I beg to move,
That this House welcomes Her Majesty's Government's continuing commitment to protect the Green Belts; supports its initiatives to regenerate the inner cities and other areas of urban dereliction; and recognises that the planning system must be flexible enough to encourage and facilitate development on unused urban land while ensuring the protection of the countryside.
You will know, Mr. Speaker, that I am fortunate to have this debate, having won the ballot for private Member's motions. I shall raise subjects relating to town and country planning in general and our planning control system in particular. Such subjects are important, timely and topical, particularly in view of last week's speech by the Secretary of State. I shall raise two matters—green belt policies, and the sites that are suitable or unsuitable to meet housing demands for the rest of the century—and make two suggestions on changes that should be made to our development control system.
Many of the town and country planning problems that we face today have been brought about through the success of Government policies—for example, sustained economic growth and the spread of home ownership—and, of course, dramatic changing social and demographic factors. I welcome the Government's continuing commitment to the protection of green belts. I say without equivocation that the green belt policy has been the undoubted success of our post-war planning system. Green belts are a milestone in English planning history. Not least, they command wide public support. They have not only succeeded in checking the outward sprawl of our conurbations but assisted urban regeneration.
That point was made in a report from the Environment Select Committee in the last Parliament. The Committee stated that green belts should be sacrosanct. I pay tribute to the work of that Select Committee. It brought out some important reports not only on green belts and land for housing but on the operation and effectiveness of the wildlife and countryside legislation, and the appeals system and major public inquiries. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) who chaired and chairs that Committee.
If anyone should doubt the need for a green belt policy in our country, I refer them to the gargantuan concrete jungle that is greater Tokyo. It is an appalling mess. About 30 million Japanese people live within 30 miles of their Emperor's palace in the heart of the city. At least we can say that His Imperial Majesty is in physical touch with a great number of his subjects. Greater Tokyo is the result of the appalling failure to have a sound and sensible planning system. Thirty million is nearly twice the population of Australia.
To protect our green belts is not to plead selfish parochialism. It is in the national interest to leave green and pleasant countryside accessible to city dwellers. I am glad that, under this Government, the confirmed green belt area has more than doubled to 4·5 million acres. That represents 14 per cent. of England's land mass. Of course, the green belts are entirely in England. That 4·5 million acres represents only about 20 per cent. of England's countryside. Even accepting that other parts of the countryside—national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, sites of special and scientific interest and so on—are afforded protection of one degree or another, most of our countryside is outside statutorily protected areas.
I want to examine the future need for housing and where that housing demand should be met. I am conscious of the fact that the problems relating to this issue are at their most acute in the south of Britain and not necessarily just in the south-east.
Before my hon. Friend proceeds with the substance of his speech, may I ask whether he has noticed the almost complete absence of the Labour party and the so-called alliance parties from the Chamber? We have only three Labour Members here—the statutory minimum of two plus one—and one representative from the alliance parties. Does my hon. Friend agree that that attendance is a most interesting commentary on the concern felt by those parties about the preservation of our countryside and urban renewal?
It is obvious that my hon. Friend is more of a mathematical expert than I, and I am sure that he is right. I like to be charitable to my political opponents and I am convinced that their numbers today are proportionate to the seats that they hold in southern Britain.
Let me put the hon. Gentleman out of his misery. I suggested to a number of my hon. Friends that they should not attend the debate because I believed that we should leave it to the Conservatives, who are so divided on this issue. The more of them who speak the better, and they should keep it up.
I shall not tempt providence, so I shall say nothing.
I agree with a number of the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his speech last week. I believe that the increased demand for housing in southern Britain in the years to come will arise not because of a significant increase in the population, but because of a need to cater for an increase in the number of households. An increasing number of young people leave their parents' homes and set up homes of their own before getting married. Further and alas, there are more divorces and broken marriages and, whereas one household used to suffice for a family, two households are now needed. Thankfully, more elderly people are living longer and they require accommodation.
Although I agree with my right hon. Friend that there is no net immigration of people from other regions to the south-east, I believe that there is a significant net immigration of people to London from abroad. I believe that that factor must be taken into account.
I welcome the fact that, in the past few years, there has been an increasing proportion of development on recycled land in the south-east. My right hon. Friend informed us that 55 per cent. of housing has been built on such underused urban areas.
I hope that my hon. Friend will address the problems faced by places such as Portsmouth, which has little open green space. Residents are already worried about the amount of space that has been taken up within the city, rather than being left open and green. Yet those in the countryside who live in homes that were once green fields criticise those who want to move into similar open space around them. Is it not true that today's conservationist is yesterday's developer and yesterday's home buyer?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and I intend to return to that later. People in towns and cities are keen that they should be left their green spaces, which are important, but space should also be left for people living in the metropolitan suburbs. When I spoke about 55 per cent. of housing being built on urban land I meant recycled urban land, which was often under-used or derelict, and not the parks and open spaces of those areas.
I do not believe that anyone in the Chamber would say that there is no need for house building on green field sites, but we need to be convinced, and we are entitled to ask, "How much—where and when?" before we allow building to take place in the countryside. I also believe that we are entitled to be convinced that the maximum amount of house building—within practical reason and taking account of demand—will be in existing urban areas. To that extent, I want the Government to continue their policies of urban regeneration and the development of the inner cities. I believe that the Government have made great strides in that respect. I accept that the process was started some years ago by the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, who established urban regeneration initiatives. However, I believe that such regeneration has been given a great push forward by the Government, and I welcome that.
I still believe that there is much more land that can be sought out, unlocked and developed. By that I mean unused and underused urban land and not the necessary green spaces of our urban areas.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Secretary of State that there should be less planning at local level because the housing market must adjust in rural areas to take in people who have left the cities? Alternatively, does he agree with the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), who believes that planning should not be conducted in such a manner and that the Secretary of State should not override planning decisions as he has done? The hon. Gentleman should deal with that, because it is the essential issue that should be addressed.
The hon. Gentleman must be a little more patient, because I hope to deal with that issue later, and I shall try to get to it as soon as possible.
I welcome the establishment of the urban development corporations, the simplified planning zones, and so on. About 80 per cent. of us live in urban areas, but so long as some of those areas are a disgrace to any nation that calls itself civilised, people will want to get out and live beyond the suburbs.
The Government must show in their urban policies that there can he inestimable benefit from living in urban areas, such as easy access to vital services and leisure facilities, and much less time taken in getting to and from work. There must also be a much more effective use of existing housing stock in the urban areas.
Surely the difficulty that faces the "southern comfort" lobby is that the urban areas on which my hon. Friend wishes more houses to be built are largely concentrated in the north, whereas the land on which housing is needed is concentrated in the south, where the jobs of the future are increasingly likely to be located. If further planning restrictions are imposed, what hope is there for a large number of those 600,000 new homes which are required in the south being made available for people from other regions who want to seek work there?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I do not suggest that there are any glib or easy solutions to the problem. I believe that in the next decade the problem will be at its most acute in southern Britain, and it is on that area that I wish to concentrate.
I do not want to be party to any discussion of the possibility of people going from the south to the north or vice versa. I have based my remarks on my right hon. Friend's statistics—he is advised by experts. Although it is easier to find unused land in the urban areas of the north, I believe that if we adopt the right policies in the south we can form a overall national policy, which will benefit the country. Although the problem is more acute in the south, there is still much unused urban land that can be tapped in London and in other southern towns.
On that specific point, does my hon. Friend confirm that it is important that inner London retains its areas of greenery and that we try to avoid repeating the mistakes of the 1960s when we overdeveloped a fair part of inner London, with obvious social consequences?
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), and I shall refer to those matters.
Apart from trying to make rundown estates and difficult-to-let public sector housing more attractive to people, further initiatives can be taken in tapping the spare accommodation in our towns and cities. That can be done through more encouragement to the private rented sector. A week ago we debated the proposal in the Finance (No. 2) Bill to extend the business expansion scheme to the private rented sector. I hope to show later that there is a great need, especially in London, to cater for the great increase in the number of single person households. Releasing that spare accommodation will be a significant factor in London.
With regard to the increase in the number of single-person households, if over-rigorous restraint is applied, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the onward march of multiple occupation through the residential suburbs is no more welcome to Conservative Members and their supporters than the arrival of the bulldozers on open countryside?
I agree with that.
The real problem is to what extent future housing development must he met in England's countryside. It would be helpful if the Government recognised that the planning system can play a positive part in dealing with that problem. We must ensure that any development in the countryside is carried out in such a way as to minimise the harmful environmental consequences. The Government, when assessing how much development is necessary for the countryside, must justify the figures updated by the Secretary of State last week. He said that the forecast for the number of new homes in the south-east up to the year 2001—which is only 13 years away—is to be increased from 460,000 to 610,000. A proportion of that number, but by no means the major proportion, will be in London.
I put those statistics to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment who will be replying to the debate. My information is that nearly half of the 610,000 extra homes are needed in London, and 90 per cent. of those will be for one-person households. If that is so, the vast amount of that demand can be satisfied in London and in the other urban areas of the south-east.
More specifically, the public must be reassured that as much as possible of the increased housing demand will be met in urban areas. Encouragement and resources must be given to urban local authorities so that they can realise the maximum potential for recycling underused and unused land.
I said that 90 per cent. of London's demand is for single-person households. Therefore I have no reason to suppose that the overall figure for the south-east is not about 95 per cent.
