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Volume 447: debated on Wednesday 21 June 2006

I beg to move,

That this House shares the concern of communities throughout the United Kingdom over the scale of residential development on garden land; recognises that the density and speed of such development can cause irreparable damage to neighbourhood character and cohesion; notes that the loss of garden land threatens urban biodiversity and environmental sustainability in towns and cities; further notes that garden land developments rarely exceed the threshold at which affordable housing must be provided and displaces the regeneration of derelict land; believes the official classification of garden land as brownfield to be inappropriate and misleading; and therefore urges the Government to amend all relevant planning guidance to remove gardens from the definition of previously developed land and thereby return decisions over proposed garden land developments to the discretion of local planning authorities.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for choosing to respond to this debate. A reshuffle always gives a Government the opportunity to revisit the effectiveness, or otherwise, of their policies. The creation of the new Department presents an opportunity for the Government to close a loophole in the planning process and put an end to the blight of inappropriate garden development.

After all, since there can be no personal suggestion of a U-turn on the part of the Deputy Prime Minister, few would criticise the new Secretary of State for wanting to put her stamp on the Department. What better way is there to do that than by reversing an unpopular and destructive policy?

I think that the Secretary of State knows, deep down, that the prioritisation of gardens for development is unfair to local communities and unsustainable for the local environment. She has intervened many times in her constituency to prevent such development from happening, as I have done in mine, and, like me, she may well have found her constituents being overruled by the Deputy Prime Minister. Her reason for getting involved might be the same as mine—that the present planning guidance is failing communities, which are powerless to prevent gardens and urban green spaces from being developed.

The planning guidance is also failing first-time buyers, who simply cannot afford the expensive apartments that are being built, and it is failing residents because there is a lack of supporting infrastructure. Finally, it is failing future generations, as they will have to live with the environmental legacy of the rush to build on our urban green spaces.

My hon. Friend talks about our legacy, but does she agree that all hon. Members are the stewards of our nation’s future? Cathedral cities such as Lichfield or market towns around the country represent everything that this country has to offer in terms of architectural heritage. The helter-skelter construction on gardens and other areas is destroying our neighbourhoods.

I thank my hon. Friend, and I commend to the House his article in this month’s edition of Town and Country Planning magazine. His defence of the city of Lichfield clearly demonstrates that he may have even more heritage to defend than other hon. Members.

I am trying to be generous, so I do not believe that the outcome of the planning guidance is the one that the Government sought. The problem has arisen because three separate elements—the classification of back gardens as brownfield sites, the prioritisation of brownfield land for development, and the density targets for new housing—have been superimposed on each other. It is the confluence of those policies that has created unprecedented levels of garden development.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the proliferation of flats built as infill or on garden land is especially damaging to our communities, as it puts immeasurable stress on the infrastructure? The roads in the south-east are already too congested, and there is a much higher demand for water and for secondary school places.

My hon. Friend correctly anticipates the points that I plan to develop. I think that he will be pleased by what he hears.

The hon. Lady mentioned three factors that she thinks are behind the pressures. Does she accept that people’s expectation of greater space standards in their housing may also be a factor? What is her view about people who want to enlarge their existing home to build a conservatory or an annexe in their garden?

Under the Labour Administration, I am extremely concerned about people contemplating building an annexe to their home or a conservatory. With his expertise in local government finance, the right hon. Gentleman is probably only all too aware that such extensions are precisely the attributes of a home that his Government have every intention of incorporating as part of their council tax rebanding exercise.

No, I want to continue.

The Government’s amendment to our motion compares the situation in the 1980s unfavourably with the present, but according to a written answer of 23 May the proportion of residential development on previously developed residential land has risen—from 11 to 15 per cent. since 1997—and nobody in the Chamber can have failed to see the impact.

This debate is not an argument about whether we need more houses; the Government know that we have repeatedly said that more homes must be built. House building has not kept pace with changing lifestyles and demographics, and that needs to be remedied. We are debating where, how and what should be built.

Is my hon. Friend aware that something more insidious is going on in places such as Worthing and areas in the south? Developers are emboldened to offer premiums of at least 50 per cent. on the market value to the first house in a street of premium family homes. They then go next door and do the same deal, going as far along the road as possible doing the same thing. They apply for planning permission, which is turned down by the local council as the local planning authority, so they appeal. Their appeal is upheld on the basis of the Government’s new density policies and a block of flats is built, with 30 or 40 new inhabitants and many extra cars, and the extra stress on the infrastructure causes havoc.

Sadly, I am not surprised by what my hon. Friend says. Such things are happening all over the country and, interestingly, are the subject of a BBC Online blog, where numerous correspondents file real concerns that are exactly the same as those he has just expressed. My only surprise is that the Government seem to have ignored those views and have stopped listening to the people who are voicing those real concerns.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problems to which she refers, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) described in the south-east, exist all over the country—nowhere more so than in the royal town of Sutton Coldfield? Secondly, does she agree that it was a pity and a serious mistake for a Government Whip to object to the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), which would have made a significant contribution to resolving the problems that she airs so well?

I share my hon. Friend’s great concern about the way in which the Government’s housing policy perversely results in the neglect of considerable tracts of land in the great city of Birmingham, which both our constituencies shoulder, in favour of the back garden development that has ravaged his constituency and mine. I echo his comments about the obstruction by Government Whips of an important private Member’s Bill. I hope that it will not be similarly obstructed at its Second Reading on 14 July.

I am trying to work out the position of Conservative Front Benchers. If we are going to reduce housing density and develop only, for example, on the footprint of demolished properties in urban areas and not on back gardens, presumably, if the Conservatives are to meet our agreed house building targets, we will have to identify more land elsewhere.

If the hon. Gentleman reserves his judgment until I have made my speech, it will become quite clear to him where I envisage many more extra homes being built.

My hon. Friend should not leave the point about why the Government are doing this. The Government know perfectly well that if they are to bring brownfield sites forward, they cannot make the cashback arrangements that the Treasury wants to get out of development. They have got to put their money where their mouth is. This is an excuse by the Government not to rebuild Britain on brownfield sites, because the Treasury wants the cash.

My right hon. Friend’s considerable expertise in this area gives him an advantage over many Members in the Chamber in understanding what goes on in Government when such important strategic decisions are made. I will add one other note of scepticism: the incorporation of back gardens into the brownfield definition and the application of that through planning guidance have enabled the Government to come closer to their own set target for brownfield building. In the target-driven culture that we live in, that has furthered their own ends.

I want to make a little more progress. I will take more interventions later.

