This is a timely debate coming just days after the closure of consultation on the document entitled "Where shall we live?", which sets out the allocation of houses within Hampshire. It might be seen as a curtain raiser for next month's visit by the Minister for Communities and Local Government to Hampshire to discuss the document and its infrastructure implications. I wish to talk about how the plan will affect Hampshire and explain its particular effect on south Hampshire, in which I include the unitary authority areas of Southampton and Portsmouth. I wish first, however, to deal with the issues that will affect the whole of Hampshire.
The consultation process closed on Friday. The county council did as much as it could within the time scale and with the resources available to ensure that the proposals for housing allocation throughout Hampshire were communicated to as many people as possible. I know from a well attended public meeting in my constituency a week last Friday that less than half of the people there had read the document. Furthermore, because of the consultation timetable, some of the work that should have underpinned it, such as understanding the infrastructure needs of the additional houses, had not been completed.
Is my hon. Friend as alarmed as I am that no study has been made to assess the impact on the New Forest of any of the options? Does he agree that infrastructure requirements include day-to-day needs for recreation because, frankly, the New Forest cannot accommodate that?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Indeed, the New Forest national park authority said that development in the east of the county will have an impact on the New Forest itself, especially on the roads going through it. If more people are to be living in Hampshire, they will want recreation and will look to the New Forest as a natural place to visit.
The lack of detailed preparation applies not only to recreation. There is a lack of detail about some of the transport issues associated with the plan. For example, the consultation document on the strategic development area north of the M27 stated:
"It would have new/improved transport links to Fareham and Portsmouth", but made no reference to what the links might be. They could range from a better bus service to a new dual carriageway or a new motorway junction. The process is structured in such a way that it is not helpful to those who wish to participate, to those who want to understand its implications and to those who ultimately have to consent to the development.
"Where shall we live?" sets out the allocation of new housing throughout Hampshire. In south Hampshire, 80,000 homes are planned to be built between 2006 and 2026. It is planned to build 16,000 homes in central Hampshire and the New Forest, and 26,000 homes in north Hampshire. That is a total of 122,000 homes. One in five of the almost 600,000 homes that are to be built in the south-east between 2006 and 2026 will be built in Hampshire.
The new development will be provided in one of three ways. First, there will be development within existing towns and cities. In south Hampshire that will focus particularly on Portsmouth and Southampton. Secondly, there could be urban extensions to towns throughout Hampshire to places such as Waterlooville and, thirdly, there could be two new strategic development areas in south Hampshire. Each method will have its own implications for the communities that it affects. However, one factor unites all the communities: infrastructure. What will it be? Who will pay for it? The centrality of the issue to the people of Hampshire is illustrated by a comment in the consultation document. It states:
"there must be clear guarantees of investment—by the public and private sector together—in physical and community infrastructure to support growth. This means investment to improve such things as roads and other transport facilities, water and sewerage systems, schools and health facilities."
However, local residents are sceptical about the Government's willingness to commit to the funding of the infrastructure needed to support the new development. Although we recognise the important role that developers' contributions will play in funding the infrastructure, we must also recognise that those will be insufficient to meet its full cost and that some of that cost will have to be borne by central Government.
Local people would like to see some conditionality: the Government and local authorities making an objective assessment of what infrastructure is needed—whether improvements to the road network between the M3 and the M4, or the sewerage and water requirements—for the 122,000 homes. Having agreed on that, they should agree on who would meet the cost, when it would be delivered and how housing development should be phased in line with that.
Ultimately, we would like to see the Government sign up to the plan, manage and monitor approach so that development would not run ahead of infrastructure, and that when infrastructure was lagging, the release of land for housing development would slow or stop. In effect, we are looking for a guarantee that the Government will foot their share of the Bill for the major infrastructure investment needed as a precondition for housing development—no infrastructure, no development.
Is it not the case that not only local residents have doubts about whether the infrastructure will be made available? A Select Committee of this House also expressed similar doubts when it considered the south-east plan and it looked for similar reassurances from the Government.
Indeed; my right hon. Friend is right—the Select Committee also had doubts. Furthermore, in its work on sustainable development in the south-east, the Institute for Public Policy Research raised the same issues. There is widespread concern that the Government are not prepared to pay their share for the development. The Government need to recognise the high infrastructure costs associated with this issue and understand how housing development is to be financed and supported, and how the associated infrastructure is to be delivered.
Why is this such an issue in south Hampshire in particular? Why is there such concern about infrastructure? Let me give two examples. The first is Whiteley, a community of 2,500 homes north of the M27, part of which is in my constituency. In many respects, Whiteley is an ideal place in which to live and work, but it has significant drawbacks. Despite the fact that local people are able to live and work there, at 8.30—human nature being what it is—it appears that its whole population spills out to work elsewhere and is replaced by an entirely new population that works in the offices and businesses there. If there were a good road network, that would be fine, but there is one road only in and out of Whiteley and that goes to a busy junction, the M27.
It would cost about £15 million to buy the land to complete the road network and create another exit from Whiteley. After 15 years, there is still only a temporary doctor's surgery in Whiteley; the primary school is not big enough to meet the needs of all the children who live there, so five and six-year-olds have to be bussed to schools the other side of the M27. After sustained pressure from parents, councillors and me, the county council has agreed to build another one-form-entry primary school to meet the needs of the existing community, at a cost of £4 million. Secondary school children living in Whiteley are bussed to Fareham, despite there being another, closer secondary school. However, that secondary school already has 1,700 pupils to meet the needs of the growing population in that part of the area.
Not long after I was elected, I asked why an extra secondary school was not being built to service the housing development in the west of my constituency. The answer was that the Government's funding for additional school places is on a per-pupil basis; there is not the money in the system to build an entire new secondary school. Developers' contributions are sufficient to build a new primary school, but not a new secondary one.
School places, GP surgeries, roads—all the evidence is that there is an infrastructure deficit in Whiteley. The community has seen housing development go ahead of infrastructure provision. Houses were built without adequate provision of roads, community facilities, schools and doctors' surgeries. It is not surprising that my constituents are sceptical about the willingness of central Government to foot their share of the bill for proper infrastructure.
