Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Members often have to be in two places at once and, for me, today provides a poignant example. It is the day of the funeral of my chairman of planning, and I should be attending it, but I cannot. Therefore, I wish to dedicate this Bill to the memory of Councillor Les Kyles, as a mark of respect.
The Bill addresses a problem in the planning system arising from the classification of back gardens as brownfield sites for planning purposes, and therefore as a priority for development that even the most recent guidance is unlikely to solve. I am not the first Member to draw attention to this problem: my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) introduced a ten-minute Bill last July; last October, the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) had a private Member’s Bill on a similar subject; and also last year, early-day motion 2130 on garden definition gained 179 signatures from Members in all parts of the House. The repeated reincarnation of this issue in private measures shows that there is a genuine and growing problem.
As I have said in previous debates on planning, I do not think that the Government set out to make garden development—or garden-grabbing, as we know it—the centrepiece of their planning policy. The problem arose from a combination of factors: gardens being defined as brownfield for planning purposes, the emphasis on “brownfield first” development, and density targets being forced on local authorities. As a result, colleagues in all parts of the House will be familiar with gardens being divided up, sold off and turned into building sites. When they are part of a family-sized house, the house itself will often be demolished in the process to free up land for denser units of accommodation. That is happening all over the country—in the north and the south, in towns and villages and in cities and their suburbs. There is no doubt that it is happening, but why is it a problem?
Such chaotic and unplanned development is unsustainable in the long term and destructive in the short term. The fact is that the existing infrastructure cannot cope with such a drastic increase in housing density. Roads and drainage systems that were designed to meet the needs of bungalows and family houses are suddenly expected to serve a block of flats or multiple new houses. One property expert has spoken of instances where gardens behind a row of large Victorian houses have been built on, only for the owners to find that their baths would no longer drain properly at certain times of the day. In some of the low-lying villages in my constituency, when we have heavy rainfall the storm drains cannot cope now that so many extra houses have been bolted on to the Victorian sewerage system, which has drainage pipes as much as 100 ft below the surface. That property expert said:
“The existing drainage systems could not cope with the extra load.”
One does not need to have a degree in engineering to realise the folly of a planning system that actively encourages such a mismatch between infrastructure and development. We must also consider the environmental impact that follows the loss of so much urban greenery. As David Attenborough recently pointed out in a programme on climate change, concreting over the soil surface has disastrous consequences for water supply and drainage.
Gardens are a vital source of biodiversity. For many who live in urban areas, they are the closest thing to the countryside that they can get. Gardens give people immediate proximity to nature and a safe outdoor space for children to play in. These things directly affect people’s quality of life and the Government admitted exactly that when they listed birdsong as a key quality of life indicator. The balance between green spaces and buildings goes to the very heart of what makes a balanced neighbourhood that is sustainable, cohesive and enjoyable for people to live in.
Clause 1 specifically acknowledges that fact by requiring planning authorities to have “special regard” to the preservation of gardens and green spaces. That duty would apply not only to the determination of planning applications, but to the formulation of medium and long-term planning policy generally. The clause does not automatically prohibit development on garden sites, but it does caution planning authorities to have regard to the desirability of safeguarding gardens and urban green spaces. Members will be aware that that is already the case for listed buildings and conservation areas; the clause simply articulates an additional factor for consideration.
The point is that this provision would enable local planning authorities to exercise their own discretion over the occasions on which garden protection outweighs the interests of new development, and vice versa. At the moment, planning authorities have little chance of an objection on that ground being upheld on appeal. As a note from the House of Commons Library explained,
“there was enough in PPG3 to justify developers appealing with every chance of success”.
One of the main reasons why planning authorities are so disempowered is that the Government are obsessed with targets. The blanket imposition of density targets means that the characteristics of suburban living that attracted people to live in a particular neighbourhood are under threat as never before. People are angry about that, but what makes them even angrier is that, although the Government can remedy the situation simply and easily, they have so far refused to do so.
The situation that my hon. Friend is describing is exactly what is happening in Bournemouth. The South West regional assembly has imposed a target of 20,000 extra homes and, as a result, many houses are being knocked down and replaced by flats. Does she agree that councils do not have enough power to challenge such targets and that even the Government’s forthcoming proposals are not strong enough to enable us to escape the developer’s paradise that is causing so many of our Victorian houses to be replaced by flats, without the necessary investment in infrastructure?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He has got straight to the heart of the matter: where true power lies in any planning decision between the local, regional and national elements. Even the most recent guidance makes it explicitly clear that the region, thanks to the regional spatial strategy, which overrides local decision making, will have the last say. As a consequence—and as my hon. Friend and many Members are experiencing—local councillors cannot give expression to the wishes of the people who elected them.
What would the hon. Lady say to people in my constituency, which has the least amount of green space in the whole of Britain, and where 13,000 families are on the waiting list for housing? What hope does her Bill offer those of my constituents who have been waiting for many years for housing?
I can give some comfort to the hon. Lady on protecting the small residue of green space that remains in many urban constituencies. The point of my Bill is that it would increase her local council’s capacity to protect what little green space she has. If she reads her own party’s most recent guidance, she will find that the preservation of open space is not referred to and that gardens are spoken about only in relation to new build. Just as she has 13,000 people on the housing waiting list in her constituency, I have 7,000 people in mine. I expect that her constituents, like mine, face the problem that flats built on the back gardens of Victorian properties are often beyond the pocket of those on the waiting list.
I have made it clear from the outset that I do not believe, and have never said, that the Government set out to develop back gardens. It is the unintended consequence of three different elements of their planning policy coming together. Rectifying the unintended consequence of back gardens being classified as brownfield, and thereby getting caught up in its prioritisation, would direct developers to genuine brownfield sites. There are many such sites in my constituency and in the city of Birmingham, which my constituency shoulders—and, I suspect, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). In that way, more affordable housing could be brought into the supply.
Is my hon. Friend aware that her point is strongly reinforced by our experience in the London borough of Bromley, where, if anything, our greatest need in affordable housing is for family homes? However, the perverse result of the imposition of minimum density targets is a green light for developers to build small, flatted units, which is not what the demand is for. That, in turn, increases the gap that those who are trying to move up from their first home and into a family home have to bridge, and drives them out of London’s suburbs further into the south-east, thereby damaging long-term sustainability.
I thank my hon. Friend. Since joining this House, he has been most assiduous in pointing out the plight of those seeking family-sized accommodation in his constituency. In fact, the Minister for Housing and Planning has acknowledged publicly that there is a shortage of family-sized housing. Whichever way we come at this issue, the unintended consequence of current planning policy has been the building of large numbers of flats. Moreover, flat owners are seeing their flats’ value increase much more slowly than other types of new build, because of the glut of flats on the market.
My hon. Friend is right. In a sense, he asks a rhetorical question. I am trying to give the Government an opportunity to address the unintended consequence of their planning law. I genuinely do not think that they set out to make the housing crisis worse. We are all here to assist them in resolving a crisis in the affordability of housing. I am deeply concerned that the method by which the Government have chosen to try to end the housing crisis in London—giving the Mayor of London extra powers on housing and planning that have been removed from the London boroughs with their democratically elected councillors who sit closer to the problem and are more likely to achieve a solution—is not the right way to go about things.
Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the responsibility of locally elected councillors is to ensure that developments contain affordable housing and have shared equity schemes, as there are in Crawley? Is she ensuring that her councillors are doing that job?
Let me share another unfortunate and unintended consequence of the hon. Lady’s Government’s planning policy that is working against the desire of her councillors and mine to provide more affordable housing. The Government set a criterion that developments of 15 units or more should have a percentage of affordable housing. That varies from place to place from 25 to 40 per cent. I invite her to look at the number of developments that supply 14 units of accommodation in one block and escape the need to provide that affordable housing. By the way in which she nods her head, I see that we are in agreement on this. Such developments are an unintended consequence of a Government policy that, sadly, has had the opposite effect from what was intended.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I want to make progress. I have taken several interventions.
The only people who are not losing out from the rush to develop back gardens are the developers and land speculators. For them, England is literally becoming a treasure island. Right now, land agents may be putting this Bill and my speech on their website in a bid to convince people speculatively to buy plots of land in the expectation of being granted planning permission.
Along my country lanes, I regularly see speculative plots of land for sale. Does the Minister honestly believe that that is a symptom of an effective and sustainable planning policy? Is it really going to deliver the right homes in the right places? The truth is that the anomaly in planning has created a controversial and divisive scramble for gardens and urban green spaces.
Does my hon. Friend agree that her Bill would help the neighbours of house owners who have plots—this also applies to plots owned by property developers—for which repeated applications are made? An elderly constituent of mine is resisting a fourth or fifth application to build on a neighbouring plot. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill will help those who are stuck in that position?
My hon. Friend makes a most important point. My Bill is designed to help deal with repeated applications to develop back land. Such applications are divisive because they set neighbour against neighbour. When a developer comes along and knocks on someone’s door, it is sometimes difficult for people to resist the attractiveness of the offer that is made, but the consequence for neighbours on either side is the threat of a serious erosion of their privacy. Often, their garden or property ends up being overlooked by the new property, which may be multi-storey, that is erected. Even if the neighbours are successful through their local council in getting an application rejected at the first attempt, what we see over and over again are repeat applications, which almost wear down the democratic process until an application is granted.
The hon. Lady speaks in general terms about what she sees as the problem. Is she aware of those local authorities that have used planning policy statements 3 and 17 to insert in their local plans policies that address that problem, using existing guidance and statements?
If what the Minister describes is working so well, why have 179 Members of Parliament on both sides of the House signed an early-day motion on the problem? Her colleagues from as far away as Birkenhead and Stockton-on-Tees have highlighted the fact that it is proving extremely difficult for local councils to resist applications for back-land development if, in the eyes of an appeal court, they fit the criteria of meeting the regional housing target and housing density criteria, which take precedence over more subjective considerations of suitability and the character of the neighbourhood.
Neighbour is being pitted against neighbour. Communities are being doubled in size almost on a whim. Infrastructure is crumbling under the pressure. The only defence that the Government have so far offered is that more houses must be built. That argument is the logical consequence of a target-driven mentality, which focuses only on quantity rather than on suitability.
I am beginning to understand why the hon. Lady does not want houses to be built. Does she want any houses to be built? If she opposes targets, I do not understand how she could do it. The only target we know about from her is that she believes that Barker recommended too many houses, although she did not say what she means by too many. Perhaps she would like to tell us now.
I was discussing suitability, which is not the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. The House is getting tired of the way in which he distorts what people say. I did not say that we do not want more houses to be built. If he did not hear me correctly, I suggest that he see a hearing specialist.
Back-land development is doing nothing to help a whole generation of first-time buyers who have seen their hopes of buying a house evaporate under the Government. Boosting supply, regardless of where the houses go and the impact on existing communities, is about as crude an approach to planning as one can imagine.
Let us look at the facts. Houses with large gardens are nearly always in areas where the property prices are high. When the old houses are demolished and blocks of flats go up where their gardens were, they automatically come on to the market at a higher price—a price that is well beyond the pocket of the first-time buyer. Of course, for developers, the profit margin is higher on properties in expensive areas, so it stands to reason that they will want to develop garden sites more than any other. As a result, areas that desperately need regeneration are being overlooked and that has the twin effect of denying many areas a vital opportunity for development and denying first-time buyers new housing that could come on to the market at a price better suited to their budget.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Lady’s comments. I was a gardener in a previous life. I love my garden and would hate to see it built on. However, does she agree that local authorities already have many powers to stop the erosion of gardens, such as unitary development plans and tree preservation orders? Measures are already in place for them to use. I am not sure that we need further legislation.
Like the hon. Lady, I think rather wistfully of my gardening days, which seem a long way off. Despite all the protective measures that she refers to, there has been a significant further erosion of garden and green space. The statistics from the local authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) show that 60 per cent. of the brownfield land that was used for development was gardens, which demonstrates clearly the problem that exists. Since she states that local councils have the power to defend urban green space and gardens, I point her to the fact that, since the new Secretary of State took office, one in six planning decisions has been overturned, so the rate of local council decisions being overruled is higher than ever before.
One of the hon. Lady’s colleagues, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), spoke very eloquently the last time that we debated this matter, saying:
“there is a problem even in a place such as Sunderland, where we have acres of brownfield sites but still have developers flying in helicopters looking for little bits of green space that they can fill in.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1397.]
There is an aggressive strategy of seeking out those very vulnerable green spaces.
In short, the ready supply of suburban gardens has removed the incentive for developers to regenerate genuine brownfield sites and that is to everyone’s cost. Clause 2 addresses the issue of getting genuine brownfield land, as in former industrial and commercial land, brought on stream for housing. It would require public bodies to publish reports on the extent to which their land can accommodate residential development. That is needed because there is a great deal of land held by the public sector that would be viable for residential development. The concept of land banking is, I am sure, not unfamiliar to Members. The duty to report is confined to developed land, that is to say land comprising buildings or hard surfaces. Reporting would make transparent the whereabouts of development opportunities and, in turn, require explanations if development was not forthcoming.
In particular, reporting would encourage public bodies to consider creating residential development as part of a mix with commercial development. The planning process is bad at that. It fails to deliver new development where housing and employment exist within walking distance of each other, yet it makes much sense to strive for housing that is near commercial hubs where people can work, where children can go to school and where there are recreational facilities. That has the obvious environmental benefit of reducing commuting while family life benefits from living near one’s work. I know how vital it is to live near work if one is to have any hope of balancing a job and seeing the children after school. For that matter, one needs a hospital with an accident and emergency department nearby. Today, of all days, I need to take my son to see the orthopaedic surgeon as he has broken his knee. I hope that the House will grant me a little grace at 2 pm to make that appointment.
Clause 1 also obliges planners to have regard for the benefits of bringing commercial and residential development together. Too often, development is concentrated in dormitory estates or garden suburbs that are not equipped with sufficient transport links. Then there is not the space for people to park their cars because of the need for density targets, so they end up congesting the sides of streets and parking on verges and pavements, creating a hazard for mothers with pushchairs, who have to go out into the road to get round them.
I hope that the Bill will reverse the present distortion in the planning system. This is not about being nimby––[Interruption.] It is about getting the right mix of new homes built in strong, cohesive and sustainable communities. One of the main obstacles to getting more new housing built is public opposition and the Government have no one to blame but themselves for that. I heard from the Government Benches a rumble about my not wanting development in my backyard. Just for the record, my local authority is regenerating a council estate, Chelmsley Wood, that was built in the 1960s and has 29,500 houses, and will, as part of that regeneration, supply 5,000 extra affordable homes without any public money, as the borough of Solihull does not qualify for public money for housing regeneration.
Local councils and, de facto, local communities, have been enfeebled when it comes to planning decisions. Local opinion is overruled by central planning guidance and the effect is that the Government have to force unpopular housing decisions on hostile communities via unaccountable regional quangos. That situation is absurd. Communities should be given more say in the planning decisions that will have such an impact on their lives. If communities could have a say in the location and shape of the housing that we need, the chances are that they would be a great deal more receptive to it. What are the Government so afraid of? I want far more houses built, but I do not think that the best way of doing that is for Whitehall to impose them on communities.
That brings me to clause 3, which would give force to localism. The Government like to talk about localism, but this Bill, like the Sustainable Communities Bill so ably presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), is about delivering real localism. Clause 3 would enable planning authorities to decide themselves the density and proportions of new housing and set their own policies regarding residential development and gardens and urban green spaces. In short, it would give planning authorities the right to make their own policies and decisions in line with local opinion, without being enslaved by planning guidance from Whitehall.
Planning is the Government’s Achilles heel when it comes to localism. Unelected regional government in tandem with centrally imposed planning targets and guidance have reduced planning authorities to the role of hand-wringing bystanders. This clause would simply tip the scales back in favour of planning authorities and the communities that they serve. If the Government are genuine in their enthusiasm for localism, this is a measure that they should welcome.
I am more interested in what the hon. Lady is saying now, but of course what she is saying is covered very thoroughly in PPS3. The effect of her Bill could be the exact opposite. It would enable, say, Conservative local authorities to do what they did in the 1980s and sell off greenfield land such as school playing fields.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman finds this section of my speech more interesting. I have read the new guidance from cover to cover and in fact it makes very few references to gardens and urban green spaces. It says that development should ensure good access to residential outdoor space, such as residential gardens, and the only other reference to gardens is in relation to new build. As far as I can see, it does very little to deal with the present situation, which I have described at length, with the development of the back land surrounding existing properties.
I talked at length to planning officers up and down the land before drafting my Bill. They make this point about the guidance: for them, there is a hierarchy of considerations before they give a recommendation to elected members on whether to pass or reject a planning application, but still the absolute nature of regional housing targets, which in the case of the borough of Solihull mean that we must move from building 400 homes a year to 470, or of the minimum density target of 30 units of accommodation per hectare, take precedence in that hierarchy over the more subjective criterion of suitability, which by definition is more difficult to measure and ascertain.
Opponents of the Bill will seek to characterise it as a measure that will create obstacles to new housing, but that analysis totally misses the point. I want more housing and I have said so repeatedly. We need more houses. I do not buy the argument that we can build fast enough to get a rapid reduction in house prices, but I do believe that demographics have outstripped supply and we need to catch up. The Bill is about getting the right kind of homes built in the right places. It is about taking a sophisticated look at the sorts of communities that we want to create for the future and the attributes that we want to protect in existing communities. It is about admitting that Whitehall does not always know best and that communities should have a strong say in how neighbourhoods evolve. This Bill is not about preventing people from extending their houses or even about the blanket prevention of building in garden sites. To present it in that way is not helpful to the debate.
This Bill is about acknowledging the crucial part that gardens and urban green spaces play in creating balanced and rewarding places to live. It is about bringing forward new housing that is less reliant on commuting and more compliant with families and flexible working. Above all, it is about giving planning authorities and the communities they represent a real say in the shape of their neighbourhoods. I commend it to the House.
Order. It is very helpful to the Chair if letters are written to Mr. Speaker indicating a desire to participate in a debate on a Friday, just as on any other day. Although we do not wish to suppress spontaneity in any way, it does help to have some idea of how many hon. Members are seeking to take part.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). The proposals pushed in the Bill provide a service that will put you in good stead, in respect of planning authorities, up and down the country. When I say “you”, I mean the hon. Lady rather than you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, I may need to spend some time in order to go through a lot of the detail. I want to put on the record exactly what is happening in this country today.
