Question again proposed, That the original words stand part of the Question.
Order. I should remind the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. Thirteen hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye and there is less than an hour before the winding-up speeches. I just mention that so that hon. Members can try to exercise a degree of self-restraint in order to accommodate as many other hon. Members as possible.
I will start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) on one point: the importance of housing as a subject and the expectations that many of us had when we first understood that there was going to be a housing debate today. We hoped that we would hear from the Opposition on a number of rather important issues. They include how we can expand the supply of new homes, both for sale and for rent, in areas where they are needed; how we can ensure that we have sustainable developments that will prove attractive for people to live in for many years ahead, and that we do not repeat the mistakes of some past patterns of development that have not proved satisfactory; how we can raise design standards and environmental performance in housing and so reduce carbon emissions; how we can help first-time buyers to get a foot on the ladder and extend opportunities for affordable home ownership; how we can ensure an adequate supply of rented housing for those who need or want to rent, rather than buy; how we break down some of the pernicious divisions between tenures that characterised much of 20th century housing policy; how we can ensure better provision for the homeless and for those requiring support and care, as well as a roof over their head; and how we can best continue to improve the conditions of poorer-quality housing and areas in need of regeneration. We would have liked to hear from the Opposition on those, and many other vital issues for housing, but, sadly, we were disappointed.
Will my right hon. Friend add one more issue to his list? I am talking about how to bring the 680,000 empty houses back into useful occupation without that being depicted as the confiscation of the houses of widows who just happen to be in hospital at that moment. That is the level of debate.
No, I will not give way any more, because we are time limited. I am afraid that there is now the likelihood of a list system. If one starts listing things and gives way once, everyone else wants to get in to make their particular point. I will therefore take no further interventions.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to have to raise a point of order, but I had hoped that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) would give way to answer this question. Given the right hon. Gentleman’s entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, does he think that it would help the House if he would declare it, if it is still accurate?
Just to avoid any possible uncertainty on the matter, I should declare that I am the chairman of the NHBC Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that makes grants to voluntary housing bodies and other organisations undertaking research in the housing field. I was a member of the board of the Notting Hill housing trust, but in case the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) was thinking of that interest, I must add that I no longer am.
Over the past 10 years, there has been a remarkable shift in the location and character of new housing development. Whereas new housing in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Conservative party was in government, was characterised by sprawling development which was often poorly designed, of low density, usually on greenfield sites, usually exclusively for sale, and ate remorselessly into the countryside, in recent years there has been a dramatic increase of mixed tenure developments on brownfield sites, and a great step forward on the regeneration of many of our inner-city areas. There have also been real improvements in the quality of design and environmental performance. We have not gone as far as we should, but there have been very fine exemplars of good development.
I recommend a visit to Greenwich to any hon. Member who doubts that. They would see there not only some of the country’s finest historic architecture—several hon. Members have praised the quality of the architecture in their constituencies, but I give way to no one in that regard—but exemplars of high-quality new housing development, such as the Greenwich millennium village and the regeneration of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. They are clear illustrations of how wrong the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was to claim that garden development is diverting development away from the more appropriate regeneration of brownfield sites. There could not be a clearer illustration of how totally wrong she was, so I hope that she will come to see the fine regeneration taking place in Greenwich.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman; I gave way to him during my speech. The site to which he refers is of course exceptional because everyone will remember it as the site of the dome. It is thus in a category of its own in terms of its need for regeneration.
Again, the hon. Lady is wrong. There is not just the dome but the Greenwich peninsula, the Woolwich Arsenal and the Kidbrooke regeneration. There is a series of major sites on which we are seeing high-quality new urban development. The hon. Lady seems to shake her head—she does not want to know. Her whole attitude has been one of visceral hostility to new housing. We heard that for years during the previous Opposition regime, when she was given a fairly free rein to oppose housing developments. She now has to choose her words slightly more carefully, but she has the same message: hostility to housing.
The quality of the Greenwich development should not be in any doubt. That development ensures that people have good-quality homes to rent or buy; the two types are side by side, and mostly indistinguishable. It is planned so that there is easy access not only to public transport but to schools, health centres and other public services. There is a stunning ecology park that is doing more for biodiversity and wildlife than was ever the case on that formerly polluted gasworks site. In summary, the exemplary new development has been created as a result of, and is an exemplar of, the Government’s housing and planning policies. It is because of such developments—and there are many more—that more than 70 per cent. of new homes are now on brownfield sites, compared with about 50 per cent. or less in the Tory years.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out, the proportion of residential development on land previously residentially developed—land that might include former gardens—was greater in the 1980s when the Conservative party was in power than it is today. It is intellectually untenable for the Opposition to suggest that the increase in brownfield development in recent years has reflected the gobbling up of gardens in suburbia. That simply is not the case.
There has been a serious oversimplification of the issues. The Opposition have tried to present the situation as a case of rapacious developers seizing and building on back gardens wherever possible. There are instances where that is happening, and that should be resisted. Inappropriate development in back gardens would not have my support. However, there are also appropriate infill developments that make use of land that has not been used well, and is in locations where there is good access to transport and other services, which makes it sustainable, and the quality of the area is enhanced as a result. We should distinguish between the two.
I do not have time; we are time limited.
As I made clear in my intervention on the hon. Member for Meriden, there are a large number of proposals to extend existing properties, perhaps to provide more accommodation or a conservatory, which involve building on garden land. Many of the home owners who aspire to have more space and who would like the opportunity to have an extension or conservatory should be warned that if the Opposition had their way, that development would become much more difficult, because there would no longer be an assumption that any such site might be regarded as brownfield.