Let me give one further example of the current infrastructure deficit in south Hampshire. Hampshire county council and Portsmouth city council both back a rapid transit scheme to link Fareham and Portsmouth through Gosport. That would relieve the pressure on the A32 between Fareham and Gosport, and on the M27. It is intended to be phase 1 of a scheme linking those places to Southampton. The Government initially agreed to fund the scheme—they recognise that there is infrastructure need—but there was a cost overrun. The county council and city council went back and reworked the Government's contribution, and brought it down in line with the original estimate. Has a decision been made on the matter? No. The scheme is still sitting in the Department for Transport, awaiting decision by a Minister.
The scheme would tackle some of the infrastructure problems in the area. The south coast multi-modal study described it as a "must do" scheme. All its other improvements to the transport infrastructure of south Hampshire were predicated on the scheme going ahead. So we can understand why people in south Hampshire—and across Hampshire as a whole—are sceptical about the willingness of Government to fund the infrastructure needed to support the housing development set out in the south-east plan. It is in that context that people are considering the proposal set out in "Where shall we live?" and questioning whether the money will be there to provide infrastructure.
I want to touch on the plans for south Hampshire itself. As I said, the greatest burden of house building falls on south Hampshire. The Partnership for Urban South Hampshire is a group of local authorities, including the Southampton and Portsmouth authorities, that has developed a plan for south Hampshire, focusing on the need to raise economic development in the area in line with that of the region as a whole. It argues that a higher rate of housing development will lead to a renaissance for the two cities and other older urban areas. I shall return to that later.
The question asked by my constituents and people elsewhere in south Hampshire is how the additional 80,000 houses will be accommodated. We know that 38,000 will be built on existing sites, principally in Southampton and Portsmouth, and that 11,000 will be built on sites already identified for housing by the borough councils. Two new sites for strategic development areas have been identified, one in the constituency of Chris Huhne, and one north of the M27, in my constituency, where 10,000 houses will be built on greenfield sites between Fareham and Wickham. The balance of the number of houses will be extensions to urban areas.
As for the strategic development area planned for my constituency, its site is along the M27. Anyone who drives along that road can see it. It is currently green fields. There are only two settlements in that area, both quite small—Funtley in my constituency, and Knowle in Winchester. There is little in the way of infrastructure in the area. There is no school and no general practitioner surgery in Funtley. Apart from some small and winding B roads, there is the single-carriageway A32, which leads to Fareham. Through junction 10, it has access eastbound to the M27 towards Portsmouth, but not westbound to Southampton. From the same junction, there is access northbound from the M27 to the A32, but not southbound. There would need to be new shops, community facilities, doctors and dentists.
As local people consider the implication of that SDA for their area, they think back to the experience of Whiteley, just a few miles up the road, where there were new houses but poor infrastructure. They ask whether the new SDA will suffer from the same problems that bedevil Whiteley, and ask who will meet the cost.
We know that developers' contributions will meet some of that cost; indeed, PUSH has a working assumption that developers will contribute £10 million for every 1,000 houses, so 10,000 houses will bring in £100 million. That sounds like an infrastructure bonanza, but new residents should not expect the roads of the area to be paved with gold. Just think about the costs of the new infrastructure needed for the area: a secondary school costs between £15 million and £25 million, and a single-form-entry primary school costs £4 million. It has been estimated that to convert junction 10 into a fully functioning junction, so that people can access routes north, south, east and west rather than simply north and east, would cost about £80 million.
Although we might quibble about the cost of individual items, it is clear that if we are to fund the infrastructure needed for 10,000 new homes, Government money will be required, but we know that the community infrastructure fund is only about £200 million. As the IPPR said in its report on sustainable development in the south-east,
"The UK needs an open debate about whether, as a nation, we are prepared to devote resources necessary to deliver a range of housing policy objectives . . . and to meet other associated demands for improved infrastructure in areas such as transport."
Local people are looking for a guarantee from the Government that the support will be there. If the Government are not prepared to invest what is required, would it be possible to scale back the level of housing development to bring it in line with the amount that they can afford to contribute towards the cost of the infrastructure? Will they permit local authorities to use the plan, monitor and manage approach to enable them to slow down, or even to stop, land release if the infrastructure does not exist?
Will the Minister make the commitment today that, together with local authorities, the Government will agree the infrastructure needs and their cost, the timing of delivery and how the costs will be met, to ensure that there is a match between infrastructure delivery and housing development? That would mean that if the Government do not meet their side of the bargain, local councils will not be forced to deliver the 80,000 homes in south Hampshire, the 120,000 in Hampshire as a whole or the 600,000 in the south-east, and that residents, new and old, do not have to suffer from the infrastructure lag that has affected other parts of Hampshire.
As I said, one of the objectives of PUSH is to raise the level of development in south Hampshire in line with that of the rest of the region. The argument is that if we are to raise economic growth in south Hampshire, we will need to bring new businesses into the area which offer a higher value added than existing ones. While that is one way to achieve economic growth, on grounds of sustainability surely it would be better to develop the skills of local people first, so that local businesses can move further up the value chain and therefore drive up economic development without having to increase housing development. Indeed, PUSH would have preferred to be able to develop its economic strategy so that it could put housing targets in the context of that strategy and examine the needs of local people to try to raise their skills and avoid higher and higher levels of housing development.
May I develop the argument one stage further? PUSH has suggested that if economic growth rates in the area were to match the regional rate, the release of housing land would be adjusted to reflect the fact that it had reached its objective. Again, will the Minister confirm that if the economy in south Hampshire meets the targets set by PUSH, using the plan, monitor and manage approach the rate of release of land would be altered?
There is another aspect to this debate; it is not just about what is happening in Hampshire. We see the debate in the context of the Barker report on affordability of housing and its planning implications. Will the Minister elaborate on how the plan, monitor and manage approach that Hampshire local authorities wish to use and adopt on infrastructure development would mesh with the proposals set out in "Planning for Housing Provision"? That recommends an automatic release of extra land for housing development if house prices rise too sharply.
That automatic release mechanism implies that if the housing market was overheated, more land would be released; its release would be accelerated, regardless of the infrastructure provision planned and delivered. Is that the case? If the mechanism were used to release land early, would the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister be able to accelerate the funding of the infrastructure needed to meet the demands of the additional housing?
I have focused on some narrow issues about development in Hampshire. The Hampshire wildlife trust and, as my hon. Friend Mr. Swayne said, the New Forest national park authority have their own concerns. They have contacted me to raise their issues relating to the proposed scale of development and its impact on the environment in Hampshire. I hope that I have given the Minister the flavour of the concerns expressed by my constituents and others across Hampshire about the scale of development and the infrastructure required.