The hon. Lady referred to the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who also brought a private Member’s Bill before the House, but the Government spokesperson and I said that more clarity was required. In planning policy statement 3, we managed to achieve a lot of clarity, but I still think that more is required. As it stands, the Bill does not really have a chance of getting through. The more pressure and spotlighting that can be brought on the problem here in the House, the greater the benefit to the people of this country.
It is important to clarify the balance between the individual’s rights, the community’s rights and the need to continue to provide accommodation—and which one carries the greatest weight. That is very important. I will provide some examples from our community, particularly from an area that I know well. Indeed, for a number of years I used to sit on a planning committee that dealt with that area, so I know all about the difficulties faced by planning committees over the years.
We should not think that this problem has come about only now under this Government. The problem has been here for a long time, and it is just that the pressure has increased in more recent times. The rules were worse years ago than they are today, but that is not to say that we should not try and improve the rules to achieve what the House requires. That is one point that I want to bring right to the centre of the debate right at the beginning.
When I sit in Committee and we make representations and force Ministers to read into the record, we do so because we know that some judge in four or five years’ time may be sitting down and looking at the Act. He is likely to ask what the House’s intent was—or the spirit of its intent—when a piece of legislation was passed. I do not believe that when an inspectorate is called into a local authority it ever reads about the House’s intent or even what the intent of the Department was. I can provide examples of how, on occasions, two very similar applications were assessed, yet one was accepted and the other turned down, so there is no consistency whatever.
My local authority, Tamworth, is an overspill town. It is an ancient borough that entered into an overspill agreement, so my borough went from having a population of 16,000 in 1965 to 32,000 overnight as some rural and local areas became part of the borough of Tamworth in my constituency. It now has a population of nearly 80,000. We can all imagine the tremendous growth and pressure that that placed on our community. Our current net density is 24 a hectare. Some may feel that 24 is not too bad, but when I say net density, all that I have taken out is the rivers and the flood plain—and some of the flood plain was built on. It includes and leaves in all the retail areas, all the schools, and all the roads, so looking at net density in this case is deceptive. In some more recent applications, the density has been a bit higher—as much as 90 a hectare. Now that really is dense living. This is a market town in middle England, part of a commuter area for Birmingham.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, with which I completely agree. The imposition of increased housing density on an area with a large amount of green belt means that housing density can be much higher than is acceptable. Why does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Bill would not help to address some part of that particular problem?
I understand where the hon. Lady is coming from, but I live in the particular town of Tamworth, which has 80,000 people and is four miles across—I repeat, four miles across. It has no large green open spaces. Although I agree with the sentiments behind the Bill, it will be difficult to get it through. However, do not give up on the Bill. Pursue the Bill, because it may mean that the Government have to justify some of their stands in the past. That is why I recommend keeping up the pressure.
I was saying that the town is four miles across and that it saw developments in the 60s and 70s. I could mention the ward of Glascote, which is the only green space that we have got. It has long, thin parks running alongside the roads. We call them grass verges. I know about living in areas like that. I want to say that this is not a nimby town. The difficulty is that this town has taken on its duty and met its commitment in taking housing on board, but a certain type of housing is being forced on it. We need to think about how it feels to be forced to take that type of housing on board. That is the difficulty.
I have asked for clarification and received clarification that local authorities are empowered and can turn down any application that does not meet local requirements or fit into the local scene. In reality out there, however, planning officers do not believe it. They will often not make a recommendation to refuse a plan, because they feel that it is pointless. If they do make a recommendation to refuse, it will be taken to appeal. The appeal will send in the inspectorate.
I can provide an example of what happens when the inspectorate comes along. One year, we had a planning application relating to a new supermarket outlet, which wanted to be placed in a position on the road between two islands. The islands were just over a quarter of a mile apart and we thought that it would be quite reasonable to have a “left-in, left-out” approach towards it. Cars had to go around the islands to come in. The applicant thought that that was wrong and lodged an appeal. I was not there when the inspector visited, but apparently she walked up and down the road—at an off-peak time, of course—and said, “I see no problem here with putting traffic lights in this location”. Much against our advice, she put the traffic lights in. The following weekend, when the traffic lights were on red, the traffic built all the way back to the first island and totally blocked the system up. We had real experience of that sort of situation. We did not just visit the town from somewhere else. The planning committee’s recommendation was overruled, as I have explained, when the woman said, “I see no problem here”—and she did not see it, because by then she had gone back to Bristol!
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that another reason why local people feel disempowered is that central Government have control not only over the local plans, but over the regional spatial strategy, so when local people want to reject an appeal, it is already on the basis of central Government guidance?
I understand where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from. Of course, in any representative democracy, we have different levels. We have a regional participant to make representations on what development each area can stand and what each area requires. It is incumbent on the local authority to pass up the system its requirements and what it can deal with. So it should not come as a great surprise to discover, for instance, that in the west midlands, with which I am more familiar, we require an extra 55,000 units and some of them can be allocated in the west midlands and some of them outside the west midlands. We continue to take overspill from the west midlands, although we no longer have an overspill agreement. We know what each area in the ring around the north of Birmingham is capable of absorbing.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I put it to him that they reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)—that local people should have more of a say. Exactly as he says, local people know their area and its infrastructure a lot better than someone who comes from outside—from Bristol, in his instance—can understand just on one short visit.
As I have said, I am not opposed to the Bill. I do not think that it will get through, but it is a good vehicle for putting the spotlight on and drawing attention to issues that the Government must face up to. Yes, local people should have a greater say. Local planning officers believe that the obligation to build overrides all other considerations. I do not think that we have got the balance right. I should like the Minister to assure us that she will send out clarification to all local planning authorities to say that there is no overriding obligation on them to accept every planning application and that they must consider how any proposal fits in with their community. That would be a move forward—and in this game, we sometimes have to make small advances very often, rather than trying to take one large chunk.
One of the weaknesses of the Bill—I do not think that a lot of attention has been paid to this—is that it has been made to look as though planning authorities have not got the power to do certain things. In fact, anyone who has got an idea about local government knows that, with things such as housing, we submit a structure plan to the Minister, and that structure plan is where we make our proposals. So local planning authorities have such powers, and I have just given an example of what happens.
I applaud my hon. Friend for his understanding of the issue, and he would be right but for the fact that planning officers do not believe that they can advise planning committees to turn down applications. They believe that there is an overriding requirement to provide accommodation. I do not believe—I shall word this very carefully—that elected members have the resolve to take on cases and to fight because they know that decisions can be overturned easily on appeal and the costs are reflected back on their local council tax payers. So they do not have the will to take on such cases, particularly if the council is pressed to provide other services because it has not got the money—perhaps it is looking after a growing number of old people—and councillors have to consider very carefully every action that they take. That has curtailed such action, when they should be pushing harder to justify what I consider to be the guidance that we had from the Minister.
I have got a problem with the town. I shall give the example of two planning applications, both for—surprise, surprise—14 apartments. The application that relates to an area of intensive old development was turned down because the inspector said that it did not have enough utility space—the occupants could not erect a rotary dryer on their property. A quarter of a mile away, another application for—surprise, surprise—14 apartments got through. Presumably, the occupants could erect a rotary dryer at that location.
Both locations are not half a mile from junction 10 of the M42. They have nothing to do with sustainable development in my town or in my constituency. They are merely for people who now live and work in the west midlands who will come out to live in Tamworth. The development is inappropriate in that part of the town, where it sticks out like a sore thumb. But of course, developers do not care about that; all that they want is the money, the profit. The people who come to live there will think that it is marvellous because they will be 20 minutes from the centre of Birmingham but outside the west midlands in quite a nice area, but it does nothing to meet our local housing need. That is the problem. Of course, it is not affordable housing.
I have a more pressing problem in Little Aston, outside Sutton Coldfield. I assure hon. Members that it is not like Glascote Heath. House prices start at £2 million and food parcels are sent to the pensioners in Four Oaks at Christmas. One side of the road is in leafy Staffordshire and the other is in the west midlands conurbation. If the people at No. 1 on my side of the road make an application to knock down a building and put apartments on the site, it has to go before Lichfield district council, which will consider whether the development should be allowed. An application on the other side of the road is certainly met with different consideration, because the area is far more urban and more used to the development of apartments.
We talk about local communities, but we now have—I must watch this very carefully—the possibility of a postcode lottery in planning. My constituents would not be consulted by the planning authority on the other side of the road when it decides on its policy for the area, although the effect would be just as great on my constituents as on the people on the opposite side of the road. We must consider carefully how to retain the sense of the community, because it is the same community, but it is divided by a man-made boundary in so far as Staffordshire is divorced from the west midlands. We have to draw the line somewhere.
In Lichfield district council, if an application is made to build 14 apartments or a higher density development in Stonnall, the village and the people of Stonnall may very well say, “Yes, this is our only chance to keep our youngsters with us. We do not want the high density, first-time buyer properties to be built in Burntwood, many miles away,” because it is a large rural planning authority, whereas Tamworth planning authority covers a town that is four miles across. If someone’s son or daughter lives in a first-time property, it may be a mile away. In each location I have different problems and a different community to look after. How do I get the planning authority to consider the wishes and needs of the community in each location? I strongly believe that that should happen. That is our difficulty at present. The guidance is not as clear as I would like. Certainly, the duty on the planning authority to take on board the wishes and needs of the settled community is not as clear as I would like.
Another thing springs to mind with regard to planning applications. This has always been a personal bugbear of mine. Hon. Members may not believe that this is true. Say there are 100 large, nice properties with big back gardens. No. 1 comes along and says, “I want to sell my property, knock it down and build 14 apartments on the back garden.” The planning authority looks at it and says, “That looks all right. No problem there. The traffic will be all right.” No. 2 says, “I want to do the same.” There is not a problem there. The traffic flows will be all right. No. 3 comes along and does the same. If the traffic gets to the point where it can no longer be accommodated on the road, what does the planning authority say to No. 48, No. 49 or No. 99? They are not going to get the same judgment as No. 1, because No. 1 got in first. What appals me and always has done is that every application is taken on its own merits, in isolation, without recognising that a precedent is being created and that there is a roll-on effect, and without saying, “Those are the reasons and rationale as to why we don’t think that that should happen in this location.”
I have great sympathy with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes and I absolutely agree with it. Does he accept that we have exactly the same situation in Bromley? Unscrupulous developers go around touting for business. They sometimes approach elderly and vulnerable people, who might be coming up to retirement, who live in such houses and seek to persuade them to sell so that the developers can get the first foot in the door and then make subsequent applications to change the whole nature of a small development. The current rules do not protect against that. The hierarchy of planning considerations means that the suggestions that the Minister makes for protection are overridden by the national targets. Surely the Bill, by reclassifying back gardens as previously developed land, is the best means of giving support to people in that situation?
Order. The House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for mentioning the Bill. I should say to the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) that this is not a platform for a general colloquium on planning. He should relate his remarks to the Bill.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I sometimes get a little carried away on planning, because I have spent so much time on the issue. Looking at the Bill, I understand what is being said. I must be careful not to be dragged down another route. You are right.
The Bill highlights an example of where planning regulations need to be tightened and redefined to allow the local community to have much more power to decide what it needs. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) brought up the fact that it is developers who knock on doors and persuade people. He may not know—I will tell him this in secret—but in my part of the world the Deputy Prime Minister is knocking on doors and telling people that they must sell their houses and back gardens. It is Labour’s back garden grab, or that is what the local Tories and local press are saying anyway. It has nothing to do with greedy developers and people who want to make a killing out of their back garden and who see that as their pension plan. I am glad that he has clarified that point.
There is also the fact that, when it comes to the development of back gardens, local councils classify the land as brownfield. That is crazy. I always thought that we knew what brownfield was. I thought that it was either industrial land or non-residential land that had been utilised or built on and that it was coming back into use and being redeveloped and redesigned. We all know what green land is. It is where green grass and crops once grew, and there were cattle. We have developed on green land to a large extent. However, when we have a developed area, the definition becomes quite difficult. Houses have gone up. So how do we reclassify that land? Well, I suggest that if one mixes brown and green, one will probably get grey. We will probably have a greyfield site.
I am talking about something that is seriously needed and I will give an example of why. Many years ago, there was a plan to knock down some concrete houses. The bolts that had held them together were going rusty and forcing the concrete apart. The plan involved knocking down fewer than 20 houses, but they were built in the 40s and had a large amount of land. It would have been possible to build 48 properties, including bungalows for elderly people, and to redesign and redevelop the site. That did not happen in the end, because we could not afford it. However, I am worried that if the Bill says that we cannot build on back gardens, it would prohibit that type of development. Such development must be allowed to continue because it is good for the community. There are other examples. There are three separate locations in my constituency that I would love to be redeveloped. There are derelict and eyesore properties with large areas of ground behind them. I do not want the Bill to stop the development of that land.
Just to set the hon. Gentleman’s mind at rest, the Bill would give complete discretion to his local council to decide—in the way in which he would like—whether a genuine brownfield site, perhaps with some backland attached to it, would be appropriate for development. The point is that his local councillors, who have been democratically elected, would get that decision-making power.
Local councillors have the power now to deal with that. As I keep saying, the difficulty arises because of the drafting and terminology of the documents, and, more importantly, because of the culture that has been allowed to develop whereby inspectors overturn planning decisions. Local councillors do not feel that they can risk turning down the application because of the cost involved to council tax payers. That is the point that I keep pressing. We should press the Minister to give an assurance that rewriting will take place, an explanatory document will be sent out and planners will be told, “There is no presumption for you to allow development if it doesn’t fit in with your requirements.”
Back gardens, whether they are classified as brown sites, green sites, or grey sites, must come before the committee. Say it is a town centre location and we are talking about redeveloping some of the older properties that long ago ceased to be family homes—some have become businesses and gone through that cycle—and have come on the market. A developer could come in and decide to take a property down and put 14 apartments smack in the centre of town. I have no problem with that. If the council has a thought-out policy that involves an inner ring, a middle ring and outer ring and can say, “This is the type of property, development and density that we are looking for in these rings,” I have no problem with that. Things might become a bit more difficult owing to out-of-town shopping. However, if a council has a well-thought-out planning document in which the criteria are clearly laid out—[Interruption.]
I had actually turned around to hear more clearly what my hon. Friend had to say, rather than to comment on what he said, even though I am pleased to have the opportunity to do so.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case for clarity in the local plan that a council develops. I am unclear from what he is saying whether, in the cases to which he refers, planning officers have not put in a good local plan, or they are not aware of what is in the plan.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. May I confirm to him that this is not a misperception on the part of planning authorities? The House of Commons Library, which takes on objective view on such things, says clearly:
“There was enough in the guidance to justify developers appealing any refusal of this type of application with every chance of success”.
It is thus no great surprise that local authorities are advised to refuse because they are in line for the costs when the matter reaches appeal. We need more than clarification. We need additional statutory protection for committees that exercise their discretion.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says. However, the rules were laid down in a different era when a soft touch was more in keeping with the time. Additionally, they were laid down as guidance, and they were accompanied by a note explaining that A did not mean B, which allowed the document to be used to justify a case. I am saying that the gentle approach does not work, so we must have more rigid and stricter regulations regarding planning guidance. I am gently pushing the Minister to make certain statements to reinforce the guidance. I say as nicely as possible to the hon. Member for Meriden that she should be careful about what she does with regard to the Bill because for every regulation that you bring in, there is someone looking for a loophole and twist. The Bill thus might create as many problems as she hopes to solve. She should instead pressure the Minister to give assurances that the new guidance will achieve what she wants and cure the problem. If you can solve the problem, you will have the gratitude of many planning authorities throughout the country and local elected representatives, who strive to try to serve their communities in the best possible way. They should be sent a message that that does not mean, as opposed to not-in-my-back-yard legislation, not-in-his-back-yard legislation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on introducing the Bill. We share the borough of Solihull, so I am aware of the circumstances that have led her to do so. She was kind enough to mention the Bill that I introduced in July 2005, two months after I was elected: the Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill. At that time, there were requests for some of the detail in the Bill to be further developed. I am delighted that some of the excellent suggestions in the hon. Lady’s Bill have come about as a result of not only my Bill, but that introduced by the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman today. The Bill has also been informed by the Conservative-led debate that took place last year.
I welcome the development of the definition of a brownfield site. I also welcome the fact that the Bill would give local authorities more powers to determine planning applications. I support strengthening the ability of local authorities to use true brownfield commercial sites more imaginatively than they can at present. However, the Bill does not give powers of appeal against local authorities that cannot, or will not, stand up to developers. My Bill would have enabled local people to lodge an appeal in such circumstances. When people feel strongly about a planning decision that will affect the quality of their life, it is important that they have a say.
The Bill would not protect parkland from being sold off without a referendum. There have been two notable examples of such sales in my constituency. Tudor Grange parkland was sold to facilitate the rebuilding of a local leisure centre, despite opposition in the form of a petition with 14,000 signatures. In addition, Shirley parkland was sold to facilitate new commercial building, including the building of a huge, oversized new Asda, even though there is a lot of dispute about how many people would have supported that development. I will not go into detail about the consultations that took place, but Liberal Democrats certainly feel that we should be striving to give local people more of a say and following the principle of subsidiarity, which is reflected in the Bill, thus allowing decisions to be made at the lowest possible level so that the views of people who are directly affected are taken into account.
Unlike my Bill, the hon. Lady’s Bill does not address repeated planning applications. However, I accept her point, which she made when she was challenged on that matter, that the Bill would free up local authorities to exercise more discretion on the refusal of planning applications.
During our debate in June 2006, which the hon. Lady led, she said that the affordable housing quota that applies to larger developments of 25 or more dwellings was
“driving the more lucrative option of garden development, which is below that threshold.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1390.]
