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24 Jul 2002 : Column 268WH


11 am

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): First, I apologise for choosing what is probably the dullest debate title this Session. PPG3—Planning policy guidance note 3—is something that I did not know a great deal about two years ago, and my constituents certainly did not know much about it either. If I were to say that people were now discussing PPG3 in the pubs and bars of Winchester, hon. Members might not believe me, but it is becoming an issue of extraordinary concern in the area. The document with the strange title "PPG3" is having quite an impact on the postbags of many Members of Parliament who represent constituencies similar to Winchester, and people visit our surgeries to talk about it. In essence, PPG3 is a Government policy designed to maximise the development of brownfield land.

My second apology is to the Minister; I am sure that he is fed up with Members of Parliament from the south-east making representations about housing developments in that area. I do not want to take a NIMBY approach to the subject, but will point out some of my concerns about the approach that is being taken, and the impact that PPG3 is having on the development and character my constituency and the rest of Hampshire.

I am not arguing that Hampshire should put up a "full" sign or a big barrier saying "No more developments in this area." I accept that there is a need for some form of housing, particularly low-cost housing. The subject is topical in view of last week's announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister. However, it is important that we have a debate about the type and amount of housing and, more specifically, its location and the Government targets being put in place.

In simple terms, the problem is that the Government have set some tough targets for the south-east, and those targets have been broken down into percentage targets for developments on both greenfield and brownfield sites in the area. The county council are to set up a structure plan, and local authorities will be faced with the day-to-day task of implementing decisions as planning applications come through to them.

The traditional argument, which I have used on many occasions, is that if we have to accept those central Government targets, we should at least try to avoid using green fields. They should be the very last option, and I certainly support the assumption that we should maximise use of brownfield sites to avoid building on them. In general, the public have understood that message; indeed, they have begun to use the phrase "brownfield site" at meetings. They recognise that development on brownfield sites is the price that we pay for not building on green fields.

I applied for this debate because the drive away from greenfield land towards brownfield land is having a serious impact. We need to recognise that the pendulum has swung the other way. We should urgently consider the impact that the pendulum swing towards brownfield sites is having on planning in the area. I am asking not for a shift back to development on greenfield sites, but for a review of the implication of developing brownfield sites, and in particular, the impact that PPG3 is having

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on local authorities. I shall discuss several issues, including sensitive brownfield sites, the need for more affordable housing, demands on infrastructure, the pressure put on individuals by developers, and the pressure on planning departments.

I shall start with sensitive brownfield sites. At the moment, all brownfield sites are alike in the eyes of the Government. Any previously developed area—even a factory site or an area covered in tyres—is in the same brownfield site category as, for example, a site very close to Winchester cathedral. We need to think again about how to categorise what is meant by a brownfield site. It is too simplistic to say that a site is either greenfield or brownfield, and if it is brownfield it can be developed to avoid building on greenfield areas. Many urban sites have as much value as marshland or other countryside areas, and are just as sensitive. However, at present there is no easy way to identify that third type of site.

At present, a development is being planned on the site of Minstrels, an old coffee shop in sight of Winchester cathedral. That is regarded as a brownfield site, just as an old factory site would be, which means that developers and the local authority have as much responsibility to pack as many flats or houses on to that site as they would on an old factory site. However, that is not really a brownfield site. Surely a third category is needed for such areas. Perhaps we could have greenfield sites, brownfield sites and "historic-field" sites, or semi-brownfield sites. I am sure that the Government can come up with terminology that would set aside a different category for those areas. It is important that they do that, because in certain parts of the country, brownfield sites are sensitive. A conservation area and cathedral city such as Winchester has less capacity to manage brownfield developments than more modern cities, or areas where there is more need for urban regeneration.

I wrote to the previous Minister about whether the Government were planning to review PPG3, and asked specifically whether they would consider its impact on the character of historic cities. The answer was that the research on PPG3 involved the influence of capacity studies on housing development, but that it would not report specifically on its impact on the character of historic cities. Will the present Minister reconsider that, because there is a need to examine what is happening to those cities? If the review shows that PPG3 is having a detrimental impact on historic sites, will the Government consider introducing a third category not of brownfield or greenfield, but of historic or conservation sites?

My second worry builds on my previous point. If we accept that some areas are more capable of coping with regeneration and PPG3 than others, there must be a way in which county areas can manage the flow better. PPG3 says that there is a preference for building on urban sites and that regional planning bodies are supposed to work together to achieve that. I have seen little evidence of such co-operation. There should be some ability to trade sites between various city and local authority areas. That could be achieved by making better use of the Government's database of brownfield sites, which represents a good step towards a trade-off between sites that can and cannot take extra housing.

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Local authorities contribute towards the database by undertaking urban capacity studies. That is an excellent idea, but at present we are not making maximum use of those studies. I believe that local authorities should submit their studies to the Secretary of State and that a county structure plan should not be agreed, signed or set in place unless all the urban capacity studies have been completed. In areas such as Hampshire, it is nonsense to submit the hard work done by half the authorities in identifying brownfield sites to the county, and for the county then to make decisions without seeing the rest of the local authorities' work.

We need to have a system that allows for certain areas that are in need of urban regeneration to undertake urban capacity studies and maximise the use of brownfield sites in their areas, thus relieving the pressure on the more ancient city centres. If that sounds as if I am a NIMBY saying, "You can build it all in the old port areas in Hampshire, not in the ancient city centres," I apologise. But there is merit in having a system that allows that to happen. Local people would benefit from it.

My third worry is about the market overheating as a result of the emphasis now placed on PPG3. There is, as the Deputy Prime Minister has acknowledged, a backlog in meeting housing demand, but there is a danger, certainly in my constituency, that the floodgates are being opened. The market is overheating. Developers know that they can knock on doors and say to people, "Instead of building one house in your back garden, PPG3 means that we have to build three or four."