At the heart of the debate there are three questions. If the economic growth targets set by PUSH are met, will house building be scaled back? Will the Government meet their share of the infrastructure cost of the 80,000 homes scheduled for Hampshire? If they are not able to do so, will housing development be scaled back to match the infrastructure that they can afford to finance?
In essence, is the target for Hampshire one that must be hit or will the ODPM recognise that progress will be made towards that goal depending upon the state of the sub-regional economy and the funding of the infrastructure needed? They are key questions for my constituents—questions about the future of the communities of south Hampshire—and ones that the Government must answer.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Hoban on securing this most timely debate on housing development in Hampshire. The Minister might know that I initiated a similar debate three months ago, and much remains unanswered on this issue. I shall focus on the sustainability of development, which should be at the core of the Government's strategy on housing, and which should be a fundamental concern in the plan of the Government and the South East England regional assembly for Hampshire and the whole of the south-east.
There has been a barrage of consultation on housing numbers in my constituency and throughout Hampshire in recent months—different consultations continually taking place and the publication of reports such as "Your Shout!" and "Where shall we live?"—but there are few details of their impact on our local communities in respect of environment and services, how local services will be increased to meet the new needs that the housing numbers will dictate, who will pay for the services, and whether the options under consideration are truly sustainable. Several important reports suggest that the Government do not know the answer to those questions for Hampshire or the south-east.
Residents in my constituency and throughout the south-east have been asked to give their considered opinions in surveys, but they have not been given the facts on which to base their responses. It is difficult to make judgments on specific housing numbers without clear facts on the implications of those decisions for future generations. My right hon. Friend Sir George Young mentioned reports produced by this House, and I wish to refer to one of them now. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee issued a report in May. Its conclusions on the Government's housing strategy stated that
"the Government has been able to take the Review's agenda forward without having to acknowledge the serious environmental implications contained within it."
Indeed, in evidence to the Committee, the Minister admitted that little attention had been paid to environmental and sustainable aspects. In a speech to the Royal Town Planning Institute, the author of the Barker report admitted that she regretted not focusing more on infrastructure issues.
SEERA, which is responsible for implementing Government policy on housing, states that its objective for the south-east is a
"distinctive, outward-looking, accessible region of prosperous, sustainable communities".
One would expect it to know what is sustainable for Hampshire. The south-east plan sustainability report, which it issued in July, stated:
"Achieving the scales of development within the South East that are proposed in the Plan without damaging local quality of life and environmental assets will be a major challenge".
Concern within SEERA about the impact of the plans stretches further:
"It is not known what the overall impact of the strategy will be in terms of numbers of vehicles on the roads . . . The transport policies have to be very effective very quickly to prevent the likely adverse impacts from increased travel."
That is of little comfort to the residents in the west of my constituency who only last week learned that the borough council would be forced to close a major access road if a highly controversial major development area were to go ahead in the neighbouring constituency.
Lack of consideration of the impact of house building targets permeates everything. The south-east plan sustainability report also states that the lack of any policy on historical environment does not seem appropriate, given the extent of the region's historical environment assets, and that policies on water resources will require new supply infrastructure. Indeed, when I last raised that issue in a debate, the Minister had to admit that major concerns had been raised about water and waste in Basingstoke, but that Thames Water and the Environment Agency had yet to find an answer.
The shortfall in investment in local services such as roads, public transport, schools, water supply and sewage disposal is estimated at £l billion for Hampshire. That shortfall exists before the change in magnitude of housing development. The debate is not about whether new homes are needed in many areas of Hampshire but about the scale of development. There is a perverse nature to the process being followed, in which the Government set housing targets before they determine whether local services can cope with them. That is not the right approach. I can give numerous examples of improvements in local services in Basingstoke being promised but not delivered when houses have been built, and I have done so in previous debates.
Trains into Waterloo are overcrowded to breaking point and there is no money for new doctors' surgeries, but we are still building more than 800 new houses a year. A new school was promised in a housing development of 800 but was scrapped once the houses were being built, and a new station that was promised several years ago in the Chineham area of my constituency is yet to be realised. The South East England regional assembly is so distant from my constituency that it is attempting to place some of the most rural parishes in the south of my constituency into the western corridor—a region of high-density development growth—threatening to split rural parishes in the process. I am campaigning vigorously on that issue and I shall continue to do so alongside local residents.
I respectfully suggest to the Minister that the process has started at the wrong end. If she really wants sustainable communities in Hampshire, let our communities determine what is sustainable locally. We must establish what local improvements to services we can afford and what our environment can sustain, particularly given that during the previous debate I had on the matter, the Minister made it clear that the Government would not fill the gap relating to local services. The Government must heed the warnings of the Environmental Audit Committee and SEERA's sustainability report. Nowhere to date has there been an adequate analysis of the impact of what has been suggested.
I must apologise because I am unable to stay for the winding-up speeches today; I have to attend the Trade and Industry Committee. I hope that the Minister will take heed of the need to stop these meaningless consultations, and the need to give residents the facts about what is proposed throughout Hampshire. The implications of this level of development seem to be unknown. Is that really the right approach to such a massive change in housing policy? Is it a responsible plan for our future? The facts to date suggest that it is not.
I should like to associate myself with many of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Members for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) and for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), particularly in their citing of the report from the IPPR on sustainable development in the south-east, which I commend to the Minister. I was a member of the cross-party group that wrote that report and its key point is correct: we must ensure that planned infrastructure is in place before adopting a top-down targeting approach, which the Government seem to have embarked upon.
I represent a Hampshire constituency where more than 4,000 people are on the housing list. Very large numbers of young local people, including young couples with children, who come to my advice surgery cannot afford to get on the first rung of the property ownership ladder. They are forced to wait, often in very difficult circumstances, for accommodation from one of the local housing associations. There are homeless people, too. Some of them are sleeping rough, even as the nights get substantially colder, and recently there have been nights when it has been impossible to find a hostel place anywhere in the county.
In other words, I know that there is a real and pressing problem of housing and homelessness, even in a county as relatively prosperous and affluent as mine undoubtedly is. I shall not, therefore, join the nimby tendency and oppose any and all housing development. I have fully supported Eastleigh borough council in some of the tough choices that it has had to make to ensure that we do not ignore the real problems of homelessness and the lack of adequate social housing. Last year, 906 new homes were built in Eastleigh borough; we have not ignored housing need. I am also pleased to say that those homes were overwhelmingly built in existing communities and not on green fields.
