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4.54 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Marlesford for his excellent introduction to this important debate. There is, indeed, a need to protect the countryside and I speak as an incomer of some 10 years' standing in a village with a complete and sustainable life of its own. We are fortunate in being almost entirely self-sufficient, but I am sorry to say that there are a number of renegades who go off to shop in the maze of supermarkets which have been fertilised locally by shoppers' greed, the car culture and the planners.

The out-of-town supermarket and its vast carparks are conveniences which the public greatly desire--I use the word advisedly--and they fulfil a need that is unhealthy

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and damaging to the stability of society. They attract people away from placing their daily business in the country towns, which are consequently decaying. They are setting themselves up as all things to all people, competing with the hardware and chemist shops in the small villages. By their very nature, they increase the social menace of the culture of car dependency. Perhaps I speak with the approval of the noble Earl, Lord Radnor.

There is, I believe, a case to limit the planning consent for supermarkets according to the number of people in the catchment area; it might be 25,000 or 50,000 people per supermarket. However, something needs to be done, otherwise all the available building space will soon be absorbed by those monoliths with their Dallas-type architecture and carparks.

Having got that off my chest, an opportunity would present itself to deal with the decaying inner city. Pedestrian-only areas and the concentration of small businesses and workshops would provide a community with an integral lifestyle, allowing work and leisure to be applied in the immediate vicinity of each other. And shopping locally would be simple and comfortable. There would be no car to start, but perhaps a local bus or a short walk. Inner-city decay is a challenge to our society. Regeneration is possible with a transformation of the lifestyle of whole communities. There are enormous areas of unoccupied, run-down, inner-city housing which needs to be rebuilt.

One of the great improvements of the Thatcher era was the promotion of home ownership. However, there are several sides to that equation. Home owners do not provide a mobile labour force. They also have considerable debts to the building societies, sometimes up to 100 per cent. of equity. That makes for a vulnerable lifestyle and an impediment to other long-term saving activities which would benefit society.

Let us suppose, for instance, that the Government found a method of limiting mortgages to 60 per cent. There might be a remarkable transformation. Savings would increase; more flats would be needed for the young to rent; they would be in the inner city near the cinemas and the pubs; and there would be a very mobile labour force. As I said they would not need a car to get to work.

Another limitation would be reduction of CGT on the sale of agricultural land for building sites. A £20,000 site goes for £200,000, which doubles the cost of the property for sale. That has already been mentioned by several noble Lords. I venture a suggestion in the light of a remark made by Mr. Richard Caborn in another place:

    "We shall also be looking at options for introducing new economic instruments and financial incentives to bring more brown-field sites into play".--[Official Report, Commons, 27/1/98; col.165.]

I am indebted to the CPRE and to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for research for that quotation. The CPRE rightly claims that we are not building anywhere near the number of affordable homes required. We are all agreed on that point. This debate is providing a remarkable range of answers.

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It seems that the Government are foreswearing the principle of predict and provide which has proved to be inaccurate in the prediction and unable to provide the type of housing that is actually required. To that extent, we must welcome the New Labour approach to the problem.

We need to regenerate village life and provide local shopping facilities. Shopping in the village will reduce the weekly trip to the supermarket and regenerate the village post office. Again, that would reduce the use of the polluting motor car. Above all, it would generate local jobs in local industry. There is a scarcity of cheap rented accommodation for the young in all areas and that needs to be on brownfield sites which are available in the interstices of local areas. We need small plots for small housing. I have two plots immediately behind my own house which are not being developed merely because the builder is waiting to sell them for £300,000 rather than building cheap flats on them, much to my advantage.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of small companies and rural industry to the maintenance of a sustainable countryside. They are the target of larger organisations and need protection. Some local councils have been persuaded by supermarket chains to sell off, for example, the newly redundant cattle market in return for creating more parking facilities in the town. That is a waste of brownfield sites. Moreover, the supermarket car park is occupying ever more valuable brownfield sites needed for housing. Planning rules need to be overhauled and priorities reviewed unchanged.

