Housing and Planning Policies

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 22nd June 1988.

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Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle 6:30 pm, 22nd June 1988

That is happening the length and breadth of the country.

The Tories claim that they are the party of freedom as well as the party that supports owner-occupation. Why do they not implement the Labour party's policy and give tenants of private landlords the right to buy? Why not give the private tenant the right to opt for another landlord, such as the council, a housing association or a co-operative? Why not do that if they want alternative forms of tenure? Why do the Tories not adopt the Labour party's policy of a real right to rent? We would define categories of housing need, and if families came within them they would be entitled by law to accommodation to rent in the local authority sector. If local authorities did not have sufficient housing, the resources that would be provided by a Labour Government would be used to acquire property from the private sector to rent to those in housing need.

That is the reverse of what the Government intend. It seems that they now intend to destroy the homeless persons legislation. They seek to destroy the limited rights to rehousing that homeless families now have in law. Yet the Conservative party claims to be the party of freedom. There is no freedom in a housing crisis of scarcity and price.

The Government's proposals as set out in the Housing Bill—it is still before Parliament, thanks to the Labour party—will make the position even worse. Where is the choice for the council tenant who cannot get a transfer or exchange, who wants to move and who cannot afford to buy? Where is the choice for the tenant who is railroaded into a housing action trust and into the hands of an unknown housing association, with no vote or right to consultation? The Institute of Housing assessed HATs and stated: The danger of a housing centred approach based upon changing tenures is that regeneration may come about through changing the nature of the population living in the area, rather than through improving the economic circumstances and life chances of those already there. It is social engineering of the worst sort. That is why the majority of tenants in potential HAT areas are opposed to the proposals.

Where is the choice for tenants under the Government's pick-a-landlord scheme; tenants who do not want to opt out but who see the decision-making system rigged and the voting system fixed to make nonsense of the idea of choice? We read today in The Guardian that the people who, in the pick-a-landlord scheme, opt to remain with the local authority will pay the same high rents as those who choose to go to a private landlord. It will be chaos. The Minister has said that the local authority can subsidise the rent of the person who has opted to stay with the council and who has to pay the same rent as those who chose to be with a private landlord. We have the local authority, with diminished resources, having to subsidise the private landlord. That is what the Minister's remarks mean.

Where is the choice for the family who are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Where is the choice for those who cannot afford the Tory's new market rents? Where is the choice for the elderly who cannot get into sheltered housing or an old person's bungalow? Where is the choice for the elderly who have to sell their house after a lifetime of paying for it to provide an income to supplement their benefit, which has been so cruelly cut by the Government? The Government believe in housing choice—choice for the rich to be well housed, choice for the private landlord and not for the tenant, and choice for the poor and those on low incomes to be badly housed. That is the kind of choice offered by the Government's housing policies and Housing Bill.

This debate is also about planning, and something needs to be said about the Government's record in that respect. The Tories see planning as a fetter on the free market, and since 1979 successive Secretaries of State have been doing their best to destroy Britain's proud planning system. The present Secretary of State may be the worst and the ultimate arch free market man, but the right hon. Member for Henley was not much better. He began and inspired the whole process in the first place. As the party that founded the planning system with the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, Labour has been watching with dismay as the planning system has progressively weakened, especially at a strategic level.

The Government have produced a number of special measures which they claim are designed to revive urban areas, enterprise zones, urban development corporations and now simplified planning zones—to say nothing of garden festivals. Such measures may have revived a few areas of urban land, but that has been done at the price of local democracy. Local urban development corporations have imposed policies that are at complete variance with those of the local authorities. Urban development corporations, and particularly the LDDC, behave as if they are dealing with green-field sites rather than with places where people already live and work. Elsewhere, dereliction has been created. Research commissioned by the Government themselves shows that, in many cases, enterprise zones and urban development corporations have merely sucked in development from the surrounding area, so dereliction has only been moved, not reduced.

At the same time, the Government have been dismantling strategic planning. The abolition of the metropolitan authorities and the GLC has left a gap that district and borough council joint committees cannot fill. The Government now propose to replace county structure plans with weaker "county statements". The power of counties to intervene when districts are faced with plans that go against structure plans has already been removed. Planners are being asked by the Government to facilitate development, not to judge it. That is the basis of the difficulties in which the Secretary of State finds himself with his own supporters in the south of England.

The Government claim, under pressure from their own supporters, to be protecting green belts and the countryside from piecemeal development, yet their public investment programmes direct development towards the countryside. New motorways such as the M25 and M40, and the concentration of defence establishments along the London to Bristol access, are two huge examples. Individual decisions by the Secretary of State on housing, out-of-town superstores, second homes, mining or forestry for national parks breach the plans for areas under pressure and create more "hope value" and development pressure around them.

The recent change in opencast coal mining policy announced by the Department of the Environment is a prime example of the environment being sacrificed to facilitate development and of the Department's decisions being investment-led. rather than environment-led, which is wrong.

What is Labour's alternative? We believe that there should be a strategic overview. A strategic authority should be established to provide planning guidance and set the context for local planning. As part of a general commitment to a better environment, land use planning should incorporate an environmental dimension. Noise, air and water pollution and the protection of natural areas all need to be considered when planning applications and local plans are discussed. Our proposed environmental protection service, which a Labour Government would establish, would be locally run and be provided with the necessary back-up.

At present, people have only limited powers within the planning system to control the shaping of their environment. Labour is committed to changing that. Our charter for the environment sets out proposals for public action zones, which we shall empower and encourage local authorities to declare. As with urban development corporations, public action zones will have Government support, strong compulsory purchase powers, and considerable public funding to tackle key areas of decline. Unlike urban development corporations, they will be based on the needs and wishes of local communities; they will not override them.

The Labour party seeks a balance between city and country and to revive urban areas, making them pleasant and attractive places in which to live. If further urban expansion is needed, it should be planned, with properly serviced and properly centred development, rather than an unplanned sprawl. Both existing and new urban areas should be affordable to all. Unlike the Government, we seek to enhance and protect the countryside, but as an open recreational resource accessible to all. Planning should not he considered in isolation. It is the means of creating healthier, livelier and more pleasant communities for all. The Tories see planning as an impediment to the operation of the free market. If the Secretary of State has his way, planning as we know it will be destroyed, as the free market takes over. As the planning system is destroyed, so too will be the environment.