Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Government's plans for a step change in our policies for building successful, thriving communities. The Chancellor has been generous. He has given a good settlement for local authorities, regional development agencies, regeneration, housing and planning. Today, I want to talk about two elements—housing and planning—of our settlement to provide decent, affordable homes for people wherever they live, and I want the House to join together to make a step change in our approach.
Anyone looking at the record over the past decades will recognise that all Governments have failed to meet the housing needs of our people. There has been a continuing decline in the provision of all houses, social and private. We in the House should recognise that we have failed to meet the needs of this generation, let alone those of our children. The situation will get worse unless we take radical action now.
In the past 30 years, we have seen unprecedented economic growth, rising incomes, smaller households, and people living longer. We have seen an increasing demand for housing, but overall, we are building 150,000 fewer homes today than we were 30 years ago. It is no wonder that house prices are rocketing, and no wonder that many people cannot afford to live where they were born, in both urban and rural areas.
There are different problems in different places. We are failing to adjust to geographic changes in economic activity, failing to tackle abandonment and dereliction, and failing to provide homes for teachers, nurses and other key workers. We are placing our public services under pressure because they cannot get enough skilled staff. So today, I am announcing a step change in housing policy. I propose to do that by promoting sustainable communities, making the best use of our land, increasing development on brownfield sites and protecting and enhancing our green belt and valuable countryside.
The shortage of housing in London and the south-east is causing record housing costs, which are impacting directly on living standards. They are making it more expensive for companies and public services to recruit and retain staff, and more difficult for young people to get a foot on the housing ladder. They are also affecting our public services and forcing more families into bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
Two years ago, in regional planning guidance 9, I put in place a "plan, monitor and manage" approach to planning for additional housing in the south-east. I said then that local authorities should provide for new homes at the rate of 23,000 a year in London and 39,000 a year in the wider south-east. Today we have to be open and honest, and recognise that those targets are simply not being met. We estimate that, over the last two years, the shortfall was approximately 10,000 homes, which has contributed to our problems. We can no longer allow this to continue. I am therefore announcing today a number of measures that will meet the real pressures and challenges that we face.
First, I will insist that all local authorities deliver the housing numbers set out in regional planning guidance. Tackling housing shortage is a national responsibility and we must all play our part—centrally and in local government alike. I am therefore putting local authorities on notice that, where they fail to meet their targets, I will take action to intervene.
Secondly, I will accelerate the existing proposals for significant growth in the four growth areas identified in regional planning guidance for the south-east. Two years ago, I asked for reports to be prepared on the potential growth in the Thames gateway, Ashford, the Milton Keynes area and the London-Stansted-Cambridge area. Those studies are complete or nearing completion, and they show how economic development will increase the number of homes we need.
Over the coming months, taking account of those studies, I will work with regional and local partners in each of the four areas to establish where, at what scale and how quickly that growth can be achieved. Overall, we estimate that at least 200,000 new homes can be created in those growth areas. In the Thames gateway in particular, I will be putting a renewed emphasis on delivery and, in discussion with the Thames Gateway Partnership, I will establish new means of delivering rapid regeneration.
Thirdly, we need to make better use of land by improving design, increasing densities and using brownfield sites to the full. In 1998, I committed the Government to a target that 60 per cent. of new homes should be on brownfield land. I am happy to report that the target has been achieved eight years earlier than predicted, but we need to keep up the pressure.
To help with that, I will establish a register of surplus brownfield land held by the Government and public bodies. I am instructing English Partnerships to use its new role on brown fields to search out and to deliver even more land for housing. I can also announce that we will be proceeding with a further three millennium communities in east Ketley, Milton Keynes and Hastings. That will add to the four we have already agreed in east Manchester, Allerton Bywater, Greenwich and King's Lynn, bringing the number of communities to seven and the homes that will be delivered to more than 6,000.
To produce more sustainable development, however, we must use land more efficiently to reduce the overall land take. To do that, I am announcing that I intend to intervene in planning applications for housing that involve a density of less than 30 dwellings per hectare. I am also setting a new target to protect valuable countryside. Since 1997, I have increased the green belt by 30,000 hectares. Today, I can announce for the first time a public service agreement target committing us to protecting the valuable countryside around our towns and our cities, and in the green belt.
We will not tolerate urban sprawl and we will not concrete over the south-east, as some have speculated in the press, or any other region, but housing pressures in London and the south-east are acute and they require ambitious solutions. My strategy of providing for sustainable, high-quality, well planned communities in the growth areas will benefit everyone. It will mean that we reduce the pressures elsewhere in the south-east and it will protect valuable countryside for the benefit and enjoyment of all.
There is a need not just for more homes, but for more homes that people can afford. We have said, "Schools and hospitals first." That means special attention for helping nurses, teachers and other public service workers to get affordable homes. Since 1997, the Government have almost doubled the funding for affordable housing, to £1.2 billion a year, and this is now supporting the creation of 20,000 new affordable homes every year.
Subject to further detailed consideration of how best to use the new money available, we will now be able to increase the funding to provide additional homes for key workers and new social housing for the homeless and families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. In addition to that new funding, we will be looking for ways to extend our existing programmes for affordable housing through a greater partnership with employers and public and private landlords.
The problems in the north and the midlands are different, but just as pressing. Some of our towns and cities are experiencing a renaissance in their economic and cultural fortunes, but many also have communities where properties are almost worthless, leaving people trapped in negative equity and facing the problems associated with social exclusion. We are building the wrong kind of houses in the wrong places and failing to tackle fully the urban decay associated with that.
Earlier this year we announced the creation of nine Pathfinder projects in the north to tackle the most acute problems of low demand and abandonment in the north and the midlands. Those projects will help to tackle the blight afflicting properties in the Pathfinder areas. Following European Union approval, we will go ahead with our new housing gap-funding scheme, which will allow support for housing programmes where the market price is less than the cost of development.
