House Building (Avon)

– in the House of Commons at 12:47 pm on 28th April 1999.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I have been asking myself what the worst ministerial job in Government must be. Until recently, I assumed it was the job of junior transport Minister, someone who must spend his or her time, often in the early hours of the morning, responding to hon. Members who either want a ring road or bypass or desperately do not want one. However, it strikes me that even worse is probably the job of the Minister—who will shortly join us, I hope—who has to respond to housing debates. In a series of debates, hon. Members of all parties have recognised the need for additional house building, but said that none of it should happen in their constituencies.

Having said which, I make no apology for raising the subject of house building in the former county of Avon. It is probably one of the biggest issues impacting on the quality of life of the people represented by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith), who is present for this debate, and by me. While the scope of the debate is the whole of Avon, I shall be parochial for a moment in outlining three development threats in Northavon that illustrate why I sought the debate.

First, it is possible that ICI land on Severnside, for which planning permission for industrial development dating back to the 1950s exists, might be turned over to residential development. That could double the size of the adjoining village, Pilning. Pilning and Easter Compton are distinct villages with distinct characters, but they could become one sprawling housing estate, and that would be highly unwelcome.

Secondly, there is a threat of further development north of Yate, which would add to already extensive house building, taking up scarce green-field sites. Finally, there is a new threat to the area north of Thornbury, where developers are believed to be eyeing up farmland even as we speak, not least because of the weakness of agriculture. Few farmers, given the opportunity to sell their land for mass house building and a substantial profit, would be able to resist when the alternative is the very meagre income that many of them earn.

I congratulate the Government on ending the numbers-driven predict and provide approach that has characterised housing development in recent years. Let me give an example of the absurdity of that strategy. Projecting populations over 20 years is difficult. Projecting regional populations is even more difficult. When it comes to sub-regions such as the former county of Avon, it is frankly absurd, and it produces bizarre results.

The joint strategic planning and transportation committee of the former Avon authorities produced a document after receiving projections from the Office of Population, Census and Statistics, based in 1993, for the sort of people who would move into Avon. The OPCS said: The projections for the Avon area say that out of the net migration into Avon, 0.4 per cent. would be female and 99.6 per cent. would be male. I shall not remark on whether all the football teams in the area are a reason why all those men should flood in, but it is clear that those figures are absolutely absurd.

The figures were produced by a process of iteration. Statisticians know that the total migration around the country must add up to zero, and they have certain views about what determines flows from one area to another. They try to tweak the numbers until all totals add up to zero and all prior assumptions are satisfied. That produces frankly barmy statistics.

If the problem were merely a statistical nicety, we could ignore it and move on. However, the gender balance of those who move into an area affects house building projections. It is assumed that men have a faster rate of forming households, or form more households, than women. Were we still driven by numbers, those figures could mean real houses in real fields in my constituency. I am pleased that the Government have dropped predict and provide.

South Gloucestershire has borne the brunt of additional house building in the Avon area in the past. Since the late 1980s, out of the four unitary authorities in the former county of Avon, South Gloucestershire has taken the largest share of new house building in every single year. It would be a travesty if the area that had rapid growth in the past was therefore deemed able to cope with rapid growth in future. The houses have come, but the infrastructure has not come with them. Huge development has come, first at Yate, then at Bradley Stoke, now at Emersons Green. Some time, a limit must come. The infrastructure must be given time to catch up.

On the face of it, one would assume that the disused Hortham hospital site would be a natural for housing development. It might be assumed to be just the sort of site on which people like me would want new houses to be built. However, the site illustrates our infrastructure problems. The 250 houses planned for the site, to which the local authority may give the go-ahead, will mean yet more congestion on the A38. It is already overcrowded, and local residents will tell anyone it is more like a car park than a road. Unless infrastructure is given time to catch up, areas such as south Gloucestershire will have great difficulty in coping with planned additional house building.

What can be done? Government action is already under way in three areas, but I would like to see more being done to reduce the pressure for new house building on green-field sites, particularly in south Gloucestershire. First, let me touch on the use of empty properties. The Bristol Evening Post recently highlighted the 5.500 empty properties in Bristol alone. A Friends of the Earth spokeswoman said: Empty homes are neighbours from hell—because they bring down an area. That is true.

The Minister for London and Construction kindly ensured that I was provided with a written answer in time for this debate, which identified no fewer than 13,000 empty properties in the former Avon area. Compare that number with the 3,000 or 4,000 new houses that are built in Avon each year. If only one third of the empty properties could be returned to use, we might have a year without new house building. Matters are not that simple, of course, but that is the scale of the problem.