Hon. Members should bear that in mind. The Opposition’s simplistic and misleading approach is in danger of distorting the debate. We need to try to achieve high-quality development that meets good-quality design standards, including the high environmental standards that we want in our housing development, and makes sure that communities work together and are vibrant and successful. That was very much the thrust of planning policy guidance note 3, which was issued in 2000. The Opposition now decry it, but I take a certain amount of pride in it because I was the Minister with responsibility for planning when it was prepared and issued. It put the focus on increasing brownfield development and on better-quality design. It shifted the emphasis significantly in that way, and gave a strong thrust towards sustainability objectives, all of which I stand by—and I hope that the House would do the same, because they are important measures of quality in development. We should be trying to achieve those objectives to ensure that inappropriate, poor-quality and badly designed development proposals are rejected, and that good-quality appropriate developments on garden sites are supported. The House should be adopting that approach.
The hon. Lady has, over many years, found every opportunity to oppose housing developments. She has got into that mode again, although she tried to qualify it, as I implied, by saying that she was in favour of lots more housing, but did not agree with the Government’s proposals and was worried about where the housing would be, what sort it was and how it would be built. Those are precisely the arguments that allow her to sit on the fence and say, “I do believe in more housing,” to please the house builders, while at the same time saying, “No, no. We will resist housing developments,” to please the people in her party who remain viscerally opposed to new housing development.
I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I assure you that I require less time than that.
The hon. Lady paid lip service to the idea of more housing, but behind that was the continued opposition, using any means possible, to new housing development. I am afraid to say that the Opposition have revealed that they remain a party that is not seriously thinking about how new housing development should be promoted and supported where it is needed, but still has its old perspective on opposing housing. I hope that the House rejects their motion.
Sadly, that was a characteristically disingenuous speech by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who, as a past planning Minister should know better. It was preposterous and beyond belief to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was in any way suggesting that people wishing to extend their houses—adding porches, patios, sun lounges or whatever—would not be able to do so. I will return to that, but I thought that the record needed to be set right straight away.
I am immensely grateful, as my constituents will be, to my hon. Friend for moving the motion. It is a specific and important issue that needs to be fully addressed. The person to whom we must be most grateful is my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has done so much on this subject. I recently addressed a public meeting in my constituency at which a resolution was passed that I should thank him, and I now do so publicly, on the Floor of the House.
The reason why this is an important debate is that it affects so many constituencies. As the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) said, it affects Members in all parts of the House, and the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells has been signed by Members of all parties. The most telling interventions came from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the hon. Members for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), all of whom rightly pointed out that the problem is huge in their constituencies. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South said to the Secretary of State, she has to do something to put it right.
I represent a largely suburban constituency; it is not rural. We have had terrific development pressures; we have taken more than our fair share. Greenfield sites have been built on, and more will be built on in the next few years, to provide much-needed social and other housing. What desperately upsets my constituents, whether they live in Bracknell, Sandhurst, Crowthorne or Finchampstead, is building on gardens.
That was when the Secretary of State showed that she is not yet up to speed with her brief. I am confident that when the Minister for Housing and Planning winds up the debate later she will correct the record and be more positive. My constituents will be appalled at the Secretary of State’s saying, “Oh, this is just something about building between houses.” That is not at all the case. We are talking about developers offering huge sums of money to people, one after another, to have their usually modest bungalows or houses knocked down so that the site can be redeveloped as a block of flats. Those blocks of flats are not of sufficient density to lead to any more social housing, so people in Bracknell Forest borough and Wokingham unitary authority who are on a long housing waiting list are not helped at all. The flats take a long time to sell or let, and they completely change the nature of the area in which they are built. They put terrific strains on infrastructure and are not wanted.
To answer the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich—I think that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove came to this conclusion too, although he took a little time about it—we need to give powers back to local representatives. Again and again, local residents oppose an application to build a block of flats on a site where property already exists. They are supported by their locally elected representatives—the Member of Parliament, the town or parish council and the borough council, and the planning authority turns down the application. What happens then? We all know that, again and again, the developer appeals to the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State and her inspectors come down in favour of the developer. We are left to pick up the bits and pieces.
The right hon. Gentleman has explained the problems in his constituency very clearly, but he appears to suggest that people are compelled to sell that land. Some of his constituents, however, make money by selling land to developers, thus destroying the neighbourhood for their friends and neighbours. Can he explain that anomaly?
The hon. Lady has a distinguished record as an academic, so I am surprised by her intervention. We both live in the real world. If someone was offered half as much again for their property they would need a strong moral compass to refuse. We must ensure that local elected representatives make the final decision on what is built, as they will be held accountable for their decision when they seek re-election. If I may say so, the hon. Lady’s intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was much better than her intervention on me. She said that development could not take place in the hamlets in her part of the north-east, which caused unnecessary development elsewhere. If power were restored to her local planning authority and people wanted development in the hamlets—she suggested that they did—that development would take place. If elected representatives get it wrong on planning and do not provide sufficient housing, or if they allow unreasonable and intrusive development that people do not want, they will be slung out at the next election. Democracy works well because it concentrates the minds of elected politicians, and that is what we want to do.