We will also reinforce our efforts to improve the overall condition of housing, and to ensure that everyone has the opportunity of a decent home. In 1997, we released £5 billion of capital receipts to target the backlog of repairs to council homes. Over the last five years we have trebled council funding for housing to £2.4 billion a year, and in 2000 we set ourselves the challenging target of making all social housing decent by 2010. Those actions have allowed us to make good progress on housing conditions.
Overall, 1.7 million improvements have been made to council homes, and we are well on track to meet our interim target of bringing a third of the worst social housing—550,000 homes—up to a decent standard by 2004. We will work towards that target by devoting even more resources to refurbishment, by allowing all local authority arm's-length housing companies to apply for additional funding, and by reviewing all policies that contribute to our 2010 decent homes target to ensure that they are as effective as possible and provide value for money.
Not just social housing needs attention. People in the private sector suffer some of our worst housing conditions. All too often, housing benefit funds the provision of unfit housing, to the detriment of the tenant and the benefit of the landlord. That is unacceptable. As soon as parliamentary time allows, we will legislate to tackle the minority of unscrupulous landlords and boost our drive against poor conditions. Over the last five years we have given local authorities funds to help improve 30,000 private homes a year. I can announce today that we are setting a new objective to help improve more non-decent private-sector homes occupied by vulnerable households.
We are investing large sums in improving all housing, so we must have an inspection regime that drives up standards across the board and ensures reform. I can now announce that I will establish a single housing inspectorate, building on the excellent work of the Audit Commission and the Housing Corporation. I can also announce that we will establish strong regional bodies, going with the grain of our proposals for regional governance. Those bodies will bring housing investment together in a single regional pot, and will link that investment with planning, infrastructure and economic growth strategies. I will announce further details later in the year when I have discussed them with key stakeholders, and I will establish the new arrangements as soon as possible.
To achieve a step change, we need to increase resources for the planning system and bring about much-needed reform. We are therefore providing an extra £350 million for the planning system over the next three years. That money must be targeted where it will improve performance the most—and I give notice that if poor performance does not improve, I will intervene.
The extra money will be linked to reform. Today I am publishing three documents: our response to the recent planning Green Paper consultation and supporting papers on compulsory purchase and on our regional and local plans. Copies are available in the Library.
The documents contain extensive reforms. Let me summarise some of the key points. First, we will give counties a new statutory role in underpinning the new regional planning system, but we will abolish the county structure plans themselves. Secondly, we will introduce business planning zones to deliver growth, jobs and productivity without sacrificing quality of development. Thirdly, I will speed up the planning of major infrastructure projects by setting out the Government's objectives in clear policy statements, and changing inquiry processes to make them more efficient. I have accepted the Select Committee's argument that the parliamentary procedures for major infrastructure projects are not the best way forward. Finally, I will not change the right for objectors to make their case to the inspector at inquiries into plans but I will take action to speed up the inquiry process.
The proposals that I have announced today focus on creating sustainable communities that will meet the needs of all, regardless of where they live or the size of their pocket, but they are just the start. I will return to the House by the end of the year with a comprehensive long-term programme of action. That will meet the different needs of both the north and the south. Whether it is key workers in need of affordable accommodation or families trapped by negative equity, we must work together to find solutions to those problems.
Our long-term programme will link policies on housing, planning, transport, education, health and regeneration—essential for the sustainability of our communities. It will demand a new standard in how we build houses and communities, seeking improvements in density, design, environmental standards and, yes, construction techniques. It will protect and help to revitalise the countryside both for those who live in it and for those who seek their leisure there.
This is a strategy for the long term. We know the problems. We have the commitment. We have the resources to make that start. We must recognise in the country and on both sides of this House that we have not done enough over the years. We need more homes where people want to live, near where they work, in the north and in the south, at a price that people can afford and in a way that protects our countryside.
This is a challenge to us all, but I believe that the strategy that I have put to the House today will begin to rise to that challenge.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for early sight of the statement on what the Government may at some future time do with regard to housing policy. I suppose that in this Jubilee year it is natural for us to look back as well as forward, and I think that there is more than a touch of nostalgia in the Deputy Prime Minister's statement. He is known throughout the House as a deeply sentimental man, much given to romantic gestures. Conservative Members certainly appreciate the gesture of the statement as we rapidly approach the 50th anniversary of the death of Joseph Stalin. There can be no greater tribute to central planning than this housing statement.
Just as the great generalissimo felt frustration over tractor production figures in the Urals, so the present Government will feel frustration over this half- thought-through attempt to solve the country's housing problems. Make no mistake, the crisis is entirely of the Government's own making. Who else but this Government, who presided over the worst housing figures since 1924—the year that Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister—could make a virtue out of reversing their own mistakes? This great leap forward is to achieve the same housing building figures that were achieved under Thatcherism. Perhaps the Prime Minister is right—perhaps we are all Thatcherites now. [Interruption.] Well, I certainly am.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister recall saying in April 1999:
"the green belt is a Labour achievement, and we mean to build on it"?
Is this what he meant: concreting over the green belt of Kent and Essex, destroying the character of those counties?
In his statement, the Deputy Prime Minister made great play of increasing the amount of green belt. Indeed, he took some credit himself, but it has to be said that not one single acre of green belt was added to either Kent or Essex. He also says that, eight years ahead of schedule, 60 per cent. of developments are on brownfield sites. That is a direct result of the poor housing figures. Frankly, 60 per cent. of not very much is still not very much. There are no significant brownfield sites in Uttlesford.
The submissions to the Chancellor were made when transport was the responsibility of the right hon. Gentleman's Department, yet there are some deep contradictions in them. Doctors, teachers and nurses need to work in London and the south-east, and no new rail links have been announced. People living in the new houses in the new conurbations will face long, uncomfortable and expensive commuter journeys. Doctors, nurses and teachers want to be part of established communities. What estimate does the Deputy Prime Minister have of the average time that it will take the occupants of the new homes to travel to work?