That is a key problem regarding back-garden development. If the performance of Solihull council in creating affordable homes is anything to go by, the quota must play a part. When, in 2006, Labour Members challenged the hon. Lady about affordable homes, she referred specifically to a “ring of dereliction” surrounding many of our town centres that could, with a little imagination, be used to site attractive new builds. In fact, the Bill covers mixed commercial and residential developments that would enable people to live close to their work, which has sustainability implications. Many people—young people, for example—find the prospect of living close to a town centre attractive, so anything we can do to facilitate development in such areas would be extremely helpful.
Members of all parties strongly agree that people need new homes and that the Government have a pivotal role in that process. The structure of households is changing; there are more small households as well as many households where grown-up children live with their parents. The electoral register shows how large the proportion of such households is. In Solihull, there are many households of three, four or five members and, speaking as someone who frequently stands at people’s doorsteps, I find that the person who answers the door is often a grown-up child who probably wants to move out of the nest to affordable housing, but that does not exist in Solihull.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems with garden development is that it often takes place in areas where gardens are large, which are often areas of higher house prices, so it does not produce the affordable housing we need? Although we agree with affordable housing, garden development does not produce it.
I completely agree. The situation that the right hon. Gentleman describes occurs frequently in Solihull. We cannot blame developers for wanting to maximise their profits—they are in business to make a profit. However, their desire to cram as many properties as possible on to a plot of land, especially luxury properties because they attract a higher price, means that people who move to such developments are purchasing their second, third or even fourth home. As he rightly says, that does nothing at all to relieve the pressure for affordable housing.
I cannot agree entirely with the hon. Lady that one cannot blame developers. I thought that Liberal Democrats believed in corporate social responsibility, even if the Conservatives do not. Developments of 14 units to avoid the inclusion of affordable housing can take place only because there is collusion between developers and local authorities, and that includes Liberal Democrat local authorities such as Islington.
I am rather shocked by the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I imagine that he is alluding to the fact that some local authorities do not really want to build affordable housing so they come to some sort of agreement with developers about their planning application. However, I find it strange that he puts the blame and responsibility for that situation on to local authorities, when it is the developers who determine the nature of the application. They are not told what plans to submit. They are driven by the requirements of their shareholders to maximise the profitability of their investment. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. However, he makes an important point in suggesting that it is incumbent on local authorities to utilise the planning rules as much as possible to facilitate affordable housing.
Councils are under pressure to meet Government targets for brownfield developments. Planning policy guidelines define all the land within the curtilage of a dwelling as brownfield. I was intrigued by the comments of the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) about the colour of back gardens. When we think about back gardens, the colour grey does not necessarily spring to mind. Back gardens are green—[Hon. Members: “Not always.”] They are green in the main. The point made by the hon. Member for Meriden is that the environmental quality of an area is determined by how much green there is. Green space is important not only to the quality of the area, but also for the quality of life of the people who live there.
In Solihull, luxury apartments are springing up. Obviously, the market is economically driven and developers respond to demand. They have exploited many back gardens in Solihull and flats—sorry, apartments—are springing up all over the place and the character of some areas has been seriously threatened. However, the market for such apartments seems to be dying down and there are more applications for family homes, which is much to be welcomed.
Is the hon. Lady aware that since 2000 the change in house prices by type very much reveals the market principles in respect of the over-supply of flats that she describes? Flats have increased in value by only 36 per cent., whereas there have been increases of 123 per cent. for bungalows, 85 per cent. for detached houses and 119 per cent. for semi-detached houses. That shows the impact of building more of one type of housing.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, my neighbour, for that intervention, which demonstrates the importance of local authorities getting the planning mix right. It has economic as well as social repercussions.
Planning policy guidance note 3 has been replaced and I acknowledge that the Government have made efforts to clarify many of the contentious issues. However, private gardens still come under the definition, with only a weak nod in the other direction when the guidance notes that not all gardens are likely to be suitable. It states:
“There is no presumption that land that is previously-developed is necessarily suitable for housing development nor that the whole of the curtilage should be developed.”
I am not sure that Opposition Members will draw a vast amount of comfort from that statement as a clarification for local authorities that they can turn down planning applications of that sort.
I certainly do not want to put local authorities in a straitjacket by saying that something will never happen. There will be circumstances in which back-garden development is entirely appropriate. What we are talking about is the back-garden development that produces considerable deficits to the well-being of an area and causes local people to feel extremely resentful about its inappropriateness. As the hon. Member for Meriden pointed out, such developments put stress and strain on local facilities and council services—affecting drains and causing road congestion, for example—in neighbourhoods that were never designed for the number of households that have been created.
The hon. Lady and I share roots in Dudley, so she will know the situation involving local houses and gardens. How would the proposal that she has described protect my constituents who have come to me and who are worried about whether the Bill would affect their plans to extend their home by building a granny flat, extension or conservatory? Would the Bill catch those people within its grasp?
I was not aware of that as a potential problem, but I do not think that the Bill would substantially alter current Government guidelines. I certainly know that granny flats are as rare as hen’s teeth in Solihull. We have been looking for one because of my own family requirements, and I know that they are very difficult to find. I am unable to help the hon. Lady on that point, but perhaps the hon. Member for Meriden can.
To clarify the position, let me point out that the discretion that local councils would have under the Bill would enable them to consider worthy requests from constituents to adapt or extend their home or build in the garden to meet their family needs. The discretion rests with the local council; there is no blanket exclusion on the kinds of development that the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) has described.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her very helpful intervention.
Paragraph 47 of PPS3 permits local authorities to set a range of densities provided that the average is at least 30 dwellings per hectare. That is the national indicative minimum. That is an extremely helpful development in the new Government guidelines because it is totally appropriate that we recognise the differing densities in, and character of, neighbourhoods in local authority areas. That is fine as far as it goes, but the Bill would extend the provision much further to allow for a much greater degree of discretion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) spoke in the debate in 2006. He said:
“Liberal Democrat-led South Shropshire district council has found a way of promoting both affordability and sustainability even on the smallest infill and garden sites. We in the House of Commons should take account of the flexibility and innovation of local planning authorities that have a mind to take such action. We should be saying ‘Please go and experiment. Please find the policies that work for your area. Please listen to your local communities. Please take account of the local situation.’”—[Official Report, 21 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1405.]
I suggest that Members on both sides have echoed that theme.
Some local authorities can act for themselves. They do not need central Government to tell them how they should manage the character and quality of their local areas. However, there are still problems. I have already mentioned the strains on local services and the hon. Member for Tamworth has made the point that the inspectors who are called in on appeal by developers do not know the local area. The people who live in an area best understand the impact of such developments. As the hon. Member for Meriden pointed out, the council could still allow for building to take place on back gardens as part of the usual planning applications. That cry of “Power to the people” is certainly echoed by Liberal Democrats.
The Bill includes a number of duties. The first would create a new section 71B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and would mean that
“special regard shall be had to the desirability of preserving gardens and urban green spaces.”
That gives gardens the regard that they deserve. Instead of gardens being an afterthought that receives just a weak acknowledgment at the end of PPS3, there is recognition of their importance to the environment and the life of a community.
The Bill is also helpful in that it considers how we respond to the challenge from Labour Members who have rightly asked where the new houses will come from. The Bill would empower local authorities to look much more carefully at derelict commercial areas. Although it is important that land should be available for commercial development—it funds the economic life of our country—the Bill is helpful in that it would lead to a review and the production of a report on commercial land. I have been to the regeneration offices in Solihull to see what land is available there. When we are criticised for not wanting to lose back gardens, we become eager to find ex-commercial brownfield sites that would be suitable for new housing and for providing the infrastructure that would enable affordable housing development to take place.
In general, it is an excellent Bill. I commend my neighbour, the hon. Member for Meriden, for introducing it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on her Bill. To reassure her, let me say that I come to praise the Bill, at least in part, not to bury it.
A private Member’s Bill should be modest, it should attract cross-party support and it should not cost a lot to implement. In drafting her Bill—certainly the first half—the hon. Lady has gone some way towards achieving that. I also think that a Bill’s promoter should be willing to negotiate and accept amendments, particularly from the Government. If this Bill is to proceed, a measure of work will be needed to make it better and generally acceptable.
I welcome the broad thrust of the Bill, which is designed to protect green land and tackle some of the problems of overdevelopment. It is wrong to say that people who care about their local environment and the character of their area are nimbies. They are not; usually, they are people with genuine concerns. The task for government, national or local, is to find the right balance between protecting the character of an area and meeting the desperate housing need of people who live in the area and who are not being provided for. That is a difficult balance to strike, whether at national strategic level, city-wide level—we are grappling with the Mayor of London’s pronouncements on what we should be doing about housing—or local level. There are often tensions between the different levels of government in that respect.
In my area, we are extremely concerned about the extent of development that is likely to be undertaken. For example, in the next 10 years or so I expect between 10,000 and 15,000 extra households in my constituency, which is just one of those in the borough. In the borough as a whole, we face the prospect of three to four times that number of additional households and a huge amount of development. In housing terms, mine is the fastest growing part of London, which has a significant impact on the character of the area and on the level of public services provided.
One of my main concerns about our local authority’s approach is that it does not appear to be coming to grips with the demand on public services that the additional growth will create. It seems to adopt a rabbit in the headlights approach to some of the applications that are coming its way. We have to think about education, health care provision—both primary care and acute care—roads and more mundane things such as sewerage, water, electricity and gas. To my mind, Barnet council, which is Conservative controlled, does not seem to be dealing properly with some of those issues.
When considering Bills such as the hon. Lady’s, we have to take account of a series of conflicting rights and try to find the right balance. We have the owners of the property who wish to profit from it; they have a right to do so under the Human Rights Act 1998. Under article 1 of protocol 1 to the convention on human rights, people have a right to have their property properly respected and their position considered. By extension, we have the developers, who may have invested considerable time and money in a project.
I am not speaking up for the rights of anybody—at least, not yet; I shall do so later in my speech. I am simply identifying the various conflicting interests, which have to be balanced. The fact is that developers have an interest, which has to be taken into the balance when deciding what to do in respect of general strategy, legislation, or a particular application. We cannot simply pretend that developers do not exist. They do.
The views of the local community are of great importance. The immediate local community, often represented by an amenities society, often takes a close interest in what is going on. I pay tribute to the efforts of the Mill Hill Preservation Society, its chairman, David Welch, and its indefatigable vice-president, John Turtle. The society has done a good job of preserving that important part of London.
We also have to take account of the views of immediate neighbours, who may have different interests from those of the local community as a whole. The value of their property may be affected by what is going on. That is not nimbyism; it is an important interest that we also have to recognise, because one person’s profit is another’s potential loss. When we talk about nimbies we use the throwaway line, “Not in my back yard”, or, in this case, “Not in somebody else’s back yard, either.” But that is to overlook the fact that those people are concerned about their area and about their own rights and property. We should not disparage people who want to stand up for themselves in that way.
Of course, in this balancing act, we also have to consider those people who are in desperate need of housing, particularly in London and especially in my constituency, whose position may well not be catered for if we get the balance wrong. Finally, we have to consider the impact on the wider community—the impact on services of developments, especially if they are large scale, can extend far beyond the immediate neighbourhood and affect a whole constituency or borough. There are many and various interests that have to be balanced when we look at planning law.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Later, I might give one or two examples that may help his argument.
At the heart of the debate is the development of affordable homes. In my area, one often finds on turning a street corner that the old houses have been knocked down and a block of flats has been built since one last went down that road. That happens far too much, especially on the main roads in my constituency, but it seems to be a trend that is impossible to stop. I think that that illustrates the point that my hon. Friend made: one house is knocked down, then another, and ultimately the whole row is lost as one follows the precedent of its neighbour. We have to think about how to protect back—and, I suppose, front—gardens from overdevelopment.
The Bill gives no indication of the size of garden in question. In my area, gardens range from several acres at the rich end of the constituency, to postage stamps for the less well off. Different considerations may well apply to those extremes and to the range in between. The development of gardens is a major concern for residents of Mill Hill, where many of the big gardens and houses are located. Some people have sold off their back garden to developers, who have applied for planning consent to build four or five houses, or a block of flats, on the land. That raises access issues, as well as the question of overdevelopment. However, if some of the estates where there are houses with small back gardens were caught by the provisions, thus stopping what are virtually slum clearance projects, that would work against attempts to provide additional housing and prevent the benefits that I think the hon. Lady wants from being achieved. Perhaps she should think about that a little more, although the broad thrust of her Bill to protect gardens is appropriate.
We must do something to protect gardens wherever they may be, even if they are not formally defined as part of the green belt. In my constituency, some gardens form part of the green belt, and others are outside the green belt. However, we must recognise that there is a desperate shortage of housing in my constituency, which the London borough of Barnet seems to be doing little to address. Its new housing strategy does not put anything like sufficient emphasis on, for example, the need for social housing. In London, the purchase of what are termed “affordable homes”, even using the subsidised schemes available to some to help them to buy property, remains way beyond the means of many Londoners, including in my constituency. The only real hope of new housing for such people is social housing; unfortunately, the London borough of Barnet—wrongly, in my view—seems to be unconcerned about providing such housing. Whatever conditions and ideas are proposed in relation to planning, we must make sure that they do not prevent people who are in desperate housing need from getting the accommodation they need.
Clause 1(2) inserts new sections in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. I congratulate the hon. Lady on the formulation that she came up with for proposed new section 71B. The requirement to give “special regard” to gardens and green spaces is an interesting formula, because it is not prescriptive in the way that designating a piece of land as a greenfield site would be. It simply gives a nudge to planning authorities to use their discretion. Rather than tell them that they must do something, it simply reminds authorities not to forget about gardens. That is a clever formula. I have been struggling to come up with a definition that might serve the same purpose, so I think that the hon. Lady has done very well.
The proposed measure is modest and balanced, but there are some problems, one of which is the fact that gardens are not defined. We had a discussion earlier when the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) suggested that gardens are all green, but of course they are not. Many gardens are modern Japanese gardens with gravel and rocks and some may be all patio. We may need to do a little work on that point. We may also need to emphasise that we are talking not just about public gardens, but private gardens, as that point is not made specifically.
The formulation in the Bill is important. I agree with the hon. Member for Meriden that it probably would not prevent the modest works that nobody wants to stop, such as the back extension or conservatory—most people accept that such development is reasonable—but would provide protection from the housing developments and blocks of flats that we all want to see controlled. It would help if the hon. Lady were to make it clear that her proposals would not affect permitted development. That might be a way to include in the Bill the provision that it is not trying to catch those small projects, because that would cause great irritation to the owners of property and to planning departments in local authorities that had to investigate and adjudicate on applications that are, frankly speaking, small beer that they should not have to worry about. The hon. Lady might think about proposing an amendment in Committee to ensure that permitted development is not caught by the terms of the Bill—[Interruption.] I am told that that is already the case, but I cannot see it on the face of the Bill and I suggest that it is necessary.
The hon. Gentleman makes a helpful suggestion. I have already given the assurance to two hon. Members that I do not wish the Bill to have the unintended consequence of catching or preventing the building of a granny annexe or an application for a building on a back or front garden. The Bill could certainly be amended to make that explicit.
I am grateful for that assurance and it strengthens my support as far as clause 1 is concerned.
I shall give one or two examples from my constituency. The case is well made by a decision by the planning inspectorate in my area last autumn. The planning application to build at 57-63 Marsh lane and 9-11 Glenwood road, Mill Hill, caused great consternation in the area. It was strenuously opposed by the Laing Field and Moat Mount residents association and its strong activist, Clive Cohen, who does a lot of work in the area to protect wildlife and the environment. The appeal was on the proposal to build seven houses in a row of back gardens. It was allowed, and a Mr. Pickering of the inspectorate said:
“Although local residents have cast doubt on the concept of residential development in this location the Council”—
it is a Conservative council—
“supports the principle of redevelopment. I too can see no objection to some form of house building in these large gardens”.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The appeal was against refusal to grant outline permission, so it was a case in which I supported the council. However, the problem is that the council was caught by its own housing and development policies. One of the difficulties that we have had in Barnet is the long lead-in time that it took for the council to adopt its unitary development plan, which is often used by developers as an excuse to make appeals that ultimately prove successful.
The inspector went on to say:
“As far as the backland is concerned I think that six dwellings sited as proposed, in spacious gardens considerably larger than most…would not look unreasonably cramped. The proposed access road…would be a new feature of the street scene”.
It would also be a new feature of the traffic jams in that area, which is very congested, especially at school times, because there are two local schools. I went to speak to the sixth form of one of them, Mill Hill county high, last Monday, and it generates its own traffic jam for about half an hour at its start and finish times. A one-way system had to be introduced to cope with it.
The inspector also comments that the gardens have an interesting biodiversity, but that was ignored, although it is a point picked up in the Bill in the definition in clause 6. The planning application was opposed by the local community and rejected by the council, with my support and that of the Liberal Democrat councillors in the area, but its decision was overturned by the planning inspectorate on appeal.
Another example in my area concerns the main roads, which seem to be seen as more up for development and requiring less protection. An application was made to erect two two-storey buildings at 114-120 Hale lane, containing 14—the magic number—self-contained flats. The application was refused and we will no doubt see an appeal, because we get them all the time.
Holders Hill road has practically ceased to exist as originally constructed. An application for 179-185 Holders Hill road is for the demolition of the existing houses to erect a two and three-storey block with 14 self-contained flats—the magic number again. It is now difficult to find any traditional houses on the road any more, as it is nearly all blocks of flats. Once one is given permission, they breed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) mentioned earlier.
Another example of the magic number 14 is 9-15 Highview gardens, Edgware, an application to demolish the existing buildings and erect 14 flats.
Well, I have several examples to illustrate different aspects of the problem. I have used an example of a bog-standard back-garden development; a couple of examples to illustrate the problem of developments on main roads, which are in back gardens but are somehow seen as fairer game than the traditional residential back streets; and another example to highlight the problem of 14 flats in application.
I shall now illustrate the problem of when a developer applies for 21 flats, as for 4-10 Heather walk. The application was rejected by the local authority because it did not contain affordable housing. That creates the perverse incentive to produce the larger, luxury flats, which none of us wants to see in the absence of social housing. The London borough of Barnet has not been as tough as it should have been in pushing developers to include an affordable element in their housing developments.
My hon. Friend is describing an important and complex situation. The incentive now is not to buy four large houses and develop the site as a large site, but to buy each house individually and develop each site separately. Those separate applications can be sneaked through. Does he agree that that is the case?
