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30 Jan 2007 : Column 20WH—continued

Ministers are not agreeing to such reviews lightly. The only alternatives are to plan to under-provide for housing, with higher prices and more homelessness, or to have long-distance commuting to homes beyond the green belts. The right approach is to take decisions now, looking ahead to 2031, so that boundaries need to change only once. That will give certainty for local communities and ensure that urban extensions are planned properly, rather than leaving uncertainty about whether boundaries will need to be changed again in a few years. Let me also clarify that the green belt extension for Harlow North is not at Peterborough. The extension will be along the edge of the Harlow
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development, extending towards the A120, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford.

Opposition Members have poured scorn on our proposals to extend the green belt for their county.

Mr. Prisk: Will the Minister give way?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman knows that I have a great deal to respond to.

Mr. Prisk rose—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order.

Meg Munn: I will continue, but I will be happy to give way if I have time at the end.

Opposition Members from Hertfordshire have poured scorn on our proposals to extend the green belt in their county on a scale larger than the total area of land that will need to be released from the county elsewhere to provide long-term development. Opposition Members’ understanding of the purpose of the extension is simplistic. We are setting in place a realignment of the overall shape of the green belt, to set clear long-term boundaries to development and protect the countryside from development pressures. It is nonsense to suggest that there is something wrong with reviewing green belts. Doing so will provide certainty, so I am astonished that Opposition Members take issue with that.

It has been alleged that the Government are not committed to putting in place the necessary funding for infrastructure. Central to our vision for sustainable communities is that development must be supported by the full range of infrastructure—transport, health, education, green and recreational infrastructure, and so on. We have a proud record of support for growth in the area. Within the constraints of public expenditure, we are looking to ensure that future investment is adequate. [Laughter.] Hon. Members laugh, but every Government must look carefully at what they can afford to do, but this Government is providing— [Interruption.]

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order.

Meg Munn: The Government are providing significant infrastructure support. We have already made substantial commitments to investment in the region, through sources such as growth areas funding, support for local delivery vehicles and the transport innovations fund. The favourable outcomes for the region—through the regional funding allocation on transport and the single regional housing pot for 2006-2008—indicate that the Government appreciate the region’s investment needs. In my statement to the House on 19 December 2006, I stressed that once the plan was finalised we would consider what support might be needed to towns with high rates of growth that do not benefit from growth area funding and related measures. At a national level, the Government have been reviewing policy on how development should contribute to the full range of development-related infrastructure, building on the existing section 106 system.

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We are currently consulting further on proposals for a planning gain supplement. No decisions have been made, so some of the statements that have been made—particularly by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire—are not correct. We are encouraging local authorities to make greater use of standard charges in the meantime, to help to maximise the effectiveness with which contributions are collected through the existing mechanism. The aim of a planning gain supplement is to simplify the system for getting developers to make a fair contribution to the full infrastructure costs of development.

Let me respond to the concerns that have been raised about the rationale for the location of growth in Herts. We have accepted the panel’s reasons for concentrating much of the extra growth needed in Hertfordshire in the new towns—not just in Stevenage, as proposed in the draft plan, but in Hemel Hempstead and Welwyn Hatfield. The panel’s view, which Ministers accept, was that the most sustainable way of providing more housing in Hertfordshire was to concentrate development at the new towns. They have a good record of balancing jobs and housing growth, and have better infrastructure than older towns. Growth can stimulate urban regeneration, such as by boosting town centre services and public transport. The focus on new towns is part of a bigger picture. Basildon in Essex and the new towns in the south-east are also earmarked for growth.

The focus on the expansion of new towns is a guiding principle in Hertfordshire county council’s own structure plan, which provides for the expansion of Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead, both of which are new towns. The panel’s advice is consistent with the general approach to new towns in England and in Hertfordshire’s adopted structure.

I should like to respond to the points made by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden about migration. Let us deal with the true migration issues. It is true that the latest projections for the UK as a whole suggest that about 80 per cent. of population growth in the next 25 years will be due to international migration. However, that does not translate into a need for 80 per cent. more housing for migrants. There are several reasons why we need more housing. People living longer and complex social changes account for about three quarters of the estimated need for extra housing; migration accounts for only about a quarter.

