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7.26 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this debate. I, too, should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) on their maiden speeches.

To have been elected to represent the constituency of Huntingdon is a great privilege; it has an ancient and famous history, to which I shall return. I feel honoured to have been chosen by my constituents to follow such a distinguished predecessor as Mr. John Major, whom very many Members will remember with respect and affection.

John Major served the House and his constituents for some 22 years, and his party for very much longer than that. In government, he achieved an outstanding, hardly matched record of public service, having been, in succession, a Government Whip, a Social Security Minister, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister.

John Major is a perfect gentleman—a man of immense charm and warmth who is kind and dedicated to public service. As Prime Minister, he proved himself a true statesman: on one hand, showing courage and determination in his conduct of the Iraqi conflict and, on the other, displaying his qualities as a peacemaker in his relentless pursuit of a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland. He was also a hard-working constituency Member who, despite his national responsibilities, dealt with his constituents' concerns with great efficiency and the minimum of fuss and self-advertisement.

In Huntingdonshire, John Major is regarded with the very highest respect and admiration. His standards of public service, integrity and decency will be a tough act for me to follow, but I believe that they present the best

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example to all new Members. Indeed, I shall be very satisfied if, after 22 years of service, I have the same relationship with my constituents as John had with his.

The Huntingdon constituency—with its four market towns of Huntingdon, Godmanchester, St. Ives and St. Neots, with their connecting artery, the Great Ouse river, together with some 40 related villages—has a distinguished and ancient past, not least in being the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell, who was elected as Member for Huntingdon in 1628. That Parliament was perhaps the most crucial in moulding the British system of parliamentary democracy that we have today. It was a time when the champions of civil rights and parliamentary liberties addressed how the law could be on the side of individual liberty as much as on the side of authority. Of course, it was the Parliament in which Members physically held down the Speaker to assert the right of the House to control its own Adjournment. I do not think that that could happen today, but one can only wonder what the reaction of the 1628 Parliament would have been to such things as the Government's proposal to restrict the ancient right against double jeopardy.

As to Cromwell's contribution to the 1628 Parliament, I managed to find his rather unimpressive maiden speech—indeed, his only speech in that Parliament—in which he attacked a bishop for popery at St. Paul's Cross. Clearly, inclusiveness was not on the agenda in 1628.

The Huntingdon constituency is a place of immense variety of business sectors and living environments. There is the established agricultural sector. Although it has so far been spared the horrors of foot and mouth disease, it has none the less suffered all the decline in income and the unemployment that has blighted that sector of our economy in recent years. Defence, too, is an important local employer. With four air bases and many thousands of British and American service personnel living in the area, issues relating to the proper funding of our armed forces are frequently mentioned to me.

Huntingdonshire, as part of the Cambridgeshire administrative area, has one of the highest numbers of self-employed people and small businesses in the country. That includes manufacturing but it increasingly includes self-employed consultants and new economy start-ups drawn to establishing their businesses in the so-called silicon fen. Larger technology-related companies are also basing themselves in the constituency and the healthy and welcoming business environment that we have is something that I shall continue very much to encourage.

Also important to the local economy and local quality of life are the shops and pubs of the villages as well as the retailers and markets of the market towns. I mention them in particular because all too often they are overlooked, with the result that, over the past 30 years, business and retail policy has prioritised cities or out-of-city retail sites very much to the cost of our market towns. It seems to be increasingly the case that market towns are targeted for new housing and, in the towns of Huntingdonshire, there is barely a cul-de-sac that has not been opened up for new development in recent years. That creates the risk of towns being turned into dormitories for people to sleep in and then leave to work in the surrounding cities.

Market towns were developed to be destinations, not dormitories—destinations for townspeople and surrounding villagers to work in and to sell their produce

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and buy goods. To lose sight of that and to believe that market towns can just keep building houses with no ill effects would be a grave error. Indeed, it would be as great an error as was made by planning policies over the years that led to the depopulation of many of our nation's inner cities, with the subsequent disastrous impact on businesses and balanced social environments that ultimately resulted in displacement and homelessness.

Furthermore, such an error would cause us to ignore the reality of changing life styles in this country. Indeed, one of the most striking events of the general election campaign in 2001, compared with 1997, was the physical presence of people in their homes during the working day. In 1997, I mainly found retired people or housewives at home during working hours but this year, in home after home, I came across employees and the self-employed working from home.

