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South-East Plan

Volume 481: debated on Wednesday 22 October 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Ian Austin.]

It is a pleasure to be here this morning with you in the Chair, Mr. Amess.

I am acutely conscious that time is short and that a considerable number of my colleagues want to contribute. However, before I begin, I pay tribute to a number of organisations for their work in my constituency: the Guildford Society, residents associations such as the one for east Guildford, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. There has been considerable cross-party support locally to work on the plan.

The debate comes at the end of a consultation, which closes on Friday, on the Government’s proposed alterations to the south-east plan. They need to be clear about the opposition from local people in my constituency. I have commented on the south-east plan in this place on a number of occasions including 18 December 2007 and 22 July this year. It is extremely disappointing that the Government have not paid any attention to or reacted to the points that I raised. I suggest that their record on listening and responding is rather poor.

I draw attention to the report commissioned by the Government from experts at Roger Tym and Partners, who warned of the effects of imposing unsustainable building targets on the south-east. The report stated that the building plans will

“have a negative effect in all sub-regions on the objective to reduce the risk of flooding…A number of trunk roads are likely to be unable to cope with the predicted traffic demand…There is some over-loading on most routes into London and all sub-regions adjoining London would therefore likely be under stress under the higher growth forecasts…Increasing the provision of housing under all our scenarios will result in a regional deficit in water supply, with many areas in severe deficit of water resources”.

The Government appear not to have paid any attention to that.

The publication of the plan was shrouded in secrecy. It was impossible to get an answer from the Minister about when it would be published even 12 hours beforehand. It was not widely available and is not accessible to people without the internet. If it had not been for the co-operation of my local newspaper, the Surrey Advertiser, and local radio station, 96.4 Eagle, I doubt whether anybody in Guildford without the support of the residents association would be aware of the plan’s existence, let alone its importance. Yet it will have a significant and irreversible impact not only on Guildford, but across the south-east.

I will mention the gross figures. The original plan proposed building 578,000 new homes. Despite the serious challenges of achieving that, the Government have returned with an increase of some 85,000, making the total 662,500 new homes. As the regional assembly has already made clear—and I am no fan of regional assemblies—Government proposals threaten to destroy an already delicate balance between housing growth on the one hand and providing decent infrastructure and protecting the environment on the other.

I would like to make it clear that the people of Guildford are not against housing growth. It is very easy to portray us all as nimbys. We have a sophisticated understanding of the need for more housing and the challenges that that brings. However, this plan is not the right way to meet housing need and is fundamentally flawed. It suggests that Guildford can meet London’s housing need without causing very serious and detrimental harm. The south-east plan proposes a smaller increase—but still an increase—in housing numbers for the Waverley part of my constituency. The proposed changes for Guildford will be felt well beyond the town itself.

I hope that the Minister will take close note as I discuss the geography and topography of Guildford. It is very geographically constrained. It is dissected by a floodplain and is surrounded by green belt, protected downland, rural villages, the Surrey hills and the Thames basin heaths. It has constricted roads, forming a pinch-point in the network.

Flood risk is a significant concern because there is an undefended zone 3 floodplain running through the town centre. There is also an extensive natural floodplain to the north-east of Guildford, which takes the flood waters, thus saving the town. That is already densely developed. The proposed changes to the plan will increase the flooding risks by increasing the pressure for development along the river channel on land with a risk level that planning policy statement 25 advises is a flood corridor. The plan also proposes new houses in the natural floodplain between Guildford and Woking, which is a crucial strategic gap.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a most concerning aspect of the proposals for the south-east plan is the removal of the policy of strategic gaps full stop, whether between Guildford and Woking or between Farnham and Aldershot? Does she agree that such strategic gaps are a vital amenity for the people of those towns? They feel that there is a green lung around the edge of the town and that their community is distinct and does not form part of an urban sprawl that goes indiscriminately from one town to the next.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. One cannot understand the impact of those strategic gaps without going to the area and seeing them on the ground. They have been a crucial part of planning policy since the last world war and have served us very well. In line with Government policy in “Making Space for Water”, the Thames catchment flood management plan relies on the natural floodplain to do its job and manage flood risks in Guildford. The south-east plan cuts right across that point.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing an important debate on a matter that will affect the quality of life of all constituents in the south-east. She has made some excellent points.

Is the hon. Lady not heartened by the assurances the Government have given to me, including on the Floor of the House, that the Environment Agency will prevent any further building on the floodplain—certainly in my constituency—and that the Government are against building on the green belt? They have set their mind on to building on brownfield land. There is plenty of that to achieve the housing targets that they have set.

I disagree. I do not think that the Government will get anywhere near those targets by building on brownfield land in Guildford. The Government have contradicted themselves on green belt policy many times. I urge the Minister to listen very closely to this point. The plan says:

“However, in order to meet regional development needs in the most sustainable locations, selective reviews of Green Belt boundaries are required in the following locations: in the Metropolitan Green Belt to the north east of Guildford, and possibly to the south of Woking”.

It does not say “maybe” or “possibly”; it says that reviews of the green belt boundaries are required.

That is in stark contrast to the comments made in the House by the Minister for Housing:

“The Government are not putting green belt at risk. Indeed, when it comes to housing development, we set our face against any such development.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 670.]

I raise again the Prime Minister’s comments of 11 July 2007 when he said that

“we will continue robustly to protect the land designated as green belt.”—[Official Report, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1450.]

The Government cannot have it both ways. The plan says that reviews will be necessary and that green belt land will be built on. Either the plan is wrong or the Prime Minister and the Minister for Housing are not being entirely straightforward.

My constituency is entirely in the metropolitan green belt. It is where the green belt is at its narrowest around London and it has already been driven through, in a sense, with a ribbon of development along the A23. Under this plan, the constituency of Reigate and the borough of Reigate and Banstead are threatened with the largest number of houses, as a direct change imposed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I urge the Minister to look at what he proposes to do to the quality of life of the people that my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and I represent. I am also extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) for the splendid case that she is making on behalf of all of us.

I thank my hon. Friend for those points. The Minister must come back and specifically address the contradiction between what is said in this place and what is said in the plan.

The metropolitan green belt has served us well for 50 years. It has been successful in maintaining the strategic gaps. It has protected the historic and special character of towns such as Guildford, checked urban sprawl, and of course safeguarded our very valuable countryside. It has been a very successful planning policy. However, despite the protestations from the Prime Minister downwards, the Government have put their name to a plan that will rip up our green belt.