May I return to my constituency to illustrate the strength of feeling on the issue? There have been two public meetings in Crowthorne, which is not a very big place. More than 500 people attended the first meeting—as politicians, we do not often attract such attendance—which I started to address inside the Morgan centre. However, the organisers were worried that many people were waiting in the crush outside, so I had to go out in the dark and address them in the recreation ground. It was like Gladstone and Disraeli again! The second public meeting was as full as the first, and it was attended by representatives of the other main political parties in my constituency. Everyone was united at that non-political event. It was characteristic of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich to play party politics but, mercifully, the Labour representatives behaved much more responsibly at that meeting. That is not surprising, however, knowing them and knowing him.
Finally, I would be grateful if the Minister for Housing and Planning responded to an initiative in Crowthorne. Local planning officials who came to the public meetings said that a village design statement would be helpful, so a group of hard-working independent people who had not taken part in objections to the development spent a great deal of time preparing such a statement for Crowthorne. It is extremely impressive, and the planners say that it will be made available to developers and other interested parties. It defines Crowthorne in a neutral tone—it is neither pro nor anti-development—and I would be grateful if the Minister told the House how much weight can be given to that statement, if she accepts my word that it is neutral and extremely professional. Will her inspectors, as well as the planning authority, take note of it? Bracknell Forest borough council and Wokingham unitary have both assured me that they will take it into account.
I want to end as I began, by arguing that the definition of brownfield sites must change. Brownfield sites are derelict; they are industrial or commercial developments that are no longer used. They are just outside redeveloped inner-city areas, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden made clear. They are not the gardens of existing houses. We want the definition to be tightened and changed. We also want an indication from the Minister and the Secretary of State that the democratically elected local politicians on planning authorities, and local residents, will be listened to far more than they are at present. If the Minister can give me that assurance when she winds up, I will leave the House tonight a very happy Member.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), I had anticipated that this debate would be much more wide-ranging than the motion on the Order Paper and would tackle serious housing issues. I welcome the Government’s amendment, which has widened the terms of the debate.
This debate appears to be a fig leaf—or any other kind of leaf—to cover the lack of Opposition policies for tackling issues such as homelessness and overcrowding. I hope that we will hear what we were all listening for: a full assurance from the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) that she agrees with the Government’s targets for increases in the supply of affordable housing, which is so desperately needed in areas such as my Luton constituency. There is a crisis in areas such as mine, where we have no option to build outside my area.
I do not recognise as accurate the hon. Lady’s portrayal of areas around inner cities that are simply lying in wait to be redeveloped. In my constituency, those areas are being, and have been, developed. We have no land for new building inside our conurbation; no infill development opportunities are available.
My hon. Friend has expressed her thoughts on such areas of land, which it is claimed exist outside city centres in the south; as she said, they do not exist in practice. Might that therefore mean a Conservative party policy of building new towns throughout the south of England, and does she consider that an appropriate way to develop new housing there?
My hon. Friend makes a good point and I should be very interested to hear the response of the hon. Member for Meriden, because we deserve some serious answers, instead of the rather fantastical proposals that she advanced as so-called solutions.
The crisis is imminent—it is upon us now, given the urgency of the problem of homelessness and overcrowding. There are 3,500 people on the housing waiting list in Luton. Some 60 per cent. are homeless, 20 per cent. are applying for a transfer, and the remaining 20 per cent. will never see the light of day in terms of housing. As of the last financial year, the council was receiving 130 housing applications per month. In addition, huge numbers of people are spending more than a year—sometimes two years—in temporary accommodation. The overcrowding crisis is such that I regularly see in my constituency office surgeries families of six or more who are living in two-bedroom flats. How can those families survive in those conditions?
Opposition Members’ solution to the problem is a flight of fancy; I want to talk about the reality. Throughout the country, some 900,000 children are living in similarly overcrowded conditions. Ethnic minority communities such as the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in my constituency are seven times more likely to experience overcrowding than other communities, but the problem ranges across every community in my constituency. Overcrowding has an incredible impact on the health of those families. A survey by Shelter found that 90 per cent. of the families questioned felt that overcrowding was damaging their children’s health; 93 per cent. of the severely overcrowded families surveyed said that they were experiencing depression, anxiety or stress; and 80 per cent. felt that the overcrowding experience was having a detrimental effect on their children’s chances of a good education, because there was simply nowhere for them to do homework, or to find space for playing or learning. The life chances of generations of children and families are affected by overcrowding.
The hon. Member for Meriden dismissed the idea of extensions to houses, but for many of those families, it is their only way of getting some small additional space. In addition to the short-term solutions to overcrowding that have been mentioned, we need to consider greater opportunities for extension of housing. That is happening in the owner-occupied sector and it is what most of us do if we own our homes—we build a loft and an extension. For people in the council and social housing sector, I have never understood why we cannot allow similar extensions within the social housing framework. The housing corporation in my area recently funded one such extension, built by Luton Community Housing, which I commend. In crowded areas such as mine that is often the only solution. I ask my hon. Friend to include that among the short-term solutions that we need to consider.
The Government have commendable plans—
I am sorry. Because of the time constraints, I cannot give way, although I would love to take the hon. Lady’s intervention so that we could have a proper discussion.
At last we have a Government who are committed to extending affordable social housing. The Chancellor has said that he will invest in social housing and make it a priority in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.
I am sorry, I do not have time.
That target is to be commended. The fact that Luton is part of the south midlands growth area strategy is our lifeline of hope for the thousands of people on our waiting lists, who are desperate for a transfer because of overcrowding and other needs.