Are those figures based on an assumption that regional policy will continue to be a failure, as it always has been? I do not especially blame this Government. Further, will the over-concentration of employment in and near London continue? If we had a successful regional policy, shifting the balance in favour of the more northerly parts of Britain, those figures would have to be re-examined.
I know that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther) speaks with great experience on these matters. He is a member of the Town and Country Planning Association council. I remind him that I said at the beginning of my speech that, whatever the regional policy, those figures are based, not on any immigration into the south-east from the other regions, but on a slight net emigration. It is for the hon. Gentleman to say how significant regional policies could be in minimising the demand forecast in these figures.
I refer now to what I believe should be the backbone of the Government's policies relating to the countryside. Development in the countryside must be a policy of last resort. There must be certainty about the policy. Then, we hope, there will be widespread public support for it. Vagueness, equivocation and uncertainty are damaging to the Government's policies. As long as there is doubt about the policies, speculation will be rife and land values will escalate. Taking a median figure, the average price of agricultural land is about £2,000 an acre. It is not an exaggeration to say that some of the prime green field sites in southern Britain have development values of about –1 million an acre. As long as there is doubt, there will be a feeling that there is a free-for-all. That would be a terrible disaster in the planning of sensible policies for our countryside.
Our countryside is a unique heritage and a priceless asset. I am not a rural Member of Parliament, so it is not petty parochial pleading to ask that the countryside be protected from unnecessary development. I believe that it is in the national interest.
I do not want to be seen to be dealing just with planning in the countryside, the urban areas, the cities and the large towns. I am also interested in the hinterland of suburbia, especially on the outskirts of our great metropolis. There are pleasant residential areas there that need also to be protected. They are areas which are worthy of care and conservation.
Due to the sustained economic growth, the spread of home ownership and the social changes, I find in my constituency—I am pleading a touch of parochialism here, although it is not confined to my constituency—that there is a proliferation of new developments, usually blocks of flats, that are hopelessly out of scale, character and harmony with the areas in which they are placed. They are destroying the semi-rural atmosphere of those suburbs which is important to the pleasantness of these residential areas. When they bring with them a significant increase in density in those neighbourhoods, usually with inadequate roads and with inadequate sewage systems, that is a backward step and harmful to the environment.
I have suggested to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that local planning authorities should have the power to designate such pleasant residential areas as "special protection areas"—I have used the acronym SPAs—so that the local planning authority could turn down any application that was out of scale, density or character, and have its decision backed up, if necessary, by the Secretary of State on appeal.
Of course I recognise that there is a need for flats. Indeed, I have referred to single-person accommodation. However, there are appropriate areas for those flats and there are other areas where that sort of development, although needed, is completely inappropriate. I suggest that for such areas my hon. Friend could lay down the condition that permission is required before the demolition of perfectly decent houses is allowed. That proposal was put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). There is a need for such additional protection in residential areas—a sort of halfway house towards conservation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because he has given way many times already. I thank him also for referring to the proposals in my Bill, which has now lost the possibility of a Second Reading, but which will return. Does my hon. Friend agree that such a proposal would not hinder legitimate planning developments, where there was a case for the development in the right place, but would provide essential protection in, for example, our outer London boroughs, where developers are indulging in wholesale demolition—I believe that my hon. Friend's constituency suffers from that, as does my own area—and then creating the fait accompli of a development site where a large number of flats will be built without any control by the local planning committee? Does he agree that that should be an essential additional component of modern planning techniques and that the Government should be more enthusiastic about it from now on?
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. There is great force in his proposal. I am sorry to hear that his Bill has been denied its Second Reading. I hope that he will persevere.
If the Minister does not feel able to accept that proposal, at least there should be clarity in Government circulars. Indeed, the problem arises from the interpretation of circular 22/80. Local planning authorities feel that they cannot resist such developments because the developments will be upheld on appeal.
I should like to make one other proposal about possible changes in our planning system. I must declare an interest as a fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute, although I have not practised for years. Complaints have proliferated that some developments are starting without planning permission or are going ahead in contravention of a condition of the planning permission. I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning about that and he has replied that the planning authorities have powers under stop notices and enforcement notices. However, those notices are difficult to institute.
The only solution is that there should be financial penalties for such actions whether or not planning permission is subsequently given. I feel strongly about that, because more and more people feel that there is corruption in the planning system; they see developments going ahead without the necessary permission. I hope that my hon. Friend will respond kindly to that suggestion. I welcome the review of local authorities' enforcement powers against breaches of town planning laws which the Secretary of State has recently announced.
I realise that land use planning is an attempt to meet two irreconcilables—the needs of developers and the interests of conservation. If I had to make a judgment on our town and country planning system over the past 40 years, I would say that the system has not been particularly successful in the planning of our towns. However, it has been reasonably successful in preventing undue sprawl of urban areas into the countryside.
I like to think that we have learnt seven lessons from the experience of our planning system during the 40 years since the passing of the great Town and Country Planning Act 1947. First, there must be reasonable certainty about what the planning regime is and what the Government's policies are. That is essential to ensure confidence.
Secondly, we have learnt that ad hoc changes to our planning system are bad. Thirdly, experience has shown that Government guidelines—whether in circulars or elsewhere—must be unambiguous. There is too much equivocation today on issues relating to development and conservation.
Fourthly, continuing initiatives are necessary to bring forward land that is suitable for development in our cities. I see nothing wrong in the Government setting targets for individual local authorities because I believe that they have a fair inkling of the amount of derelict or unused land in their areas.
Fifthly, there is a need for more positive management of and commitment to the conservation of our countryside. Sixthly, the planning system should be made flexible to cover different needs and conditions in different parts of Britain. That should not be done by stripping away whole parts of the planning system because of short-term needs or whims. Changes must be carefully worked out, and I recognise the great progress that the Government have made on that. They have continued to protect certain parts of the country, especially the countryside, but have made the planning regime much more flexible and much simpler in areas where there is a desperate need to encourage redevelopment.
Seventhly, whatever town and country planning system we have, different types of decision will still need to be taken at different levels. Clearly, there is a part to be played—perhaps the greatest part—by local planning authorities, in the sense of local district councils, but there is also a need for a larger or county overview in, for example, matters relating to nature conservation. I hope that that will assume a greater importance in the Government's policies, especially as a result of the changing regime in agriculture. However, there is also a need for a regional overview, even if there is not a need for statutory regional authorities.
I believe that SERPLAN the South-East Regional Planning Council—can work. I do not say this in a party political sense, but the experience of the Greater London council showed that there was conflict between the GLC and many of the London boroughs. There should be an attempt at consensus. I hope that individual London boroughs will work in harmony with SERPLAN and the London planning advisory committee.
The Government should build on our 40 years' experience of our town and country planning laws. There must be a common-sense attitude if we are to succeed in reconstructing our inner cities, caring for and containing our towns and suburbs, and conserving our countryside.
I welcome the choice of subject of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman). It is a subject that he knows a lot about and about which he is known to know a lot. I do not disagree with one word that he said. I hope that his remarks have made it clear that for 40 years or thereabouts, there has been consensus in Britain, among politicians who have considered the issue and the people who are knowlegeable about it, that we need to use planning and the tools of intervention, by both Government and local government, to balance the interests of housing and conservation—and, indeed, that is what has happened.
The debate has made it clear that the Secretary of State—I concede this willingly—has accepted that there will be intervention. He has not pretended that there will be a free-market approach with no restrictions. As the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet knows, part of my constituency is in the London Docklands development corporation area, and I see the evidence of intervention around me, as we try to attract into the inner city, thereby regenerating it, what would otherwise go to rural or suburban Britain, or to the home counties. It is right that we reaffirm all-party support for the right approach, which is to intervene in the right way to make sure that there is the right balance.
As to the point made by the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies), unfortunately, the electoral system means that I am the only visible representative of my party from the south-east. My party received half the votes of his party, but the electoral system did not give us half the seats. If it were fairer, there would be more of us here. It is even more unfair because it gives the Labour party, which had even fewer votes than we did, one more seat in the south-east.
I shall be brief because it is right that there should be contributions from as wide a cross-section of opinion in the House as possible. However, I wish to reaffirm my party's commitment to the green belt. This is the first opportunity that I have had to do so under slightly different colours. It is my hope that our colours will become ever more green.
The green belt policy has demonstrated—we have added to this over recent years—the need to resist market forces as the only arbiter of environmental decisions. When developers are queuing to grab land around urban Britain, particularly around London, the green belt is of great importance. My colleagues have always considered that the pressure that developers exert, which increases as the economy expands, means that we have to consider the green belt as even more important. As the pressure increases, it becomes more important that the methods to resist the pressure are seen as strong.
We have to use the green belt not just to preserve the lung around London and other urban areas but to allow other rural communities to have their own identity and characteristics. Recreation, good agriculture and environmental regeneration are all proper. The green belt has not restricted the availability of jobs or growth, and should be seen as a benefit, not as a disadvantage. Furthermore, we must remember that we have the stewardship of the land for future generations and it is not there just for our use. Therefore, our response should be to need, and we should not use demand as the governing criterion.
My party and other Opposition Members have the suspicion that the pressure is greater because of the links between developers and the present Government party. That is evidenced to be a fact, and the row that goes on is the battle between the electors, whose representatives are here and who are concerned to resist development pressure, and some of the Government's paymasters, who clearly want to develop more and find profit in doing so.