Our discussion of where homes should be built could hardly be more topical, because today we had an announcement from the Government office for the south-east. It wants the house building target that was originally set to be increased by 60 per cent. I hope that the Government will understand why there is such deep concern in communities up and down the country about the way in which their housing policy, with its perverse incentives, is being interpreted.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why local communities feel so disempowered in the whole debate is the fact that decisions are being taken out of their hands? The decisions are being taken in Whitehall by people who do not know the area or the pressure on local communities.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is correct to point out that the Government’s housing policy and the way in which power has been exercised has damaged trust in the planning system.

Like the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), I represent a rather beautiful area. In the Birkenhead area, Wirral local authority attempts to get developments on the poorer sites along the river, but the developers want to go into the lusher areas of Prenton, Oxton, Claughton and Bidston. The local authority tries to defend its position of ensuring that development goes on in the poorest areas, but if the local authority does not agree with something, all those decisions are appealed and practically every case is lost. That is what is so wrong about the present set-up.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and perfectly understands the situation. No doubt that is why he and 38 of his colleagues on the Government Benches have signed our early-day motion. We tabled our original early-day motion as the motion for this debate because it has attracted such strong support from Members on both sides of the House. Surely the Government must sit up and listen to this cross-party consensus.

I am going to make a bit of headway. If my hon. Friend would like to wait, I think that he will like my next comments. I would especially like to commend him for bringing a ten-minute Bill before the House to change the classification of gardens from brownfield. We wish him well with the Second Reading on 14 July and we thank him for the extensive research that he has conducted.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her warm words. She referred to the early-day motion. I wanted to point out for the record that it was co-sponsored by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor)—I am grateful for her support—and signed by at least two Liberal Front-Bench spokesmen. It is thus a cross-party early-day motion, rather than just a Conservative one.

I hope that the difference with this debate will be that there is a strong cross-party consensus. We want a change to the law because people throughout the country are angry about gardens in their neighbourhoods being carved up and built on. The buildings that go up in the gardens are not just two-storey houses or bungalows, but often blocks of flats.

The first place that people who are worried about a planning application should go is their local planning authority. However, planning authorities are hamstrung by a combination of the brownfield definition, prioritisation and density. However inappropriate the development and regardless of how much it will fundamentally change the character of a neighbourhood, a developer, as the House of Commons Library puts it, thus

“still has every chance of success”.

The problem for planning authorities is that irrespective of the strength of public opinion, planning guidance and housing targets will virtually grant planning permission on appeal by a developer.

The Minister for Housing and Planning recently said on the BBC programme “You and Yours” that it is at the discretion of local planning authorities to determine planning applications. However, as she well knows, that is simply not true. If an authority refuses an application, it is overruled by the Secretary of State. Now that we understand the cause, I want to examine the effect of the failure in the planning system.

Although it is a specialist area, is the hon. Lady aware that the same problem affects airfields, which, obviously, are large flat spaces that are attractive to developers. Several hon. Members will have experienced problems in trying to sustain an economically important airfield in their area. Owing to the changes to planning guidance, there is a risk that airfields might be treated as brownfield sites. Does she agree that the Government should clarify the situation? I should declare an interest in the matter.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the new planning guidance, which was sneaked into the debate on where and how we should build houses, has a centralist approach fundamentally at its heart. As he will hear—if I get the chance to complete more of my speech—I am passionate about how important it is for the re-empowerment of local communities that decision making should come back to where it should be: in the hands of local government.

The most obvious effect of the perverse confluence in planning policy is the destruction of gardens and green spaces. Gardens are a unique source of biodiversity, but they are being lost for ever. Large houses, which are often of local historical interest, are being demolished and replaced by blocks of flats. Trees and hedges are being torn down to make way for access routes, and areas of urban green space are being bought up, enclosed by hoardings and built on. That is changing the entire character and balance of neighbourhoods throughout the country.

The hon. Members who signed early-day motion 2130 were not subjected to an orchestrated postcard campaign or a covert campaign exercise. They put their names to it of their own free will. I believe that they were simply responding to constituents’ letters and public meetings in their constituencies, and I applaud them for doing so. Hon. Members throughout the country signed the early-day motion, which proves that, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) aptly illustrated, the problem does not affect just the south-east. In industrial parts of the north and the midlands there is a proud history of family homes with attractive gardens. It must seem to those communities, which are already suffering from the decline in manufacturing, that even their heritage is being knocked down brick by brick.

The hon. Lady talks about biodiversity. If she believes that the development of garden land threatens, as it says in the motion,

“urban biodiversity and environmental sustainability in towns and cities”,

does she, on the same grounds, reject the proposal by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), the chair of her party’s policy group on economic competitiveness, to concrete over the Medway estuary to build a minimum of 50,000 houses?

I regret giving way to the hon. Gentleman; so far most of the interventions have not been of the point-scoring sort. The fundamental point, which I reiterate, is that the biodiversity in urban gardens and green spaces is often richer than it is in utilisable agricultural land.

No, I will not give way. I want to proceed with the point about the demolition of our heritage.

We were pleased to read reports today that the Secretary of State has had a change of heart about the demolition of some of the Victorian villas in Liverpool. I commend my hon. Friend the shadow Minister for regeneration, who has campaigned vigorously with other hon. Members to bring about that change of heart. We hope that it is a sign that the Secretary of State is minded to review quite a few aspects of her predecessor’s policies.

It is no secret that my constituency is heavily affected by development in gardens. In fact, almost half the brownfield development is on garden land. Feelings are rising so high in the borough of Solihull that more than 2,000 people have signed my petition calling for that kind of infill development to be stopped. Colleagues facing the same problem have urged me to make it a national petition, which we will do. Next time hon. Members are in a garden, I ask them to look around and imagine how it would feel if the land next door were developed and their privacy lost because they were overlooked.

Just a minute.

Perhaps hon. Members would put their houses on the market and move, but it is not so easy to do that if a bedroom is floodlit by 24-hour lighting in the car park of a neighbouring apartment block, or if effluent from new houses is making its way back up the drains because the existing drainage system cannot cope. Those are genuine examples from my constituency, and they have a devastating effect on the quality of life. The impact is not just practical, but social and environmental.

Does the hon. Lady agree that we should build more homes? In particular, does she agree that we need to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2016?

The Minister is an intelligent woman and I have no doubt that she has perfect hearing. She must have been distracted when I stated at the outset, as I have on numerous previous occasions, that we agree that we need a lot more homes.

If the Minister lets me continue my speech, I shall explain where we see that house building happening.

