Sustainable Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:31 pm on 5th February 2003.

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Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 12:31 pm, 5th February 2003

I usually begin by thanking the Deputy Prime Minister for making a statement and for advance sight of it. But today's statement is characterised by the amount of it that had already been briefed, leaked and spun to the press before the House saw it. That that strategy is deliberate is clear from the leaked letter from the Deputy Prime Minister to the Prime Minister about the communities plan and his right-to-buy proposals. [Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister asks for examples. He said in his letter:

"I do not want the media coverage of the Communities Plan to be swamped by headlines on the Right-To-Buy".

So what did the Government do? They smuggled out the vindictive, punish-the-poor policy cutting right-to-buy discounts in a written statement so that they could not be challenged in the Chamber, then spent the intervening time briefing favoured journalists on a selective view of the communities plan policy.

The Deputy Prime Minister's biased view of the right to buy was even demonstrated today when he misread his speech, the printed version of which said that right-to-buy raised £44 billion, not, as he said, cost £44 billion.

The communities plan has enormous implications for our constituents throughout England, and the House therefore has the right to hear about the policy first in the Chamber, and nowhere else.

We have already had the headlines, but good headlines are not the same as good policy, and there are some serious questions to be answered today. The Government's record in this area is five years of failure. In that time, we have had the new deal for communities, the urban taskforce, the urban White Paper, the rural White Paper and the active communities unit, to name a few. Yet if anything we are worse off than when we started.

The Deputy Prime Minister has told the House that he wants to build more homes, and to make communities grow and become sustainable. If that is the case, why has the number of newly built social houses fallen by a third since Labour came to power? That is some 35,000 extra homes that could have been available now—enough to house the families currently living in bed and breakfast three times over. Why, during the right hon. Gentleman's time in power, have the fewest houses been built since 1926, despite his claims about so-called legacy? Today's announcement of a dramatic increase in house building, particularly social housing, must be seen in that context. A cruel but accurate description of the right hon. Gentleman's plans seems to be that he intends to bulldoze the north and concrete the south. What he proposes amounts to concreting an area the size of Hull every year.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister now answer some questions? The Council for the Protection of Rural England claims that the Government's grand plan means that a total of 500,000 new homes will be built on green fields. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether that figure is correct, and will he say how much of that greenfield land will be green belt? Will he set out the full extent of greenbelt and greenfield development under this Government to date and say how much he expects to take place in future years, including under the plans that he has outlined today? His guarantee of greenbelt land is meaningless if all that he is doing is removing the green belt designed to protect our cities and declaring as green belt a field somewhere else.

It seems, although the Deputy Prime Minister did not say so, that his plans rely heavily on urban development corporations—a Conservative idea that has proved successful, not least in the London docklands where Michael Heseltine oversaw the development of 25,000 new homes and 100 miles of new road links. I am very happy to see newspaper headlines saying, "Prezza copies Hezza", but I will withhold any further compliments until we have seen the plans in detail. We will want to look very carefully at the operation of such corporations, and I warn the Deputy Prime Minister that Ashford and Milton Keynes are not the London docklands. Will he guarantee to the House that he will use such corporations properly, as an instrument to release brownfield land, and not as an instrument for compulsory purchase of greenfield land?

What effect does the Deputy Prime Minister envisage that the expansion to the Thames gateway will have on the growing problem of flooding? I thought that I heard a Labour Member call out "floodplains". Just a few weeks ago we saw the problems caused by that issue for people who are trying to get insurance for their houses. What discussions have Ministers had with the insurance industry about those problems, particularly in light of the increase risk as a result of today's announcement?

The Deputy Prime Minister says that he wants to improve transport infrastructure, but the truth is that he himself cut the roads budget, cutting more than 70 important road projects from Government plans. He cut spending by more than £2 billion in the first five years of this Government. Last year, not one extra mile of major road was built. What is more, the financial pressure that he is putting on southern local authorities today will force them to protect vital services such as education by cutting back on transport services, compounding the problem that the right hon. Gentleman has created. The Government are five years behind the game, and if the Deputy Prime Minister's five and 10-year plans do not work, how are we meant to trust his 20 and 30-year plans? With that in mind, he will forgive the House for judging him by his actions, not his words.

Overall, employment growth east of London and in Kent is only 1 per cent. a year, compared with 5 per cent. in the west of London. The Deputy Prime Minister claims that he will not create dormitory towns. How will he ensure that? Will not people in the east of London and in Kent have to travel to get to their jobs?

I have asked specific questions of the Deputy Prime Minister, and I shall be interested to see whether he answers any of them. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will be able to unite in the desire behind his plan, which is to improve the quality of life in Britain for this generation and the next, but there are inevitable differences in approach.

We cannot overlook the failures of this Government which have brought us to this point. It is all very well the Deputy Prime Minister talking about housing shortages, but has not his direct failure contributed to them? It all very well for him to talk about transport infrastructure, but has not his direct failure led to a standstill on road-building and a standstill on our roads? I could not believe it, but in his statement today he yet again boasted that Labour created the green belt. This is the man who famously said,"The greenbelt is a Labour achievement and we mean to build on it." We have teased him about that before. Some thought that he had made a mistake; some thought it a joke; some thought it yet another "Prescottism". Sadly, however, today's announcement proves that that is one of the few promises that the Government have set in concrete.