When the Secretary of State turned down the application by Consortium Developments Ltd. for a new town at Tillingham Hall, that was not entirely unwelcome to the developers. Consortium Developments Ltd. saw encouragement for its processes of building new towns around the south-east. David Crewe of that company wrote, in the Municipal Journal of 15 April 1988, an article entitled "Case for building new-town hamlets". He made the case that Consortium Developments' basic concept of new towns was supported by the Tillingham Hall decision.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet left out one crucial point. It is that the interests of developers do not coincide with what the Secretary of State, in his speech last week to the Bow Group, described as meeting the needs of those
at the bottom of the pile".
Developers want straightforwardly to do the kind of building that enables them to make the most profit in the shortest time. Generally, that means up-market homes in desirable green field sites, or along the river in London, which sell for high prices.
The hon. Member cited figures that we can all use, showing that what is needed is not expensive five and six-bedroomed houses in the green belt but sheltered housing for the elderly or homes for single people, which are rented cheap or purchased cheap. There is room for that in the inner city and in infill sites in small villages. In each village, there are probably one or two such sites. I come from a rural background and my mother is chairman of a parish council, and my ear is regularly bent on this issue.
We have to develop gradually, and there are methods for doing so. The Government could bring into use the capital receipts of local authorities and spend them on regeneration and on the sort of housing that is needed. The Government could allow local authorities to be properly funded and could provide a fiscal incentive to building work on existing sites rather than green field sites, whether by alteration of VAT or by some other method. The Government could also put a tax on derelict inner-city land, and I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer a question on this. If we respond to the increasing number of households, then we must respond with the appropriate type of housing. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet left out that one element—that the housing has to be of the right type.
As Government Members will know, in the structure plans for their counties—whether Bedfordshire or Berkshire—there is an over-supply of land as compared with requirements over the next five years. For example, in Bedfordshire the over-supply is 118 per cent., in Berkshire it is 105 to 122 per cent., in Buckinghamshire, 108 to 143 per cent., in East Sussex 126 per cent. and so on. In West Sussex, it is 177 per cent.—
Sadly, my figures do not go far enough west to include Wiltshire. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a valid concern.
In every county in the south-east, there is an over-provision in the structure plan, so there is not the pressure that the developers argue there is. Land is available if inner-city land is used as well.
Surely Government policy should be to proceed slowly. Surely the approach should be incremental, and to infill and to see whether the housing legislation going through the House releases empty property for private letting. That is the way to proceed—certainly but slowly. The figures in London and the south-east are telling. In the private sector, there are 177,000 empty properties and in other sectors, including local authorities, 44,200. That is nearly 250,000 empty properties. If Government policies will bring those back into use, then let them be brought back into use first before we start building on either green belt or green field areas, with disadvantageous results for the local communities.
We have the property and we have provided the land. We must be more clear, and the message coming from the House and Ministers must be clear: it is that green belt and the conservation and protection of our environment—urban and rural—will be the hallmark of Government green belt and housing policy.
I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) not only for his selection of the subject today, which is suddenly topical, but on the thoughtful way in which he presented his argument—an argument with which I do not think anyone in the Chamber will disagree. As has been said, he has a distinguished professional background. I thank him for referring to the work of the Select Committee on the Environment. As a former distinguished member of that Committee, he has contributed greatly to the two reports that we produced on this topic, one in 1984 on the green belt and land for housing and one in 1986 on the planning appeal system.
I found some similarities between what my hon. Friend was saying today and some of the conclusions reached in those reports and the recommendations that he was instrumental in making. He was right to say that the main problem in this field is and always has been the tension between those who want to develop in response to social needs and those who want to conserve that which already exists.
In comparison with other countries, our planning system has served us very well, although it is always possible to point to individual decisions which could, perhaps with advantage, have been different. We do not need to go as far afield as Japan to see the value of our planning system. Some European countries could well have done with a planning system similar to ours, because in those countries beautiful areas have been spoiled by indiscriminate development.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet was right to say that the essential ingredient in the success of our planning system is the green belt policy. One must appreciate and understand the objectives of that policy, and we must not confuse green belt with green field. That is happening in many of the discussions that are taking place. Green belts are there to stop the growth of large built-up areas, to create around them a sort of cordon sanitaire in order to contain them. Secondly, green belts are to stop urban areas merging with one another and creating an extensive urban sprawl that is virtually without end. Thirdly, the green belt protects the special character of some of our historic cities.
There should be a fourth objective, and it is the one that the Select Committee urged the Government to include in a circular. It should be to assist urban regeneration: through containment, pressures begin to bear upon inner cities with derelict land that can be brought back into effective and economic use. That should be clearly stated in circulars and should not simply be given in answers to parliamentary questions that I have asked from time to time. That is insufficient for people outside the House, because it does not enable them to understand and appreciate that part of Government policy.
I congratulate the Government on the steps that they have taken to increase the effectiveness of urban regeneration. Only a month or two ago, we had a statement from the Secretary of State about the restructuring of derelict land and urban regeneration grants into a new and simplified system. I was assured at the time, and I hope, that that system will be demand-led and not cash-limited. Whatever the Treasury may say, that is essential if we are to encourage developers to move into our inner cities and regenerate land which at the moment has a negative value.
I recognise the acceptance and the adherence of the Government to a green belt policy and an urban regeneration policy. However, people do not have a sacrosanct right to say that no further development may take place in other areas. It is selfish for people to say that as they are the last people to move into an area nobody else can move there. If such people are not living in a green belt or in an area of outstanding natural beauty which, because of its nature, requires some kind of protection, it is quite unacceptable for them to take such a view.
We must recognise the changing nature of our society. We have improved transport systems and different methods of work and people do not necessarily need to be huddled one upon the other in flats in the centre of towns. People should aspire to a different lifestyle during their working life as well as in their retirement. If society adopts that course, our legal structures must be adapted in order to meet that demand while ensuring that excesses do not take place.
This is where I begin to quarrel with the Government. I accept that there is a tension between developers and conservationists; although that poses a dilemma for the Government, they should give a far clearer lead and a clearer picture of their policy than they have done hitherto.
In its report on planning appeals of 1986, the Select Committee identified a mismatch between central and local government planning objectives. The Select Committee noted the vagueness of circulars and it seemed, at the time that the Committee's report was being written, that planning law was being decided by the appeal system. One did not know what was likely to happen until one appealed to the Secretary of State who made the decision. The guidelines were not clear enough to show whether an appeal was likely to succeed. That led to the appeals system becoming bogged down, burdensome and expensive, both to the local planning authorities and to the developers.
The Government should carefully note the last seven points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet. He said that there must be a clearer and more positive policy and that vagueness should be abandoned. I think that he said—if he did not, I certainly say to the members of the Government party who have the good fortune to represent fair county seats—that whatever the pressures from constituents, they should remember that other people in these emerald isles also have a right to enjoy living among the green fields.
I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) on initiating this debate. I endorse his call for integrity in the planning system and welcome the degree to which that view has been supported.
There was a reference to the number of Labour Members in the House. There is 100 per cent. representation from Labour Members representing south-eastern seats outside London because I am here. Perhaps some hon. Members are hesitant about intruding on private grief and being party to the deepening split between the Secretary of State for the Environment and the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). The right hon. Member for Henley represents a small corner of my garden and has succeeded in safeguarding it from development—except for the part where I have built my compost heap.
I agree with the Secretary of State for the Environment on two key points. First, I agree that there is an acute need for extra housing in the south-east. Conservative Members have conceded that that is beyond doubt although we might argue about the precise figures. Secondly, if nothing is done it is the poor who will suffer most of all. So far that point has not been touched on very much. I emphasise that the attitude of the Government and the Secretary of State to local councils in their efforts to provide, directly or in partnership with housing associations, housing to meet local needs is one of opposition. Putting every barrier in the way of local authorities does not help to get a solution to the intense housing problems facing people in the south-east.
Oxford city council has been one of the main victims of the barrier put in the way of lease-back deals in the Secretary of State's recent announcement. The Development of 1,300 houses on green fields next to my house has been at least substantially delayed. The wherewithal to finance a scheme that had the support of the city, south Oxfordshire and the county council will now be found with difficulty, if at all. Ironically, one of the only alternatives would be to sell the whole thing off for speculative housing development, which would not meet local need and would aggravate the problems.
I see the solution to the housing problems confronting the south-east neither in the market liberalism of the Secretary of State—tempered though it may be—nor in the "not-in-my-back-yardism" of the right hon. Member for Henley. If we exercise the rigid restraint for which some Conservative Members in the south-east have called, the pressure will simply build up to intolerable levels in existing urban areas. There will be more and more subdivision of existing properties, and the onward march of multiple occupation will proceed through the suburbs. Furthermore, thousands more will be condemned to live in appalling conditions—in homeless family accommodation, crammed into unsuitable and damp homes, or crowding on to the increasing number of caravan sites proliferating around the edges of the urban areas.
The policy of the Department of the Environment seems to make matters worse rather than better. The Use Classes Order, in effectively deregulating planning control where six people or fewer are sharing a house, has given rise to considerable pressures in my constituency, and I know that the same applies in Cambridge and other southern towns. It gives the local authority no control over the uses to which residential accommodation is put. I fear that the deregulation in the Housing Bill will simply worsen the problem, and make it very much more difficult for families to find accommodation that they can afford.