One of the arguments deployed by the Opposition, apart from the garden issue, relates to infrastructure, which has been mentioned many times. Of course, the infrastructure needs to be in place for the sustainable development of affordable housing. In my area I cannot see any dereliction of duty on the part of the Government in terms of providing infrastructure—rather, the reverse. They have put millions of pounds into transport infrastructure, such as the widening of the M1 and the introduction of the east Luton corridor and the Translink rail system, all of which—together with plans for the expansion of London Luton airport, which we look forward to—will provide necessary transport and employment opportunities and other infrastructure measures that underpin the growth strategy.
I welcome the Government’s targets for the increased supply of housing—200,000 homes by 2016—but the recent excellent report from the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, “Affordability and the Supply of Housing”, goes further. We have not yet got the Opposition to agree the first target and I am asking for another, but let us be aspirational. Shelter believes that a further 20,000 homes are needed on top of the target, and I agree. It would be as well for the Minister in her winding-up speech to suggest imaginative ways of adding to the target.
We need to consider short and medium-term solutions to crises such as those in my area. Many families cannot wait four, five, six or seven years for the growth strategy to become a reality—for new homes to be available. I mentioned extensions. Converting existing homes should also be considered, although it is not straightforward. We need to deal with the issue of VAT on the refurbishment and repair of existing homes. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has raised consistently with the Chancellor, as have I, the point that there is no level playing field for VAT. I welcome the Chancellor’s moves to ensure a reduction in VAT to bring empty properties back into use, but we need to act further and faster to rehabilitate older properties, such as those in the most deprived area of my constituency, which takes me right back to what I was doing when I first entered the social housing field.
We also need urgently to tackle the issue of empty properties. As I have said, there are 680,000 empty properties nationally, which is 3 per cent. of the housing stock. There are a number of empty properties in Luton, and we should take cognisance of the Government’s existing target to reduce long-term empty properties by 25,000 by 2010, which would be a good start. The Empty Homes Agency has said that we need to be more ambitious given the scale of the crisis, and it has suggested the target of a 50 per cent. reduction by 2010 in the number of properties empty for more than six months. We need to be that ambitious, because the crisis is acute for the families I see day in, day out in my surgeries.
The Government have gone beyond even my expectations. The previous Tory Government smashed investment in housing year on year, whereas this Government are committed to the necessary investment. However, I ask Ministers to move a little further, given the urgent crisis faced by families in our constituencies.
If you were to go down to Tunbridge Wells today, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would be sure of a big surprise. You would progress through some of the most beautiful leafy roads in Britain, which look at their best at this time of year. If you were to walk from the station, you would come before long to Forest road, where you would see family homes built in the 1920s and 1930s. Those homes have mature trees and gardens that teem with wildlife. The surprise is that you would be looking at a brownfield site.
An even bigger surprise is that those houses are under threat because of that definition. This is what happens: developers offer one of the residents a big cheque, and before very long the hoardings go up, the house comes down, the garden is ploughed up and the flats go in. In a short space of time, a road that has contributed to the character of an area for 50 or 60 years is replaced by a block of apartments and a parking lot. In those circumstances, the people who live next door think that the same thing will happen on the other side, so they panic and sell up. Within a short time, a domino effect ripples down such roads in my constituency and others like it, which completely changes the character of an area.
The biggest surprise is that that process is happening not only in Tunbridge Wells and the leafy south-east, but across the country. When I introduced a ten-minute Bill on the subject four months ago, I did not know that it would attract e-mails, telephone calls and letters from all over the country—from Stockton-on-Tees to Bristol and from Cardiff to Rochdale. All the people who contacted me said that their local areas are being degraded, while the affordable housing that we need is not being provided. I accept the need for more housing and, in particular, for affordable housing. But I am concerned that such garden-grab developments are being used to avoid the affordable housing requirement, because they involve less than 15 units of housing. Such developments are displacing the development of genuine brownfield sites and robbing the poorer members of our society of their entitlement.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Unfortunately, I am an Opposition Back Bencher, but I hope that the Minister may pick up his suggestion in due course. [Interruption] The hon. Gentleman and I have something in common—we are fellow opposition MPs.
The Secretary of State described our concerns as, in effect, a fiction, citing two reasons: first, that councils already have sufficient discretion to turn down such applications, and secondly, that the definitions have been consistent. I concede that the definition of brownfield sites has been around since 1985. However, it was never part of planning guidance, but merely a convenient way of recording statistics. Since then, two things have happened. First, the Government have introduced targets for building houses and for building on brownfield land. We all know that once one applies a target to a definition, that definition becomes important, which is why this definition is important now.
Secondly, the Government have introduced higher density targets. In 1997, the average density of new build was 24 units per hectare; now, it is 42 units—nearly twice as high. Under planning policy statement 3, that could increase to as many as 70 in urban areas. As they say, “Do the math”: if an existing home is to be replaced and those doubled, perhaps trebled, density targets are to be met, it cannot be done without the garden. There has been a material change in the environment.
Confirming my perception, the Library, commenting on these changes, said:
“Taken together, those factors have encouraged local planning authorities to approve planning applications for urban sites where houses have large gardens. There was enough in the guidance to justify developers appealing any refusal of this type of application with every chance of success. In other words…the overall policy environment has changed as regards developing on gardens.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are truly to give local authorities the ability to make these decisions, perhaps they should not be overruled so often by a body that would not know the local area if it jumped up and hit it in the face?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that provides a useful opportunity to clarify the purpose of my Bill and the motion. We do not want to preserve in aspic every garden in the country but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) said, to return to a situation whereby local authorities—democratically elected representatives —make case-by-case decisions.