That is exactly the point that I intended to make next. For example, 203-241 Watford way, the main A41 road, is an application for demolition of more than a dozen houses and the erection of a part three, part four and part five-storey building to provide a total of 120 residential units and basement parking for 182 cars. An appeal has been made to the planning inspectorate and we are waiting for its determination. Developers went along the road buying up houses and options, and gathering a property interest in the whole street. The planning application would involve knocking down a huge chunk of the property along that stretch of the A41, on the left side as one goes north, between Aerodrome road and Colindeep lane. Family houses, in this case with very large front gardens, would simply disappear, to be replaced by an enormous block of flats, if the developer were to get his way. That is the problem when such gardens are linked together. The first example I gave was of half a dozen gardens being linked together, but the last involves a row of gardens along a main road.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who is no longer in the Chamber, made an important point. Developers go around making offers to people. They get a few people signed up, then start to get heavy with the ones who will not sell to them. Often they are just buying options rather than putting the money upfront to buy the house altogether. They will winkle out those who do not want to sell. They will use threats. They will use fear. They will say to a little old lady “You do not want to sell; fine. But immediately next to you there is to be an enormous block of flats, small flats, full of very young people who will no doubt make a lot of noise at night. Do you really want to stay?” The old lady will say “Not really” and will sign up, usually without taking legal advice. She will pocket a relatively small amount of money, and a few weeks later will come to the constituency surgery absolutely petrified about what she has done in selling the family home where she has lived for decades. The developers are utterly unscrupulous in this respect, and we should try to do something—outside the terms of the Bill—to deal with a practice that verges on the dishonest.
Another problem with which the law has yet to get to grips is the submission of applications that are a little like those that preceded them, but not similar enough to be classed as repeat applications. We need to examine that aspect of planning law, and adopt a rather more broad-brush approach. If the site is the same and the application is more or less the same, the application should be deemed a repeat application. That would prevent developers from applying for 50 flats and, on not succeeding with that application, applying for 45, or 40, or 35, wearing down local opposition in order to get what they want eventually.
Has my hon. Friend encountered any cases in which a developer comes along knowing that he cannot obtain permission for 80 properties in a back garden or on a similar site and therefore applies for 40, gains permission, and then submits applications for 50, 60, 70 and finally 80, succeeding at each stage because each previous application constitutes a precedent?
My hon. Friend makes his point very clearly. I think we all have experience of developers behaving in that way in our constituencies.
There is also the risk of appeals, which was mentioned earlier. Another example is 37 Parson street, a main road in my constituency that is slowly disappearing under blocks of flats. The application is for the demolition of an existing building and the erection of a new building consisting of seven two-bedroomed flats with car park and cycle parking.
I am pleased to say that the planning inspector, L. Rodgers, dismissed the appeal. However, at the end of his statement he wrote:
“In my opinion, replacing the existing dwelling with a development of flats would be acceptable in principle”.
Effectively, although that particular application was turned down, the developer has the green light to come back with another application later. The local planning authority will say “OK, we opposed that development successfully, but our card has been marked by the planning inspector. If we turned down another application involving a building without quite the same bulk, our decision would probably be overturned on appeal.” Thus a lever has been applied to the authority to cause it subsequently to allow an application that goes a little too far and may not be appropriate.
New section 71B in clause 1 refers to “urban green spaces”. I have a little problem with that. The first definition of “green space” in clause 6 is
“land laid out as a public garden”.
The next two definitions are
“land used for the purposes of public recreation”
“an area of open space benefiting wildlife and biodiversity”.
There is a loophole here, which I hope the hon. Lady will correct should the Bill proceed to a Committee stage, in relation to what are effectively private green spaces.
In my constituency there were a couple of sports grounds that were effectively private. A developer came along and made an enormous offer to the members of the Mill Hill tennis club in Flower lane, who sold out. They cannot be blamed for that: they were going to receive a huge amount of money. A block of flats was then erected on the tennis courts. The same thing has just happened in west Hendon, also in my constituency. The Neeld tennis club, on the corner of Foscote road and Graham road, was a club of long standing and was the lessee of the site. The new freeholders decided to give the lessees a lump sum of £25,000 to take out a new lease to which they had no rights, and a further £175,000 when they left, which could be at any time during the course of the short lease that they were to be granted. The inspector said
“UDP Policy… seeks to resist the loss of playing fields”,
and added that the question of whether the tennis courts should be considered to be playing fields was debated at the inquiry. There is a real argument over whether private tennis courts are covered by the definition of a playing field in planning policy.
Is my hon. Friend saying that as a member and therefore owner of a private tennis court, I would be prohibited from selling it and gaining, but as owner of a back garden I can sell it and gain? Where do we draw the line? I understand what my hon. Friend is trying to do, but what is his view of the problem I have identified?
I hope my hon. Friend and I are not at cross purposes. We are not talking about selling land in this context; we are talking about planning controls. It would, in fact, be possible to apply for planning permission to erect a block of flats on the site of Buckingham palace. I hope that Westminster council would not grant consent, although given its track record I would not be so sure. Anyway, it is possible to apply for planning consent in relation to a site that one does not own. We are not talking about the ownership of the site; my point is that developers try to winkle out sports clubs just as they try to winkle out those old ladies in houses. In my view, the planning constraints that apply to back gardens should also apply to privately owned sports grounds, not just the public grounds that the Bill probably includes in clause 6(b). That is another loophole with which I hope the hon. Lady will deal in Committee, if the Bill gets that far.
One of the problems with the case that I have just mentioned was that the local authority had not bothered to do any homework to establish the level of demand for tennis courts. That omission was criticised by the inspector, who said, “The developer has done some work on this, and he says that there is no need for additional tennis courts. The council has produced no evidence to the contrary. Therefore”—surprise, surprise—
“Despite the opposition of local residents I find no compelling reason as to why residential development would not be an acceptable alternative use on the site if it were to be redeveloped.”
He went on to say that
“it would be possible to put 6 dwellings on the site at a density…of around 31 dwellings per hectare”.
I have to say in parenthesis that I have difficulty with hectares. I am not sure what they are worth in old money—in acres. No doubt someone will put me right if necessary later.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. That puts us into a more informed debate—at least from my point of view. Those of us who went to school before hectares were invented often struggle with such things.
Proposed new section 71B refers to “urban green space”. Does that include suburban green space? The areas that we are talking about are largely suburban, rather than urban. There is a significant difference in London between the inner city and outer London. Again the hon. Lady may like to remove the word “urban” altogether or define it in such a way that it refers to the density or to the built-up area for the existing location.
The hon. Lady rightly raises the question of
“an area of open space which benefits wildlife and biodiversity”,
which may not be green land. My constituency contains what remains of the old Hendon airfield, the first airfield in the country and a major second world war airfield. It has been nibbled away and built on over the years. The Ministry of Defence disposed of the last big chunk about 10 years ago. It was called the RAF East Camp site and is now a major housing development. Although it was technically a brownfield site, because it had been lying fallow for decades, before construction started, it certainly looked like a greenfield site with grass and weeds up to here and self-seeded trees all over the place. There was an issue of significant biodiversity.
There are difficulties in planning law as it stands. Look at the definitions of “brownfield”, “greenfield” and “parkland”. The land in question would certainly have fallen within the scope of clause 1(2), as it is defined in clause 6. While it may have been a brownfield site technically, it contributed to the biodiversity of the area.
The RAF East Camp site is now more grandiosely called Beaufort Park by its developers, St. George––not that that stopped it being burned down in spectacular fashion last summer when it was under development. It was something of a nature reserve, primarily because it had been fenced off from the public for a long time. When one is talking about wildlife and biodiversity, definition is difficult. Obviously, we have the definition of a site of special scientific interest and we have relatively small ones dotted around the country. Perhaps the best way of protecting such sites would be to say “That’s the threshold that should be applied.” We have to find the right balance. A site that has important biodiversity may never have been tested under the objective test that will be provided by referring to an SSSI. A relatively small piece of land can be designated as one. If land needs to be protected under that provision, perhaps the definition could be cross-referred in that way. There is always the possibility of applying for SSSI status or similar classification at a later stage. Perhaps if there is a pending application, that could be used to defer consideration.
The way the provision is constructed is rather vague. That may have been deliberate. It may have been because the matter had not been probed, but it could be difficult to say whether an area particularly benefits wildlife to the degree necessary to stop a development. One could say that any piece of green land benefits wildlife. If there is a blackbird pecking on it, looking for a worm, it is benefiting that blackbird, although not the worm. However, it may not be of general benefit.
I was mystified by an issue raised in the Library briefing, which says that proposed new sections 71B and 71C do not say who exercises the function. I do not think that it needs to. It is self-evident that the function will be exercised by anyone taking action under the planning Acts, whether it be the local authority planning committee, the inspectorate on appeal or, if it ever got that far, the Secretary of State on a call-in—or for that matter the London Mayor using his call-in powers. The Library has been too critical of the Bill in that respect and it is not something that I would particularly be concerned about.
I would like to suggest one or two other ideas that the hon. Lady may consider to improve her Bill. We heard earlier about the perverse incentive for local authorities in terms of trying to meet the target of 60 per cent. development on brownfield land. With back gardens being designated as brownfield, there is a perverse incentive to allow such development to go ahead to help the authority to meet the 60 per cent. target. One way of dealing with that—I hope that she will take the suggestion on board—would be to say, “If someone builds in a back garden, it does not count towards the 60 per cent.” That would remove that perverse incentive. That would be a relatively easy thing to do. It would not necessarily affect the planning issues in that respect, but it would at a simple stroke tackle that perverse incentive.
Now we are diverging a little. If I have one or two properties that have been derelict and a nuisance for many years and I want my local authority to clear them and generate new accommodation on that site, where do I stand? It is a brownfield site. I want the authority to do it and to meet its target. It would be a disincentive if there were a change of culture in respect of the land. Therefore, it would be a far better idea for it to remain brownfield land.
My hon. Friend is missing the point. Nothing would prevent the development of a brownfield site such as a factory. What I am suggesting would provide additional protection to gardens, which is what the Bill addresses. When a factory comes down, however much land it covers counts towards the 60 per cent. target in terms of brownfield sites. However, if a row of houses comes down, at present the footprints of both the houses and the gardens count towards the 60 per cent. target. I am simply saying that the garden element of the footprint should not count towards the 60 per cent. target for brownfield sites. It would be like a let; it would not count one way or the other—it would not count as greenfield development either. Perhaps it would be an example of the idea of a “greyfield” site. Therefore, it could not be used in the way that it is now, as a perverse incentive for some hard-pressed planning departments to meet a target.
That is an ingenious solution, but I fear that it is impractical on two counts: first, in relation to the collection of statistics and what constitutes the house part of a house plot; and, secondly, because there are many grey areas, such as to do with when parts of a plot were developed and outbuildings. Also, he himself has asked about what constitutes a garden, particularly in an urban area.
The hon. Member for Solihull said, “Well, we’re pretty clear what gardens are,” but I have questioned that. There might be detailed definitions that could deal with that issue. My suggestion merits consideration as a way of getting over the hurdle of the perverse incentive that I have mentioned. I hope that Members will think about this matter, and at least that an amendment will be tabled in Committee so that we can discuss it and see whether it can be addressed.
There is the additional question of gardens in green belt land. Part of my constituency is green belt. Some of the developments I referred to took place in green belt land. There is an exemption from the green belt for gardens under brownfield rules. We should look at whether gardens in green belt sites should count as green belt, rather than as brownfield.
My hon. Friend must realise something. I have houses in green belt and I have great difficulty getting any work done on them, even changing windows. The local planning authority will quickly state that any extension or development is overdevelopment of a site. It is very protective, and it has rules and regulations in place to ensure that green belt is protected. If work is not done, that is down to the planning authority and not regulations.
My hon. Friend has made his point.
Proposed new section 71C addresses deals with mixed use residential development, and the hon. Member for Meriden hit on an interesting point in that respect. In my constituency, there will shortly be the major redevelopment of Brent Cross shopping centre. As that development stands, it will include a significant residential element—at the last count there were, I think, several hundred such units. My one concern is to maintain the appropriate percentage of affordable and social housing as part of the project. What one gets in respect of commercial developments is the whole panoply of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 section 106 negotiation. Local authorities look for a series of improvements—in Brent Cross, it is in respect of roads and public transport, which are expensive for the developers.
The problem that then arises is as follows. It is said, “Okay, we want so many hectares to be set aside for housing,” and the developer says, “Well, that’s fine, but all of it has to be expensive housing because I cannot afford to provide social or affordable housing as you made me put in all the roads and public transport improvements.” Such requirements are important, but we must ensure that they are not used as an excuse to back away from the basic requirement of the 50 per cent. affordable housing benchmark starting point. For my part, there is also the question of the very high proportion of social housing that the London Mayor expects to be provided.
In the case of mixed communities, the reverse suggestion might apply, in that entire housing developments ought perhaps to have a commercial element built into them to ensure that the appropriate shops are provided for these huge developments. Otherwise, in effect, those who do not have a car cannot access the shops. I was going to say “the post office”, but that would take us down a completely different route that I have no intention of going down. This is an important consideration, so we should perhaps look at the reverse side of the coin of proposed new section 71C. It is also important in this context to ensure that we have mixed tenure.
Clause 6 does not define “commercial purposes”, which could be a problem. Some of the developments that the hon. Member for Meriden or I might regard as commercial could be not-for-profit or public sector developments. One could not argue that a public sector development—a new hospital, for example—is a commercial development, but one might well want accommodation for nurses and doctors to be part of it. She is therefore right to make the point elsewhere in the Bill about the need for accommodation for public sector employees. Perhaps that issue could be dealt with under proposed new section 71C.
So far, so good, from the hon. Lady’s point of view. However, I start to get a little concerned when we get beyond clause 1. I am very much with her on clause 1, and I hope that she will see my suggestions in a positive light, but I have some problems with clause 2, on public bodies, both in principle and in terms of its phrasing. A public body is defined in clause 6 as
“a Minister of the Crown…a local authority…a police or fire and emergency authority”,
“public body owning more than 10 hectares of land”,
which is 20-odd acres, in old money. My concern is the way in which clauses 2 and 6 fit together. For example, if we read
“a Minister of the Crown”
into clause 2(1), it would read as follows:
“A Minister of the Crown shall publish reports”
“developed land which they own.”
The Department might own the land, but the Minister of the Crown does not—we are not talking about the Minister’s private estate. However, that is how the Bill reads as constructed, so we will need to look at this issue. Moreover, a lot of land is not actually owned by public bodies but leased, or leased back, by them. The wording of clause 2, which refers to public bodies owning land, therefore needs to be improved.
The hon. Lady’s initiative is a very important one. In my area, Edgware hospital has been redeveloped. In fact, a brand-new hospital was provided through release of part of the brownfield site on which housing is now to be built. The old Colindale hospital, which is redundant, is about to undergo similar redevelopment. The Bill does not deal with the definition of quangos, however. For example, a huge argument is going on about the National Institute for Medical Research, in Mill Hill, which we in my constituency are all desperate to see remain there. I am not sure what its status is, but I doubt whether it qualifies as a public body according to the Bill’s definition. If we cannot retain the institute, would the site be caught by her Bill, as drafted? I suspect that it would not, but it is an enormous site that perhaps needs to be dealt with under clause 2.
A similar case in point is the British Library’s national newspaper library, which is located in Colindale. The long-term objective is to move it from that site, which is too small. If that happens, another huge site would be released. Is the British Library a public body in the context of the definition in clause 6? Probably not. I know that paragraph (e) refers to a
“public body owning more than 10 hectares of land as may be prescribed by regulations”,
but that prompts the question of whether they are public bodies in the first place. The definition is self-serving. It says that a public body means a public body owning more than 10 hectares of land.
As I said, I support the principles behind the Bill and hope that it gets into Committee, but I may well not be on the Committee and if the issues are not addressed there, they would have to be dealt with on Report, for which we have only one Friday allocated. I hope that by highlighting some of the problems today, they are flagged up and can be dealt with in Committee. We would not have to spend so long on the Bill on Report and it would have a much better chance of becoming law, which might not have been the case—
Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises that there has to be a proper balance between a generalised debate on Second Reading and detailed consideration in Committee. Flagging up such points is one thing, but seeking to deal with them as would be done in Committee is not appropriate in a Second Reading debate.
You will be pleased to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have progressed a little beyond my opening remarks.
I have significant concerns about clause 3. I oppose clause 4 as well, but I do not want to comment on Wales. The clauses are pretty well back to back. It would not be appropriate for the measures in them to be reserved to the local authority. The Library helpfully produced in an appendix to the research document what is in effect a transcript of the impact of clause 3 on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 by inserting the amendments to it. Those raise serious concerns. The Act as amended would exempt anyone else—the Secretary of State and, I suppose, in this context the London Mayor—from second-guessing the local planning authority in relation to dwelling density targets
“and decisions relating to residential development on private gardens and urban green spaces.”
We have the national standard, or benchmark—it is a benchmark rather than a compulsion—in relation to density. The local authority could say, “Irrespective of what planning guidance may come from the centre, we can set a density of one per hectare.” I do not think that any local authority would do that, but I make the point for the purposes of argument. Nobody would be able to second-guess them except perhaps the courts on judicial review, which would be a peculiar way of resolving a planning problem. I am afraid that I have to part company with the hon. Lady on that.
The Mayor of London has a clear policy of trying to increase housing. In my constituency and my London borough, there are concerns about the scale of the development. We have to provide extra houses somewhere. It would be wrong if a local authority were simply to say, “We’re not going to play the game. We’re not going to join in at all. We’re going to opt out of the national need to provide additional housing.”
This is where we seriously part company. The fundamental difference is whether we believe in grass-roots democracy from the bottom up or an authoritarian, statist approach that is top down. The hon. Gentleman says that the Government would lose their grip on local councils, but the density that those councils would choose as appropriate for their locality would be heavily informed by the people who put them into office in the first place. He mentions the Mayor of London. Of course he is also elected, but in giving him the powers on housing and planning, the Government are overriding another democratically elected body with a grass roots-up approach to what is appropriate in a locality.