The reason why we face such difficulties, and why Conservative Members have a particular problem, is a contradiction at the heart of Government policy and current Conservative ideology. The Government advocate the free market and the free movement of capital. They give the free market priority, whether trade unionists are attempting to intervene to protect their members' interests or democratically elected councils are standing up for the interests of the local population. As a consequence, we have seen the free market operating to generate a high degree of economic growth in the south-east, sucking in capital from other regions. We have also seen many people taking the advice of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), getting on their bikes and finding work in the south-east. Although I concede that there may be a small net emigration from the south-east, that is not inconsistent with pressure from the immigration of people looking for jobs.
Workers who come to my surgeries—as I am sure that they come to those of other south-east Members—have seen job advertisements in the local paper, after being unemployed for five or 10 years, and have come down from Scotland or Liverpool, taking the advice of the right hon. Member for Chingford. They have found work and then been unable to find accommodation for love or money. They cannot afford to buy or to rent on the private market, and the council waiting lists are too long for them to have any prospect of accommodation in the foreseeable future. The same is true of housing associations. Nothing in the Government's present proposals or in the Housing Bill will make the position other than much worse. Those people should not be forgotten—people who are separated from their families, which causes the same marital pressure, anxiety and worry that afflicts many thousands in south-east England who cannot find or afford accommodation even when they have been born and brought up here.
I am pleased that Conservative Members are showing some awareness that intervention is necessary in the form of planning controls and an effective regional economic policy. Let me emphasise how important that is. The failure and relative absence of regional policy in recent years bears a large part of the responsibility. I am not saying that it would solve all the problems, but it could certainly alleviate them. We need a much more determined programme of investment in infrastructure and services in the depressed regions. We need a total change in the Government's attitude towards local authorities, with which they should be working in partnership to bring about economic regeneration in other parts of the country, which could lift some of the pressure in the south-east. Similarly, the Government should be working in partnership with local authorities in southern England to address local housing needs.
Let me suggest some of the steps that I think should be taken. In the difficult planning decisions that come before local authorities, there should be an effective voice for local people. Such are the capital surpluses that can be generated by the sort of speculative developments that we see in the south-east that it pays developers every time to engage high-calibre advice, and to put together an effective progaganda machine in favour of their developments. Local people, and increasingly even local authorities, are hard put to match that when it comes either to the planning process or to a public inquiry. The Government should address themselves to the funding of objectors.
I urge the Government to work within the framework and in harmony with democratically formulated county structure and local plans. A number of proposals—including one at Stone Bassett, not far from my constituency—are in clear contradiction of the structure plan. They do not fall within the green belt. The more that the Secretary of State talks about the need to protect the green belt the more worried local people become about other areas of open countryside—notwithstanding the fact that our structure plan clearly indicates parts of the county to which development should be steered.
If—as is the case—additional housing is required, there should be a general increase in targets, and it should be up to local authorities, in consultation with local people, to identify the appropriate pieces of land. Adding some houses in a number of different villages is a possibility: that can do something for village life, and for the economic and social vitality of individual villages. We also wish to see redundant urban land brought into use. But however it is done, it must carry local opinion with it wherever possible. Above all—I do not expect this from the present Government—it is essential to get to grips with the massive amounts of capital to be made in profits on speculative developments.
At present, agricultural land in Oxfordshire sells for about £2,000 an acre and residential land is worth between £500,000 and £1 million an acre, depending on where it is. There are proposals for a 600-acre development at Stone Bassett, which means that there is a potential profit of at least £300 million before one starts. That gives a massive incentive for speculative development by the consortium of developers.
I believe that attempting to plan that process without getting to grips with land values is like trying to steer a car without being able to regulate the engine. As it runs increasingly faster, each little twitch on the steering wheel threatens some damage. I concede that attempts in the past to extract for the community a fair share of development value have not been organised as well as they should or worked as well as one would want. It is an area to which a responsible Government would address themselves, so that those windfall profits do not simply fall into the hands of speculators, but are available to the community as a whole, which, after all, gives the planning approval concerning what is the heritage of us all. It is the community, not the developers, who should benefit.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned an important point. I hope that the Labour party has learnt from the errors of the past and will not return to the concept of a development land tax or a betterment levy, which were a total failure. The figures are £5 administration costs for every £1 recovered. Section 152 agreements are a far better way of clawing back to the community some of the benefits of the development.
I have heard at least one Conservative Member advocate taxation on undeveloped urban land. The principle that, where development takes place, a fair share should come back to the community, is sound and should be pursued with all vigour.
If the form of agreement suggested by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) could be strengthened and given real bite, and could take the heat and incentive out of the motive to the speculators, I, and certainly the Labour party, would look at that, but one thing remains certain. That is that, as long as there are large profits to be made, as at present, any land that might be taken for development in the south-east will continue to be at risk.
I urge the Government to do this, and Labour would do it where the Conservatives would not. We must examine the distributional aspect, as the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said. We must consider who will get the houses. It is not simply a matter of where they go and how many there are; it is a matter of who will live in them and be able to afford to do so. Again, if it is left to the market, all those speculative developments will cater primarily for up-market housing. They will riot meet the needs of those who are in overcrowded accommodation, stuck on cairavan sites or, as is happening increasingly, having to share accommodation with relatives or commute back to Liverpool or Kilmarnock every other weekend to see their family.
What is needed is much stronger and more deliberate intervention to ensure that, where there is development, it provides low-cost accommodation to rent, municipal accommodation available for allocation on the basis of need, or accommodation that housing associations can allocate on the basis of need. I emphasise that low-cost housing for purchase should be provided.
The state of affairs at Stone Bassett gives rise to a great deal of concern in Oxfordshire. The land is outside both the Oxford and London green belts, but it is of a high amenity value—visually, I believe. The proposals are opposed strongly locally by immediately neighbouring residents and villages, which one might expect. However, there is also a great deal of concern across the county that in itself the development will add to the pressure on local services to an extent that will not be compensated by the benefits to the community that the developers might make available. Moreover, there is a great deal of concern that any such development is unlikely to meet local housing needs.
There is also strong concern, so vigorously has the proposal been opposed by the Member of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Henley, and such is the vehemence with which the row between himself and the Secretary of State is developing, that there might be a temptation for the Government to approve the scheme precisely because it falls in the right hon. Gentleman's patch. I hope and trust that that will not happen.
The Government and all parties must look afresh at the Town and Country Planning Act and how it operates when there is such intense pressure for development in the south-east. It often seemed to me, as the chairman of a planning committee for several years, that, in regard to development control, the present operation of the Act is too negative, in that the onus is on what one turns down rather than on what one positively advocates. It is too passive in that local authorities have to wait for developments to come to them, rather than being able to plan the best developments in the light of local needs.
The Act is permissive in that the onus is on local authorities to grant planning permission except where there is good reason not to do so and even when they might have good ideas about what might be a preferable scheme. The Act should be made more positive and pro-active. it should be combined with stronger and more effective regional policy and a genuine willingness to get to grips with land values and to ensure that, where developments takes place, they are applied to the benefit of the whole community.
If Conservative Members who are grasping their way towards realising the importance of interventionism were prepared to go further in that direction, no one would welcome it more than me. As the people of the south-east recognise increasingly that intervention, both locally and nationally, is essential to address the growing problems and stresses arising from the economic pressure in the south-east, they will also recognise increasingly that, if interventionism is what is called for, it is best to elect a Government who genuinely believe in it, rather than try to press the case on a Government who so manifestly do not.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) on selecting this subject for debate. Many of my hon. Friends and I believe that the issue is of greater importance than the Government currently realise. Any opportunity to give it a full airing is welcome because there is great depth of public feeling about it in many parts of the country.
Last week there were two events of substantial importance, relevant to this subject. First, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a full statement of the Government's position in a speech to the Bow Group. He set out the reasons that prompted the Government to permit a record level of housing development over recent years, and tried to justify why it should continue for the foreseeable future. Secondly, he found himself in the embarassing position of having to acknowledge that his estimates of household growth in the south-east were understated by no fewer than 150,000 households—some 33 per cent.—and that the counties in Serplan should make provision accordingly. Such an error hardly gives me much confidence in the methodology of the Department of the Environment, since the last figures were issued only in 1986.
There is no serious philosophical difference about whether we should have planning controls. They have been with us through all colours of Government for some 40 years and any proposal to sweep them away would be unthinkable and unacceptable. That said, the Government are the final arbiter and, like it not, they have the ultimate responsibility for the strategic planning decisions that effect the nation. At the end of the line, they decide the quality of life of many of our people. They cannot abrogate that responsibility, nor should they. But to conclude, as this Government are doing, that all demands for housing should be met regardless of the consequences for others, is just as irresponsible to present and future generations as abandoning all attempts at planning and merely giving way to market forces.
The difficulties of house building on a massive scale over a short period without the necessary supporting infrastructure came vividly to my attention during the huge housing developments that took place in my constituency. In discussing my anxiety with hon. Friends, the great national importance of this question became apparent. Around every major conurbation developers have been active, and nowhere more so than in the south-east. Therefore, it is disastrous news to hear that the Government expect house building to continue in the south-east at no less than the present rate well into the next century.
I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that the strength of feeling in the Conservative party can best be measured by the fact that 93 colleagues like to have notice of meetings that I may arrange on the subject. It is wrong to suggest that we wish to stop all building at a stroke, but many of us believe that in certain areas the pace must be drastically reduced—at least until recent building can be sensibly absorbed, the roads are upgraded to cope with the extra population, schools and hospitals are built, and open spaces and recreational facilities are dealt with, together with all the other amenities that are normally provided for an established community.
