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Regional Spatial Strategy (South-West)

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2008

There can be no more important issue affecting the lives, and quality of life, of our constituents, than the regional planning strategy that is now set out in what is described as the regional spatial strategy. It has a big impact on every constituency in what I like to call the west country. The west country has a population of more than 5 million—on a par with Scotland, which demonstrates a substantial democratic deficit. Today’s debate should represent the beginning of detailed parliamentary scrutiny of the regional plan for the south-west before the Secretary of State takes any decision on its contents and proposed modifications.

Last Thursday, I asked the Leader of the House

“what role she envisages the Minister for the South West playing in”

today’s debate,

“and what other opportunities there will be for a debate in Government time”

on this highly contentious strategy.

The response by the Leader of the House bears repetition:

“The Minister for the South West is my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). We are developing the role of the regional Ministers—[Laughter.] Regional Ministers are a new innovation. I think that they are doing a very good job on behalf of their regions and that we can build on that role. What we need to do next—we are looking at this in the Modernisation Committee—is to consider how to develop a system for regional accountability to the House. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will contribute to that inquiry.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 1090.]

I am happy to contribute to any inquiry, within reason, but I hope to hear from the Minister today how the regional spatial strategy will be held accountable, which is so important.

On 18 July 2007, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) about

“what assessment the Minister for the South West has made of the regional strategy”,

the Minister for the South West replied:

“I will advise the relevant Secretary of State on the approval of regional strategies”.—[Official Report, 18 July 2008; Vol. 463, c. 360W.]

That is not a system of regional accountability to this House. Will his advice be based on the views of west country Members of Parliament? Will his advice to the Secretary of State be published? When will it be issued? What about the regional Select Committees, which were promoted by the Government to address the democratic accountability deficit, but which now seem to have been shelved? Have they been conveniently shelved until debate on the regional spatial strategy is over?

The strategy was put on deposit between June and August 2006 and generated 1,982 responses and 14,786 representations. However, fewer than one in 10 of those responding were invited to appear at the examination in public, and despite the plethora of objections and representations, nine key matters only were selected for debate. The process at the EIP was seriously flawed, as I spelled out in a letter that I sent to the panel chairman in December 2006. In that letter, I stated that

“if this Plan is introduced unamended, it will result in substantial detriment to the built and natural environment in my constituency and will damage the quality of life of large numbers of my constituents. That is why as an elected representative in Parliament, I wish to have the opportunity to give oral evidence during the Examination in Public.”

My request, and those of other Members in the west country, was turned down, on the basis—I suppose—that we were not sufficient stakeholders. Who could be a bigger stakeholder than somebody who needs electing to this Parliament? Instead of the elected representatives, we have a plethora of officialdom and quangodom.

Chapter 4.3.23 of the panel reports states that

“the Panel does not therefore accept the argument advanced by Gloucestershire County Council that draft RSS levels of housing provision should be adhered to or reduced.”

Even when very important bodies, such as a county council, make representations, the panel has the power to completely ignore them.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why we need to bring the panel to account, and I hope that we will hear from the Minister exactly how we can do that.

I shall not regale colleagues with all the detailed representations that I made, but will mention one on policy reference number SR25. I wrote:

“The policy of providing sufficient housing to meet the needs of a growing population is one of predict and provide which is both unsustainable and wrong in principle. Only very modest increments should be allowed to the existing housing stock because demand, particularly from retirees from elsewhere, will always exceed supply.”

I suggested that the last sentence of SR25 should be replaced with the following words:

“Only a very modest increase in housing will be allowed in recognition of the environmental constraints. Increasing densities should not be permitted where this is to the detriment of existing character.”

It is almost 10 years since the Government announced a rejection of the predict and provide approach to housing targets. In February 1998, the then Deputy Prime Minister told the House that the Government were

“determined to get away from a simplistic "predict and provide" approach in housing, as we have done for road building. We shall treat the household projections as guidance, not house building requirements.”—[Official Report, 23 February 1998; Vol. 307, c. 21.]

Chapter 2.2 of the panel report provides the context for the whole of the strategy. It states:

“The RSS is founded on projections over a 20 year period… it is necessary to make estimates of economic and population change so that the best way of managing consequential development can be found.”

That is flowery language for predict and provide—the very policy that the Government said that they rejected 10 years ago. The Government have policies to try and restrain increases in traffic growth, but notwithstanding those policies traffic has increased by 13 per cent. in the south-west in the last 10 years. Why can they not have policies to try and constrain the increase in population growth, which is destroying our green and pleasant land?

Next year, England will have a higher population density than the Netherlands, and nearly four times the population density of France. The UK population is forecast to rise to 71 million by 2031; on the Government’s own figures, 69 per cent. of that growth will be as a result of immigration. Net immigration is now 190,000 per year—the highest ever, and unprecedented in our nation’s history. When the Government estimated the net immigration figure at only 145,000, a couple of years ago, they put the proportion of household formation caused by that immigration at 33 per cent., meaning a need for 200 houses every day just to accommodate immigrants. Those figures are now significantly higher and still rising, with the figure of 190,000.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are still more homes than households in this country, although the closeness between those figures is adding pressure on housing, and that the key issue for the south-west is not immigration, but migration from other parts of the country, which is putting excessive pressure on areas such as my constituency?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman to an extent. A large number of people are coming into Christchurch because they are being displaced from other parts of the country where the quality of life is declining, largely as a result of the uncontrolled immigration.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the consequence of migration down to the south-west is affecting the quality of life there? Owing to the pressure to build houses without investment in infrastructure, we are building, in certain areas, the slums of the future, which will cause even more problems for whatever Government is in power.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that point was made very well by Ed Perkins, the editor of the Bournemouth Echo, in an editorial earlier this month, when he argued that the discussion about the regional spatial strategy is one about the quality of life of our area for generations to come. If the high densities required by this strategy and the building on green belts is carried through, I am sure that my hon. Friend’s concerns will be proved right.

The very area to which the South West regional assembly spatial strategy pointed for building extra houses in Bournemouth was in fact completely under water last weekend.

That, I think, is a subject for another day. I cannot get into flooding and building on flood plains in this constrained debate.

Where does such mass migration—uncontrolled immigration—to the United Kingdom leave the west country? The Government tell us that we must sacrifice our own green belt, destroy our urban and suburban townscapes with high-density development built on back gardens, and spoil the very features of the west country that make it so attractive to tourists and retirees. West country traffic is up by 13 per cent. in 10 years, but we have not increased road space by 13 per cent.—or even by 1 per cent. Surely, the EIP should have examined household formation and unprecedented immigration, and developed around them a strategic policy that was not based on predict and provide.

