Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]
It is a privilege to open the debate, and I express my gratitude to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), for joining me in securing it, as we promised at a big public meeting on housing that covered both our constituencies. This is a key issue throughout Hertfordshire, but nowhere more so than in the city and district of St. Albans and north Hertfordshire district, both of which cover my constituency.
The green belt is much loved and needed. I have defended it since my maiden speech, in which I described the contrasting views of different parts of my constituency and remarked that one thing that united the different settlements within it was the desire to remain separated from each other by strips of green belt. That desire remains. Those strips of green belt provide green lungs, access to the country, room to breathe and a sense of different identity. I have always defended the green belt, and for nearly a quarter of a century we have always succeeded in our defence. I have spoken at every public inquiry on proposals to build on the green belt, and we have usually seen off such developments—until recently.
We have seen those developments off and been able to build homes and meet targets, so what has changed? A number of things. First, the Government keep raising the targets, and I want the Minister to explain why. Secondly, the way decisions are made has changed. We now have regional planning assemblies such as the East of England authority, which most of us do not recognise and few of us understand, but all of us know is not directly elected. It is simply a creature of the Government that enables them to divide and rule and say to other representatives—or appointees—from Norfolk and Cambridge, “Why don’t you vote for more houses in Hertfordshire and Essex? If you don’t, we’ll plonk them on you.” That change has given the Government the opportunity to steamroller through increased targets.
There has also been a political resiling from defending the green belt. The first and most serious example of that was when the county council, which was temporarily under Lib-Lab control—together they had a majority of one—steamrollered through proposals for the biggest incursion on the green belt that this country has ever seen: the decision to build up to 10,000 houses on the green belt to the west of Stevenage. They had to change the orders of the council to ensure that the majority of one could prevail. It was a pretty sordid process, but it worked. Of course, their proposals were endorsed by the Deputy Prime Minister and given the go-ahead.
There has also been a change in the Government’s attitude from the traditional view—in the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, “We created the green belt and now we’re going to build on it”—to the other meaning of that unintended double entendre. They are now preaching that a green belt can be flexible and that the boundaries can be changed as long as that is compensated for by land elsewhere being reclassified as green belt. That destroys the purpose of the green belt: if it is elastic and plastic rather than firm, rigid and defensible, it ceases to serve any purpose.
If the Minister were given responsibility for defending the list of protected species, would she say, “It doesn’t matter if a few of them become extinct, because we can always reclassify the common house sparrow and chaffinch, so the total will not alter”? That seems to be the Government’s view of the green belt.
I can no longer say to my constituents, as I have for a couple of decades or more, “Back me, support me, we’ll fight and we’ll probably win.” I now have to say that the odds are stacked against us because the Government are actively encouraging building on the green belt, not least in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend and neighbour.
May I make a point about the flexible green belt? At a meeting that my right hon. Friend and I attended, Tim Frehey, head of development and infrastructure, explained the compensatory green belt, using slides. When we challenged him on the concept of a compensatory green belt, he quickly resiled from the phrase and said that it was not a very good one. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Mr. Frehey thought it not very good because people at the meeting understood exactly what it meant, and now a better phrase will have to be adopted that makes it sound better to the public?
I agree entirely. My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. That example shows that even officials are infected by the new Labour view that if one changes the wording, one somehow changes the substance, and that most of the people can be conned most of the time. However, they cannot con our constituents, because they have rumbled what the Government are doing and are incensed by it.
None of that is to say that my constituents or I believe that there should be no building. I accept that there is a need for homes. The fact that homes are so hideously expensive in and around London is a sign that demand has outstripped supply. I have never opposed building outside the green belt where that is appropriate and sensible. I have not taken a nimbyist view. When there were plans to build houses at the bottom of my garden, I did not object as some of my neighbours did, even though those houses will deprive me of a view of the countryside, due to the fact that that is quite a sensible place to build. The plans were contiguous with existing buildings and were not an infringement on the green belt.
I support building and recognise that we must have some new homes because young people cannot afford to leave home. They have to stay at home for longer and longer, like young Italian men—they will still be at home with mama at 30. Indeed, a survey yesterday showed that whereas, 15 or 20 years ago, about 59 per cent. of people had got on to the housing ladder by 30, now only 40 per cent. have. There has been a huge drop. Will the Minister tell us why the Government have failed on this policy? Why are young people increasingly unable to buy homes?
Those who have bought homes have to pay such astronomical prices that they are mortgage slaves for the first 20 years of their lives together. That is why one sees few young couples at public meetings—both are working such long hours. At the meeting that my hon. Friend and I attended, it was significant that very few of those mortgage slaves could attend to discuss housing, however crucial the issue is to them.
I am not nimbyist and neither is the county council. When the Lib-Lab coalition that steamrollered through the proposal to build on the green belt was ousted by the electorate, it was replaced by a Conservative administration. The new administration recognised that it had to build houses, not only because the Government were telling it so, but because it recognised the genuine need. It carried out an urban capacity study and concluded that there was substantial capacity outside the green belt, on brownfield and other sites, to enable it to meet the targets imposed by the Government. But the targets have moved. When the capacity to meet the first target was found, the target rose again and again as the Government yo-yoed back and forth in their dealings with the East of England assembly.
We have to ask ourselves why demand is outstripping supply. Yes, we have to find extra land and extra capacity to build, but we cannot treat this simply as a question of supply. We need also to examine demand.
In a debate in the main Chamber on 7 December, the Minister for Housing and Planning said:
“On the overall level of house building that is needed, we believe, given the growing number of households with people living alone and an ageing population, that we should be building at least 200,000 new homes a year.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 507.]
She was being a little economical with the truth, because a growing number of households and people living alone as they age is not the only factor behind the need for house building, although it is an important one.
There has been a tendency for people to live in smaller households, which has, over the years, increased the number of residences and dwellings that we need by roughly 0.5 per cent. a year. One does not need to be a mathematical genius to know that if there are about 20 million households and that number is growing by 0.5 per cent. each year, that makes 100,000 extra a year, not 200,000. Where does the greater number of houses that the Government require come from? Not from the causes that the Minister for Housing and Planning mentioned or described to the Select Committee.