The Secretary of State suggested that the situation that we described was exaggerated, or even a fiction, almost as if our constituents were suffering from the delusion of the emperor’s new clothes and imagining something that did not exist. A couple of months ago, the previous Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), said:
“The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has rebutted strongly the allegations that garden grabbing is going on. We do not take the accusations seriously.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 25 April 2006; Vol. 445, c. 234WH.]
Our constituents take them seriously, as they are aware that it is going on. Last year’s figures show that 15 per cent. of residential development is now on garden-grabbed sites—that is, one in six new homes.
Does my hon. Friend agree that provided that local authorities are given the responsibility of finding housing for young people to help them to get on to the housing ladder, there is no problem in giving them the final decision, rather than an interim decision, on whether housing development should go ahead and housing densities should reflect the concerns of local people?
I entirely agree. If we treat local people as infants and do not allow them any say but only to kick out against decisions taken from afar, it is no wonder that we see such pent-up anger in our constituencies. I trust the people in my constituency to make the right decisions. They want to have houses and flats for their children and grandchildren, but they want to preserve the character of the area. They are able to strike that balance, and I trust them on that.
In introducing my ten-minute Bill and tabling an early-day motion, I was not trying to make a partisan political point. I believe that a mistake was made in the definition at a time when it did not matter, and we have an opportunity to correct it. The Minister for Housing and Planning can do that easily. All it requires is a change in the language of planning guidance. She can do it in PPS3. If she does that, she can look back on her tenure in the Department in the knowledge that she contributed something of lasting value to all our constituents. Hon. Members of all parties support that—we are making a cross-party plea.
If the Minister does not do what we propose, I fear that, in 30 years, we will look back on what has happened in the same way as we now look back on the destruction of some of our city centres, razed to make way for bland shopping centres. We will wonder why on earth we allowed it to happen. The Minister has a chance to prevent that, and I urge her to take it.
Like several of my hon. Friends, I am disappointed by the narrowing of today’s debate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that it was two years since the Opposition previously asked for a debate on housing. The debate before that took place four years earlier. In the past five debates on housing for which the Opposition called, I note an uncanny consistency in that all the motions contained the phrase, “serious threat to the nation’s green fields”, or something similar. We have moved from that to a serious threat to the nation’s back gardens. We are narrowing the debate all the time.
I do not imply that the issue is irrelevant, but it is not the subject that an Opposition party that wished to set out its stall on housing would choose. My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) listed the many topics that we could consider. Even in the context of the motion, overdevelopment is an interesting subject and we could have profitably debated the fact that many developers try to overdevelop inner-city sites. However, the debate has been narrowed to such an extent that one has to ask why. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) suggested that the answer was shortage of policy. I would not go that far, but the Opposition display a reluctance to put any more than their toe in the water.
The Opposition are obviously conducting another spurious green campaign. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State effectively demolished the argument in the motion by saying that brownfield development and the volume of green belt land have increased under Labour, that the percentage of residential land that is being developed has decreased and that local authorities have discretion in the planning process. None of the Opposition arguments makes sense and one must therefore ask why they have chosen the topic. I fear that it signals a return to “dog whistle” politics. It proclaims that, whatever the Conservative party says at the moment about being friendly and wanting to tackle the housing shortage, if people listen carefully, it is not genuinely in favour of development anywhere.
I would love to give way, but I am short of time.
I have had the privilege of living in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for some 40 years and I remember when there was a Tory-Liberal coalition there from 1978-86. Not a single council property, save for sheltered housing, was built in that time. Under a Labour administration, 70 per cent. affordable housing was built in the borough. To revert to the point that appeared to trouble the Opposition spokesman, any development of five or more homes had to include an affordable element. That was such a contrast with neighbouring Kensington and Westminster. I am sad to say that we now have another Conservative administration in Hammersmith and Fulham. Already, in only two months, developers tell me that they are coming under pressure to reduce to a minimum the percentage of affordable housing in schemes.
The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) is wrong about the mythical “Harry Potter” realm between the inner city and the suburbs, full of oases of brownfield sites that can be developed—but there are one or two, even in my constituency. In those places, the developers are being told, “It’s more difficult because of the Greater London authority and the 50 per cent. rule—but let’s keep it down as much as we possibly can.”
More widely across London, the figures for social rented housing completions since 1998 speak far more eloquently than any of the words of the Opposition can. In Tower Hamlets, the figure is 3,902; in Hackney, it is 2,563; and in Hammersmith and Fulham, it is 1,587. Let us compare those figures with that of Richmond, at 628, and Wandsworth, at 492. A borough that is twice the size of Hammersmith and Fulham managed to complete only a third of the number of social housing units in that time. The only other connection to be made is that it is the Conservative boroughs that are building the smaller numbers of housing units, and the Labour boroughs that are building the large numbers. I wish that I had time to go through all the figures, because the same applies to the current round of housing allocation. It is absolutely shameful that while Hammersmith and Fulham is planning to build almost 1,000 units in the current two-year period, Wandsworth—a borough of twice the size—is planning only 248.