Reducing void rates and empty rates is feasible In Holland, the empty property rates are closer to 2.5 per cent. than to our 4 per cent. That 1.5 per cent. of difference would make a substantial impact in my area.

First, let me make a radical suggestion. I propose that house builders be told that they can build no new houses in the next 12 months, but must devote all their attention to setting about some of the 13,000 empty properties in Avon. They will be told that they can have permission to build in certain areas subsequently, but that, for 12 months, all their refurbishment and building skills must be put into doing up existing properties. If that proposal were on the table, it would concentrate minds wonderfully. I am sure that empty properties are a national problem, but the numbers in Avon are clearly substantial.

Secondly, can the Minister reassure me on the sequential development test, a Government measure that I welcome, but which I would like to have more teeth? As I understand it, go-aheads will not be given for development on green-field sites unless developers show that they have first considered alternative brown-field sites.

I am not sure precisely how that will work. My constituency has few brown-field sites. Does a developer who wants to build thousands of houses on the outskirts of, say, Thornbury merely have to say that he has exhausted brown-field sites in Northavon? Would the relevant area be south Gloucestershire, or the former county of Avon, or the south-west? What is the test, and how high is the hurdle?

Would developers be able to say that they had considered a site, but that it would cost too much to clean up? That would not be good enough. If sites can be developed appropriately for new housing, but with, perhaps, a smaller profit margin, I do not believe developers should be able to get away with not using them. I should be grateful for some assurance that real teeth are being put behind the test.

Thirdly, there is the tax anomaly. As the Minister knows, someone who wants to do up a rundown or empty property has to pay VAT at 17.5 per cent., whereas someone who wants to build a new house on a green-field site faces no similar tax burden. That cannot be right; it gives all the wrong incentives. Why not have a tax on green-field sites? I believe that one is under consideration, but my constituents say, "House building is going on now. How long will we have to wait for the tax incentives?"

The tax revenues from such sources should not be used as a milch cow for the Treasury, but should be recycled into urban development. We make a serious mistake if we view the issue as one of town against country. One of the merits of examining the problem on an Avon-wide basis is that the result can be a win-win situation. The proceeds from development in rural areas could be used, partly for infrastructure to support those developments, but also for the rejuvenation—I believe that the word now being used is "renaissance"—of urban areas.

Although many people want to live in the country, in villages and in suburban areas, many people, especially students and other young people, want to live in towns, where the life is and where things are going on. They do not mind living in flats above shops in the city. If we could make life more palatable for such people, and revive the urban areas, we would do the whole community a favour and avoid setting the countryside against the town. As for the way in which green-belt policy affects the south Gloucestershire area, it has been pointed out to me that the green belt that surrounds our area is very thin—more of a loop than a broad band. Although it prevents some of the immediate sprawl, it intensifies the pressure for development on the other side of it, because that area is within easy travel-to-work distance of the towns.

There tends to be substantial economic and residential development at the centre, a thin green band and then yet more houses on the other side of the green fields. The bizarre result is that mass car journeys are made across the green belt. I am not clear what the straightforward answer to that problem is, but green-belt policies in other areas have avoided that loop problem, which leads to the leaping of the green belt. I would be interested in the Minister's reflections on that subject.

Unless measures such as those that I have described, on which the Government are beginning to take action, are put in place, the issue will not be simply that tens of thousands of homes will be built in Avon over the next few years. What will happen after 2016, or after 2021? Will the numbers continue to rise inexorably, and, if so, will there be anything left of the green spaces that make south Gloucestershire such a special place?

This week, a resident of Thornbury wrote to me to register her objections to the plans to build hundreds of homes on the outskirts of the town, in the following terms: This sort of development would not only destroy the character of Thornbury, but would stretch local resources to breaking point. As you know, the schools are already full, parking is difficult and traffic congestion in the rush hour is atrocious. In the morning rush hour I can walk from Morton Way roundabout to the A38 faster than you can drive that distance in a car, and the exhaust pollution is horrendous. An increase of local housing on this scale would also have serious consequences for the already badly congested A38 towards Bristol. My constituent identified the infrastructure problems that I have described. She continued: It is vital that the boundary of the town as set out in the various Plans is not altered and that such development is not allowed. I hope you will do everything in your power to ensure this.

As the Minister knows, my powers on such matters are rather limited—but I have had the opportunity and the privilege of raising the issue before him and before the House today. That is one thing that I can do.