The statement did not address the problem of the flight from our inner cities, and the Deputy Prime Minister's suggestion that he will intervene rings rather hollow, because he shilly-shallied over the development at the Elephant and Castle. If the Government had shown some backbone over that, many of those new houses would already have been built in Southwark.
People are fleeing the city because of the quality of life—[Interruption.]
I am most grateful for your protection, Mr. Speaker.
A violent crime occurs every 20 seconds in the city. People also leave the city because of overstretched health facilities and poor schools that teachers would not—to coin a phrase—touch with a bargepole. Has the Deputy Prime Minister explained his plans to the Secretary of State for Education, because there was nothing in her statement last Tuesday to suggest any match-up or joined-up government?
What percentage of people in the new rural communities will travel to work by bus, by rail and by car, and what additional capacity is being built into public transport to allow for the new homes? What estimate does the right hon. Gentleman have of the increase in road congestion? Will he confirm that at the last count there were 193,000 empty properties in London and the south-east? Has that figure gone up or down in the past year, and what is he going to do about it?
There is a second contradiction at the heart of the proposal. Last week the Government announced that they will take £100 million in Government grant away from Kent and Essex, yet at the same time obligations to provide new schools, extra social services and doctors' surgeries will be imposed on those counties.
Has the Deputy Prime Minister had the chance to have a word with people who know about the planning problems in that part of the world? Has he spoken to the water companies, and is he aware that there is an acute water shortage in both Kent and Essex? He has not mentioned any provision for supplying drainage or sewerage for the new homes.
The right hon. Gentleman needs to address the disparity in costs for developing brownfield sites. Until he does, greenfield sites will always provide the quickest solution. Kent currently has a land bank to meet its housing needs for 11 years, but much of it consists of brownfield sites and contaminated land. Helping counties such as Kent to bring those sites back into use would be a much better way to spend public money.
The simple and hard truth is that there is nothing particularly expensive about building property in the south-east. Building and fees are not expensive, but land acquisition is—and the right hon. Gentleman's proposals will simply make land in the south-east more expensive.
The idea of business planning zones was heavily savaged by the Select Committee. Whether its criticisms were right or not, there is still a fundamental problem with the idea. Will not areas close to the zones be at risk? Will it not be a case of chase the job around the region? A new set of multiplex cinemas or a do-it-yourself outlet will not revitalise an area. That idea smacks of 1980s solutions—[Interruption.] The 1980s were 20 years ago, and local authorities are in a different position now. They are much more able to work together than they were 20 years ago.
We of course welcome the U-turn, following the Select Committee's criticisms, on the suggestion that this House impose a pattern. However, if the Deputy Prime Minister allowed those who want new runways in the south-east to draft the recent proposals, he should not be surprised that they were both unpopular and workable.
I believe that the Deputy Prime Minister will regret the decision on country structure plans, which have been worked on hard for a number of years. He set up the Crow report, and many of the working parties are waiting to report on their findings. It would be a grave mistake to ride roughshod over local communities and local democracy.
Five years ago, the Deputy Prime Minister ordered the building of 10,000 houses on the green belt near Stevenage. Now, he has returned to type—to the policy of the bulldozer. The charge that is laid against this Government is that throwing money at the problem will not work without reform. However, he has gone one step beyond: money is being thrown at the problem without reform or thought, and it will not work.
It would be so easy to enter into a diatribe between the political parties on what has been achieved. I did ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the fact that housing figures have fallen under all Governments, and although I will accept some responsibility on behalf of this Government, I should point out that we have not been in power for all of the last 30 years. We took over from a Government whose housing policy had led to the repossession of some half a million homes, and a £19 billion council home repair backlog that we are trying to deal with. More than 1 million households suffered from negative equity, and the mortgage rate was 15 per cent. I do not want to get into that dialogue, but that was the result of 18 years of Conservative Government.
I entreat the hon. Gentleman to come to an agreement, because those in bed-and-breakfast accommodation who want a home, and who see the tremendous increase in house prices, want this House to be serious about the matter. They want us to end the political diatribe and to begin providing the homes that people need as an essential part of a good, decent life. I could enter into the Stalinist argument, but I was under the impression that the Tories, too, used regional planning guidance and advice in various areas. Is not the county structure plan an example of Stalinist thinking? I understand why the hon. Gentleman has to use such phrases, but will he recognise that the scale of the problem is such that this House should unite and say that we are going to do something different?
I invite the hon. Gentleman to join me in that step change—in making a difference. That means changing planning and the rules on house building, and putting the resources where they are needed to meet particular problems. That is a challenge for us all, and it is clear that the first step change needed is in this House, so that we can get together to bring about those programmes.
It is a bit of a cheek for the hon. Gentleman to talk about the green belt. I was the Secretary of State responsible for increasing the greenbelt by 30,000 hectares, but it was the previous Administration who reduced it. Those who recall the relevant debates in this House will know that the Opposition could not make up their mind whether the target in respect of brownfield sites should be 55 per cent., 60 per cent., 70 per cent. or 75 per cent. They had four targets in four days. They said that we could not reach our target but we reached it eight years early, and we are tightening up the process. So it is a bit of a cheek, given the record of the previous Administration, for the hon. Gentleman to use such arguments.
The hon. Gentleman said that more houses in the south-east should be built on brownfield sites, but what does he think the Thames gateway is about? All 200,000 houses could be built in that area, provided that the money for the infrastructure can be found and long-term investment put in. Too often, short-term decisions have been taken; instead, I want to engage in the long term. Let the House together make the step change to meet the needs of our people. I will make a statement to the House about how all the various parts can be brought together. We need long-term thinking and long-term commitment. That is what this issue should be about; please join me in that aim.
I am slightly at a loss as to how to follow Mr. Pickles, but on behalf of the Liberal Democrats may I welcome today's statement and the fact that it rightly places housing and planning much higher up the political agenda? I welcome the admission of failure by the Deputy Prime Minister, but I acknowledge that he was right to say that Governments of all political parties have failed in the past. I welcome many of the proposals in the statement, but I wish to raise some matters of concern.