My hon. Friends may have seen the pamphlet "This Pleasant Land" which some of us published. It points to the complementary and acknowledged problems of our inner cities. It cannot be right that our major cities are allowed to fall into a state of dereliction while those who work in them must move further and further out to live and, in the case of London, to live beyond the green belt on massive housing developments which create heavy pressures on all the existing community facilities. The Government recognise the problems of the inner cities and we support what they are doing, but we cannot understand why we do not receive a more sympathetic hearing for our reasoned arguments against green field building beyond the green belt.
The Government can make a start on solving this problem by administrative means. First, they must restore the power of the district council as the principal planning authority. It is best placed to recognise local feelings and the merits or otherwise of individual applications. The hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) touched on that when he too made a plea for the recognition of local feeling, for it is on that that we base our case. The Government must realise that, if they do everything centrally, they are bound to face this sort of criticism.
The cancellation or modification of the circular that requires each district to have a five-year land bank would also be required. Many districts are finding their decisions reversed on appeal because they do not have one. That obligation has been the developers' charter. Many district councils without such a land bank are forced to allow unwanted developments because they know that their decisions will be reversed on appeal and, naturally, they wish to avoid the costs involved.
In his speech on Tuesday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out that some districts, faced with an unpopular application which the council might welcome, reject it in the knowledge that the Minister will subsequently allow it and so eventually carry the odium. Either way, the Government get it wrong and in neither case does the district council get its way. I understand that my proposal would drastically slow the rate of development in some areas, but others would welcome the opportunity to encourage development. I deplore the Government's reluctance to make these vital changes.
My hon. Friend mentioned the concrete desert of Tokyo. The other day I was in Los Angeles and was told that Greater Los Angeles spreads for no fewer than 250 miles. We do not have space on our little island to spread like that; and the electorate is overwhelmingly opposed to a concrete jungle from Kent to Somerset and from Hampshire to Cambridge. Time is no longer on our side. In his speech my right hon. Friend spoke of the need to house the families of existing inhabitants. They are today's electorate and if they had strong feelings and shared his fears, surely they would say so.
Usually, the Conservative party has been highly sensitive to the feelings of its supporters, and in this case in particular the Goverment would be most unwise to ignore the huge groundswell of popular opinion that is opposed to their present policy. It is our intention to keep this matter in the forefront of debate until we obtain a meaningful response from the Government which will allay the fears of our constituents.
I join my hon. Friends in congratulating our hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) on the many wise statements he made. I should like to concentrate on his plea to the Government to be more flexible in their planning policies and to differentiate more expertly and firmly and with greater stability on the differences between one area and another. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reply to that specific point, which has been echoed by other hon. Members.
I have some sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He has a difficult problem to deal with, as my hon. Friend recognised, and he has undoubtedly been shocked by the new extrapolation of the population. That has been leapt on by some builders as a sort of new builders' charter, but we know that such forecasts are not to be taken literally—and they know that, too. Forecasts are no more than an attempt to extrapolate current trends. They are done every two years and vary widely. They fluctuate and change, so they provide no firm guidance about what should happen in future. We all believe in the importance of planning controls, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi). We have destiny in our hands; it is not left to the whim or the extrapolation of some expert from a census return. We can do something about this, and we should.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was not his usual charitable self in his comments about constituents when he suggested that they were all afflicted by this new disease called nimbyism. There may be one or two, and why not? After all, many people are like that wherever they are. It is to be expected. Some take rather short-term notice of their wider social obligations to the community and the nation's housing problems, but generally I do not find that to he the case.
The area I know best mostly encompasses a large chunk of east Sussex within the boundaries of Wealden district council, which is highly innovative. I shall tell my hon. Friends what we have done there, and this is no account of people stricken by nimbyism. Between 1976 and 1986, the district council areas saw a 13 per cent. increase in housing stock—about 6,000 new houses. During that period, the population increased by about 11 per cent.—at a time when the population in the nation as a whole was not increasing.
The district has many small towns. When I was first elected about 20 years ago, the town of Crowborough had a population of 8,000. In 10 years, it had increased to 17,000, and between now and 1996 we expect it to reach 22,000. The population will have increased three times in one generation. How many hon. Members could point to such an increase in population in the small or even medium-sized towns in their constituencies? It has not just happened in one town in my constituency. It has happened in other towns which people still like to call villages. Nor should we forget that it has happened in a constituency a large part of which has been designated an area of outstanding natural beauty.
The phraseology used by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his speech to the Bow Group can only have exacerbated the anxieties that were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). The pace shows no sign of slackening. We must gird our loins and stop our nimbyism. We must expect more building on green field sites. That will not mean infilling in my area. It will mean moving straight into areas of outstanding natural beauty. That is where the conflict lies. Not only my small corner of the south-east will be affected. As hon. Members who represent other parts of the south-east know, the problem will affect them, too. That passage in my right hon. Friend's speech is bound to increase anxiety.
The rural parts of some of the most beautiful areas of England are becoming semi-rural, and the semi-rural parts are becoming urbanised, with all the consequent costs and struggle in extending the infrastructure of schools, roads, health and social services, water and sewerage. All those extra services are required at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other members of the Administration tell us to be careful about our capital costs. The two do not go hand in hand.
What makes the problem much more difficult is circular 15/84. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and I have been to see the Department about the five-year supply of land for housing, and we questioned the number of times that Department inspectors had overruled the district councils on appeal. Since our meeting, the position has improved. The difficulty with the circular is that it enjoins district councils always to maintain a five-year supply of land. No sooner are applications for development granted than more land must be included. We cannot continue year after year to pretend that the countryside is sacrosanct and that the quality of life in those villages and towns will be preserved if we must always have a five-year bank of land for building. It leaves no time to plan, let alone to finance the increasing demands of improving the infrastructure.
That is why in the excellent pamphlet—"This Pleasant Land"—to which I lent my name, although none of the writing was done by me, we say:
County or District Councils should have the power to prohibit substantial housing or other development in towns and villages where, for architectural, geographical or historical reasons, it would be unsuitable and have a deleterious effect on the existing environment.
The Government try to give the impression that their policies will meet the demand for housing, and their weapon is the release of more land. Of course, if there is no more land, there can be no more building. We see all the perils that I have mentioned, but we do not see the housing problem being solved. Building in the south will certainly not solve the nation's housing problems. Nor will it solve our economic or industrial problems. Land is limited, and the lesson is clear: the Department believes that the market force is in the direction of the south and it does not wish to do anything about it. In that case, its planning procedures are completely against those of the Secretaries of State for Employment and for Industry, the thrust of whose policies is to say, "We do not want the economy of the south-east to overheat. We wish to encourage the development of better housing and a better ambience in the inner cities so that the north and the midlands can become more attractive."
In my constituency, the people who need housing are being priced out of the market, despite the Government's planning policy. I do not know what has happened in the council represented by the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). It must be dozy. My district council does not believe that it must intervene or that it should build massive housing estates of the sort that litter the rural and semi-rural landscape. It believes that it can harness private enterprise by encouraging home ownership and house sales with schemes involving joint venture, do-it-yourself shared ownership and self-build. It pursues innovative policies such as mixed tenure schemes for the elderly, and offering property for leasehold purchase, shared ownership or renting. It gets into the same financial planning bed as building societies, housing associations and the like. Much progress has been made.
I would rather not. The hon. Gentleman spoke for 20 minutes, and I do not wish to do the same. Many other hon. Members wish to speak. He will probably discover that there is not much difference between us.
The district council is not unwilling to recognise the need for growth, nor has it lagged behind in providing the land necessary to meet housing needs. But our central point is that we are not meeting the housing needs of the very poor, and the threat of releasing more land causes tension and anxiety. Over-development not only causes invasion of the countryside but destroys the quality of life in our towns and villages.
Against that background, I urge the Government to pay more regard to the points that have been made—some in this debate and some outside the House. First, they should accept that, as there is no free market in land, planning controls should ensure a fairer balance between housing and environmental needs. That means accepting that there is too much substandard housing in London, which is one reason why people want to leave. The SERPLAN report says that housing renovation has been reduced and that if the current rates continue there will be a considerable deterioration in the housing stock. My area has experienced an influx of people from London who want better housing and better schools for their children. If we allow the housing stock to decline and do not begin to arrest the deterioration, we shall accelerate the trend.
One need only look at the north and south banks of the Thames as well as the eastern Thames corridor to realise what a disgraceful state they are in. We look to the Government to ensure, with a combination of public and private enterprise—just as Wealden district council has done—that we get cracking to improve those areas so that people will want to live there and industry will want to move there. Then people can live in a decent environment in an urban area without having to travel miles across the countryside to work. They want to be close to work, and we have the facilities to provide it.
No. I do normally, but I want to finish my speech so that other hon. Members can speak.
The SERPLAN report says that the land supply for housing over the next five years is considerably more than
that required by structure plans. I do not see the need, therefore, for the huge demand for building on green field sites. The report continues:
For the decade 1981–1991, estimated house building activity will exceed earlier estimates used in preparing the strategy.
The SERPLAN reports points out—SERPLAN is supposed to be the expert in this regard—that,
for the first half of the 1990s county provisions, taken together, will meet over 60 per cent. of the regional guidance figure for the decade 1991–2001.
That is a pretty good record. Of course there are regions where not enough is being done. The Minister should turn his mind to those regions and not threaten places such as east Sussex.
The SERPLAN continues:
More attention needs to be paid … to access to housing.
The problem of access to housing raises the question of those who are just above the benefit level, who are confronted with difficulties in London and in my constituency.