Crucially, the Government’s proposed changes weaken the link between development and infrastructure. Infrastructure in Guildford is at breaking point. Business is a considerable contributor to the Treasury’s coffers. However, the great success of the research park in Guildford, for instance, is limited by the paucity of infrastructure development, and taxis will not go to it after 4 pm because it takes so long. Another example is north Guildford, where incremental planning applications have had a huge toll on local road networks.

The patronising comments in the plan are unbelievable. For example, there are aims such as:

“Delivering efficiency through better use of existing infrastructure…Reducing demand by promoting behavioural change…To deliver best value this will firstly require a full understanding of how the use of existing infrastructure can best be optimised.”

Does the Minister honestly believe that the people of Guildford have not already thought about that? It is absolutely absurd to have this development without first having the infrastructure improvements that we desperately need now.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making such important points on behalf of so many of us who are in exactly the same situation as she is. As she knows, an enormous demand for new houses has also been made in my constituency. An extra number of houses has been added on in an area where the infrastructure is simply not capable of bearing them. It is unsustainable and completely unreasonable. It is impossible to imagine how any area could cope with the impact of new housing and retain the quality of life that people have come to expect. She is right to say that this is nothing to do with nimbyism; it is simply that the infrastructure and environment cannot sustain the proposed level of housing.

I support all my hon. Friend’s comments. He knows that I was brought up in Mid-Sussex and there has been immense housing growth in that part of the country. I am sure that each one of us here today would be happy to take the Minister on a short tour of our areas. Give us a day, Minister, and we will show you what the situation is like. The Government’s proposals to slap an increase of 2,000 more homes—and more—in Guildford simply demonstrate how little they know and understand the constraints under which we already operate.

I would like the Minister to take note of a few other issues. Guildford should not be on the list for regional hubs, for major high-density housing and economic growth. Neither its geography nor its infrastructure can cope. The review of the green belt to the south of Woking, which is not in my constituency, puts the distinctive character of both Guildford and Woking under serious threat, as I have already mentioned.

Guildford may be a transport hub, but we certainly are not a regional hub. The town cannot and should not be a centre for significant change. We are an historic town that is struggling already.

Is not one of the problems that my hon. Friend is identifying that the new planning regime has virtually disfranchised the elected county councils and replaced them with unelected regional development agencies? Therefore, should we not be moving towards a planning regime that is much more responsive and sensitive to the needs of local people through elected councillors?

Of course. My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point in saying that local decision making is probably at the heart of the issue. The plan is being imposed on us all and if we had local decisions by local people, we would get better decisions. I believe that the Government are nervous of local people; they think that local people will say “no” to everything. Actually, people are very sensible. They have sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters who need housing, so they understand the need for more housing. However, they want to be in control of where that housing goes, how it goes there and when it goes there, and they need support from the Government. The Government are so reliant on the south-east for their taxes. They must understand the need for the improvements in infrastructure that I have mentioned.

I would also like the Minister to rethink the idea of Guildford meeting housing need from London, given that we are already struggling to meet our existing housing need. Development must be preceded by infrastructure improvements. We want a sustainable, deliverable approach from the Government, and the decisions that are needed about our local area must be made by local people who are locally accountable and not by people in distant regional assemblies who are accountable to no one.

Finally, the plan makes it clear that annual figures will be a minimum, so the 31 per cent. increase for housing in Guildford is a minimum. Also under the plan, windfall sites, which historically have provided much of the land for housing, are to be disregarded when housing supply is being planned, and the rate of building should be assumed to continue to five years after the end of the plan. There will not be 8,000 extra houses in Guildford, but a considerable number more, including on those windfall sites.

That extra housing will wreck Guildford and ruin our countryside. It is completely unsustainable. It will put at severe risk the future of our green belt, our town centre, with its special character, our already very congested roads in the north of the town, and Guildford itself as an historic, distinctive, evolving and dynamic community.

I urge the Minister to think again. If he will come to Guildford, I will show him. He should take note of what his own experts and organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England are already telling him and halt these proposals now.

Order. The winding-up speeches will begin at 10.30 am. I would like to call everyone who wants to speak, so I appeal to hon. Members to bear that deadline in mind when making their contributions. An excellent example has already been set by the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton).

I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing this important debate. With so many Opposition Members taking an interest in this important issue, I am glad to be here on the Government Benches.

I welcome the hon. Lady’s recognition that more housing is needed, because often the mood music of debates such as this one can be that, somehow, we do not need new housing or that, wherever it is going to go, it has to go somewhere else, anywhere other than near ourselves or our constituents. So I welcome her recognition that more housing is needed, and I also welcome what she said about the common sense of local people who have children and grandchildren who need homes, and those houses have to be provided.

In that context, we should also recognise that the Secretary of State has quite modestly increased the number of new houses in the south-east plan. However, it is worth noting that serious draft plan numbers were far lower than the evidence suggested that they should be and the examination in public noted that the draft plan’s suggested numbers were at the lower end of the range.

The National Housing and Planning Advisory Unit urges far higher numbers. I am very much in favour of housing to meet need, but I do not think that it is fair to say that the Government are not listening or taking account of concerns that have been voiced.

I define it in terms of the needs of the people I see in my advice surgeries, who are desperately in need of housing. The hon. Lady referred to the vitality of our economy and I rarely have a meeting, whether it is with the CBI or the chambers of commerce or other business organisations, in my area—

The hon. Lady spoke about her area; I will largely confine my remarks to my area. As I was saying, in my area I rarely have a meeting with business organisations where they do not say that more housing is needed to tackle problems of retention and mobility of labour.

The hon. Lady rightly spoke about the importance of infrastructure, which, clearly, is crucial. But past problems are a reason for getting the infrastructure right, not an argument for not building houses, which, as I have said, are desperately needed.

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman therefore agrees that infrastructure improvements should come before house building.

The two have to go together. The necessary infrastructure must be in place so that people can travel and access local facilities. We must construct not just housing estates but genuine communities, and I will have more to say about that in a moment.

That point is particularly timely at present. If there were ever a time when it was in the national economic interest to accelerate infrastructure investment, build more roads, improve transport communications, get more facilities for communities and, yes, build more houses to meet social and economic needs and also, in a contra-cyclical fashion, to support the economy through difficult times, it is now. I will be looking to the Chancellor in the pre-Budget report to accelerate capital projects that could meet the kind of infrastructure needs that the hon. Lady has described.

