Grant Shapps (Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government; Welwyn Hatfield, Conservative)
I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of her statement, and I join her in expressing sympathies to all the thousands of victims of flooding in recent days.
The last housing Green Paper in 2000 pledged to be the
"first comprehensive review of housing for 23 years"
"action to help first time buyers"
and "decent homes for all". That rhetoric has not exactly been matched by reality. Home ownership has fallen for the first time since records began, numbers of first-time buyers are at their lowest since 1980, housing waiting lists have grown by 60,000, and less social housing is being built every year under this Government than under the Major or the Thatcher Government. The Prime Minister's higher taxes have made it harder than ever to get on the housing ladder. The Minister cannot deny that the average first-time buyer now has to pay £1,500 in stamp duty, but is she also aware that the average first-time buyer in London pays £8,000 in stamp duty? Meanwhile, her own Department's research into the Conservative right-to-buy policy praises it as
"one of the most successful housing policies in increasing owner occupation and creating mixed communities."
However, right-to-buy discounts have continued to be squeezed. Will not her ongoing refusal to offer the right to buy to housing association tenants undermine her own goals of creating a greater social mix within communities?
Today's Green Paper talks about 70,000 more affordable homes, but why should we trust the Government when their own social homebuy scheme, which is meant to help social tenants to get on to the housing ladder, is failing? On page 82 of the Green Paper, the Minister admits that of 1,400 housing associations, only 78 have offered the scheme. In April this year, she came to the House and told us that only 33 houses had been sold under the scheme. Perhaps she can give us an update today.
We absolutely accept the need to build more houses. [Hon. Members: "Where?"] I will come to that in a moment. We will lend our cross-party support to measures that build sustainable eco-friendly communities on brownfield sites. We welcome the use of surplus public sector land. However, does the Minister accept that with the NHS in London already conducting estate audits with a view to closing hospitals and selling off land, the public will be worried that more homes will come only at the expense of fewer hospitals? Does she accept that her Government's policies of closing accident and emergency and maternity departments will in any case hinder sustainable growth of local communities?
We heard last week that regional assemblies are to be sidelined, but is not criticism from regional assemblies the real reason why their powers are being seized? Page 30 of the Green Paper says that regional spatial strategies will be reviewed by 2011. Will the Minister promise the House that none of those regional plans will involve the deletion of green belt protection?
In my constituency, we are running a campaign called "No Way To 10k"—in other words, no way to 10,000 houses. However— [ Interruption. ] Wait for it. We fully back the building of 6,000 houses, and have already undertaken to start building them. It is simply the case that 10,000 will overload our local infrastructure, at a time when the local hospital is being closed. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether the local Labour party is wrong to back my campaign.
We are concerned that the Government's regional building targets are unsustainable. Has the Minister read the Roger Tym report, commissioned by her own Department, into increasing building targets in the south-east? It says that the Government's building plans will
"have a negative impact on the character of the countryside"
and the green belt. Trunk roads will be unable to cope, leading to congestion, pollution and soaring carbon dioxide emissions— [ Interruption. ] Labour Members may say, "Rubbish," but I am talking about the Government's own report. There will be increased
"pressure to develop in these areas of flood risk",
so we can expect more flash floods of the type that we have experienced in recent days and weeks.
Yesterday, the BBC reported that the Green Paper stated that it is "not realistic" to prevent development taking place in areas at risk of flooding. Will the Minister confirm that that wording is no longer in the Green Paper, and how does that square with the 2005 agreement struck between insurers and the Government that areas at risk of flood will be insured only provided that the Government limit such developments?
Labour is not planning the eco-towns of the 21st century; it is planning the sink estates of tomorrow. The Conservative party has been responsible for most of the progressive housing policies of the past 50 years. We built more social housing, spread home ownership and created mixed communities. Does the Minister agree that to solve the housing crisis, it is vital to end the ham-fisted nature of top-down, Whitehall-driven targets? Instead, we should switch to the empowering of local communities to build the homes that stand the test of time.