On refurbishment, why will the money go only to those areas with arm's-length housing corporations? What will be the effect on other parts of the country? The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar mentioned briefly—and I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister is well aware of this—the scandal of the 750,000 empty properties, including tens of thousands in London and the south-east. Will he acknowledge that it is a great shame that little is said in the statement on that issue?
As 50th anniversaries have been mentioned, the Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that we are about to reach the 50th anniversary of the appalling floods in 1953. He mentioned the issue of sustainability, but can he tell us what protection he will give not only to the green belt but to the flood plains? Does he acknowledge that further building on the flood plains could seriously damage natural drainage patterns?
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about housing benefit, but will he acknowledge that other reforms to housing benefit are urgently needed, not least as the current bureaucracy of the system is of enormous disbenefit to both landlords and tenants?
I welcome many of the arrangements that the Deputy Prime Minister is putting in place for planning. However, I am deeply disappointed that he is still not prepared to budge on the issue of rights of appeal for third parties. He should rethink that issue. While I acknowledge many of the proposals for speeding up major infrastructure project issues, I hope that he will accept that one additional proposal is desperately needed—that the relevant Secretary of State, having received the report from the inspector, makes a quick announcement about his or her decision.
Like the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, I am deeply concerned about the business planning zones. If they go ahead as currently proposed, they may mean that the very issues of sustainability, and high quality of design and build, will go totally out of the window.
I thank the hon. Member for his serious contributions to the debate and for his warm words. On refurbishment, we have tried to bring public and private finance together in those big operations to make public money go further. Like most public-private partnerships, the proposals are controversial, but some organisations have agreed to sign up for the process. We have moneys available for refurbishment of private properties, so funds will not pass only to the arm's-length companies. The scale may be different, because it will involve individual households or one or two private homes, as opposed to a large development.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about empty homes, and I want to look seriously at that issue. Much more could be done by using the empty spaces in urban areas. For example, I encourage private companies to develop space above shops for housing, which has great potential. It is also important to do something about compulsory purchase powers, and that is why I have placed a document on that issue in the Library. We need to develop a comprehensive approach, and I shall make particular efforts in that area.
On the issue of sustainability and flood plains, I would point out that the whole London area is what would be called a flood plain, and even my local area in Hull is designated a flood plain. However, both areas have barriers that have prevented floods in the past. What is critical is proper investment to protect the land, and in the latest announcement on public expenditure we increased the amount to be invested in those areas. Any new development must be protected against floods, because too many have not been in the past. Many changes have now taken place.
I hear what the hon. Member for Bath says about planning. I am disappointed that he feels that I have not gone far enough, as the Conservative spokesman said that I had performed a U-turn. The document notes that third parties have a role to play in inquiries, and it does not outlaw that. However, we are against inquiries being dragged out unnecessarily for the sake of vested interests. The Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions thought that that was wrong, as did everyone consulted.
The terminal 5 inquiry is often used as an example of how the process can drag on. I grant that that was exceptional, but it is not the only case. We must achieve a proper balance between the right of people who may be affected to have a say, and the public interest. The document in the Library tries to strike a better balance than was suggested in the earlier consultation document.
Sometimes, as Secretary of State, I have taken passages out of my contributions to avoid taking up too much of Parliament's time. A passage that I removed today had to do with something that I have learned through my experience in the job—that the process takes too long once Ministers have been called in and have received a recommendation from an inquiry. I therefore propose to place a statutory enforcement limit on Ministers to ensure that they complete their role in time. I am asking local authorities to modernise, but I also accept that we in the House must do our bit too.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for listening to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, especially on empty homes and the planning system. That is extremely welcome.
However, does my right hon. Friend accept that a fundamental problem in this country is that there is housing misery in the south-east because of the shortage of homes there, and a surplus of homes in many parts of the north? In his role as Minister with responsibility for the regions, will my right hon. Friend try and find ways to move some of the jobs that do not need to be in the south-east up to the regions? Will he work on getting it across to people that the north-west or north-east are very attractive places to live? If we could move some of the jobs to which I referred, we would be able to match housing and need.
I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. He is Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and I always value the advice that I receive from Select Committees—although I admit that I value the advice of some more than others. However, Select Committees play a valuable role in the House in keeping Ministers on their toes when they argue their cases.
I was especially appreciative of the report from the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions on planning procedures, and I have taken its advice, especially on parliamentary matters. My experience in the House with the legislation for the channel tunnel and the Cardiff bay barrage has convinced me that discussing planning procedures here is not necessarily the quickest way of dealing with them. I took the Select Committee's advice on that.
My hon. Friend made an important point about jobs. As I noted in my statement, the problem goes beyond houses: it includes health, education, transport and jobs. The reports coming out on the new community areas are interesting, in that they make it clear that there is a greater demand for housing when it is associated with economic development. We should plan the lot together. Regional development agencies and regional strategies will help us to achieve that—but the Opposition, of course, would abolish RDAs as part of what I understand is their drive against Stalinism.
The Deputy Prime Minister referred in his statement to the four areas that he has designated as having potential for very high growth, of which my constituency of Ashford is one. Although existing problems include an inadequate transport infrastructure, local health systems that cannot cope with the growth already taking place, and increasing problems with local schools, the interim results of the study to which the right hon. Gentleman referred have identified severe problems with the long-term supply of water, and suggest that much of the proposed new building would have to take place on the flood plain. If the right hon. Gentleman chooses to go for the high-growth option in and around Ashford, is he aware that he will be convicted of environmental vandalism in my part of Kent, and that the consultation exercise that he has indulged in for the past year will look like a complete sham?
I certainly hope that people do not think that. I am serious about consultation. Securing a step change such as I propose requires the co-operation of the people affected. No one gets such matters 100 per cent. right, but consultation must be taken seriously. The purpose of the studies and reports is to make an assessment of the situation, and to give people choices so that a debate can begin. That is exactly what I want to do.