My hon. Friend makes an eloquent case. I shall add to the evidence that he cites by explaining the situation in my constituency, where precisely the point that he has just made applies, too. There is appalling traffic congestion on junction 21 of the M5, and a variety of related problems with local infrastructure and services because of the failure to plan for a sustainable community rather than for a dormitory. Instead, the focus has been on predict-and-provide housing provision, with which local services have not kept up.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I hope to turn to infrastructure, because the panel’s report about infrastructure is one of the most critical issues in the whole matter.

I shall turn to another representation that I made to the panel. On policy reference SR29, I said:

“An urban extension can only be acceptable to local people if it does not encroach on greenbelt and is an alternative in whole or part to increasing densities unreasonably in the urban area.”

I suggested that in the relevant paragraph on development in south-east Dorset, all the words after “urban renewal” be deleted and the following words be added:

“Any urban extension must not encroach on greenbelt and can be chosen by the local planning authority as an alternative to increasing urban densities.”

A regional strategy should be a regional strategy; it should not involve the Government or unelected regional bodies imposing on small communities requirements about how they should manage their own affairs.

My hon. Friend touches on a signal point. Does he agree that there is all the difference in the world between targets that descend on smaller communities, forcing them either to fight against them or to accept the unwanted, and what might have been, which is an effort to encourage people locally in small communities to accept more housing in sensitive ways that relate to the community and fit its culture and life?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was the policy and philosophy that the previous Conservative Government tried to promote. I can remember when I was a Minister in the Department of the Environment, and the issue of Foxley wood came up, when the then Secretary of State and his officials tried to second-guess the wishes of people living in Hampshire and impose a new settlement there. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) will remember that an effigy of Nicholas Ridley was burned at Foxley wood, and it led to a complete change in policy. He said that policy should be bottom-up, with local people being able to decide what was best for their own communities and their own future.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in place of burning effigies of the Secretary of State, or of the Minister for Housing, we could have small statues to her if the plan were to do what it will signally fail to do, which is to encourage, for example, community land trusts? In my constituency, the villagers of Buckland Newton have clubbed together to support extra housing for local young people, precisely because those villagers are able to control it through the community land trust and its shared equity arrangements.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right again. Other areas are trying to emulate the achievements regarding community land trusts in his constituency. They have struck a chord with local people, and they are an example of truly sustainable development.

I shall provide my own example of the way in which a small community is being imposed upon by the panel’s report and the strategy. There are 1,350 households in the parish of West Parley, and the parish and its residents association conducted a survey of all residents. They did not go door to door trying to get them to answer yes or no, they sent them survey forms and invited residents to return them. Some 65 per cent. of households did so, representing 1,755 people on the electoral register, and 97.78 per cent. of those residents said that they wanted to preserve their green belt in West Parley. They were also concerned about the lack of infrastructure, and about other issues relating to the proposal to build over the green belt there.

The EIP heard evidence from West Parley, but there is no reference to it in the report, save to say that the opposition to the development on the green belt arose because of a change of political control. That is, however, a completely wrong assertion. It was not a change of political control that caused people to become so angry about the removal of the green belt in that area. It was, however, material that if the local councillors did not go along with the wishes of the people, they certainly would have lost political control, and quite right, too, because surely that is what local democracy should be all about. Instead, the panel has chosen to re-impose through that process a requirement that West Parley should have its green belt taken away to provide 900 high-density houses right on the edge of the River Stour. West Parley parish council is seething, as indeed is East Dorset district council, which realises that the decision is completely at odds with local people’s wishes. The recommendations are totally undemocratic, and they fly in the face of localism. Almost everybody recognises that we need more houses in East Dorset, but surely locally elected representatives should be able to decide on their location.

The next point that I sought to raise with the panel, by giving written evidence, related to policy reference SR29. I said:

“The strategy presents the opportunity to incorporate a clear policy of rejecting garden land as being ‘brown’ and encouraging the retention of gardens in urban areas to help ‘play’; to protect amenity and encourage wildlife.”

That point has not been followed through in the spatial strategy. There is a desire to increase the densities in urban and suburban areas to as much as 50 habitable houses per hectare, which will be absolutely oppressive in the current East Dorset environment. It will mean that almost every tree has to be removed from any given site, that there will be no local recreational facilities for the people who are forced to live in those high-density dwellings, and that they will be forced to travel to other recreational hot spots at a time when Natural England says that it wants to reduce the amount of people using heathland in order to protect that valuable habitat.

My next representation, again on policy reference SR29, stated:

“The density of development should be compatible with the existing character of the area and within the discretion of the local planning authority.”

I sought to delete any expressions relating to “maximum densities”, but the Government still require an urban extension to be accompanied by a maximum density. That is an enormous threat to the future well-being of our countryside.

I then wrote:

“The ‘key infrastructure’ required is already known and usefully listed in paragraph 4.3.14. It should therefore be a formal policy recommendation”

that that key infrastructure be put in place before the development proposed can be implemented. I am horrified to say that not only was my recommendation rejected by the panel, but that it removed all reference to key infrastructure requirements on the basis that it did not know what that key infrastructure was. That is an absurd situation. I hope that, when the Minister examines the panel report, she will also examine a further recommendation that I made to the panel: that any development should depend on the required infrastructure being in place before it starts. A problem in our planning system in the past 10 or 15 years has been that developers, and sometimes public authorities, have promised to put in infrastructure after the event, but the developments have taken place and the infrastructure has never been put in place. The result has been the pressures that we see every day: increased congestion and pressure on sewerage, waste facilities and water. That is all because the Government refuse to recognise that there must be a link between infrastructure and development.

My hon. Friend touches on the crucial matter in the debate—the fact that infrastructure is so inadequate. We share the Wessex way, which is almost at gridlock, and Castle lane is completely inadequate. We also have an airport served by a country bumpkin road. That is not the backdrop to which 48,000 houses should be built.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that it is suggested that there should be development on the green belt in north Bournemouth, in the northern part of his constituency. To enable access to that land, an enormous amount needs to be spent on infrastructure improvement, but there is no way in which that money can ever be afforded. The proposal in the original report that there should be a proper infrastructure link between the A338 and the airport, to enable new employment, has been rejected in the panel report.

