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Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for early sight of the statement on what the Government may at some future time do with regard to housing policy. I suppose that in this Jubilee year it is natural for us to look back as well as forward, and I think that there is more than a touch of nostalgia in the Deputy Prime Minister's statement. He is known throughout the House as a deeply sentimental man, much given to romantic gestures. Conservative Members certainly appreciate the gesture of the statement as we rapidly approach the 50th anniversary of the death of Joseph Stalin. There can be no greater tribute to central planning than this housing statement.

Just as the great generalissimo felt frustration over tractor production figures in the Urals, so the present Government will feel frustration over this half- thought-through attempt to solve the country's housing problems. Make no mistake, the crisis is entirely of the Government's own making. Who else but this Government, who presided over the worst housing figures since 1924—the year that Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister—could make a virtue out of reversing their own mistakes? This great leap forward is to achieve the same housing building figures that were achieved under Thatcherism. Perhaps the Prime Minister is right—perhaps we are all Thatcherites now. [Interruption.] Well, I certainly am.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister recall saying in April 1999:

Is this what he meant: concreting over the green belt of Kent and Essex, destroying the character of those counties?

In his statement, the Deputy Prime Minister made great play of increasing the amount of green belt. Indeed, he took some credit himself, but it has to be said that not one single acre of green belt was added to either Kent or Essex. He also says that, eight years ahead of schedule, 60 per cent. of developments are on brownfield sites. That is a direct result of the poor housing figures. Frankly, 60 per cent. of not very much is still not very much. There are no significant brownfield sites in Uttlesford.

The submissions to the Chancellor were made when transport was the responsibility of the right hon. Gentleman's Department, yet there are some deep contradictions in them. Doctors, teachers and nurses need to work in London and the south-east, and no new rail links have been announced. People living in the new houses in the new conurbations will face long,

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uncomfortable and expensive commuter journeys. Doctors, nurses and teachers want to be part of established communities. What estimate does the Deputy Prime Minister have of the average time that it will take the occupants of the new homes to travel to work?

The statement did not address the problem of the flight from our inner cities, and the Deputy Prime Minister's suggestion that he will intervene rings rather hollow, because he shilly-shallied over the development at the Elephant and Castle. If the Government had shown some backbone over that, many of those new houses would already have been built in Southwark.

People are fleeing the city because of the quality of life—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Please let the hon. Gentleman be heard; that is only courtesy.

Mr. Pickles rose[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Pickles: I am most grateful for your protection, Mr. Speaker.

A violent crime occurs every 20 seconds in the city. People also leave the city because of overstretched health facilities and poor schools that teachers would not—to coin a phrase—touch with a bargepole. Has the Deputy Prime Minister explained his plans to the Secretary of State for Education, because there was nothing in her statement last Tuesday to suggest any match-up or joined-up government?

What percentage of people in the new rural communities will travel to work by bus, by rail and by car, and what additional capacity is being built into public transport to allow for the new homes? What estimate does the right hon. Gentleman have of the increase in road congestion? Will he confirm that at the last count there were 193,000 empty properties in London and the south-east? Has that figure gone up or down in the past year, and what is he going to do about it?

There is a second contradiction at the heart of the proposal. Last week the Government announced that they will take £100 million in Government grant away from Kent and Essex, yet at the same time obligations to provide new schools, extra social services and doctors' surgeries will be imposed on those counties.

Has the Deputy Prime Minister had the chance to have a word with people who know about the planning problems in that part of the world? Has he spoken to the water companies, and is he aware that there is an acute water shortage in both Kent and Essex? He has not mentioned any provision for supplying drainage or sewerage for the new homes.

The right hon. Gentleman needs to address the disparity in costs for developing brownfield sites. Until he does, greenfield sites will always provide the quickest solution. Kent currently has a land bank to meet its housing needs for 11 years, but much of it consists of brownfield sites and contaminated land. Helping counties such as Kent to bring those sites back into use would be a much better way to spend public money.