I greatly welcome the proposals for an urban extension to Oxford. I supported it and argued in favour of it at the public examination. We desperately need housing in Oxford, and, whatever people may say about the green belt in other parts of the south-east, in Oxford it is so tightly drawn into the existing built-up area of the city that it is creating a pressure cooker effect. Residential communities are being destroyed as houses are converted to multiple occupation and the building of flats becomes more intensive. We debated those issues in this Chamber on a different occasion. We also have the erosion of the precious green lungs that come right into the centre of Oxford. They are the most distinctive, defining feature of its beauty and unique ecology. Therefore, if we are to provide the extra housing that is needed, we must go into the green belt somewhere, and I believe that the site south of Grenoble road is an appropriate site for building houses without causing the kind of unacceptable damage that is of concern to all of us who care about green spaces and the aesthetic setting of our communities. I welcome what the plan says about that site.

However, I am concerned about the arrangements for bringing the development forward. There must be collaboration between Oxford city council and South Oxfordshire district council, within whose area the development site presently rests. We need specific mechanisms for approaching the development in a collaborative way because, without putting too fine a point on it, the city council is broadly in favour of the development—to a certain extent, that is a cross-party position—and the district council is broadly against it. We need an institutional arrangement that locks the two into working together constructively to build a good community.

Time is short, and I know that many Members want to speak, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. I emphasise the importance of local consultation, which the hon. Lady mentioned. Residents in Blackbird Leys and Greater Leys, which are the communities that will be most affected by the urban extension, must be consulted. So far, only one person has consulted them about it on an individual household basis, and that was me. There is significant support for the development, and much concern as well, but the acid test for local people will be whether the community will have, yes, the infrastructure, but also the facilities.

I would like to make an important point about what I call the social infrastructure. When people talk about new development and new estates, they are often rightly concerned about roads, bricks and mortar, leisure facilities, schools, health centres, shops and so on. But what is every bit as important as that, especially when communities are settling down, is local community leadership, particularly leadership of youth activity. As the Government consider expanded housing provision across the south-east and, in particular, in central Oxfordshire, I hope that some imaginative thinking will be done about how we can build up social capacity on new developments from the outset.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to think about those points. My overall position is that the social and economic vitality of Oxford and its remarkable contribution to the regional and national economy and, most importantly, the often dire circumstances of those in housing need, mean that more housing is required. I urge an acceleration in the building of social housing particularly, but we also need many more shared housing schemes. Even with the dip in the property market—this must be true in the constituencies of many Opposition Members as well—property prices are such that it is difficult for people on anything near average salaries or wages to be able to afford housing in the communities in which they grew up. That must be of concern to all of us.

I urge the Minister and the Government to get on with it. I am aware of just how long the process of planning housing numbers for the future takes. I do not think that there is any contradiction between wanting to do such things faster and wanting to do them better. Delay does not always mean better consultation or schemes. People need housing now, and we should get on with it. With will and imagination, we should be able to construct good communities that enhance rather than spoil the environment.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing this debate and thank her for it. She has taken and fired many of the shots for all of us on this side and so has reduced the time that I shall speak.

I am interested in the points made by the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). We all accept that there is a need for more housing, but I hope that he and the Minister will think about the contrary argument. One of the problems with fuelling demand and not using the planning system to try to persuade and move demand to other areas, particularly areas of unemployment, is that, ultimately, greater demand will be generated, and we will be looking at the issue again with the prospect of even more concrete over the south-east.

When the South East England regional assembly figures came out, there was deep concern in my local area. It changed to horror when the Government inspector produced his figures. My constituency and, of course, Surrey, are on the border with London, so we get the effect of everything coming from London—it feels like it—and not always the greatest things. We have crime problems, and a large proportion of them come from London. It is worth adding that the police do not have enough funding.

My constituency shares part of Guildford with my hon. Friend and extends through to the Mole Valley district council area. It has the restrictions mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman and even more: it has green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty, special protection areas, special areas of conservation, and farms that produce food for our area and for London, which are particularly important now, with all the concern over food and food prices.

My hon. Friend said that the problem is that the figures are not a target but a floor. The refusal to accept the windfalls makes that floor damaging. In my area, recent growth has come from developers purchasing large single properties or achieving an amalgam of purchases—a few houses—then demolishing them and building additional homes. The developments do not come in sizes that are large enough to count on plans, so they cannot be predicted—they are a windfall—but they are where the growth is happening.

I know the Minister’s constituency a little from the past, and I know how admirable the local authority is. I am sure that he supports its every move and benefits from its excellent services and low council tax. It provides development, but not large development. Developers there do the same kind of thing that most of the developers in my area do. The fact that in the present economic climate they are developing houses that are then taken by the bank is a temporary blip.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the point is also that, since there are no large sites, and since such sites have to be predicted for the plan, that will mean that precious green belt has to be taken into account and will be lost. I hope that the Minister will think of his constituency. My memory of it is such that I can barely imagine the outcry if Tooting parks and commons, and so forth, were eaten into and covered with houses. The outcry would be phenomenal. If the Minister supported that in his ministerial position, he would definitely be without a job come the next election—as he may be anyway.

The Minister needs to take notice of the concerns, which are tempered with the recognition that we need housing. However, with regard to the argument that I have just touched on, can he see that to supply endlessly fuels the demand? He can, in his position as Minister, use the planning system to try to encourage the movement away from the south-east to areas where there is deprivation, land, empty properties and shortages of jobs.

The then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee had a rare visit from the Deputy Prime Minister. He was invited on many occasions but did not come. Finally, he came and the business of infrastructure, building and house numbers, particularly in the south-east, was raised. The Deputy Prime Minister agreed that housing development should work hand in hand with improved infrastructure, but that has not happened.

Secondary schools in my constituency are overflowing; they have temporary accommodation attached to them, but they are still overflowing. Children are being bussed miles to other areas’ schools from my constituency, through my hon. Friend’s constituency. The county has no capital to build schools. It has had no capital for road improvements and has been given no such capital for years. My hon. Friends the Members for Guildford and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and I—and others—have been fighting to save hospitals. We are trying to save them, whereas what we really need is more, bigger hospitals and better facilities. There are concerns about water throughout the whole area. Our private water company is struggling to find water supplies.

All right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber could talk to the Minister for a good hour each about the problems. However, we are putting the case succinctly and asking him to look at the figures, including the SEERA figures, and move to those, at least; to allow windfalls to be taken into consideration; and to recognise that despite the pouring of houses, and the people in them, into its area, Surrey county council has been deprived of funds to provide the infrastructure and turn the situation round at the same time as, if not before, the houses go in. It is quicker to build a house than to build a hospital or a school, and so on. If we are to have the growth—we need some—we need that infrastructure.

