I am glad to have this opportunity to bring before the House a matter that is causing great anxiety and concern, not only in my constituency but in other, neighbouring constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) has asked me whether, with the Chair's approval, he may join in the debate later. I have no objection at all to that.
Nobody could say that Berkshire has not contributed substantially to housing development in the south-east. In fact, some of us feel that we have taken more than our fair share. It is now proposed that we should have at least another 37,000 houses. Again, perhaps rather uneasily, we would not object to that. What is causing the anxiety, however, is that, on top of that number of houses in the next few years, about 3,000 additional houses are to be placed in the area directly south of Reading and the M4.
This is causing immense concern among the people living in the area, because they believe that it will be very damaging to the environment. I would agree. The problem is that the M4 makes a natural boundary, and we believe that, if it is breached by any substantial housing development, that will open the floodgates to development—not only from the M4 south of Reading down to the Hampshire border, but over that border and right the way along it. What at the moment in that part of Berkshire is an environmental asset will thereby become an environmental disaster.
The problem is that numbers of people are said to want to live in Berkshire. It is certainly a very desirable area. We hope that whatever decision the Secretary of State makes on the structure plan that is before him at the moment will include a caveat to the effect that any further developments in our area should not take place south of the M4. That is a point I wish to put across strongly to the Minister tonight.
It is not just the number of houses that we are worried about; it is where they go. That is what is causing dismay and outrage among our constituents. It would also, in our view, be contrary to the recent announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that there should not be substantial new housing on green-field sites when there are other development possibilities. I urge that policy strongly on my hon. Friend the Minister.
In this instance, there are many options. All the local authorities have said that they would be able to find other options. Perhaps they would be unable to do so rapidly, but certainly they could find them. We hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will understand that to allow housing development in the area of which I am talking would be contrary to his new policy, with which we entirely agree.
We are told that the houses are necessary because there are many people in Berkshire—living already in Berkshire or born in Berkshire, or educated in Berkshire—who wish to have houses in Berkshire. The same argument was advanced during the development at Lower Earley, which is in Berkshire. It is slightly north of the M4. In the event, the majority of people who moved into Lower Earley, which was then the largest new housing development in western Europe, did not come from Berkshire. They came from other areas, many in the north of the country. To my surprise, many of them came from overseas. They were attracted by the prosperity in Berkshire. It was a place where they could find work.
The new development at Lower Earley did not achieve what was intended. Instead, it attracted other people into the area. We believe that exactly the same would happen if the construction of a mini-town was agreed to the south of the M4.
A few years ago, there was a similar inquiry about an area called Bugs Bottom, which is in the northern part of Caversham. Despite its rather curious name, it was a highly regarded area of amenity north of the river. The result of building there has been a disaster in amenity terms. Much more relevant is the fact that, at that time, I and others were assured that, if we did not object too strongly to development at Bugs Bottom, it would relieve pressure south of the motorway. It has done nothing of the sort. The proposals before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State make it clear that the pressures remain exactly the same.
Major changes are taking place in Berkshire. Changes are also taking place in the north of Kent, where people desperately want to see more housing. Changes are taking place there as a result of the proposal to make it the area for one of the major channel tunnel rail links. That development will lead to the need for more housing.
Now is not the moment to make long-term proposals for developing the part of the country which I represent in part.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan) for raising the matter of house building south of the M4, and for initiating this Adjournment debate. I am grateful to him also for allowing me to make a contribution to it.
As my hon. Friend has rightly said, development in Berkshire is a big issue. There is widespread concern. Many different figures have been bandied about in discussions about proposed new houses—32,000, 37,000 and as many as 40,000. The Government must realise, as my hon. Friend has said, that there has been over-development in Berkshire. They must also realise that a great part of the county, especially to the west, is green belt, in which there are many areas of outstanding natural beauty.
That means that there are areas that we are not allowed to develop, even if we wished to do so. That means also that development is confined very much to the centre of Berkshire. That is what puts on the pressure.
So desperate has the county been to find various sites that there was a proposal in my constituency to develop an area called the Fobney meadows, which is a flood plain. I have pictures that show it flooded by 2 ft of water. The Holy brook, which was the fresh water supply of Reading abbey, flows through it, and at the height of winter there is flooding. Naturally, that area has to be kept for flood plain. Yet the county, under pressure from central Government and from Serplan, looked to that area for possible development.