As regards Ashford, I take the point about the importance of infrastructure. Indeed, it applies generally. Anyone who looks at the new areas will see the investment in the transport infrastructure. That is almost the first requirement. As we know, Ashford has the channel tunnel rail link, which I was able to renegotiate after it had collapsed under the previous Administration. It will give us 50 per cent. more capacity on the lines coming into London, but we need to back up the infrastructure from Ashford. It does suffer from water shortages, although I recall visiting it during the floods. The problems of flood plains must be taken into account. I do not want to build in areas that face that threat. That is why extra resources are provided. I understand that Kent county council has made it clear that that is one of the areas for expansion. I want to have proper discussions about that.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement as it affects Milton Keynes, and in particular the proposal for business planning zones, for which I have long campaigned. I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend has rejected a policy of no growth and a free for all, and is concentrating on sustainable communities. As Milton Keynes is on the boundary of three Government regions, may I have my right hon. Friend's assurance that the three regions will work together to achieve the Government's objectives for Milton Keynes?
That is an important point, which applies not just to Milton Keynes but to the Thames gateway, where there are a number of authorities and regional development agencies. I suggested a new kind of vehicle to deliver regeneration better and more quickly, with the full co-operation of those bodies. We cannot act in defiance of them, so securing their co-operation is one of the challenges. My hon. Friend draws attention to Milton Keynes, which, together with the surrounding area, including Corby, is important and has always supported expansion as a growth area. The only difficulty is that the new Liberal council is against it.
The Deputy Prime Minister's protestations about the green belt would be treated with more respect in Cambridgeshire if, when issuing his draft planning guidance, he had not made it not the last resort for development, but the second resort, after building within the city itself. What will happen to the Cambridgeshire structure plan, which is due to go to public inquiry this autumn? Will it be dropped now, or completed and then dropped? What is the future of the plan, which is currently guiding development? Will he heed the remarks of his hon. Friend Andrew Bennett about the need to attract development elsewhere? The right hon. Gentleman is addressing a problem caused largely by internal migration from elsewhere in the country. If we can persuade organisations and magnets such as Cambridge university and the biotech industries to move elsewhere in the country and develop satellite operations, that will start to draw development away from the huge melting pot in the south-east.
Cambridge is a success story, as everybody knows. The issue is how we deal with development, given the successful development of its economy and the demands of inward investment. A number of companies want to use the resources and land available there, which, in a way, is out of kilter with the local development plan. The hon. Gentleman raised particular points about the inquiry. I am not sure about all the details and what the position is, so I will write to him. Cambridge is an area that is growing. The challenge is to ensure that that growth is balanced and sustainable.
May I tell my right hon. Friend that the statement is one of the most impressive housing statements that we have had in many years? I spent some 13 years working in housing before coming into the House. Today's statement is much better than some of those that we had from the Conservatives during the years that I was a housing professional. Can my right hon. Friend give us some reassurance about how regional housing strategies will be developed? Will he ensure that, in areas of low demand, new affordable housing is developed where housing clearance has taken place? This is not just a simple argument about new homes in the south-east and no new homes elsewhere. It is an important issue for many areas in decline.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. He puts his finger on a difficult matter. The decentralisation of decision making and the regionalisation of discussions about housing are major changes. We have recognised that if we want a housing policy, we had better be clear about our education policy, the hospital programme and the infrastructure. That is the sustainable framework that we must establish. I shall shortly call a number of stakeholders together—the regional government offices, the Housing Corporation and the regional development agencies—to see how we can begin to take a regional view in developing a housing programme. Although I am announcing it today, the details have not been fully worked out. We stated in the regional White Paper that there will be a housing strategy on a regional spatial dimension, and we are working on giving guidance on that matter.
The Deputy Prime Minister has rightly identified the growing problem of affordability. In constituencies such as mine, doctors, nurses, policemen and teachers cannot afford housing. Of course, there is an appetite among the Opposition for solutions to the problem. Will he clarify what he said about intervening if local authorities do not deliver? Where a local authority has undertaken extensive consultation and produced a district plan, in accordance with guidance from his Department, and where that plan has been adopted up to 2006, or perhaps 2011, will the local authority still be exposed to the intervention that he mentioned?
With his knowledge of such issues, the right hon. Gentleman knows precisely that that is one of the major problems that we have to address. I could come to an agreement about housing, the programmes and our regional guidance on such matters, as I did in the discussion when some wide differences were expressed about Mr. Crow's recommendations on how many houses should be built in the south-east and how they should be apportioned to different local authorities. I sought to find a higher number, but one that did not involve greater land take because of the increased housing density that I propose.
If there is a failure to meet the objectives under the planned monitor-and-manage approach, which I introduced when I rejected the predict-and-provide approach, the responsibility will be placed on local authorities. I will now open discussion with those authorities—I have given notice of that in today's statement—and some of them are already announcing not only that they are not meeting those targets, but perhaps that they have no intention of doing so. Perhaps they are leaving such decisions in the hope that a Tory Government will be elected to change things. We are not prepared to tolerate that because this is not a political issue only; it involves all those who have not got homes. The right hon. Gentleman refers to doctors and nurses, but homeless people and those in bed and breakfasts are also carrying the pain, and I will do everything that I can to relieve it.
May I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on introducing brave, radical and much-needed proposals to address the chronic shortage of housing in the south-east? Of course, that shortage was made worse by the decision of the last Government but one to flog off police and national health service housing. The cheapest two-bedroom terraced property in Reading now costs about £160,000, requiring an income of about £38,000 to gain access to the necessary mortgage—well beyond the reach of teachers, police officers and health workers, whom we desperately need and simply cannot recruit.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister realise that increasing the housing supply in areas such as Milton Keynes, Stansted and the Thames gateway will do little to address the problems in the Thames valley and that the Government will have to consider innovative and further measures, such as regional pay supplements or, indeed, interest-free loans, to bridge the equity gap that faces key public service workers in my constituency?