Something else is happening: for 50 years, there has been a move towards smaller households. When I prepared some draft notes, my research assistant, who is new to the subject, looked up the figures and found that there has been no reduction in the average size of household since 2000—the move to smaller households has stopped since then. I suspect that it has stopped not because there has been an outbreak of matrimonial harmony and people are not getting divorced any more, or because people have decided to invite their children to stay with them longer, but because people cannot do otherwise. The cost of housing is forcing people to remain in larger households than they would choose and the underlying demand is being suppressed. I am not trying to pretend that it has gone away. We ought, and will need, to cope with it by building the 100,000 houses a year.
We need to recognise one thing. To the extent that the growth of housing demand comes from having smaller households—the same number of people living in more houses—there is no increase in demand for infrastructure. If no more people are involved, just more smaller households, we do not have to build more houses or hospitals, or provide more water and so on. These are big issues locally because our hospitals are being closed or run down. Several hospitals in Hertfordshire are earmarked for losing their accident and emergency services, if not for closure, and cottage hospitals in my constituency are following suit. There is great concern that we are losing resources, but, at least to the extent that there is no change in population, we do not need additional resources.
The second factor often quoted by the Government as allegedly accounting for increasing demand is people moving from the rest of the United Kingdom to the south-east. The Liberal leader of the council that I mentioned got a great cheer when he said that we should try to reverse and discourage the process by persuading people to stay in Scotland and the north by developing those areas. That might be a slightly antagonistic attitude to take towards the Scots and northerners, but it got a great cheer and was not deemed to be in any way racist. If that council leader was right and if that process were happening, we should be trying to encourage development elsewhere and discourage movement to the most congested part of the country, but that is not what is happening. There was a small net increase up until the early 1990s, but it never represented more than a tenth of the population growth in the south; it was never even as much as a tenth of the population growth in the south-east.
Since that time, there has been a net outflow from the south-east to the rest of the country and a return of people to Scotland and the north. So, that process is not a factor behind the ever-rising targets that the Government are imposing on us. The simple truth is that the big, new and rising element of demand over the past nine years has been people moving to this country from abroad. I hope that we can deal with that issue in a sensible, moderate and reasonable fashion, and that we can all agree on one thing: the caricature of economic migrants to this country as people who want to rip-off the benefits system or as lawless, unsatisfactory people is the reverse of the truth. By and large, they are dynamic, ambitious, hard-working and law-abiding, and they want to improve their life and that of their families, so I look favourably upon them.
However, we must ask whether we should be a country of settlement. Should we be asking people to come here to settle in large numbers? If we think that that is right and proper and that there should be large-scale settlement in this country, we need to ask whether we should house the people involved. I have no doubt that the answer to that question is yes.
If there is large-scale migration to this country, we must build a corresponding number of extra houses. The Government forecast that over the next 20 to 25 years the population of this country will increase as a result of net immigration—the extent that immigration to this country exceeds emigration and people returning elsewhere from this country—by 6 million. That population growth equates to growth by approximately the population of Southampton every year, and those people need to be housed.
The Government deploy respectable arguments that there are economic benefits of mass immigration and settlement, and that it is worth the candle. But let them be open and frank, and admit that that is why we face such pressure and demand on housing, why we will have to build on the green belt and why young people who are already here, from all races and ethnic groups, find it difficult to get a home due to increased population and the resulting pressure.
This is not a debate about immigration. I have examined the arguments that the Government deploy and that purport to justify migration on this scale economically, and I find them bogus and inaccurate. There is a need for some immigration, but not for massive immigration on that scale. There are only two honourable positions to take on this matter: that of those who say that it is economically necessary and will mean large-scale house building, and that of those who say that it is not economically necessary because we can do without immigration on that scale and can return to a more balanced position such as prevailed in the 1980s and early 1990s. Thus, we will not have constantly to increase our housing targets.
What is not tenable logically, morally or with any humanity is to say that we should encourage large-scale settlement in this country but not build the additional houses.
I take the point, Mr. Olner. You will know that Hertfordshire is very near London. The vast majority of those coming from abroad come initially to London and, in turn, people from all ethnic groups in London move out to Hertfordshire. They are very welcome, but that is the pressure that we face. An indirect consequence of that flow is that there is huge pressure on housing in Hertfordshire. We want some recognition of that from the Government.
If the Government think that the process needs to continue, we want an open justification of it. We want an end to the pretence that it is not a factor and, above all, an end to the pretence that anyone who discusses this factor in a reasonable and sensible way is somehow pandering to racism. If we do not discuss these things openly, we let the British National party have a field day. That is not what I want. It already has a foothold in other parts of Hertfordshire, and I do not want the BNP to spread into my part of the county, thank you very much.
We face a serious situation in Hertfordshire: young people are unable to get homes, those who do are mortgage slaves for much of their lives, there is increasing pressure on our green belt, our facilities and infrastructure are under stress and strain, and greater strains will be imposed on those if we have a rising population rather than if we simply cope with the tendency for people to live in smaller households. There are pressures on our health service, schools, infrastructure, water supply and roads, which are aggravated by the pressures posed by potential development of the two airports in Hertfordshire.
I hope that the Government will think again about their attempts to impose targets of this size on our area, and about their policy of no longer treating the green belt as sacrosanct, and come clean with the people of Hertfordshire about what they are up to.
I shall speak briefly because unfortunately I have to go to a Public Bill Committee meeting on the planning gain supplement. That supplement, which the Government want to deliver the necessary infrastructure, is one matter that I wish to raise here.
A couple of years ago the East of England regional assembly refused to sign off its draft plan because we had a recognised infrastructure deficit. When I raised that with the Minister I was told, “Well, everybody says they’ve got an infrastructure deficit,” and it was batted aside. We are being asked to take a significant amount of new development, crucial to which is the infrastructure network needed to support it, including hospitals and schools, about which we have major concerns, and water and roads.
I was totally disappointed that when I said to the head of development of infrastructure for the east of England, “You haven’t even touched on the planning gain supplement when explaining how we are going to deliver these housing totals with a compatible infrastructure,” he said that he believed that the supplement was simply meant to bring land forward more quickly. That is not the Government’s objective, and I am pretty depressed that the head of development of infrastructure sees it in that way. It shows a lack of information and does not fill me with any confidence that we will have the infrastructure to support the new houses. He did say that we have per capita water use targets. That is fine and dandy, except that there are already water shortages with our existing housing stock. No information was given about people currently suffering from a lack of water. The River Ver is in danger of drying up, and I know that other areas of Hertfordshire are similarly taxed in dryer spells. Just to say that we have a water use target does not fill me with confidence.