There is another factor which may change the countryside scene; that is, the replacement of CAP support for the farmer. Extensive farming will call for more labour to manage alternative systems of farming and expanding the new schemes for entertaining the public and providing access to less intensively used farm land. Therefore, there will be a continuing call from local communities in any event. That will be beneficial in that it will halt the decay of village life.

However, I add one caveat to that. We need to ensure the maintenance of some land within the city boundaries. We need to protect allotments and school playing fields at all costs. It is good that this subject is under a much-needed review and I wish the Government success in their endeavours.

5.1 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in expressing my appreciation to my noble friend Lord Marlesford for bringing this matter before us this afternoon. I begin by declaring an interest as a farmer and landowner in the county of Essex.

During a 28-year career in local government, I watched the evolution of housing policy over a long period. It is housing policy which lies at the root of our debate this afternoon and not a debate about town versus country. I have seen local planning authorities constrain developments until the Government have found irresistible the pressure for additional development and have called for large areas of land to be released.

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It is a regrettable fact that in shire areas most people wish that housing development would go somewhere else. Meanwhile, professional planners have the task of trying to resolve the conflict between the constantly rising economic and social aspirations of the community at large and the natural wish to preserve the countryside. Too often, the community says that it wishes for one result but by its actions it lives by a different ethic. We must preserve town centres but at the same time we flock in ever increasing numbers to out-of-town shopping centres that make the economic viability of town centres less and less sustainable.

We must restore and develop brownfield sites in metropolitan areas. Yet vast numbers of people, given the opportunity, would move into the countryside if they could. We do not live in a dirigiste society. Even if the planning Acts go some way towards that, we should not wish to go further than they already do. Therefore, we must be careful what we are about.

The development of brownfield sites is not easy. I well remember going to study the Docklands area of London when I was on the South East Economic Council under the chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, who I am pleased to see in his place. He will remember it well. It was an area of dereliction and deprivation on both sides of the river from the Tower of London downstream to beyond Greenwich and Beckton.

The relevant local authorities would not agree and much of the land was owned by public bodies which made redevelopment difficult by assuming very high land values because of the proximity of the City of London. I shall not bother the House with our recommendations, except to say that eventually they were largely implemented and the obstacles were removed. Today, 25 years later, regeneration continues apace. However, there is still a great deal to be done.

I use the example of the Docklands simply to illustrate that the issue is not straightforward and wishing for something to be done does not make it happen. I hope that the Minister will look back at that exercise to see what can be learned in relation to her plight today.

By and large, there are no overwhelming planning constraints on brownfield site development but we must face the fact that there may be other difficulties. The most obvious is regional disparity. Professor Peter Hall, who is a leading authority, said:

    "What we already know is that prospects vary across the country: the Greater Manchester conurbation is full of brown-field holes and here a 60 per cent. target"--

that is, for brownfield development--

    "may be realistic. In London this appears to be a pipe-dream".

It is in London and the south-east that the housing problem is at its greatest. Brownfield sites in other regions cannot help us here in this region.

On a different subject, much more might be done by renovation and improvement of the existing housing stock where it is estimated that there are ¾ million houses unoccupied, ¼ million of those in long-term non-occupation. However, if one wishes to make a simplistic comparison, repairs and renovation carry

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VAT while new construction does not. Therefore, in many cases the renovation of an existing building will cost virtually the same as new build. There is a price penalty to be paid. Again, I wonder whether the Minister will bring that anomaly to the attention of her right honourable friends in another place, perhaps with a view to removing the anomaly without increasing the cost, if I may put it that way.

Finally, I return to the figures for housing demand. Much publicity is made of the 4.5 million new homes needed but little is made of the fact that 1 million of those have already been built. That is the good news. The bad news is that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, speaking to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee housing inquiry in another place, stated last week, with explanations, that that is an underestimate by about 0.5 million. I can only say to my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford that expert opinions differ on those matters.

I pity the poor planners who must try to make sense of all that. I am glad that it is no longer my responsibility.

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