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Regional Spatial Strategies

Volume 493: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2009

Regional spatial strategies have been published for all regions, with the exception of the south-west, where we expect to publish shortly, and the west midlands, which is currently holding an examination in public. All regional planning bodies have agreed timetables for further reviews, and I have put details in the Library.

Will the Minister not admit that she has made a mistake and that instead of revising regional spatial strategies, she should be abolishing them and their unsustainable and undemocratic approach to the UK housing market?

No, I think that would be a disastrous course of action. The Opposition have said a lot of sweeping things about there being no need for a regional tier of consideration or decision making, but one of the reasons this Government implemented such proposals is because of representations that we received from across the country, including from the business community in particular, about the gap that existed in our decision-making procedures when there was no regional tier.

In the current economic climate, the aspiration to build 3 million new houses by 2020 looks ambitious. In the review of regional plans, will the Minister recognise the pent-up demand for housing that still exists and commit herself to development, in the east midlands and elsewhere, on brownfield sites rather than on greenfield sites?

First, my hon. Friend is entirely right. I hope that everyone in the House recognises the tremendous pent-up demand that exists for new housing and the serious social and economic problems that would be caused if we could not do more to address it. I also entirely accept his other point, although he will know that this Government have a strong record of construction on brownfield sites. I accept completely that that is much the most desirable way, and we will continue to try to pursue it.

In the determination to move government closer to the people, what was the deciding factor in moving planning strategy from one unelected quango to another?

If the hon. Gentleman is referring, as I think he is, to the proposals currently before the House, may I inform him that what we are basically trying to do is streamline and simplify the system? He will have many opportunities to make his contribution on those issues as the Bill proceeds through the House. However, I am sure that he will know that there is a strong element of participation by local authorities; perhaps I could therefore remind the Opposition, who sometimes seem to forget this, that the members of those authorities are elected.

Is it my right hon. Friend’s intention that the spatial strategies will respect the Government’s target for new house building on brownfield sites, as measured at the local government level, not the regional level?

It is certainly our hope that people everywhere across the country will take account of that approach, which is obviously the most desirable from every point of view. My hon. Friend will appreciate that sometimes there are greater difficulties in finding suitable sites that meet those criteria, but the Government certainly retain that approach, and we will encourage local authorities to do so too.

But why should anyone believe what the right hon. Lady says when she talks about building only on brownfield sites? She will know that many of the eco-towns proposed by her predecessor were going to be built on greenfield sites. Does she not accept that there needs to be a balance between the urgent need for extra housing and maintaining the rural environment?

Of course I accept that; I do not think that anyone would dispute it. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that the reason that people should believe what we say about brownfield sites is that the Government have delivered—in fact, more than delivered—on our targets for brownfield sites. We have had many discussions in the House about the proposals for eco-towns, and he is correct to say that some of those proposals involved greenfield development. They involve a variety of types of development, and we shall return to that issue later in the year.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister admitted on Radio 4 that people felt powerless and that politics was not as accountable as it should be. Was there any point at which the right hon. Lady felt that he might have been referring to the unelected, unaccountable regional spatial strategies, which ride roughshod over local communities?

That is certainly not the case. I am sure that is not what the Prime Minister meant, not least because—as I reminded the Opposition a moment ago—there will be very strong local authority involvement and representation in the new bodies that will consider the proposals. They are, as I have said, elected.

But does the right hon. Lady not understand that local government involvement and participation is no good if it is overridden? Unelected regional bureaucrats arbitrarily doubling or trebling the number of homes that local authorities have offered to build on a sustainable basis gives people a feeling of being completely disempowered and confirms their sense that the only way to get a change in politics is to get a change of Government.

I think that the hon. Lady is subtly trying to work round to the proposals that have been put forward by her party, in which, instead of having overall targets that recognise the substantial unmet housing demand identified a moment ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), we should somehow let a thousand flowers bloom and thereby allow local authorities to build up to meet the housing need. I would simply say to her that I have read with great care the many comments on her party’s proposals, and that I note with interest and some amusement that many official bodies have said, “What a fascinating idea. We look forward with great interest to hearing from the Conservative party how it can possibly deliver housing.”