I ask the Minister for two assurances. The first is that when decisions are made about where houses are to be built—we recognise that houses have to go somewhere—local people's views will be respected as far as is reasonably possible, and will not be overridden, as too often happens, by central Government. Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman assure me that he and his colleagues will build on—if that is the right expression—and accelerate the work that they have already done to reduce the growing pressures for house building? Even as we speak, developers are eyeing up the green fields of my constituency, and if we delay, it may be too late.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) 1:14 pm, 28th April 1999

I start by offering a most sincere apology to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) and to the whole House for not having been present for the start of the debate. Unfortunately, I thought that it was due to start at 1.30 rather than 1 o'clock. That was an error for which I accept full responsibility, and I would like to make clear to the House my regret that I was not here earlier.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate. It is on an important subject, which has been raised before by many other hon. Members. I spoke on the subject of house building requirements only two weeks ago, during a debate secured by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), the hon. Gentleman's relatively near parliamentary neighbour.

Household growth is a major issue facing society today. Some people may like to believe that it can be wished away, so that no new houses will need to be built, but that is not realistic. Society is continuing to change and evolve whether we like it or not, and new requirements for housing are part of that process. The Government have to accept that, and to respond appropriately.

As the hon. Gentleman was not present for that most recent debate on house building, it may be helpful if I start by explaining how the household projections are arrived at, and how they are translated into development plans.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The Minister is right to say that I was not present for the discussion about Gloucestershire, but I have read the Hansard report of it, so I do not want the Minister to duplicate what he said then.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling me that, and I shall make a brief reference to the subject, rather than going into all the details.

The number of new households projected to form in England over the 25 years between 1996 and 2021 is about 3.8 million, compared to the 4.4 million projected for the 25-year period ending in 2016. The figure of 3.8 million is principally derived by projecting previous patterns of population change and household formation, and should not be seen as a forecast or estimate. It is based entirely on what might be expected to occur if previous trends continued, and is heavily dependent on the assumptions involved.

Such trends can and do change. The current suggestion is that the pace of household growth may be slowing down. Part of the underlying reason for that is that recent evidence has shown that cohabitation is increasing faster than expected, and a smaller proportion of women are widows or divorcees.

However, we must not think in terms of numbers alone. We are keen to focus the debate on how we should plan for future homes in a sustainable way. Our consultation paper, "Planning for the Communities of the Future", which we published last year, sets out the results of our analysis of the system for calculating and providing for the country's housing needs that we inherited from the previous Administration. It also explains our strategy for promoting more sustainable patterns of development and encouraging urban renewal.

We seek to ensure that where development is needed outside or adjacent to urban areas, it must be sustainable and must be combined with an active approach towards the protection of the countryside. Those proposals represent a comprehensive approach to meeting housing needs well into the new millennium. They differ from the previous system, which has been seen as essentially top down, inflexible and wedded too rigidly to the principle of predict and provide. We have also changed our approach to establishing housing numbers by region. The new draft PPG11 on regional planning, which sets out our proposals for improving the preparation and content of regional planning guidance, represents an important step in modernising the system, and reflects our commitment to decentralised decision taking and integrated policy making designed to achieve sustainable solutions.

The new arrangements give greater responsibility to local authorities, through regional planning conferences, in preparing regional planning strategies. They should result in increased regional ownership of both the figures and the policies and in increased commitment to their delivery. Instead of Government, the regional planning authority will be responsible for preparing the draft regional strategy, including proposing the amount of additional housing needed in the planned period.

We recently announced household projections for each of the Government office regions. They should be treated not as forecasts or predictions, but as indications based on recent trends. Other factors should equally be taken into account so that regional planning bodies should, against the background of need and capacity, take a realistic, responsible approach to planning housing provision. We realise that similar information at sub-regional level, for example in the hon. Gentleman's region, could also be useful. The preparation of relevant figures will proceed so that we can make them available as soon as possible in a form consistent with that published as part of the last set of household projections in 1995.

One of the key tasks of the new regional planning guidance will be to provide guidance on the overall level of housing and its distribution within the region, making full use of previously developed land. In assessing the housing provision required for the 15 or 20 years covered by the strategy, we expect the regional planning body to work with other regional stakeholders to establish the level of housing required to meet the region's housing needs. In making that assessment, the Government's latest published household projections should be considered. Urban capacity studies should be undertaken to explore the implications of changing policies and standards that would reduce the land-take of new development while securing attractive residential environments.

Against that background of need and capacity, the regional planning body should be able to take a realistic and responsible approach to future housing provision. It must be prepared to justify its views fully in public at the examination of the draft regional planning guidance. The structure plan and unitary plan authorities will, of course, be party to that process. Once the housing requirements have been established and confirmed by the Secretary of State following the public examination, the presumption is that structure plans and unitary development plans should focus on the broad distribution and location of growth. It is the essence of the plan, monitor and manage approach that we now advocate that both the assessment of housing requirements and distribution within the region should be kept under review. If there are signs of under or over-provision, we expect both RPG and development plans to be reviewed accordingly.