Probably the only good thing in the whole panel report is the suggestion that the A31 should be made a dual carriageway towards the west. The panel regards that road as an “urban road”, although it is currently a single carriageway through heathland. That is how it justifies the requirement that it should be a dual carriageway. There is not yet any suggestion as to whether the Highways Agency is in favour of that, and if so, how it will be afforded, but it is about the only crumb of comfort that I could find in the whole 500-plus-page report.

The report mentions the number of houses to be built. I was in the position that you are in today, Mr. Olner, chairing a debate here on the north-east regional strategy last June. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who is now the Deputy Leader of the House, complained that the north-east was not being allowed to build enough houses. The north-east regional spatial strategy stated that there should be a net increase of 6,500 new properties a year, compared with the requirement of 28,500 in the south-west. She said that only 19,000 were proposed in Durham for the whole 15-year planning period, which compares with 48,000 in Dorset. She said that she knew of Members of the House who had complained about lack of infrastructure, congestion and declining quality of life because of development in the south, and that she wanted more of that in the north. If the Government were to say, “Our strategy is to spread the demand for housing and the provision of housing across the country,” we would be talking the same language. That would truly be a strategy led by the Government. Instead, we have the fall-back position of the predict and provide policy.

Serious matters were raised in the report, and the result of the loss of green belt in Christchurch and particularly East Dorset will be dramatic. East Dorset district council has described the panel’s proposals as

“the nightmare scenario…The proposal for 1,000 additional dwellings, apparently intended to be an urban extension, puts the whole inner boundary of the Green Belt, established through local plans and local plan inquiries, into question and review.”

In other words, every part of East Dorset that is not already developed will be a prime target for developers, and the district council is being deprived of the means of controlling the destiny of its area. I hope that the Minister will examine carefully the proposal to increase housing provision in East Dorset by 1,000 properties, with the implications spelled out succinctly by the council.

The report states:

“Regional stakeholders will work with the Highways Agency to manage demand in a way that minimises congestion on the trunk road network while meeting the requirements for development.”

That is a pretty meaningless statement. How will that ever be delivered? When I was the Roads Minister, the policy was to transfer as much traffic as possible on to the strategic trunk road network, rather than the reverse. Now it seems that we are not going to be doing that. There is a reference in the panel report to restricting the use of the motorway around the Bristol conurbation. What implications does that have for the alternative route into the west country, the A303? It should go via Stonehenge, but the Government have abandoned that project and the panel report states that we should have a gentle approach to developing a second thoroughfare into the west country. The matter has not been thought through, and even the Highways Agency’s proposals for investment to ensure that we have reduced congestion in the west country seem to have been rejected.

I hope that this will be the first of many debates on the subject. The Leader of the House ducked the second part of my question last Thursday about further opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that the Minister will assure us of her willingness to receive deputations from our constituencies on the subject matter of this important report. I do not wish to give an autobiography, but I can remember, when I was a Planning Minister, receiving deputations from Members of Parliament who had concerns about proposed changes to county structure plans. Those plans were much closer to the people than these regional monstrosities that we have now, and the public examination of them was much more thorough, albeit long-winded, than that of the regional spatial strategy. In those days, Ministers recognised that the most important stakeholders in local communities were the Members of Parliament elected by them.

We must balance the interests of a parish threatened with losing some of its green belt, people saying that they want more affordable housing for young people and firms that say that they need to expand and want larger areas in which to do so. We must bring a balanced and rational approach to that, which is why it is unforgivable that until now we, the MPs representing the west country, have been excluded from the process.

Order. I have the names of only two Members who wish to participate in the debate, and I intend to call them first. I intend also that the Liberal Democrat spokesman will start the winding-up speeches at 11.55 am. I am delighted to see so many Back Benchers here to participate in the debate, but it will be down to your discipline as to how many of your colleagues are called.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing this debate. For once, we have a great deal in common, and I shall reiterate some of the important points that he made. I shall be fairly brief because, having had the general introduction, it is appropriate that I refer to specific constituency points.

I begin with a basic point about the report’s lack of democratic accountability. Like many other MPs, I asked to attend the examination in public. In fact, I requested that three times. I tried to get beyond the secretariat to the examination in public, but that person seemed to have all the power at their elbow. I could not get beyond them.

What concerns me particularly is that we frequently have statements from the Government that the green belt is safe, that it is Government policy not to encroach on it, but that of course local authorities might make adjustments. So where does an unelected regional body that is proposing massive changes to the green belt, regardless of what local councils and elected representatives might say, come into the equation?

I notice, for example, that the Government office for the south-west indicated that an approved green belt should be altered only in exceptional circumstances. The examination in public panel concluded that the scale of demand and the application of the principles of sustainable locations provide the exceptional circumstances to justify alterations to the green belt in the region. At what point can locally elected representatives challenge that conclusion?

There is a further conclusion that I find unsatisfactory. The strategic authority suggested that greenfield development in my area needs to be phased in to ensure that it does not prejudice the rate of development within the area, particularly the Poole regeneration area. That is a large brownfield site on which people would support the building of 2,000 dwellings, if they could be secured—it is proving to be difficult—a high proportion of which would be affordable housing. Development on that old power station site is supported by all. Surely that should be attended to before this development comes forth, but the panel’s view was that no evidence had been provided to demonstrate that there was a need for phasing.

Without phasing, how will our existing infrastructure cope? Any Members who have visited Dorset or attempted to travel through it will be aware that it is beautiful but that there is not even a tiny bit of motorway within it, that it has incredibly poor public transport and that it is difficult to travel westward in general. The county lacks infrastructure, yet the thrust of the report is build, build, build, everything will follow. I do not have confidence in that strategy.

I would like to mention the situation in east Dorset, to which the hon. Member for Christchurch also referred. Corfe Mullen is a large village in my constituency. It was proposed that the authorities working together should undertake a large development in the green belt. An interest group was formed, and it produced a massive petition. The parish council did not just go along with the interest group; as in West Parley, it did a detailed house-to-house survey on the right balance between building and tackling the serious local problem of the lack of affordable local accommodation for our young people. As soon as the results were in—the survey was very well done—they were presented to East Dorset district council. There was hard evidence from local people, and it is absolute nonsense, as the report suggests, to say that East Dorset had a change of political control. That is just one example of the many flaws in the report, and a very obvious one.