I am not one of those who would normally argue for interfering with the market. I accept that we live in a market economy and that the south-east and the housing market are both buoyant. However, the targets for brownfield developments set in PPG3 will probably be achieved quickly, possibly in the next two years, because developers and builders recognise that local authorities have to maximise their use of brownfield sites. Some of us would have preferred that target to be achieved over a phased 10-year period.

It seems right that the planning authority should be able to say to developers, "Yes, under PPG3 you could have built four or five houses on this site, but in the last six months we have built so many new properties—we have built about 1,000 in the past few years—that we are going to say no at the moment, because we want to phase this in over a 10-year period, rather than it all hitting the market so early on." I would welcome a response from the Minister on whether local authorities could take that approach. They could accept an application in planning terms, but turn it down in the short term to try to calm the market and restrain excessive demand, and seek to phase developments in. It is important that the situation should be calmed down.

The impact on my constituency is enormous; applications are coming through for every little bit of land. The overheating in these early years will not allow the infrastructure to catch up. We know that new schools, hospitals, drains, roads and so on take time to be established. Such developments can be planned over a 10-year period, but they cannot be put in place quickly enough to cope with the present demand. Brownfield

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sites should be near to sustainable areas, but developers are identifying sites where the infrastructure is not in place.

I recently attended a meeting of the Compton Down residents association, which has produced its own study of whether the area is sustainable and what it can cope with. The sustainability appraisal shows that there is no primary school, secondary school or general practitioner, no post office or shop, no bank, petrol station, pub, library, church, community hall or recycling point—I could continue. There is none of the infrastructure that we would normally require to accompany developments. Perhaps such infrastructure developments could be made during the next 10 years, but they cannot be achieved at the moment.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Will my hon. Friend comment on the crazy situation whereby Government grants are being used to demolish housing in some parts of the country where infrastructure already exists—for example, in Hull and Newcastle—while in the south we are building where there is no infrastructure, and we are trying to find ways to fund new infrastructure?

Mr. Oaten : My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that illustrates the need to take a more global approach to the matter, rather than making individual local authorities meet targets. Some areas will be able to support urban regeneration and add to their infrastructure, rather than having to create infrastructure where it does not exist.

In Whiteley, in my constituency, new homes were built and within three or four years the primary school was full. Two extra classrooms were added and there is talk of adding a temporary classroom. Clearly, the infrastructure that should accompany new homes is not in place. We need to phase in and control PPG3 and allow local authorities to say that they will not accept all its requirements straight away. I accept that that would mean interfering with the market. I am not comfortable with that, but there is a desperate need for us to take that step now.

Flooding is another infrastructure issue. The drive towards PPG3 and finding and identifying sites will have some interesting impacts on the pressure to build on flood plains. My office was in contact with the Environment Agency manager for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, who said that although the agency promotes sustainable development it believes that there could be greater pressure to build residential developments on flood plains. He said:

He believes that there could be a conflict between PPG25, which deals with flood risk, and the drive towards developing land under PPG3. He continued:

rather than making the assumption that we should necessarily build on them. I hope that the Minister will recognise that building on more brownfield sites involves dangers and anxieties about building on sites that, as we know only too well from our experiences 18 months ago, have a habit of flooding.

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I support affordable housing. My constituency like everyother constituency, has an enormous shortage of police, nurses and key workers, and I welcomed aspects of the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement last week. However, the consultation paper on reforming planning obligations suggests that the Government plan to change the way in which local authorities can extract money from developers for affordable housing. At the moment, under section 106 agreements, local authorities can set a tariff for developers and use the money to build affordable homes. The local authority in Winchester relies on that to secure revenue and provide new homes.

I understand that the suggestion is that in the new system there would be a threshold below which developers would pay nothing. If the local authority could no longer impose a levy on developments of fewer than four properties, that would have a serious impact on areas such as Winchester. Many infill sites involve four or five properties, and we rely on being able to set a tariff to pay for affordable housing. Do the Government intend to introduce a threshold to exclude smaller developments from the contribution that local authorities can take under section 106 agreements?

I now come to the frustrating subject of empty properties. We are focusing on the need to knock down existing properties on brownfield sites and redevelop, but brownfield sites contain an enormous number of vacant properties. In April 2001, 753,000 dwellings were vacant. About 86,000 were in the south-east, and about 17 per cent. were publicly owned. I am no mathematician, but my researcher tells me that that means that there are about 14,800 empty homes in the south-east, which would go a long way towards enabling Winchester and other local authorities in Hampshire to meet their brownfield targets. We need to make much more use of what already exists. Does the Minister believe that the urban capacity studies that local authorities use might be linked with studies and audits of empty properties? Recapturing some of those properties should be regarded as a way of achieving some of the targets.

People need to be encouraged to tackle difficult brownfield sites. In my experience in Winchester, developers find it easy to knock on the door and persuade someone to sell off a bit of garden, or, on discovering that a shop or office has become vacant, to move in and make an application. However, they seem reluctant to tackle a brownfield site that is tough, perhaps because methane has been found there or because it is large and a lot of work and cost would be involved.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the subject of the difficult sites, which he is exploring extremely well, will he return to the subject of existing residential sites where developers move in, pay the sort of money that people cannot refuse and develop to a very high density? In my constituency of Solihull, 10 residential units gave way to a development of 79 residential units. Would the hon. Gentleman care to say a word about intensity?

Mr. Oaten : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I touched on that point earlier in my contribution; the impact of PPG3 reflects exactly the point that he has

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made, because it causes 10 properties to be turned into 79 properties. I am asking the Minister to review the impact of PPG3 because such things happen day in, day out throughout the country. One day we will wake up and discover that we have a different urban culture. There is good motivation for that because none of us wants to build on greenfield sites, but we must recognise that the balance is shifting in the other direction.