In some places, the result of garden development has pitted neighbour against neighbour. Communities have been divided by it. People who have worked hard and saved to buy a house with a garden are now looking anxiously over their borders for signs of development. What hope is there for a family that wants to preserve its garden as a safe refuge where children can play or as an oasis after a hard day’s work, when on either side high-density housing invades that space?

What of the environmental impact? Back gardens are crucial habitats for all kinds of wildlife, much of which has often migrated there from the countryside. The destruction of those precious ecosystems, which house everything from badgers and foxes to squirrels and birds of prey, should provoke outrage. Back-garden development is effectively turning access to nature and wildlife into the sole preserve of those who live in the country.

Not at the moment.

I find it ironic that the Government who introduced the idea of measuring birdsong as a key indicator of quality of life are now responsible for a policy that will do more than anything else to silence it.

Garden development also brings with it the problems of infrastructure. Villages and urban areas are growing in an unplanned and erratic way, and the infrastructure cannot cope.

Just one minute.

Community facilities, like schools and doctors’ surgeries, are not expanding at the same rate as population growth. The Environmental Audit Committee’s warning that extensive house building is not sustainable where water is short is being flatly ignored. Without the necessary investment, we will simply not be able to service the increased numbers of power showers and dishwashers drawing on water supplies. Even where there are adequate water supplies, there is often inadequate drainage, and what of the roads and lanes on which the development occurs?

Just a minute.

Public transport links are not sufficiently developed to service a fast-growing commuter population, and road congestion now goes hand in glove with garden development. The Department’s obsession with planning the car out of new development merely results in cars littering the pavements, forcing pushchairs and mothers into the road. All that makes road crossing more dangerous, traffic congestion worse and residential areas ugly.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Tory Members do not have a monopoly on representing beautiful parts of this country. In my constituency in Teesdale there are a large number of villages, and we face a problem that is the exact opposite from that put forward: the brownfield definition is too narrow. People cannot turn existing buildings into new houses in hamlets, and consequently we are having to build outside larger villages on greenfield sites.

At no point did I say that one party had a monopoly on this country’s beautiful landscape. If the hon. Lady has a problem with her Government’s housing policy and it is not working for her, I suggest that she take her objections to her Secretary of State.

I shall make some more progress.

The communities that are now being asked to accommodate garden development were originally created with an infrastructure to support a particular population density. The Government cannot expect the same infrastructure to serve adequately a population often twice that size. The result is that everyone loses out one way or another—not least those who are looking to get on the housing ladder, as I shall explain.

In the past the Government have cited housing shortages and the need to help first-time buyers as a defence of garden development. I will now look at how, in practice, the policy works against providing the sort of affordable housing that the country so desperately needs.

The problem with garden development is that far too often it generates houses or apartments at a price beyond the reach of first-time buyers. The reason is very simple: location, location, location. Houses with gardens large enough to be developed are mostly in areas where house prices are high. The result is that the new build is beyond the pocket of first-time buyers. We must also be clear that much of the development that is defended on the grounds that it helps first-time buyers is not generating houses for that market. The average price of one of those new flats in my constituency is £200,000—well beyond the pocket of those on the waiting list for housing. Solihull borough, which has met its target, and half as much again, in each of the past five years, still has a waiting list of 5,000 people, most of whom cannot afford to buy what is being developed.

Part of the reason for that is a misdiagnosis of the housing affordability problem. We welcome the aim of increasing housing supply, but the wrong sort of homes are being supplied in the wrong places to meet genuine need. The perverse consequence of an affordable housing quota for larger developments of 25 or more dwellings is driving the more lucrative option of garden development, which is below that threshold. What is so frustrating is that that rush to develop gardens has meant that exciting new opportunities for regeneration are being disregarded.

We have a vision of building a lot more houses and homes as new garden suburbs for the 21st century, replacing the urban dereliction of the near-city ring. [Hon. Members: “Where?”] I hear hon. Members asking where. Nearly all British cities are configured on such a pattern; perhaps the nearest such city will come to Members’ minds as I speak. Those cities have a regenerated central business district. In Birmingham it is the Bullring; in Manchester it is the result of the unfortunate consequences of a bombing; in Liverpool we see a regenerated city heart, as we do in Newcastle and in Leeds. Surrounding the central business district, virtually within spitting distance, is a ring of dereliction. That is the challenge for regeneration.

I agree with the points made by my hon. Friend, but does she accept that none of those developments is sustainable without proper investment in infrastructure? Whether we are talking about an inner-city area or East Grinstead in my constituency, where 2,500 houses will be built on the Government’s whim without any additional investment in infrastructure, how will such development improve people’s quality of life?

My hon. Friend gave me advance notice of his intervention, and as he rightly suggests, the Government have applied the word, “sustainable”, to communities that are not in the true sense sustainable.

First-time buyers are often of an age at which they want to live close to the city centre, with all its cultural and social advantages. They want to carry on living in the city where they studied or where they work and have a network of friends. There is a great opportunity to meet that demand with affordable housing for first-time buyers between the city centre and the more affluent suburbs. Garden development creates more commuting journeys from the outlying towns and villages to the main economic hubs, but cities will become more sustainable if we shorten the commute.

Near-city development is better suited to the stronger and more developed infrastructure already in place in our cities. There is a strong economic rationale for such development, as those sites are on former industrial land that has fallen into decay. With imagination and willpower, however, it could house apartments, shops and entire communities in new urban villages that enable people to find their feet as home owners. Our approach reflects that housing life cycle. [Interruption.] Hon. Members asked me to explain where those homes would be built, and I am doing so. I suggest that they listen, then they will learn.

In our vision, first-time buyers could start with an affordable house in a new garden suburb, move somewhere slightly larger in a new urban village when they settle down with a partner, then scale up to a family-sized house. Other people will want to move further out to a town or village with more space and a larger garden, so we need to create those choices. That brings me back to my starting point—gardens. The sad irony is that young people aspire to live in houses with large gardens and in neighbourhoods with green spaces, which are being lost. Of course, that pattern does not apply to everyone.

I should like to reach the end of my thesis and explain where and why those homes could be built.

That pattern does not apply to everyone who wants to get on the housing ladder. We have championed the cause of more affordable housing in rural areas for some time, but unlike the Government, we want to empower local people to decide how genuine local need should be met. We want to restore local democracy, and the emotive issue of housing is a good way of showing that we mean it. I have spent a considerable time discussing what we will do, but I shall conclude by setting out what the Government should do.

I have already accepted one intervention from the hon. Lady. In fact, I have been—[Interruption.]

I think that I have been generous in accepting interventions, Madam Deputy Speaker. The fact that those interventions have been made by Members from all parts of the House demonstrates the level of interest in the subject.

