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.