Encouraging better use of difficult and complex brownfield sites would relieve pressure from the street corner developments. I understand that the partnership investment programme—PIP—was a popular and effective way of using public money to support regeneration related to private sector developments, but the European Commission outlawed it in 2001. Subsequent schemes to try to encourage the private-public use of old brownfield sites have not been successful. Will the Minister comment on that—he may wish to do so in writing—and tell us whether the Government have any plans to think again and lobby the European Commission to relax the state aids regulation? PIP was an effective way of using the sites, but as it no longer exists, some developers are reluctant to use difficult brownfield sites.

I shall examine the impact on individuals. I mentioned earlier the pressure on individuals when there is a knock on their door or a letter from a developer. That manifests itself in nasty ways. Apart from the fact that some people, such as 70 and 80-year-olds who live on their own, feel vulnerable and under pressure from developers to sell their land, a pattern is emerging whereby developers put in a planning application on a property, although they do not own it. At present there is nothing in law to stop that happening.

That means that the Minister could go back to his constituency tonight and discover that a planning application, in which he had had no say or involvement, had been made to turn his home into four flats. Local residents would be somewhat confused and immediately assume that he had put the application in. Such a situation has arisen in my constituency and it is causing enormous disquiet. The people who own the houses swear blind to their neighbours that they did not submit the application, but nobody believes them because it is assumed that they are trying to sell off their houses to make a quick buck. In fact, a developer has put the application in.

Can the Minister examine that problem? I appreciate that there are legal difficulties, because in some circumstances it is right and proper for planning applications to be submitted by a person who does not own the relevant land. However, the regulations could be tightened so that any notification issued would make it clear to the community that it was not the owner but a third party who did not own the land who had made the application, without the owner's permission. That is a small but growing problem as developers try every technique in the book.

The second impact on individuals is related to enforcement. A development in Crowder terrace in my constituency is a real example of the effect of PPG3 on individuals. Notification was poor. Indeed, a couple who lived right next to the property simply did not know

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that the development was going to happen. In another case, the developers went ahead without permission on a tight and particularly complex site. It is proving very difficult for planning authorities to tackle that, which is part of the general pressure being put on such authorities as PPG3 kicks in.

I have the utmost respect for planning officers. I visited the Winchester city planning department three or four months ago, and Steve Bee, the director, and his colleagues do an enormous amount of good work in the face of incredible demand. Applications to the authority have increased by 33 per cent. in the last three or four years, and are flooding in.

Mr. Taylor : Has the hon. Gentleman experienced in his constituency, as I have in mine, serial applications and appeals one after another, which have almost put the planning department under siege?

Mr. Oaten : It sounds as if the hon. Gentleman and I have similar experiences in our constituencies, because that is exactly what has been happening in Winchester.

The Government target that applications should be considered within eight weeks and the system that allows for an appeal create false deadlines. Taking more time to consider planning applications should not, in my view, mean a performance indicator failure. In fact, I would rather my authority was allowed 16 weeks to consider some applications, so that it could negotiate with developers and have more discussions, which would result in better quality decisions. Because the performance indicator requires that things be done within a fixed period, the authority feels not exactly that it must rush, but that it has to work under enormous pressure when dealing with applications.

We must take the heat off planners. To put it bluntly, it is probably much easier for a planning department to grant permission for 4,000 homes on one big greenfield site than to cope all at once with 200 or 300 smaller detailed brownfield applications to achieve the same number of homes. We support the shift towards brownfield sites, but we must recognise the pressure that that puts on planning authorities.

I ask the Minister to think carefully about expanding the review of PPG3. We all support the Government's objective of reducing the number of developments on greenfield sites, but I am also arguing, in a non-NIMBY way, that the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, and the net consequence of PPG3 and the drive to use brownfield sites causes as many problems as if the developments had been on greenfield sites in the first place.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. I think it advisable to remind hon. Members that in such a debate, it is common practice to allocate the last 30 minutes to the three winding-up speeches from the Front Benches. That time is usually apportioned equally between the two main Opposition spokespersons and the Minister. However, the Chairmen's Panel is reconsidering that practice, because we do not think that it is entirely fair. A Minister may require more time to

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answer questions—or, conversely, he may be happy to have a limited amount of time, in which he cannot answer questions.

As the Annunciator screens show, we have considerably more time than that today, but the Chairmen's Panel still feels strongly that the time left should be allocated equally only if necessary. In other words, the spokespersons from the main Opposition parties should not overrun one third of the time available. They do not have to take all of that time, but they must take no longer. Bearing those considerations in mind, and having explained that on the record, I am happy to call the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders).

11.29 am

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): You will be pleased to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have no intention of trying to fill the time available. Instead, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing the debate, and on choosing a title that ensured minimum attendance in the Chamber, so that he had the maximum time to put his point across. I am sure that if he had chosen the title "Housing in the South-east", or "Brownfield Development", the Chamber would have been packed.

The current planning system in England has two main parts: a framework of plans, and development control. A third element is the role of the Secretary of State in determining planning policy, which is where the planning policy guidance notes come in. The Secretary of State has three key roles. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister sets out the planning policies that drive the whole planning system, and they are principally contained in 25 planning policy guidance notes, or PPGs, and a series of minerals planning guidance notes, or MPGs.

The planning system is often seen as not working, unresponsive, and sometimes slow and difficult to understand. Over the past 50 years, however, it has protected some of the country's most important green spaces. It has regulated development and, especially has recently given communities some opportunities to participate in shaping the future of their area. It is certainly better than a free-for-all, and has provided an essential framework for managing our built environment.

However, as the Government clearly recognise in their planning Green Paper, there is a need for a thorough rethink, and the pressures on our planning system are driving that forward. Let there be no misunderstanding: one of those pressures is the fact that there is a housing crisis. Record numbers of people are inadequately housed in accommodation inappropriate to their needs. We know that there are links between poor and inadequate housing, and such things as low educational attainment and greater demands on social care and health services. There is a direct link between temporary accommodation and contact with the criminal justice system. Many of the social problems that rear their heads time and again in council chambers and in the House are linked to poor housing conditions.