May I focus on what the Government should do? The simplest and most effective measure they could take is to amend planning policy statement 3 so that gardens are no longer classified as brownfield sites; that does not even require primary legislation. Local authorities should be allowed to decide the appropriate density for their community. Once a site is returned to its proper classification as a garden, there is nothing to stop someone applying for planning permission, but it is the council’s responsibility to judge the application on its merits. As a result, we would lift the threat to our urban green spaces and remove the fears of people living in the shadow of unwanted development.

The Secretary of State must surely understand that gardens are not what people accept as brownfield sites. If they are to have any faith and trust in the planning system, the classification needs to be changed. The planning system should serve, defend and promote the interests of the community, but her predecessor’s control of that system undermined public confidence. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was created to serve the man, whereas the Secretary of State’s new Department has been created to serve the community and local government, as can be inferred from her title. This is her chance to live up to that title.

I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister, and I call on the Secretary of State to move it.

I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

“notes that the definition of previously developed land in draft Planning Policy Statement 3 (PPS3) was first introduced in 1985, and that the proportion of residential development on previously developed residential land is now significantly lower than it was at that time; believes that more land needs to be made available for housing in future to meet rising demand and deliver sustainable, inclusive, mixed communities and environmental sustainability in towns and cities; further believes that local authorities need to bring forward appropriate land with proper regard for sustainability, local environment and quality of design within existing communities as well as new developments; further notes that draft PPS3 includes tools and powers for local authorities to turn down inappropriate development in gardens as well as other areas; and commends the Government’s policy to make better use of land for new homes by increasing the proportion of housing on previously developed land from 56 per cent. in 1997 to 73 per cent. in 2005 and provide greater protection for greenfield land as a result.’.”

I thank the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) for her warm words at the beginning of the debate; in fact, I am grateful to the Opposition for tabling this motion. At last, housing is moving up their list of priorities. I did a little research in the run-up to the debate, and it appears that about two years have passed since we last heard from the Conservatives on housing during an Opposition day debate. I understand that the hon. Lady led for the Conservatives on this issue then, as she does again today.

Two years ago, the Tories were concerned about too much urban sprawl—that too many houses would be built on the outskirts of our towns and cities—whereas today, they are concerned that too many homes might be built within our towns and cities. Some Members might see a contradiction, but at least it is consistent with the overall direction of Tory party policy: a different day, a different policy.

I listened with great interest to the hon. Lady, and so that no one gets the wrong impression of what is actually happening, it might be useful if I set out some basic facts.

As a supporter of an early-day motion dealing with this issue, I was somewhat surprised that I did not hear a single mention of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission—other than a passing reference—in the entire speech of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). The reason why market towns have experienced much more development is that we have strangled and stopped development in our villages. The only way that we can begin to address that problem is to allow villages, through empowerment, to have a proper level of development. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the right approach?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and, as I am sure he is aware, the draft planning guidance that we are considering allows that approach to be developed.

Let me set out some basic facts. First, between the late 1980s and today there has been a significant decline in the percentage of brownfield development on previously developed residential land—land that includes back gardens. I will develop that point later. Secondly, there has been no change in the definition of brownfield land since 1985, when the current definition was first used by the Conservatives for the purposes of land use planning statistics.

The hon. Member for Meriden made some interesting points. There have been relevant changes to planning policy guidance over the years, and, indeed, more are in the process of being introduced. As she readily acknowledged, this Government have been much keener to encourage local authorities to seek out brownfield sites for development rather than greenfield sites. Why? Because re-using land that has already been developed reduces the need to use new greenfield land and helps regenerate our cities and towns by bringing often derelict land back into use.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), and then I will make some progress before taking further interventions.

The facts of the situation in Bournemouth are very clear: the South West regional assembly is telling Bournemouth to build 20,000 more houses. This is a case of filling in and working with the developers, who simply buy up back gardens, then depart. I have checked with the Government office for the south-west, and not one penny is being spent on infrastructure in Bournemouth, which highlights the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). There is a discrepancy here between development and building up the infrastructure, which has been echoed in all parts of this Chamber. What are the Government doing about this issue?

Ruth Kelly: If the hon. Gentleman feels so strongly that more money ought to be spent on supporting infrastructure, perhaps he and his party will start supporting the planning gains supplement on which we are consulting.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the planning guidelines in respect of social housing on small development sites? In London the planning authorities often insist on 15 units or more before social housing is included, which in inner urban areas like mine means that no social housing at all is built on such sites. Is she prepared to look into that and, if necessary, to take powers to ensure that we get a fair share of social housing on very small sites?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. In recent years there has been a big increase in the development of more affordable homes and social homes in London, but he also makes the point that we should consider using smaller sites for affordable home building. We are considering that in some detail.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that Conservative councils such as those that my constituency covers are complicit in measures to circumvent the spirit of the planning guidance, by encouraging and working with developers to build small developments of less than 15 units precisely to avoid a social housing obligation? Westminster city council made strong representations to avoid having to meet the Mayor of London’s 50 per cent. planning target, so Conservative councils do not go along with the spirit of the Conservative motion.

My hon. Friend speaks from her personal knowledge of these matters and she is right to suggest that there are Conservative councils that do not want to build the homes that people need, particularly affordable homes.

Let me set out the facts on brownfield development. We have been successful at making brownfield land available for development. We have seen the proportion of housing on brownfield land increase from 56 per cent. in 1997 to 73 per cent. in 2005, far surpassing our targets. This has created more homes, but on less greenfield land.

No. I will make the argument, then I will take an intervention.

The increase in brownfield development and in density, from 25 per hectare in 1997 to 42 per hectare in 2005 means that it is possible to build 1.1 million new homes across the southern regions on less land than that on which the Tories planned to build 900,000 homes—a saving in greenfield land equivalent to the size of Norwich.

The hon. Member for Meriden points to the impact of planning guidance on back gardens. I shall address that now. Let me quote an example from planning policy guidance:

“Homes with large back gardens are a common feature in many urban, suburban and village areas. Sometimes it may be acceptable to develop back gardens for new housing which is in keeping with the character and quality of the local environment.”

That was not my guidance. It was not the Deputy Prime Minister’s guidance. No, that was guidance provided by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) in 1992.

The hon. Lady is right to say that appropriate safeguards must be in place to prevent inappropriate development in back gardens. Indeed, it was this Government in 2000 who gave local authorities the power to turn down inappropriate development in back gardens or elsewhere.