I wish that I could, but I simply do not have the time.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) was kind enough to praise a development in Hammersmith and Fulham in a speech that he made earlier this year. It will therefore be of concern to him that every affordable housing development in Hammersmith and Fulham between 1986 and 4 May this year was opposed by the Conservatives in that borough. That is the truth about Conservative housing policy. We have heard “Don’t build it on greenfield sites,” and we are now hearing “Don’t build it on brownfield sites.” The Conservatives’ consistent policy is “Don’t build it.” That is the message that comes through loud and clear. They clearly think that they are popular, but they need to be clear that the dog whistle cannot go off pitch, because certain groups of people might be listening to it.
There are families with four children living in one-bedroom flats in my constituency—this is beginning to sound like the four Yorkshiremen sketch—but I cannot imagine that the Conservatives would be too concerned about them. However, they might be a bit more concerned about the young professionals and first-time buyers who are also desperate for accommodation, but who cannot get on the housing ladder—although the Conservatives did oppose the introduction of home sellers’ packs. They might also be concerned about the young families who are trying to trade up, but who have little chance of doing so in London. We need a better intermediate housing market for those people. The Conservatives are obviously not even concerned about the empty-nesters who are selling their properties to developers so that they can get a pension out of it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) pointed out.
I would advise the Conservatives to listen more carefully, although I would not advise them to orchestrate another debate on this subject within the next five or six years. The more we hear about the detail of their housing and planning policies, the more hollow they ring. Perhaps that is why they pulled the original subject for their debate and replaced it with this fig leaf of a debate instead. The Conservatives’ policies ring hollow because of their real opposition to the building of housing, particularly affordable housing, and the fact that they have nothing to put in its place.
We have had a good debate this afternoon and passions have been engaged on both sides of the House. That is hardly surprising, because this subject goes to the heart of the central political question of our time—how do we maintain and enhance our citizens’ quality of life?
I should like to pay particular tribute not only to the Members who spoke in the limited time available, but to those who intervened, often to powerful effect. I should like to pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), for Castle Point (Bob Spink), for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), all of whom paid eloquent testimony to the way in which the Government’s policy denies their communities the types of housing and development that they need.
The motion has attracted support from across the House, and I also want to pay particular tribute to the interventions by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the hon. Members for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods). All three of them emphasised one of the weaknesses at the heart of Government policy. Given the way in which urban green space—gardens—is classified as brownfield land, developers who should be encouraged to move towards genuine areas of desolation cherry-pick garden sites for their housing developments instead. As a result, the admirable aim behind the Government’s policy, and our policy, which is to encourage urban regeneration, is undermined by an unfortunate misapplication of an originally well-intentioned policy.
As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), no great legislative change is required—an edict from the Minister for Housing and Planning could change a situation that, unfortunately, leads to the perverse outcomes to which the hon. Member for Sunderland, South and other hon. Members have referred.
No, I will not give way at this stage, but I thank my hon. Friend.
As has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), there is a consensus in the House on the need for new homes. That consensus has been led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), both of whom have made speeches recently stressing the need to increase housing supply in this country. The Government, in talking about increasing supply, have always concentrated on quantity, but unfortunately they have lost the plot—indeed, they have lost the garden plot—on quality. The debate provides an opportunity for the Government to make a fresh start and to show that they believe that, when encouraging development—the right sort of development—we must take account of people’s need to ensure that there is appropriate urban green space.
Talking of changing policy, I was particularly interested in some of the remarks made by the Secretary of State in her speech. She talked about the need to take tough decisions on housing. I pay tribute to some of the tough decisions that she has taken in her role as the MP for her constituency. In March 2005, she supported residents who opposed plans to build 200 new homes. In 2004, she supported residents in a successful campaign to stop 30 new flats being built in an area of Bolton. The year before, she played a leading role in blocking proposals for a block in the same area. In 2002, she fought against plans to build new homes in West Horton. Two years earlier, she celebrated with residents after she had blocked a proposal for 600 new homes. In 1999, she played a pivotal role in blocking proposals to build 1,100 new homes in her constituency. Indeed, Margaret Rothwell, the chairman of Bolton’s planning committee, said:
“in my experience, whenever a group of residents in her constituency oppose a development, she always backs them.”
That is an interesting record, but I come not to condemn the Secretary of State, but to praise her for defending the interests of her constituents, because that is what the motion is about—restoring to local communities the chance to shape their own environment.
The call put forward in the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells has attracted formidable cross-party support. I offer the Minister the chance to join that progressive consensus today. Forty of her colleagues and several senior Liberal Democrats have said that the motion is important, because they recognise that urban green space is good for the nation’s health, good for the environment and good for biodiversity.
The British Medical Journal has emphasised how good green space is for our health. It pointed out that in environments with a high level of greenery, there is three times the level of physical activity and 40 per cent. less obesity—both form targets that the Government want to encourage, yet their policy works against doing so.
On the environment, the World Health Organisation in its recent report “Green cities, blue cities”—I do not know why it chose that title, but I can only commend it to the House—said that where there is extensive urban greenery, not only are CO2 emissions absorbed, but oxygen is emitted. Tree leaves collect dust and the phyto-acids in trees act as bactericides. Our urban green space plays a key part in ensuring that our environment is cleaner.
On biodiversity, the university of Sheffield, in a recent study, pointed out:
“Gardens are brilliant for wildlife. Gardens are England’s most important nature reserve.”
However, under this Government, that nature reserve is increasingly being concreted over.
