Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:29 am on 24th July 2002.

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Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay 11:29 am, 24th July 2002

You will be pleased to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have no intention of trying to fill the time available. Instead, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Oaten on securing the debate, and on choosing a title that ensured minimum attendance in the Chamber, so that he had the maximum time to put his point across. I am sure that if he had chosen the title "Housing in the South-east", or "Brownfield Development", the Chamber would have been packed.

The current planning system in England has two main parts: a framework of plans, and development control. A third element is the role of the Secretary of State in determining planning policy, which is where the planning policy guidance notes come in. The Secretary of State has three key roles. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister sets out the planning policies that drive the whole planning system, and they are principally contained in 25 planning policy guidance notes, or PPGs, and a series of minerals planning guidance notes, or MPGs.

The planning system is often seen as not working, unresponsive, and sometimes slow and difficult to understand. Over the past 50 years, however, it has protected some of the country's most important green spaces. It has regulated development and, especially has recently given communities some opportunities to participate in shaping the future of their area. It is certainly better than a free-for-all, and has provided an essential framework for managing our built environment.

However, as the Government clearly recognise in their planning Green Paper, there is a need for a thorough rethink, and the pressures on our planning system are driving that forward. Let there be no misunderstanding: one of those pressures is the fact that there is a housing crisis. Record numbers of people are inadequately housed in accommodation inappropriate to their needs. We know that there are links between poor and inadequate housing, and such things as low educational attainment and greater demands on social care and health services. There is a direct link between temporary accommodation and contact with the criminal justice system. Many of the social problems that rear their heads time and again in council chambers and in the House are linked to poor housing conditions.

The Liberal Democrats take a bottom-up approach. We believe that people in their communities know what is required, or should have mechanisms for determining what is required, so they should have the powers to meet those local demands and needs. Our policy is that each local authority should be tasked with undertaking a housing needs survey in its area to find out not only the number but the type of homes that are needed. We would then get away from the current system whereby developers build the properties that they wish to see in a locality and then, if they are in a property hotspot, advertise in national newspapers. Under that system, local needs go unmet.

The waiting lists for affordable housing in large parts of the south and south-east, and in several property hotspots in the north, are lengthening. There is a national problem. The right housing—housing appropriate to people's needs—is not being supplied. House prices are rocketing, as there are too few properties available for sale and interest rates are low. Low interest rates are a good thing, but when they make it easier for people to purchase there is too much money chasing too few properties. It is a classic problem of supply not meeting demand.

We also want local authorities to adopt a strict hierarchical approach after assessing housing needs in their area. The first thing that they should do is use empty homes. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said that there were 753,000 empty homes, and if we total up the number of people on council waiting lists and add those who are temporarily housed or homeless, the result is a similar figure of 750,000 people, taking into account the fact that each home represents a family. The locations of the empty homes do not necessarily square with the demand or the lack of supply, but the priority should still be to bring them back into use. We would give local authorities a statutory right to take over a property that had remained empty for more than 12 months without good reason, bring it back into use and supply a home for someone.

The second part of our hierarchical approach is to assess whether other empty buildings could be converted to use as homes. Homes above existing properties could be considered. To give credit where it is due, I must say that the Government's homes above shops scheme has proved popular, but much more could be done. We should consider infill and easing the planning system for change of use so that properties designated for business use could, when there was no more demand for that business, be changed to some form of housing use. Then we should consider brownfield and greenfield land, as a last resort.

The price of land is another key element. One reason why land values are high in this country is that although other countries tax land, we do not. If we taxed the undeveloped value of land, we would surely maximise its use. For a start, that would discourage the horrible practice of land banking, whereby developers purchase land speculatively and, believing that the price will rise in the future, hang on to it to make more money later rather than develop it to meet today's demand.

The community sometimes makes an investment in infrastructure that raises the value of the land around it. For example, when a new road is built, the land either side of it suddenly gets considered for development and its price rises.