Eastleigh council has pursued a strategy of meeting housing need from brownfield sites, like the Pirelli and Causton sites in Eastleigh, rather than building on the fields that separate and define the towns and villages of the borough. It has not always been easy. The borough has had to take tough decisions, including on a recent proposal to build on allotments. Inevitably that has stirred up much local opposition. Overall, though, the policy has helped to rejuvenate the town of Eastleigh and has ensured that a number of local schools that might otherwise have been under threat of closure due to falling rolls have been able to stay open and continue to serve the local community successfully.
The policy has been overwhelmingly supported by local people for many years and it was set out in the local plan by the borough council. It contrasts with a proposal from Hampshire county council for a 4,000-home major development that would have been a nail in the coffin of many local communities. The new town would have filled in a large part of the countryside between Eastleigh, Bishopstoke and Fair Oak on one side and West End and Hedge End on the other. It would have been a large step towards a Solent city that no one in the area wanted.
Thankfully, the borough council's rejection of the idea in its local plan review to 2011 was upheld after a six-month review by a Government senior planning inspector, Mary Travers. In other words, Ms Travers backed the people on the ground in their judgment of how best to provide necessary housing. Members can therefore imagine the consternation when we found ourselves confronted with a proposal for a strategic development area twice as large—with 9,000 new homes—as the major development area that has just been rejected. The proposed site is north of Hedge End between the Grange Park area and Durley. Effectively, this is another new town proposal. Does Hampshire county council have no respect for local residents' views?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the leader of Eastleigh borough council has associated himself with the borough council in its decision not to support the proposals or suggest house-building targets. The crucial point is that, as the hon. Gentleman said earlier, we are attempting to set house-building targets before we have dealt with the issue of how to meet infrastructure provision.
There should be no doubt about local residents' views. Residents in all the surrounding villages have repeatedly supported the borough council's policy against the alternative proposal for a major development area. We have elections by thirds, so we have elections every year for either the borough or the county council. Every year, Liberal Democrat councillors in favour of preserving local communities from being swamped by a Solent city are re-elected.
In the last few weeks, I sent a survey to the residents of Grange Park, the area most affected by the new proposal, and I can report that opposition to the scheme remains both passionate and overwhelming. Just 3 per cent. of the residents who responded backed the idea. Some 21 per cent. said that a new town would be welcome but the location was inappropriate, and 66 per cent. said that development should take place across the county in existing built-up areas.
Every single resident who responded backed the proposal from the borough council for a green belt that would ensure that local communities stay as such, and do not become suburbs of a Solent city. They are right, and the bureaucrats at the Government office for the south-east or in the county council at Winchester castle are wrong. In Eastleigh, we have shown that we can responsibly balance local housing need and the preservation of our quality of life in our local communities, and we should be allowed to do so.
I have a lot of sympathy with the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. However, is it not the case that the pressure for extra development in his constituency and mine comes not from Hampshire county council, but from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister? In the case that he mentioned, I think he will find that Hampshire county council proposed a much a lower figure for overall development in the county, but was overruled by the ODPM. That is the pressure that is causing the problems that he refers to.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. That is exactly why I mentioned the Government office for the south-east as well as the county council officials at Winchester castle. The reality is that the options that have been set out were set out by the county council.
I am sorry to intervene again, but does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the proposals set out in "Where shall we live?" have been promoted by PUSH, which includes all the borough councils, the two city councils and the county council? It is unfair to say that the county council is to blame. Liberal councillors have taken part in the process and supported the plans.
I can understand the hon. Gentleman's embarrassment that his own borough council, which is controlled by the Conservatives, supports the proposals when he criticises them; however, the reality is that Eastleigh borough has pursued a policy that, for all the reasons that I gave, is at odds with the idea of plonking a new town in the area. Those reasons were enumerated in the IPPR report, part of which deals with our concerns about the Government's inability to meet infrastructure need.
Local councils fairly elected by local people are the best judge of their own circumstances. The top-down approach of setting regional targets that are filtered by the counties to the districts is a recipe for unaccountable and inappropriate decisions. The real problem is that councils do not have the necessary instruments to balance the interests of new and old residents. In Eastleigh, for example, the council's ability to support public transport has been limited. We have had much development during the past 30 years, but we are the constituency with the 26th highest rate of car commuting in the country.
We have been repeatedly promised by the Conservative-controlled county council, not least by the hon. Gentleman's friends there, that its top priority for the county is the building of the Chickenhall lane link road, which would divert traffic around Eastleigh town centre. Yet, proposals have still not been drawn up, let alone investment made to allow the project to progress.
Many of my constituents are bedevilled by problems from the lack of investment in water infrastructure. They were outraged when we discovered this year that nearly half of the sharp increase in the water rate was being levied to pay for capital improvements in the Thames Gateway area in Kent. That seems extraordinary when there are massive gains to be had from granting planning permission for greenfield developments in that area. They should be made available to pay for the infrastructure costs of new developments, rather than the costs falling on the residents of Eastleigh and other parts of Hampshire.
The Barker review found that a hectare of farmland selling for £7,534 could be worth £1,230,000 once planning permission has been granted. There is no way, short of developers' contributions negotiated under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, that a local authority can capture that uplift, even though it is created entirely by the authority and not by the developer.
The problem is even wider than that, because a local authority may invest in new schools, parks, public transport, leisure facilities, or youth facilities, and find that the value of nearby property rises. Yet it will be able to capture none of the increase in existing property values unless there is a proposal for redevelopment.
A major step forward would be to restructure the business rate so that it was based on the value of the land rather than the building on it, and hand it back to local authorities. Local councils would then be able to capture a substantial part of the uplift in values to the benefit of the local community, and local authorities would have the incentive to invest in facilities that the local community wants, which are woefully inadequate.
We have landed in the worst of all possible worlds. Local authorities have not been given the instruments to reach acceptable trade-offs between development and quality of life for local residents, and as a result they can too easily fall in behind the nimby tendency and ignore local housing needs. The Government then decide that even the small amount of discretion left to local authorities is too much, and that they should dance to a centralised tune of housing targets set by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Whitehall official in the county at Winchester. That in turn increases further the sense of disconnection between local communities and the body politic. It is a vicious circle that needs to be broken by handing back powers to local authorities to make decisions on behalf of local people. In that respect, Hampshire is but a microcosm of the failure besetting an over-centralised system.
