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Current regional planning guidance provides for just over 5,000 new homes a year in Essex. We are on course to meet the target, and we are doing that at higher densities—the figure increased from 21 dwellings per hectare in 1997 to 26 dwellings per hectare in 2002.
The East of England regional assembly is currently preparing new regional planning guidance to meet future housing needs across the region under the sustainable communities plan.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledge the genuine anger in Essex at the prospect of 131,000 extra houses being built in the county by central Government diktat? That will lead to whole areas of Essex being concreted. Instead of a top-down policy of diktat, why will not the Deputy Prime Minister consider a bottom-up method, thereby leaving it to local, elected planning authorities, which are familiar with their areas and needs, to determine the best number of houses to meet demand?
The hon. Gentleman should have a talk with his Front-Bench team. On the one hand, there are complaints about houses being built and on the other, that not enough houses are being built. The undoubted shortage of houses in the south-east has affected house prices and it is therefore right for us to increase that number. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we are doing that. Indeed, the East of England regional assembly is taking that into account and will make recommendations to an independent review, which will present recommendations to me about numbers.
I emphasise that the East of England regional assembly is dominated by the Tories, who have a majority of elected members, including a Tory chairman. Does the hon. Gentleman have no faith in the decisions made for that region by the East of England regional assembly?
May I tell the Deputy Prime Minister that the area where the 131,000 houses referred to by Mr. Burns are to be built includes the borough of Thurrock, which welcomes them? Every week at my surgery, there are people who are looking for low-cost accommodation in and around the areas where their families live and where they have been brought up. We welcome the additional houses; that also applies to the local authority. I applaud the Government for establishing the urban development corporation in Thurrock—I give them a good mark.
I thank my hon. Friend for his supporting remarks. I simply point out that the previous Tory Administration cut the housing development budget from £4 billion to £2 billion between 1993 and 1997. My hon. Friend is well aware of that because he was a Member of Parliament at the time. We have increased that budget from £2 billion to £4 billion. Those are the right priorities.
As I said earlier, our priority is to improve what the hon. Gentleman calls council houses. We have improved nearly 1 million and brought them up to decent standards. They suffered under the previous Administration, who put great emphasis on the right to sell such houses but did not use any resources to improve standards in the remaining stock. We believe that such improvement is the right priority and that is why we are doubling the amount of money for housing and taking action to make houses more affordable.