I believe that that trend will dramatically increase in coming years and it will involve a return to a village and town-based life rather than a commuting life. To that extent, it is vital that we proactively maintain and improve local shops and public services in our towns and villages so as to avoid the essentially reactive measures that have been and are still required in many of our inner cities.

What is needed is a balance. Growing areas need more housing, of course, but, at the same time, that housing needs to be fairly dispersed around the country—not just dumped in the south of England. Cambridgeshire has been ordered to build 4,000 new homes each year for the next 15 years, and that is about three times more building than the county has had in the past 10 years. The impact of that will be abundantly clear to anyone who lives in Huntingdonshire: more concrete, fewer green fields and, importantly, even more pressure on public services.

When we talk about a balanced approach to new housing, it is also vital to bring public services into the picture. Hinchingbrooke hospital in Huntingdon is well loved and admired for its quality of service and yet—mainly due to the increase in population and the resulting increase in health demands—its waiting lists have grown in each of the past three years.

Again, although our local schools provide an excellent education service to our children, the fact remains that local secondary schools, particularly in the St. Neots area, are bursting at the seams, but Cambridgeshire has still not been taken into the area cost adjustment. That means that our pupils receive up to a third less funding than children in surrounding counties. Again, the increase in population has meant that we have fewer police per head of population than anywhere else in England.

Huntingdonshire has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country. Indeed, when David, now Lord, Renton was last elected as its Member in 1974, the constituency had roughly the same number of people as now but it was double the geographic size. It prospered greatly during the time of John Major and that happened because a balance was maintained. For all the new housing, public services were expanded, businesses flourished, roads were built and school places were increased.

I speak for the Huntingdon constituency, but I am sure that my concerns will be shared by many Members with rural or market town constituencies. Of course we need housing, and more affordable housing, not only to deal

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with homelessness but to assist local areas to keep their local workers and to give their children the chance of living close to their families.

Somehow, however, I do not see a balanced and integrated approach coming from the Government and from this Bill. Reducing homelessness is a sound objective, but it cannot be an isolated one. It needs to be considered in the context of the effects of displacement and the maintenance of stable communities. It needs to have regard to the maintenance of public services, the need to increase business opportunities and jobs in the affected areas and the need to address local people's sensitivities. It needs to allow local authorities to have a strong input rather than simply be dictated to from Whitehall.

To deal effectively with homelessness will require even more than examining the impact of building thousands of new homes in the south. It will also require a much more careful assessment of why homelessness happens in the first place. Why are people moving en masse from the north of our country to the south? Why has the number of homeless people increased to 110,000 and the number of homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation from more than 4,000 in 1997 to almost 11,000 now, while, at the same time, the number of empty council properties now stands at 130,000 properties, of which 90,000 are in the midlands and the north?

The Bill aims to require local housing authorities to put together a strategy for tackling homelessness in their districts, and the Government describe that as solving the problem at its roots. Of course, that assumes that the homeless in any one area originate from that area. However, as any London social services department will say, hardly any of the homeless come from the borough concerned. They are mainly from out of town or asylum seekers.

To that extent, I suggest that although the Bill will certainly deal with some of the problems involved with homelessness, it fails to address the key strategic issues at national level. Surely, before mandating yet more thousands of homes in Huntingdonshire and the rest of the south of England, we should address inner-city deprivation and the need to fill up empty council houses, not only on a local basis as envisaged by this Bill, but through a system of co-ordinated national allocation. Indeed, the Government accepted this principle for asylum seekers and I would be interested to hear from the Minister why that approach should not be adopted for the homeless.

Additionally, we need to appreciate that there are 620,000 empty properties in the private sector. If some of those homes could be brought back into use, the problem of homelessness could quickly be solved. The Bill will require housing authorities to assess the problems of empty homes but it will not solve the problem—to do that will again require action from the top.

In particular, there should be tax incentives for residential letting and developers should be encouraged to redevelop existing sites rather than build on more green fields. At the moment, developers pay zero VAT to build on green fields but they pay VAT to refurbish in an inner city. The position needs to be equalised. Furthermore, it needs to be appreciated that the red tape and regulations involved in refurbishing for letting purposes has stifled the affordable homes end of the private lettings market. The regulations require a thorough review.

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The Bill will go some way to clarifying the position of the homeless at a local level but what it will not do is solve the national problem.

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