Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 1-19)

WEDNESDAY 13 DECEMBER 2000

RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, MP AND MR HENRY CLEARY

Chairman

  1. Can I welcome you back to the full Committee today. Could I ask you to identify yourself and your colleague for the record, please?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, indeed, Chairman. Still, since yesterday, Michael Meacher, Minister for the Environment and on my left Henry Cleary, who is Head of the Rural Development Division of the DETR.

  2. Now I know you normally do not want to make an opening statement. Do you want to on this occasion?
  (Mr Meacher) I think opening statements are a way of distracting essentially from your priorities, which I prefer to concentrate on. I will make one sentence though which I think I should perhaps put up front. We intend to publish an implementation plan for the delivery of the White Paper early in the New Year.

  3. Can I press you as to what "early in the New Year" is?
  (Mr Meacher) We did have a lengthy discussion at the beginning on the word "soon" yesterday.

  4. I assumed you picked that with care from this lexicon of words.
  (Mr Meacher) I think you exaggerate my solicitude for terminology. I would hope in January. Is there any reason why we should not?
  (Mr Cleary) We need to consult with partners. It is going to be shared with a number of partners who are going to implement.
  (Mr Meacher) It is other departments.

  Mr Blunt: That is May.

Mrs Dunwoody

  5. So "soon" is not a very accurate account?
  (Mr Meacher) I think soon remains pretty accurate.

Chairman

  6. Your hope is January?
  (Mr Meacher) My hope is January, yes.

  Dr Ladyman: He has not said which New Year.

Mr Blunt

  7. Minister, why does the White Paper assume that a considerable number of "executive homes" will continue to be built in villages? How many new executive homes do you expect to be built in villages over the next 20 years?
  (Mr Meacher) The thrust of the Rural White Paper is to increase the number of affordable homes that are being built. We propose to double the Housing Corporation Approved Development Programme which will increase the affordable home build from 800 to 1,600 a year. It increases under that Approved Development Programme the percentage of affordable homes from 3.4 to 6.4 per cent. In addition, there is the increase in local authority social housing grants which we estimate will provide, also, something of the order of another thousand a year. We will continue with the Rural Exceptions Policy. We believe, also, that the exercise of existing planning powers should increase something of the order perhaps of another 500 affordable homes, a total of around 3,000 homes. Now, combined with that, there can be some increase in executive homes. I think it will be small. We are drawing attention of local authorities, to the fact that the exercise of planning powers is in their hands. It is perfectly possible in the light of need in their area to have a one for one policy, namely for each market or executive home, if you call it that, there could be one affordable home.

  8. Does that not lead then to rather more the incentive to grant planning permission for executive homes? If you are doing one for one then that means every time you put up an executive home, you need one of them to get an affordable home.
  (Mr Meacher) Against the background where in the past, in the last couple of decades we have sometimes had 25 executive homes for every affordable home, if it is one for one that is a dramatic change in the other direction. We do not believe that in the light of housing deprivation the numbers are very large that need to be met but we believe that a build in small communities of less than 3,000 population, very small communities, doubling the number and getting it to a total of about 3,000, or if you look at all rural districts about 9,000 a year, that will meet the need. In addition, if there is some demand for executive homes, we believe that can be met consistent with our overriding objective for affordable homes.

  9. What impact do you expect your proposed house building rates firstly in villages and secondly in market towns to have on outward migration of households from urban to rural areas?
  (Mr Meacher) The aim is to concentrate the build of affordable homes in market towns. Increasingly, we believe it should be concentrated in market towns. They are intended to be the focus for regeneration, the provider for services within the area.

  10. That is what you mean, is it? You say in Chapter 9 of the Rural White Paper that it should be market towns, as you have just said. Of course what you say in Chapter 5 on affordable housing is significant numbers of affordable houses can be built in villages specifically in association with at least as many private houses. Which do you mean?
  (Mr Meacher) You did not give me a chance to finish my sentence. I am saying that it should increasingly be concentrated in market towns but we do recognise that there is a particular need in some areas for some increase in build in small villages. It would be in small numbers and only compatible with the characterisation of the village. There is some need, some young people growing up, marrying, wanting a house, at the moment not able to buy one. Now we do intend to try and meet that need.

  11. If these houses go on being built in the countryside, in the South East of England the Government signed up to these huge numbers in opposition to local authorities and local authorities collectively, surely all you are going to do is continue the motion we have had before, the migration from towns and cities into the countryside? This policy will not stop that, will it?
  (Mr Meacher) There are several points there, very political issues about this question of build on the countryside. First of all, we are not increasing the build in the countryside at all as a result of the Rural White Paper, we are simply concentrating on a greater proportion of the build being affordable homes. That is the thrust of the paper. You raise also the wider question of what you call, I cannot remember your adjective but extensive build on the countryside in the South East.

  12. Concreting over the countryside.
  (Mr Meacher) We have made repeatedly clear that as a result of using increased density we are not using any more land than under the SERPLAN proposal. There is not, contrary to what you say, an increased concreting over or building on the countryside, that is not the case. The Rural White Paper is not about that more general issue, it is about meeting specific and targeted need in specific areas, mainly in market towns but also in some villages.