At present, about 12,000 people move into Hertfordshire every year, mostly from London, and not many of them are international migrants. However, more than 10,000 move out of Hertfordshire every year to the rest of the UK and abroad. A total of about 33,000 will move into Hertfordshire during the regional plan period 2001-2021, but about four times that number will move into Essex, twice that number into Cambridgeshire and nearly five times that number into Norfolk. Hertfordshire is not a particular focus for migration and I regret that the right hon. Gentleman felt that he had to raise the matter as he did.

I am sure that you will agree, Mr. Olner, that this is not the place for a wider debate about international migration. However, let us bear a few facts in mind. Hertfordshire’s unemployment rate continues at a near-all-time low of just 1.5 per cent. There is an acute skills shortage in the county; there are thousands of
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unfilled vacancies for skilled and unskilled work. Business needs more workers and in Hertfordshire, as elsewhere, migrants are stepping in to do skilled jobs and some of the unskilled work that nobody else wants to do. We all benefit from their contribution; without any migration, our population would become increasingly aged. It needs a steady injection of younger working-age people to keep it balanced.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford raised the issue of developers pegging out land. That issue has been raised with me in respect of other areas. It rightly concerns hon. Members that members of the public are sold land for which there is no prospect of development. The Government deplore the practice and there is no specific evidence that the proposals encourage it. Indeed, long-term planning of green belt reviews in specific locations will discourage speculation by developers.

Mr. Prisk: Why, then, do most of those speculative websites quote Government policy in support of their proposals?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman will know that I am not responsible for what private organisations put on their websites. We deplore the practice; it is wrong that companies should set out information suggesting that people can make money from land that has no planning permission and is extremely unlikely to get it.

Recently, I spoke at an Adjournment debate on the issue, and I am sure that I will be able to provide the hon. Gentleman with further information on it.

This has been an important debate. We are—

Mr. Prisk: The Minister said earlier that she would give way on the subject of the development in my constituency. The new town that BP wishes to build is laughably described by the Government as an urban extension, despite the fact that it is in a different district, a different county and about eight miles from the centre of town.

Why does the Minister think that the Minister for Housing and Planning, her senior colleague, was not involved in the decisions when her officials clearly state that they were? This issue involves an important principle of process. If the procedure is to have any credibility, it has to be crystal clear why the Minister flouted planning policy statement 11. Does the Minister not recognise PPS11?

Meg Munn: Let me be clear. As I said, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is not
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taking decisions on the plan. Due to propriety, I cannot, standing here today, get into detail because the consultation is under way. The Government have accepted much of the panel’s thinking on Harlow and most of its other recommendations. We have given full reasons for departing from some panel recommendations and those issues will be considered further as we get to the end of the consultation. However, I simply cannot say anything more on those issues today.

To conclude, this has been an important debate; housing—

Mr. Lilley: I am grateful to the Minister, who actually responded to my points with some purported facts rather than simply ignoring them. That is the first time that that has happened.

The Minister said that the population increase over the planning period—about 20 years for Hertfordshire—was expected to be about 30,000 people, on top of a million. If they live in an average household of two and a bit people, that increase will represent 12,000 or 15,000 extra houses. Is the Minister saying that of the proposed 90,000 extra houses, only 12,000 or 15,000 are for an increase in population and that all the rest are for other reasons? If that is so, it is the first time that we have ever been told. It is an interesting fact, but I should like it to be substantiated.

Meg Munn: As I said, we are consulting on the proposals in the plan. That is the opportunity to raise those issues. The Government will respond to the consultation and we shall be happy to deal with the issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises at that time.

Housing is enormously important and we must make sure that more people can afford it. Hon. Members have said that the issue is not about nimbyism and not wanting housing in their areas. I hope that that is true, because the Government’s case is that to ensure that local people—not those moving into the area—can afford housing, more needs to be built. The point was well illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage.

We need to address the issues; we need sustainable housing. That is why there is a plan and process, although Opposition Members here seem not to support them. I regret that very much. They may want to live in little Hertfordshire, but the proper way to address the issues is to have a plan on the region as a whole and to plan properly so that local people and everybody else can be clear about where it is appropriate to have housing, where the green belt is and how the infrastructure to support people’s needs will be met.