At the heart of the debate is the question of local accountability, as was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). At the moment, the combination of the Government’s policies denies local autonomy over not just the designation of gardens as brownfield land, but density targets. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells, the Library, which is independent, has recently drawn attention to the fact that that perverse trend has gathered pace under this Government. It pointed out that
“the 2000 PPG3 contains pressure to increase density of development, which reads back into greater pressure to develop urban gardens… This has been combined with increased housing targets in the South of the country… those factors have encouraged local planning authorities to approve planning applications for urban areas where houses have large gardens.”
The Library concludes:
“There was enough in the guidance to justify developers appealing any refusal of this type of application with every chance of success.”
In other words, local communities are robbed of control over their own environment because of the Government’s policies.
Not at this stage.
The situation is likely to become still worse because of the changes to planning policy guidance note 3 in the new planning policy statement 3, which increases the density pressure. We recognise that, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) pointed out, some communities will want sensitive garden and infill development, and we believe that communities in which there is strong popular backing for such development should be allowed to go their own way. The problem with policy at present is that local autonomy is denied, and communities that wish to resist development are robbed of the power to do so.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) congratulated us on raising an important issue and, a second later, said that he was disappointed that we had selected this subject for debate. I am used to hearing Liberal Democrats saying different things to different audiences, but that was an example of one Liberal Democrat saying different things to the same audience. All I would ask the hon. Gentleman is: why have the Liberal Democrats not used any of their Opposition day debates to discuss housing and planning issues in the past? Let me give the House an assurance: I will talk about housing and planning whenever the Government give me an opportunity, and I shall be delighted to use any opportunity that may be extended by the Minister or the Secretary of State to hold the Government to account for their failure to deliver on their housing targets.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove asked my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden why she had not talked about rural housing affordability, supply generally or location. In fact, my hon. Friend explicitly mentioned all three. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the importance of football analogies; let me give him such an analogy. He took his eye comprehensively off the ball, and scored a series of own goals. [Hon. Members: “Very funny!”] I am grateful for those generous words.
The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), whose commitment to housing and planning is well known, made a fascinating speech. He understandably referred to the regeneration in his constituency, which in many cases I would applaud, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden pointed out, much of the investment there was due to the millennium dome. Given public investment on that scale, I am not surprised that there has been urban regeneration—but I doubt that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will allow the level of public expenditure in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency as a result of the dome to apply in the constituencies of the rest of us.
The right hon. Gentleman also suggested that we were opposed to patios and extensions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said, it is unfortunately the changes to council tax that the Government are contemplating that will discourage people from enhancing their homes as we would like them to do. Our policy would enable local authorities to allow precisely such enhancement.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), with his customary authority and sensitivity to the needs of his constituents, said that local residents’ opposition to housing development in their area was continually ignored by the planning inspectorate, which is an unfortunate example of increased centralisation under this Government. He emphasised that local elected representatives needed to be able to decide. That is at the heart of our argument.
The hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) raised—with admirable eloquence and clarity—the problem of overcrowding. In particular, she drew attention to its seriousness among black and ethnic minority people. I agree with her that we need to address the problem. Indeed, I have had the opportunity to make the point in Westminster Hall. I hope that the hon. Lady will join me in pressing the Minister to change the statutory definition of overcrowding, so that we have a more appropriate benchmark for government policy in the future. I also hope that she will join me in recognising that it was under the Conservative Government that we succeeded in increasing the amount of social housing that was supplied, and that under the present Government the amount of social housing released and supplied has diminished.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells—who deserves enormous credit for having introduced a ten-minute Bill, which a Government Whip, sadly, tried to strangle the other day—spoke with passion, fluency and great intellectual authority about the perversity of encouraging development on urban green space when the original brownfield designation was intended to ensure that industrial land was redeveloped. He pointed out, crucially, that for those of us who believe in creating more social and affordable housing, infill and garden development of the kind that we are seeing does not trigger the requirement to provide such housing that is laid down in the Government’s regulations. That point was backed up by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn).
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) spent most of his speech saying that he wished we had had another debate. Given the rest of his comments, I understand and sympathise with his desire to speak on a different motion. He did not directly address any of the concerns raised by his hon. Friends who signed the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells.
In voting for the motion, hon. Members will be standing up for the sort of spacious domestic environment that gives families the chance to enjoy a decent quality of life. We will be standing up for biodiversity and urban green space against policies that perversely encourage insensitive development. Most importantly of all, we will be standing up for local people, local autonomy and local government, against centralised edicts that rob people of control over their communities.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the height of insolence and bad manners to the Chamber that the Secretary of State, who responded at the beginning of the debate, is not here to listen to the wind-up or to the response from my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)?
The hon. Gentleman has a point. [Interruption.] However, the Secretary of State has just arrived. I would not use the term “insolence”, but those who lead off a debate should return for the wind-up speeches. It is a strong tradition of this House, and it should be observed.
We have had a wide-ranging debate this afternoon. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) raised issues to do with environmental standards for housing, about which I agree. My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) pointed out some of the rather absurd—if unintended—consequences that the Opposition motion would have for extensions, which would be regarded as brownfield development.
The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) asked about village design statements. I shall be happy to respond to him in more detail, but I assure him that we support those statements and want to give them a stronger role in the new planning guidance. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) talked about the serious need for new homes in her constituency.