We are also to have a regional target to reduce CO2 emissions. I am sorry: we already have a significant CO2 emission problem in Hertfordshire. We use 3.7 worlds in the carbon footprint of St. Albans alone. Coupled with that, we have air quality management areas that I have asked the Government to help us with. The response has been that there is no statutory obligation to do so, merely to note and recognise them. I do not want more and more CO2 emissions to accompany the carbon footprint of housing, which contributes 23 per cent. of our emissions. I do not want more houses in Hertfordshire along with a target and the recognition of a deficit in our air quality. That is not good enough, and my constituents need an explanation of how they are supposed to live happily and compatibly with the extra houses.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) rightly spoke at some length about the pressures coming to our area from London. We will unfortunately have between 5,800 and 10,000 new homes—it is a flexible figure—on an aerodrome site between my area and Hatfield. It will be partly in my constituency, and I asked the developers what the thought process behind it was other than the fact that they liked the site. I was told, helpfully, that it would provide an overspill for Harlow. I mentioned that for St. Albans residents, providing an overspill for Harlow was not a high priority, particularly considering that the housing will not be included in the St. Albans total. Yet again, the figures are fudged and there will be pressures from all sides. The Hemel Hempstead figures will also include areas near St. Albans and there might well be houses that are in my constituency but not counted towards my target figures.
People are not sure what the figures mean. My constituents went to consultations on figures that they believed could be delivered principally using brownfield development, which we all want to see. They now feel that if the figures are redrafted and revised by the Government, we will have housing imposed on us. The consultation was a complete sham.
I entirely endorse much of what my hon. Friend says. Does she share my concern that the change in Government policy on green belt, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) referred, means that speculators both in my constituency and, I believe, in her district, are pegging out fields for future development? The principle of green belt has been broken by Government policy.
I completely share my hon. Friend’s concern. What is more, developers use some of the Government’s press releases on their websites to encourage people to have hope value in particular parcels of land. Unfortunately, that makes it look as though the Government are hand in glove with developers, although the Government would not see it that way. Developers believe that they are being encouraged to proceed in that way.
Green belt can never come back. I know that that is an obvious statement, but it was there for a purpose. It was not meant to be a green field with views and a cow in it: one of its principal purposes was to prevent the coalescence of developments. That is the one element that cannot be compensated for, and St. Albans will end up joined up with Hemel Hempstead or Welwyn Hatfield.
We are already under intense pressure for transport in the area around the M25. Apparently, we have been designated a regional transport node. No information was given at the East of England regional assembly meeting about what that meant, and there was certainly no encouragement that there would be an early funding decision for Thameslink 2000 or any help to ensure that we have the infrastructure before developments are made. The Government’s push towards the planning gain supplement is a major concern, as it will mean a divorce from developers communicating with the community. More to the point, we have had no assurance that it will be i before e—infrastructure before expansion.
I can understand the Government’s wish to address the pressing housing problems. Mr. Frehey, the east of England head of development of infrastructure, tells us that we will have a great deal of say on any green belt boundary alterations. However, the St. Albans and Dacorum strategy manager says that we will have no choice and will have to accept what we are told, so that does not fill me with confidence. It does not give my constituents any confidence that the Government are listening sympathetically.
This is not nimbyism. We are under intense pressure, for instance on our roads, and that has been recognised. To keep telling us that we can put more houses in is somewhat naive. More to the point, the Government have their hands over their ears and are not listening to my constituents.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on securing the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on her speech. The debate is timely and they have both shown how passionately the issue is debated in our area of Hertfordshire.
It is important to remember that, with 1 million people, Hertfordshire is already one of the most densely populated shire counties in England. That is the essential context within which any future housing targets should be debated. The Government have published plans for up to 93,200 more houses in Hertfordshire by 2021, including up to 22,000 in my district. In English, that means an extra 200,000 people—an increase of 20 per cent. in 15 years. The plans are unprecedented in scale and completely out of step with local needs, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have said.
The Government like to claim that people in Hertfordshire, and therefore we as their representatives, oppose all new houses and that we are merely nimbys. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans said, that is complete nonsense and disingenuous. We recognise the need for more homes. Indeed, they are being built in my constituency at a faster rate than in many neighbouring areas including Harlow and north London. However, development must be sustainable, underpinned by funded infrastructure and planned democratically. Sadly, the Government’s housing policy fails on all three counts.
Take sustainability. The Government want us to build 12,000 houses in east Hertfordshire, plus at least 10,000 more in the new town that is currently known as Harlow North even though it is in my constituency. The total proposed development in our area represents more than 47,000 extra people—a 36 per cent. rise in population. It would mean 28,000 more cars on our roads, 300 more pupils in each secondary school and 2,500 more peak-time commuters when our trains are already seriously overcrowded. Environmentally, that scale of development would be disastrous. It would mean the loss of at least 15,000 acres of green belt land, along with several woodlands and the natural habitats of hundreds of wild animals. As any reasonable person can see, that scale of development is completely unsustainable and would prove unworkable in practice.
Ironically, the whole policy is undermined by the Treasury’s unwillingness to fund even the most basic infrastructure. When presented with the initial list of key projects for improvements to roads, public transport and, as has been discussed, water and sewerage capacity, the Chancellor refused to fund more than 75 per cent. of them. In other words, the Government want houses for 200,000 people in Hertfordshire, but they are prepared to pay for houses for only 50,000 people.
And that is just the most basic of capital projects. Our public services, such as schools and hospitals, are being squeezed, not improved. For example, the Government are closing our hospitals. The Chancellor’s cutbacks mean that the proposed new hospital at Hatfield has already been scrapped. In the eastern part of the county, we now face the bitter choice of whether to shut the Lister hospital or the Queen Elizabeth II hospital. My colleagues in the western half of the county face a similar dilemma, because a further hospital is to close there. More people, fewer hospitals—that seems to be the reality of the Government’s housing plans. Perhaps the Minister can tell us in her reply exactly where the proposed 200,000 people are meant to go when they fall ill.