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British Army

10.57 am

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): Before I begin my speech, I would like to declare a number of interests. I have served as a member of the excellent parliamentary armed forces scheme, which has been administered by Sir Neil Thorne for a number of years. I am immensely grateful for the opportunities that it has afforded me. I have also been to various Army training facilities all over the world and learned a great deal about how the Army functions, particularly from the point of view of working soldiers. In addition, Altcar training camp is in my constituency. It supports the Territorial Army and receives thousands of visitors at weekends. I am also a professional engineer and, as such, represent companies and individuals who serve and support the defence industry. I am proud to do so.

The role of our armed forces in the modern world is without question a matter worthy of our debate. Recently, the Prime Minister rightly brought the issue directly into focus. His speech on defence and the future of our armed forces highlighted the fact that, despite the difficulties and challenges that we face today, Britain has to maintain a warfighting as well as a peacekeeping capability.

Iraq and Afghanistan are too readily perceived as the only theatres in which our forces serve, and the situation is often seen to be critically unstable. There has never been universal approval for any activity in which members of the Army are involved, from peacekeeping to engagement in war. Throughout its history, our Army has faced numerous challenges to its sovereignty—challenges that Britain has never shied away from and that, ultimately, have been overcome.

We are a nation that will act forcefully when the moral right is on our side, and I am concerned that the British instinct may have been severely constrained by our experiences in Iraq. The Falklands war demonstrated to the world how important territorial integrity is to Britain, and that we will fight to maintain it. In Bosnia, and later in Kosovo, while regular massacres were occurring and UN peace troops could not stop the slaughter, it was through the strength of British and American action that peace could be brokered. When it is necessary and just, ours is a nation, I am proud to say, that is not afraid to fight. We do not wait for the enemy to come to us; we are in a continuous state of protecting our own.

Many of our citizens may find defence matters repugnant or no longer relevant, but our history suggests that such attitudes are incorrect. Unless we want to lose our rights and the envy and respect of people throughout the world, which we have secured over time, we must maintain a defensive and, when necessary, offensive position.

The 2003 Defence White Paper listed the major threats as international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the problem of failing states. The threats are from an enemy who is determined, difficult to identify and opposed to the core principles that many people sacrificed their lives to preserve. Ours is a nation of tolerance, but we must use all the means available to us to defeat the extremism that seeks to undermine practical secular governance.

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Given the new challenges that face the modern world and the UK, our military is surely one of the most capable of responding. From the Iberian peninsula to the Crimea, in Korea and Malaya, on the battlefields of France, in the waters of Jutland and on many other fields of conflict, men and women have served our national interests with professionalism, skill and bravery while continuously displaying ability to adapt and succeed. Now, with our armed forces serving, as ever, around the globe, it is right to discuss our military operations and how we should express ourselves militarily.

Taking a wider definition of British security requires us to consider political and economic stability, which can be affected by changes in countries or regions anywhere around the globe. Where a direct threat can be clearly identified, Britain and our allies must be prepared to fight terrorists before they can attack us at home. However, our security does not necessarily have to be won through warfighting. Peacemaking and peacekeeping operations can help to bring stability to a country on the brink of collapse. By stopping conflicts, we can allow war-torn nations to enjoy their own peace dividend. In an ever more interdependent world, we cannot afford to view ourselves as an island—the fate of one nation affects the fate of us all. With our support, strong, peaceful nations can be built in which terrorism cannot prosper, and in which development thrives and hatred withers.

Our armed forces’ most notable commitments are in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they remain engaged in a battle to ensure future peace and stability for the people of those nations. Strenuous challenges are faced daily, and the armed forces in both countries have admirably demonstrated the skill and bravery with which they face such threats.

In Basra, the number of murders and kidnappings is falling, and an increasing number of police stations in that area are meeting the standard required for handover. The assistance of UK military personnel and £35 million of our money have helped the Department for International Development to start work on more than 800 projects to help to rebuild and develop Iraq. It must be noted that 90 per cent. of sectarian violence in Iraq occurs within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad—a fact not often observed by our media.

In Afghanistan, alongside the efforts to hunt down Taliban fighters, there is an increased focus on helping to consolidate the abilities of the Afghan security forces. Development is occurring in both countries, but the main focus has been on securing and stabilising, for it is from there that true progress can occur.

There can be few armed forces more capable of winning the battle to ensure true stability than our own, as they have demonstrated many times. The British military has been an active member of peacekeeping forces around the world, with a recent and continuing presence in Cyprus, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan. The intelligence-gathering opportunities afforded by such deployments cannot be overestimated.

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