The hon. Lady is tempting me into an argument about constitutionality. We have three different levels of government, all elected to implement their particular programme. The Mayor of London was elected by the people of London, in part on a policy of providing additional housing; the Government were elected by the people of the country, in part to meet the need to provide additional housing; and the local councils were elected to run the local authorities. There are three different levels of election, and people may vote for the same party in each one or they may cross-vote—who knows? The fact remains that there are different, potentially conflicting, perfectly democratic mandates and, where there is conflict, we have to try to resolve it. To exclude two of those mandates in favour of the third is potentially undemocratic because it may well favour those who have a house to the exclusion of those who need a house.
I think that the hon. Lady is right in her clause 1, which is why I complimented her on its formulation. It would tweak planning law in the way that it should be tweaked to provide some of the protections that we need. However, I think that the way she is trying to do that is equally as over-prescriptive as planning law, but in the other direction. As I said in my opening remarks, we have to try to strike the right balance between the need to provide additional homes and the need to try to preserve the character of an area.
I represent a component part of the London borough of Havering, which would benefit enormously from the Bill because it is 50 per cent. green belt, although it is a London borough. I commend the authority for having undertaken a review of the entire borough, identifying development opportunities, housing need and housing that is in bad order and needs replacing. Who could possibly be better placed to take that holistic approach than the locally elected councillors, who are so very familiar with every nook and cranny of the borough? They are much better suited for the task than the Mayor for London, who, I think, does not know where Havering is.
I shall not get into a debate about whether the Mayor for London knows where Havering is. I suspect that the hon. Lady’s constituency is not very different from mine. I have a very urban part, towards the south of the constituency, and a more suburban area with green belt, towards the north and east.
I am not saying that we should ignore what local people and councils say. I am asking how we give voice to those who could be excluded from that process, the people who need somewhere to live. As I have said all along, we have to try to strike the right balance between local planning controls and the need to find places for people to live. The Bill starts off doing that very well, as it tries to preserve the character of an area by paying special regard to green belt and urban spaces. However, it goes on to say that, no matter what the housing need is in a particular city or nationally, a local authority can simply ignore it if it chooses. We must try to be more imaginative in our approach. The hon. Lady has come up with a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.
Similarly, exempt housing matters would include not only
“the setting of net dwelling density targets”
“decisions relating to residential development on private gardens and urban green spaces.”
That would effectively exclude any planning application involving a residential development on a private garden or urban green space. Occasionally, such a development might be appropriate, and completely excluding it is the wrong way to proceed.
I would like the problem resolved in a different way, by giving local amenity societies and concerned residents the right of appeal against the granting of planning consent, which would provide a better counterweight. I do not want somebody necessarily to be able to appeal against a neighbour’s back extension, but I have long been convinced of the need to give people a voice in the planning mechanism if there is a significantly high threshold for the number of residents who want to appeal and the development is of a particular scale. The fact that we have not been able to provide that is a lacuna and a shame. Clause 3 is the one part of the Bill with which I have no sympathy at all. It will not achieve the object of reasonable balance, which clause 1 so admirably does.
I would like to raise an additional point about clause 2, which clearly has a general nature where it states:
“A public body shall publish reports on the desirability and practicality of providing residential accommodation… on developed land which they own.”
It does not say whether it means all the development land “which they own”—in Domesday Book fashion—or land that is redundant, disused and up for development. I think clause 2 needs to be a lot more specific. If it were to say simply, as it does in subsection (2), that every “seven years” a Government Department—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You made it very clear a few moments ago that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who has now been speaking for close to an hour, was wandering dangerously close into Committee territory. He is aware that many of his points can be made in Committee. He claims that he may not be selected for that Committee, but he knows that he could attend it, even if he were not selected for it. As other hon. Members wish to speak in this important debate, I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on whether it is now time to allow them to participate.
The composition and length of a speech is entirely up to the hon. Member who has been called to speak. I have made a ruling about the broad distinction between a Second Reading speech and matters to be pursued in Committee, which I expect the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) to honour. If I feel that he is not honouring it, I will correct him. As I say, it is entirely up to him whether he has any regard for the attendance of his colleagues and other Members.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had thought that my comments on clause 2 were of a general nature. I was not trying to be specific or raise matters more appropriate for Committee. It is important to ask whether clause 2 is about the Domesday Book having to be recompiled every seven years or simply about trying to identify land that is derelict, disused or about to be made redundant on a seven-year cycle. That would make a lot more sense. I simply say to the hon. Member for Meriden that she needs to look further into how clause 2 is formulated, not just in respect of what a public body is, but of what she means by developed land in this context. I think that the provision needs to be tightened.
On clause 3, we talked about density. Density is not necessarily a bad thing. I am not sure whether this is apocryphal, but I once heard that the most densely developed area in Britain is the Royal crescent in Bath. That shows how, with good design, density does not have to look horrible or make an area an unpleasant place to live in. The challenge is how to create the mixed communities that we need, using good design and making better use of land.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) jumped to his feet a little too early, as I am about to bring my remarks to a close. As far as clause 1 is concerned, I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden on her Bill.
I am sorry to hear that my hon. Friend is bringing his remarks to a close. He has dealt very thoroughly, though in general terms, with the Bill, but he has not addressed all the points raised by Opposition Members. It is a matter for him whether he wants to deal with it, but he has not responded to the question of why—in view of the guidance given in PPS3 and the discretion of local authorities in dealing with this matter—the Bill is necessary at all. Given that this is a Second Reading debate, he may like to deal with those matters, particularly the question of why we need to go down a legislative route.
The problem with PPS3 is that it is not legislation and we are dealing here with something that is a little more important. I believe that the Bill, in clause 1 at least, provides the right sort of legislative nudges towards planning policy. Planning guidance can be changed, after appropriate consultation, at the whim of the Secretary of State, but primary legislation cannot. If the Bill were more prescriptive in respect of clause 1, I would not be for it, but there is nothing wrong in saying in planning law, “Well, let’s give special regard to these particular issues.” That does not mean to say that we cannot build on this land, but that we have to think about it more carefully first. In that respect, I am very much in favour of what the hon. Member for Meriden has to say. I have problems with clause 2, because the way that it is phrased is too prescriptive and it could be too costly. I have significant differences with her about clause 3, but if the Bill were to return from Committee comprising clause 1, a redraft of clause 2 and an improved clause 6, I would be one of those who would be prepared to support it further.
I shall be as brief as I can be. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and thank her for permitting me to be a co-sponsor of the Bill. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and thank him for permitting me to be a co-sponsor of his predecessor of the Bill.
Like the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), I used to be a member of a planning committee, and I want to comment on one thing that he said, which is that council members do not have the power or the will, frequently, to take on developers. Hart district council in my constituency, when it was under a Conservative administration about three or four years ago, took the innovative decision to set aside £100,000 to allow it to defend its decisions against appeal. Not only did that fund allow it to conduct such defences, but it sent the signal to developers that Hart would be no pushover.
I should not like my comments to be taken out of context, when I said that members did not have the will because of the history of refusals being overturned by the inspectorate, thus costing council tax payers money. That is what takes the will away from them. It is not a matter of their individual drive as councillors.
The hon. Gentleman is right that that is one of the factors that demoralises local councillors into thinking that they have no local control over the decision that we, as Parliament, have delegated to them and then taken back from them in respect of inspectors’ powers and those of central Government over spatial planning and local plans. His remarks about the feeling of powerlessness in local communities were absolutely spot on.
The Bill is not opposed to development as such. We have all said that we need more affordable housing—Hart district council and I accept that—but as I said earlier, not only does garden development not produce that affordable housing, because it usually takes place in areas where housing is less than affordable, but I would add the point that we need the infrastructure in place first. One of my worries about garden development is that it is incremental, with a few houses here and a development of flats there, however inappropriate to the area such a development may be. It is almost a stealthy strain on the local infrastructure, which was never designed to accommodate the housing densities that we now see and which are required by the Government and often opposed by local communities.
In my constituency last year, there were severe shortages of water. There is an increasing pressure on the commuter trains to North-East Hampshire. They are heavily overcrowded. The new carriages that are being introduced are considered so uncomfortable that people cannot sit down, so they stand all the way to Waterloo. Our roads are absolutely packed. Schools are completely full. Health services are at breaking point. The Government have only just begun to consult on how we increase and improve our water supplies. There are discussions about lengthening platforms for the rail infrastructure, but that is 15 years away at least. Health authorities are in great difficulty because of a shortage of money. So there is no mechanism to review local infrastructure requirements, as the Infrastructure Audit (Housing Development) Bill, which sadly fell at the post last week, was intended to address.
The Bill gives some important decision-making powers to local authorities. There are some extremely hard decisions. North-East Hampshire is a beautiful area of the country. Not surprisingly, nobody wants to see our green fields or gardens built on—unless perhaps they are the owners of those gardens and green fields. Even those of us who support the Bill must ask ourselves what we would do if a developer came to offer us ridiculous amounts of money for our house or back garden. Speaking for myself, I simply do not know. I have to be honest about that.
It is also important for us all to recognise the undeniable need for affordable housing. The teachers, police and health workers that we need in North-East Hampshire cannot afford to live there. Hook, in my constituency, is one of the 10 most unaffordable places in the country in which to buy a house. What do parents do when their children get larger and larger and do not move out because they cannot afford the local property? [Interruption.] Well, my children are getting larger and larger and they do not seem to be moving out. Either children move way away from the area, which breaks up the local community, or we have to build more local affordable housing. Those are difficult decisions.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that even new affordable developments—possibly for key workers in the categories that he has just mentioned—still need parking provision, and that PPG13, which discourages parking provision in new developments, and in particular in flatted developments, has been wholly misguided? Even when the developments are near stations and on bus routes, some people will use public transport for commuting to work, but still need a car for their leisure use.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point: the attempt to bear down on car parking places has not actually borne down on cars. The law of unintended consequences bites again. I know that she has worked hard on the matter in her constituency.
We have an extremely difficult set of problems. It is all very well for the Minister to say that local communities have the powers to deal with these things already, but as the hon. Member for Tamworth said, they do not feel that they do. They feel that the decisions are taken out of their hands by inspectors who overturn a lot of locally made decisions and who are legally bound by the guidance coming from Whitehall, issued by people who do not know the area or the pressures on local people and communities. They feel that the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 gave the Secretary of State control over regional spatial strategy, as well as over local plans.
The Government are funding research to investigate further urban densification. The recommendations include doubling the density of development in suburban neighbourhoods and looking at the considerable potential for garden development. Not surprisingly, local people do not like that. It should be the locals who make these hard decisions. They are not stupid people. They know the pressures and the solutions in the area. They understand that back garden development can completely change the character of the neighbourhood. It should be local people who make the decision on that.
In my constituency, the most important issue is housing pressure. In North-East Hampshire, the answer to that is not to take people’s back gardens in the blanket way that seems to be going on; the answer is to redevelop Bordon, where the Ministry of Defence is selling land to allow between 6,000 and 8,000 new homes. The local community of Bordon welcomes that because it will rebalance the town and make it more commercially attractive, which the town really needs.
I am pleased to support the Bill. It would remove back gardens from the policy of developing brownfield land and return a little control over planning matters back to local people, which is where it should belong. It would also limit the powers of the Secretary of State, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden on introducing it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on introducing the Bill, but although it would be a reckless Member of Parliament who would say that we should allow development wherever it can take place throughout our constituencies—I am not one of those Members—the Bill is not the vehicle to provide local people with the opportunity to think about their future. I say that as a Member of Parliament who represents a new town that grew on the side of what, in the late 1940s, was a village. That village had to accept an enormous development that now numbers 100,000 people. Change, development and growth have thus been part of our landscape, and, on the whole, the community of Crawley has taken them on board extremely well. New neighbourhoods and communities have grown properly with the appropriate infrastructure, including the local pub and community centre, in the way in which we would hope that most communities would be allowed to do.
Such development has not taken place in isolation from giving people the opportunity to improve their quality of life by earning a living close to home. That is one of the huge assets that the constituency of Crawley has been able to offer, as have other new-town constituencies, such as that of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith). We are aware that growth and change are part of our lives. Although, as I have said, it would be reckless of a Member of Parliament to call for unfettered growth in their constituency, it would be wrong to say on the one hand that we really need more housing while, on the other hand, choking off the ability to be able reasonably to provide housing in a community. That is why I have serious concerns about several aspects of the Bill.
I firmly believe that local authorities have the ability to use their powers wisely. As I have listened to the excellent speeches that have been made, I have been interested to hear about the many ways in which good local authorities have been using their powers and examining carefully the infrastructure pressures on the things that make our lives decent, such as water, roads and health. The pressures are especially significant in the south-east, which is where my constituency lies. When we consider developments, we must take seriously not only those infrastructure pressures, but the possible environmental impact of those developments.
I do not know the situation in Crawley, but 7,000 of the people on the council waiting list in Portsmouth are not people moving into the city of Portsmouth, but those who are already in the city, using the services in the city and looking for homes. Surely that is a consideration.
I thank my hon. Friend for that timely intervention, which expresses the concerns of many of our constituents. I was about to talk about the number of people coming to my surgery who are desperate for housing. They are mostly young people who have formed partnerships or who have small children and we often do not have them in mind when we debate planning. We keep a close eye on the reasons why people visit my surgery and we recently calculated that more than 22 per cent. of them are in desperate need of housing.
My hon. Friend illustrates well how a local authority can respond to the needs of its community. As I said, there is a neighbourhood system in Crawley, but the families of the pioneers who came from London to Crawley in the early days to a beautiful three or four-bedroom home of their own have now grown up. People who have lost a partner may want to stay in the heart of their community, but cannot do so if there is no appropriate housing. If they are renting their property, they worry about giving it up and taking on a different house. That is why I am worried about putting restrictions on local authorities about what they can do in their areas. Adjustments to the size of gardens could allow older people to remain in their community, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention.
It is precisely the duty of local councillors and local authorities to consider what is needed in their communities. As the ODPM Committee report pointed out, we used to be convinced—like the new town pioneers—that we needed thousands and thousands of new three-bedroom properties. However, we now realise that that may have caused some difficulties. People who become lone parents do not need such large properties, so flexibility in the type of housing offered is crucial.
We are talking about the quality of life for people who are established in their communities, but also about the ability to respond to change, which is always difficult. To illustrate that I use an example from my constituency—as many of us do—where I faced a large development of flats. Mine was not the closest property by any means, so I made no formal objection, but I understood the concerns of the people whose houses were closer. However, that high quality affordable development has provided many young people with a decent home. It is close to bus services, thus reducing the need for cars, and fits in extremely well.
I was a member of the local authority when the development was being discussed. We were keen to ensure that it included shopping facilities. We took care to ensure that it complied with all the environmental standards, and more, so that it did not contribute to global warming. The development has settled down extremely well and has quickly become part of our community. This example provides an argument against the Bill.
The development took place on land that had been open space for a long time, but that had been earmarked for development. I understand that that is not the same as development on back gardens, but it relates to the point about providing something reasonable and decent for our communities. Whether the land is a back garden or space that has been identified for housing, we should allow a local authority to respond properly and decide whether the development should be allowed to go ahead. Providing an authority with a presumption against development in the way that the Bill would is a mistake.
Some Members have spoken about the ability of local authorities to negotiate reasonable rents and provide affordable housing, and I refer to a couple of back garden developments in Crawley that caused concern. Three houses were sold in Pound Hill and there was general concern about the style, size and general look of the proposed development, so negotiation took place with the neighbours to come up with a decent proposal. Furthermore, the people selling their homes took an active interest in whom they were selling to. They examined the developers to consider not only who was offering the best monetary deal, but who would provide young people with an opportunity to take their first step on the ladder or give people the chance to access a shared equity property.
The housing association, Moat, was involved in this development and the benefits of that are clear. It bought some of the properties from the developer and offered them on a shared equity basis. The development has been extremely successful. It houses young people, many of whom had been to see me about their housing prospects and who had had no hope of getting on to the housing ladder.
Although I understand the Bill’s aims, I can offer a further example that shows why the presumption that there should be no development in an area has a huge detrimental effect.
I am listening attentively to the hon. Lady and I think that she has fundamentally misread the Bill. I pray in aid the correct interpretation that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) gave when he said that the Bill was precisely not prescriptive; it would allow discretion. The wonderful development that she has described in Crawley would be entirely permissible under the Bill.
I thank the hon. Lady for that explanation, but the Bill is clear in its use of the phrase “special regard to”. That would provide a local authority that is minded not to represent the interests of those who are in desperate need of housing with a presumption against a development. That would change the balance. Instead of there being a clean sheet in the consideration of whether a development was suitable, would local authorities be able to say no to every single development that came forward? That would cause enormous difficulties.
Change and renewal are part of community life and the Government and local government should not attempt to resist development at every turn. However, I also believe that giving local people the ability to say no is crucial. That is why, on another count, I am seriously worried about the ability to switch development to employment land.
I have had to oppose my Government’s Secretary of State in relation to a local case because that was precisely what a developer wanted to do: he wanted to build on land that the local authority had rightly designated as employment land. I completely agree with the local authority that that development would be a mistake. If we are genuinely to enhance people’s ability to reduce their carbon footprint and to live close to where they work—often, people regard the south-east as an attractive place to live because work is readily available—it would be a huge mistake to lose pockets of land that are earmarked for business or industrial development, which will provide employment. I am worried that the Bill, as I read it, would make that development entirely possible, or even probable, and would reduce my local authority’s ability to oppose such development.
With that in mind, we should think carefully about development law and accept that the Bill is not the correct vehicle, because it would hamper local authorities’ ability to ensure that development is in keeping with the area. That is often difficult to do, but to impose a presumption against development in gardens would be detrimental. I shall therefore oppose the Bill.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate, because it brings the opportunity to highlight the housing crisis in London. We should recognise that there is much in national and regionally set targets that has had a role in creating that crisis, because of the very remoteness of those targets.
First, however, it is important for me to declare an interest, although the Bill would not have an immediate impact on me. I have a planning application in for my front garden. I have an existing building on one side and a planning application to build a house for my parents-in-law—
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to provide further information. I am glad to say that it is a very large garden that fronts on to a major road; I have access to my property through another means. It is a significant piece of land, but I would not describe it as one of the gravel drives that one might suppose exists in suburbia. Unfortunately, Croydon, Central is not as blessed as some would make it out to be.