If the substance of the Government’s housing plans is bad, the way in which they have been imposed is even worse. Where there could have been a collaborative effort, we have had ministerial diktat; where there should have been openness, there has been obfuscation. As a result, fewer and fewer private and public organisations support the Government’s housing targets. The Environment Agency, for example, described the effect of those targets on the south-east as an “environmental time bomb”. The East of England regional assembly—the very body charged by Ministers with implementing the regional plan—has now withdrawn its support because of broken promises about the infrastructure.
However, the Government’s approach to setting housing targets is perhaps best typified by their decision to reinstate the new town in my constituency that I mentioned, and I should like to explain how that particular housing target has been engineered over the past year. Promoted by an oil company’s pension fund, the new town would entail the building of up to 20,000 new houses on 3,000 acres of green fields. It would destroy 15,000 acres of green belt land and swallow up the villages of Eastwick, Gilston, Hunsdon and High Wych. When the Government-appointed panel of inspectors considered the proposal in its inquiry last year, it recognised the problems, which included the environmental impact, the distraction from the urgent need to regenerate Harlow, in nearby Essex, the serious water and sewerage capacity problems and the absence of sufficient infrastructure.
On housing targets, the panel recommended to the Government on 19 June that the new town should expressly not be included in the plan. Some people disagreed; indeed, the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), said that it was “unfair” and wanted to
“put an alternative to Government”.
Of course, as my right hon. and hon. Friends here know, the Government’s planning rules on housing targets preclude that. Planning policy statement 11 states that in the period between the panel’s report to the Government and the publication of the Government’s response, any representations would
“undermine the whole examination process and be prejudicial to other participants”.
Thus, until the Government publish any changes to their housing targets, no one should meet Ministers to lobby them, which is fair enough.
Regrettably, the Minister for Housing and Planning apparently breached that rule. On 13 July last year, she met the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning to discuss development in and around Harlow. As a result, on 19 December—strangely enough, that was the day on which the House rose—the Government suddenly announced that they would overturn their own inspectors’ recommendations and reinstate the new town, to the surprise of the public and most housing and planning experts.
My constituents believe that that meeting on 13 July last year has undermined the credibility of the whole process of setting housing targets and proven highly prejudicial. That is why they, among others, are now seeking legal opinion on how to challenge the decision and, therefore, the Government’s housing targets in our area. Such a challenge could affect not only housing in my constituency, but development across the county and, indeed, the eastern region.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that does little for public confidence because people feel that deals are being stitched up behind the scenes? If it proves to be the case that that meeting went ahead and was prejudicial, that will, unfortunately, only reconfirm the public’s opinion that they have no say and that everything is being done behind closed doors.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The concern is that the credibility of the process—we may or may not disagree with the outcome—should be beyond reproach.
That is why I hope that, in responding to the debate, the Minister will explain why the Government’s rules were indeed flouted in that way. Some of my constituents say that that was done for party advantage, given that Harlow is Labour’s second most marginal seat. Some say that one Minister was simply helping another, given that the hon. Member for Harlow is the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning. Whatever the reason, the Minister needs to explain to us and, therefore, to our constituents why the meeting was held and why officials now refuse to release the papers that were prepared for it. My constituents will expect nothing less than a full explanation.
As we have heard, it is vital to set the right housing target for Hertfordshire. It must be based on sustainable principles, matched by infrastructure and based on open and democratic processes. Sadly, the Government, embarrassed by their dismal record in house building to date, have failed on all three counts. For my constituents, however, the Government must also answer the questions surrounding the meeting in July, and I hope that the Minister will not duck the issue. She needs clearly to explain the reasons behind the rejection of her own inspectors’ advice and why Ministers seem to think that they can flout their own planning rules. I look forward to her reply.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on introducing the debate. Housing is an extremely controversial subject in Hertfordshire.
I must agree with the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady that the way in which we reach our housing targets—the current target is estimated to understate the problem by about 30 per cent.—is clouded in mystery. I do not understand some of the processes by which Hertfordshire county council arrived at the figures that have allowed it, over the years, to obstruct development to the west of Stevenage and extra development around new towns in Hertfordshire. As a result, house prices in Hertfordshire are among the highest in the country, and many young people—particularly those born in the county—are without homes.
Like the right hon. Gentleman, I spend a lot of time looking at this problem and trying to defend my constituency. Unlike him, I moved there only about 15 years ago, but like him, I have come to love the county. He and I work together on quite a lot of issues because we share a concern to maintain the beauty of this very green and pleasant patch of England.
However, constraints on building and the constraints imposed by the green belt are leading to infilling in some of the most beautiful villages in my constituency, including Datchworth and Codicote. People there are building in their back gardens and parking is at a premium because people cannot get out of the constraints on them. As a result, people are infilling. At the minute in Hertfordshire, we have town cramming, not town planning. The same is happening in Stevenage, where back gardens are being built on. At one stage the county council—to the derision of most of my constituents—proposed that we start building on the Fairlands Valley park to provide much-needed housing.
Of the 18,000 or so cases currently on my books, the third biggest category is housing. Every day I turn away people and say we cannot help because, thanks to the right-to-buy legislation, with which I have no disagreement, many of Stevenage’s council houses have been bought. We had, I think, 30,000 in the 1980s, and we now have 8,500. On top of that we have a housing waiting list of 3,000 and 250 homeless families in the town itself. All that is in green, leafy and fairly wealthy Hertfordshire. There are more and more families, and more and more children being born, with nowhere to go. They must either go to the north or they must live, as many do now, with their parents, in increasingly overcrowded accommodation.
I am glad that the hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) and for St. Albans and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden have all acknowledged that we have a problem; we do. There is some movement towards solving it. However, I disagree with the picture set out by the right hon. Gentleman of our eating into the green belt to concrete over the space from Stevenage to St. Albans. As I understand matters, the authorities propose to take only 3 per cent. of the green belt between now and 2031. They propose to put 5 per cent. back in, in a different area. I think that some of that will be in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. It makes sense. It is a little like what happens when some men get fat; they do not recognise the need to let their belts out, and they just drop their trousers more and more down their hips, until they reach a precipitous point. Hertfordshire has reached the precipitous point.
As an aside, I am proud to say that I have lost a stone in the past few months, and have taken the waistband of my trousers in.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the proposals to replace the green belt mean, according to several officials to whom I have spoken, that an area of east Hertfordshire could be replaced by land near Peterborough? In what possible sense will that benefit people in Hertfordshire or Peterborough? It would be to remove the belt and turn it into an elastic band.