The Liberal Democrats take a bottom-up approach. We believe that people in their communities know what is required, or should have mechanisms for determining

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what is required, so they should have the powers to meet those local demands and needs. Our policy is that each local authority should be tasked with undertaking a housing needs survey in its area to find out not only the number but the type of homes that are needed. We would then get away from the current system whereby developers build the properties that they wish to see in a locality and then, if they are in a property hotspot, advertise in national newspapers. Under that system, local needs go unmet.

The waiting lists for affordable housing in large parts of the south and south-east, and in several property hotspots in the north, are lengthening. There is a national problem. The right housing—housing appropriate to people's needs—is not being supplied. House prices are rocketing, as there are too few properties available for sale and interest rates are low. Low interest rates are a good thing, but when they make it easier for people to purchase there is too much money chasing too few properties. It is a classic problem of supply not meeting demand.

We also want local authorities to adopt a strict hierarchical approach after assessing housing needs in their area. The first thing that they should do is use empty homes. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said that there were 753,000 empty homes, and if we total up the number of people on council waiting lists and add those who are temporarily housed or homeless, the result is a similar figure of 750,000 people, taking into account the fact that each home represents a family. The locations of the empty homes do not necessarily square with the demand or the lack of supply, but the priority should still be to bring them back into use. We would give local authorities a statutory right to take over a property that had remained empty for more than 12 months without good reason, bring it back into use and supply a home for someone.

The second part of our hierarchical approach is to assess whether other empty buildings could be converted to use as homes. Homes above existing properties could be considered. To give credit where it is due, I must say that the Government's homes above shops scheme has proved popular, but much more could be done. We should consider infill and easing the planning system for change of use so that properties designated for business use could, when there was no more demand for that business, be changed to some form of housing use. Then we should consider brownfield and greenfield land, as a last resort.

The price of land is another key element. One reason why land values are high in this country is that although other countries tax land, we do not. If we taxed the undeveloped value of land, we would surely maximise its use. For a start, that would discourage the horrible practice of land banking, whereby developers purchase land speculatively and, believing that the price will rise in the future, hang on to it to make more money later rather than develop it to meet today's demand.

The community sometimes makes an investment in infrastructure that raises the value of the land around it. For example, when a new road is built, the land either side of it suddenly gets considered for development and its price rises.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): It sounds as if the hon. Gentleman is proposing a tax on the

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undeveloped value of land similar to the development land tax introduced by the Labour Government in the 1970s. That was an utter disaster, because development land was not brought forward for development. Has the hon. Gentleman thought through his proposal? How would it help make more land available for development and how much would it raise?

Mr. Sanders : I am talking about not a development land tax, but land value taxation. It was attempted in the 1920s but sadly, it was blocked for one simple reason: we did not then have a comprehensive land register, which would have been necessary for the policy to be successful. Such a tax would raise significant sums and could replace the uniform business rate altogether. We could do away with the uniform business rate and simply tax the site value of businesses and land. That might also help to iron out regional differences such as the overheating of particular regions. Developers would be encouraged to develop land with a lower land value tax, moving development away from the hotspots to other areas that we wish to be regenerated. Such a tax would also end windfall gains to which people contribute nothing. People lucky enough to live near the Jubilee line saw their properties rocket in price, but made no contribution to its costs. Such windfall gains are unjust, and the Government should consider mechanisms to put that situation right.

There are fairer mechanisms than section 106 agreements, which are mainly dependent on the negotiating skills of a particular local government officer with a particular developer. There can be two identical schemes in different districts, but one will get much more out of its section 106 agreement than the other. That system, too, must be reformed.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : The hon. Gentleman's proposal for taxation sounds very much like the punitive levels of taxation that the old Labour party introduced in the 1960s and 1970s. Will he confirm that the Liberal party has finally given up on any pretence of being a modern middle-of-the-road party and is now a far-left party?

Mr. Sanders rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I find it difficult to allow myself to be persuaded that such inquiries have a direct impact on PPG3. I advise the hon. Gentleman to carry on with his speech.

Mr. Sanders : I shall take your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am proposing land value taxation as one way of ensuring that we get the housing that we need. It would not be an additional tax, but replace existing ones, so in fact Liberals could be attacked from the left for being far too right wing in wanting to reduce the taxes that people have to pay, rather than increasing them or maintaining the status quo, as the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) clearly wants.

The idea of such a tax has always been defeated by the lack of a comprehensive land register, and that is directly linked to PPG3. Local authorities cannot

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prepare their structure plans and decide how to designate each plot of land unless they know who owns that land. According to the recently published book "Who Owns Britain", the owners of more than 60 per cent. of the land in this country are not known. It is staggering that we know the owners of only about 40 per cent. of the land.

We can find out who owns land only when the title changes and the land is registered. Although we may have a rough idea of who owns land that has not changed title for hundreds of years, we do not know for sure. It is often then released in small pockets, at the owner's whim and according to the market, to maximise its price. The first step in trying to bring land into use would be a comprehensive land register, so will the Minister say whether the Government have considered the link between knowing who owns land and Government land use policies, which are the responsibility of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister?

In conclusion, we need local housing studies, a strict hierarchy at a local level, a comprehensive land register and land value taxation. That radical agenda, which would reduce tax and abolish the uniform business rate, provides the answer to the problems that we are facing in our communities.

11.43 am

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): This has been an interesting debate, but I expect that the proximity of the recess has ensured that the attendance is not as great as it would otherwise have been. Nevertheless, it is important.

To start, we should examine the PPG, because it is wide ranging. It says:

It also recommends that we should

and, above all,

That is a pretty wide agenda, and we have had a pretty wide debate this morning.

