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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Denis MacShane): The United Kingdom enjoys good relations with Nicaragua. I briefly met President Bolanos at the inauguration of Costa Rica's new President last week and I look forward to meeting him at the summit of EU, Latin American and Caribbean states in Madrid this Thursday and Friday. We particularly welcome the headway he is making on tackling corruption.
Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. What advice is given to British citizens who plan to buy islands off the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua? Is he aware of the Channel 4 documentary, "No Going Back", which featured a family in that position? Is he also aware of the 1987 constitution and its provision for the autonomous coast of Nicaragua that gives the rights to those islands and that land to the indigenous people of Nicaragua?
Mr. MacShane: I have never fully understood the attraction of buying one's own island, but undoubtedly some people have that ambition. I have been informed about the Channel 4 documentary and the tragic circumstances of the family in question, and the great help that our ambassador and staff there provided to them. I would advise anybody anywhere in the world to have the closest regard to local property laws and, especially in central and Latin America, the rights of indigenous people, whose needs and priorities are being raised and discussed throughout the region. I would have thought that we have plenty of pretty coastline and even the odd island off the British Isles that might be bought first.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): While the whole House will be much gratified to learn of the excellent relations between the Government and Nicaragua, will the Minister tell the House the aims and objectives of the Government's policy towards Nicaragua?
Mr. MacShane: The hon. Gentleman is an island unto himself. His new-found interest in Nicaragua is much appreciated. The keywhich I discussed last week with our ambassador to Nicaraguais to root out corruption inherited from the Sandinista Administration and their successor. I congratulate the Bolanos Government on the headway that they are making in combating corruption, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is as keen on rooting out corruption as I am.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In making this point of order, I wish to make it clear that no blame or discredit should attach to Lord Rooker, who has made strenuous and characteristically courteous efforts to ensure that the House is properly informed on this matter. However, a written question due for answer today asks the Home Secretary when he will announce the sites about which he will seek planning permission for accommodation centres. It transpires that the answer to that question appeared in the Independent on Sunday at the weekend. The newspaper correctly identified the three sites in question, which include Throckmorton in my constituency. The Home Office gave an assurance yesterday that the report was sheer speculation.
Do you agree, Mr. Speaker, that that is a gross discourtesy to the House? The matter is of huge importance to my constituents and to the asylum seekers who will be so inappropriately housed in accommodation centres. Should not the matter have been handled more properly? Given that there has been a leak from the Home Office, do you have any power to ask the Home Secretary to conduct a leak inquiry?
Mr. Speaker: I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), made an announcement in Standing Committee E this morning, and that the hon. Gentleman was also contacted by a Home Office Minister beforehand. No doubt Ministers are as concerned as the hon. Gentleman over the leak. I am sure that they will take note of the comments that he has made on the matter.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate that the Order Paper is not your exclusive responsibility, but it is clear that some of today's questions in Foreign Affairs questions were somewhat lacking in topicality. That is because they have to be put down a fortnight in advance, and circumstances in foreign affairs can change very quickly. I wonder, when you are next consulted about the contents of the Order Paper, whether you might give some regard to the circumstances in which it might be possible to question Foreign Office Ministers about issues that have become topical since the Order Paper was drawn up. Is it possible that questions of a more open nature than has become the custom might once again be in order?
Mr. Speaker: I understand that the Procedure Committee is looking at parliamentary questions at the moment. I advise the right hon. and learned Gentleman to take his complaint to that Committee. I do not have powers to change the order of questions that come before the House on any given day, including today.
The movement to build high-rise flats as a solution for our housing crisis came from the strong utopiansome say socialistthinking led by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. His experiment in MarseillesUnité d'Habitationbecame better known as a village on stilts. When United Kingdom architects, planners and developers borrowed from these experiments, they failed miserably but, alas, not before many of our inner citiesand some of our outer ones toohad decided that that type of housing was the cheapest means of providing rabbit hutches in the sky. I know of only one architect of public high-rise flats who was prepared to live in them. That probably says a lot about our architects.
After the war, we seemed to forget the lessons of Saltaire, Port Sunlight, Bournville, New Earswick, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. I do not wish to upset certain hon. Members or their constituents, but of the new towns built since 1948, how many are we really proud of in terms of architecture, infrastructure and housing densities? Would we truly want to give grade 1 listed status to a Basildon, a Cumbernauld, a Milton Keynes or a Crawley as examples that can hold a light to our 19th century philanthropists who ultimately gave us the garden city movement? Thankfully, though, that is still a matter for debate.
Housing, especially in the south-east, has become, along with public sector pay and the need for a truly 21st century infrastructure, the key to the quality of life for everyone. House prices make it essential that we look again at extending the London allowance into a south-east allowance, but that alone will not solve our severe housing shortage.
I do not want this to be a Bill for the south-eastfar from it. However, the way in which developers work in tandem with our unelected planning departments is a joy to behold. Developers can work with planners for two or three years without an elected councillor or the people whom it might affect knowing anything. The first part of the Bill would end the secrecy of developers and the relationship that they have with planning departments. It would make it law that when an architect, developer or whoever first contacted a planning department, whether by e-mail, letter or telephone, that department would have to put an advertisement in the local paper explaining the proposed development. It would also have to put that information on its website, inform all the elected politicians of the application, including borough and county councillors, Members of Parliament and Members
The second part of the Bill goes to the heart of the problem, and I shall cite examples from my constituency, parts of which resemble a building site. When families moved into the village of Bapchild, they were told that there was a primary school less than 400 m away. They were not told that the primary school had no spare places. Consequently, those children have been fitted into the primary schools all over Sittingbourne, with some families having to drive nearly three miles across the town in the rush hour.
On the outskirts of Miltonfast becoming a suburb of Sittingbourneon the Meads estate, more than 500 new houses have been or are being built. I will resist commenting on the way in which developers such as Redrow Homes and David Wilson Homes have attempted to build these houses. Families were told that there was to be a new primary school built under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. They were also told that there would be a new doctor's surgery on site, shops and even a village hall. They still might, if they cross their collective fingers, one day in the future actually see the shops and the play space, but I would not hold my breath. Families are now driving back to Gravesend or Maidstone to see their former general practitioners and there is no new primary school, so there is no planning gain. No wonder the developers love planning departments. They love them because the odds are stacked in their favour. This must stop.
In another area of my constituency, the developer has been allowed to build and, at the same time, take down the woodland that shielded the new houses from the noise of one of the busiest highways in the county. The result is that not even triple glazing prevents the din. Worse stillbecause that development is almost in the countrysideis the fact that as my constituents sit in their gardens all they can hear is the drumming of cars and lorries on the concrete.
The most insidious part of planning that goes unchecked relates to the number of houses that can be built on a site. My guess is that no developer who puts in for 350 houses actually builds 350 houses. Anecdotal evidence suggests that developers will try anything on. Their initial instruction may ask for 350 houses but by the time the development is finished, there could be as many as 500 houses on the site. That benefits only the developer.
To the communities that we represent, more houses mean a greater strain on our already overworked infrastructure. We already suffer shortages of teachers, nurses, policemen and women, doctors and firemen and women. Our train service is becoming oversubscribed and, in the rush hour, it is beginning to be stretched beyond the bounds of safety.
We can continue to pretend that we need houses, but before we build themespecially on greenfield sitesthe agencies that serve our people must agree to that new build. It should not just be a matter for planning departments. The second part of the Bill would provide for a legally binding, multi-agency document for planners, developers, trade unions, statutory bodies, including health, education and police, to detail the infrastructure needs, the funding and the time scale for implementation before any housing permission is granted.