If that were so—and I do not know that it is—I should disagree with it. I believe that it refers to land that is fairly close, and I shall allow my hon. Friend the Minister, who I see is nodding, to fill in the details about that. I shall concentrate on Stevenage.
Yes, Mr. Olner; women do wear trousers. When things need loosening women tend to wear voluminous tent-like tops like the one I am wearing, to hide the increase.
In Stevenage the problem has become a huge one, for me and my constituents. There have been many inquiries in public, which the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and I both attended, and where we were both, I think, amazed by the number of barristers retained by both sides, and the money that we saw thus flowing out of Hertfordshire. There have been inquiries in public into the development to the west of Stevenage in some fields along the A1(M). It is a very pretty area but I welcome the 3,600—and by 2025 it may possibly be 10,000—houses that will go into that area. There will also be schools, medical and sports facilities, and a cemetery—I shall probably be heading for the grave by that time, so I welcome that too. I think that we could build a very sustainable community there, along the lines of Poundbury.
I understand the worries about water. We have that worry throughout the country, not just in Hertfordshire, although, having been born in the Caribbean and raised in Africa I find our way of managing that concern risible, to say the least. In the Caribbean and Africa every house that is built must have a cistern underneath it, of the same volume as the house, to catch rainwater, or greywater, as it is called, to be used for baths, cisterns and gardens. We could easily do that here. We could easily manage the drainage systems if it were not for an argument between various Government agencies about who should have the ultimate responsibility to maintain them. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look into that, because it obstructs our conservation of water.
As to hospitals I must once again disagree with the hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford and for St. Albans and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. I do not think that the proposal is to close hospitals; but it is certainly proposed to downgrade accident and emergency departments. We shall have two accident and emergency departments in Hertfordshire that will be trauma centres. Someone whose arm is broken in a car crash will go to one of the four centres; someone whose arm needs sewing back on again will go to one of the two trauma centres. The fight at the minute is about which two.
Health care is rightly being moved out into the community at the moment and some of the new communities that are being proposed would allow that to happen better than it does now. I see what is proposed as a challenge for Hertfordshire, not something to be feared. I should like to work more with members of other parties, to try to preserve what is good in Hertfordshire and to give the young people of Hertfordshire the hope—and the affordable housing—that they need. In the west of Stevenage development there are 900 affordable homes. We need more of those in Hertfordshire, which is why I am taking part in the debate today.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on obtaining the debate. I am sure—and the evidence set out by other hon. Members bears this out—that housing is a key issue in the area that he represents and in Hertfordshire in general. Indeed, when I was elected, in 2001, I did not realise what an important issue housing would be in my area. Wherever local authorities are involved in planning decisions, particularly about housing, there will always be stress and difficulty between people and families wanting to rent or purchase their first house or buy a bigger house to accommodate their growing family, and the residents already living in the area, who want to protect the environment and who fear that local services will not be sufficient to cope with the increase in population.
Another aspect of the matter that has been drawn out in the debate is the despair that some people feel about centrally imposed targets and the difficulty that local authorities encounter in interpreting targets and trying to play their part in achieving them, when there are areas, such as the green belt in Hertfordshire and national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and other conservation areas elsewhere, that place real constraints on the availability of land for development. The East of England regional assembly has indicated, as I understand it, that there should be 478,000 new homes in the area. An independent panel considered the matter and increased the figure, and, indeed, the Secretary of State has increased it too.
The real problem in Hertfordshire is that with a low unemployment rate an increase in economic activity will draw in people, who will need transport.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Obviously, he really understands the issues in his constituency. It seems to me that a co-ordinated approach is necessary, between providing houses and opportunities for economic development. One without the other suggests a lack of foresight and planning. The Liberal Democrat mayor of Watford, Dorothy Thornhill, said:
“Watford is obviously a popular place to live but their targets ignore the demands more houses and more people will place on our already over-stretched infrastructure. I firmly believe that this latest government announcement is bad news for Watford.”
The point that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) made about transport is relevant, too. So much of the road and rail system is overcrowded, and that leads to frustration and to environmental damage to the area.
I ought to declare an interest in the matter. My son has recently purchased a house. I am not sure whether it is located in the constituency of St. Albans or that of Hitchin and Harpenden, but I am sure that he will be ably represented by their Members. It was a struggle for him to get on the housing ladder in the area, but he was not an incomer. He migrated to the area but married a local girl, so perhaps he can be excused for increasing the demand on housing stock in the area.
The Secretary of State proposes regional transport nodes, to which reference has already been made. Nodes would be sensible in areas such as Watford, Stevenage and St. Albans, but Hatford and Hemel Hempstead are small stations, and there is a lack of understanding about the existing infrastructure in those areas.
What are the other concerns? What happens after 2021—a relatively short time scale that is getting shorter by the year? The hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) referred to 900 affordable houses that are being built as part of a development in her constituency. Wherever I go, and from the representations of other Members, I hear that affordable housing is desperately needed. The key point is to achieve the right mix of affordability and general development, ensuring that development takes place, but that it reflects the needs of first-time buyers and of people who want to rent.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the need to build housing. The decision—in my constituency, not that of the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett)—to build several thousand houses on the green belt was taken on the votes of Liberal Democrats in Hertfordshire county council. Is it Liberal Democrat policy to defend the green belt or to support building on it? Do they oppose building on the green belt only when they are in opposition, and support it only when they are in alliance with the Labour party and in government?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He says that centrally imposed targets are difficult for local authorities to address when there are constraints on the areas in which they can allow development. He mentions the green belt implications and I, too, find it difficult to understand how one can substitute one area of land for an area of green belt on which planning permission has been given for development. It was either the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford or the hon. Member for St. Albans who said that the importance of green belt is the separation of towns and communities rather than the conservation involved in the substitution of a different area. The spatial importance of green belt has been lost in the argument.
The Government should consider supply as well as demand, and they should invest in northern regions, which are crying out for investment and for jobs. The right hon. Gentleman made a point about that, but the issue must be re-examined, because there is huge capacity in the north and west, and it could be used to our advantage. The key to the issue is the Secretary of State and centrally imposed targets. Local authorities and the assemblies should be trusted more and given more powers.