We believe in the need for good quality, affordable housing. We thoroughly approve of the aim of using previously developed land—that is a better term than brownfield land—instead of concreting over the English countryside. We agree with the objectives of PPG3. After all, they were drafted under our stewardship. The shocking fact, which is not widely understood, is that last year only 162,000 houses were built, which is the lowest number since 1924, excluding the war years. Even more staggering is the fact that growth in the number of households in that period was 220,000, so for the first time ever the number of households has exceeded the number of houses being built. Furthermore, 7.6 per cent. of the nation's housing stock was classified as unfit in 1996, widening the gap between the number of homes available and those in need of housing. Little wonder, therefore, that the number of homeless has risen by

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12,000 since the Government were elected in 1997and the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has soared by 150 per cent. since the election. Imaginative policies are needed to start solving some of those fundamental problems.

Hon. Members have rightly talked about the need to build on brownfield, or previously developed, land. The Government will have great difficulty meeting that 60 per cent. target once the number of houses to be built starts to increase, and my goodness it needs to do so. I suggest that the Government should require all local authorities to draw up a register of all previously developed land in their area. They should co-operate with the owners to discover the nature of the contamination of that land, and plans should be drawn up showing how that land could be brought back into use and what use would be feasible for it. Some brownfield land is so contaminated that it can never be developed; other brownfield land could be developed only as a car park, for example, and the less contaminated land could perhaps be used for residential dwellings. The Government need to take a more proactive stance in that respect.

It is a sad indictment that one of the world's biggest economies cannot house itself. We need more building, but we do not want to concrete over our green fields and the green belt. The Deputy Prime Minister's statement last week presaged a lot of extra building on green fields and the green belt, but quite how building 100,000 extra houses in the rural parts of the south-east of England equates with protection of the green belt is particularly difficult to understand. The Deputy Prime Minister made great play of the fact that he is the Minister who will protect the green belt, but with his centralised regional planning targets, which will be imposed on local authorities in the south, it is hard to see how he will achieve that.

The focus for additional housing should be on existing towns and cities. The housing density target of 30 houses to the hectare, which the Deputy Prime Minister announced last week, may often be sensible in inner cities, but in a rural area such as my constituency in the Cotswolds it is quite inappropriate. What we really want the Government's target to achieve is the discretion to decide whether it should be applied, according to the conditions that prevail in a particular local authority. In the inner cities, that may be achieved by building sensibly designed tower blocks to get the density up to 50 or even 70 dwellings per hectare, but it would be inappropriate in a rural area. Flexibility is needed in that respect.

Particularly worrying is the fact that homelessness is not only rising—by 12,000 as I said earlier—but rising among the young. The figure is 11 per cent. since the election. The number of people who have to be housed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is especially reprehensible.

We need to ensure that we build more sustainable communities. That means mixed, well designed and well planned communities with a mixture of sustainable housing that is near the workplace. That requires imaginative policies as well as sensible planning, design and transport links. Too often, houses are built in rural areas where the transport links are not sustainable.

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We need to ensure that there are adequate transport links in areas where new, larger estates are built. In building such larger estates, particularly in the inner cities—I have recently embarked on a programme of visits to some of the larger ones—we need to ensure that the developers and the city corporations can aggregate enough parcels of land to obtain a development of sufficient size for its infrastructure, mix of houses, work and facilities to be sustainable.

We must tackle this serious housing problem with a vision for the 21st century. The Government are beginning to tackle it, which is welcome, but we are looking for action, because after five years the difficulties have got substantially worse and the Government's announcements have not yet sorted them out. There is a real problem with urban regeneration. Our cities will generate the renaissance, but there are too many schemes. Urban regeneration is far too fragmented and there is no focus on bringing the parcels of land together.

I suggest to the Minister that the Government should clarify the respective roles of English Partnerships, regional development agencies, urban regeneration companies and sub-regional bodies. To a certain extent, the review of English Partnerships has helped, but it would help the regeneration process if English Partnerships were to assume national responsibility for brownfield land. That would help to bring forward some brownfield sites, which would make more land available. The problem with the housing market is that there is not enough land. If one constrains the supply of land, the price of houses is bound to go up. I have suggested to the Minister how he can identify where that brownfield land is, so we look to the Government for some form of pump-priming to get that brownfield land back in action.

We lost European gap funding due to bad negotiating by the Government and the derelict land grant has been abolished, so unless they suggest a mechanism to pump-prime those brownfield sites not enough will be put back in action and the Government will not meet their targets. If the brownfield sites are not built on, I predict that an unacceptably large amount of green belt and greenfield land will be built on. That is wrong for our country's future. Once greenfield sites have been built on, that can never be reversed. We look for a vision from the Government, and I await the Minister's response with interest.

11.53 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing this important debate, and I join the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) in chastising him for being so obtuse in choosing its title—the Chamber is not full to bursting. If the debate had been entitled "Housing in the south-east", numbers might have been greater. We finish later today, but, even so, I do not accept the point that attendance is low because the recess is near. Colleagues, of all parties, are busy doing other things. When they see a debate title that looks like something out of the cast list of "Dr. Who and the Daleks", we should not wonder why they do not come along in droves.

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I think I believe the contention of the hon. Member for Winchester that people are slowly starting to talk about PPG3 in the pubs and clubs of Winchester. I suspect that that is the case, however unlikely it might seem. I congratulate him on placing his remarks very firmly in a thoughtful context that shows, first, that he has read PPG3 and, secondly, that the debate is not just about nimbyism—the attitude that if there are needs to be satisfied, fine, but that should be done anywhere but Winchester.

I shall try to touch on most of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I am sure that he will forgive me if I miss anything, and I shall write to him if I do. With the best will in the world, I have no intention of speaking for 35 minutes. I shall speak for as long as I need to and that is it.