I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman’s sense of filial duty. Is he not concerned that the Bill, which I assume—perhaps wrongly—he supports, may prevent the type of necessary development that is seen in his own case? Will not Conservative party policy, which is to reclassify garden land as greenfield land, prevent, in London, sometimes essential developments such as extensions to accommodate extended families, children, grandparents and so on? Will not the drift of Conservative policy prevent such development and lead to more overcrowding?
I am grateful for the question that the hon. Gentleman poses. It is most unusual to have comments from him that are not just a repeat of what happens in the Hammersmith and Fulham council chamber, and it is nice to see that he has moved on from that approach today. It gives me the opportunity to say that I think it is those politicians who are closest to their constituents, in terms of level of government, who are most likely to respond most positively to the needs of those constituents.
It is clear that there is a real need to be met in London and politicians would not be so silly as to fail to provide additional housing when there is a demand for it. There are votes in extra housing, because of the desperate need in terms of the 62,000 people who are in temporary accommodation—effectively homeless—in our capital city, and the 350,000 people in inadequate accommodation.
In many ways it was the nationally and regionally set targets and, sometimes, the less than expert comments from national politicians that led to the success of the British National party in many local council elections last time. The issue of housing provision was at the centre of concern. I have real concerns for my constituency, where the BNP came second in one seat, close behind the Labour party, and third—very close behind my party and Labour—in the New Addington ward. The key issue of the provision of extra social housing is fundamental in fighting what many of my constituents in those areas regard as the remoteness of national and regional government in providing the additional housing that is needed.
I am interested in the way in which nationally and regionally set targets have delivered the wrong type of housing for my constituents. The targets have delivered one and two-bedroomed flats, of which there is an excess. I know that the London assembly has a habit of using somewhat uncouth language, but its report “Size Matters” was important and influential, and it emphasised the way in which national and regional housing targets had delivered the wrong type of housing. What we need is family housing with gardens. That may have an impact on the amount of housing that can be provided, but I am pleased that local politicians in my area recognise that social housing is needed and are being active in providing it.
We are also grateful for the Government grant that has come via the Mayor and will provide additional council housing in my constituency. That is meeting the real need for social housing. As a Member of Parliament corresponding on behalf of my constituents, I find it difficult—although my difficulties are probably mild compared with those faced by Labour Members—when I am approached by a family of four who live in a one-bedroom flat. The father may be sleeping in the kitchen with his son, but I have to tell the family that rehousing will take nine to 10 years. I am pleased that local politicians in the London borough of Croydon are reacting positively to the need for provision that will help such families. However, they should also respond to the way in which the current planning system treats back gardens. In a residential area containing family houses and gardens, flats are suddenly constructed that are entirely out of keeping with the street scene. It is vital for local politicians to be able to respond to local sensitivities, and the Bill would enable them to do so.
We should consider whether the demands imposed by targets set for local authorities are so high as to be unrealistic. The target set for my borough is 17,000 additional homes, which is the equivalent of building 800 or 900 homes in every area containing 10,000 residents—in every ward, in some cases. When such unrealistic targets are set, it is not possible to deliver on them.
There are other implications—important physical implications—for one of the key drivers of housing need in London. Migration, whether within the United Kingdom or from outside, is an issue that needs to be dealt with. We should also take account of the requirements of land set aside for industrial and manufacturing use. Sometimes the definitions are too demanding. In my constituency, for instance, 84 per cent. of employment is in the service industries. It is often appropriate to combine residential building with building for employment purposes, which has been done on land next to my constituency that is owned by British Gas. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) referred to the value of such mixed developments, and I think that they represent a very “green” approach as well.
It should be possible to intervene in the market with locally sensitive planning. Retail units are frequently transformed into housing because the rents are low, and the immediate advantage of the resulting capital gain can lead to the destruction of key suburban retail centres that have served local communities. I fear that residents’ groups will become so concerned about their inability to set the local agenda that there will be a real revolt against the planning system.
My constituent Richard Hough runs a car repair business in Croydon. His property, which is next to a railway station and was owned by Railtrack, was snapped up in unusual circumstances for just £112,000. As a result of the developer’s continuing determination and the nature of the planning process, he faces the prospect of losing a family business that has served our community very well and has given work to many young people who might not have been able to gain employment otherwise.
It is local politicians who are most likely to be influenced by the need to provide housing as sensitively as possible in order to meet the needs of their communities. We should have the confidence that it is local politicians who are best placed to make that decision. Strong in the view that providing additional housing in the right places is what will win votes for those politicians, we should trust in the ability of local politicians to make good local political judgments.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate.
The issue of land use and garden protection has only recently been brought to my attention by the Dronfield Civic Society and the Dronfield History Society in my constituency. Both groups exist to protect and to preserve the historic town of Dronfield, so this Bill is of great concern to them as well to as many of my other constituents. Therefore, I am pleased that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has chosen land use and garden protection as the subject of her Bill and I am even more pleased to take part in the debate today. It gives me the opportunity to raise a number of concerns, wider issues on planning and specifically the use of garden land.
Chief among those concerns is that, apparently, if we believe the scaremongering on the Tory website, which I do not visit frequently but I have on this occasion, anyone who lives in a privately owned home is going to have Yvette Cooper and Angela Smith knocking on their door in their hard hats and Bob the Builder outfits—
Order. We have a strict convention in the House that we do not refer to hon. Members by name.
Okay. According to the website, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), will be going there dressed in hard hats and Bob the Builder outfits and in their diggers, and they will be saying to people that they will be bulldozing through the side of their garden to get to the back of their garden, knocking down climbing-frames, filling in sandpits and building huge skyscrapers where their patios used to be.
The Tory party website talks of land grab. Most normal people in privately owned homes would be terrified if they read that that was going to happen and that people will come along to take their land away. That is quite irresponsible.
I am touched that the hon. Lady thinks that the Conservative party website is so widely read. In reality members of the public mostly do not need to read party websites. They only need to see what is happening in their neighbours’ gardens. The anxiety of our constituents is not a laughing matter. It is causing real grief in the community and our constituents are experiencing the reality of development occurring all around their properties.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I agree: I do not think that many people visit the Tory party website. However, the campaign materials, as they are called, are a laughing matter. I agree that the issue is not a laughing matter, and our Government have addressed it in great detail to ensure that exactly the kind of thing that the Tory party website talks about cannot and does not happen. I should be grateful if the Minister, in her summing-up, would confirm that that is not possible and so allay the fears of my constituents. It would be very helpful to me and to many Labour Members.
I would like to address some of the wider details in the Bill and the fundamental challenges that the country is facing. The hon. Lady has highlighted an issue that is of concern: the vastly growing number of people who are in need of houses. We have a housing shortage and we need more homes. I know that she accepts that fact but I also know that she is not prepared to commit herself to saying where those new homes should be built.
As was referred to by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) in her speech, in the debate on housing last year I made it clear that a huge opportunity exists to regenerate the inner ring around our city centres, currently in decline. I have explicitly stated where in my constituency 5,000 new affordable homes will be built.
The hon. Lady has not recognised how different different parts of the country are. Urban inner London is very different from areas such as my constituency, which are almost exclusively rural.
The Government have a national target of 60 per cent. of buildings on brownfield sites. What is a brownfield site and what kind of land can be built on are key issues addressed by the Bill. I entirely agree with the motivation behind it; we need to look at such matters. We also have great housing need. However, the Bill is unnecessary as the Government have addressed all its key issues.
I was going to say that there are many different types of garden. I think that the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) mentioned that. Some gardens are just patio areas, whereas others are vast amounts of land. [Interruption.] I am unsure whether the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) is just shouting; does he want to intervene?
That is a lovely point, and I was going to make it—although I thank my hon. Friend for making it for me. It is a key point that a Conservative Government introduced the definition of brownfield sites that we are discussing. Only very rarely has a piece of garden—certainly of a private home—been reclaimed in order to be built on. That is important, too.
It is indeed the case that the definitions were introduced in the 1980s, but the Library is very clear on this matter. It says that the 1985 definitions
“did not form part of a commitment to build more on brownfield sites. They were simply a convenient statistical way of grouping the statistical information”.
Therefore, they did not have the intention that the Government have now given them.
Let me move on now.
The Bill would make it easier for local authorities to develop on urban green spaces, which is the opposite of the intention. Many Members have highlighted such unintended consequences. The Government have taken on board the concerns that are felt, and they have produced guidelines and planning rules to address them. The measures that are in place have been mentioned by Members in all parts of the House. Planning policy statement 3—PPS3—of November last year gives local authorities clear powers to protect green spaces and open land, so the Bill is totally unnecessary.
There is another unintended consequence of the Bill that I am really concerned about, and it is the reason why I definitely cannot support it. As I understand it, it would remove the power of national Government to intervene in these matters, and such decisions would be entirely down to local authorities. [Interruption.] Well, that is my understanding. If the hon. Member for Meriden wants to intervene again, she is more than welcome to do so. If the Bill were enacted, national Government would no longer have the authority to intervene, so if a local authority decided to “land grab”, there is nothing that national Government could do about it. That is entirely irresponsible.
Coming to this debate, it is important to have an understanding of how the planning process works. There is a system by which an application is made, and it is rejected or accepted. That decision can be appealed against, and the Secretary of State has the ultimate say. As I said in my speech, under the current Secretary of State, one in six decisions have been overturned. That planning process remains; my Bill purely creates an exception in relation to housing density, gardens and urban green space.
I suggest that the hon. Lady have a look at the Tory party website, which she obviously has not visited that frequently. It states explicitly that the situation that I described would happen.
The main aim of PPS3 has nothing to do with gardens and everything to do with finding vacant and derelict sites that were in use for many years, and bringing them back into use. The hon. Lady has recognised that there is a need to build more homes, and that is exactly where they should be built—on derelict land that already has vacant buildings on it. PPS3 is also about delivering affordable homes—an issue that Labour understands better than the Conservatives. For the constituents who visit my surgeries, that is indeed the issue. It is not about having a vast expanse of garden that they can call “land”; it is about being able, at the age of 30, say, to afford to move. The key point is that house prices are very high and insufficient affordable housing is available. PPS3 is explicit on this issue. It refers to delivering
“more affordable homes in rural and urban areas”,
“more family housing, including more play spaces”—
exactly the spaces that the hon. Lady says that she is concerned about in the context of back gardens—
“parks and gardens for children”.
So I cannot see what else the Bill would add to existing legislation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that such an approach is also of benefit to older people, who may have a house that is now too large for them, but who want to stay in their community? Developers such as McCarthy & Stone have bought and developed homes to allow such people—who are home owners—to remain in the heart of their community.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. They are exactly the sort of people who come to my and her surgeries to discuss these issues. It is the very vulnerable whom we are concerned about, such as older people who want to stay in their communities, and younger people who cannot leave their parents’ home. The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot)—he is no longer here—mentioned that issue earlier, in the context of his large family.
According to Government research, if we do not build more homes, the proportion of couples aged 30 who are able to afford their own home will fall from more than 50 per cent. today to nearer 30 per cent. in 20 years’ time. I should declare an interest in this regard. My own children are very young, but I am hoping that in 20 years’ time, they will be able to leave home and move into houses that they can afford. It is a critical issue, and the circle is not being squared.
All these elements make the Bill redundant. The Government’s key housing policy objectives are not just to deliver more homes but to ensure that homes are of a higher quality and higher environmental standard to meet the challenge posed by climate change. Conservative Members purport to feel strongly about that, but when it comes to building affordable homes, they rarely mention it.
The number of new homes built on brownfield land has increased from 56 per cent. in 1997 to 74 per cent. today. That land formerly had vacant properties on derelict space. The Bill is another attempt by the Tories to block the housing policy that we need. It reads like an anti-housing Bill. Labour has produced policies and legislation that are pro-housing and pro-land. The Bill is all about not building. We need to build for the future to ensure that those people who are children now can move into affordable homes later. The hon. Member for Meriden admitted that we need to do that. I relish the opportunity to hear how the Conservatives propose that that should be done without building on anything other than brownfield land that is vacant or derelict.
The motivation behind the Bill is laudable. I am sure that what the hon. Lady means to do is a good thing and that it is in the spirit of protecting and preserving, an aim that we all share, but the fundamental issue of squaring that circle—of how we ensure that the housing challenge of the future is met—would be undermined by the Bill.
It is always a delight to follow the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). I have long maintained and long suspected that she is running a campaign to be deputy leader of the Labour party through her speeches. That has been confirmed now that she is taking an interest in housing and planning. She is a worthy successor to the present incumbent of that role. Her contribution was in the finest of traditions of the Deputy Prime Minister.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on her part in securing the Bill for debate and on championing a cause dear to my heart and the hearts of many hon. Members on both sides of the House. I also compliment her on her excellent speech.
When I first introduced my Protection of Private Gardens (Housing Development) Bill, it was a response to a local constituency concern in Tunbridge Wells, but I became aware that it was a national problem. It affected all parts of the country in all parts of Britain. The thousands of letters and e-mails that I received giving precise, detailed examples of that showed that it was a common concern.
We had an early-day motion related to the problem, which as my hon. Friend said attracted support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. In total, it had 179 signatories, including 40 from the Labour Benches. I was slightly surprised when the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said from a sedentary position that the signatories were posturing.
I am delighted to have that clarified. I thought that I heard the hon. Gentleman say that, but I am pleased that he did not. It is important that there is cross-party consensus. I was delighted that my early-day motion was co-sponsored by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and signed by Members present, including the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), who spoke so eloquently about the problem.
Having clarified what I did not say, perhaps I should clarify what I did say and why, although the early-day motion may have some cross-party support, it does not have universal support. The reason is that, whereas there is some need to protect back gardens, as PPS3 endeavours to do, what the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues seek to do in Bills such as this is send out a clear signal against the development of housing which would limit the number of housing units to be constructed, and that simply cannot be supported.
It is clear that the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to the debate at all because the point has been made time and again that this is a permissive, enabling Bill. It would allow local communities to make these decisions for themselves. I am surprised that he, as a former member of a local authority, does not trust local authorities to make those decisions.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the final lie is given to the argument of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) that this is an anti-housing Bill by clause 2, which places a positive obligation on public bodies to report on the steps that they are taking to encourage housing development on land that they own? This is a pro-housing Bill and a localist Bill, and the hon. Gentleman ought to support it.
The hon. Gentleman is extremely indulgent. If the Bill seeks to trust local authorities, why is it being prescriptive? Why does it not leave local authorities to get on with things, under Government guidance, and do what they want? It is his party that, in this Bill, does not trust local government.
We shall come on to talk about PPS3, but it is clear from experience throughout the country, not just from Conservative councils but from Labour and Liberal Democrat councils, that local planning committees do not feel that they have the powers to sustain an objection to developments that the whole community is against. That is what we want to correct.
I want to pay tribute to some of the organisations outside the House that have supported the intentions of this Bill and predecessor Bills, including the Association of Garden Trusts, Garden Organic and the Royal Horticultural Society, which had a fascinating debate on the subject after which a vote was taken indicating almost unanimous support for the Bill. Almost all the RHS members attending the debate favoured the kinds of protections that we seek.
I would like to make some progress, then I will happily give way.
Ministers must realise that the issue is not going to go away. Whatever they do to the Bill today, we will come back again and again until the measure receives in this Chamber the support that it has in the country. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister when she responds whether the Government now admit that there is a problem of garden grabbing because it was not so very long ago, when he was a Minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, that the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, 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.]
I would happy to give way to the Minister if she would like to say whether she takes the allegations of garden grabbing seriously.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) showed why the phrase “garden grabbing”, as used on the Conservative party website, is emotive and rather silly. I can assure the House that I have neither a Bob the Builder outfit nor a digger. The issues that the hon. Gentleman is trying to resolve are adequately addressed through PPS3, PPS17 and local development plans that local authorities can propose. I will be happy to give examples in my speech of local authorities that have used those plans to address the very points that the hon. Gentleman wants to tackle by passing additional legislation.
The Minister talks about addressing points, but her predecessor said that there were no points to address and that the allegations were not to be taken seriously. It would be a helpful start if Ministers could concede that garden grabbing is happening across the country.
The denial strategy does not work. The statistics certainly exist, and they support the fact that is known across the country—that garden grabbing is a serious issue in our communities and is spoiling the character of our neighbourhoods.
It was the case that the Government initially refused to publish statistics on the quantity of garden grabbing that was going on up and down the country. It was only when they inadvertently released them to the press that Members were able, partly through Mr. Speaker’s efforts, to see these statistics. They reveal that 15 per cent. of housing development taking place across the country is on formerly residential land, usually houses and gardens being replaced—as many hon. Members have pointed out—with apartment blocks covering not just the pre-existing house, but often the whole footprint of the garden and the house itself. That is the issue that we want to tackle.
The breakdown of the figures shows that in many areas the proportion is much higher. For example, in my own constituency of Tunbridge Wells, the proportion of all new dwellings built on sites of houses and gardens was 47 per cent., while in other areas it was higher still. It was 62 per cent. in the borough of Croydon—the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling)—and 89 per cent. in Surrey Heath. Amazingly, in South Buckinghamshire in 2004, every single new home was built on the site of a previous house or garden. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) intervened earlier and in her constituency the proportion is 60 per cent.
The situation is not getting any better. Garden grabbing is gathering pace. Ministers will claim that it is not so, but we know from our own constituencies how hoardings are rising up in residential areas throughout the country. Perfectly good houses are being demolished and beautiful gardens destroyed. We heard about the strange statistical apparition of 14 new flats replacing a family home. Why is it 14 across the country? It is because of the loophole that allows developers to get away with not providing much needed affordable housing by falling below the threshold. That means denying affordable housing as well as destroying the character of some the most beautiful and cherished areas in the country.
