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5.21 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Town and Country Planning Association, although I realise that most of what I have to say derives more from my experience of chairing a London borough planning committee and a London-wide planning committee. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and my noble friend Lady Maddock, I welcome the balance intrinsic in the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, whom I also thank for introducing this important subject.

Like many speakers, I think it is quite essential that we avoid polarisation. I believe that it is possible to be pro-town and pro-country. This was a subject which

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could well have been debated heatedly before the general election. I suspect that there was something of a tacit agreement between the political parties that we--I include my own party in this--shied away from the issue. Perhaps it is one that is liable to create so much heat that it needs to be debated as far from political imperatives as possible. However, I have been interested to note that since the general election in May there have been many expressions of doubt about the housing projection figures and about structure plans on the part of those who supported them before the general election.

Before this debate I wondered whether we would be lobbied by those who support urban interests. I believe that many of your Lordships will have received briefs from those who lobby on behalf of the countryside. I do not mean to indicate that I reject their help; that is not the case at all. My noble friend Lord Beaumont said that perhaps there was more lobbying for the countryside because, historically, the countryside needed that. I believe that there are inner-city interests which need to be better represented than has been the case, although the passion shown by the noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton, on behalf of urban interests is probably equivalent to half-a-dozen pieces of briefing information.

The Minister's department of course covers both town and country. Is it correct that national parks may move from the responsibility of that department to MAFF? I have heard a rumour about that and I would not welcome that move. It is important that decisions about the location of housing, about development and about the protection of different parts of our land must command general support. There is concern about the information that underlies the projections and about the statistics. There is a lack of confidence in the projections. Despite my brutal comments about the previous government, I understand the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell.

I wonder whether it is possible to use information systems--which have developed so rapidly over the past few years--to give us something nearer to rolling projections and to give us much more up-to-date information. I understand that the most recent government land use statistics, which were published last autumn, covered the period from 1985 to 1992. That is not helpful. My noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley referred to land available for infilling in Leicester. In London the 1992 capacity study appears to have underestimated the amount of windfall land which would be available by a factor of four. In other words, there have been four times as many windfall sites available--that is, sites which were not anticipated as being available--as were expected. The planning system has failed to keep track and it is not serving us well. I hope that when we have a new authority in place in London it will be able to replicate some of the work undertaken by the GLC, because not everything that the GLC did was bad.

As has been said, trends change. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, referred to those of us who may be refugees from marriage. I have seen suggestions that those of my generation who left college and shared

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flats for a number of years will again share flats with our contemporaries when we are feisty old ladies. I remember having a conversation with a school friend about the commune we would create when we were elderly.

There is a lack of confidence not just in the figures but also in the planning system, which seems to run behind itself. I support a plan-led system, although I have great doubts about the presumption that implies in favour of development. However, the plan-led system needs to be more responsive than it has proved to be over the past few years. I have recently seen a planning brief about a site in Cambridgeshire which is currently a US airfield. The planning brief noted that such a site was likely to create employment opportunities. But the need now is for housing. This is in an area where unemployment is extremely low. The work that we are doing in local government and at a regional level is not moving sufficiently fast. We need targets and we need mechanisms. We need targets not just in terms of numbers but in terms of the kind of housing that is to be provided. A number of speakers have mentioned that.

I do not believe that the planning system can be a panacea. It cannot be a substitute for public investment, but it has an important role to play. We also need targets as regards the change of use of buildings. I wonder whether we yet have sufficient information about whether offices that are being converted into accommodation fulfil a housing need. Perhaps this is just a London matter, but I wonder whether the large office blocks in central London that are being converted into flats are simply providing second homes and are not meeting a real housing need. It is right that we have to look at maintenance. Otherwise we are storing up problems for the future. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, mentioned VAT. He suggested equalisation.

In referring to sustainability and what we mean by it, I congratulate the Minister on being the first Minister I have heard talk about the integration of land use and transport, a factor that many of us may have taken for granted but which has not been articulated by government. As regards the integration of land use, housing targets and social sustainability, I share concerns about town planning and the quality of towns. There are some horrible examples in the United States from which we might learn. Urban sprawl there has turned more or less into a series of concentric rings of electronically gated wealth and deprivation. In London we have been unable to balance the interests of the east, which suffers because of the muck blown by the winds across central London, with the economically overheated west.

Points about fiscal mechanisms--incentives for development on brownfield sites--balanced with taxes on greenfield sites are well made. The Treasury should contain itself long enough to look seriously at hypothecation. The imaginative ideas put forward today by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Macclesfield, and others should be pursued. The Treasury might well say to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that if Northolt is to be developed, it will have to go for the highest price,

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and that might not be to a housing developer. Let us send messages to the Treasury as well as to the Minister's department.

Before today's debate, it was said to me that one might welcome the day when there is a march for urban regeneration as well as a march for the countryside. I share part of that thought, but I go back to where I began. Let us seek as far as possible not to be confrontational. Let us work both for the countryside and the town. I am glad that that thought has underlain so much of what noble Lords have said today.

5.32 p.m.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, like many other speakers I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Marlesford for introducing the debate. It is timely to debate housing and the countryside. The topic, and particularly the countryside, has been in the forefront of many Englishmen's minds for many years. Talking to my noble friend before today's debate, I was interested to hear him say, "I want to refer to a book. You have probably never heard of it. It is England and the Octopus by Clough Williams-Ellis." The right reverend Prelate referred to it too. I replied, "I have heard of it." I bought a copy in a second-hand bookshop which the author had presented to Lewis Silkin whom he described as his mentor and,

    "who answered many of the prayers of an Edwardian 'Angry Young Man' a generation ahead of Conservation Year 1970".

