Michael Gove (Shadow Minister (Housing), Communities and Local Government; Surrey Heath, Conservative)
No, I will not give way at this stage, but I thank my hon. Friend.
As has been pointed out by my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman, there is a consensus in the House on the need for new homes. That consensus has been led by my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron and my hon. Friend Mr. Osborne, both of whom have made speeches recently stressing the need to increase housing supply in this country. The Government, in talking about increasing supply, have always concentrated on quantity, but unfortunately they have lost the plot—indeed, they have lost the garden plot—on quality. The debate provides an opportunity for the Government to make a fresh start and to show that they believe that, when encouraging development—the right sort of development—we must take account of people's need to ensure that there is appropriate urban green space.
Talking of changing policy, I was particularly interested in some of the remarks made by the Secretary of State in her speech. She talked about the need to take tough decisions on housing. I pay tribute to some of the tough decisions that she has taken in her role as the MP for her constituency. In March 2005, she supported residents who opposed plans to build 200 new homes. In 2004, she supported residents in a successful campaign to stop 30 new flats being built in an area of Bolton. The year before, she played a leading role in blocking proposals for a block in the same area. In 2002, she fought against plans to build new homes in West Horton. Two years earlier, she celebrated with residents after she had blocked a proposal for 600 new homes. In 1999, she played a pivotal role in blocking proposals to build 1,100 new homes in her constituency. Indeed, Margaret Rothwell, the chairman of Bolton's planning committee, said:
"in my experience, whenever a group of residents in her constituency oppose a development, she always backs them."
That is an interesting record, but I come not to condemn the Secretary of State, but to praise her for defending the interests of her constituents, because that is what the motion is about—restoring to local communities the chance to shape their own environment.
The call put forward in the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells has attracted formidable cross-party support. I offer the Minister the chance to join that progressive consensus today. Forty of her colleagues and several senior Liberal Democrats have said that the motion is important, because they recognise that urban green space is good for the nation's health, good for the environment and good for biodiversity.
The British Medical Journal has emphasised how good green space is for our health. It pointed out that in environments with a high level of greenery, there is three times the level of physical activity and 40 per cent. less obesity—both form targets that the Government want to encourage, yet their policy works against doing so.
On the environment, the World Health Organisation in its recent report "Green cities, blue cities"—I do not know why it chose that title, but I can only commend it to the House—said that where there is extensive urban greenery, not only are CO2 emissions absorbed, but oxygen is emitted. Tree leaves collect dust and the phyto-acids in trees act as bactericides. Our urban green space plays a key part in ensuring that our environment is cleaner.
On biodiversity, the university of Sheffield, in a recent study, pointed out:
"Gardens are brilliant for wildlife. Gardens are England's most important nature reserve."
However, under this Government, that nature reserve is increasingly being concreted over.
At the heart of the debate is the question of local accountability, as was pointed out by my right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot. At the moment, the combination of the Government's policies denies local autonomy over not just the designation of gardens as brownfield land, but density targets. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells, the Library, which is independent, has recently drawn attention to the fact that that perverse trend has gathered pace under this Government. It pointed out that
"the 2000 PPG3 contains pressure to increase density of development, which reads back into greater pressure to develop urban gardens... This has been combined with increased housing targets in the South of the country... those factors have encouraged local planning authorities to approve planning applications for urban areas where houses have large gardens."
The Library concludes:
"There was enough in the guidance to justify developers appealing any refusal of this type of application with every chance of success."
In other words, local communities are robbed of control over their own environment because of the Government's policies.