—I am sure that I will regret saying this when I appear before the Committee in two weeks' time in another context.

What goes on outside the four growth areas in London and the south-east and the nine low-demand areas in the north and the midlands is important. For once, we may well be the victims of our successful spin, which is unusual for this Government, rather than the reverse. I sometimes wish that we spun better in that much of the focus of the immediate media coverage of the communities plan was on those four growth areas and not on the rest of London and the south-east.

As the hon. Gentleman says, the south-east is a hot spot and it will continue to be so. We cannot turn the country upside down for a decade to allow the northern regions to be in close proximity to the golden triangle from Calais to western Germany. The south-east is an economic hot spot, which means that we must be all the more sensitive to development in the south-east. West Sussex is still on the radar. Through the review of regional planning guidance for the south-east— RPG9—and its successor documents and through the eventual development plan for West Sussex, and indeed Worthing's local borough plan, we will reach a stage at which things can go forward in a measured and sensitive way.

I have no objection to the hon. Gentleman's point that environmental concerns should be paramount. I may have my own opinions on Beeches avenue, but I cannot venture to articulate them. I understand that the particular sensitivities in the south-east are distinct from those in London and its difficulties with an overheated housing market and commensurately high levels of economic activity. We must get to a stage where the debate is about more than either concreting the entirety of the countryside or not allowing any more development. The hon. Gentleman has not said, "No more development", but we must debate the matter in a measured way.

I am pleased that the development target for previously developed land in the plan, which has just finished its examination in public, is 57 per cent, in West Sussex. However, housing completions in the south-east region are too low. They dropped to 22,900 dwellings per annum by 2000, which is 18 per cent, below the figure indicated by regional planning guidance. If one puts all the RPGs together, along with the aspirational figures that we want from the four growth areas, at least 50 per cent, of the growth that we need in London and the south-east is still in areas outside the four growth areas: the Thames gateway, Ashford, the London to Stansted corridor and the south midlands and Milton Keynes district.

The hon. Gentleman also made some interesting points about affordable housing and key workers. The dearth of affordable housing and key worker provision in West Sussex is as serious an issue as it is elsewhere. Public services and the workers who carry them out underpin the communities in West Sussex as much as they do in London or anywhere else. I am not of the opinion that higher degrees of affluence somehow result in public services meaning less to communities.

There has been some progress on key workers in West Sussex. We have put some £4 million into the West Sussex economy specifically for key workers. Much of that benefits health workers and some of it benefits teachers, but my information shows that for some funny reason it covers one social worker in the entire West Sussex area. However, they are a movable feast. We hope that the plan in the document on sustainable communities to regionalise what the Housing Corporation does, which is to make the social housing sector for key workers more responsive and affordable, will assist in the process. When we introduce the planning reforms and the system of planning between

the local level and the regional level is far more iterative, responsive and flexible than it has been in the past, those sensitivities will be picked up at the plan-led level as well as at the regional housing board level.

The point about the visit is useful. Although the Minister said that he could not come and talk about Beeches avenue or West Durrington straight away, it would be greatly appreciated if he could come reasonably early and find out about the general issues in our part of West Sussex, in Worthing, Adur and Arun. However, I understand that the Minister may return to that later.

As I said, I would seriously be more than happy to come down. It is fun to get out and about round the country and one cannot beat seeing things on the ground. I am coming to my first birthday as a Minister and much of the low demand and abandonment that I have seen in northern areas is a completely new experience for me as a London MP. Although the problems of West Sussex and other parts of the south-east are starkly different and almost form a mirror image to those difficulties, they are just as real for all that. We are serious when we talk about sustainable communities, whether they are in the north or the south.

Come I shall, but a visit might be better in the context of the examination in public, rather than the non-determination application on Beeches avenue. We can drive past West Durrington and Beeches avenue and say, "There it is," or something like that. I will happily come, because having such experiences and making those observations are as important as going to growth areas, low demand areas or anywhere else. That is not least because of what I said about the need for much of the growth and development in London, the south-east and the four growth areas to be sustainable. West Sussex will have its role.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we cannot ignore issues associated with the affordability of housing in the south-east and in West Sussex. I hope that West Sussex gets the plan that it deserves as things unveil on the back of the examination in public—I mean that in the nicest possible way, not otherwise. Worthing borough is coming to the end of its process, which should again reflect local needs and sensitivities. I take seriously what was said about how the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) both have seats with a certain uniqueness. They are sandwiched between the sea and coast on the one side and the downs on the other, and have huge swathes of natural beauty.

Visit I shall, but that will annoy my officials because every time I stand up I promise to visit someone or have meetings. However, we take the level of house building seriously. Building is not about concreting over the countryside and must be done with sensitivity and in a sustainable fashion. If building is not appropriate, I hope that with our planning reforms we will deal with that through the planning system.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o 'clock.