Mention has been made about planning gain, and we are concerned about the legislation that is before the House and about the fact that the money will not be given to local authorities for them to determine its use. It is the very antithesis of localism. Commenting on the report by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) said:
“This report confirms the Treasury’s proposals on planning gain supplement contradict everything Ruth Kelly has been saying about devolving powers to local people and communities.
Replacing the current planning contribution paid by developers with planning gain supplement will not provide more money for the roads, schools, GPs surgeries and any new houses that are needed.”
One other issue that must be considered is the VAT system. All new build is zero-rated but the refurbishment and reconstruction of existing property bears the full VAT rate. VAT equalisation would lead to the much better use of existing housing stock and facilities in order to meet the needs of the serious housing situation in Hertfordshire.
It gives me great pleasure to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and other hon. Friends on securing the debate on housing targets in Hertfordshire. I congratulate, too, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) on her contribution.
I feel somewhat hesitant about speaking in a county-wide debate. However, I can go back further than my right hon. Friend in my memories of the county of Hertfordshire, because we had close family friends in Berkhamsted, and I remember 40 years ago taking the dogs for a walk on the hills around the town. I doubt that I could do so now, as over the years one has watched Hertfordshire fill with housing as its towns and villages have expanded.
I can understand why there is such concern among my right hon. and hon. Friends about the pressure on the county. Largely, it has been centrally directed by the Government and by their poodles, the unelected regional assemblies. My party is on the record as saying that we would abolish those assemblies and allow local people to decide the make-up of their communities.
I absolutely believe that local people know how their community could and should function, and that they are prepared to accept expansion and new housing to a capacity that they feel is consistent with their own needs and demands. One basic problem that we all face is the pressure on infrastructure and the need to increase the density of housing. I have the same problem in my constituency, an outer-London suburb. The Minister with responsibility for London has stood in this Chamber and said that Bromley should double its housing density, so I sympathise with and understand the problems that Hertfordshire residents face.
The key problem is infrastructure. I am sure that if the county council and others were given the opportunity, they could solve it. Indeed, they have volunteered to meet the housing targets that they feel capable of delivering. I have a Scottish accent, as hon. Members may have noticed, and quite apart from knowing Berkhamsted from many years ago, in the 1960s I spent an enormous amount of time as a Young Conservative working in Easterhouse, that fabled housing estate outside Glasgow which was built with no facilities or infrastructure whatsoever. That community is still not a coherent one, 40 or more years on, and it still has serious social problems, the like of which it will take a Hercules to solve. Enormous resources have been put in, so I absolutely understand the concerns about forced housing targets being set without the commensurate infrastructure.
It is a question not only of schools, houses and hospitals, but of roads, transport and water. It is easy, as the hon. Member for Stevenage pointed out, to say that every house in the UK should have a cistern built underneath it that is the same size as the house. Would that we had, but we are where we are. I have never built a swimming pool, but I understand the problem of shifting the earth, and that is without there being a house on top of it. It is cloud cuckoo land to think that every house in this country could be built with such a cistern. However, we sympathise entirely with her objective, which we share, to save and gain rainwater. There are plenty of methods of doing that without building cisterns under houses—we can do it much more efficiently.
If fundamental infrastructure is not done right or properly funded from the beginning, it will produce dislocated communities, however sophisticated they are. As we see in the Thames Gateway, in my constituency of Beckenham, or in the situation hon. Members are facing in Hertfordshire, if the infrastructure is not there, fractured communities will result.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden alluded to another issue, on which I wish to take a different line. I accept entirely that at present there is a net outflow from London and the greater south-east to the other regions of the UK. However, we should address the reason why other regions are not generating real wealth in the way that they should, given that the bulk of the Russell group universities—the great research universities—are outside the greater south-east. I do not understand why those areas are not more economically successful. I accept that in places such as Scotland or the north-west there is an increase in wealth, but that does not rely on fundamental new wealth creation.
I listen with interest to what my hon. Friend says. Has she noticed, as I have in the past few weeks, the increasing evidence of the growing gap between north and south? Indeed, the evidence on house prices has shown that the gap has started to increase for the first time in 20 years.
Mr. Olner, you are quite right. My hon. Friend has made his point. The relevance of what I am saying to Hertfordshire housing targets is that the pressure on housing would decrease if other areas of the UK were more economically sustainable. Of course, to revert to my point about infrastructure, my hon. Friend made the point that the housing targets assume commuting. We return to the point that if we are to have sustainable communities, there should be employment locally, particularly if they are to be environmentally sustainable. If there is no room in Hertfordshire for the wealth-creating industries, and the housing targets indicate that there is not, there is even more reason to solve the problem of regional economic wealth creation. That is one of the many routes that we want to take to solve the housing problem that we all admit exists.
I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on calling for this debate. It has allowed them to air clearly the issues in Hertfordshire and allows us to put on record some other thoughts on ensuring that housing is provided for those people who need it.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on securing this debate on what is obviously a key issue for the people of Hertfordshire.
I say at the outset that I am constrained in what I can say because the Government are consulting about proposed changes to the draft east of England plan, which will set the house-building targets for each district and county in the region. It is a full 12-week consultation on what, at this stage, are only proposals. Ministers will carefully consider responses before taking final decisions. For reasons of propriety, I cannot get into a debate about potential further changes to the plan before Ministers have had a chance to consider all the views expressed.
I shall deal at the outset with the assertion made by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) in relation to the Minister for Housing and Planning. I made the decision on the east of England plan. She is not making decisions on any of the regional plans. There is nothing wrong with a housing Minister meeting an MP to discuss housing issues: it is a function of the role. Therefore, there has been no breach of propriety.
If that is the case, will the Minister explain why her officials have issued a refusal on the papers in relation to the document on the specific grounds, under section 37 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, that Ministers should be able to engage in the formulation or development of policy on this subject? The papers have been refused on the basis that the Minister for Housing and Planning was discussing the subject. Is this Minister now saying that that is not true?
The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening. I said that the hon. Members in question were discussing housing issues. That is not the east of England plan, and the Minister for Housing and Planning is not making any decisions on those matters. I shall now move on to the issues—
On a point of order, Mr. Olner. Is the Minister honestly trying to suggest that the Minister for Housing and Planning did not discuss housing targets, which we are discussing today, with the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, who represents Harlow ? Is she actually trying to claim that that is the case? That is nonsense.
