Housing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:22 pm on 18th July 2007.

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Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East 3:22 pm, 18th July 2007

To meet the enormous backlog of social housing need in Oxford there is a strong case for one or more urban extensions of the city into the green belt, with a compensating extension of the green belt elsewhere. The city has unique economic needs, which can best be met within or adjacent to it. The substantial scale of housing needs within the central Oxfordshire sub-region cannot be accommodated in the county's towns alone. There is an opportunity to build truly sustainable communities, associated with the city; also, new infrastructure is more sustainable and the associated costs are lower in proximity to the city.

Oxford city already has a very good brownfield development record. It is consistently the local authority with the highest rate in the country of reuse of existing sites for development. Yet that development has manifestly failed to meet the city's substantial need for new homes. Moreover, the scope for additional housing in the built-up area is rapidly becoming exhausted, with unacceptable pressures on existing residential areas and green spaces in the city, including gardens, which the hon. Gentleman talked about. I very much hope that with the Green Paper and the south-east plan examination under way, the chance will now be taken to review the central Oxfordshire green belt, in the light of the overwhelming evidence, as well as the recommendations of the Barker review.

Before I draw my remarks to a close, let me knock on the head the nonsense that is heard from opponents of house building that those of us who believe in tackling market failure and responding to people's real housing needs somehow want to concrete over south-east England. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Barker review analysis showed, outside London just 12.2 per cent. of land is currently developed. We can both build the extra houses that are needed and preserve the distinctive beauty of the English countryside. We can also respect the greatest aesthetic and ecological characteristic of cities such as Oxford by protecting the green wedges—the corridors of countryside that come right into the city centre, which, if we do not review the green belt, will come under inexorable pressure.

Some hon. Members may have seen a comment piece by Tristram Hunt in The Observer last Sunday, which claimed that Ministers

"advocated ripping up Britain's green belt to solve the housing crisis."

Ministers have said no such thing. They have argued that the primary source of land for new housing should be brownfield sites, but that local circumstances must be examined through the planning process. My argument is that within the overall provision of green belt protection we urgently need a review of the green belt in central Oxfordshire, to provide for housing and the continued economic vitality of the city. Those such as Tristram Hunt and the Campaign to Protect Rural England who maintain blanket opposition to any building in the green belt fail to understand that although it has an important role in preventing urban sprawl it is also responsible, in places such as Oxford, for urban strangulation. Such cities face enormous pressures, because of an over-tight green belt, including the loss of valued green spaces inside the city, the proliferation of houses in multiple occupation and flats, which are destroying the character of residential areas, the environmental degradation and congestion caused by thousands of commuters crossing the green belt every day, and a catastrophic housing shortage, with a real risk that Oxford and places like it will become affordable only to a small elite.

Mr. Hunt suggested in his article that developing part of the green belt might

"butter up the Home Builders Federation".

My message to him is that it would alleviate the suffering and distress of families who live in overcrowded conditions, whose children cannot live in the city they grew up in, and would do something to help those in temporary or inadequate privately rented accommodation. I urge my hon. Friends in Government to be resolute and energetic in the drive for the new homes that we need, and, where the social, environmental and economic arguments point to the need for modest changes in the green belt, to get on and make them, using, of course, all the proper procedures, so that those whom we represent, who need and deserve decent housing, can get it.