In most countries in Europe it would be regarded as extraordinary for a national Parliament to debate a matter that should properly be regarded as local. The sooner we empower our local communities again the better the results will be, not just for local residents who need homes, but for our democracy.
I congratulate Mr. Hoban on securing this timely debate. I welcome its tenor, in that not too many party political points have been made. I only wish that that were the case at local level.
A huge amount of housing is suggested for the south-east: 122,000 new homes over the next 20 years, equivalent to more than 6,000 a year. The constraints in respect of Hampshire itself, with its national park and the forests of Bere and Eversley, mean that housing numbers have been unfairly concentrated on certain areas. The PUSH alliance has been referred to, and there is a growing sense of unease in many quarters; there seems to be a vision of a huge housing conglomeration along the south coast.
At a very local—parochial—level, it has been somewhat amusing to see the crocodile tears shed by certain Conservative councillors, who do not seem to acknowledge that they are in control at SEERA; they have, to a certain extent, decided the housing allocations. The first ever letter I wrote to the local paper in a political context was a criticism of the then Conservative council for allowing large numbers of such developments, but that seemed to be okay at that time; we had a Conservative Government, and a Conservative-run council which had friends in the building industry. All the infrastructure problems that have been highlighted in this debate were not addressed at that stage, and we in Hampshire are living with some of those problems today. The worst example of such hypocrisy is the case of a newly elected county councillor who is weeping crocodile tears over new housing, when as leader of Test Valley borough council he supported the development of thousands of houses at Valley Park. We are still living with some of the infrastructure problems caused by that.
Sometimes the debate becomes very simplified: "We don't want the housing, full stop." There is a lack of acknowledgement that there is a need for some affordable housing in the south-east. The suggested quota is about 35 per cent. However, that may not be enough, because we have a real problem in the south-east with first-time buyers not being able to get on the housing ladder, particularly in rural villages. We also have a problem with key workers being unable to find housing that they can afford in the area.
The villages are a particular problem. We have now reached a situation where the sons and daughters of the people who live in the villages cannot afford the housing in those villages. Many villages in the area want small amounts of sustainable development, but the planners at district level just love what is called planning gain; they want large numbers of houses so that the take from the developers is maximised. That is a flawed approach. Large-scale developments are not needed in some areas.
Test Valley borough council covers one part of my constituency. The situation there is that a decision will be taken on whether we need 2,500, 3,250 or 4,000 houses over the next 20 years. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that the borough local plan, which has just had its examination in public—we are awaiting the inspector's report—did not identify adequate housing. There was a shortfall, and there was a cop-out by the council, which said, "There will be some windfall sites, so we will have those." That has caused two problems. When the plan comes back from the inspector, there will probably be a severe threat of the inspector allocating extra housing. If that does not happen, there will be pressure from developers that cannot be controlled through the local plan process. Unfortunately, that was the result of local councillors not taking the necessary difficult decisions—perhaps the all-up election around that time had something to do with that.
There are significant concerns in Romsey that PUSH's vision seems to suggest that an obvious place for housing might be between Romsey and the urban conglomeration of Southampton. That would cause a number of problems because Romsey is a unique market town with strategic gaps separating it from other development areas, and I think that everyone in the town wants it to remain so. The Romsey and District Society's planning sub-committee chairman, Chris Amery, said:
"We want to defend Romsey's unique character and an independent and vibrant market town. That means above all keeping its geographical expansion to an absolute minimum and preserving clear southern and eastern boundaries. That way we best preserve its character and its traditions and its attractiveness as a centre for all the neighbouring villages. It's very difficult to see how 2,500 homes could be accommodated and very difficult to envisage any more than that."
"If Portsmouth Fareham"—
I am not sure that this applies to Fareham—
"and Southampton want to grow their economy faster that's fine but Romsey should remain a market town and not become a dormitory for them. Build the houses near jobs."
That seems a sensible approach for sustainability.
My constituency also covers Chandler's Ford, which is part of Eastleigh borough council. My hon. Friend Chris Huhne has already referred to many of the problems there, but Chris Tapp, the council's chief executive, pointed out in a letter that the government process is dominated by the need to identify new housing numbers and perhaps potential sites at individual district levels at this stage. He described that process as "fundamentally flawed" because, as has been said, there has been no robust appraisal work on issues relating to transport, sustainability, environment and delivery. He said that it
"anticipates certainty where there cannot yet be" any.
A recent motion from Eastleigh borough council called on Hampshire county council to refuse to put forward those numbers and called on SEERA to do the same. While generally supportive of the PUSH approach, it stressed that it should be focused on Southampton and Portsmouth by improving transport corridors and a balance of growth for each city to the west and east and noted that the consultation proposals do not achieve that. It also restated its commitment to south Hampshire's green belt to prevent the towns and villages merging into a Solent city and called on the county council to support a south Hampshire green belt in the plan for the south-east.
When considering some of the infrastructure problems, one of the frustrations of many local councils and even residents is that when deciding housing developments the question of schools, roads and surrounding facilities such as doctors' surgeries are always raised by the public because they want to know how existing services will cope with the strain. The planners' automatic answer is always that that is not a planning issue. If we are going down the road of more housing, that should become a much stronger planning consideration.
There are severe reservations in many parts of my constituency about numbers. The Hampshire wildlife trust has said that Hampshire has unique areas of considerable benefit and diversity. It seeks reassurance from the Government that appropriate assessments under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 will be undertaken in relation to plans for urban growth in the vicinity of the most important wildlife sites. Given the diversity in Hampshire, that is an important consideration.
I am pleased that we have had this debate. I look forward to the Minister's reply; clearly, a lot of questions need to be answered. In the meantime, a bottom-up approach, rather than a top-down imposition of housing numbers, would serve most of our communities much better than the Government approach.
I, too, congratulate Mr. Hoban on securing the debate. It has been very interesting, and there has been a surprising amount of cross-party agreement, despite a bit of cross-party bickering.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the need to ensure that building development does not run ahead of infrastructure development, and about the need to upskill the local economy, rather than just relying on drawing people in from outside. Mrs. Miller spoke about the pressures on transport when many people come into an area without making sure that infrastructure is in place. My hon. Friend Chris Huhne spoke about pressures on housing in his constituency, the good record of Eastleigh borough council on developing new homes on brownfield sites, and the need to build around existing urban centres. My hon. Friend Sandra Gidley pointed out that there have been long-term problems in the area as a result of development lacking the infrastructure that goes with it.