I appreciate the right hon. Lady giving way. Is she aware that her own Housing Minister admitted on 21 March that classifications under the Conservatives’ last Administration had no status in planning regulations and gained status only in 2000 when her own party was in government?

I am about to come on to how planning policy guidance changed and the impact that that had on the development of brownfield land and previously residential land. The planning guidance introduced in 2000 stated that there should be a clear priority for brownfield development over greenfield development. However, it also included safeguards for quality. It stated that

“considerations of design and layout must be informed by the wider context, having regard not just to any immediate neighbouring buildings but the townscape and landscape of the wider locality.”

It went on to say:

“Local planning authorities should reject poor design particularly where their decisions are supported by clear plan policies.”

Indeed, contrary to the suggestion by the hon. Member for Meriden, there was no presumption that brownfield land had to be built on simply because it was brownfield. In fact, the guidance specifically asks local authorities to consider a wide range of matters in deciding whether to allocate land for housing and whether to grant planning approvals. The range of matters includes the location and accessibility of sites, the capacity of existing and potential infrastructure, including, for example, social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.

On the safeguards provided by the wording, the Minister for Housing and Planning, who is sitting on the Front Bench, wrote a letter to The Daily Telegraph not long ago saying that the safeguards were sufficient to enable local authorities to protect sites. When I showed that letter to planners in West Berkshire council, however, they said that they were being as robust as possible, but whenever they feel that a development is inappropriate in the way that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has just described, it gets overruled on appeal because of the ODPM wording. The matter is centrally controlled, and the safeguards described in the letter from the Minister for Housing and Planning, which the Secretary of State has just voiced, are not happening on the ground.

The hon. Gentleman should have waited a few moments; if he looks at what has happened as a result of the changes in policy guidance over the years, the facts speak for themselves. In 1992, when the previous planning guidance was introduced, the percentage of brownfield development on previously developed residential land was 40 per cent. In 2003—the last available count—that figure was 33 per cent. In absolute terms, land released for development in that period fell from 978 hectares to 966 hectares, which means that the increase in brownfield land for new housing has been in the use of non-residential brownfield land, such as industrial, commercial and vacant land.

If the Secretary of State had studied the statistics—unfortunately, she has started to make partisan party political points—she would know that the proportion of gardens used for brownfield sites fell in every year under the previous Conservative Government, whereas it has risen in every year since 1997.

That is simply not the case and the facts speak for themselves. The increase in brownfield land for new housing has been in the use of non-residential brownfield land.

In December, my Department began consulting on new planning guidance. As part of that review, we have been talking to local authorities, residents and others, including listening to the views of hon. Members, about whether local authorities should have more flexibility locally in deciding what land to bring forward for development. That review will include back gardens, just as it will include all other land that is potentially available for development.

The new draft planning guidance proposes even stronger safeguards for the quality of urban space:

“a key consideration should be whether a development positively improves the character and environmental quality of the area and the way it functions.”

It also explicitly states that

“although residential gardens are defined as brownfield land, this does not necessarily mean that they are suitable for development”.

In the spirit of political consensus mentioned by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), I am pleased that the Secretary of State has acknowledged that the trend is not new. It is certainly not new in my constituency, where gardens have been built on over the past 20 years according to my records. If the Secretary of State accepts that planning is, sadly, fuelled more by greed than by need, will she accept that people do not want buildings in their back gardens, but they do want the money? Have the Government reflected on the point that significant premiums are added to land value, and that the community might want to share the additional income generated by the award of planning permission?

It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman is beginning to ally himself with our case that we should try to capture some of that increase in land value through the planning gain supplement. I am pleased that he has arrived at that conclusion.

I shall be sorry if this business about back gardens deteriorates into a party political argument, because there is a problem even in a place such as Sunderland, where we have acres of brownfield sites but still have developers flying in helicopters looking for little bits of green space that they can fill in. Every week for the past few months, my local newspaper has carried a large advert calling for people with large back gardens—we do not have a lot of them—to come forward and offer them up for development. There is a problem, whatever the origin of the rules and whatever they happen to say, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will look seriously at the guidance when the time comes.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In December, we launched a review of the draft planning policy guidance examining whether we can give more flexibility to local authorities to bring different bits of land into use at different times. That should allow them to sequence development in the way that best meets the need for housing in their local area, while ensuring that developments are appropriate to it. The real question is this: which party is willing to take the tough decisions necessary to provide sufficient new homes to meet the needs of our communities?

I am glad to hear that the guidance is being extended and that more safeguards are being put in place. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). This is a big issue in my constituency, where inappropriate development on garden sites is taking place, particularly with regard to design and layout. Our local planning department says that adequate safeguards are not in place and queries what the Minister for Housing and Planning said in The Daily Telegraph. Will my right hon. Friend clarify how we can get through to planning officers that they have the power to refuse inappropriate development in gardens?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that point. Local authorities already have the power to refuse inappropriate development, and they should make use of those powers. The question is whether we can give local authorities more flexibility to sequence the land that they bring back into use for development in particular ways. The new draft planning policy guidance on which we are consulting attempts to do that. That should introduce new safeguards into the system.

As well as the inappropriate developments that have been mentioned, there are popular urban areas, such as parts of my constituency, that physically have no development space. We are almost completely surrounded by green belt that we want to protect, so that often, sensitive and sympathetic infill development is the only way to provide housing where people want to live.

The Secretary of State should be aware that her comments could be interpreted by my constituents as suggesting that they are deeply worried about a problem that does not exist. Can she be specific in telling the House what proportion of new homes are built on gardens?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, we collect figures for the percentage of new dwellings built on previously developed residential land. That fell from 20 per cent. in 1990 to 15 per cent. at the last available count. We also collect figures for the land used for new dwellings as a percentage of brownfield land, and that has fallen, too. The definition includes back gardens and patios, and houses that have been demolished and rebuilt. The figure shows a significant downturn since the late 1980s and early 1990s.

My right hon. Friend referred earlier to the need for flexibility in planning. Does she agree that it is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) appeared to dismiss the possibility of home extensions in areas such as Luton, which are green-girdled and have no space even for infill development? A large proportion of the community in my area—especially ethnic minority communities—is overcrowded and requires extension through back gardens to alleviate the severe problem.

My hon. Friend makes the important point that extending a house can often be the simplest and best way of meeting a need for more housing space and preventing overcrowding.

The question that confronts us today is: which party is willing to make the tough choices and decisions to deliver the extra homes that are needed? In the past 30 years, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of households but a 50 per cent. drop in house building. Current projections suggest that household formation will increase by 209,000 a year until 2026. In contrast, approximately 168,000 additional homes were provided last year. That gap is unsustainable.