The general sense of the debate is that we are not suffering from nimbyism; we are happy to play our part. We understand that in future there will be pressures and we shall do our best to meet them. There could not be a more co-operative group of people in the private or public sector than those in the area circumscribed by Wealden council, which forms a large part of my constituency. We shall not be able to co-operate with the necessary good will that the Government would expect; we shall not be able to preserve the heritage of our country unless we have a clearer definition of what the Government want to happen in our rural areas.
I shall try to be brief and I shall not refer to previous comments.
I should like to move the focus of the debate from the south to the midlands. I should not like it to be thought to be an exclusively southern preserve. I want to move from housing and discuss other aspects of planning coontrol. As to the housing issue, the arguments that I have heard are leading to the conclusion that we need another new town. I speak as an hon. Member who has had a new town constituency. New towns seem to be an answer to many of the points made about urban sprawl taking place beyond the green belt and in green fields. In case I am accused of trying to move the problem elsewhere, I should say that under the structure plan in my constituency we have unwillingly accepted a total of nearly 4,500 extra houses over the next three years.
With the completion of the M42 and the announcement that will shortly be made of the western orbital route around the west midlands conurbation—in the context of the local government boundary review—Birmingham city council is publishing proposals, which have not yet been put to the commission, to expand Birmingham as far as the motorways. It is expanding the boundaries not to preserve the green belt but with a view to development. I should like to hear an assurance from the Government about planning in the green belt following the construction of motorways. I think that that might interest a number of other hon. Members.
In a letter dated 19 January 1985, the Minister's predecessor wrote to me to say:
The construction and eventual opening of that motorway will not affect the green belt status of the land in any way. If the motorway creates development pressures, then it will be the planning policies of the County and District councils that will have to handle those pressures.
The letter continues to refer to a policy statement about the M25. I fear that the contents of the letter will be set at naught if the ambitions of Birmingham and Solihull are realised. I should like clarification from the Minister about that matter and confirmation that there will be opportunity for public consultation—the views of those living in the area.
A further letter that I received dated 30 October 1985 said:
There will be extensive consultations, and the opportunity will be given for all local authorities concerned including those authorities with adjacent boundaries and for the public to put forward their views, and be consulted on any proposals that are put forward.
I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that there is widespread public concern that the extension of Birmingham and Solihull will be put through by a local government boundary review body without adequate opportunity for public opinion to be tested in the affected areas. In an area surrounding a conurbation there are constant pressures on the land, often to allow it to go into disuse so that it may later form the basis of an acceptable application for planning permission. I am happy to say that in part of my constituency that progressive wastage is being countered by an urban fringe project to which the Government have contributed.
In my constituency we experience problems with massive poultry houses and widespread tipping. Those poultry houses are excluded, if they are of certain dimensions, from the operation of planning control under class VI of the general development order. As such, those buildings, which are not only of considerable floor area but reach up to 20 ft in height, surmounted by noisy electric fans that are in constant operation, may be built next to somebody's home without planning permission, consideration of disposal of the slurry or access of trade vehicles to the premises.
I understand only too well the pressure on the farming community and the need to look for alternative uses of land, but those factory units are a clear abuse of the general development order. I should like to hear that the proposals for stricter controls that were mentioned in a letter from the Minister dated 26 October 1987 are making progress.
As to tipping, land under the general development order land filled in for agricultural purposes is excluded from control. Thus, it falls to the county council as the waste disposal authority—the district council has no standing in the matter—to license the tipping operations. In effect, that is limited to setting conditions governing tipping, which prove extremely difficult to enforce. In practice, it has been found in my constituency ever since I represented it that those tipping operations encompassed not merely filling of the land but domestic and industrial waste and occasionally poisonous chemicals.
The controls are not adequate to deal with the problem, quite apart from the question of damage done to roads and verges and the flooding occasioned by the use of country lanes by traffic for which they were not designed. It appears that the tipper makes no financial contribution to the cost of repairing or widening those roads. It must be borne by the ratepayer, who has not only the nuisance but the penalty of having to pay for it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, when considering the general development order, will give consideration to the question of financial contributions.
Finally, there is the question of councils awarding themselves planning permission, which I believe can lead to abuse. My district council gave itself planning permission for a hotel on a set of allotments while turning down a private application. In those circumstances, it is difficult to convince the developer that the council's decision was unbiased. I hope that when the planning controls are reviewed consideration will be given to that difficult question.
I shall be extremely brief and ultra-selective so that others have the opportunity to take part in the debate.
I believe that the Government's broad strategy is absolutely right. Urban and suburban regeneration and development should be the main thrust of housing and planning policy and the green belt must remain sacrosanct, although there will be a need for some topping up by green field development to accommodate the 2 million additional households that will need accommodation by the end of the century.
Two further points have been insufficiently stressed in the debate so far. All Members are significantly influenced by constituency experience, and I am no exception. In my constituency, the demand for housing is overwhelmingly locally generated. It is not a matter of people flooding in from other parts of the country. We had the major development in the 1970s and early 1980s. Now another generation is growing up and its demand for housing must be met. Insufficient attention has been paid to the fact that we are not drawing people down from the midlands, the north, or wherever, but predominantly seeking to provide housing in Basingstoke for Basingstoke people.
Insufficient attention has also been paid to the revival of the rural economy, although my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) alluded to this briefly. I believe that the problem is far greater and cannot be considered in isolation from questions of planning. To solve the economic problems of agriculture and to restore balance to village communities, the release of some green field sites is necessary. Ironically, many of the constituents who write to us protesting about planning applications are the very people who complain about village schools being closed, bus routes cut and shops closed down and sold.
I suspect that in this context my views differ slightly from those of some of my hon. Friends in that I am not entirely afraid of green field development. On the contrary, I believe that it has a significant part to play in planning policy and that some of the fears expressed are not entirely justified.
My hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) have considerable experience in planning matters. I very much hope that the points that they have made today will be taken into account as I find myself in full agreement with almost all that they have said.
As has already been mentioned in several speeches, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a speech on these matters last week. I especially welcome those passages in which he spoke of the policy to maintain the green belt. It is important that they be fully publicised as they have not so far received a very fair press and people have been left with a somewhat confused impression of what my right hon. Friend was saying about the green belt.
The Government's record in this respect is good. Appeal decisions and structure plan decisions have maintained the green belt. I welcome especially the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the needs of people living in towns. He said:
They need parks and green spaces and gardens too and resent the implication that all development can just be dumped in their back yard. Remember too that the concept of green belt was to give 'green lungs' for city dwellers.
I presume that that also covers metropolitan open land—the open space within London recognised by my right hon. Friend's predecessors as of strategic importance for the metropolis as a whole.
I am not satisfied that the Government's commitment to the green belt and to metropolitan open land is fully understood either by the people who are to benefit from it or by the press and the developers. It is important to consider why that is so. One reason, in my view, is that whenever the Secretary of State is confronted with a thoroughly outrageous planning application to develop green belt or open space, perhaps in a massive way, he feels constrained to adopt a policy of silence in the belief that he has no power to act until the matter comes to him for an appeal decision.
Even when a proposal is plainly contrary to a local plan or development plan, the Secretary of State feels bound to go through the whole paraphernalia, if necessary, of a massive appeal involving great expense, a great deal of inspector time and considerable cost for all concerned. For example, shopping malls have been proposed for green belt sites. Adjacent to my constituency—I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Sir B. Hayhoe) is equally concerned about this—there is a massive proposal to develop metropolitan open land at Osterley with a large housing estate and large-scale shopping and industrial buildings. Since 1963, a succession of planning applications has been made in relation to that land and local people have repeatedly felt obliged to raise money to fight the proposals. I believe that if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State interpreted his powers differently he could help immeasurably in making all of that unnecessary.
I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, therefore, to re-examine his powers. A large school of thought considers that he has power to refuse to entertain a planning appeal in respect of a hopeless case—that is, if he decides that planning permission cannot possibly be granted, he has power to refuse to entertain an appeal. The Department of the Environment interprets that as being limited to legal power, but it can be interpreted as covering situations in which the proposal is totally at variance with planning policy. I ask my right hon. Friend to re-examine his powers and to consider whether he should refuse to entertain some of the really hopeless planning appeals involving green belt sites and metropolitan open space. That would be of great convenience to the people who were intended to benefit from the policies and would achieve a real saving in inspector time. It would also help to make the Government's policy on these matters more clearly understood. I therefore strongly urge that that course be considered.
This excellent debate has evinced unanimity on the need for greater certainty in our planning system. We also need much greater political will if we are to achieve the kind of certainty that both developers and those seeking to protect the environment wish to see.
I question the assessment made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about demand. Too often, the figures appear to be estimates made by house builders rather than an assessment of actual need, as the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) pointed out. There are still 600,000 empty homes in this country. Much more work should be done on that. Our planning system should enable us to preserve our countryside, enjoy a high standard of living and modernise our industry. It should allow us to have our cake and eat it; I do not shrink from saying that.
Many of my hon. Friends have argued—none better than my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin)—that the planning system is failing the nation. First, it is failing to protect green fields from overdevelopment. Secondly, it is failing to promote the development of inner cities. Thirdly, it is failing to provide for low-cost housing, which we want in all our constituencies. Fourthly, it is accelerating, if not promoting, the movement of population which has very serious social and infrastructure problems attached to it.