The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) raised a variety of points, and I shall respond to many of them in due course. However, he raised an important issue when he said that small housing developments do not include affordable housing. I agree that that is a significant matter, and it is one of the factors supporting the introduction of the planning gain supplement that may be more appropriate for smaller sites.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) raised some important points. I was very concerned by what he said about the attitude towards affordable housing of the new Conservative-controlled council in his area. That is a serious problem for people in his constituency.
Opposition Front Benchers touched on a range of issues to do with density and planning guidance. However, I can tell the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) that the Government make no apology for saying that we think that density should be greater. For many years, low-density executive developments have taken up large areas of greenfield land, and it is simply not true that one cannot build at relatively higher densities and still include gardens or wonderful designs.
I turn now to the main issues in the debate. The Opposition have called for an end to building on back gardens, but we need be clear about the facts. In 2005, 14 per cent. of new homes were built on residential land. [Interruption.] Opposition Members have made their points, and I want to respond. That figure includes homes built on the footprint of previous buildings, and is not confined to homes built on drives or back gardens. In 1990, in contrast, 20 per cent. of new homes were built on previously developed residential land. Therefore, the proportion of new homes being built on previously developed residential land is lower today than it was in 1990.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I apologise to the House, but I now have very little time to respond to the many points made in the debate.
It is certainly true that this Government have increased the emphasis on the use of brownfield land. We make no apology for that, as the result has been a renaissance in our cities and towns, the regeneration of many abandoned industrial sites and a substantial reduction in the amount of greenfield land needed for development. According to the urban taskforce, 90 people were living in the heart of Manchester in 1990; today, 25,000 people live there and the city is thriving as a result. The proportion of new homes on former industrial and commercial sites has more than doubled since 1997 as a result of the measures we have taken.
Members have raised specific issues about brownfield categorisation. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins): the issue should not be about blocking whole categories of development as either greenfield or brownfield, but about quality and appropriateness. It should also be about meeting needs. Opposition Members must recognise that we need to make sure that we meet the needs of the next generation for homes. To listen to some of them talk about flats and the problems of developing flats, we would think that flats was a dirty word. They need to recognise that it is not planning definitions and Government requirements that put pressure on their constituencies, but need and demand for housing. We all have an obligation to respond to that.
I agree that we need to strengthen the focus on quality and design both of buildings and of their neighbouring environment. That is why we set out in December new consultation on planning guidance, which states clearly:
“New development should be of high quality inclusive design…The key consideration should be whether a development positively improves the character and environmental quality of an area and the way it functions.”
It also states:
“Although residential gardens are defined as brown field land this does not necessarily mean they are suitable for development.”
Local authorities will have a clear obligation to look at quality, but also to provide land for the homes we need.
Given the passion of Opposition Members, I looked up their contributions to the planning policy consultation. Unfortunately, they said nothing because they did not respond—so much for their apparent commitment to improving the location and planning of housing. However, I suspect that that is not what the debate is really about. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove—
It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman is raising a point of order when there is a severe limit on Front-Bench speeches. I note that he tried to intervene on several occasions, so I hope that he does not want to make that point as his point of order, as I shall stop him.
To be fair to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), I am happy to clarify the point. We received no responses from Opposition Front Benchers on that issue—nor from the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells, who has made such a point of debating it in this place.
That is not what the debate is really about; it is about the fact that the Conservatives still oppose new housing. They still do not accept the fact that we need 200,000 new homes every year if we are to meet the needs of future generations. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has not only said that she will refuse to agree to the 200,000 additional homes we need, but has also told The House Magazine that she thinks 140,000 new homes is too many. We are already building more than 140,000—that number is not too high.
I realise that the hon. Lady is short of time so I am grateful to her for giving way, but her point about our opposition to new homes cannot be squared with the Secretary of State’s acknowledgement that I supported the proposal of the Conservative-controlled council in my borough to build new homes.
And the hon. Lady still will not agree that we need 200,000 more homes.
Conservative Members are still not facing up to the difficult question of where new homes should be built. They will not support the additional homes that we need and they will not support the additional funding for infrastructure, because they keep opposing anything like a planning gain supplement. They do not want new homes in the suburbs; they do not want them in the countryside either, where they want even more green belt to protect villages and towns. They do not want new homes on industrial land. The hon. Lady said in the Western Morning News that she objected to the £60,000 homes on former industrial and NHS sites because:
“The grim reality is that the homes are in less than desirable locations such as next door to mines.”
That is interesting information for those of our constituents who have lived next to mines for very many years.
The Conservatives do not want new homes in Surrey. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath is one of 15 Tory MPs to sign an early-day motion opposing house building in Surrey. They do not want new homes in Essex either—even more of them signed an early-day motion about that; nor do they want them in West Sussex, Hertfordshire or anywhere in the south of England, which is where they propose to cut the number of homes, not to increase them.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
Mr. Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House 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.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No.118(6)(Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),
That the draft Human Tissue Act 2004 (Persons who Lack Capacity to Consent and Transplants) Regulations 2006, which were laid before this House on 24th May, be approved.—[Liz Blackman.]
Question agreed to.
EUROPEAN UNION DOCUMENTS
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No.119(9)(European Standing Committees),
Education and Training Key Competences
That this House takes note of the Unnumbered Letter from the Department for Education and Skills dated 9th May 2006 relating to the draft recommendation on key competences for lifelong learning; and supports the Government’s view that the Recommendation will provide a useful, non-binding, common point of reference for Member States, either when choosing to undertake their own reforms of education and training systems or when learning about what has worked in other countries.—[Liz Blackman.]
Question agreed to.