Yesterday, the Government office for the south-east produced a report, which was commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, that set out options for housing development in the south-east. One of the options envisaged building 45,000 houses a year. Does the Secretary of State rule that in or out?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a matter for the independent panel, not us at this stage. It is absolutely right for each region and local community to ask themselves the hard questions. How many homes do we need for the future? Where will we build them? How will we meet housing need? Are the houses in the places where people genuinely want to live?

I must make some progress.

If we continue to build only at the current planned rate, the proportion of 30-year-old couples who are able to buy a property will drop from approximately 50 per cent. today to 30 per cent. Do Conservative Members want that to happen? If not, how do they plan to tackle the problem? Where do they want the new homes to be?

The hon. Member for Meriden referred to building in garden cities, but she opposes development in the Thames Gateway. How credible is that?

I have made it perfectly clear on more than one occasion at the Dispatch Box—I am happy to supply the Hansard references—that we support the Thames Gateway project. We have reservations about the infrastructure because it is not clear even to those who are strong supporters of the project how the infrastructure will be secured for such an important development. We recognise the need for it and we have always supported it, so can we nail the myth once and for all?

Absolutely not. If the hon. Lady is not prepared to say where the investment will come from to build the extra homes, she frankly does not support the homes. We have clear policies for a planning gain supplement to fund the necessary infrastructure for development. As she knows, we are working with the Treasury in the run-up to the comprehensive spending review to examine infrastructure needs.

I agree with the Secretary of State’s comments about hard choices—they are, indeed, hard choices. Will she make the hard choices that her Government have failed to make about infrastructure in areas where the Government impose onerous building targets without providing one extra penny of infrastructure spending? Will she make those difficult decisions and enable us to deliver the homes in a sustainable climate?

If the hon. Gentleman knows of local authority areas where there is a genuine demand for new homes, but they want investment from the Government to support the necessary infrastructure, he should invite those local authorities to approach the Government and bid to be a new growth point. Yesterday, I announced the conclusion of the bidding round for new growth points. Many local authorities expressed an interest, but 22 had worked out detailed bids. They were keen for new houses to be built, and included the Tory-led local council of the hon. Member for Meriden, which proposed new developments. In total, the proposals represent 80,000 new homes by 2016 on top of what is already planned. [Interruption.] I am delighted that the hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that she supports that increase in housing supply.

I appreciate the Secretary of State giving way. This issue directly concerns my constituency. I have always supported my local authority’s endeavours to regenerate a council estate of 22,500 people for whom low-cost housing is in very short supply. We propose to build 5,000 new houses, and that proposal is very definitely for affordable housing.

I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Lady supports that initiative. However, she will not make it clear to the House whether she supports the outline proposals in Kate Barker’s report to increase housing supply to 200,000 units a year by 2016 in order to close the gap between demand and supply. If the hon. Lady wants to commit herself to that policy today, I hope that she will choose this moment to intervene on me to tell the House that that is the case. She shakes her head, which is very interesting.

In our exchanges, the right hon. Lady is always careful to put on the record her interpretation of my words and my body language. However, I think that she might not have completed her homework in preparing for this debate. If she looks at our previous debate on housing, which focused extensively on the Barker review, she will see that we gave the review a considered response. She will also see that I clearly said that we wanted to build more housing. Our dispute with the Government involves the where, the what and the how.

That is very interesting. I think that the hon. Lady is now sticking to the position that she outlined in The House Magazine last year, when she wrote:

“We need to build more houses, but not on the scale that Barker recommended”.

She is saying that there are questions about whether we need 200,000 more units. It is also interesting that her junior housing spokesman, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said recently:

“It’s the case that the number of new households in Britain every year is something like 200,000 but we’re only building about 150,000 or 160,000 every year. So that means there’s a gap…between the number of new people who need houses and the number of homes being built.”

So the Conservatives’ junior housing spokesman is quite prepared to accept that we need to build 200,000 more homes each year, but the hon. Lady refuses to sign up to that ambition.

One test of a political party is whether it is prepared to take the tough decisions necessary to meet the demand for new homes. The Conservatives are happiest to focus on why we should not build new homes. Today, they have singled out building in urban areas on plots between existing houses. Perhaps next time they will admit that this Government have a better record than theirs on safeguarding the quality of such developments, on giving local authorities the tools that they need to take sensitive decisions, and on concentrating more housing on brownfield land. Perhaps they will also sign up to this Government’s ambition to meet the housing demand that now exists, for the benefit of future generations.

I welcome the Secretary of State to the debate. I also welcome the fact that we are debating this matter today, although I would have welcomed the debate that the Conservatives first promised even more. The subject was to have been the failure of the Government’s housing and planning policy, but that has rather quickly been slid over in favour of the removal of gardens from the brownfield definition. They started off with a titanic ambition but ended up in the life raft.

A number of outside bodies will also be disappointed by the rather narrow definition that the Conservatives have given to the debate today. I received a briefing from the Home Builders Federation this afternoon that had been issued on the assumption that we were going to debate the wider issue. However, I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State introduce that wider issue, because it is important that we take the broader context of housing and planning fully into account when considering this motion.

The motion is worthy, appropriate and of great importance. Members’ contributions so far have shown that the subject greatly engages us. That is precisely why my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), supported by 10 other Liberal Democrat Members, brought her Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill to the House. I have to say that my hon. Friend’s Bill was somewhat bolder than the Conservative Opposition motion today. It was not restricted solely to gardens, but looked into the protection of parkland and recreation spaces as well.

Having heard what the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, I hope that Conservative Front Benchers will give a clear commitment to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull that when her Bill is debated on Friday 20 October they will ensure that the dinosaurs on their Back Benches do not hinder, obstruct or delay the measure’s coming into law. Her Bill exactly encapsulates the points that the Conservatives are now making. In introducing the Bill, she said that

“by designating people's gardens as brownfield land, planning guidelines have had the unintended consequence of enabling developers to target windfall developments in preference to true brownfield sites.”

She said of developers:

“If they can develop a soft target, instead of tackling polluted and more difficult inner-city true brownfield sites, they will do so.”

In her telling phrase,

“It is like putting a goat in a garden and telling it to eat thistles and not the flowers”.—[Official Report, 19 July 2005; Vol. 436, c. 1112.]

That is the essence of the case being made in today’s debate.