I want to refer particularly to the western extension, which is a location around a village called Lytchett Minster. It is true that, originally, the concept of a new town was explored. Natural England objected to that, and, for all sorts of reasons, the whole thing was thrown out. The south-east Dorset joint study area group commissioned a study to consider a reduced scale of development from a transport perspective. The study concluded that substantial highway infrastructure costs would be associated with the development. As a consequence, in evidence to the examination in public, Dorset county council, Purbeck district council, and Lytchett Minster and Upton town council all objected to any development in the area. Lytchett Matravers parish council would have been included, if it had been invited. There was no local support for any development in that green belt and flood plain area.

However, evidence was submitted on behalf of the developer. It is interesting that such evidence could be submitted, whereas I as an MP was told that my viewpoint would not be strategic enough. The person who appeared on behalf of the developer challenged the finding of the study commissioned by our local authorities and said that a development of that scale could be accommodated without the need for additional lanes on the A35. In due course, the examination in public supported an extra 2,750 dwellings.

At the start, Purbeck was asked to provide 2,100 extra dwellings. That has gone up to 5,150, which is an increase of 3,050 and half the increase for the whole of the Bournemouth-Poole conurbation. That is absolutely phenomenal. Purbeck has a wonderful world heritage coastline, it is in an area of outstanding beauty and it has an enormous proportion of heathland. Highly concentrated housing would be quite alien to the nature of the place.

I understand how the statistics might look from the outside. Purbeck has one of the highest ratios of house prices to earnings. Well, perhaps one should just build houses to bring house prices down. That may be the view from outside, but if one also considers the proportion of second homes, one begins to realise that building more and more houses and trying to build a way out of the situation is not the way to tackle the problem.

What is needed is a proper approach to providing affordable housing for local young people. It will involve working with local councils and communities. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) gave some examples of how we should tackle the problem at local level. We need to protect the quality of life.

At present, my constituency has a rich diversity of rural and urban areas. It is fascinating to see how the two sectors come together. They are dependent on one another, and it is a delight to live in the area. The proposals will turn it into one large urban sprawl, apart from the land on which Natural England would object to any development whatsoever.

I am struck by the similarities between the opposition in Dorset and the opposition to urban extension around Cheltenham, where all elected and community representatives opposed the extension and only planners and developers supported it. Does my hon. Friend agree that a possible explanation for the way in which extensions are happening is that they are simply more profitable for developers than urban regeneration, development in counties such as Cornwall that need and want more housing, or smaller developments around villages with shops and schools that are dying for lack of smaller-scale development?

I agree entirely, and think that we should return to that issue.

Finally, if the Government really believe in localism, let us have a local response.

I shall be brief as at least two more hon. Members wish to speak. I hope that I can secure a separate debate to discuss the impact on Gloucestershire of the regional spatial strategy, because I have many detailed points that are not appropriate now that I should like to make in another debate while the Minister considers the report.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing a debate on this important subject. He tackled the issue as I would have hoped to myself, covering the nonsense of the Government’s policy of being elected on the ending of the predict and provide approach to housing. We all applauded that at the time, because it was a necessary policy. I am sorry that it has been ditched. He could have gone on to say that when the regional government concept was rejected in the north-east, it would have been sensible to reject it throughout the country. Instead, we have regional government by stealth, and there is no worse example than this issue to show what an inappropriate way that is of carrying on government. When things are done regionally, there is no feel for the position locally, so inappropriate recommendations are inevitably made—no more so than in Gloucestershire.

I take us back to last July. My hon. Friend said that he would not discuss flooding, but with your permission, Mr. Olner, I shall. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) was kind enough to visit Tewkesbury at that time, when he saw some of the devastation that the floods caused. Indeed, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and several other Ministers from DEFRA and the Department for Communities and Local Government have been kind and generous with their time in the past six months. They have visited the area several times and are giving some money. We could do with a lot more, but does not everyone say that?

All that time, energy and interest will be wasted if we ignore the central problem in my area, which includes not only Tewkesbury but a wider part of Gloucestershire. We understand that we live in a flood risk area—two rivers converge at Tewkesbury, so there are bound to be problems—but there are still hundreds of people living in caravans in my constituency. It is six months since the main event, and those people are months away from being settled back into their homes. The question that bothers them more than anything else is whether lessons will be learned from the flooding. The DEFRA inquiry is going on and Sir Michael Pitt is carrying out an inquiry—I am meeting him tomorrow morning—and the main thing that my constituents would want me to say is, “For goodness’ sake, we know that we live in a flood risk area, but let’s not make things worse than they need to be.”

It will rain heavily again in the future; indeed, the rain has been quite heavy in the past few weeks. People in other areas of the country have probably suffered a little more than we have this time. We know that it will rain again and that the water table is high in my area. We also know that the building of thousands of houses in the past few years has made the matter worse, but the RSS, which was, unbelievably, submitted to the Minister at a time when we were frightened that flooding would recur in Gloucestershire, proposes thousands more houses in my constituency, some of which will be on fields that have flooded. The RSS is not site-specific, but those of us with local knowledge can guess where the houses are going to go. Some will be close to areas that flood and some will take up green fields that would otherwise soak up water, preventing it from going elsewhere and causing flooding. It is important that the people who frame such documents understand that if houses are built on fields that previously soaked up flood water, there is a question not only of whether those houses will be flooded, although that is obviously important, but whether they will cause other houses in the area to flood. That concept seems to pass conveniently by people who want to find places to put thousands of houses.

I have a home, as does everyone present, I expect. Everyone is entitled to a home, but do we really want to build houses and homes for which the owners are unlikely to get insurance, certainly against flooding, or are likely to have large excesses on their insurance policies if they do get them? It is not unusual nowadays to have a £20,000 excess, which effectively means that those people are not insured against flooding. Should houses be in areas where they might flood or cause other homes to flood, or should we take a more sensible approach, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch suggested in his opening remarks?

Finally, the report starts by stating that its central guiding feature is sustainability. I am not quite sure what that word means, and I am not sure that the report’s authors know what it means. I should like them to give an example of what is not sustainable. Is a house flooding sustainable? Is failing to get insurance sustainable? Is a lack of infrastructure sustainable? The report talks about Ashchurch railway station, which has twice recently had train services cut. It talks about the possible Parkway station and says that it should be built between Cheltenham and Gloucester, but the Government recently turned down funding for it. However, I do not think that they were wrong to do that at this point, as there needs to be an awful lot more thought on it. We do not have the necessary infrastructure or land that is safe from flooding, so will the Minister give us her idea of what is sustainable? The proposals in the RSS to build in large parts of Gloucestershire certainly would not be sustainable on any understanding that I have of the word.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing the debate. I asked for one on exactly the same topic last week, so I was delighted when it came up. I shall, inevitably, raise a few local points, but some of the issues I raise will be of general interest, and I hope that the Minister will respond to a few of my points about procedure and going forward to the next stages of the process.