Not only has there been concern in the past. There is legitimate anxiety about what the future holds for the countryside and in particular the green belt. It is right to bracket town and country together. Since classical times it has been recognised as an ideal that there is an essential harmony between town and country and that they should be complementary and not antagonistic. I see myself as a countryman who likes the town. I must, however, declare an interest. I am a farmer and landowner in Cumbria. Some of my land is within the Lake District. I have from time to time made land available for housing and may well do so again in the future. I have also been a member of the Lake District Planning Board and I am ex-president of the Friends of the Lake District.

The issue at the heart of the debate today--it has not been specifically articulated--is this. Is the development of brownfield sites a way of squaring the circle? Can we both promote the interests of the town and of the country through implementing the same policy? If we can, it is a prize worth gaining.

I wish to talk about the town. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside. The noble Lord, who is not here today, has made one of the themes of his life's work that towns should be exciting, rewarding and fulfilling places in which to live and work. That is not possible if towns are rundown and derelict, if upper floors of buildings are unused and left to decay, and if there is derelict land surrounding whatever activities are going on. Towns must have amenities. They must have the appropriate mix of uses and activities. That inevitably involves the development of brownfield land.

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Equally, I believe that urban areas cannot simply be allowed to spread. One of the most important characteristics of the green belt is to act as a kind of corset about the built-up part of our country. Without some such constraint the pressures to develop the town will be reduced or even disappear.

The green belt was originally established to protect the countryside, not, I suspect, against large-scale development of the kind we have discussed today--much of that is a modern phenomenon--but to stop ribbon development, urban sprawl and the sporadic disfiguration of parts of Britain which were much loved by many people of different classes and conditions.

While we believe strongly in the green belt, it is wrong to say that one must never build on it. My noble kinsman Lord Hampden mentioned developments in a village which clearly contributed physically and economically to the community in an entirely beneficial way. We should also not muddle the green belt with greenfield sites. They are different. We must remember that on occasions green belt policies may lead to over-development in suburban areas, and possibly even to the leap-frogging of the wrong type of development out into the countryside, but I believe that the green belt policy has served the country and towns well.

Against that background, I return to the subject of brownfield sites. We must encourage the development of brownfield sites. When Members on this side of the House were in government we had targets which increased with regularity to ensure that more brownfield rather than greenfield sites were developed. In addition--I take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Macclesfield, and the noble Earl, Lord Radnor--we must make it attractive in real terms for people to develop the land. It is not a matter of terms relative to other forms of development. It must be made as attractive and cheap as possible.

Perhaps I may digress for a moment. One of the reasons that the Millennium Dome project looks so enormously expensive is that some 200 acres of completely poisoned land are having to be decontaminated. Most of it will not be used for the purposes of the dome. It is an important piece of inner city regeneration. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, we must make sure that the Treasury realises one simple home truth: it cannot have the money and the development. It has to be one or the other. Where do its priorities lie?

My noble friend Lord Howell and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred to the statistics on which our government's policy was based, and threw doubts on their validity. I shall be interested to hear the views of the Minister about the statistical basis of the current projections.

On another occasion in a different debate in this House, I said that one of the points of a general election was to get a new government. And when you get a new government you get new policies. The party opposite skilfully conducted its affairs to gain an emphatic success in the last election. I wish to give credit where credit is due. One of its successes was to make very considerable inroads into traditional Conservative areas.

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The traditional antipathy and distrust often displayed towards the party opposite was set aside. I have to confess that there were many instances of some of my own party being its best allies in bringing about that situation but that is another matter. However, the confidence that existed in May last year has now evaporated. People are concerned and anxious about what the new Government are doing.

We have heard talk of the big new planning consents granted around Newcastle, in West Sussex and in Stevenage. One that has not been mentioned is Sutton Coldfield. What does that mean for the protection of the countryside? Does it mean that the green belt policy is dead? I am sure that the noble Baroness will explain. I do not doubt that the policies are still in place. But the reality is that when planning consents of this kind are granted the public cease to believe in the Government's commitment to preserving the countryside and to redeveloping brownfield sites in the inner cities.

We hear from the Government--I refer in particular to the article by the Deputy Prime Minister--that the planning system is to be modernised so that it becomes "less rigid", which I am sure is a good thing. It is also to become "more democratic". Who would wish to argue against that? And "more sustainable". Everyone must be entirely supportive of that, too. We are all in favour of such concepts.

But what do those terms actually mean? Can the noble Baroness tell the House precisely what a "less rigid, more democratic, more sustainable" planning system will look like? It throws doubt on the integrity of the arrangements that are in place now. I am not sure whether we are to see regional development agencies as part of that process, or whether they are part of a separate process that will run in parallel. However, when one looks to the Bill to see how and where they will operate, I confess that I am none the wiser. Are they to be big bodies with sharp teeth? Or will they be mere ciphers? What does it mean for people when they are considering these types of issues in their localities the length and breadth of the country?

We have had a very good debate. However, we want clear answers to three serious questions. The first is: are the Government serious about promoting development on brownfield sites? Secondly, are the Government seriously committed to the green belt? And thirdly, are the Government committed to a future planning system which is less rigid, more democratic and more sustainable? Will it be a planning system that can deliver to the people of this country?

Against that background it is not merely a question of fine words from the department. What we all want to see are the actions on the ground representing the physical manifestation of the policies that the Government ostensibly espouse.

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