The hon. Gentleman rightly assumed that greenfield developments remain the last option. Things will get more difficult, but we are a long way ahead of the game in terms of achieving our target of 60 per cent. plus of new developments on brownfield sites. It will be difficult and troublesome to sustain that, but it is the starting point of the process. If I can be parochial for a moment, in London the figure is well over 90 per cent., which will be equally difficult to sustain. All our towns, cities and urban fringe areas have an organic dynamic that means that people may be talking about tomorrow's brownfield sites in the boardrooms of Winchester, Hampshire and elsewhere, if not in the pubs and clubs, although they are currently not brownfield at all.

Mr. Sanders : Something said by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) struck me: once a greenfield site has been built on, that can never be reversed. That is not strictly true. Is there not a case for returning some existing built-on land to nature in exchange for the use of a greenfield site? That would be a quid pro quo—turning developed land such as a former industrial site into a public park and using a bit of greenfield land in return. The overall amount of greenfield land would not go down.

Mr. McNulty : In my two months in this role, I have not gone through every nook and cranny and every single planning application countrywide, but I served on a planning committee for 11 years, and I know that such things can happen and have happened any number of times. In my borough, we switched a piece of green belt over to join another piece on the far side of a railway line so that we could put a supermarket on the near side. That consolidated the green belt on one side, and a supermarket was developed on the other on a site that had been greenfield. It also happened to be, although this does not matter, the site of my primary school, but that was bulldozed long since. Such swapping round happens frequently in development. How often brownfield land goes all the way back to being virgin green belt, metropolitan open space or greenfield varies, but it can happen.

Although the contribution of the hon. Member for Winchester was thoughtful on the whole, an idea lacking in our deliberations is taking PPG3 in the round. It is not simply about brownfield land and hierarchical

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gradations. I shall return to his comments on historic towns. Much of PPG3 is about "Creating Sustainable Residential Environments". That section makes up almost half the document, followed by the sections on housing and on land. We need to see it completely in the round.

The hon. Gentleman also asked for a review, but in governmental terms if a document has 2000 on it, that means that the ink is barely dry, which would be the case for Governments of any persuasion. There will not be a review yet, but there may be further research. I shall return to that point.

The important aspect of PPG3 to bear in mind is paragraph 31, which gives the details underlining many difficulties that the hon. Gentleman queried:

unitary development plans—

Let us stop there. Ultimately, PPG3 deals with suitable brownfield sites. Again, there is no automatic switch so that people can get on with doing what they like with a previously built-on brownfield site. I shall deal with the criteria in a moment, but the site must be suitable and, more generally, within the context of other planning. I do not know anything about the example that has been given and I do not want to say anything about it, because I may have to deal with it in some form or other. However, if it is a previously developed site, and if it is slap bang in the middle of a conservation area and almost in the shadow of Winchester cathedral, all the elements of the wider planning policy framework prevail, not just this one. [Interruption.] I shall try to leave the microphone alone in future.

Mr. Oaten : It is absolutely right that all those aspects kick in, but the difficulty is that targets must be achieved. The authority cannot say no to all applications. The problem with an area such as Winchester is that nearly all the sites are sensitive. The inclination is to use those things that the Minister talks about to say no, but the authority is virtually forced to say yes to achieve the target. That is why different criteria are needed for places such as Winchester.

Mr. McNulty : I am not entirely sure that new or different criteria are needed. Developers must understand that PPG3 is not above the rest of the planning framework, but part and parcel of it. The matter to which the hon. Gentleman alludes reinforces the point that the Deputy Prime Minister made last week about giving far more resonance to reasonable planning guidance and getting counties, boroughs and districts to appreciate their housing difficulties, whether caused by overheating or low demand, in a national and a regional context. That means that Hampshire must talk to Surrey. I am sorry, but they must talk, although I know that they do not like to do that. We must try to get East Sussex and West Sussex working together—we could start a real revolution.

In recent months, I have been involved in a few things in the north-west, where low demand is the reverse of the problem in London and the south-east. It is a salami-style situation—not quite block by block, but there is

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low demand, overheating, low demand, overheating. Resolving problems in east Manchester might be wrong for, and cause further underheating in, Salford, Rochdale and Oldham. The same consideration should be paramount in addressing the overheating in London and the south-east. I take the point.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : There is a danger of being too simplistic about brownfield land. It is important that the Minister considers his powers in legislation to establish a national register of brownfield land, identify the contamination on it and develop a plan as to how it might be used. Land is so precious in the south that we must consider very carefully every single piece of previously developed land.

Mr. McNulty : The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I return to that point.

The criteria are the availability of previously developed sites and empty or under-used buildings, their suitability for housing use and the location and accessibility of potential development sites to jobs, shops and services. I take the point about pressure on existing infrastructure and the scope for new, which is the next criterion. Additional criteria are the capacity of existing and potential infrastructure, including public transport, water, sewerage and other utilities; social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals; the ability to build communities where major brownfield sites are being developed; and the physical and environmental constraints on the development of the land, which I shall deal with later.

Regional and local authorities should utilise brownfield sites in the context of the wider planning framework. That is important if conservation areas are included. I fully appreciate, even in a London context, that development on previously developed land in Harrow will be slightly different from such development in Hackney. I am sure that that is the case for Winchester versus Southampton as well, but I am not sure that the third category is needed, although we may consider it.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Winchester about sensitive brownfield sites, the starting point and the key to much in PPG3 is the suitability of previously developed sites for further development. There is no carte blanche for developers to get on with developing any site that has been previously developed, and it may be important to explore that with them. I take the point, because it is known to me in a London context.

I am not sure that I agree with the points about floodgates opening, markets overheating and PPG driving over-development and overly high density. The idea of a causal link—that it is all PPG3's fault—is a tad simplistic. There are enormously complex events going on in London and the south-east, as well as the fascinating corollary in parts of the north-west, that we need to deal with. However, that is not all happening because of PPG3, which, as the hon. Gentleman said,

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started under the previous Government. That is a tad unfair, and we need to consider matters in a wider context.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty : In a moment.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : On the flooding point.