Finally, I ask the Minister to recognise that the success of the south-east could be mimicked elsewhere if planning were used. That would ease the demand and would not, as he is doing with his figures, put petrol on the fire that is already there.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing this important and timely debate. The consultation closes on Friday. I hope that the Minister will treat this speech as my submission to it.

The people of Milton Keynes are not opposed to building more houses; they are not nimbys. Indeed, with a constituency that is growing by nearly 2,000 every year, it is fair to say that we are building our fair share of houses in Milton Keynes. However, people there feel strongly that there should be some local control over that building. They also feel incredibly strongly that there must be “i before e”—infrastructure before expansion—which is not being delivered at the moment. They also feel strongly that they have not been listened to by the Government.

In a debate in this Chamber shortly before the summer recess, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), agreed with me that, for any community to be truly sustainable, it must have the support of local people. That is where I fear we are going wrong.

I will focus my brief comments on just one area: the late imposition of 5,600 houses to the east of the M1 motorway, which has always been the natural border of Milton Keynes and which has been put in the latest draft of the local plan by the Secretary of State. This area is rural green belt—prime rolling fields that are not connected to Milton Keynes. Importantly, this cuts across the wishes of everybody, including local people; the local government quango, Milton Keynes Partnership; and the regional development agency. It appears that everybody is opposed to these 5,600 new houses, apart from the Secretary of State.

In 2005-06, over the Christmas period, the people of Milton Keynes were given just six weeks to take part in a consultation entitled “Options for Growth”, which was put forward by Milton Keynes Partnership. It contained six options, five of which effectively involved the expansion of Milton Keynes within the designated expansion areas to the south-west and south-east. Just one option dealt with building in the rural green belt east of the M1 motorway.

Option six was the least popular; nobody wanted it. Everybody said that they wanted to continue to expand in Milton Keynes, but within the city itself. Yet after the consultation had taken place, Ubiqus, which put the report together, said several things. Three of its findings particularly interested me. First, it said:

“Many respondents felt that the Growth Strategy represented government policy and doubted that the needs and opinions of local people would be taken into account. They felt that housing targets were dictated by central government rather than local needs and questioned whether the targets were achievable.”

I am quoting from annex C to item 9, dealing with the regional spatial strategy.

Secondly, the majority of respondents strongly supported calls for a directly elected body to oversee the growth of the city. Thirdly, as I just said, option six—the option that the Secretary of State has now ruled on and decided will be imposed—was the least popular with anybody in the local community.

Interestingly, once local bureaucrats from Milton Keynes Partnership had had their say—let us be clear that Milton Keynes Partnership does not support this move—the matter moved to the RDA. Once again, the independent body that the Government charge to look at these things did not support the plans. Indeed, the RDA said:

“Weighing all these criteria our view is that the development to the South East”—

that is, the south-east of Milton Keynes—

“is likely to be the most sustainable. Given the difficulties of accessibility by rail, the problems of integration and the likely infrastructure costs we consider that development to the East of the motorway during the plan period would be less sustainable or deliverable than development to the South West.”

Why, Minister—despite all the advice, despite local concerns and despite Milton Keynes Partnership and the RDA saying no, and now that we are finally moving away from local people who have some charge over those matters—has the Secretary of State decided that she knows best?

The answer to my question is given away in the Secretary of State’s comments. She starts by saying:

“The Secretary of State notes the Panel’s view that development to the East of the M1 Motorway during the plan period would be less sustainable than the development proposed to the South West of Milton Keynes.”

She continues:

“The Secretary of State notes that the Panel were not satisfied from the evidence before them that there was an overriding need for a strategic reserve site East of the M1 motorway.”

But we get down to the truth when we discover a footnote:

“However, since the Panel’s report was published revised population and household projections show that the figure of 32,000 dwellings per annum proposed for the South East Region by the Panel is too low to meet requirements”.

Whose requirements? Government’s requirements.

Despite a public consultation overwhelmingly saying no and despite a regional quango saying that the site east of the M1 was unsustainable and lacked infrastructure, which would be extremely expensive to put in, the Secretary of State has ignored all those constant warnings. Despite all the evidence, it is clear that the only goal of the Department for Communities and Local Government is to impose centrally driven housing targets that are simply not needed and are not the wish of the local people.

I finish by pointing out briefly a couple of practical problems that the Minister will, I hope, be able to deal with in his winding-up speech. The M1 motorway is, as I have said, the natural boundary of Milton Keynes. The Government have already made Milton Keynes Partnership, not the local authority, the planning authority for the eastern expansion area up to the M1. Already, outline planning permissions have been granted and detailed planning permission has been granted in places. Now the Government want to build houses on the other side of the M1, in the rural green belt.

The Government accept “i before e”—infrastructure before expansion. We must build new bridges across the motorway and new roads to link the new community that the Government so desperately want to the existing community. Given that planning permission has been granted on one side of the motorway, a bridge may be launched, but where will the Government land it? How short-sighted it is to have two planning authorities doing entirely different things that cannot be joined up? It is ridiculous, and I ask the Minister, even at this late stage, to listen to the independent advice that he has been given at every level—from the wishes of local people and the local planning quango to those of the regional planning quango—and think again about this ridiculous plan to impose 5,600 houses east of the M1 motorway at the last minute, simply to fulfil artificial Government targets.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing the debate, and I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), because some of the experiences that he graphically described are familiar to my constituents.

I have been asked by a number of local organisations in my constituency to raise the issue directly with the Minister. Botley parish action group, Botley parish council and Eastleigh borough council oppose the proposals for a substantial strategic development area to the north and north-east of Hedge End on the basis of inadequate transport infrastructure, and water and sewerage facilities. Because of how the process has been handled, many of my constituents in Botley and Boorley Green have had less consultation on the proposals than if a neighbour had proposed an extension to their home. They were not notified individually, but Boorley Green, for example, will be swamped by the strategic development area.

The whole process—not just this consultation, which closes on Friday and is supposed to be narrow in that it is considering the changes that the Government have made, but the previous one—is deeply inadequate, given the dramatic changes that the proposals will make to some people’s lives. My first point, therefore, is about process.

The second point is about substance. We are still dealing with an extraordinary, top-down decision by the Government, which is essentially predict and provide, on housing levels. Given the Government’s decisions on changing their previous projections on households, how much of the growth that we are seeing results from the population growth projected for the south-east, and how much from household formation? We know that people are getting married later and, unfortunately, getting divorced earlier, and they are living longer, but that does not increase the number of people in the region. It may increase household formation and, therefore, demand for housing, but in itself it does not have the same effect on environmental sustainability as an increase in population. It is crucial to make that distinction.

