Household Projections

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 25th November 1996.

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Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Secretary of State for Environment 4:51 pm, 25th November 1996

I am today publishing a Green Paper called "Household Growth: Where Shall We Live?" I am also publishing a summary version, which is available free. Copies of the documents are in both Libraries. A copy of the Green Paper is available from the Vote Office, and I am also sending a copy of the summary version to all hon. Members in England.

My Department has also published today an independent research report entitled "Urbanisation in England: Projections 1991–2016". It converts household projections into implied take-up of land for new housing and related urban uses, and shows the effect that that might have at county level. Copies of this document are also available in the Libraries.

There are few more important long-term issues facing this country than the likely growth in households over the next 20 years. The latest projections, published by my Department last year, indicate that there could be up to 4.4 million more households in England over a 25-year period running from 1991 to 2016. That is almost 1 million more than the figures for which we are currently planning. This raises significant issues, not only for us, but for our children and even our children's children.

How we provide for the new homes that will be needed is something for all of us—the whole community—to consider. Our success or failure in so doing will affect the quality of our lives, the appearance of our towns and countryside, our patterns of employment and transport, and so on: in short, the sort of country that we wish to hand on to succeeding generations. It will inevitably have implications not only for the housing and planning policies for which my Department is responsible, but for many policies across the whole of Government. This is not, however, a matter for Government alone.

The purpose of the Green Paper is to stimulate and contribute to a wide-ranging public debate—a debate on the alternative options open to us of how to respond to the challenge of accommodating the new homes we shall need. It is especially important in this case, because the Government do not and cannot pretend to have all the solutions; nor can they control or influence all the many and complex causes that contribute to household growth. Many of the causes are beyond the influence of any Government to alter fundamentally, if at all.

In its report last year on housing need, the Environment Select Committee—chaired by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett)—recommended that we explore the causes of household formation. The paper does that.

The growth in population explains part of the household growth, but it is not the only explanation. Indeed, for much of this century, growth in households has consistently outpaced the growth in population. There are three main reasons. First, improved living standards and better health mean that people are living longer, and often on their own. Secondly, people are better off than ever before, and can afford to set up separate households more easily. Thirdly, changes in social behaviour and attitudes, especially towards marriage and the family, lead to a smaller proportion of households consisting of married couples with children.

Some of those changes are eminently desirable; others are harmful and damaging, and to be regretted. In all cases, however, the forces behind them are powerful. In many of these areas, other bodies are potentially more influential than Government. Churches, businesses, the entertainment industry, the arts, the media, schools—all exert influences in many of these fields which far outweigh any that Government can bring to bear. It is therefore absolutely right that we have a wide debate, involving the whole country, on whether anything can be done to influence the rate of household formation, so that it grows more slowly than it has in recent years.

That is right and proper, and, as I have said, reflects a recommendation from the Select Committee. However, it would be foolish for us to pretend that any of the trends can be easily reversed or modified. We must assume—it is only prudent to assume—that this growth will come about. Indeed, all the household projections produced by my Department over the last 10 years have consistently underestimated the actual household growth that has subsequently occurred.

As I have said, the amount of development for which we need to plan will have far-reaching consequences for the future shape, appearance and operation of our towns and countryside. At some point, all of us are likely to be touched by this issue—whether we live in a town or village that will need to expand, whether we have children growing up who will be seeking a first home of their own, or whether we live in the centre of the city which will need to accommodate new and different types of dwelling for the growing population that we foresee. That is why the debate must be for all of us. The Government want this to be a genuine debate. It will be a debate in which all the options for accommodating the growth will be open for discussion.

There is only one premise on which the debate should be based. My first priority is to use the growth in households to help to regenerate our existing towns and cities. For centuries, towns and cities have been the engines of civilisation, and, despite new ways of communicating, learning and doing business, they seem likely to remain so. It is therefore right and proper that we should seek to enhance them and their vitality by providing new homes within the existing urban fabric with facilities and services that are readily available.

With the right commitment to standards of environmental quality and the provision of homes, jobs and services, urban regeneration can offer a highly a sustainable option for future settlements. I therefore wish to see as much as possible of this new development going into our existing towns and cities, so that they can be revitalised and our countryside can be protected.

The production of this number of houses on green-field sites, concentrated in the most pressured areas, is simply not sustainable, and the Government are not prepared to plan to meet the pressures in that way. We have already set ourselves a target to build half all new housing on re-used land. I would be especially interested in people's views on whether we should set a target of 60 per cent.—indeed, whether even more might be possible. In saying that, I accept that we must strive to do everything possible to make all our towns more attractive places in which to live and work.

Let no one delude himself that these issues can be avoided, or do not need to be addressed. Anyone in government would much prefer not to have to face what are very clear and real pressures; substantial growth, however, will happen, and will need to be accommodated.

But even accommodating more housing in our towns and cities, as we can and must, means that some development on green-field sites will still be needed. That is unavoidable. The question is, which is the most appropriate way in which to do it? The options include extending our existing towns and cities, as we did in Northampton, Peterborough, Swindon, Newbury and Thetford. That allows people to have access to a "ready-made" town or city, with all the facilities that that offers. In some areas, that may mean building on to small towns. That will be a sensitive issue. That is why we need to discuss with people whether that would be the best option for them and for their areas.

Other options could include new villages or even new towns. Again, whether that is an appropriate option will depend on local circumstances. I am not advocating new settlements, or ruling them out. I simply want to explore what is possible and what people want—[Interruption.] Labour Members should learn that we want the people with whom and in whose towns and villages other people will live to make the decisions themselves. I am interested in the outbreak of hilarity once one talks about consulting the people—an interesting attitude of the Labour party.

There is also the issue of expanding villages. We are already committed to ensuring that villages remain viable and that we meet local people's needs. Even if that option is taken up, however, it will not make a major contribution to the total. We must also be concerned about avoiding too much development in the countryside, and ensuring that new development is sustainable. Above all, whatever we choose, we must ensure that we create sustainable patterns of development, that we use the growth to regenerate our cities, and that we maintain our policy of urban containment.

The Government have already helped to put in place measures that will help to accommodate the necessary development, much of it in our urban areas. We have already set one target—50 per cent.—for the proportion of new housing to be built on previously used land, and, as I said earlier, I am now seeking people's views on a higher, aspirational target of 60 per cent. or even more. We have revised and updated our planning guidance to reflect the principles of sustainable development and changing patterns in the marketplace.

I have launched the quality initiative to ensure that the standard of all development is raised to the level of the best, so that new development enhances rather than detracts from its surroundings. We have produced our air quality strategy to cut pollution and to make our air cleaner. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has published his transport Green Paper, which deals with serious transport issues in our cities, and proposes measures for improvements.

We are encouraging the regeneration of our city centres through city challenge, more mixed-use development and revised planning policies. We have launched our "greening the city" initiative to make our towns more pleasant places in which to live. We are encouraging more conversions of houses and offices to flats, and greater flexibility in the use of standards where that is sensible and safe.

None the less, other options will need to be explored as well, and that is what this debate will be about. In the next few months, my Department will organise a series of seminars in the regions to obtain local people's views on the impacts that household growth might have on their areas. My colleagues and I will be meeting different groups to assess their views. I hope that every hon. Member will contribute to the debate, and will encourage their constituents to do so. On the outcome of the debate depends the future of our towns and countryside and of the environment that we hand on to succeeding generations.

The only intolerable position in the debate is to hope that the problem will go away, and not face up to the real issues. I hope that all parties in the House can come together on the matter to seek an answer that will satisfy not only our generation, but succeeding ones.