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11.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) for raising this subject, because this debate gives me the opportunity to reply to him, not only on the issues relating to Didcot and Oxfordshire but on issues that he has raised in relation to Conservative party policy on these matters.

The planning criteria in Oxfordshire are exactly the same as those applied to similar counties in the rest of England, although every planning case is considered on its merits. I am aware that the process of deciding on the location of new housing in Didcot, in particular, and the provision of new housing in Oxfordshire generally, has caused anxiety to some of the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

I am also aware that the hon. Gentleman was placed in the difficult position of having to present two opposing petitions at the same time, while representing the opposing views of his constituents. He was trying to face in two directions at once. In so doing, he has opted out of facing up to some of the challenges that face Oxfordshire and Didcot in relation to providing for people who need and want to live there. That is the issue at the heart of this debate.

I know that progress on the alteration to the Oxfordshire structure plan for Didcot has not been easy. In August 1998, the Oxfordshire structure plan for the period from 1996 to 2001 was adopted. The county council was unable to agree a housing distribution figure around Didcot, which the hon. Gentleman will know is on the boundary of the South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse district council areas. The Oxfordshire structure plan was, therefore, published with a separate figure for Didcot of 5,500 dwellings, but stated that an early alteration to the plan would settle the housing allocation round the town.

Following the adoption of the structure plan, South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse district councils carried out public consultation and technical work, but reached different conclusions on the direction of growth at Didcot. That is germane to some more general points that I shall make later. In December 1998, Oxfordshire county council resolved to recommend growth to the north of the town, in South Oxfordshire district. The decision was finely balanced, and I understand that the committee voted by a majority of only one to recommend the north of the town.

In November 1999, as the hon. Gentleman said, an examination in public took place over four days to consider the Didcot housing issue. Representatives of the Government office of the south-east attended all the sessions, but made it clear from the outset that it was not the role of the Government to comment on the proposals, because although this was a structure plan alteration, the scale of the proposals was site specific.

In January 2000, the panel report on the alteration was published and it recommended growth to the north-east of the town. The panel attached considerable weight to the agricultural land issue, which was of higher quality to the

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west of Didcot than to the north, although it also felt that other issues were finely balanced. Although it considered the western option to be slightly better related to the town, it determined that the best and most versatile land issue outweighed that factor.

The county council considered the panel report, but it was not bound in planning law by the recommendations. In March 2000, the county council rejected the advice of the panel and allocated the bulk of housing mainly to the west of the town. The statement of reasons published with the proposed modifications explained that the county council had changed its view as the western option had the advantage of better integration with employment sites and with the town centre, saying that that outweighed the disadvantages of building on best and most versatile agricultural land.

As the hon. Gentleman said, requests were made at the time--to some extent, those continue--for the Government to get involved in the structure plan alteration, but we reiterated the view that it was a matter for Oxfordshire county council. We made it clear that the structure plan alteration should set an adequate framework to ensure that local plans responded positively to the new approach to planning for housing set out in planning policy guidance note 3.

We want sufficient housing land to be provided, but the priority is to re-use previously developed land in urban areas, bringing empty homes back into use and converting existing buildings rather than using greenfield sites. [Interruption.] Do hon. Members want to intervene rather than comment from a sedentary position? I am happy to take an intervention.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): The hon. Lady gives the impression that there is brownfield land available to be developed in Oxfordshire. There is not. Whether it be in South Oxfordshire or in Cherwell district, new development will have to take place almost entirely on greenfield sites. It is as simple as that. The idea that development can mystically and magically take place on existing brownfield sites is mistaken.

Ms Hughes: We accept that not all development can take place in urban areas or on brownfield sites. How much development should take place outside existing sites depends on the overall need for housing land, the capacity of existing urban areas to accommodate additional housing and the efficiency with which land is developed. Where development has to take place outside urban areas, we look to local planning authorities to utilise the most sustainable option. The Government have been assured by Oxfordshire county council and South Oxfordshire district council that PPG3 issues would be fully taken into account during subsequent local plan preparation.

The hon. Member for Wantage referred to the overall housing figures for Oxfordshire. We acknowledge that we face considerable pressures in the south-east, and the figures for Oxfordshire have been arrived at through the same planning criteria as is used for other counties in the south-east.

Last year, the Government published for consultation proposed changes to the regional planning guidance for the south-east. We have listened to comments and we have

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strengthened our policies for delivering urban renewal, providing affordable housing, avoiding profligate use of land, promoting a living countryside and encouraging development east of London in the Thames gateway.

We have given local authorities the tools they need to achieve that. PPG3 contains a clearly stated presumption that previously developed land and existing buildings will be re-used for housing before consideration is given to developing greenfield sites. We have separately published advice on better design of development and on undertaking urban housing capacity studies. We have also made available guidance on how to manage the release of land in such a way as to minimise unnecessary loss of greenfield sites to development.