We have to ask exactly what led the Conservatives to change the definition of today’s debate from the broader one that they announced last Thursday. I did not hear clearly enough from them whether they have satisfied themselves in the meantime that the Government’s housing policy is successful after all and does not require criticism. Do they now believe that the Government’s planning policies are right, whereas last Thursday they thought that they merited debate because they were wrong? Is the development of back gardens all that they can find fault with in the Government’s stewardship of Britain’s environment, rural communities and leafy suburbs?

The hon. Gentleman may not think that developments in back gardens are important enough to trouble the House with, but I can assure him that the defects in the planning policy guidelines and rules are blighting the lives of many of my constituents in Chipping Barnet. It is an enormously important issue to them.

I do not know whether the hon. Lady had the opportunity to hear what I said at the beginning of my speech, but I made the point that, although this is an important topic, the House also deserves the opportunity to reflect on the broader issues. I welcome the fact that Secretary of State brought some of those broader issues into play. If I consider the difference between the title announced by the Conservatives last Thursday and the motion tabled for debate today, I am tempted to echo the familiar words of the England manager, “First half good, second half not so good.”

On that very point, is the hon. Gentleman as amazed as I am at the full title of today’s motion—“Removal of gardens from brownfield definition”? Will the redefinition safeguard gardens from further development? I do not think so, and it would be the same if they redefined them as greenfield development. Surely what we should be interested in is the type and quality of the development and the degree of imposition it represents on the lives of people who live alongside that development. We should be debating not how to define the land, but how to empower councillors to safeguard people from such developments.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Whether we are talking about gardens, greenfield development or inner urban development, what matters is what is done with the land.

One of the reasons why the Conservatives might have tried to narrow the focus of the debate is their sheer embarrassment. It started with the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) back in February, when he spoke of taking

“a fresh look at what we mean by a greenfield site.”

He made it clear that developing what he called “marginal scrubland” could be an option to revive decaying suburbs. I am not sure whether—to take my football analogy a bit further—he suffered a twisted knee or concussion, but he has not played that tune since.

In April, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said that the current planning system was “bananas” and that it was promoting a belief that we should

“build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone.”

He derided it; he described it as “bananas”; and he slagged off Labour for not building enough homes. I presume that, some time between last Thursday and today, someone at Tory headquarters did some background research and advised the hon. Member for Meriden that to proceed on the broader front risked their looking very foolish indeed.

The decision about what to debate sits fairly and squarely with me. The hon. Gentleman says, “First half good, second half bad.” He clearly did not like the fact that I went much wider into the question of urban regeneration and affordability in the second half of my speech—I certainly expanded the debate much wider than just classification. However, I initiated the debate because of the cross-party support for a specific change in the law that he would like and that many of his hon. Friends signed up to, and the force of that cross-party consensus persuaded me that this was a good use of parliamentary time.

Of course the hon. Lady is absolutely right: there is widespread cross-party support for the view that the guidelines should be changed. I would point out that 40 Labour Members and a significant number of my hon. Friends have signed the early-day motion. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull has presented a Bill precisely in the terms that the hon. Lady is discussing.

I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman’s line of argument—with some difficulty. Does he think that it is a mistake for the Conservative party to give hon. Members the chance to debate the motion, on which there is a widespread consensus? It is important that we know whether he would prefer not to debate it.

I thought that I had made it very clear—[Hon. Members: “No.”] Perhaps the problem is that I have taken too many interventions. Let me make a clear statement. I have made it very clear indeed that we should have had a debate on the planning and housing policies that this country has and does not have. In focusing on a narrow aspect of that, we have lost something in the debate. I very much hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will take a broad view of the issues that should be debated, so that we can take account of the wider context of greenfield development, which certainly includes urban regeneration, rural housing and the alternative to development of gardens.

Yes, I will certainly tell the hon. Gentleman that, and if he allows me to proceed a little further, he will hear entirely what I plan to do and what I will recommend that my colleagues do.

There is certainly a problem—it is familiar to every MP—and the fact that there is widespread support in the debate for the early-day motion and the two Bills that have been referred to so far illustrates that. The infilling and backfilling of larger gardens has been an increasing problem over the years in many areas, including my constituency, which is covered by Stockport council.

As a fellow Stockport Member, the hon. Gentleman will know that Stockport council’s unitary development plan includes a local planning policy that is designed to prevent inappropriate developments in the large gardens of places such as Hazel Grove, Bramhall and Cheadle. Does he agree that that policy should not prevent wholly appropriate developments elsewhere in Stockport, especially in areas such as Reddish, where investment in housing is desperately needed?

I am indeed a Stockport Member, although I am a member of a different party. I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said, and it is quite interesting. He and I could probably enlighten the House a good deal on the planning policies that apply in Stockport.

As the hon. Gentleman says, for many years there have been planning applications in Stockport relating to back gardens. Councillors, when they have thought it appropriate, have tried to limit the damage, in conjunction with the communities in whose areas the applications have been made. Sometimes an application could be properly refused and sometimes it could be substantially modified, but the treatment of the whole curtilage of the home as housing land has too often meant that inappropriate development could not be resisted—a situation already described by others. If it was resisted, there would be an appeal, the Secretary of State’s inspectors would recommend that it be granted, and the Secretary of State would grant it.

There have been some important successes in Stockport in the tackling of such matters. As the hon. Gentleman has said, every problem has a solution, but every solution has its own problem. Stockport is now officially full. All the planning applications that should be granted, according to the Secretary of State, have been granted. The present position is that no applications should be granted, which means that the council can refuse applications relating to garden sites. Unfortunately, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that and the Secretary of State’s guidelines have had the unintended consequence that the council cannot be flexible when it comes to Reddish. That, surely, is one of the key points to which the Government should respond. Even in one local authority planning area there can be fundamentally different circumstances, which must be dealt with by means of more flexible local policies.

Our amendment, which unfortunately was not selected, refers to the need for affordable and sustainable housing. That seems to me a crucial matter which the Secretary of State’s guidelines must take into account, but the Conservatives may have been a little too clear in their statement that such development was not permitted at present.

Would the hon. Gentleman be good enough to give us his interpretation of the word “sustainable”?

I can certainly do that, if the hon. Gentleman wishes. I am referring to environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability. Social sustainability means balanced communities in terms of demography and tenure; environmental sustainability means buildings with a very small carbon imprint; and economic sustainability means that employment and public services must be readily available to communities. I hope that helps the hon. Gentleman.

Liberal Democrat-led South Shropshire district council has found a way of promoting both affordability and sustainability even on the smallest infill and garden sites. We in the House of Commons should take account of the flexibility and innovation of local planning authorities that have a mind to take such action. We should be saying “Please go and experiment. Please find the policies that work for your area. Please listen to your local communities. Please take account of the local situation. Do not impose inflexible national guidelines that prevent any possibility of the right kind of development.”

