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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman about a particular aspect of development in rural areas. Many of my constituents are getting increasingly irate—I do not believe that they are motivated by discrimination or bigotry—about the fact that Travellers' sites are being allowed on private land where my constituents would have no hope whatever of having permanent development allowed. That is causing friction where there was none before. Is his Department prepared to do something about that, because I fear that it will result in very bad race relations in some parts of England?

Keith Hill: I appreciate the temperate way in which the hon. Gentleman raised that issue. As I have said before at the Dispatch Box, it is an issue not merely for those who live in the countryside but for those who live
 
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in urban areas. I assure him that my Department is alert to it. We are active on that subject and we expect to make proposals for revised guidance and more effective enforcement in due course. I hope that that gives him and his constituents some reassurance.

It is important that local people should also be involved in decisions about the green belt, so the need for boundary changes should be considered first in a review of the regional spatial strategy. Only when the need for change has been firmly established should detailed changes be considered through the local plan process. That ensures that local people have a full opportunity to make representations or object to proposed changes.

The Opposition accuse us in the motion of "concreting over green fields",

of losing

and of "destroying rural communities".

Mr. Patrick Hall: The Conservative spokesman was generous today in acknowledging the shortfalls of the speculative, mainly private housing development that has too much characterised the past few decades. I think that I am being fair in saying that his solution is to favour incremental, small-scale growth that is decided by local communities. I agree that much development could be dealt with like that, but does my right hon. Friend agree that there are strategic issues to do with demography, household change, employment, transport, pollution—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Hall: Those cannot be dealt with—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. When I rise to my feet, the hon. Gentleman should resume his seat. His intervention is far too long, especially when there is very limited time for debate.

Keith Hill: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In a nutshell, I agree with my hon. Friend. Where appropriate, it is right to make small-scale development, but we should not delude ourselves, as a House or as a society, that the pressure for new homes that is already present in London and the south-east can be dealt with by small-scale development about which the local community is the sole arbiter. That is simply unrealistic. We have to go for the larger-scale development that the Government have set out for growth areas. That applies to his constituency and I am grateful for his strategic vision on that approach. We are already bringing in the essential infrastructure and public services that need to be present at the beginning of a housing development and that in the past were unfortunately often brought in at the end, if at all.

Mr. Hopkins: I reinforce the point that my right hon. Friend is making. Does he agree that we cannot cope with the 7,000 families waiting for new homes in Luton by small incremental changes?

Keith Hill: I agree with my hon. Friend. That is, as he and I well know, not invariably the case, but I
 
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wholeheartedly endorse his observations on this occasion. The sort of proposals being made in his locality for what are, in essence, urban extensions offer a way forward, but the scale might have to be substantial. There is a housing need that must be addressed and no shilly-shallying can avoid that reality.

I shall try to press on. I am aware that I have already been speaking for a significant time.

On the terms of the Opposition motion, I draw the attention of the House to the fact that in 1996 the then Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), published the Green Paper, "Household Growth: Where Shall We Live?" It was an extremely tentative document; perhaps the Conservative Government could see the shades of night closing in and did not want to over-commit themselves on policy.

Nevertheless, the Green Paper contained two important themes. The first was the need for intensification of existing residential areas, including, I am bound to tell the House, the use of gardens. That is in paragraph 6.2—town cramming, I suppose the present Opposition would call it. The second theme was the recognition that not all necessary housing development could be located in existing urban areas—"concreting over the countryside", in their terms, I suppose.

Let me put these questions to the Opposition. What has changed since 1996? Do they believe that they got it wrong in 1996? If they did, what is their answer now to the question they posed themselves only eight years ago?

Mr. Hayes rose—

Keith Hill: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who might care to answer my question.

Mr. Hayes: I am reminded of places such as Macclesfield whose Member of Parliament is our distinguished hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and where the local council and community want incremental development of the type that I was advocating, yet the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister's boss, put a moratorium, through strong guidance, on all development in the town.

Keith Hill: I am aware of the issues in the north-west of England, which are a matter for lively debate in the area, but I must point out two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, in the preceding period of the regional plan, there was an excess of supply over demand in the region, so the Government clearly have to respond to that reality. Secondly, the Government have ambitious plans for the regeneration of cities in the north-west, so significant new build will be needed in those areas as part of the regeneration process.

I shall continue, but I may be a little churlish in dealing with future interventions. We all know that, at present, there is a lot of Tory local election propaganda about the Government wanting to concrete over the countryside, but the blunt fact is that the legacy of the Tories was unplanned urban sprawl. That is why the Labour Government introduced a sequential approach:
 
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brownfield first, greenfield last. That is why we set a 60 per cent. brownfield target—and it is working. In 2002, 64 per cent. of new dwellings, including conversions, were built on such land.

Our policies will not only reduce the profligate waste of greenfield land so characteristic of the executive home developments that were so beloved of the previous Government but help to ensure better designed developments that provide for a wide range of needs.

We have already seen rises in housing density. The density of new dwellings in England in 2002 was 27 per hectare, a figure that had remained unchanged at 25 since 1996 and was a great deal lower before then. We want further rises. We have already said that in the south-east we want all planned dwellings built at an average of 30 per hectare, up from the 25 we inherited. By 2016, as a consequence, we will have saved 4,000 hectares of land from new build, an area equivalent to the urban area of Ipswich. We recently announced a new initiative to bring 1,650 hectares of surplus public sector land into use for new homes—an area equivalent in size to the London borough of Islington.

Part of our success in protecting the green belt has been the result of revitalising our cities. They now have a vitality and self-confidence that has been missing for years. That was admirably highlighted in the report, "A Tale of Eight Cities", published by my Department recently.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab) rose—

Keith Hill: I am hurrying on, but I feel that I owe it to my hon. Friend to give way one last time.

Mrs. Cryer: My right hon. Friend has spoken about brownfield development. A developer in my constituency is anxious to develop a brownfield site that is perfect for that purpose, but the previous owner has a waste disposal licence from the Environment Agency. Apparently, neither the current owner nor I can do anything to about that and it is deterring him from developing a perfectly good brownfield site.


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