Few of us who went home by tube last night can have failed to notice Shelter's powerful advert when walking on to the escalator. It points out the terrible problem of overcrowding in this country, particularly in the south of the United Kingdom. It showed a striking image of an overcrowded family in the Chamber of the House of Commons. As one goes into the tube station, there is a whole set of images and adverts reminding us what a lack of housing means for real people's lives.
All of us here are signed up to the need for more homes; the questions about that are how, what sort, when and where. That is what the debate has really been about. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh spoke about pressures in his constituency, and the need for much more affordable housing. What has happened in the area is a classic example of what happens when there is a top-down approach, and when local people have very little discretion in deciding what should be built where and in what order. That adds to the real sense of frustration with the fact that no one is really accountable.
Who do local people get in touch with when they are unhappy about how development happens? It is not clear who is responsible, because people are overruled by higher levels of authority, going all the way up to the ODPM. My hon. Friend spoke with great frustration about a battle that was going on for a new town, and the fact that the ODPM overruled the decision taken locally, although there had been a great deal of support for that local decision.
Why do people oppose the development of new homes? There are two reasons: because they cannot see the benefit to themselves and because they can see the cost. If we are to put new homes in place and deal with the housing crisis, we have to tackle both those problems. People in Hampshire know very well that their young people cannot afford to buy a property, and they know that many people live in appalling housing conditions and that something needs to be done. But they see many new developments of four-bedroomed executive homes that are targeted at people coming in from outside the area, not at local people who need affordable housing, particularly in the social rented sector.
As all hon. Members have said, the real reason why people fear new development is lack of infrastructure. They have already seen that, without infrastructure being put in place, new development creates pressure on existing services. New communities cannot be developed simply by building new housing. In fact, just putting in new housing without all the other things that communities need is the way to destroy communities, not build them. We need roads and transport links. We need doctors' surgeries, schools and community centres. Are the Government proposing to fund that infrastructure, and if so, how? As other hon. Members have said, there is also a need to boost the economy locally. South Hampshire, in particular, is economically underperforming. What are the Government doing to upskill local people, to ensure that its economy is developed internally.
We have seen what happens when new towns are plonked into an area: they are among the 50 per cent. of the most deprived of local authorities and all but two of them are more deprived than the counties in which they reside. That is the reason why Eastleigh borough council has argued that the development needs to happen around existing urban centres. Building on greenfield sites always causes great controversy and concern.
The Government are still not taking the issue of empty homes seriously and they still have not responded to the consultation on empty property management orders. They have dragged their feet on producing that kind of secondary legislation. There are 83,000 empty properties in the south-east—an estimated 11,000 in Hampshire. Such action will obviously not solve the whole problem, but it would make some impact on the problem in Hampshire.
About 1 million residential units could be created in empty commercial space above shops in the UK. Many of those would also be in the south-east. The Government still have a kind of perverse incentive to build on greenfield sites, rather than brownfield ones, given the tax system. When will they consider harmonising VAT to deal with that issue? It would make so much difference in terms of bringing empty properties back into use.
I have been asked to keep my remarks relatively brief, so I shall leave considerable time for the Minister to reply. People in Hampshire, as in many areas, feel that the Government are not taking their concerns seriously. People do not want development to run ahead of infrastructure. They want homes that will meet local need for local people, because that is where the real pressure is.
First, I declare an interest in a family property and building company, which is listed in the Register of Members' Interests.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Hoban on securing today's debate. I suspect that if there is to be a theme throughout the Parliament, it will involve many Members from areas that are being encouraged to grow by Government diktat asking the Government for guarantees and reassurances about infrastructure.
Sarah Teather made a good speech; I did not disagree with anything in it. She made the good point that people examine the benefits and costs of development and they think that it is something done to them rather than with them. Although one would not expect any national Government not to have a view about housing growth and a national strategy, the balance that we have is altogether wrong.
Local councils and local government should have a larger say in what happens to them at local level. That is a policy on which we fought the last general election. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful, but there needs to be a proper balance in the decision making and public policy area, so that local communities have rather more say.
I have great sympathy for Hampshire county council, which is essentially instructed to try to deal with the demands from central Government. A total of 122,000 new homes, with 80,000 in the south Hampshire area, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is a lot to accommodate for a county that has grown substantially over the past 20 or 30 years.
I acknowledge that for a lot of that period we had a Conservative Government and that some of the concerns that people have about the level of growth are to do with the fact that past development has quite often led to problems of a lack of resources, decent roads, doctors' surgeries and schools. This morning, we heard a litany of concerns that infrastructure has not yet caught up with the development that there has been over the past 20 years. A £1 billion deficit was cited. Therefore, there is bound to be great concern when people look ahead and see proposals for new towns and substantial growth. They will be concerned about what that means for them and their immediate local community.
The starting point for this debate is what has and has not happened in the past in terms of infrastructure. We have to be concerned about the level of future development. The South East England regional assembly and the eastern area commissioned Roger Tym & Partners to examine the infrastructure costs of development. The first report, which covered the south-eastern and eastern counties, recognised that the level of housing development expected by the Government would need £45 billion of infrastructure. It identified with that a deficit that is already about £8 billion, and that does not take into account all the transport schemes that will be needed. My hon. Friend mentioned transport; a lot of what we have to discuss when housing is built in an area are the roads, railways, buses and so forth that are needed so that people can move around in that area.
The south-eastern counties are keen to make their views about the real costs of development in their counties known to the Government. I hope that the Minister will say that there will be a proper dialogue both with SEERA and with the county and borough leaders from the south-east, to ensure that there is such development.
Councillor Keith Mitchell is chairman of SEERA. He stated in a letter to me that SEERA had
"been at great pains to make it clear" to the Government
"that such levels of development are conditional upon the timely delivery of the necessary infrastructure before or in parallel with the housing".
That is a key point.
My hon. Friend made it clear that if that infrastructure were not forthcoming, he would expect the Government to slow down the housing allocations, because these two developments go hand in hand; transport and other major infrastructure schemes have to be carried out before or at the same time as the major housing developments. If they are not, we will end up not with a sensible and balanced development, but with a lot of problems in the south of England.
The Government seem to be set on their course of predict and provide. It appears to me that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is embarking on the last great crusade of central planning. That will leave communities with real costs, unless we get assurances from the Government that the necessary investment will be forthcoming.