Mr. McNulty : I have not touched on flooding, with respect. I mentioned floodgates and the market overheating.

On the question of slowing the market down to allow infrastructure to catch up, there is scope in the body of the PPG for phasing developments, especially larger ones. That would not only slow things down, but, to address the other point made by the hon. Member for Winchester, allow infrastructure to keep pace with development. PPG3 allows the phasing of housing to control the pattern and speed of urban growth to ensure that new infrastructure is co-ordinated with new housing developments. Developers are becoming more and more aware of that.

On some sites and developments that I have seen recently, the better developers have put more thought into the environmental, structural and social consequences of what they are doing. They are building houses, which involves not only the piecemeal infrastructure for those who live for a while on a temporary building site—the market is so hot that half of the properties go before the process is finished—but keeping an eye on the impact that the last pieces of infrastructure and the last buildings have on the surrounding infrastructure and communities. That sensitivity is developing more and more.

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said, but I thought that he was going to make one point that I really would agree with. Whether it is empty houses, brownfield sites, previously developed sites or sites in general, if one looks in any locality, many such sites belong to the public sector. Some notion of getting to grips with what the public sector does with them more generally is important.

People are keen to consider some notion—perhaps defined by the Office of Government Commerce and the Treasury—of best value and the contribution of those public sector sites to the common weal in terms of housing and development in a particular area. We have scarcity, but a lot of sites have public sector, or ex-public sector, imprimatur on them. The market is completely overheated when there could be a little control in terms of how to phase our land for the public good. That is worth looking at. If the hon. Gentleman did not say that, I have said it anyway.

I take the point on vacant homes, which is emphasised in paragraph 2 of the PPG. We are trying to tap potential. Our good practice guide on capacity studies says that we should consider vacant lots because they are a significant source of capacity. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, I would not want to go down the road suggested by the hon. Member for Torbay and say that there are 720,000 empty houses in the public sector and about 720,000 people in bed-and-breakfast and

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temporary accommodation—voilà, problem solved. Would that it were that simple. Put one figure against the other and the mismatch is phenomenal.

It is inappropriate to say that we have failed, and that it is all misery, doom and gloom as regards state aid and gap funding. The housing gap funding schemes are focused on brownfield sites, and there is a new scheme in place that broadly deals with whole notion of state aid. Such matters develop all the time, and the funding allows grants of up to 60 per cent. for more difficult areas.

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made a point that is relevant to the debate and not part of a broader rant: we must somehow reach a capacity at which the public sector assists private developers to tackle the most difficult brownfield sites. The fact that reclaiming such sites for our communities is difficult should not lead us simply to conclude that they are far too poisonous and contaminated and that they should be left. That will lead to difficulties, not least because of the capacity of some urban towns.

There are other fiscal measures about which I shall write to hon. Members, as I do not have the details to hand. They include a 150 per cent. tax credit for the clean-up of contaminated land and a range of VAT initiatives. I ask hon. Members not to push me on VAT, because I shall simply tell them that the Treasury deals with it. If I find out more about gap funding, state aid or the broader issue of really difficult contaminated land sites, I shall certainly get back to hon. Members.

Given that the hon. Member for Winchester is so interested in planning—anyone who reads PPG3 must be—it is shameful that he did not listen in fine detail to what the Deputy Prime Minister said last week. I do not mean to knock the hon. Gentleman, but had he listened he would know that his question on thresholds and the tariff-based approach no longer prevails. Significantly, we have decided after much consultation to revise policy guidance on planning aid section 106, but that we shall not pursue legislative routes for the tariff measures replacing that section.

We shall revise circular No. 197 on section 106, but we think, given the consultation that has taken place, that we can make the existing planning obligation system under section 106 work far better. We shall try that route before using primary legislation. The Deputy Prime Minister said the same in his statement last week. The fact that PPG3 dates from March 2000 means, in governmental terms, that the ink is just dry and it will not be reviewed instantly. We said in the Green Paper and in our response to consultation that we shall consider in the round the nature, scope and format of planning policy guidance.

Mr. Oaten : In a parliamentary answer on 1 March, the then Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), said:

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Will the Minister acknowledge that he is talking about the same thing now?

Mr. McNulty : With respect, I am not, but my next paragraph refers to it.

As we said in the planning Green Paper, when we find a legislative slot, we shall consider in the broadest sense the form, context and role of planning policy guidance. We want to have a headline statement with the detail following it, rather than something too complicated. On a rainy night in Winchester, read PPG23 on mining and aggregates—it is wonderful reading. There is no need for a rewrite on that basis, but we are researching the implementation and bedding down of PPG3, and we shall evaluate its overall impact and consequences. That may, but only may, prompt us to reconsider parts of PPG3, but that is for the future.

In a broad sense, some of what we are trying to do in the Green Paper, outwith PPG3 or the general PPG process, may address points made by the hon. Members for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and for Winchester on serial applications and subsequently serial appeals, which are part of the wider planning process, not just guidance. The hon. Member for Winchester is entirely right to say that, at this moment, someone could be putting in a plan to bulldoze my nice little semi in Kenton in Harrow to put up a block of flats. Such a person would not even have to notify me, as it is up to the local planning authority to do that.

I am not sure whether trying to take action on that would represent using a big stick to sort out a little problem, but we will consider the matter. I was on a planning committee for 11 years and I know that people are deeply perplexed when they suddenly discover that half their garden or their garage is part of next door's application for flats. I am not sure how people deal with that. I have not a clue where Crowder terrace is, let alone what the enforcement issues were, but we are considering enforcement under the Green Paper. Much of PPG3 involves creating sustainable residential environments.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty : I am just coming to the relevant point. There are proper sequential hierarchies to go through in relation to the elements that I have described—flooding, flood plains and so on.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I want to give the Minister another constructive suggestion. Sustainability will increase the pressure on flood plains. Is he aware that Ordnance Survey is doing interesting work producing height maps, which will make it much easier to identify those areas where the one-in-100-years event is likely to take place? Will he contact Ordnance Survey to find out whether that work can be speeded up so that local authorities have a better idea of where flood plains are likely to extend? That is particularly important in this era of climate change, when we are getting wetter winters than we used to.