  13. SERPLAN are only responding to the central government's own figures. It is a complicated negotiation. The local authorities in the South East and so on are just seeing how low they can get this figure to have some form of agreement with you and your Department. These are not the numbers the people in the South East want that SERPLAN represent, so to then say we are going to represent no more land than SERPLAN are allocating, if you are trying to say that represents the views of local people, it does not. You know it does not because you know how the system works.
  (Mr Meacher) Chairman, this is going rather wider than the Rural White Paper. I am perfectly prepared to go down this avenue but I think this is a broader issue. The fact is the Government is required—all governments are required—to take account of the demographic demand for new house build. That is a figure which is regularly updated every five years. Once we have that figure, and we try to make it as reliable as possible, we then have to allocate that across different regions of the country and through local authorities or through regional planning guidance. That is exactly what we have done. The fact is there is a demand for new housing and one cannot get away from that. There are changes in demographic structures, more elderly people, more young people preferring to live alone for longer periods before they may marry or live together. The fact is there are more refugees from marriages. All of those are true and they increase the demand for housing.

  14. There are not more people. It would seem rather sensible to look at some of the social issues which underlie that in order to address the household arrangements. How will you ensure that the affordable homes, the executive homes and everything else are going to be primarily for people from that region, from the countryside, rather than at the end incomers perhaps who may buy them and be the second owners of those homes?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. This is, of course, a matter primarily for local authorities. They are building in response to evidence of local need. The properties are intended for people who have lived in the area for a long time and who can demonstrate that. With regard to the right to buy, of course, which has in the past substantially reduced the availability of affordable homes, we have new rules now which require a right to buy which is not restricted. We are not proposing to restrict it in rural areas but the right to resell is restricted in the sense that it has to go back to the local authorities and registered social landlord within ten years or if it is being sold on after that period it has to go to someone who has lived and worked in the area for at least three years. The main point is we are building more houses. The pressure, the reduction in the availability of affordable homes, was mainly because of the effect of very little build over the last decade, in conjunction with the cumulative impact of the right to buy.

Chairman

  15. Can I just ask you, are you sure you are not pressing for more executive homes to pay for the social housing?
  (Mr Meacher) No, we are not doing that. I think there is a demand for executive homes. I think many people would like to live in the countryside. Although we are trying to address that by reducing that demand by making living in urban areas more attractive. Of course the whole of the Urban White Paper is about trying to produce the conditions: better quality services, better transport, less crime. Now these things are not easy to deliver, as we all know, but the intention is to improve quality in urban areas to reduce the flight to the countryside.

Mr Olner

  16. On farm diversification, Minister, are you happy that the planning system that you are going to put in is robust enough or are we just playing with minor tweaks at it?
  (Mr Meacher) This is a major issue. There is no doubt that the interface between the planning system and the farming community has not always worked well in the past. We have looked at this very carefully. Nick Raynsford, my colleague, has certainly discussed this. He has had major meetings with the various stakeholders. The general view which we share is that it is not the planning system as such which has to bring together conflicting interests which is always difficult to reconcile but it is the manner in which it is managed and delivered which is at fault. First of all, the planning system often appears unduly rigid and bureaucratic.

Chairman

  17. But is that not always the case? If you do not get what you want it is rigid and bureaucratic, if it gives you what you want it is nice and flexible?
  (Mr Meacher) That is true. That does influence perceptions, of course. The point I am making is that even when you are saying no to someone, which you have to do, for good reasons that are set down, there are ways of doing it. You either just say "no" in a forbidding and prohibitive manner or you say "Well, we cannot provide what you want in that location for these reasons but have you actually thought about alternatives at another location or in a different way or modified in a certain way which if you were to look at we might be able to take a different view?". That is a much more consumer friendly planning system. I think on the other side, farmers who are notoriously rugged and individualistic people who do not brook much interference with what is a pretty tough life for them and do not easily react to officialdom, I think we can do more to assist them, either for the small business service providing more assistance, perhaps someone to hold their hand, if you like, in their relations with the planning system.

Mr Olner

  18. Is not the planning system a soft target in the Rural White Paper? We are looking at the Rural White Paper to give more financial assistance and advice and training to farmers.
  (Mr Meacher) I am not sure the problem with the planning system is a question of money. We are looking at the question of agricultural permitted development rights, but only after discussion with the interested parties, and now is not the best time in view of the state of the agricultural community. We are proposing to update planning guidance. If there is a need for more financial support in this area I think we will look at it. I do not think that is the real problem, it is a relational issue and the manner in which farmers, when they need to diversify, perfectly properly, we are encouraging them to do so.

  19. How do we measure the environmental impact of some of these changes within the farming community, Minister?
  (Mr Meacher) That, of course, is exactly what the duty of planning officers is to do. The planning department does have to look at farm diversification because we are issuing new planning guidance to encourage more farm diversification but in a manner which does not undermine the basic character of the countryside. You can only make that judgment on the merits of each case. It is a judgment which can be made, I think.


 
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