We recently had a debate on the Thames Gateway. Because of its brownfield sites and the nature of the development there, building in that area will be very expensive. I asked for some reassurances about the level of investment there, and the Minister reeled off some of the £6 billion investment that the Government had already committed for that development. I would hope that the Minister could clearly set out—if not today, then in a letter to the Members for Hampshire constituencies—what sums the Government have committed to underpin and sustain the development that they expect the county to undertake, because that will be a key issue for all local Members.
The south-east is a large area and, as my hon. Friend said, it is expected that one in five of the new houses will be in Hampshire. Therefore, this is a key issue, and I suspect that unless the Minister answers the major concerns of Members representing constituencies in that county, they will come back and raise them time and again. Because of the long-term consequences of not providing what is necessary to accommodate this sort of growth, many people will be queuing in surgeries and writing to Members to encourage them to have endless Adjournment debates.
Therefore, I hope that the Minister will give us answers. I hope that she can reassure us about the level of investment that is needed. I would also like her to reassure us that the development will be joined-up—that the ODPM will combine with the Department for Transport to ensure that we have proper, sustainable development.
A series of important points have been raised, and I want to try to address many of them. Some of them were specifically about Hampshire, but others were more general. The hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members raised the issue of infrastructure. Chris Huhne was not the only Member who discussed planning for housing. Hon. Members also raised the issue of environmental impact, and the relationship with economic growth.
However, hon. Members will be aware that I will not be able to comment on some of the points that they have raised, as they are currently subject to the planning process and the discussion around the development of the regional spatial strategies. They will know that I am not able to discuss individual proposals for strategic development areas or housing numbers, given the consultation process under way and the role that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State play in the planning process. However, I shall try to address as many of the points as I can in my reply.
First, we need to be clear about the need for new homes in the region. During the past 30 years, there has been a nationwide 30 per cent. increase in the number of households and a 50 per cent. drop in new house building. The south-east has been particularly affected; the ageing, growing population means that building rates there have been at about 75 per cent. of the assessed need.
Faced with that gap between growing demand and constrained supply, it is not hard to see why house prices have risen so significantly in the south-east and the impact that that has had on affordability. There has been a big drop in interest and mortgage rates as a result of decisions made by the Bank of England, and steady economic growth has improved people's standard of living and incomes. Nevertheless, affordability is a serious problem for many across the south-east because of the tight housing market.
The impact will perhaps be even more serious in future. Currently, more than 50 per cent. of 30-year-old couples can afford their own homes. Some of the initial analysis done as part of the response to the Barker review suggests that during the next 20 years, at the current rate of building, that could fall to nearer 30 per cent. We should not be denying the next generation the opportunities that we have enjoyed, nor should we say that the only people who can afford to buy their own homes should be the sons and daughters of those who have owned their own homes—people in a position to inherit money for their deposits or get that first loan from mum and dad to help them on to the housing ladder. Such projections are particularly strong for the south-east.
As hon. Members will know, the children of existing residents in Hampshire face the greatest pressures; people moving to Hampshire from London or other parts of the country tend to be higher-skilled and have higher purchasing power, and that pushes up house prices and the pressures for those who have grown up in the area. Having lived in Hampshire for many years, I know a lot of people with whom I was at school who have struggled to afford their own homes, but have managed to buy them. However, their children will face far greater pressures unless we recognise the pressures on housing and the need to build more new homes in response.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh powerfully set out some of the pressures around homelessness, and there are certainly pressures around overcrowding also. Obviously, those are felt particularly in London, but it is certainly true that pressures for affordable housing are felt across the south-east as well. We have been clear that we need more affordable housing; we need to increase the building of such housing across the region. We are already spending £700 million over the next two years on increasing affordable housing in the south-east and we also need to build more intermediate housing—shared equity housing, housing that supports key workers—as well. However, we also need to recognise the need for new market housing, otherwise we shall deny people the opportunities for home ownership and for getting a foot on the property ladder that we have had. That is why it is important that local authorities, MPs and other stakeholders in the area work to address that problem.
Sir George Young said that it is not fair because the pressure comes not from individual local councils but the ODPM. The reality is that the pressure is coming from the next generation of people who need their own homes: from the demand for housing. We all have to address that; we cannot simply put our heads in the sand and walk away from those pressures—that would be hugely irresponsible. That is why PUSH is so important; it is about local authorities coming together to try to address long-term housing need and looking at how to work in partnership—local government and national Government together—to address the real pressures from housing need.
It is easy politics for individual Liberal Democrat councillors and Conservative councillors to blame each other, and, every so often, to turn around and blame us. That is the nature of political debate. However, the real tension is not between individual areas or local and national Government, although it is easy to make it into such an argument. Our real challenge for the future is how we balance the interests of the current generation with those of future generations that need more homes, but do not have a voice in the process to say that they need more homes, whether through local or national Government.
We need to accept that the challenge of providing new homes for the next generation is not just about how we manage housing growth and face its difficulties, but how we can make the most of the opportunities, particularly economically. Sandra Gidley referred to the need for economic growth and to promote jobs in the same areas in which new homes would be built so that we avoid dormitories. We should be building communities not dormitories and looking at long-term, sustainable economic growth alongside housing growth. That is important and the reason why many in the Thames Gateway have embraced the prospect of new homes and new housing growth. They see it as following on from an economic regeneration that is about economic growth, the opportunity to attract new businesses into the area and to use infrastructure investment not only to support new homes but skills, and to attract investment. That is why the business community in Milton Keynes has supported growth in the area; it regards it as an opportunity to address its approval pressures and support economic growth.
It is important to regard PUSH as being able to deal with the fact that the area is not meeting its economic potential. It has huge potential to attract business and investment, and to improve skills in the area. The area must embrace that economic opportunity alongside the need for new homes. The Government are keen to work locally with those who want to develop an effective partnership in respect of the need for new homes and economic growth. We want to have greater discussion with those areas that are committed to supporting increased levels of new housing and consider how that can be linked with economic strategies.
Hon. Members have raised a series of issues that concern infrastructure. We have already invested substantial additional sums into new infrastructure throughout Hampshire and the south-east. We must regard infrastructure as being not only about transport, which is often easy to do given that it is about the roads that will enable people to go round and past new housing developments, but about health and education. The hon. Member for Fareham cited examples in his constituency and referred to GPs' surgeries and schools. Infrastructure must be about community facilities and skills. Cultural and leisure facilities might be needed in an area. We should not underestimate the need for wider infrastructure to support the sustainability of local communities into the future.