My constituency falls under South Gloucestershire unitary authority. The original RSS proposed an extra 23,000 houses over a 20-year period, and the panel came back with 30,800—an increase of one third. That takes South Gloucestershire to a very unwelcome second place in the rather dubious league table of all the unitary authorities and district councils. We are second only to Swindon. Our area has already had phenomenal growth in housing numbers with very little infrastructure to go with it. We are worried that the growth is simply unsustainable.

I shall try to give people a feel for what 30,000 houses will look like. Just as newspapers enjoy talking about a country the size of Wales, we have a local unit called a Bradley Stoke. Bradley Stoke is a large new town in our area, and a Bradley Stoke unit is about 7,500 houses. To give my constituents a feel for what is planned, it is four Bradley Stokes, or an extra Bradley Stoke, compared with the last plan. We are worried that we cannot cope with development on that scale. I do not dispute that we need more houses, including affordable houses—indeed, I have twice led debates in this Chamber on affordable housing in South Gloucestershire. This is not nimbyism. It is not about saying no to development but about saying that we need sustainable, manageable development and more affordable housing for local people.

The biggest change affecting my constituency is the extra 5,000 houses north of Yate. Yate town council made representations to the panel, but was not allowed to make oral representations. Even the developers asked for only 2,000 houses north of Yate, but the panel said, almost out of the blue, “No, we think there should be 5,000.” It is a regional strategy, not a site-specific local proposal. If the proposal in the original plan had been for 5,000 houses, there would have been a huge response locally, but now it appears to be too late for that. I hope that the Minister will clarify, first of all, what happens inside the Department between now and the Secretary of State giving her response? In other words, is now the best time for the people of Yate to feed in what they think, or should they wait for the Secretary of State to give her response and comment in the consultation period? Clearly, the sooner we feed comments in, the better. The people of Yate want to reopen the process of giving evidence to the panel, because they were denied the opportunity to do that. They had no idea that this was coming and it was a complete bolt from the blue.

What are the problems? First, transport infrastructure is a problem. The situation is laughable. The document, at paragraph 4.1.61, says of Yate that

“The settlement is also well linked to other parts of the conurbation by public transport.”

We have a rather poor and expensive bus service, and a train service that is so poor and unreliable that people drive from Yate to the north fringe of Bristol, so the idea that that is the basis for 5,000 more homes seems absolutely incredible.

What about health care for these people? The local hospital is actually being closed, on the basis of population projections that are out of date. What will happen there?

What about drainage? Downstream from Yate, we are already getting substantial flooding. Where is the evidence that this number, which really feels as if it has been plucked from the air, will not make things worse? The document says:

“A Strategic Sustainability Assessment was submitted as a supporting document. This document was submitted in relation to a proposal for 2,000 dwellings…but in our view there is considerably more scope for development and we propose a total of 5,000 dwellings.”

That is it. Where does that number of 5,000 come from? It has just been plucked from the air and thrust upon us. What I fear is that, when we come to planning applications two or three years down the track and the people of Yate say, “We don’t want this,” I will have to say, “It’s too late. The die is cast. Some panel you have never heard of in some hearing that you were not allowed to go to has decided, and that is it.” Where is the local accountability in that?

The key question is this: why is what is supposed to be a strategic regional assessment giving these very detailed local proposals and how do local people now have their say?

It is a pleasure to contribute briefly to this debate. It is an important debate for the south-west, particularly for Dorset, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing it.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and east Dorset is now one of the largest conurbations—perhaps it is the largest—in the south-west, challenging the Bristol and Bath area. For some reason, Bournemouth has been selected as one of 21 key towns and cities across the country for development. Can the Minister explain why Bournemouth has been targeted and why its citizens did not get an opportunity to have a say on whether they wanted to be on that list of 21 key strategic towns and cities?

We have heard that there will be an increase of 48,000 houses or dwellings in east Dorset. We should place on the record that Dorset has already contributed hugely to an increase in housing. We have already done a massive amount and it is important to continue that point about the not-in-my-backyard consideration. Of course, we need houses, but the massive contribution that Bournemouth has already made means that we are all the more astonished by these increases in the targets.

I touched on floodplains. The report specifies north Bournemouth. As I said, I stood in those fields last weekend and they were under water; I had to wear my large wellies to make the point. Now we are seeing these pictures on television—in fact, we see them today—of other areas of Britain where building on floodplains has caused serious problems. I would hate to be here in three or four years’ time saying, “I told you so. This is exactly the reason why we should not be building.” I also found it ironic that an organisation based in Exeter can pinpoint so specifically where the housing developments should be in Bournemouth.

Infrastructure has been mentioned. I am astonished to read that the report is saying that the Hurn road links to an international airport, but there is no extra funding or supported funding for that road. Any development of what I would call a country bumpkin road would have to come from local funds, but there simply is not the money available locally for that. If we were to do any decent development, that is exactly the first infrastructure that we would like improved, along with the continuation of the Wessex way and indeed Castle lane, which is close to gridlock.

We are challenging the quality of life and having a social impact on Bournemouth, Christchurch and east Dorset. It will only get worse if we build on this level of density. Bournemouth is already committing more than 640 dwellings every single year. We have now been told to up that number by another 200. That is an astonishing number, when we have also heard that the north-east of England actually wants more dwellings. It does seem to be a disparity in the logic of a unified strategy for the housing requirement for the country as a whole.

I ask for a meeting with the Minister. I would be grateful for the opportunity to talk with her about the challenges that Bournemouth specifically faces. Because it is such a small unitary authority, we are simply running out of space where we can build the new dwellings that are required of us, so I plead for a few minutes of her time to put the grave concerns that the people of Bournemouth, Christchurch and east Dorset have. That is the key issue beyond any other. As I have said, the character of Bournemouth is being challenged and I would be grateful for her assistance in ensuring that it is not completely wrecked.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on giving us all the opportunity to raise this issue. He could have spoken on a much more narrowly drawn title—just on his constituency—because clearly there are specific concerns there. However, the number of people in the Chamber demonstrates the strength of feeling about this issue, although I am surprised that no Members from the Minister’s side feel strongly on it.