On the position in the former county of Avon, RPG figures were agreed by the authorities in the region in 1994. They stated that 59,000 extra homes would be required in the county between 1991 and 2011, based on the 1989 household projections. After allowing for dwellings completed between 1991 and 1996, 44,100 additional dwellings remained to be provided between 1996 and 2011. The replacement structure plan proposes 43,000 new dwellings over that period. The plan was subject to public scrutiny at an examination in public last month under an independent panel. Officials from the Government office of the south-west attended, and emphasised that greater account should be taken of the need to focus new housing and other development on urban areas to achieve higher densities and maximise opportunities for reusing previously developed land and buildings. I know that those instincts are in line with those of the hon. Gentleman. The panel's report is being prepared, and I am sure that he therefore appreciates that I cannot comment further on the issues or speculate on the outcome.

The consultation draft of the south Gloucestershire local plan was published in 1997. My officials in the Government office of the south-west made several comments on it on behalf of the Secretary of State. Many of them raised questions about the plan's overall strategy and the extent to which sustainable development will be secured under it. Those concerns included the amount of development proposed on green-field sites and the relatively low density of new housing proposals. South Gloucestershire council is considering its response to those and other comments, as well as awaiting the outcome of the public examination of the structure plan before publishing the deposit version of the plan.

The way forward lies in building on the positive options for meeting housing requirements and protecting the countryside. There is more common ground than is often acknowledged. We all want as much land recycling as possible and more sustainable patterns of development. We all want to protect the countryside, regenerate our urban areas and ensure that people are properly housed. We are trying to develop that agenda as proactively as possible, and much more work needs to be done to help local authorities to achieve that.

The hon. Gentleman raised some specific issues that I wish to address. He is particularly concerned about the number of empty properties. He knows that the Government attach great importance to bringing such properties into use. I am pleased that Bristol city council has developed an empty homes strategy that has won awards and attaches considerable importance to action to bring empty properties back into use. We want that taken forward.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned sequential development and the importance of emphasising the opportunities for developing brown-field sites before green-field sites. He knows that our recently published revised PPG3 stressed the importance of a sequential approach. It is not always possible to apply a strict sequential test because there will be circumstances where the needs of rural communities require development that could be satisfied only by the use of a green-field site. In that situation, provision in a distant town would not help to meet the needs of a particular rural community. The sequential approach puts strong emphasis on developing brown-field sites and recycling urban sites before considering green-field alternatives. Where the two can be treated as alternatives, that is very much part of the thinking of PPG3, which I believe will help to concentrate minds, as it should, on the recycling of urban brown-field land.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Will the Minister clarify whether that measure has teeth? How hard will a developer have to demonstrate that he has seriously considered brown-field sites, especially if there is only borderline commercial viability, such as with sites that are hard to clean up? Could the relevant authority insist on him using such a site or can he say that it would not be worth his while?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

That is a pertinent question. The way in which the sequential test has been applied to commercial development, particularly out-of-town shopping, shows that there has been a significant change. There will always be a tail, because planning consents are often not taken up for some years. Having said that, it is clear that developers are now focusing on urban and town centre sites rather than out-of-town sites for commercial developments because of the greater teeth available to planning authorities, and to the Secretary of State on appeal, to enforce the sequential test.

We believe that a similar principle should apply in respect of housing. Authorities should consider closely the availability of opportunities for development on recycled, brown-field land before agreeing to permission for green-field development. Similarly, the Secretary of State will adopt that approach in considering cases that are subject to call in or appeal. Without raising unrealistic hopes about turning the oil tanker round in a shorter time scale than is possible, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the House accept that we are moving in the right direct and that this sends strong signals to developers about the importance of concentrating attention in brown-field areas.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned VAT, which is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The hon. Gentleman will know that discussions have been continuing on the importance of measures that will encourage the regeneration of urban sites rather than allowing green-field land to be developed.

We have a full programme of revisions to existing planning policy guidance notes to pursue the matters that I have described. I mentioned the new PPG3 on housing, which is another major step in our commitment to revitalising towns and cities and protecting our countryside from unnecessary development. We are encouraging authorities to make more effective use of existing housing in all sectors by bringing empty homes back into use and tackling under-occupation.

I think that I have covered the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. I hope that he recognises the importance of the work that is being undertaken by the Government to ensure a better, more effective approach to these vital matters.