As I said, we have invested considerable sums in expanding public sector infrastructure across the board, particularly in areas for affordable housing. We must also recognise that congestion pressures and demand determine whether there is housing growth. Many areas throughout the country face increasing congestion pressures that are related not just to the number of homes, but to people's increased demand. That is why the Department for Transport has been clear that the long-term way in which to deal with such matters is not only to build more transport infrastructure, but to recognise existing infrastructure pressures and consider demand management.
In the Hampshire area, the Solent transport group has been working with PUSH to draw up common transport strategies. That is important, and there must be a co-ordinated and strategic approach to the consideration of demand management, the need for new investment and sensible prioritisation.
In December last year, the Government announced £950 million during the next three years for investment in south-east transport schemes of local and regional importance. The Highways Agency investment programme includes two schemes to improve the M27 totalling £78.3 million. Construction is planned to start by 2008.
On the railways the south-east is already the beneficiary of a £1 billion power upgrade and train replacement programme, with more than 2,000 Electrostar and Desiro electric train carriages being introduced, and a third-rail power supply upgrade throughout the region. The total project has cost more than £2.7 billion. A lot of additional infrastructure investment is going into the region.
The hon. Gentleman asked what happens if infrastructure is not in place. He knows that the Highways Agency already has powers over the planning system. Planning applications throughout the country often do not go ahead, because the Highways Agency is not satisfied that the appropriate infrastructure is in place, or the solutions to the pressures on the road network have not been properly addressed or resolved.
Looking to the future, we must consider how we address infrastructure pressures throughout the country and those that will occur in growth areas. That is why we have considered the different proposals in the Barker report about how we fund future infrastructure. The Barker review proposed a planning gain supplement, which we are considering. Hon. Members may also be aware that Milton Keynes and Bedford, which are in growth areas, have considered other ways to try to raise more investment for infrastructure, such as tariffs.
We have said that we shall reply in full to the Barker review by the end of the year. Relatively shortly, we shall be able to say more.
We expect to say something about the Barker proposals, including planning gain supplement, ways of raising resources for infrastructure and the need to ensure that we get the right resources into local areas. It is hard for me to respond in any detail, but we intend to say more before the end of the year. We take seriously the need to address the infrastructure that underpins communities throughout the south-east.
I want to address planning for housing and whether it would have an impact on how the developments took place. The hon. Gentleman said that the problem with planning for housing is that it has a market trigger. The way in which he described it was based on the Barker review proposals rather than the proposals set out in "Planning for Housing Provision". In that document we are clear that the planning system must be much more sensitive towards the housing market. There are areas where there is a considerable gap between the demand for and supply of housing. That is not taken into account sufficiently by the planning system, in terms of considering the need for housing during the next five, 10 or 15 years.
We also said that the approach needed for high-growth areas such as Milton Keynes and the Thames Gateway should be different from areas where growth should be constrained perhaps because of environmental pressures or neighbouring areas where there is low demand and other problems. I am happy to discuss the matter further with the hon. Gentleman but the position he describes in his speech is based on a misunderstanding of the way in which planning for housing proposals works.
Hon. Members raised other infrastructure issues concerning schools and health, and we have worked with other Departments to set up arrangements. For example, we have worked with the Department for Education and Skills so that local education authorities in exceptional circumstances of high growth in pupil numbers can apply for additional capital support to ensure that schools are in place to meet needs. We have worked with the Department of Health in order to ensure that its funding approach takes account of planned increases in population in the future rather than responding to an increase after it has taken place. We are clear about the need to support infrastructure.
Hon. Members have recognised the need for housing growth and the need to address the housing pressures that we face in Hampshire and other parts of the south-east. They have made important points about the need for infrastructure that we recognise and are keen to support.
In the time left, would the Minister elaborate on how the mechanism—the interaction between infrastructure provision and housing development—works? That represents the nuts and bolts of the argument. How will they work together in tandem so that the infrastructure is delivered on time and in line with the housing that is built in an area?
As I have said, there are already checks in place within the planning system, such as the way in which the Highways Agency operates regarding roads infrastructure, preventing planning applications from going ahead if there are no appropriate solutions to the pressures on the roads. That is the case in many parts of the country.
We are working very closely in partnership with the areas where the highest levels of growth are taking place to ensure that there is additional support for the particular infrastructure that they need. We are able to ensure that that includes, for example, support for new hospital developments or in the Medway towns, for example, a new university. The projects that are receiving infrastructure support are not limited to roads, where the issues can involve demand as well as the appropriate type of infrastructure.
We are keen to talk further to those who are strongly committed to increasing the number of new homes to meet housing needs and to make the most of economic opportunities. We are keen to work more closely in future with individual areas that want to support higher levels of housing growth, compared with what they have experienced. This is an opportunity for many of those areas and we must not underestimate the importance of linking it with economic strategies for the areas. It should include the regional development agency's strategy and more local economic strategies, too. Too often in the past, there has been failure because such strategies have been seen as just regarding housing growth, rather than broader economic strategies of which housing growth is an important component.
Will the Minister refer to the points I raised about empty homes? The ODPM has closed the consultation on empty property management orders. When will the Government respond to that consultation? It is an issue that many agencies feel will make an enormous impact on dealing with the empty homes problem. As I said, that problem exists particularly in the south-east.
The hon. Lady is right. We want to bring in the empty homes dwelling orders as rapidly as possible because there is a significant opportunity for local authorities to take action on empty homes in their areas. We also need to consider what support and advice should be available for local authorities so that they can make the most of those powers and use them appropriately. We shall respond shortly to the consultation.
We should recognise that there has been a 10 per cent. drop in the number of empty homes during the past eight years, but the real issue that has to be addressed is the number of homes that have been empty for more than six months. The number of homes that are empty for less than six months will be heavily affected by the market at the time. The important thing about the new powers for local authorities is how they can be used for those properties that have been empty for a longer period of time when action could be taken to make them perfectly habitable.
Hon. Members have raised a series of important issues. I have tried to respond as far as possible and we will say more on some of the broader issues raised as part of the Barker review. I leave hon. Members with the assurance that we are keen to work with local authorities who are committed to supporting the new homes that we need, both through further debates on infrastructure and longer term planning to support their economic strategies. We have to take seriously the needs of the next generation; we cannot simply walk away from the housing pressures that we face. We need to respond in the most sensible way possible.