It is important to remember—it is a recurring theme—that what we are talking about is the housing strategy in the south-west region for the next 20 to 25 years and that this is a decision that is being taken by the regional assembly, which is about to be dissolved. We are at the stage where the draft has gone out, there has been an examination in public and we are now expecting a further consultation before the document is finally signed off.

Does my hon. Friend take into account that the people of south-east Cornwall want to have nothing whatsoever to do with any regional strategy that involves the area with Plymouth? They find it offensive that the report says:

“From what we heard at the EiP”—

the examination in public—

“we are of the view that both Torpoint and Saltash are part of the wider urban area.”

They are not, they never have been and they never will be.

As my hon. Friend makes clear, people feel that large numbers of communities are being lumped together and treated the same, whether or not they are being lumped together as part of a wider urban area. The people of north Cornwall feel pretty much the same and object to being lumped in with north Devon. They feel that their towns have specific identities and different needs and that they should be allowed to be treated differently, if that is what they wish, or have some kind of say over their own future.

The hon. Gentleman adds to the list.

A series of problems need to be identified and underlined. It is clear is that growth is not necessarily going where people want it and it seems to be entirely centrally dictated; it is a region, not a local area, making a decision about where growth points should be. Again, I am just thinking of an area, Truro and Falmouth, in my own constituency. There is a golden triangle that is relatively urban and it has been identified as a growth point. Within that same area, there are villages that are crying out for more affordable housing but there will be no opportunity for that housing because everything is being focused and it is easier to lump together 7,000 houses in one place than to allow communities to say, “We would like to be able to begin a negotiation process to enable us to have the housing that we need.”

Another concern that I have is about how effective the liaison will be with the Department for Transport, because the examples that I have seen raise significant concerns. In my constituency, there are plans for a significant number of houses in the Camborne, Pool and Redruth area, which I support. However, the regeneration company itself has said that it is necessary to improve a road link, or build a new one, to support that development. The Department for Communities and Local Government do not have a problem with that, but the Department for Transport’s approved model only considers congestion, journey time and safety, not jobs, employment and housing, which is the remit that the regeneration company has been asked to consider. On that basis, the Department for Transport has turned down that improved road link. Basically, the Department for Transport is saying that the building can go ahead, but people will have to wait until they see the congestion before the issue can be resolved. I worry that there is not sufficient co-operation between the different Departments and that that will be a wider theme emerging from this document, if that situation is not improved.

I also wonder whether the demographic issues have really been taken into account. Unlike the constituency of the hon. Member for Christchurch, Cornwall relies on migrant workers to sustain our economy. I do not see that as the driving force, but the fact that many people move to Cornwall to retire, and are not economically active, is an issue. I am not convinced that such specific considerations are taken into account in this document.

Another concern is the capacity of the building trade. I am not sure that there is sufficient capacity at a sub-regional level. Although representations are made from very large developers, development in many regional areas might be on a smaller scale. In my experience, there have been times when local developers have lacked the capacity to build on the scales that are required. While I welcome the development of more houses, I worry about the capacity to deliver on the scale that this document outlines.

I, too, want to talk about the scale of the proposed developments and whether we will see huge homogeneous blocks of new development attached to towns such as Taunton, rather than a more bottom-up approach with development across a number of communities. I accept that we need more social housing in my area. We also need more housing for people who are trying to get on the property ladder. However, if we build on the scale envisaged in the regional spatial strategy, I fear that the character of towns such as Taunton will be severely diminished.

People are justified in feeling concerned about the effect on the character of their community. The strategy is driven entirely from the top down rather than from the bottom up.

I have one final concern about the document. In what kind of negotiating position does it leave the local authority? The hon. Member for Tewkesbury said that one does not need to be a specialist to work out what specific sites will be earmarked for development given the numbers specified in the regional spatial strategy. In what negotiating position does that leave the builder, or the people who own the property? They know that the local authority will be absolutely desperate. I am worried that such a measure will drive up prices even further. It is taking away from local areas the ability to negotiate. In St. Agnes, the local authority has successfully negotiated with a landowner over an exception site, which means that it is dramatically increasing the proportion of affordable housing. That kind of local negotiation will be lost if this strategy details the areas earmarked for development.

The fundamental question concerns the legitimacy of this decision. The decision has been led by the regional assembly, which is not directly elected and is to be abolished. The assembly is setting planning policy for decades and then disappearing. The nearest public examination of the decision took place in Exeter, 100 miles from my constituency and considerably further for those living further west.

My concern is that the matter reflects my experiences with other regional organisations. When the south-west regional strategic health authority was set up, we spoke to a delegation of MPs about some of the promises that had been made by the Devon and Cornwall SHA. They said, “We cannot be accountable for any decisions made by predecessor organisations. Sorry about that. Our job is to deliver national policy in the regions and not to take representations back up the line.” My concern is that that is exactly what we are seeing here.

There is another fundamental question: where is the scrutiny process? How many real people are engaged in it? We have heard of specific examples that were ignored. Even if one takes on board the 14,000 representations, that is only a fraction of the regional population. There is a really big difference between consultation and participation, and I feel that this is consultation rather than participation. One just has to see the number of acronyms in the document to know that it is double Dutch to anyone not well versed in such issues. What will the parliamentary scrutiny process be? Today’s debate is led by Back-Bench demand and not in Government time. The regional Minister is not here. Parliamentary answers show that all he plans to do is make representations to the Secretary of State. When the regional assembly was abolished, we were told that we would have an opportunity to make such representations through regional Select Committees. Those are being abolished. Yet, interestingly, in the Planning Bill, the issue of regional accountability is being raised. The Minister for Local Government wants to see a super-Committee established so that cross-cutting Committees can scrutinise these national policy statements. Why is there no counter-balance to that in the regional strategy process? Surely we should be considering processes that are led by local demand. That would place local authorities in a much stronger position to negotiate with land owners. Surely there must be proper liaison with other Departments. There is no explicit demonstration that these communities will be sustainable—economically, socially or environmentally. We need to support existing rural communities rather than picking out urban conurbations and saying, “Let’s make them bigger.” That is the easier thing to do when one is looking at a map of the south-west zone.

Finally, if the Government continue to insist on parallel scrutiny at parliamentary level, it smacks of something that has not been properly thought through. From the point of view of my constituents, this whole process is more likely to alienate than engage them.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). This is the first time that we have spoken together in a debate. I congratulate her on her new appointment. I thought that her speech was passionate and impressive. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing this debate. I have seen him in various ministerial guises and have always found him immensely courteous and keen to listen to what local people have to say. He never needed a stakeholder or a panel of experts to tell him what to do. He had a great deal of common sense and listened to what local people wanted. We could do with more people like him in Government.