That brings me to the substance of my concern about the whole top-down approach—environmental sustainability in south-east England. One example is water, which a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), mentioned. In the south-east, Thames Water has proposed a desalination plant on the Thames to obtain fresh water. Such proposals are normally heard about in Saudi Arabia. Non-governmental organisations such as Waterwise point out that the availability of water per head in the south-east is now lower than in Sudan or Syria. We are at the absolute limit of water sustainability.

As the Environment Agency repeatedly tells Ministers, we are also at the limit of building on flood plains, and the projection to build 100,000 homes on flood plains cannot be sensible when climate change will inevitably make them more vulnerable. The south-east is the most densely populated region not only of England, but of all European regions. The population density of England as a whole is the same as that for the Netherlands, which traditionally has been the most densely populated part of Europe. The south-east is substantially more densely populated than the average. I second all those environmental sustainability reasons, including submissions to the Minister from Hampshire and Isle of Wight wildlife trust on some of the consequences for the sustainability of wildlife as a result of the proposed development.

I shall not continue with the infrastructure points, but I entirely agree with what other hon. Members have said about the importance of “i before e”—infrastructure before expansion. That is an additional and very serious problem in the proposals. There are concerns about sustainable transport links, and our experience in Hampshire is that the infrastructure has not been put in place adequately to sustain communities that have been built up.

Finally, a matter of enormous concern to us locally in Eastleigh and more widely in south Hampshire is the Department’s extremely mistaken judgment to allow the plan to get rid of strategic gaps to proceed . We feel strongly in Eastleigh that we do not want to be part of a sprawling urban area called Solent city, which will merge every settlement from Totton in the west to Waterlooville and Portsmouth in the east.

A key part of our planning policy has been successfully to build the extra housing that we need for household formation. The borough council has done that responsibly, but has always borne in mind the key requirements of residents that local settlements should be distinctive and have their traditional character; that one village should not merge into another; that Hamble wants to be separate from Netley and Bursledon; that Bishopstoke wants to be separate from Fair Oak; and that there should not be fill-in between West End, Eastleigh, Bishopstoke and Fair Oak.

For all those reasons, I hope very much that the Minister will reconsider this exceptionally misguided policy of getting rid of strategic gaps.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing the debate, which is both timely—the consultation period finishes at the end of this week—and extremely important.

When I was elected in 1997 to have the honour of representing a constituency that is entirely within the green belt and, indeed, provides the green belt between London and the rest of the south-east, I knew that developmental pressure would be the most important issue and a constant in my life of representing my constituents. I am utterly horrified by the Government’s proposals. Let us be clear. There is a basic, philosophical difference between the Government on one side and us on the other. That comes out loud and clear in the changes that the Secretary of State has proposed to the plan. I shall make the case briefly.

The original plan said:

“The strategy is based on meeting development requirements within urban areas and the protection of the green belt across the sub-region.”

The Secretary of State has struck that out. The original wording referred to

“sustaining growth in the local economy to a level that can be supported by labour markets and infrastructure, supported by comprehensive monitoring of the local economy, labour supply and demand, and movement patterns across the sub-region and in adjoining areas including London”.

After the Secretary of State had her way, it referred to

“sustaining growth in the economy, supported by comprehensive monitoring of labour supply and demand, and movement patterns across the sub-region and in adjoining areas including London”.

The Secretary of State has struck out all the references to “local”. The original plan referred to

“giving priority to meeting locally defined housing needs, including affordable housing to underpin the economy, within the overall requirement for the sub-region”.

The Secretary of State struck that out. It also referred to

“promoting high quality design in new buildings and civic spaces, which respects and develops local character and distinctiveness, to improve the quality of the built environment”.

What on earth is wrong with that? Something is wrong with it, because the Secretary of State struck it out. It then referred to

“requiring developers to contribute to the provision of infrastructure and service improvements to meet needs arising from the additional development in the area and to ensure delivery of these through the implementation plan”.

What on earth is wrong with that? Something is wrong with it, because the Secretary of State put a line through it.

I say this as the representative of the constituency of Reigate. In the last development plan that came out in 1994, the borough of Reigate took a substantial increase in housing. Those in my constituency have co-operated with the Government and the Department on trying to enable that development to happen and their reward is to have housing numbers increased where the green belt is under the greatest pressure.

The Secretary of State has put a line through the figure of 4,740 houses in the plan and has said that we must have 8,240 in the north of my constituency—in the London fringe. That is in addition to the 3,000 houses that are being imposed around Gatwick and the town of Horley in the south of the borough of Reigate and Banstead. That part of the borough is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). Some 2,800 houses are already being constructed there on the only non-green belt area of open space, which is up to the boundary of the green belt around the town of Horley and the boundary of my constituency.

I declare an interest because that is where I happen to live. I live next to a river and, interestingly, the houses are being built on a place called Great Lake Farm. I wonder why it is called that? Local people have the pictures to explain why it is called Great Lake Farm, but that has not stopped the development plan going through, and all the flood prevention measures have, of course, been incorporated within the development. However, considering the weather conditions we are experiencing, what will be the consequences for everybody else who lives around there? Some 36,000 houses are going into the Gatwick sub-region and one can only speculate on what that will mean for the River Mole, which runs past my house—particularly given that, under the south-east plan, 2,800 houses will go immediately downstream in that part of the borough, and they will be followed by another 3,000.

I simply hope that the Minister will reflect on the cry of outrage from hon. Members who represent the constituencies affected and who can see that this is a deliberate effort to undermine local democracy. The purpose of having councils and the contribution of local representation is so that local people can make their voices heard. As has been said, it is not that local people are incapable of making judgments about what is required to house their children and grandchildren; it is that they are also sensitive to the protection of their environment. The Government appear to have chosen to say, “We know best and we are going to ensure that south-east England remains the motor of the economy. Never mind the infrastructure. We see that housing is a requirement and you are going to deliver it.” During the enormous consultation exercise, which has ended up in a revision of the plan, the Government have overridden local people’s judgments. In the case of my constituency, that has resulted in nearly doubling, by fiat of the Secretary of State, the number of houses that will be required to be built.