I believe, as does my hon. Friend, that the M4 forms a natural barrier. That is where development should stop. We should look for development in north Kent, where there is a great demand. I have the privilege of chairing the committee that is considering the channel tunnel rail link. It is expected that, as part of that new railway line, north Kent should be an area of development. Surely the pressure should be taken off areas such as Berkshire and moved to north Kent.
We have heard tonight from my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan) and for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant)—the two key Members who represent those areas. It is important that we take note of the points that they have made. I shall add to the confusion, but try to clarify it a little, by touching on some of the figures that were mentioned.
The regional planning guidance for the south-east, which has recently been published, made provision for an annual average of 2,667 additional dwellings in Berkshire in the period 1991 to 2006. The guidance makes it clear that that figure has been constrained by consideration of environmental factors. It takes into account the intended long-term shift in the balance of new development pressures and employment opportunities in the region, from the west to the east.
In setting out the housing figure, the guidance makes it clear that it should not be regarded as an inflexible target, but that it should be subject to testing in the process of preparing the structure plan for the county. It was on that basis that Berkshire county council originally accepted Serplan's proposal for 40,000 additional dwellings in Berkshire. That figure then provided the basis for the level of provision in the published guidance.
A replacement Berkshire structure plan was first submitted to the Secretary of State in November 1991. That plan made provision for 41,100 dwellings in the period 1990 to 2006, but was subsequently withdrawn. A second plan was then deposited under new legislation in November 1992. That plan made provision for 35,670 dwellings for the slightly shorter period of 1991 to 2006.
An examination in public was held during June and July 1993. The panel examined various factors relating to housing need and demand and concluded that, in effect, the structure plan's proposed provision of 35,670 could be increased without compromising the environmental and sustainability objectives of the plan. The panel recommended to Berkshire county council that its housing figures should be amended to make provision for "about 48,000" dwellings.
In reaching these conclusions, the examination in public panel made it clear that it had taken into account the county council's case that there were constraints to development in Berkshire. These included various factors, such as the high level of growth in recent years, the need to have regard to sustainable levels of development, the pressure on infrastructure and the strong public opposition in the county to further growth. We have heard some of that this evening.
The panel was sympathetic to those arguments, but concluded that it was possible to accommodate a higher level of housing provision, while still having regard to the environment. It pointed to the need for balance and clarity in the interpretation of a sustainable approach to planning, and looked at the social and economic consequences of a failure to meet the housing need seen in the county.
It should be noted that the panel made no—I repeat, no—specific recommendation to build houses south of the M4 at Reading. Indeed, the plan dated November 1991 proposed 41,100 dwellings, but still did not identify the area south of the M4 at Reading as an area for major new housing.
After considering the panel's recommendations, Berkshire county council published its draft modifications in April 1994, which increased the provision to 37,000 dwellings. Further modifications were published later in the year, but the housing figure remained unchanged. Although an objection was made by the Government Office for the South-east—that the housing figure should be more in line with the regional planning guidance—there was no question that the panel's figure should be imposed, or that development should be directed to any specific location, such as south of the M4 The location of new development is primarily a matter for the county council and districts. In particular, the decision on whether to make provision for additional development south of the M4 should be made by the local planning authorities in the context of preparing structure and local plans. The plan preparation provides the appropriate opportunity to take into account the environmental issues and the question of sustainability. As hon. Members will appreciate, the issues are complex. The current position is that a "holding" direction has recently been made by the Government Office for the South-east.
Problems of housing provision in the boundary of the green belt merit very careful consideration, and no final decisions have been made in respect of the Berkshire plan. I appreciate that that will cause a slight delay, but the delay is minor when set in the context of the length of time that Berkshire has taken to produce a replacement plan.
I assure my hon. Friends that, although no final decisions have been made, we are convinced that the panel's recommendation for housing provision in Berkshire is too high. Furthermore, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East that, in any response to the present Berkshire structure plan, the Government do not propose to identify any specific locations south of the M4 at Reading.
Is there a possibility that the Government will say that development south of the M4 is undesirable, and that future figures should be based on local plans produced by the various district councils? I have a model example before me, produced by Wokingham district council.
I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend's example, and will give it due consideration.
I think that we have made it as clear as we can that the Government have no intention of specifying any area south of the M4.