I shall restrict myself to commenting on the provision of low-cost housing, which I believe to be particularly important. The present system is failing to provide such housing, and the problem is not being addressed. Even in this debate it has been suggested that the overdevelopment of green fields would somehow enable us to deal with the problem. It would not. We must get the private rented sector going. More needs to be done and more finance provided for housing associations and sheltered housing schemes.
Furthermore, planning authorities need much greater quality control. For example, they need the power to order greater density in certain parts. I mean not only in the centre of Peckham in inner London, where I was a candidate for five years, but in the centres of our villages and towns, whether in the middle of Dorset or anywhere else. Lastly, I believe that the movement of population is extremely dangerous and gives rise to great social problems.
I would like the Secretary of State to change the statutory presumption in favour of development and to uphold local authority planning decisions to a greater extent. As he knows, I think that there is an urgent need to modernise the circulars. I want planning authorities to have much greater powers to control the quality of development and a tighter system of structure plans once those structure plans have been agreed between central Government and local authorities. Our planning system is failing the nation and it needs to he changed.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) won the ballot and chose this subject. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) closed by saying that he would attempt to keep the issue in the public eye until the Government do something about it. I assure him that he will have my absolute support.
I say that for two important reasons. Sadly, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet ducked one of them—the whole question of demographic change—in his motion. I make no apology for saying that the second has to do with the political changes that that implies. That is why the Conservative party is so troubled by the change, which is doing to the Tory party what previous demographic changes did to us. Conservative Members must think through the consequences of that in order to understand what is happening.
The desperate crisis in housing in this country relates to the planning problem. The crisis has come upon us largely because the present Secretary of State and his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hesletine), who sets himself up in opposition to him, created it between them. Both of them undermined local authorities' ability to provide and plan effectively. The right hon. Member for Henley has the audacity to attack the present Secretary of State for setting loose the Frankenstein's monster that he designed.
Conservative Members claim that they are innocent of any responsibility, but the right hon. Member for Henley was the Secretary of State who ordered Berkshire, his own county, to increase the housing supply by 8,000. Furthermore, although he now says that civil servants in the Ministry of Defence should go north, he was the Secretary of State who cancelled the previous Labour Government's order to move the Property Services Agency up to Middlesbrough, which would have meant 3,000 jobs going to the Middlesbrough area.
The present Secretary of State has nothing to write home about either. He is another disaster area. Consider what is happening in Hammersmith. The Hammersmith Broadway development is one of the largest developments in an inner-city area. The appeal against it is already won. The inspector says that it is not appropriate and that there is not enough housing. What does the Secretary of State do? He overrules that decision, even though the developer and London Regional Transport, which proposed the plan, have agreed that it is not appropriate. Everyone agrees that the development is not appropriate but the Secretary of State steps in and overrules the decision, and one of the options that would have provided low-cost housing to take the strain off the areas about which Conservative Members complain. I certainly complain about my area, which has 10,000 people on the housing waiting list and 700 people in bed and breakfasts. When we left office there were none in bed and breakfast and only 4,000 on the waiting list and I thought that was bad enough. The Conservative party has created a nightmare.
There is another monstrous likely development. There is a serious fear that sites for opencast mining will be identified and agreed without the public having to be informed and the normal planning process pursued. That means that anyone who considers their green belt an attractive area—I can think of several green belt areas in my own constituency that are enjoyed by local residents—may lose that enjoyment without having the opportunity to protest as the residents of Hammersmith have protested. Would my hon. Friend care to suggest that the Minister comments on that in her reply?
I shall not only suggest that the Minister comments on it. We should do something about making the developers pay some of the costs of the inquiries—an argument advanced by some Conservative Members and one with which I would agree.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare said:
If the Government say that because a house can be sold it should be built, then I am afraid that this is an issue on which we will take them on.
So much for this unreconstructed free marketeer. The free market can operate, but not if it affects Tory voters. We know that in housing and planning, as in a number of activities, the free market can be an unmitigated disaster unless we take an overall view of what is happening in the economy and in the nation generally.
I am sad that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet did not address the real issue in greater detail. I agree with him that we need local planning controls and involvement, but we also need a strategy for Greater London, for the south-east of England and for the nation. That is where the Government have failed and where the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has failed in his motion. Uneven economic development is hardly touched upon. The hon. Gentleman does not mention the fact that it will cause a crisis in the south-east.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) was right to say that he needed low-cost housing in his area, but he is not getting it. If he goes around Old Basing, he will find houses selling for between £150,000 and £250.000. They are certainly not being sold to those on low incomes in his area, and he knows it. 'What do the Government do? They break up the Greater London Council—
It would be at the expense of the Minister, I fear. I am not attacking the hon. Gentleman. I am simply saying that houses in Old Basing are selling for £150,000 to £250,000. They are not going to people on low incomes—a point that the hon. Gentleman made himself. The Government abolished the GLC, yet the GLC was one of the first organisations, along with some of the universities, to spot the fact that demographic change was crucial. We are witnessing something akin to what is happening in Los Angeles. At the very least, we are heading back to the development of new towns by accident.
I suspect that there is a far greater movement even than that, and that demographic change is moving people out of the cities back into rural areas far faster than ever before. It is probably the obverse of what happened in the last century or two, when people were moving from the rural areas into the cities. If that is right, we are looking at the possibility of an urban parkland stretching from Kent to Devon; the idea of a 250..mile limit like that for Los Angeles ceases to be a joke and becomes a reality.
It has suddenly occurred to Conservatives that this has political implications for them. About 450,000 new dwellings are needed in the south-east by the turn of the century. About 150,000, at the very least, are needed in London. The political pressure is building up. The hon. Members for Basingstoke, for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) and for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) already have differences of opinion about whether the present Secretary of State or the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) is right. That is why there are little articles in their local papers saying either, "I back the present Secretary of State for the Environment," or, "I back the previous Secretary of State. He is right." That is the trap for them.
The problem is not just about nice views out of windows but about job availability, environmental protection and enhancement and, above all, housing. The housing market in the south-east is frightening. The companies building the Channel tunnel employ engineers from all over the world. These companies have to offer to pay their engineers' mortgages because they cannot attract them without offering that incentive. In the Wirral, British Nuclear Fuels plc made some trainees redundant and one company found that potential recruits could not bridge the housing gap.
According to a report by Income Data Services,
One manager admitted … that he 'fiddled' young employees' mortgage applications by counting overtime pay as basic earnings.
The Employment Institute has a similar point and reiterates what the IDS recognises, that there is a need for more low-cost housing in the form of council or housing association housing. Again, the Government are damned by their own statistics. There has been a two-thirds cut in council housing in Britain. In two years, only 138—not 138,000, 13,800 or even 1,380—new houses were built by housing associations in rural Britain, yet such houses have been sold off in rural areas faster than anywhere else because they are attractive to buy. If nothing new is built, the people who live in those areas have had it.
The 1981 census revealed that 70 per cent. of properties in some Cornish villages were unoccupied most of the year—that is what I mean by the "urban park" stretching for 250 miles. There is not one young family in a village in Dorset called Worth Matravers. The majority of properties there are second homes, selling for £90,000. The average manual worker's pay is between £80 and £90 a week. What are such people to do? What will happen to market rents when the Housing Bill comes into effect? The Minister can deal with that matter. The market rent on a property of £90,000 must be at least £200 a week, which is more than twice the average wage in that area. This is devastating.
The position is horrendous for what are, in effect, new clearances. Local authority dwellings have been sold at a much faster rate in rural areas than elsewhere. The private rented dwellings are often tied housing, and the Housing Bill will make a marginal difference to that. One article describes the position in Purbeck, Dorset and refers to
Robert and Lesley Gillespie's three-bedroomed cottage in Langton Matravers.
The article states:
Until February it housed them, three daughters, a son, two sons-in-law and three grandchildren. One daughter and son-in-law have gone with their baby to a winter letting in Swanage, which they must leave when the tourist season begins. The other young family has been told that if they were 'less choosy' about where they wanted to live they would be offered a council house 20 miles away in Bere Regis. There is
no bus service back to the son-in-law's job in Langton, and he cannot drive. Forced to choose between housing and work, he asks: 'Why should people like us, who've always lived here, have to move out to make way for people who are just lucky enough to have a bit more money than the rest of us?".
It is more than "a bit more". Whether it is a house for £150,000 or £250,000 in Old Basing or for £90,000 in Dorset, such people do not have a cat in hell's chance of buying or renting; I see that I am taking one or two Conservative Members with me. What the Government have done to the low-cost rented accommodation sector is catastrophic. One million homes have been lost from the rented sector since 1980, half from the Government's much-loved private rented sector. Already half are outside the terms of the Rent Acts, yet the rate of decline is accelerating.
In London there are organisations such as the Campaign for Homes in Central London, and we have written to the Minister to try to do something about the provision of homes in London. We should not have this joke from Conservative Members about the urban areas using up all the derelict land. There is derelict land to be used, but I say as a Londoner that I love the country—I want some country in London. I am fed up with the idea that we should all either move out to the country or face an urban sprawl, whether in the suburbs or in the inner cities.
The Government could do a lot worse than look at the policy put forward by Rural Voice, which would provide a way forward on some rural issues. We are faced with the horrendous possibility that housing for people on low incomes—whether rented or purchased, private or public—will not be available for a number of years. Even if the Government do a complete about-turn on their present policies and design more bizarre and taxpayer-funded Rachmanite schemes such as the business expansion scheme, the ability to increase the supply of rented property at low cost in less than three or four years is minimal. This will hit us devastatingly hard.