Some suggestions were made earlier that Conservative Members were scaremongering and that it is not the case that people are getting knocks on the door from developers, pressuring them to sell their homes. I have to tell hon. Members, including the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, that that is not true. I have with me a letter sent from one developer to every resident of a particular road in Crowthorne in Berkshire. It shows how even developments going on in this House can be used to pressurise people to sell. Entitled “Time to keep your options open”, the letter states:
“Greg Clark’s Private Member’s Bill…is scheduled for a second reading in the House of Commons on 20 October…Even if you do not wish to sell all or part of your site right now—now might be a good time… to…protect your interests”.
They are even prepared to use our discussion of these matters to put pressure on residents in order to bounce them into selling homes, creating the domino effect that we have heard about.
There is one issue that I cannot get my head around. If a private homeowner with a bit of private land at the back, which could be called a garden, wants to sell the land and have a house built on it—with the potential consequence of being overlooked—surely it is a matter for that person’s choice. Is the hon. Gentleman denying people the right to exercise that choice?
Let me describe to the hon. Lady what happens. Of course it is an individual choice to sell a garden, but when something has consequences for other members of the community, it is a long-established principle that the community should be able to decide whether the private advantages for that individual outweigh the detriment to that community. That is why we have a planning system.
What often happens is that a domino effect takes place, whereby one house is demolished in a leafy family street and the people living next door start to worry because they now have a big apartment block rather than a house on one side and are concerned about what will happen if the other side goes the same way. People fear that instead of living in a leafy family area, they may soon be living in a canyon between two apartment blocks, so they decide to sell out quickly before it happens. So they sell up and a domino effect ripples down roads such as Forest road in my constituency, changing the character of the area for ever.
Victorian villas or houses built in Edwardian times or even in the 1930s may not have enough architectural merit to be listed buildings. Nevertheless, in 50 years’ time, I suspect that we will look back at them much as we look back on the destruction of city centres that took place in the 60s. We will think, “Why on earth did we allow that to happen? These were some of the most cherished areas in our towns”. We ought to step in to allow local people the discretion to help to protect those areas.
I should like to make a bit more progress. I have taken quite a few interventions already, but I shall give way to the hon. Lady a little later.
The issue of whether PPS3 provides the necessary additional protection contained in the Bill has been repeated again and again, but the same lack of reality pertains to that question as has characterised the whole debate. Ministers first denied that garden grabbing existed. They then said that the existing powers under PPG3 were sufficient. They now say that PPS3 contains the necessary powers. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has made it very clear that there is a hierarchy of planning obligations on local authorities. Housing targets and housing density targets involve hard numbers, and the suspicion of planning departments throughout the country is that those hard numbers will always and everywhere trump the more qualitative measures that we seek to protect.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; it is helpful because he seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of PPS3. I appreciate that it was introduced in November, so he may not have had the opportunity to absorb its contents. He talks about hard targets. Under PPS3, it is clear that local authorities have greater flexibility around those targets. I would appreciate it if he were to take that on board and not misrepresent what is in PPS3.
I am delighted to hear from the Minister on that, because I hope that she will respond in her winding-up remarks to the challenge from some of her hon. Friends to clarify—it might be useful to planning committees and inspectors in future—and to state exactly the Government’s intentions. Is it the case that no local authority faced with a garden-grabbing development that it wants to turn down will be forced to abide by the housing targets that are imposed on it? Can it refuse planning permission for an unsympathetic garden-grabbing development if it has not met its housing targets?
Can the Minister confirm whether the regional spatial strategy will be set aside and not pre-empt any decision to which PPS3 might seem to point? Is there complete local discretion in that respect? The Opposition are sceptical. Until we see it written down in black and white, which PPS3 does not do, that regional spatial strategies and housing targets can be set aside in exercising such discretion, we will not believe it. If PPS3 has now been published, why was it not written down there?
It would be helpful to put on the record of the House that PPS3 says:
“Regional planning bodies should…report on progress against the housing targets and previously developed land trajectories, and where relevant targets…and set out the actions to be undertaken at the regional level where actual performance does not reflect the…relevant targets”.
The guidance is clear that the regional targets take precedence.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. She will also be aware that in making the valuation of PPS3 the Library has considered the changes there and advises hon. Members that
“Despite the change in the brownfield definition, it is clear that private gardens—other than allotment gardens—remain within it. The final sentence in PPS3 is a modest qualification to the definition.”
So the Library is saying that there is a modest change. There is clarity that regional spatial strategies and the housing targets imposed on local authorities take precedence. While that is the case, the warm words that are issuing from the Minister will provide no reassurance to planning committees and planning authorities throughout the country. That is why my hon. Friend’s Bill is so important and why—to answer the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Tamworth that such things could be done through reassurances from Ministers—it is much more important that they are included in statute, so that we can have dependability. Until we have that, planning committees throughout the country and local residents will not feel that they have the protections that they require.
My hon. Friend has set out in detail, clause by clause, the advantages of her Bill, so I will not detain the House by going through that again. Suffice it to say that the character of the Bill is entirely enabling. My Bill, which preceded hers, acknowledged that there will places up and down the country where it is desirable to build on gardens. However, the people who should make those decisions are the people who know the area and its needs, who are democratically elected by other people in the area, and who can be thrown out if they make the wrong decision. That is the entire thrust of my hon. Friend’s Bill. I do not understand why certain Labour Members are so keen to refuse that discretion to local authorities. Surely they should trust elected members to make those decisions on their behalf.
The Minister should be aware that the damage being done by garden grabbing is not just physical. Real damage is being done to local democracy, which is why the subsidiarity point that my hon. Friend mentioned is so important. Constituents up and down the country assume that, when they elect councillors and the councillors sit on a planning committee, that planning committee is empowered to make decisions concerning their local environment. However, the truth is that councils find themselves powerless to resist developments. The House of Commons Library note makes that perfectly clear, stating:
“Some proposed developments may fail on design criteria. However, in other cases there may be no powerful reason for rejection. It is not easy for a planning authority to justify rejection on the grounds that a proposed development might spoil the character of an area.”
Our constituents want their elected members to be able to take a view on whether a development will spoil the character of the area, but PPS3 and its predecessors do not give elected members that discretion. They give the discretion to inspectors in Bristol, who, as hon. Members have pointed out, can swoop down for half a day, take a cursory look and fail to appreciate the depth of local attachment to the character of areas. Clearly, Ministers do not understand that those refusals undermine and corrode local democracy at a time when, with declining faith in democracy—at least in terms of participation in elections—we should be doing everything that we can to increase participation. We are going the wrong way with our planning law.
Let me conclude with a point that is surely within the grasp of Ministers: the environmental importance of gardens. The debate is about not just the character of the building that takes place, but the vital role that urban and suburban gardens play in protecting and promoting biodiversity. Nation wide, urban gardens cover a greater area than all our nature reserves put together. It is the larger, longer gardens that provide the most valuable habitat for wildlife. Unfortunately, they are also the most tempting targets for that urban predator, the developer. Large blocks of space, especially those on which trees grow, play a vital role in countering the urban heat island effect in our towns. Thus they help to adapt our cities to climate change. Of course, climate change is not just a matter of higher temperatures. We are seeing changes in weather patterns, including a greater propensity to flash flooding. If we have flash floods, it is important that the drainage in our towns and suburbs copes. Gardens reabsorb rainwater into the ground and are an ideal way to preserve our supplies of water.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned climate change. Clause 1(2) would insert section 71B into the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Section 71B would state:
“special regard shall be had to the desirability of preserving gardens and urban green spaces.”
That special regard would elevate gardens and green spaces over any other considerations, so climate change would come second to preserving gardens and urban green spaces. All the other issues that he has mentioned would move down the list, because the first priority would be special regard for preserving gardens and urban green spaces.
The hon. Lady has entirely missed the point of the debate, which is that gardens make a fantastic contribution to the environment. Giving local authorities the ability to exercise discretion over garden-grab locations is one of the best and most practical things that we can do to help the environment. It is an example of joined-up government that I commend to Ministers. It would be a good way of uniting the different Departments. If the Government want to be green, a practical way of doing so would be to support a measure to help local authorities to protect gardens.
Garden-grab Bills are a bit like garden-grab developments, Mr. Deputy Speaker: just when you think that you have seen off one, another one comes along—that will certainly be our intention throughout this Parliament. In that regard, I wish to take this opportunity to announce a competition to find the worst garden-grab development in Britain. I expect the competition to be stiff. Entries will be judged on the loss of green space, the damage done to local character, the lack of architectural merit, the non-provision of affordable housing and the inappropriate density of the development. The political complexion of the local authority will not be taken into account because the ultimate responsibility lies with the Government.
By way of a prize, I am willing to pay for a new brass nameplate for the winning building. The only condition is that I get to choose the name. I have been toying with “Yvette Cooper Villas” or “Ruth Kelly Mansions”, but I have decided on a name that is truly worthy of the worst garden-grab development in the land: “John Prescott House”. It might seem unfair to give credit to someone who is no longer a Minister in the relevant Whitehall Department, but perhaps other garden-grab developments will choose spontaneously to honour the Ministers who continue to make them possible.
Let us make no mistake: Labour Members are leaving behind a legacy that will outlast their ministerial careers. In the interest of all our constituents throughout the country, they should take seriously the intentions behind the Bill, which have been supported by Members on both sides of the House through various Bills and early-day motions. They should support the Bill and let it go into Committee so that several of the suggestions made today may be advanced. They should let communities throughout the country have some hope of regaining the discretion over such developments that they desperately need.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on bringing her Bill this far.
I am sure that most hon. Members in the Chamber have, like me, met many young people in their advice surgeries who are desperate to get a home of their own, as well as people who, as a result of family breakdown, are looking for single-person dwellings. We know that we must build more homes throughout the country. For too long, the housing market has not responded sufficiently to housing demand. Over the past 30 years, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of households, yet a 50 per cent. drop in house building.
There has been a vast increase in the number of new homes being built in my constituency over the past 10 years or so. For the most part, those homes have been built on brownfield land, usually in previously industrial areas, such as foundry sites and the sites of disused factories and warehousing. Indeed, a new development has recently been completed on the site of the old gasworks in my constituency, and a planning application has been submitted to develop a vast area of derelict land around Stourbridge canal basin and Wharf road. If that development is agreed to, we will have the prospect that a huge area of the town will be transformed and regenerated.
In recent years, concern has been expressed about the trend of building on garden sites, which was why I wanted to take a closer look at the Bill and determine whether it would be helpful. Although I agree with the thrust of the Bill, such closer inspection has given rise to several points on which I would like clarification or assistance.
The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) mentioned two organisations that are in favour of the Bill, but I am sure that he has received the letter to hon. Members from the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Although it, like me, is sympathetic to the broad aims of the Bill, it believes that existing planning provision is sufficient to address the situation and, furthermore, that the changes proposed in the Bill are unnecessary and would add a further layer of complexity to the planning process. That is a sticking point for me because if there is one complaint that I hear over and over again from residents, developers and planners, it is that planning is already time-consuming enough. Indeed, the Barker review made several recommendations on freeing up the process.
Further research has led me to wonder whether the time for the Bill has passed and whether it would actually be necessary, following the Government’s publication of PPS3 in November last year. PPS3 gives local planning authorities more flexibility over where housing is delivered, including back gardens. In addition, PPS3 rewords the definition of “previously-developed land” making it more concise and clearer. As the hon. Member for Meriden admitted, should her Bill go further, another new definition would be required, to exclude gardens and to explain why other parts of the plot, such as patios or similar hard standing, were included.
I understand that PPS3 gives local planning authorities more flexibility to determine how and where new homes should be built, and gives them greater powers to determine policies particular to their area, which could include setting out the circumstances in which back-garden developments may be permitted. It seems as though the job of the Bill has been done without its being enacted. PPS3 makes it clear that design that is inappropriate or that fails to improve the character or quality of an area should not be accepted. It will be for the authority to decide how much reliance it places on residential sites, including gardens, as opposed to vacant or derelict sites. Sites will need to be suitable for housing development as well as contributing to the creation of sustainable and mixed communities.
Like the hon. Member for Meriden, I am keen to protect urban green spaces. However, PPG17, on open space, sport and recreation, specifies that existing open spaces and land should not be built on without an assessment by the local authority showing that the land is surplus to the requirements of the community after taking into account all the functions that open space performs for the community. Why is that not a sufficient basis for the decisions of planning officers and authorities?
PPS3 moves away from what were seen as prescriptive housing density targets and gives local authorities more flexibility to take account of local circumstances and set their own density standards. The guidance allows a range of densities across the plan area rather than relying on one broad density range. Will not that safeguard achieve similar outcomes to the provisions in the Bill?
Most of the points that I wanted to make have been covered, so this has been a short speech. In conclusion, although I am in broad agreement with the aims of the Bill, PPS3, which was published only last November, takes into account many of the issues the hon. Lady attempts to remedy. PPS3 will improve the quality of design in housing and neighbourhoods. It will continue the focus on brownfield land and allow authorities the flexibility to set their own targets and density standards and to reflect the number of sites available while supporting a national target. In short, has not the job already been done?
The hon. Lady should not try to upset and frighten people with the sort of scurrilous nonsense on her website—material that Tory candidates are being asked to use. Rather than frightening people, she should be encouraging her authority to make the existing guidance work, because she is obviously not doing so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on promoting the Bill and, in her absence from the Chamber, thank her for allowing me to be one of its sponsors. The subject is hugely important to my constituents, as well as to people throughout much of suburban England—in London, the south-east and beyond. It is a serious matter and deserves consistently serious debate.
I want to deal with some of the criticisms of the Bill. It is nonsense to suggest that the measure will make it harder to protect gardens or that it will in any way restrict the delivery of affordable housing. One of the key things about back-garden development is that it generally—indeed, overwhelmingly—makes no contribution to affordable housing, for all the reasons that have already been given relating to the perverse incentives that arise from the current planning regime. Affordable housing seldom comes into garden development. The problem is that the mixture of nationally and regionally set minimum densities and housing targets, together with the artificial threshold, frequently cause the developer deliberately to go for a smaller site where they can accommodate fewer than 14 units. Such sites are most easily assembled by buying up a couple of back gardens and building on them.
That has certainly been our consistent experience in the London borough of Bromley, a borough that is more than happy to give approvals for high density housing in the right place—for example, Ringers road in the town centre, where we have allowed a substantial high-density development because it is close to the town centre and a transport centre. However, that does not help our constituents in established and settled suburban areas.
I am also surprised by the suggestion that the Bill would increase climate change. Perhaps that was a misunderstanding—I am glad if it was on the Minister’s part—but let me make it clear for the record that we all know that gardens and urban open spaces contribute to the battle against climate change. The Bill would specifically assist them to do that. Anything that seeks to protect gardens and urban open spaces is a good thing in that fight. I cannot for the life of me see how placing a duty to have “special regard” to the desirability of protecting gardens and open urban spaces can be anything other than an environmentally positive measure.
It has also been suggested that PPS3, in its new incarnation, will solve the problem. I am afraid that it will not, and the Minister concedes that it will not on its own. Let me make two points about that. First, the definition in PPS3 still goes nowhere near enough to protect back gardens. In fact, the definition of previously developed land, even under the new wording, includes land that has had a dwelling house on it before and the curtilage of that dwelling. The gardens, because they are part of the curtilage, still fall within the definition of previously developed land. Furthermore, it is apparent that any garden other than allotment gardens still falls within the brownfield definition. Gardens are still caught by the perverse situation in which it suits people to develop on brownfield land.
I agree with the Government that housing development on brownfield land is a laudable aim. My party has always supported the idea that housing development should be on brownfield land. That is not the problem. The definition of brownfield land is at fault, so the definition needs to be changed. That is best done not by regulation, but by primary legislation, and that is what we seek to introduce. Tinkering round the edges with regulations, however well intended, will not achieve the desired objective.
My second point about relying on planning guidance is that we all know that there is a hierarchy of planning considerations. Even in the planning documents of the London borough of Bromley and the Major’s London plan, consideration is supposed to be given to the context of a development, which is another way of taking account of local character. However, a series of planning decisions in my area have made it apparent that that aspect comes a lot lower down the planning inspectorate’s hierarchy of considerations than meeting the minimum densities numbers game. That is not an adequate safeguard.
I was interested to hear the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) make the point that areas vary, which is exactly right––of course they vary. That is precisely why the imposition of nationally, or even regionally, set minimum densities is not sensible in terms of environmental protection. Densities that are appropriate in inner London are not appropriate in outer London, and densities that are appropriate in the town centre of Bromley are not appropriate in established suburban areas, such as Bickley, that have little social infrastructure. The perverse incentive resulting from the mixture of regulations drives developers to the small suburban sites, because they are the easiest to use.
The trouble is that the planning authority is so constrained by nationally set targets that its ability to act as a local planning authority is almost emasculated. A London borough has to contend not only with national guidance and policy—the minimum density that is imposed on it—but with regional policies imposed by the Mayor of London. That does not produce the results that the community wants.
Recently, a development at Ravensbourne college in Chislehurst of a significantly higher density than the surrounding area was proposed. It was not a back-garden site, but the principle that the hon. Lady mentioned is demonstrated by the case. Some 500 people turned up at the public meeting to protest that that was overdevelopment of the site—not that there should not be development, because the site was right for housing, but that what was proposed was overdevelopment.
Was there affordable housing?
There was affordable housing, but that was not the problem. The density was the problem. What happened was that, although it was accepted that there might be damage to the context, the inspector regarded that as a lesser consideration than the Mayor’s insistence on a minimum density on a site that he himself concluded had a low public transport accessibility score—almost at the bottom of the scale. The Mayor wanted to go even further than the national guidance and press for yet higher densities than even the developer was trying to get away with.
People in that part of Chislehurst do not feel that the planning system gave them any ability to protect their local community, or that their local councillors were given a fair hand in fighting to defend their local interests. Reliance on the current system does not work, which brings us back to the fundamental point that a change in the definition of brownfield land, with a specific protection for back gardens, is the only way to achieve those objectives.
Back gardens make a real contribution to the urban, particularly the suburban, landscape. I speak from direct experience of London, but I am sure that that is true of all our great cities. Great cities do not depend solely on their urban core; they depend on their suburbs as well, because that is where the people who are the engine room of all our cities live. In London, people are prepared to undergo long and sometimes unpleasant journeys commuting from the suburbs on overcrowded trains, as anyone who reads the Evening Standard, which is running an excellent campaign, knows. They put up with that commute because they want to live in an area that is green, has a bit of space and is laid out. They are prepared to pay for the privilege of doing so, both financially and in terms of wear and tear.