My hon. Friend makes a very sound point. Indeed, he refers to one of the problems that I have tried to address in the few weeks that I have been in the job. I hope that when I return to the House with a further statement on how to deal with that issue, I shall have a better idea of the balance that will have to be struck, although I readily recognise that identifying new communities or new towns for development does not necessarily solve that problem.
An increased supply of houses will undoubtedly have an effect on prices, and all hon. Members will acknowledge that the shortage of supply is affecting prices. There are, of course, other economic considerations, so we cannot ignore the fact that this is not simply a housing problem. The issue of affordable housing in towns in the Thames valley, which my hon. Friend mentions, is a real challenge. I ask him to wait until we produce our proposals.
There is a range of ideas. Some things have been done, but others have not, and I want to put them in a proper context. If I just chose an area such as the Thames valley or Thames gateway, and said that all the houses could be built there, would I be prepared to find the billions of pounds for the infrastructure? How could I get my colleagues in the Department for Transport to deal with the order of priorities? There are major changes. How could I get my other colleagues to ensure that there were the schools and houses to meet those requirements?
I recognise that the different problems that my hon. Friend mentions cannot necessarily be solved by such an approach, but it can contribute to the solution. That is why I have to find a comprehensive framework. We have been too short term; we have concentrated on too many small issues; and we have got to make a step change, which is what I hope to do.
Order. Before I call the call the next Member, I say to the House that if there were shorter questions, and perhaps shorter answers, many more Members would have a chance to speak.
Although the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement about brownfield site development in the south-east, particularly in the Thames gateway, will be very warmly welcomed, my constituents in central Berkshire will be amazed that his Government are still foisting so many extra unwanted houses on our area, when we have already taken more than our fair share. Cannot our excellent unitary authorities, Bracknell Forest and Wokingham, make the decision without him intervening and putting houses where people do not want them?
I am a little confused. My hon. Friend Mr. Salter has just said that there is a desperate need for housing in his constituency. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's constituency is far from my hon. Friend's, yet he tells us that people do not want houses foisted on them. We need to sort out our priorities, which are: houses where they are wanted, at affordable prices, because everybody is entitled to a decent home. That is the challenge.
My right hon. Friend's statement will be welcomed by teachers, doctors, nurses and police officers in my constituency, where there are currently recruitment difficulties because of the cost of housing in the area. Will he ensure, however, that when extra houses come on stream in the area, especially in the Thames gateway, extra needs—transport, medical facilities and school facilities—are taken into account as part of the planning process? That will ensure that the houses are part of a sustainable development and that they do not simply add to the pressures on infrastructure.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. Again, he has put his finger on a point that is absolutely crucial in the Thames gateway area that he represents. First, one cannot get investment in that area without the essential infrastructure investment to open it up. Following from that, one cannot just build homes; there must schools and hospitals, too. That is a real challenge. Long-term planning is necessary, not only in terms of housing, but in terms of education and health services. We need to put those things together, as I said in my statement. When I make my more comprehensive statement, perhaps we will see that we are agreed on how to achieve that.
The Deputy Prime Minister is right to focus on more affordable homes, on more environmentally sensitively built homes and on better designed homes. Is he aware, however, that the solutions that he has outlined today spell a very black day for local democracy and for local communities? The abolition of county structure plans, particularly in East Sussex, will only raise the fear that he intends to intervene over the top of local communities' heads. Why should those local communities have faith in his centralising socialist solutions, given that he is the same Minister who, five years ago, promised solutions to all our transport difficulties, since when our transport system has descended into chaos?
It is generally recognised by all involved—I have had time to read their reports—that there are too many plans in this area. We need to shape it better than we have before, which is why I have made these proposals. The hon. Gentleman's concern for county councils is very touching, in view of the fact that the Conservatives abolished three or four of them, county structure plans or not—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may not have done so, but I assume that he belonged to a party in government that did.
I am concerned about matters of planning and people to be consulted. The hon. Gentleman might think that this is a black day for democracy simply because we got rid of the county structure plans, but it is a much brighter day for those people who are looking forward to getting a house and a decent home. That is where our priorities lie.
I welcome the statement and the proposals for affordable housing and accessible jobs in rural communities, which will be welcomed in the rural part of my constituency, where Labour is holding its national rural conference this weekend. I am pleased about the announcement, too, for the urban part of my constituency, and for the millennium village at east Ketley. It is an exemplary scheme. It is mixed tenure to meet all housing needs on a brownfield site, and it is a trail-blazing partnership between English Partnerships and the local authority, including a contribution of some £1 million to schools in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House and communities in new towns that this connotes the beginning of a new relationship between English Partnerships and local communities and local government, in which it will help to meet needs and solve problems, to which, in the past, it has all too frequently contributed?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and for welcoming the millennium village concept at the community buildings in east Ketley. The review with English Partnerships is in its final stages. I envisage a strong and good role for English Partnerships in bringing groups together to ensure that we get the requirements for housing that are proposed in the millennium projects.
I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on using the phrase "quality of design" several times in his statement. In that context, will he consider the documents prepared by his Department to ensure that quality of design is writ large throughout them? Will he also consider some of the contradictions that might lower design quality? Local authorities have to be able to set standards of design quality for business zones. Will he introduce general development orders for ports and docks so that they, too, have such standards? Finally, the right hon. Gentleman is going to get rid of the institutionalised bribery and corruption of section 106 agreements and introduce a system of tariffs. What impact will that have?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about industrial buildings, which we have seized on. We could get much more from such buildings. The designs of industrial buildings in some parts of our towns are a disgrace. They may win architectural awards, but I notice that the architects do not live in them. In such circumstances, it would be useful to combine the two aims. The Peabody Trust is doing some interesting work on that. Building design is important and I want to see more of it. It adds to the confidence of an area. That is why we recently produced a study on the built environment. I am keen on that and have already talked to a number of architects and developers to ensure that building design is taken into account.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, representing, as I do, a constituency in which housing is so expensive that the average university lecturer can no longer afford to live in the city. When he considers the county council structure plans, I urge him not to abandon the one on which Cambridgeshire county council is working. We are in desperate need of more land for housing because of the acute shortages. Much work has been done on the structure plan, and I hope that he will not put a question mark over its future at this stage.