I want to say something about the hon. Gentleman's more general points about the relevance of his party's policy to some of these difficult issues. Far from meaning the concreting of the south-east, the Government's policies will mean less profligate use of land, brownfield before greenfield development, and the delivery of our national 60 per cent. target for new housing on brownfield land. It is not the Government who are putting the south-east under development pressure; the pressures are already there, and it is a sad state of affairs when a representative of the area ignores them and pretends that they can be diluted out of existence.

Given that the pressures are there, the question is how they can best be managed. The issue is how housing can be provided for people who need and want to live in the south-east. They are not predominantly people who are moving from other parts of the country; they are people who work in the area and need to live there, or the sons and daughters of those who already live there and may have done so for some time.

Our policies, and the draft revised regional planning guidance, mean that no more land than that which local authorities already propose to use would be used to provide housing for people in the south-east. We are not producing a higher figure by stealth. We want to build the prospect of review into the system, which is a sensible approach--unlike that of the Opposition, who believe in fixed long-term figures.

We propose that the rate of provision should be reviewed within five years at the most, in the light of monitoring, urban capacity studies, and studies of potential growth areas proposed at Ashford and Milton Keynes. It is premature to specify what provision might be after, say, 2006, but at present it is expected to be about 43,000 dwellings a year in the whole area.

We consider that the overall figure of 39,000 homes a year for the south-east outside London represents a realistic level of provision. We have taken a range of factors into account, including household projections, deliverable housebuilding rates, the needs of the economy, and the capacity of the region to absorb growth as well as the impact of our policies for urban renaissance. We try to pay careful attention to environmental capacity as well as need: that is why we are emphasising the importance of building around existing conurbations, recognising environmental constraints and the need to avoid "pepper-potting" around the countryside.

Let me repeat to the hon. Gentleman that migration from north to south is a very small component of the demand for homes in the south-east. Most of the growth in housing need relates to people who already live in the

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region. It is a reflection of changing lifestyles, such as the growth in single-person households. That is where most of the increase in housing demand originates. Those involved include young people who want to set up home for the first time, and elderly people--who now live longer--wishing to remain independent. Those people are already there, and it would be irresponsible to deny them the prospect of housing.

We have agreed that fixed-term housing targets should not be imposed on local planning authorities. That was the policy of the last Administration, who, for example, directed Berkshire, Bedfordshire and Kent to increase their housing numbers, and imposed 20-year fixed figures through regional planning guidance notes. Unlike that Administration, we have adopted a system that recognises changing circumstances. Under our system of plan, monitor and manage, reviews of the housing strategy are triggered when required, in response to monitoring information--as a minimum every five years, and sooner if there are signs of under or over-provision.

I should like to deal now with the kernel of the hon. Gentleman's exposition of Conservative party policy--that local authorities should be able to veto all new housing developments in their local area. The policy states:

with local authorities left to

The local veto proposals amount to a NIMBY's charter. They are unworkable and they would cause chaos. Local authorities would be under no obligation at all to meet the needs arising in the area of any other authority that could not be met. Inter-regional planning and strategic planning across a region would be impossible. There would be no burden sharing and there would be an effective freeze on the movement of people and business. I think that that would deter investment and damage future economic prosperity. It would also push up house prices in areas of high demand and reduce the provision of affordable housing, thereby denying homes for some of the sons and daughters of local people.

It is quite unreasonable to expect local authorities acting alone to take decisions on housing provision in the regional interest. The difficulties that planning authorities

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have in agreeing where housing provision should be made is well illustrated by the problems that Oxfordshire county council and the district authorities of South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse had in agreeing where housing should be provided in the Didcot area. That in itself is a case study of the difficulties facing local authorities when presented with those challenging issues.

I do not deny for a moment the difficulties of the south-east, but willingly acknowledge them. However, I do not agree at all that it is reasonable to respond to those difficulties, which are basically a need for housing, by saying that it is best for each local authority to determine what will happen in its own area and only what will happen in its own area. It is vital that we retain a system that requires each local authority to accept in a corporate and shared manner some of the responsibility for the needs and future requirements of the region as a whole. That is the type of system that we have tried to institute and on which we are making progress.

I think that that approach is a much more mature way of addressing those difficult issues. It makes demands of local authorities and requires them to work together both with their neighbouring local authorities and with regional planning authorities. I believe, however, that if each region is seriously and maturely to address the current and future housing needs of the region as a whole, that is the only way forward. I also think that the Conservative party policy that we have heard expressed so far on those issues would be a recipe not only for chaos, but for a total abdication of responsibility for the housing needs of future generations in all our regions, but especially in the south-east, where there are particular pressures.

I regret to tell the hon. Gentleman that I do not share his view about the way forward on those issues. I also do not think that Conservative Members have a realistic, meaningful and truly sincere approach to policy on those issues. I think that their policy would leave many families, and the children of many families, without any prospect of setting in the area where they have grown up.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve midnight.

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