I shall explain the rationale for the level of growth, not just in Hertfordshire but in all parts of the region and nationally. I also want to put the record straight about the situation in Hertfordshire. Last winter, an independent panel held an examination in public to test the soundness of the draft east of England plan that the regional assembly had produced, following wide consultation. The draft plan represented their proposals: a bottom-up vision for the growth of their region, not a top-down diktat. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford called for a collaborative approach, so I am not sure exactly why he objects to this approach. The assembly is made up mainly of elected councillors, complemented by experts and representatives from a wide range of stakeholders who have an interest in securing a strong sustainable future for the region.
The panel endorsed the basic thrust of the plan and the Secretary of State’s proposed changes built on the draft. However, the panel made a number of recommendations to improve it. They concluded that the case had been made for higher growth based on population growth, housing demand, affordability, and employment growth, and that growth can and must be reconciled with sustainability principles and environmental constraints. Ministers have accepted almost all the panel’s detailed advice, including their housing proposals for all but one of the 47 districts. To further clarify the matter, the independent panel does test those targets. The Government propose to increase the panel’s recommended target by less than 1 per cent.
I accept that the panel’s recommendations for Hertfordshire are controversial, but it found that the draft plan housing proposals were unbalanced. The figures for Hertfordshire in particular were too low. Let us look at the facts. Relative to population, the draft plan housing figures for Hertfordshire were well below the figures for counties such as Cambridgeshire, which has been actively planning to accommodate sustainable growth. The latest forecast of future housing needs in Hertfordshire is at least 30 per cent. higher than the scale of development that most of the Hertfordshire local authorities will accept. Our proposals are about in line with those forecasts and no more.
The ratio of average house prices to lower quartile household earnings is about 12:1 in Hertfordshire, making it the most unaffordable county in the east of England to live in. The situation has become worse in recent years. Many more houses are needed if local people are to find decent homes, which is a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) illustrated well. Not building a sufficient mix of rented housing, equity share and homes for the majority who want to buy will just make affordability problems worse.
Hertfordshire has a role in meeting its share of London’s overall housing needs. The Mayor is seeking to maximise housing in London, but there are limits to what can be achieved on brownfield land in the capital. London’s economy is vital to UK plc overall and its workers need to live within reasonable commuting distances. Although the Government are working to support economic development and housing to match in every region of the UK, it is nonsense to think that London’s jobs can be sent to the other end of the country. Hon. Members clearly have not been to parts of the north recently. The north has recently been transformed and is making great progress, after the devastation of the years of Conservative Government.
I will not give way at this point, because hon. Members have put a great number of issues to me and I want to try to answer them all. If I have time later, I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.
While Londoners continue to move to Hertfordshire, such as when they start a family and want a garden, it is clear that Hertfordshire cannot close its doors. Incomers such as the son of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), many of whom are vital to the economy, will also be able to compete effectively in the housing market, so it is existing local people who would be hardest hit by insufficient housing.
As the panel pointed out, growth and living within environmental limits are not alternatives but joint imperatives. The proposed changes to the draft plan represent a new benchmark in reconciling the growth that we need with sustainability. We have taken the panel’s recommendations one step further and propose to put in place stronger policies to reduce water consumption, improve energy efficiency and drive up the recycling of waste.
It is alleged that there has been a lack of consultation. That is nonsense. First, consulting the public on our proposed changes is exactly what we are doing now. Secondly, there will be further substantial opportunities for public engagement at the local development plan document stage, when the broad intentions of the regional spatial strategy are translated by the local planning authorities into specific proposals. Thirdly, at the examination in public the panel asked the Hertfordshire local authorities what strategy they would propose if they were to recommend higher growth. Except for Stevenage borough council, none of them were prepared to put forward constructive proposals.
The green belt has taken centre stage in this debate. The pressing need for more housing, coupled with the sustainable benefits of expanding the new towns, provides the exceptional circumstances to justify the selective review of boundaries in a small number of locations. So, are we really talking about Hertfordshire’s green belt being concreted over? Absolutely not. Let me counter the mischievous misinformation that is being bandied about. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage said, the reality is that only 3 per cent. of Hertfordshire’s existing green belt will need to be built on in order to provide sufficient development land for the long term, to at least 2031. The rest—97 per cent.—will remain. We are also putting in place a stronger framework to make that land more accessible for recreation. There is no question of towns merging together and losing their identity. It remains national policy that green belts must prevent coalescence between nearby towns. The local decisions on green belt boundaries in Hertfordshire must respect that principle.
Ministers are not agreeing to such reviews lightly. The only alternatives are to plan to under-provide for housing, with higher prices and more homelessness, or to have long-distance commuting to homes beyond the green belts. The right approach is to take decisions now, looking ahead to 2031, so that boundaries need to change only once. That will give certainty for local communities and ensure that urban extensions are planned properly, rather than leaving uncertainty about whether boundaries will need to be changed again in a few years. Let me also clarify that the green belt extension for Harlow North is not at Peterborough. The extension will be along the edge of the Harlow development, extending towards the A120, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford.
Opposition Members have poured scorn on our proposals to extend the green belt for their county.
I will continue, but I will be happy to give way if I have time at the end.
Opposition Members from Hertfordshire have poured scorn on our proposals to extend the green belt in their county on a scale larger than the total area of land that will need to be released from the county elsewhere to provide long-term development. Opposition Members’ understanding of the purpose of the extension is simplistic. We are setting in place a realignment of the overall shape of the green belt, to set clear long-term boundaries to development and protect the countryside from development pressures. It is nonsense to suggest that there is something wrong with reviewing green belts. Doing so will provide certainty, so I am astonished that Opposition Members take issue with that.
It has been alleged that the Government are not committed to putting in place the necessary funding for infrastructure. Central to our vision for sustainable communities is that development must be supported by the full range of infrastructure—transport, health, education, green and recreational infrastructure, and so on. We have a proud record of support for growth in the area. Within the constraints of public expenditure, we are looking to ensure that future investment is adequate. [Laughter.] Hon. Members laugh, but every Government must look carefully at what they can afford to do, but this Government is providing— [Interruption.]