The Government have a dreadful philosophical approach that completely disfranchises local people. I sincerely hope that the Government will listen at this late stage to the responses to the consultation, to which thousands of local people in my constituency have contributed. How are local, ordinary people supposed to understand all of this and get involved in the consultation? Yet hundreds—if not thousands—of people in my constituency alone will have had to have found some way of trying to understand what is happening in order to respond to a consultation that is likely to be a complete waste of time. I sincerely hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will surprise me when they respond to the consultation.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) for choosing this subject for a debate and for introducing it in such a responsible way. We have had some good speeches in response.

In a way, this is an unreal debate because it is driven by the Government’s target to build 3 million homes by 2020. Hardly anybody in the housing world thinks that that target is achievable, yet that is what is driving the debate. The energy of Ministers in the relevant Department should be focused on building houses on the sites that already have planning consent. They should concentrate on making progress on meeting the housing needs of all those we represent, as opposed to driving these targets based on the 3 million figure.

A long time ago, I was the Minister for housing and planning and took an interest in these matters. The forecasting of households is not an exact science; it is underpinned by some heroic assumptions. I remember having a dialogue with the man who produced the figures. One has to make assumptions about whether a child—someone who is age 20—who has had a row with their parents is entitled to a home of their own. That is a difficult judgment to make, but the forecasts of households depend on such judgments.

Heroic assumptions about inward and outward migration have to be made, and when focusing on the south-east, heroic assumptions have to be made about outward migration from London. Is it right that we should continue to plan for the outward migration from London when many people planning for the future of London want to retain that population there—particularly in relation to those who are likely to migrate outwards? Likewise, there is a debate about whether, given the structure of London, one should focus on the east side of London, where unemployment is highest, or the west side, which is overheated. Some real political and sociological issues underpin this debate.

I start from the premise that everyone is entitled to a decent home. Certainly, in my constituency, a major development area on the eastern side of Andover is going ahead without a lot of aggravation, and we accept that we have a role to play. My view is that one is more likely to get a sensible answer if local people feel that they have ownership of the problem. In a county, district or village, there is resistance if people are told what they have to do. If people are asked about how best to provide for their children, elderly parents, teachers and postmen, they will say, “We have a real responsibility and interest in this.” They will then be much more creative in looking for sites than if they have to find sites because they have been told to do so to accommodate people who are not in the area but who plan to move there.

Let us consider the policy of building on land that would not normally get planning consent—the so-called exceptions policy. People who live in a village will be creative about identifying suitable sites, having a dialogue with the housing association and ensuring that homes are built for local people. However, there will be resistance if people are told by someone from outside, “You have to find sites for another 100 houses and we cannot tell you who will live there.”

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the one thing most liked by local people is the feeling that they can give a home to another local person?

I agree. In one parish council in my constituency, the village has provided all the homes that they have been told to. They are actually trying to provide more homes by moving the allotments that they own from the middle of the village to the outside because they feel that they have a responsibility to make better housing provision.

I shall leave the Minister with this thought. A top-down approach provokes a reaction, whereas a bottom-up approach does not. One of the Government’s mistakes has been to move to a much more dirigiste, centrally driven planning policy, which perversely makes it more difficult to get the houses that we all want built in the areas in which we need them. I know that the Minister is relatively new in his appointment, but I ask him to begin to put a few question marks against that aspect of the policy. If that happens as a result of this debate, we might have made some real progress.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess, to discuss this important subject. I must confess to a feeling of déjà vu in that a couple of weeks ago, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and I debated the south-west regional spatial strategy in this very Chamber. As we now have a different Minister facing us, perhaps he will forgive me for repeating some of the remarks I made to his colleague because the issues are same.

First, I should congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing this important debate. She quite rightly raised the issue of local opposition and voiced her concerns about how those points of view have not had the opportunity to be heard. She is concerned that this process dictates against local opinion—and we have heard that point repeated time and again. Importantly, she also spoke about flood risk, transport capacity and water resources, a subject mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). The hon. Lady was also keen to point out that her constituents are not nimbys and that they understand the pressure caused by housing need. They wish to be part of the process, helping to meet that need and not being left out of decisions being made on their behalf.

The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) rightly pointed out that many areas of the country have a housing crisis, a subject that we all face at our regular advice surgeries, with local people struggling to find somewhere to live that they can afford. All local authorities are trying to deal with such issues, in partnership with some responsible developers, registered social landlords and the business community. However, they all face one problem: no matter how much consultation they undertake and how much excellent work they do locally, it is undervalued and set aside by the process of regional planning, which has been imposed over the top.

I pick up on the hon. Lady’s point that development should allow the green lungs of urban areas to be maintained. We should not go for a policy of continued urban density, as it will change the character of our existing communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) made a similar point in a report that he wrote for the Government. He said that planners ought to consider the broader scale, particularly on development in rural areas, something that I very much support.

The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) spoke of trends coming out of the capital into his part of the south-east. I recall that that included his own political career, given what he said about a certain London borough. We return to the question time and again of how overheated economic development is becoming in the south-east. He made some good points about the need to promote economic development in other parts of the country in order to spread the load and, indeed, to allow the benefits of development—there are some—to occur in other parts of the country, where they are crying out for it.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) has over the years consistently spoken about development in Milton Keynes. I once served on Bedford borough council, so I am familiar with some of the problems that he mentioned about the area beside the M1.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh highlighted the overall problem when he listed the communities in his constituency that have raised concerns about how their areas will be affected. That takes us back to the level at which we should deal with planning matters.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) spoke about planning at town or parish level. In my constituency, the parish plan process has been incredibly positive, drawing communities together to meet the needs that they have identified. That overcomes whatever nimby tendency there may be, which sometimes comes from those who have recently moved into an area and like it as it is—unlike local residents, who have been there for longer and have seen the community changing over the years. I have seen some very positive outcomes from parish plans. Communities have come together to make proposals, sometimes even proposing specific sites where they would like to see development.

One of the key elements in our debate on the south-west regional spatial strategy is the question of sequential sites, a scheme under which local communities and local authorities can identify those sites where they would like development to happen first. The problem with inflated housing targets is that it gives developers a blank cheque, allowing them to go to appeal in order to avoid focusing on those sites first, and instead developing sites on which the local community would far rather resist development. That is yet another problem with the process.

The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) pointed out that the Secretary of State has undertaken some vicious pruning of the strategy. She seems to have pruned some of the key provisions that local authorities and their representatives on the regional assemblies sought as guarantees. As I say, we have ended up with a blank cheque for development.