I say to the Secretary of State, “Please look at the circumstances in Stockport, which have been illustrated by two of us in this debate already today. Please look at the situation in South Shropshire district council. Learn from examples of the practical application of the existing policy and see what you can do with the revision of the guidelines.”

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about flexibility and reducing the threshold to incorporate social housing on small-site developments. Will he explain why Liberal Democrat-controlled Islington council has consistently refused to lower the threshold below 14 units, thus preventing the development of social housing anywhere in the borough? Is it because the council does not want to produce sufficient social housing, and that it would prefer simply to export the poor out of London?

I am sure that Islington, like almost every other local authority in the country, has a rising council house waiting list. For example, Stockport has 13,000 council homes, and a waiting list of 6,000 households looking for social housing. The council would willingly provide more social housing units if it were given the finances and authority to do so.

I want guidelines that are flexible and reflect the local community’s legitimate concern to ensure that development is appropriate. The guidelines should also make it clear that any development should be sustainable, should protect biodiversity and should take into account legitimate concerns about local amenity. I have referred already to the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, which I believe sets out very clearly the framework within which we should proceed.

However, there is a serious case to answer on the broader issues. I hope that the Secretary of State, or the Minister for Housing and Planning, will respond positively to the problems that exist, and explain how she intends to develop her policies to tackle them. I am sure that the Secretary of State will be sympathetic on the specifics; she certainly should be, as she has taken plenty of trouble in the past to protect the interests of her constituents faced with similar problems. I am sure that she will want to ensure that the same protection is available to people in Stockport, Solihull, Meriden or anywhere else.

I hope that the right hon. Lady recognises that her Department’s responsibility for planning guidance and law on the one hand, and for building regulations and codes on the other, gives her a unique opportunity to bring together coherent and long-overdue policies to promote environmental sustainability, ensure the preservation of biodiversity and increase the affordability of housing.

As part of that comprehensive guidance, the Secretary of State should also make it clear that any proposed garden developments must comply fully with those criteria and that they will be refused if they do not. That is what my colleagues in Stockport and south Shropshire are doing, when they consider it appropriate.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again. He is very generous. Was he as pleased as I was to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say at the Dispatch Box that she would revisit the planning rules, with a view to redefining them so that we can be sure that developments in back gardens are appropriate and in keeping with the environment? She also said that she would do everything that she could to give local authorities the power to ensure that.

The hon. Gentleman makes a second very helpful intervention, and I thank him for it. I agree that it is good that the Secretary of State is prepared to move on this question. There is plenty of movement to be had, both on the specific matter of protecting gardens and on the more general point about ensuring that housing development is sustainable whenever and wherever it is built.

My hon. Friend is making a good point. On 5 October last year, I wrote to the Minister for Housing and Planning about developments in gardens and was informed in her reply of 24 October:

“It is ultimately for local authorities to make judgments on the basis of all relevant information, weighing in balance the need for housing development, the need for wider housing opportunity”,

and so on, as my hon. Friend describes. However, when I showed that letter to my local planning department I was told that many of the applications it refused were given permission on appeal. Does he agree that that is a matter of great concern?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right. Many letters written by Ministers to Members of Parliament are in the same vein as the one that he received. They say that such and such a decision is a matter for local discretion. Whether we ask about schools, social services or planning, we receive the same letter and it is absolutely meaningless, because local authorities do not have the flexibility or authority, and certainly not the money, to deliver on the choices that Ministers say that they can make.

The Secretary of State has a housing problem. An extra 500,000 families have been added to council house waiting lists since 1997 and 100,000 people are registered as homeless. As she said, the gap between homes built and households formed grows wider each year; it is substantial and will create ever-increasing problems of affordability and accessibility and for promoting sustainable communities, although I am pleased that she said clearly that she wanted to do something about it. She may hesitate to accept the motion, which we shall support. No doubt she will argue that to support it would in some mysterious way make the problem worse, but I urge her to recognise that bringing just a fraction of the 680,000 empty properties in England back into occupation would go a long way towards ameliorating the position, as would even half of the 1 million homes that her funded working group recommended be developed in commercial premises and over shops. If only a fraction of her working party’s recommendations were implemented there would be a tremendous step forward in housing availability.

I thoroughly agree with the hon. Gentleman about bringing empty properties back into use. Does he acknowledge the fact that the Government have, for the first time, introduced targets to bring long-term empty properties back into use by 2010? But is he aware that Liberal-controlled Luton council could not even provide me with the number of empty properties in the borough so that I could ensure that the council is acting on the Government’s intention to bring such properties back into use for homeless people?

I am interested in the hon. Lady’s comments, because I have in my hand a table showing the number of empty homes by region, subdivided by authority, so there seems to be no problem about finding that information. Perhaps the hon. Lady did not ask in a polite enough tone of voice.

The Secretary of State should insist that when and wherever new homes are built they meet the highest environmental standards. Her Department must make a contribution to the Government’s overall aim of reducing carbon emissions and limiting climate change and the way in which she exercises her important responsibilities on planning and building regulations, regardless of the site of the houses, will offer opportunities in that regard. Our housing stock should at least be at the same level as the rest of western Europe in terms of sustainability and the reduction of environmental impact. We must not simply go for cheap and cheerful solutions that are expensive for the environment.

Sadly, the Government amendment is silent on those key points; it is bland, vacuous and self-congratulatory. In contrast, we need the Secretary of State to acknowledge that providing sustainable and affordable homes is a key task for her and the Government that she supports. Today’s debate and the motion before us take a look at just a small aspect of a much broader major policy area that needs prolonged, thoughtful and urgent action.

I think that my hon. Friend may be about to come to his conclusion. I wonder whether he hopes, as I do, that when the Minister responds to the debate she will set out clearly how she is going to shift responsibility to local authorities to give them much greater discretion over the decisions that they take, so that there will be no need for groups such as the Rotherfield action group, which is trying to stop four detached houses being demolished and turned into a development of 30 or 40 flats. We need to hear from the Minister how the local community can have its say on that matter, but also on other controversial issues such as telecoms masts.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, except when he talks about responsibility. Ministers are only too willing to transfer responsibility, but they are not willing to transfer the power and money to implement those responsibilities. Surely that is what is needed.

We have had a wide-ranging discussion so far and no doubt it will go further in the remainder of the time available to us. I hope that the Secretary of State will not waste the opportunity to make sure that her Department redoubles its efforts to deal with housing and planning issues to give us sustainable communities and a safer world to live in.