I feel enormous sympathy for the Minister for Housing who has sat there in splendid isolation. She has had a Parliamentary Private Secretary for company—he no doubt wishes that he had something better to do with his time—but no regional Minister. I am not entirely sure what the Minister for the South West does. [Hon. Members: “Not a lot.”] That is not entirely fair. This grand panjandrum clearly has a role. He appears to be a highly decorated postman. If one sends a letter to him, he passes it on to someone else. If one expresses a view, he asks someone else for the answer. When the hon. Gentleman comes to write his extensive memoirs, his time as Regional Minister for the South West will not make more than a footnote. I hope, however, that he will pay some attention to the region.

I turn to the independent panel’s reluctance to listen to elected politicians. That is entirely understandable because those folks are entirely unrepresentative. They are not elected by anyone, and, therefore by the nature of things, will find elected politicians intimidating. To see an elected politician would symbolise to those good folks exactly how much democratic legitimacy they lack.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch talked about the simplistic approach of predict and provide and said that it had been replaced by an even more simplistic policy. We have some indication of that in the fact that the Government seem hellbent on increasing housing targets. “Let us build 23,000 homes,” they say; “No, let us make it 28,000. Let us build 38,000. No, let us go even higher.” One can almost imagine the brickies standing by their hobs: “Comrades, let us put up some more. Off we go.” Actually, they probably would not say “Comrades” but “Tovarishchi” because they almost certainly will be Polish plumbers and brickies. Let us meet this Government’s target. We know what their response has been. Last week, we heard that there has been a 5 per cent. drop in new house buildings. Another projection for this year is that it is going to drop even further. The Minister, with the help of her Parliamentary Private Secretary, might as well take her chair outside, stand it on the piece of land on the other side of Black Rod’s garden and command the Thames not to rise, because although she may increase the figures, nothing will happen unless people are prepared to build houses. There is complete detachment from the reality on the ground.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) spoke about the country bumpkin lane that is close to his local airport. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne spoke about the lack of infrastructure. We have representatives from a more local level who are very close to the people. The Launceston mayor, Mr. Eric Chapman, says that schools are absolutely bursting and it is difficult now to get an appointment with a health centre. He says that we would welcome houses provided that the infrastructure is provided at the same time, but unfortunately that is never the case.

Will the hon. Gentleman touch on my constituents’ concerns about larger-scale infrastructure, including proposals to step back from the original commitment to dual the A303 and the A358 between the Ilminster bypass and the M5, which is important for commerce and other travel in the south-west?

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable and local point. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East was making was that unless the infrastructure—the schools, hospitals and roads—is there, buying a house in the south-west will be a form of internal exile, because once people are there, they will not be able to leave, certainly not in a timely fashion. Surely the point is this. It is not that local people are nimbies, but they want to get something out of new development. They want to see something on the human scale. They want to ensure that children can be educated—that development will not mean increased class sizes. They want to feel sure that dentistry services and hospitals will be there, that jobs will be there and that places are not being provided for people merely to sleep and commute elsewhere or for people who are looking towards second homes.

The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) about community land trusts was important. Let us consider the conurbations in the south-west. Clearly, there is a world of difference between Swindon and some of the villages in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. Things such as community land trusts offer a possibility of providing exactly what that area wants, which is reasonable, low-cost housing that will not act artificially to put up the price of houses but will be there for local people. If ever an area cried out for that, surely it is the one we are discussing. My hon. Friend also made a very reasonable point about the disappearance of back gardens. This weekend, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds will do its annual count, and back gardens and the habitat that they represent are an increasingly important part of our ecosystem.

During the period of summer when the flooding occurred, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) showed enormous local leadership and was extremely persuasive in the House about the plight of the people affected. I remember visiting his constituency. I particularly remember looking at the plight of local businesses that had been flooded not once but twice and three times and were finding it increasingly difficult to get insurance. I am not entirely sure that the most significant part of people’s income should be—I was about to say “floated” but then I realised that that would be an appalling thing to say—put into a house where there is the risk, within the normal lifespan of a building, of it being flooded two or three times, with a catastrophic effect. As my hon. Friend knows, six months or nine months is nothing when it comes to drying a house out. A degree of sense is needed.

I think that it is timely that I conclude now, because a number of very important points have been made on which I think that hon. Members will want to intervene on the Minister. Given that there is nobody on the Labour Benches to defend the right hon. Lady, I think that she should speak for herself.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who made an uncharacteristically short speech today. I hope that that does not suggest that he and his party do not have much to say on housing issues from their Front Bench, although I fear that that may be the case.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing this debate on the regional spatial strategy. I have listened carefully to the points that he and other hon. Members have made. I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) to her post. This is the first opportunity that she and I have had to debate together. I congratulate her on being, I think, the only hon. Member today speaking for a south-west constituency who took the opportunity to welcome and support considerable house building development in her constituency. With respect, I point out to all the hon. Members who protested with some earnestness that they were not nimbys, that they then took the opportunity to expound in great detail their opposition to increased housing in their constituencies.

As the Minister knows, because I have said this to her in Select Committee and in the House more generally, I have supported more than 8,000 new houses in the Cheltenham urban area, as is reflected in the regional spatial strategy. What we object to is the continued imposition of even greater numbers spilling over into valued green spaces without appropriate consultation and with no democratic accountability.

Yes, we are nimbys in South-East Cornwall. Plymouth is already in our backyard; we do not want it to take over our house.

I am grateful to the Minister for this novel format. May I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood)? I acknowledged earlier that we badly need extra social housing and extra properties for people who are trying to get on the housing ladder. People come to talk to me about those issues all the time. Those houses are being built and my community by and large welcomes them, but we do not want something that is totally inhuman in scale, swamps Taunton and completely changes the character of the town while at the same time putting unreasonable pressure on amenities and services such as schools and hospitals.

I welcome the slight shift in emphasis by at least two hon. Members who started talking about the need for more housing. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne)—I was already planning to do this—for being, I think, the first hon. Member in this debate to talk about the needs of first-time buyers. He recognised that much of what we need to do across the country is to recognise not simply the need for more social housing and more shared-ownership housing, but the needs of first-time buyers trying to get on the housing ladder.