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The simple and hard truth is that there is nothing particularly expensive about building property in the south-east. Building and fees are not expensive, but land acquisition is—and the right hon. Gentleman's proposals will simply make land in the south-east more expensive.

The idea of business planning zones was heavily savaged by the Select Committee. Whether its criticisms were right or not, there is still a fundamental problem with the idea. Will not areas close to the zones be at risk? Will it not be a case of chase the job around the region? A new set of multiplex cinemas or a do-it-yourself outlet will not revitalise an area. That idea smacks of 1980s solutions—[Interruption.] The 1980s were 20 years ago, and local authorities are in a different position now. They are much more able to work together than they were 20 years ago.

We of course welcome the U-turn, following the Select Committee's criticisms, on the suggestion that this House impose a pattern. However, if the Deputy Prime Minister allowed those who want new runways in the south-east to draft the recent proposals, he should not be surprised that they were both unpopular and workable.

I believe that the Deputy Prime Minister will regret the decision on country structure plans, which have been worked on hard for a number of years. He set up the Crow report, and many of the working parties are waiting to report on their findings. It would be a grave mistake to ride roughshod over local communities and local democracy.

Five years ago, the Deputy Prime Minister ordered the building of 10,000 houses on the green belt near Stevenage. Now, he has returned to type—to the policy of the bulldozer. The charge that is laid against this Government is that throwing money at the problem will not work without reform. However, he has gone one step beyond: money is being thrown at the problem without reform or thought, and it will not work.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: It would be so easy to enter into a diatribe between the political parties on what has been achieved. I did ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the fact that housing figures have fallen under all Governments, and although I will accept some responsibility on behalf of this Government, I should point out that we have not been in power for all of the last 30 years. We took over from a Government whose housing policy had led to the repossession of some half a million homes, and a £19 billion council home repair backlog that we are trying to deal with. More than 1 million households suffered from negative equity, and the mortgage rate was 15 per cent. I do not want to get into that dialogue, but that was the result of 18 years of Conservative Government.

I entreat the hon. Gentleman to come to an agreement, because those in bed-and-breakfast accommodation who want a home, and who see the tremendous increase in house prices, want this House to be serious about the matter. They want us to end the political diatribe and to begin providing the homes that people need as an essential part of a good, decent life. I could enter into the Stalinist argument, but I was under the impression that the Tories, too, used regional planning guidance and advice in various areas. Is not the county structure plan an example of Stalinist thinking? I understand why the hon. Gentleman has to use such phrases, but will he recognise

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that the scale of the problem is such that this House should unite and say that we are going to do something different?

I invite the hon. Gentleman to join me in that step change—in making a difference. That means changing planning and the rules on house building, and putting the resources where they are needed to meet particular problems. That is a challenge for us all, and it is clear that the first step change needed is in this House, so that we can get together to bring about those programmes.

It is a bit of a cheek for the hon. Gentleman to talk about the green belt. I was the Secretary of State responsible for increasing the greenbelt by 30,000 hectares, but it was the previous Administration who reduced it. Those who recall the relevant debates in this House will know that the Opposition could not make up their mind whether the target in respect of brownfield sites should be 55 per cent., 60 per cent., 70 per cent. or 75 per cent. They had four targets in four days. They said that we could not reach our target but we reached it eight years early, and we are tightening up the process. So it is a bit of a cheek, given the record of the previous Administration, for the hon. Gentleman to use such arguments.

The hon. Gentleman said that more houses in the south-east should be built on brownfield sites, but what does he think the Thames gateway is about? All 200,000 houses could be built in that area, provided that the money for the infrastructure can be found and long-term investment put in. Too often, short-term decisions have been taken; instead, I want to engage in the long term. Let the House together make the step change to meet the needs of our people. I will make a statement to the House about how all the various parts can be brought together. We need long-term thinking and long-term commitment. That is what this issue should be about; please join me in that aim.

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