I return to a point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire about the shifting economic sands on which our debate is centred. We have to be honest about where housing development is to happen and how quickly it is to take place, given the economic situation that we face. It is even more important to take advantage of the extra time that we now have in order to get things right on some of those sites. As building may not occur for a considerable time, we should ensure that we do not set down planning and zoning proposals that put the wishes of local communities at risk, as they will hang over their heads and could prevent development in areas that may be more preferable.

My party is increasingly concerned that the planning system is being driven entirely from the centre. Excellent work is being done by local authorities and local communities. They are coming up with sustainable plans that meet the needs of the community, that acknowledge the fact that there may be inward migration in some of these areas as well as a need to look after local people, and that consider the benefits to the local economy and the importance of securing employment land as well as residential land. All that good work is being set aside by centrally imposed targets based on models that must now be re-evaluated.

The Liberal Democrats would far rather see a planning system that is flexible enough to deal with the economic circumstances, and one that is far more accountable to local people. We want a planning system that creates communities, meets local need, and is sustainable for new and existing residents alike.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing the debate. As we heard from the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), this is not the first such debate, and I suspect that it will not be the last. However, this debate is different from the first. The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) has broadly supported the Government, although with some serious questions being raised. I seem to remember that during the last debate three Government supporters savagely attacked the south-west plan. That indicates the sheer depth of concern about this top-down planning target.

I welcome the Minister to what must, for him, be quite an uncomfortable experience. I hope that he has enjoyed hearing of the difficulties that those who represent the residents of south-east England have experienced with the top-down approach.

I have to record the fact that my husband is leader of East Sussex county council and deputy chairman of the South East England Development Agency, and I am therefore deemed to have an interest in the subject. However, I have an interest in the subject in more ways than one, and I am familiar with a number of the broad issues that affect the south-east.

This is a timely debate—I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford on that—as the consultation closes on Friday. I have a deep scepticism that despite all the hard work that my hon. Friends, colleagues and constituents have put into the consultation, it will be ignored in much the same way as the original proposals were ignored.

My hon. Friend also referred to a serious concern in the south-east—the difficulty with water resources. That is a minor part of the infrastructure, but it has been referred to by practically every Member in the Chamber. I do not think I am wrong, but doubtless I will be corrected if I am—I clearly have not been properly briefed—but I believe that the South East England Development Agency estimates that the value of infrastructure requirements is to the tune of some £25 billion. Given economic circumstances, one is slightly concerned about where that money is likely to be found. The only developers that one can see on the horizon are the housing associations.

My hon. Friend may be aware that the Government have introduced the Milton Keynes tariff, under which some £18,500 per dwelling built went towards the local infrastructure. The tariff makes only a small contribution, but given the economic downturn and the lack of houses being built, has it not proved to be rather short-sighted?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was going to speak about the impact of the Milton Keynes tax, which has emerged through the Planning Bill as the community infrastructure levy. Can the Minister confirm the rumour that the Government are thinking of imposing the community infrastructure levy at the rate of 25 per cent? If 25 per cent. is added to the cost of every house, it will consume the profitability of any developer.

Obvious consequences will flow from having a levy at that level. Perhaps then we will be able to work out whether the Government’s imposed target of extra housing in the south-east can even come close to being reached. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) will recognise that £18,500 is not 25 per cent. of the cost of most houses—it is considerably less.

My hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and for Guildford raised the issue of windfall housing. I am familiar with it from London suburbs such as Beckenham, because that is precisely how development has been carried out there. In my constituency, as well as in others in the south-east, concerns have been expressed that the nature and character of our communities are being changed, without the local community having a say. Although windfall development is useful and acceptable in many cases, for it not to be included in the housing numbers is disgraceful and typical of the Government’s top-down approach.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes, with whom I completely agree about the Milton Keynes roof tax, indicated the number of houses that Milton Keynes might have to deal with. I wonder whether that is part of the argument for imposing the community infrastructure levy on infrastructure developments that have nothing to do with the local community. The famous junction on the M1 that is required to make Milton Keynes more viable is not directly related to the community infrastructure levy as it is perceived by local people.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) rightly talked about environmental sustainability and the strategic gaps. None of us would argue with that—maintaining sustainability in the south-east is already difficult, given the pressures. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) noted how the top-down approach to planning undermines local democracy. Councillors feel that they have no power and wonder why they were elected. Local people often wonder why they go out to vote for local councillors who can make no difference whatever and are being instructed from the top.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) brought us to the nub of the problem—the issue of heroic assumptions. I suspect that the Government approach has been made on super-heroic, superman-type assumptions. Those of us who lived through the time in office of the then Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), remember that we sought to abandon predict and provide. Quite rightly, my right hon. Friend returned us to the reality of predict and provide, and the difficulty that flows from it.

This debate and the previous one highlight the centralising nature of current planning and the fact that we are told what we must do. Local communities are not involved, and do not believe that they are involved, in planning for their future and community. The challenge to the regional spatial strategies could, in our view, lead to civic discontent that is dangerous for the body politic. Not only Conservative and Liberal Members and our constituents object. Significant comments have been made by members of the Labour party. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), said:

“The regional spatial strategy has more to do with the era of Soviet-style planning than a modern dynamic economy such as the north-east’s.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 959.]

The south-east, south-west and, I am sure, other regions will echo those views.

Does the hon. Lady agree that those who think that it is easy to shift economic development from the south to other regions also have a touch of Soviet-style planning about them?

The right hon. Gentleman cannot—in any way, shape or form—accuse me of thinking that that is easy. I lived through the first experiment in regional policy—the building of a car factory at Linwood, just outside Glasgow. Indeed, the Labour council in Glasgow built delightful housing schemes, as they are called in Scotland, such as Easterhouse and similar places, which are now mostly leaving us, 50 or 60 years on, with social problems that are still unsolved. The right hon. Gentleman’s approach is not very sensible.

The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) fails to understand that persuasion and co-operation with the local planning authority are what works, rather than what I think is fascist dictation. That point is recognised by my hon. Friend, who was a planning Minister before me.

That is the point exactly and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for picking me up on it. Unless local people feel in control, they will resist. This system of top-down centralised planning ensures automatic resistance. It undermines the role of the local authorities and leaves local communities feeling helpless. We plan to deal with the matter in a completely different way and I reassure my hon. Friends that we will abolish regional spatial strategies. We will give back to local people and local authorities the power over their own future.

The point has been made repeatedly: local people know what they can provide and what they need. Indeed, they agreed with the total of 27,000 houses in the south-east plan. They are willing to do that, but the Government, who think that they know better, say, “I am from the Government and I am here to help.” We all know the implications, including our constituents.