To be honest, I am not sure how to respond and will write to my hon. Friend. The matter that she raises could be a transitional problem of working to a certain plan. I want to do what is possible and best rather than laying down a rule that is then rigidly interpreted.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister recall coming to King's Lynn during the last election to announce the start of a millennium community in South Lynn, part of the Nar-Ouse regeneration area—NORA—scheme? His visit was a great success and helped to bolster my support. Is he aware that the scheme is crucial to regenerating a proud community? It will help to sort out a number of eyesores and land that has been derelict for a long time. Does he realise that part of the land has recently been sold? There is also a question mark over the start date. He is respected in my area. Will he visit us and give the scheme a kick-start?
As the hon. Gentleman says, I visited that site. I am pressing hard to get the millennium developments up and running. They are not simply about providing houses. They offer a whole new approach to communities, involving design, environment and sustainability. I am delighted one such project was awarded to King's Lynn. I hope to visit a number of the projects and to take an active role, whether it is in King's Lynn or elsewhere. But does he want me to visit his constituency to improve his contacts, because I could always come down and damage them?
May I suggest that my right hon. Friend invites Opposition Members who are sceptical or nervous about the proposals to visit my constituency, in particular Gravesend town centre, which already provides high-quality affordable housing within a regenerated town centre for the key workers that we so desperately need? Given that north Kent is subject to a number of infrastructure investment projects, which are important for our future prosperity, will he underline his commitment to the fact that the consultation process will not be damaged by the streamlining of planning, which we all welcome? Will he assure me that my constituents' views will be heard?
I agree with the point that my hon. Friend makes about Gravesham, which is an important area in the Thames gateway. I am well aware, although I have not seen some of it, of the excellent work that is done through the combination of the Housing Corporation and the local authority. I would like to see more of that. That is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend with responsibilities for regeneration will be leaving the Chamber after questions on the statement to visit the area that my hon. Friend represents. Perhaps he could then start the discussion.
There will be great concern in my constituency about what the Deputy Prime Minister has announced this afternoon. I ask him a question about principle. Planning powers currently rest, rightly, with locally elected councils. What is the point of people continuing to vote in local elections if the councillors whom they subsequently elect can have thousands of houses rammed down their throats by regional quangos? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that establishment of the quangos that he has announced will require primary legislation?
I have not announced any new quangos today. We are talking about organisations that are in place. I want to bring in regional governance, which will make these bodies accountable. I understand that the policy of the Conservative party is to get rid of regional accountability and have more and more quangos. That is the Conservative party's history.
Accountability and planning are important parts of local democracy. We are not abolishing the process but strengthening it. There is controversy about the counties but we are not abolishing their planning role. We are abolishing structure plans, but we are giving the counties certain statutory powers that they already have in terms of mineral rights, transport and statutory consultation, for example. The counties are important, but the issue is about getting a proper balance.
I am trying to achieve a balance that is more effective and more efficient in terms of what the hon. Gentleman calls unwanted homes. I do not know what people feel when they hear Members saying, "We don't want any of these homes. We don't need them." Housing is a national responsibility, and the responsibility of the House is to provide it. Even if the people who need housing are not in his constituency, they are entitled to be considered.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for the commitment that the Government have made to the welfare of Hastings, and especially today's decision that it will have the status of a millennium community? My right hon. Friend is absolutely right when he says that these new communities will work only if transport infrastructure is available. Roads are not easy to build. Will he use his influence to ensure that the Strategic Rail Authority gets on with the job of electrifying the Ashford line and providing new signalling so that the millennium villages really can work?
My hon. Friend reminds me that it is always easy to talk about infrastructure investment in various areas. When I had responsibility for transport, he often asked me to do something about road communications with Hastings. He will know that a considerable amount of extra money has been made available for transport. He will know also that reviews are under way. I hope that he is more successful, but I thank him for his kind words about the millennium community.
Where a local authority has an adopted plan, it having been adopted in entire conformity with the Government's guidance, does the Deputy Prime Minister intend to overrule its provisions? Is he to call in every development where the density is fewer than 30 houses per hectare? Will there be a size threshold? Does that run alongside or instead of the provision on social housing? What are the implications for the size of the inspectorate and the cost of it, public inquiries and delays in approvals?
Provided that the plan is in conformity with the Government's advice, I have no intention of overruling it.
I welcome the Government's commitment to improving and increasing the housing stock. Will my right hon. Friend turn his attention to the problems of inner London, where there is enormous housing pressure. There are very high rents in the private sector, enormous numbers of people are on waiting lists and, tragically, a huge number of people are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
Will my right hon. Friend do his best to ensure that local authorities have the resources to buy whatever land becomes available, and that that will apply likewise to registered social landlords? Above all, will he ensure that planning laws are so implemented that 50 per cent. of all residential development sites are used for affordable rented housing? At present, most of these sites are very small, and therefore are way outside the guidelines that apply elsewhere.
I agree with the central thrust of my hon. Friend's point about providing more affordable homes in London. That can be achieved through smaller developments, as provided in the Mayor's London plan. We have not yet responded to that, but I believe that a great deal more can be done. I am in active discussions with London authorities about planning, resources and the framework in which these things are done.