We should not try to solve our housing problems by destroying established, settled suburban environments. If we are sensible about making use of real brownfield land, there is more than enough capacity to build the housing that we need without trespassing on back gardens in the way that we see throughout suburban London. Once we start to undermine the quality of the suburban environment, we push some of the most valuable people for our cities—the people who work in the middle ranks of our public and private sectors—into moving further and further out, away from the suburbs. The result is a general flight of the economically active, which is damaging to everyone, the poorest and the most vulnerable included, because it reduces the city’s economic viability.
My hon. Friend’s point is important, given that public infrastructure investment in our suburbs is often weak. It is not the Government’s priority to invest in the suburbs. Additional strain is put on the infrastructure when there is no planning for all the additional residents who will live in an area as a result of all the planning applications. What is needed is an holistic approach, determined locally.
My hon. Friend is correct. His experience is the same as mine. The concerns about the planning application I mentioned included the lack of transport and sewerage infrastructure and the lack of social infrastructure, such as health and dental care facilities. People were also concerned about pressure on local primary and secondary schools. None of that was adequately taken into account under the present system. Such matters are not best determined from the top down but at local level. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The Government use the rhetoric of localism, but are clearly doing their best to obstruct a Bill that is thoroughly localist in character. It is by their actions, not their words, that they will be judged.
I thought that I was about to agree with the hon. Gentleman because he made a good point about infrastructure. Does he therefore support the Government’s proposals for planning gain supplement, which will address those problems, especially with major developments?
Any form of planning gain, whether through planning gain supplement or section 106 agreements—when I was a councillor I was an advocate of the constructive use of those agreements in my authority—should have as its principal test that it returns benefit to the community that is affected by the residential development. My biggest concern about planning gain supplement is the determination of the Government to nationalise planning gain, in effect, and take the benefit away from the people who will be affected by the development and put it into the coffers of the Chancellor. That is the danger.
Protecting the quality of the built environment in the suburbs is critical to maintaining their sustainability and economic viability, which is in turn critical to maintaining the sustainability and economic viability of the cities. If one starts to allow a creeping densification and a change of character of suburban areas, people will be driven away. They will move from, say, Bromley, past Sevenoaks and further down into Ashford and the rest of Kent, making less sustainable journeys to work on overcrowded commuter trains. That puts pressure on the environment and, in some cases—I have seen it happen with police officers, nurses and others working in Bromley—people get fed up with the commuting and get a job locally, so we lose a local police officer to Kent police or a nurse to a Kent health trust. That is an unacceptable state of affairs.
The situation is made worse by the final perverse incentive of the operation of the planning system, which is that it is easy to meet density and affordability targets by building small units with several one or two-bedroom flats rather than the family homes that most London boroughs—certainly Bromley—identify as being required to meet the need for affordable homes. Nothing in the existing regulations or planning system does anything to address that problem.
Another concern is that people’s housing need changes over time. Many people are more than happy to start off renting when they leave college and start work. There comes a point when they want to get a foot on the housing ladder. That is why I agree with comments by Labour Members about the importance of intermediate housing and shared ownership schemes. There then comes a point when people want not a flat, but a house with a garden, if only a small one, where they can bring up a family. It is the inability to provide such houses, even in suburban London now, that is causing people to move out from the suburbs. Building on back gardens does nothing to address that problem; indeed, it makes it worse.
When I look at my postbag, I notice that apart from concerns about safety and policing, which have always been top of the list for Londoners, the threat to the quality of life and the environment in the suburbs is second—sometimes equal first—in terms of the number of letters. Overwhelmingly, those concerns are caused by excessive and inappropriate development in back gardens. In the classic scenario, developers buy up two plots and put up a development with the magic 14 properties so that it comes under the threshold. If five houses are put on one plot, it does not make any contribution to the supply of affordable housing, but it does gradually undermine the quality of life for residents.
The point has been made, and it is worth emphasising, about the problem of repeated applications for the same site. It is often cynically and deliberately done to wear down the resistance of local residents and councillors. An elderly gentleman came to my surgery just before Christmas. He and his wife live in a small close in Bickley. One house in the close has been bought by developers. The council has consistently done its best to resist overdevelopment on the site, but it is another case of developers starting at about the 14 level and working down. As soon as one application is refused in comes another, slightly different—reduced a little, tweaked, reconfigured. There have now been some eight applications, and the fight is physically wearing down the neighbours. The development company, of course, has resources that they do not have. What worries them is that there will inevitably come a point at which the inspectorate will think, “This has ticked just enough of the boxes that the Government require to be ticked for the application to pass the test and be allowed on appeal, if not by the local authority.”
It is the combination of rigid, remotely set targets and the perverse incentives that they create, and what must be described as a lack of political sensitivity in practice—whatever the rhetoric from the Government—that seriously threatens the quality and sustainability of suburban residents’ lives. The Bill seeks to deal with that by introducing a simple and straightforward protection in the form of a requirement for special regard to be paid to the needs of gardens and urban spaces. It also provides incentives for public bodies to make the most efficient possible use of their land for potential residential development.
We can all see that our towns and cities contain plenty of publicly owned land that could be brought on stream. I deeply regret that the Government are apparently out to kill this Bill, thus doing a serious disservice to the residents of our suburban communities.
The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) began by saying that this issue went to the heart of the Government’s planning policy. I strongly disagree. PPS3, which has been mentioned many times today, has a number of broad aims. They include supporting the need for further housing, improving the design and environmental standards of new homes, delivering more affordable homes, supporting more family housing, and giving local authorities more flexibility in regard to how and where to deliver homes. That last point deals specifically with the issue of back gardens. Government policy acknowledges that it is not always desirable to build on land that is ancillary to residential accommodation, but that is not at the heart of Government policy; it is, however, at the heart of Opposition policy.
I realise that it is a badge of pride for the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), but I find it perverse that there have already been three Bills dealing with this issue in the current Parliament, if we include the one tabled by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). Moreover, I believe that only one Opposition day debate has been called by the main Opposition party in the current Parliament, and that that also dealt with this issue. If we go back further and examine the housing and planning issues raised by Opposition parties in previous Parliaments under the present Government, we find that there were five debates in 10 years, the first four of which dealt exclusively with the prevention of development, although they did not deal specifically with back gardens.
May I point out, in a spirit of helpfulness, that the debate on my Bill lasted for three hours and 20 minutes, and that it largely concerned the subjects we have covered today? May I also point out that it was debated in the last Parliament, not the current one?
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but her party is not without guilt on the issue.
In the Opposition-day debate on 5 May 2004—it perhaps showed the Conservatives’ position even more clearly—they did recite the problems, which they believed related to affordability and overcrowding, but they ended up again with a ringing condemnation of the Government and the Barker review, and talking about a serious threat to the nation's green fields. That juxtaposition always gives the game away where the Conservative party is concerned.
I have looked at the Library brief, but I found more guidance in the campaign pack document entitled “Labour's Garden Grab”. It effectively forms the explanatory notes to the Bill for the Conservative party. It is fascinating. It tells us that a study found that
“three quarters of first time buyers aged 22-40 said they wanted to buy a house not a flat”,
and that a 2005 poll
“found that half of those questioned favoured a detached house and 22 per cent a bungalow. Just 2 per cent wanted a low-rise flat”.
That is a fascinating way to inform Conservative housing policy. It is in stark contradiction to the comment by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) at the Conservative party conference last year that
“building flats for young people”
was a priority. We are always aware of the inconsistencies in what every Conservative Front-Bench spokesman says on housing.
I absolutely do not. I mock the remote attitude of the Conservative party. If I had detached properties on the market anywhere below £1 million in my constituency, I would like to find them. If the hon. Gentleman wants to buy a small three-bedroom terraced house in my constituency, he will have to start at £500,000 and go up from there. A small flat is the most that any first-time buyer is likely to aspire to. I am just putting Conservative housing policy in context.
The most revealing part of that pack is the question and answers at the back. In an attempt to cover difficult questions that the public may ask, the Conservatives put some questions:
“You want more homes. Are you going to build them on the Green Belt?”
The answer is:
“We need more homes…Many can be built in cities, but not all.”
I wonder where those other homes will be built—not on the green belt and not in the city either. The questions continue:
“Isn't it the case that you are just a bunch of NIMBYs?”
I would love to but I have only three or four minutes left.
The simplest answer to that question would probably be yes, but the Conservatives say:
“We want to see more affordable…homes.”
But they never say the number of affordable homes they want. It is always a vague aspiration that more properties should be built. The next question says:
“You want more homes in urban areas. Why are you criticising the Government's density targets, which mean more homes are being built away from green field sites?”
That is a good question. The hon. Member for Meriden addressed that issue in the most spurious way, referring to the issue of density. Rather than use hectares, I will use terminology that we all understand, I think. In my borough, there are currently one and a bit MPs. At the time of the second world war, there were four MPs representing the borough. The density of the population has gone down dramatically over that time. If the issue is infrastructure, which I do think is an issue, I would say: what about section 106 agreements—Conservative councils singularly fail to provide infrastructure in many cases—and what about planning gain supplement, which the Opposition parties again oppose?
The Bill sends out a message, but it does not achieve anything; it is unnecessary, as a number of my hon. Friends have said. PPS3 gives a clear indication of what the Government would suggest to local authorities, but the initiative would then be left with them. The Bill would either direct local authorities—although Opposition Members now say that it would not—in which case it would be an unseemly interference with local discretion, or it would do nothing of the kind, in which case why is it necessary? From the point of view of the Conservative party, it is necessary in order to give the clearest possible indication that the aim of housing policy must always be to restrict development—to limit the number of properties built.
The Conservatives have a record of failure on this issue, as they introduced the designation of gardens as brownfield sites, and as under them a far higher percentage of properties were built on greenfield land and on former residential land. It is also clear that very few Conservative councils, particularly in London, are doing anything to address housing need issues. If this Bill is the best that the Opposition can do in respect of housing policy, no one will be impressed; certainly none of those of my constituents who are in housing need will be impressed.
The real reason for the Conservatives’ position on the issues that we are debating is given in statements that they have made. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) talked about preserving 1930s terraces because they add to cityscapes. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) wishes all planning constraints in relation to residential development to be abolished, but only on post-war properties. Perhaps the Conservative position is best summed up by something that the hon. Member for Meriden says on her website:
“No area across the country is immune from Labour’s garden grabbing and it is only by changing legislation that we can stop the destruction of our leafy suburbs.”
That is the key reason for this legislation; it is simply about trying to look after certain parts of the country. It would ignore constituencies such as mine in terms of both housing need and housing development. Some Opposition Members ask why we need the Greater London Authority Bill. The reason why we need it, and why we need responsible planning and housing powers that are responsibly exercised, is the singular failure of the Conservative councils to do anything to relieve housing need.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on her success in the private Member’s Bill ballot and in bringing this issue before the House. She contacted me beforehand to say that she would have to leave for an urgent engagement, and I thank her for her courtesy in doing so.
I have a sense of déjà vu in respect of the matters that we have discussed. The debate has been long and detailed, but I shall do my best to deal with the points that were raised and to address the Bill. The Conservative party says that Labour Members are interested only in building what its campaign packs always describe as vast and ugly or inappropriate blocks of flats, because they are the only kinds of flats that it thinks exist. The contributions from my hon. Friends give the lie to that. Every Member of this House wants there to be appropriate development, but we must address our current housing needs.
The issue of development in gardens was debated at length in an Opposition day debate of June last year and on Second Reading of the Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill, a private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) last October. That does not undermine the importance of the subject under discussion. However, I wonder to what extent we have addressed these issues before. The supporters of the Bill have failed to convince the House that new legislation is needed.
I will take this opportunity to restate Government policy and Government commitments on these issues, and to explain why we do not need additional legislation to protect our urban green spaces and back gardens. The Government’s position has not changed, but that of the hon. Member for Meriden clearly has. Indeed, I became aware during her speech that her Bill would have unintended consequences that she would not want. It could, for example, lead to more building on green spaces and gardens in the very areas that she is seeking to protect.
Clause 1 states that
“special regard shall be had to the desirability of preserving gardens and urban green spaces”
in order to protect such spaces. However, there are already many examples of planning policy that require regional bodies and local authorities to have special regard to gardens and urban green spaces. Planning policy statement 3, which has been mentioned many times today, makes it clear that local authorities can put very strong emphasis on urban green space—including gardens, parks and play areas—in their plans. That point is crucial to this debate. PPS3 also places a much stronger emphasis on the quality of residential design and layout, and it sets out a range of design quality factors that a proposed development has to be assessed against, including accessibility to public transport, community facilities, open and recreational space and private outdoor space, and how that development complements neighbouring buildings. So PPS3 makes it clear that a proposed development’s design should be in the context of the area.
There is also PPS17, which requires local planning authorities to provide for all types of open spaces, including public parks and gardens. Existing provision must be audited for its quality and quantity. There is PPS1, moreover, on delivering sustainable development, which already addresses the other issue with which clause 1 deals—the need to have regard to mixed-use development. My point is that there are many existing examples of planning policy that require regional bodies and local authorities to have regard to the very issues that clause 1 raises. PPS1 deals with delivering sustainable development, PPS3 with town centre planning and housing, and planning policy guidance 13 with transport.
The Bill’s aims are very laudable and we agree entirely that protecting green urban spaces and encouraging mixed-use development are very important objectives. I am surprised, however, that the Bill proposes that those aims be prescribed in primary legislation. That is over-bureaucratic and unnecessary. Rather disappointingly, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) pretended to misunderstand the point that I made earlier, but there are indeed many other examples of very important objectives, such as tackling climate change and encouraging economic development, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) said. They are not prescribed in primary legislation, but it is clear that we should have special regard to them. Establishing in primary legislation two particular issues that we must have special regard to elevates them above others that we think equally important, such as climate change, wildlife, biodiversity and disabled access.
I would love to give way, but I do not have very long and I want to address all the issues that the hon. Gentleman and others raised; he had longer to speak than I have.
Clause 2 requires all public bodies to report on the
“desirability and practicality of providing residential accommodation…on developed land which they own.”
The hon. Member for Meriden was right to raise this issue. I have some sympathy with her in this regard, and I am happy to reassure her that this issue is being taken into account. Policies, practices and programmes are in place that require public bodies to consider the redevelopment potential of land for housing and other purposes.
Clause 3 seeks to prevent direction being given to local authorities on housing density issues. We agree that local authorities should have flexibility in setting density policies—the issue is dealt with in PPS3—to reflect local circumstances, but it is unnecessary to include such a measure in primary legislation, as the Bill seeks to do. The Bill does not take account of the changes that we have made through PPS3, which was published in November 2006. For those reasons, it is not necessary to have additional legislation.
I want to address the points made. If time remains, I shall be happy to take a further intervention from the hon. Gentleman, but he should appreciate the fact that his contribution took longer than the time that I have in which to respond. It is important that I deal with hon. Members’ contributions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) welcomed PPS3 because it gave greater clarity, but he still wanted more. He specifically asked whether I or my colleagues would write a letter to local planning officers to tell them that they do not have to accept every planning application they receive. I do not need to write a letter, but I can give an assurance from the Dispatch Box that of course it is not incumbent on planning authorities to accept every planning application they receive.
My hon. Friend was worried and asked the Government to have stricter guidelines to tell planning authorities what to do. An Opposition Member made the same point. That is at odds with the Government’s more devolutionary approach. It is also against the increased flexibility in PPS3. The important point about PPS3 and PPS17 is that within the local development plans that a local authority puts forward, it can specify the kind of development and flexibility that makes it clear that they are having regard to their own policies when they accept or reject a planning application.
The hon. Member for Solihull also appeared to welcome PPS3 and she agreed with us on density flexibility. She also drew attention to deficiencies in the Bill, although she was broadly supportive of it. She talked about the lack of confidence in planning authorities. In her area, she is eager to find brownfield sites that are suitable for housing and infrastructure—exactly the point that PPS3 addresses: local authorities can identify where development can take place in their area, and that can be included in their local development plan. The problems that the Bill attempts to address can be addressed through the local development plan and PPS3.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), in his extensive and wise contribution, outlined the problems that he has faced in his constituency and highlighted the necessity of having a clear and sustainable development plan. He had sympathy with aspects of the Bill, but was clear about the deficiencies. He also raised the need for housing, which cannot be separated from planning. Several of my hon. Friends made the same point. My hon. Friends the Members for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho), for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and for Crawley also pointed out that in their constituency surgeries, as I see regularly for myself in my surgery, constituents come to see them week after week on the issue of housing.
I am disappointed that Opposition Members failed to give a clear answer on whether they support Kate Barker’s proposals when she said that to meet housing need for the 10-year-olds coming through our schools and the couples who are 30 years old who want their own home we need 200,000 new homes a year. Do they support that target? If they do not, they should be honest enough to say that they are not trying to meet housing need.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) mentioned his council’s concerns about ensuring that it can provide affordable housing without being challenged. Where there is a good local plan and a local authority that has the will to implement it, as numerous authorities do, we can be confident that there is protection for the public as well
The right hon. Gentleman also made the important point that it is essential with any housing development to ensure that the infrastructure is in place. Coming from a new town, I am very much aware of that problem. The infrastructure has to be in place when people move into their homes. I assure him that that is very much at the heart of our housing and planning policies, as our response to the Barker report makes clear. We want to expand that idea and are talking more widely about shops, sewerage, education and heath. All those have to be in place to support new housing development. We make it clear in our response to the Barker report that we will ensure that there is adequate funding for infrastructure, in the right time scale, in step with growth. Various mechanisms are in place to ensure that that happens.
The point came up again and again about local authorities feeling powerless. I cannot accept that. We have to understand that 99 per cent. of planning applications are decided by local authorities. When they go to inspect a site, it is important that councils have clear development plans by which those are judged.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley—I was pleased to see a fellow new town MP contributing to the debate—made the powerful point that we cannot divorce planning from housing. Other hon. Members said the same thing. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) bravely admitted his own planning application—
It being half-past Two o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.
Debate to be resumed on Friday 15 June.