We must get rid of the regional spatial strategy. We must work with local people and give authority back to local authorities. That is the only way that we can meet what is an acknowledged need for more housing.

I am in danger of having the least amount of time in which to respond to the various excellent points that have been raised. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) and all colleagues for the restraint, vis-à-vis time, with which they have spoken.

The hon. Lady and I joked before the start of the debate that she could have spoken for an hour on this important issue, and I do not doubt that other hon. Members could also have done so. The fact that they curtailed their remarks demonstrates huge discipline. I recognise the passion with which many colleagues and hon. Friends have spoken, particularly when raising the concerns of their constituents, and I am grateful for the brevity of their comments.

A number of issues were raised, and I shall try in the next 11 minutes to gallop through them and deal with as many as I can. In summary, the issues were the number of houses proposed; the implications for the green belt; whether there will be sufficient social, physical and other infrastructure to support the required growth; and the consultation process. Before responding, right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, as people in the Public Gallery will need to be, that I am unable to comment on, for example, individual proposals for housing, given that the consultation process is under way and the roles that the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State play in the planning process. However, I will try to address as many of the general points as I can.

In response to the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), comments made today will be taken as responses to the consultation—I have sought assurances on that—and the Government will consider all responses. On housing numbers, the hon. Member for Guildford and others were concerned about the proposed house build in their constituencies but said less about how best to ensure—I paraphrase—that our children will have homes to live in with their families in future. I know that those comments were made not because those Members and their constituents are nimbys, but out of recognition of the necessity to balance the need for housing and respect for local areas.

That said, we need to put things in context by saying what has happened in recent times. The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) referred to his association with my constituency. As a former leader of the local council, he will be aware that thousands and thousands of houses were sold over the past 30 years and that there was a lack of house building in the period. Those things led to some of the crises in the area and elsewhere in the country. I am grateful to him for providing me with the opportunity to put that on record.

During the past 30 years, under both Conservative and Labour Governments, there has been a nationwide 30 per cent. increase in the number of households and a 50 per cent. drop in new house building. In the south-east, the average age of a first-time buyer is now 33, more than 200,000 households are on council waiting lists and more than 7,500 homeless households live in temporary accommodation. The latest regional household projections—the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) referred to these as super-heroic presumptions—forecast that 35,850 new households will be required in the next 20 years. The proposed number of dwellings in the panel’s recommendations was 32,000, but the increase to 33,125 is 4 per cent. higher.

We face a gap between growing demand and constrained supply, which we all recognise. I am sure that we have all met people in our surgeries—whether in Tooting, Beckenham, Hampshire or Milton Keynes—who are unable to have a house near to where mums, dads, brothers or sisters live. The pressures in Surrey are no different from those in other places. The Government acknowledge the pressures in south-east and from 2006 to 2008 have spent £700 million on increased affordable housing in the region. More importantly, in the next period, between 2008 and 2011, that will increase to £1.24 billion.

To suggest that we do not recognise the problems in the south-east is, I believe, slightly unfair, but the challenge for the future is to balance the interests of the current generation with those of future generations who will need homes. The Government are worried that the concerns of future generations could be drowned out by those of present generations, whether at local, regional or national level. That is the balance that needs to be struck.

The green belt remains an important part of national policy and the Government continue to place great importance on the correct application of the long-standing policy of planning policy guidance note 2. Opposition Members criticised the travesty of the Government building on the green belt, but it is worth allowing the facts to cover some of that rhetoric. The amount of green belt has increased by 33,000 hectares since 1997 and now accounts for around 13 per cent. of England’s land mass. It is not true that green belts are being built on around the country, as we can see from those national figures. There is nothing stopping me today confirming that the Secretary of State has proposed to accept all the panel’s key green belt recommendations. I am sure that colleagues who are interested in green belt will be pleased to hear that.

The Secretary of State has considered the proposed changes. The problem is protecting the general extent of the green belt in the south-east. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes made a huge issue of the green belt, but he may have meant green fields, which are slightly different. I cannot comment on those points for obvious reasons, but, generally, it is a matter of striking the right balance between the continued application of the green belt policy, the ability of planning authorities to address local issues and the need to create and maintain a network of sustainable communities. The Secretary of State and the Department will welcome comments from all quarters on whether specific place references in the final south-east plan would help to provide more certainty.

I would like to be clear on one more thing on the green belt. Local authorities, as part of their responsibility to current and future generations, must make the difficult decisions about the most sustainable locations for the growth and development that we need, and then plan for their delivery. Once again, it is not fair to suggest that the Secretary of State is ignoring local authority proposals.

Colleagues talked about infrastructure and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) spent a great deal of his short contribution dealing with social infrastructure. We hear many stories about Government spending in the south-east and the fear of what happens if infrastructure is not in place—the “i before e” problem, meaning infrastructure before expansion. The Government recognise that infrastructure is not only about transport; it is also about health, education, energy supply, waste disposal, cultural and leisure facilities, and green spaces.

Once again, I want to put facts before the rhetoric. As I said, £1.24 billion has been devoted to securing affordable housing in the south-east. Public expenditure on transport in the region in the five years to 2007-08 increased from £1.9 billion to £2.3 billion—[Interruption.] I hear someone ask from a sedentary position what this has to do with infrastructure or transport. That point has been made.

I am not going to argue about the fact that the Minister has 12 minutes in which to make his speech. Future infrastructure costs are estimated to be £25 billion, not the paucity represented by the £1 billion-plus on public transport, which has already been spent.

I am disappointed that the hon. Lady calls £1.24 billion “paucity”. Someone said that infrastructure should come before expansion, and my point is that we have invested in infrastructure, and now we have expansion. I am disappointed that she belittles £1.24 billion.

The Minister continues to say that he recognises this and that, and keeps telling us what the Government have done, but he is not listening to the people of the south-east, particularly Guildford. He stands there saying that it is unfair of us not to recognise what the Government are doing, but he should pay attention and listen to the people in my area.

I am disappointed with that comment. The hon. Lady will be aware that I cannot comment on the individual plans. Had she listened to what I said six minutes ago, she would have known that I can speak today only in generalities. She will be aware of the legal reasons for which I cannot go into specifics. The Government are listening and she should note that we have received 500 e-mails, 3,000 letters and 1,300 comments online so far. We take on board what is said in the debate.

I wish to give a final plug for the consultation, which ends at 5 pm this Friday. We are listening. I encourage all those watching the debate, and those who will read about it in their local papers or hear it on local radio, to continue to respond. People have until 5 pm on Friday to make their views known to the consultation, and we will listen.