Why are there more homeless than ever before? Why are people packed into bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Why are council lists over-subscribed when people prefer council properties to private rented properties, as we know from the surveys? The reason is that the Government have slashed council house building. The Conservative-controlled Association of District Councils makes no bones about it. The ADC says, "The Government have sold off all our properties. They are not letting us build again." By not letting councils build again, the Government are destroying the rural communities, as the ADC rightly points out. That is what is upsetting the Conservative party, and it will end up upsetting it even more.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) on his speech. I welcome the opportunity presented by the debate to set out some of the key features of the Government's policy on planning matters.
Forty years of the post-war town and country planning system have served us well. The modern planning system had its origins in a perceived need to regulate development proposals that did not have proper regard to their impact or consequences on the locality. The present Government have successfully directed their energies to the encouragement of economic growth and enterprise, but we have always recognised that the planning system must also provide an effective mechanism for protecting amenity and the environment.
Much has been said today and in the past few months about the pressure for development in the south, south-east and rural areas. The terms of the motion recognise the strength of our policy on green belts.
In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Miller), I make no apologies for restating our commitment to the protection of green belts or for repeating that, since 1979, the area of approved green belt has more than doubled, from some 1·8 million acres to 4·5 million acres. Furthermore, we have said that developers who persist in pursuing applications for major developments in the green belt to appeal and through lengthy inquiries can expect to have costs awarded against them, as well as having their applications turned down.
However tight the control, some individuals will be tempted to find ways round the system, and that often concerns the public. Although local authorities have a wide range of powers to enforce planning controls, for a variety of reasons they do not always seem to be able to use them effectively.
We have recently carried out a review of the Department's procedures, with a view to improving efficiency in the handling of enforcement appeals. The action plan will be published soon. But, clearly, some local authorities think that the present powers are too difficult to operate or that, in some respects, they are inadequate. We are urgently setting in hand a policy review of the enforcement regime that I hope will lead to improvements in its effectiveness.
More recently, the focus of concern has shifted. Both here and outside, my colleagues and I are being pressed to adopt policies that would force all development into older urban areas and prevent any development elsewhere in the south-east. Paradoxically, we are simultaneously receiving representations to the effect that development pressure within urban areas is resulting in unsympathetic development that is changing the character of outer suburbs.
From rural areas, we are increasingly hearing complaints about the lack of housing that local people can afford. All those are real concerns. But we cannot have it all ways. We cannot simultaneously avoid any high-density housing developments in rural areas and make provision for the low-cost housing that is so clearly needed in those areas.
I am sorry. I cannot give way.
We cannot simultaneously preserve the integrity of the suburbs and refuse to allow development on new sites. It is precisely because they are real conflicts to resolve that the planning system is so vital. The reality is that pressure for development and, in particular, for new housing provision is a result of changes taking place within society. Because we live in and cherish the rights of a free society, we cannot control such changes, but must come to terms with them.
Several factors contribute to the demand for housing in the south-east. Migration from outside the region is one of the least significant. Far more important are factors such as increased life expectancy and fitness in old age, higher divorce rates, and the increasing tendency for people to marry later. That means more and smaller households. It needs to be understood that demand is coming mainly from within the south-east. If we deliberately curtail the supply of housing, those who will suffer will be those who are least able to afford the high prices that will result—for example, young people setting up their first home. In that case, there is unlikely to be a sudden widespread change in social attitudes or wholesale migration out of the region, but there might well be an increase in homelessness and in other social problems.
On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member For Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has invited SERPLAN to consider the revised household projections provided by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. Those projections update earlier forecasts in the light of more recent trends. At present the forecasts are for discussion; they are not being imposed on the authorities concerned.
My right hon. Friend will shortly be meeting SERPLAN to discuss the effects of the latest projections of population and household formation on housing land supply in the south-east for the period to the end of the century. In his letter of 11 May to the chairman of SERPLAN, my right hon. Friend drew attention to three salient points about these projections. First, forecast housing needs will arise predominantly from the projected increase in population and in household formation within the south-east and Greater London, because of the factors that I mentioned earlier; secondly, forecast housing needs could easily be met if house building continues at the average level of the past few years, so we do not need to think in terms of a huge increase in house building in the south-east; and, thirdly, there is no reason to think that those needs can be met only at the expense of the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty, or any other statutorily protected areas. Of course the need to protect the countryside "for its own sake", as put forward in the ALURE package, still stands.
I remind my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and the hon. Members for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) that, in the Housing Bill, we have introduced measures that will encourage the revival of the private rented housing market and provide for an enhanced role for the housing association movement.
It is often suggested that we should divert development pressure into urban areas by encouraging the use of derelict or unused sites in such areas, or that we should direct development towards regions outside the south-east. I am delighted to tell my lion. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) that the assistance of urban regeneration is one of the five purposes of green belts, set out in paragraph 4 of planning policy guidance note 2, which was published in January. Planning policy guidance notes are becoming the main source of Government advice and guidance, in clearer and more accessible form than circulars.
Of course we are encouraging development to take place in urban areas. Our inner-city initiatives are playing an important part in releasing land for development. Derelict land grant is helping to reclaim and bring back into use nearly 1,000 hectares of land every year. Since 1979, the proportion of grant spent in the inner cities has increased from 7 per cent. to 30 per cent. The success of the London Docklands development corporation in bringing development into an area of industrial dereliction is evident to anyone who visits the area. Much of the land made available by the corporation is providing sites for housing.
With another nine urban development corporations in existence, in addition to those in London docklands and Merseyside, we can expect to see more under-used urban land available for development. We recently announced a consultants' study into the scope forhousing development on large derelict sites bordering the Thames in east London, which, if they were brought back into use, could provide land for 20,000 to 30,000 houses.
Much development does take place on land that has previously been developed. Nationally, 46 per cent. of land used for new housing is reused sites or vacant land in urban areas. 55 per cent. of housing in London and the south-east is on such sites. The initiatives that I have described make a significant contribution to meeting the need for housing land in that way. But, despite all that is being achieved, it will be possible to meet the demad for new housing only if some carefully selected sites are also provided. To their credit, most local authorities in the south-east recognise that, and are matching up to their responsibilities. We cannot force development into inner cities, but if we did, and if sufficient such land were available—which it is not—it is questionable whether the environmental damage and the social consequences would be tolerable.
We must not neglect the needs of the rural areas. From visits to many parts of the country, I am particularly aware of housing problems faced in rural areas, especially by young people on low incomes seeking a first home. I am grateful to hon. Members representing such areas who have drawn some of their problems to my attention. The Government are looking to see what measures might be taken to help, and we hope to make an announcement shortly.
I am terribly sorry; I cannot give way.
Our primary aim has been to create the right conditions for the market, by stimulating the potential for growth based on private sector initiatives and resources. Equally important, it is no part of Government policy to direct people where to live or where firms should set up. That would risk losing development altogether.
So far I referred mainly to more strategic issues and to the kinds of national and regional guidance that are reflected in county structure plans. It is important that plans should make proper provision for development and that they should be kept up to date. Where that is done, there will, I believe, be less cause for anxiety about the possible development of sites not identified in plans. Local plans provide the means of working out sensible solutions to the problems of reconciling the needs of development and the interests of conservation. It is disturbing that the coverage of local plans is still incomplete. It is the local plan that makes detailed allocations of land and which should form the basis of most day-to-day planning decisions. But large areas of the country, even in those parts of the south-east that are under the greatest pressure for development, have no local plan.
Some local planning authorities seem to prefer to be without a detailed local plan, so that development proposals can be considered ad hoc as they come forward. Other authorities have adopted a practice of preparing "informal" or "bottom drawer" plans as a basis of development control, without subjecting them to proper procedures of public consultation and formal adoption. Neither is a satisfactory alternative to the preparation of a proper local plan. Informal documents and ad hoc decisions give no satisfactory guidance to developers, and afford no reassurance to local people about the overall pattern of development. Where there is no local plan, the local authority may find itself in a weak position in rejecting development proposals that should not be approved.
Likewise, the Secretary of State and his inspectors are greatly assisted in dealing with appeals if they can be considered within the framework of a relevant and up-to-date local plan. Indeed, inspectors necessarily take account of a local plan if it is up to date and formally adopted.
The Government's consultation paper on the future of development plans, published in September 1986, proposed that there should be comprehensive coverage of districtwide development plans throughout the country. The Government are confirmed in that view by the response to the consultation. We shall shortly be issuing for consultation a new draft circular on those lines, drawing local authorities' attention to the role of local plans.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet is concerned at the impact of unsympathetic development on some residential areas in the suburbs of London. He has proposed the establishment of special planning areas for areas that do not justify designation as conservation areas but which, nevertheless, have a character worthy of protection. It is important that we should not devalue the status and protection available in conservation areas. An area does not require any special designation to enjoy protection against inappropriate development, as normal planning control already provides it. In our view, special planning areas would add another layer to the planning system and to the bureaucratic apparatus needed to administer it. It is not realistic for national planning policy guidance to prescribe solutions for what are essentially local issues about the scale of development in particular areas.
I believe that the Government's policies for green belts and for protecting the countryside deserve and attract support from all quarters in the House. The concept of green belts is enduring and enjoys widespread popularity. If those policies are to be effective they must be balanced by equally effective policies for development. Conservation alone is not enough. Housing development is not a form of environmental pollution; it is about people, families and home ownership. The planning system exists both to facilitate development to assist national economic development and to conserve our natural—