I welcome the spirit of the Deputy Prime Minister's statement. The entire country needs more affordable low-cost homes—we certainly need them in the south-west. If affordable, low-cost housing is to be built for sale, we need the funds or we need to subsidise the developer. If Government funds are provided, the purchaser receives Government help. Without a covenant, the home will be sold on the open market and therefore will be lost for ever to the low-cost housing regime. Does the right hon. Gentleman propose to subject every sale to a covenant, and so lock the house into low cost? If he does that, those living in it will never be able to afford to get on the housing ladder. How will the whole thing work?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I hope that I will be given more encouragement, given the spirit of the approach. It will be much better if we can get more co-operation, rather than the spirit of some of the earlier exchanges following my statement.
The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on a difficult problem. There are various difficulties. For example, we are putting a great deal of money into areas such as Hull to knock down houses, but at the same time we are trying to get money to build houses in areas where they are needed. It is important to bear that in mind. We must ask whether unwanted houses should be knocked down and about the priorities given to using existing resources.
We appear to be trying to find money to meet the difference between the market price and affordable housing. That is not easy in areas such as the delightful one that the hon. Gentleman represents, where the demand is from people elswhere who want to move to them to retire. That raises the real issue of communities providing housing for those who live in the area. The same may apply in the south-east or in rural areas. People are being told, "I'm sorry, you can't live by your parents; leave the community." That is unacceptable, and it is as true in a rural area as it is in parts of the south-east, and I shall address the matter.
Under the right to buy, property in urban areas is bought at a very discounted price, but it is then sold back to the state at a high price when improvements are sought. That is costing us millions of pounds. We must ask ourselves, what is the proper balance? These are difficult questions, and I have no easy answers. The difference between the price of a house and what is affordable goes right to the heart of these matters. I shall address the question in the coming months and return to the House with what I think is a conclusion.
I welcome the statement, which is firm and fair in terms of housing policy. Within the Medway towns alone, the council estimates that, over the next 20 years, 20,000 more homes will be required just to meet the immediate need of the indigenous population. One of the reasons for the housing crisis is that from the mid 1980s, for 10 years, the Conservative Government allowed developments of fewer than 20 houses per hectare.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's comprehensive approach in having a transport, social and environmental infrastructure. It will be delivered by Government Departments, but what steps is he taking with developers and other parts of the private sector to engage them fully in delivering the necessary infrastructure?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about getting all the stakeholders involved. It is not just a simple matter of encouraging local authorities to do more; we must include the private sector, including the builders. We must also consider the argument about whether the land is being held back, or whether it is being used for a better purpose that is to the advantage of the community.
On high density, I take the point that the previous Administration reduced the average to 20 houses per hectare. However, I said before that the housing situation has been declining for decades under all Administrations and we need to make that step change. I tried to address the issue of high density when I came to the House two years ago to announce some of these matters. The average for the south-east appears to be 24 per hectare, but in Islington, or elsewhere in London, there are areas of Georgian property where the density is 80 per hectare, yet prices are going through the roof. The millennium project community in Greenwich has a density of 90 per hectare. That is an example of what good design and an imaginative approach can do in bringing some of these issues together and that is what I must try to do.
The Deputy Prime Minister has touched on a difficult problem. In my constituency in Surrey, the average house price is more than £300,000 and there are social housing problems. However, I am concerned that if he is going to override the local authority, there must be a judgment as to how best to deal with it. We cannot just have new houses built at 30 per hectare in a constituency that does not have brown land. That will mean that in-filling is the only way. Is the Deputy Prime Minister proposing to call in all plans and then impose further density restrictions? I have to tell him that the infrastructure locally is under strain and that it would be better for him to boost the payments to Surrey county council so that we have a greater social services spend that we can use.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am not satisfied that all the brownfield sites have been identified. One of the curious things about housing is that all of the land that may be available for housing is not recorded in a form of land bank information. I have asked English Partnerships to see whether we can find more.
On the question of the density of housing per hectare, in the south-east, the average is 23 to 24 per hectare; that is the lowest of any developed economy. I do not believe that we cannot lift that higher than 23—say to 30, as I am suggesting, as a minimum—and, with good design, still get good quality housing. We can do that, but I suspect that it will be more profitable to build executive houses at 23 or 24 per hectare. I still think that a density of 30 per hectare can be profitable, and I am quite prepared to discuss that.
The hon. Gentleman asks what happens if the local authority does not agree. The answer is that it is the same whatever the number is. Let us say that the number was half what I announced for the south-east; there would still be some who said that they did not accept it. The responsibility is to find homes for people who live in areas with problems of supply and demand, where we are left with the kind of problems that we have at the moment.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend. How much money will come through the Housing Corporation in general, and how much through the Housing Corporation in London? Can he assure me that in multicultural areas such as mine, registered social landlords will still be able to build larger housing units because, in those communities, the larger family is still the norm and Londoners are six times as overcrowded in their housing as people in the rest of the country?
I recognise the point made by my hon. Friend about overcrowding in London and the desperate need for housing. That must be a high priority. The mayor has made the position clear in his statement and we will be doing what we can to help. We have provided £1.5 billion extra for housing, which is a sustainable increase. Some of that will be going to the Housing Corporation, but I said earlier that I want to talk to the various institutions that have a role to play to see how the money will be used. We have made more money available and we must be sure that it is used effectively.
Can the Deputy Prime Minister clarify the position with regard to Stansted and the Stansted corridor? Does he anticipate much of the housebuilding being concentrated on the immediate area of Stansted? How far into the hinterland of Essex, and particularly mid-Essex, might that corridor extend? What bearing will the right hon. Gentleman's statement have on the draft plan inquiry that is expected to be held next year in Chelmsford on its existing housebuilding proposals?
I am very much involved in the planning responsibilities, so I cannot answer that question. However, I will see if I can give the hon. Gentleman a more informed answer about the inquiry. With regard to the study of the M11 corridor—Stansted-Cambridge—that is an important matter and I have announced today that it is one of areas on which we want to concentrate. I have only just received the report and I cannot answer him now, but it is an area that we have identified. One of the significant features of development in communities is that airports are a very important part of regeneration.