The Government are providing significant infrastructure support. We have already made substantial commitments to investment in the region, through sources such as growth areas funding, support for local delivery vehicles and the transport innovations fund. The favourable outcomes for the region—through the regional funding allocation on transport and the single regional housing pot for 2006-2008—indicate that the Government appreciate the region’s investment needs. In my statement to the House on 19 December 2006, I stressed that once the plan was finalised we would consider what support might be needed to towns with high rates of growth that do not benefit from growth area funding and related measures. At a national level, the Government have been reviewing policy on how development should contribute to the full range of development-related infrastructure, building on the existing section 106 system.
We are currently consulting further on proposals for a planning gain supplement. No decisions have been made, so some of the statements that have been made—particularly by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire—are not correct. We are encouraging local authorities to make greater use of standard charges in the meantime, to help to maximise the effectiveness with which contributions are collected through the existing mechanism. The aim of a planning gain supplement is to simplify the system for getting developers to make a fair contribution to the full infrastructure costs of development.
Let me respond to the concerns that have been raised about the rationale for the location of growth in Herts. We have accepted the panel’s reasons for concentrating much of the extra growth needed in Hertfordshire in the new towns—not just in Stevenage, as proposed in the draft plan, but in Hemel Hempstead and Welwyn Hatfield. The panel’s view, which Ministers accept, was that the most sustainable way of providing more housing in Hertfordshire was to concentrate development at the new towns. They have a good record of balancing jobs and housing growth, and have better infrastructure than older towns. Growth can stimulate urban regeneration, such as by boosting town centre services and public transport. The focus on new towns is part of a bigger picture. Basildon in Essex and the new towns in the south-east are also earmarked for growth.
The focus on the expansion of new towns is a guiding principle in Hertfordshire county council’s own structure plan, which provides for the expansion of Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead, both of which are new towns. The panel’s advice is consistent with the general approach to new towns in England and in Hertfordshire’s adopted structure.
I should like to respond to the points made by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden about migration. Let us deal with the true migration issues. It is true that the latest projections for the UK as a whole suggest that about 80 per cent. of population growth in the next 25 years will be due to international migration. However, that does not translate into a need for 80 per cent. more housing for migrants. There are several reasons why we need more housing. People living longer and complex social changes account for about three quarters of the estimated need for extra housing; migration accounts for only about a quarter.
At present, about 12,000 people move into Hertfordshire every year, mostly from London, and not many of them are international migrants. However, more than 10,000 move out of Hertfordshire every year to the rest of the UK and abroad. A total of about 33,000 will move into Hertfordshire during the regional plan period 2001-2021, but about four times that number will move into Essex, twice that number into Cambridgeshire and nearly five times that number into Norfolk. Hertfordshire is not a particular focus for migration and I regret that the right hon. Gentleman felt that he had to raise the matter as he did.
I am sure that you will agree, Mr. Olner, that this is not the place for a wider debate about international migration. However, let us bear a few facts in mind. Hertfordshire’s unemployment rate continues at a near-all-time low of just 1.5 per cent. There is an acute skills shortage in the county; there are thousands of unfilled vacancies for skilled and unskilled work. Business needs more workers and in Hertfordshire, as elsewhere, migrants are stepping in to do skilled jobs and some of the unskilled work that nobody else wants to do. We all benefit from their contribution; without any migration, our population would become increasingly aged. It needs a steady injection of younger working-age people to keep it balanced.
The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford raised the issue of developers pegging out land. That issue has been raised with me in respect of other areas. It rightly concerns hon. Members that members of the public are sold land for which there is no prospect of development. The Government deplore the practice and there is no specific evidence that the proposals encourage it. Indeed, long-term planning of green belt reviews in specific locations will discourage speculation by developers.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I am not responsible for what private organisations put on their websites. We deplore the practice; it is wrong that companies should set out information suggesting that people can make money from land that has no planning permission and is extremely unlikely to get it.
Recently, I spoke at an Adjournment debate on the issue, and I am sure that I will be able to provide the hon. Gentleman with further information on it.
This has been an important debate. We are—
The Minister said earlier that she would give way on the subject of the development in my constituency. The new town that BP wishes to build is laughably described by the Government as an urban extension, despite the fact that it is in a different district, a different county and about eight miles from the centre of town.
Why does the Minister think that the Minister for Housing and Planning, her senior colleague, was not involved in the decisions when her officials clearly state that they were? This issue involves an important principle of process. If the procedure is to have any credibility, it has to be crystal clear why the Minister flouted planning policy statement 11. Does the Minister not recognise PPS11?
Let me be clear. As I said, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is not taking decisions on the plan. Due to propriety, I cannot, standing here today, get into detail because the consultation is under way. The Government have accepted much of the panel’s thinking on Harlow and most of its other recommendations. We have given full reasons for departing from some panel recommendations and those issues will be considered further as we get to the end of the consultation. However, I simply cannot say anything more on those issues today.
To conclude, this has been an important debate; housing—
I am grateful to the Minister, who actually responded to my points with some purported facts rather than simply ignoring them. That is the first time that that has happened.
The Minister said that the population increase over the planning period—about 20 years for Hertfordshire—was expected to be about 30,000 people, on top of a million. If they live in an average household of two and a bit people, that increase will represent 12,000 or 15,000 extra houses. Is the Minister saying that of the proposed 90,000 extra houses, only 12,000 or 15,000 are for an increase in population and that all the rest are for other reasons? If that is so, it is the first time that we have ever been told. It is an interesting fact, but I should like it to be substantiated.
As I said, we are consulting on the proposals in the plan. That is the opportunity to raise those issues. The Government will respond to the consultation and we shall be happy to deal with the issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises at that time.
Housing is enormously important and we must make sure that more people can afford it. Hon. Members have said that the issue is not about nimbyism and not wanting housing in their areas. I hope that that is true, because the Government’s case is that to ensure that local people—not those moving into the area—can afford housing, more needs to be built. The point was well illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage.
We need to address the issues; we need sustainable housing. That is why there is a plan and process, although Opposition Members here seem not to support them. I regret that very much. They may want to live in little Hertfordshire, but the proper way to address the issues is to have a plan on the region as a whole and to plan properly so that local people and everybody else can be clear about where it is appropriate to have housing, where the green belt is and how the infrastructure to support people’s needs will be met.