Let me deal with some of the points about the regional spatial strategy. The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) asked in particular about the process of the strategy. The purpose of the strategy is to set out the broad development strategy for a 20-year period. It considers how much housing is needed, general location, priorities for new infrastructure and economic development, environmental protection and the policy for reducing carbon emissions.

The starting point is with local councils, which need to work through the regional assembly to put together initial proposals, which then are drawn together by the regional assembly. Such proposals were submitted in draft to the Government on 24 April 2006. We have had the 12-week public consultation, which provided opportunities to put comments to an independent panel. The independent panel then held an examination in public between April and July 2007 to discuss and test the draft regional spatial strategy, and to take a range of evidence before considering its report. It submitted its report to the Government on 10 December 2007; it was published for information on 10 January 2008, and it contains recommendations to the Secretary of State on all aspects of the draft strategy.

In the present phase, the Secretary of State is to consider the panel’s report, but no decisions have yet been taken on it. Because of the nature of the process, it is not appropriate for me to comment on the detail of the regional spatial strategy, nor indeed to respond to particular points raised by hon. Members about their constituencies—Gloucester, Christchurch, Tewkesbury or South-East Cornwall and others in the area. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the content of the regional spatial strategy overall, or proposals from individual areas. Indeed, so seriously do officials take the injunction that I should not comment on it that the first brief that I received from the Department on the subject contained no information about the regional spatial strategy for the south-west, so I sought additional briefing notes. However, the process needs to be gone through, because Ministers sometimes take quasi-judicial decisions.

The hon. Member for Northavon asked whether his constituents should be making representations at this stage. During the next stage of the process, the Secretary of State does not take additional representations, but will publish proposed changes to the panel’s report. We expect that to happen in the spring, after which there will be a 12-week public consultation. During that time, those interested in the content of the regional spatial strategy will have the opportunity to make their comments known on the proposed changes.

I shall give way to as many hon. Members as I can. If I may, I shall give way to all three and then respond.

I have been making submissions on the regional spatial strategy—this wretched document—for three years, since before I was first elected as a Member. I have endured days of consultation, and it does not seem to make a blind bit of difference. Despite more or less local unanimity against particular policies, the representations of local community and elected representatives never seem to make a difference to the document. Will there be a process in which we are not only consulted but have the opportunity to make changes?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot comment on particular proposals. Equally, simply because a panel inspector does not agree with him does not mean that the inspector has not considered his views.

We all know that when consultation happens it is much better to influence people before they have decided rather than causing them to lose face by changing their mind. If the Secretary of State is thinking about her response now, why cannot my constituents feed in now in order to shape what she says? Once something is published, we would be sceptical about her ability to change it.

We have a clearly defined and transparent process, in order to make clear what the opportunities are for everyone—not only for MPs or individual constituents, but for everyone who chooses to do so—to make representations at different stages. The first stage is obviously being involved in the Assembly’s discussions, then making representations to the panel, and then making representations once the Secretary of State has published changes, because the Secretary of State first takes advice from the panel that has considered the Assembly’s report. That is how the process works.

Will the Minister clarify whether the Government will be making parliamentary time available to discuss the matter, whether the regional Minister will be making an input, and whether the regional Select Committee structure, or any successor should it not go ahead, has the opportunity to engage in the debate? Our concern is that no scrutiny procedure has been put in place.

The hon. Lady will be aware that Parliament has decided that the planning process should effectively culminate in quasi-judicial rather than parliamentary decisions on plans and planning decisions. That is how the process works.

Some hon. Members spoke of their difficulty in giving evidence to the panel as elected MPs. That is a concern, and I shall consider it further. The process currently means that discretion on who can give oral evidence lies with the chairman of the panel, but we need to consider that further in order to ensure that properly representative views are put forward.

Will the Minister answer the question about the role of the Minister for the South West in this process? Will she confirm that when we come to the next formal consultation period of 12 weeks, it will be not only on the recommended changes to the panel report but on the whole of the panel report as currently published?

The process is first that the Secretary of State will publish proposed changes in the spring. That will give people an opportunity to make their views known overall.

The regional Minister will play an important role in considering those broader areas—where housing should link with transport, where different approaches to health should link with education, and the various things that link together in the region. Related to that, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), asked whether he could meet me on the matter. It would not be appropriate at this stage in the process for me to discuss the regional spatial strategy as it affects his constituency. However, I am happy to discuss the wider issues of housing, infrastructure and the nature of the decisions being taken on his constituency.

There are some flaws in the document. For it to pinpoint an area of Bournemouth that is currently under water does not make sense. I would welcome the opportunity to explain to the Minister that people in Westminster cannot make decisions based on a document that contains such massive errors.

If I may beg your indulgence on another point, Miss Begg, housing numbers have been proposed but with no reference to an increase in infrastructure spending. The latter is crucial. Many areas would not mind extra development if it was matched with an influx of investment in the infrastructure.

As I said, there are obviously issues around the propriety of the process, so it is important that we respect that. I am happy to discuss specific issues of housing with the hon. Gentleman, but we need to respect the wider process. I would be happy to discuss the matter with the hon. Gentleman after the debate.

I wish to make two final points on the question of infrastructure and the wider issues that have been raised. As I said, I cannot comment today on the content of the regional spatial strategy or the overarching housing proposals for the south-west, but I can respond to some of the wider points made about housing that will impact on the rest of the country—for example, the need for more investment in infrastructure.

I strongly agree that we need more investment; indeed, the Department for Communities and Local Government is investing £1.7 billion in housing infrastructure over the next three years, but we believe that more is needed. That is precisely why we are legislating through the Planning Bill for local councils to be able to raise a community infrastructure levy, better to link housing with infrastructure. I hope that hon. Members on all sides will support those proposals, as they are particularly important.

It is important that the Minister answers the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). Will we be able to comment on the entire report during the consultation, or only the changes proposed to it?

The hon. Gentleman will be able to put forward views to the Secretary of State on the proposed changes and the document that she publishes. He will be able to respond to the document set out by the Secretary of State at that time.

Hon. Members on all sides have spoken about the importance of the quality of life. I agree; it is hugely important. However, we also need to consider the quality of life for a 30-year-old who cannot live with his partner and his little baby because they cannot afford to buy a home together—the boomerang kids who are back living with their parents again because they cannot afford a home. We must also consider quality of life for overcrowded families, who also need more housing.

The debate is part of a wider discussion about the country’s future and our need for more housing. We should all take responsibility for the next generation, to ensure that they have the quality of life that we currently enjoy.