Mr. McNulty : I am not only aware of that work, but I have the great delight of being the Minister in charge of Ordnance Survey. When I pop down to Southampton, I

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may well raise that issue, among others. Ordnance Survey does exceptionally good work across the field. Happily for the hon. Gentleman and for the synergy of answering his question, I am also the Minister responsible for dealing with coastal and inland flooding. Those are matters of concern, and the freak events—I hope that they are freak events—in much of the south-east and some of the south-west in recent years need addressing. What Ordnance Survey is doing in that regard is very important. I shall pursue the matter.

PPG25, another darling little document, introduced the risk-based sequential test that gives priority to developing in lower-risk flood areas. We should bear it in mind that, as has been said, we are well behind. This is not a partisan point, but in the 1970s and 1980s—Labour was in government for part of that time—some buildings were put where they ought not to be. That had serious environmental consequences, which we want to address. We certainly do not want a repeat of that, and we will use the information that the hon. Member for Cotswold suggested.

I recommend anyone who is interested in the important, deep and detailed technicalities of mapping for any sort of public policy work to look at what Ordnance Survey does. I know that the hon. Gentleman has done so. Ordnance Survey is well ahead of the game in developing and utilising digital mapping and other technologies. That is the end of the advertisement.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester, not only on how he spoke, but on a very thoughtful speech. If I have left anything out, I will get back to him. That is the nice bit over. I do not have much to say in response to PPG3 specifically, and I know that you would chide me if I strayed off that subject to respond to the other contributions, Mr. Amess.

I spent a great day and a half in the constituency of the hon. Member for Torbay, who called me a friend of Torbay, which is kind of him. I hope that he remains a friend when I have finished speaking. He will forgive me if I deliberately confine my remarks to the thrust of the speech of the hon. Member for Winchester, rather than to the delights of what seems to be a tortured package of housing reform and local government finance. The finance issue probably has its roots in the 1850s, and the housing reform issue certainly has its roots in the 1960s. I am not here to debate the arcane nature of, or the flaws in, the policy package that was alluded to. Perhaps I should pop along to the Liberal Democrat conference.

We should not be simplistic about such matters. The hon. Member for Torbay asked—in an early intervention, before he got to his rather weak party political broadcast—why we demolish properties in low demand areas where infrastructures are in place and then build where there are fewer or no infrastructures. That goes back to my point about the wholly simplistic approach of "X amount of empty houses, X amount of people in bed and breakfast, merge the two, problem solved."

Some northern towns and urban centres must ask themselves serious questions and they have to grasp the nettle, which is, "Actually, X town, which has had 80,000 people for the past 100 years, probably cannot sustain more than 40,000 or 50,000, given its communities and infrastructure." Such questions are painful, but it is not enough to give the impression that,

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in the next 10 years, the 20,000 people who may want to live in the Winchester or Southampton areas can fill a particular place in Lancashire or Yorkshire, thereby solving the problem. Really complex and desperately painful choices about low and high demand will be faced in the north and the south.

I shall tell my constituents that Liberal Democrat policy is to tax those who live in Queensbury, Canons Park and Stanmore—the three tail-end Jubilee line stations—not because their houses have moved, but because what is happening 30 miles away at the other end of the Jubilee line, through to north Greenwich, is a windfall for them. I find that absolutely astonishing and I shall pursue such matters wearing a political hat, not my governmental hat.

Mr. Sanders : Will the Minister consider the position in which someone who lives next to an infrastructure improvement receives a windfall through the value of his property, for which he is not taxed, even though the rest of the community has put taxpayers' money into that improvement? The mechanism that can resolve that problem should be investigated.

Mr. McNulty : I shall not go down that route as it is not germane to PPG3, save to say that developments or windfalls gained by the people of north Southwark and north Greenwich due to the Jubilee line extension 25 miles from my constituency should not penalise my constituents in Stanmore, Canons Park and Queensbury. However, perhaps we can pursue such matters over a cup of tea another time.

Given that the hon. Member for Cotswold described these matters as a serious problem, it might be useful if he took them seriously. Perhaps his new boss will sort things out, but all we heard from him was a party political rant without substance. It offered no hope at all and was more to do with internal Conservative family difficulties than anything else. It offered nothing to the people in need of PPG3. That is a shame in the light of how the hon. Member for Winchester started the debate. I do not say that the Government have all the answers on overheating in the south and in Winchester and on the problems of low demand in the north, but I know from last week's statement that we are seriously trying to tackle such problems realistically, in the north and in the south, and that PPG3 is part of that process.

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said that we need to take a new stand on how we build homes and communities. The Chancellor put his hand in his pocket and gave us the resources to assist with that process. PPG3 is a cornerstone in the programme that links planning, housing, transport, education and regeneration, and it is about people, places and protecting the environment. I take seriously the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Winchester. I urge hon. Members to read in detail not only what the Deputy Prime Minister said last week, but the daughter documents that flow from it—not least those on housing and planning—and any subsequent statements issued in summer and during our new Session.

We are deadly serious about the issues covered in the briefing from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, especially housing, regeneration and planning. As one

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who spent 11 years on a planning committee, I am grateful that, finally, people are starting to regard planning and guidance as serious political tools to deal with the problems in our towns and cities, north and south. I look forward to future debates on PPG3, but let us give them a title broader than what sounds like a relative of K9 from "Dr. Who".

12.24 pm

Sitting suspended.

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