It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess, to discuss this important subject. I must confess to a feeling of déjà vu in that a couple of weeks ago, Mrs. Lait and I debated the south-west regional spatial strategy in this very Chamber. As we now have a different Minister facing us, perhaps he will forgive me for repeating some of the remarks I made to his colleague because the issues are same.
First, I should congratulate Anne Milton on securing this important debate. She quite rightly raised the issue of local opposition and voiced her concerns about how those points of view have not had the opportunity to be heard. She is concerned that this process dictates against local opinion—and we have heard that point repeated time and again. Importantly, she also spoke about flood risk, transport capacity and water resources, a subject mentioned by my hon. Friend Chris Huhne. The hon. Lady was also keen to point out that her constituents are not nimbys and that they understand the pressure caused by housing need. They wish to be part of the process, helping to meet that need and not being left out of decisions being made on their behalf.
Mr. Smith rightly pointed out that many areas of the country have a housing crisis, a subject that we all face at our regular advice surgeries, with local people struggling to find somewhere to live that they can afford. All local authorities are trying to deal with such issues, in partnership with some responsible developers, registered social landlords and the business community. However, they all face one problem: no matter how much consultation they undertake and how much excellent work they do locally, it is undervalued and set aside by the process of regional planning, which has been imposed over the top.
I pick up on the hon. Lady's point that development should allow the green lungs of urban areas to be maintained. We should not go for a policy of continued urban density, as it will change the character of our existing communities. My hon. Friend Matthew Taylor made a similar point in a report that he wrote for the Government. He said that planners ought to consider the broader scale, particularly on development in rural areas, something that I very much support.
Sir Paul Beresford spoke of trends coming out of the capital into his part of the south-east. I recall that that included his own political career, given what he said about a certain London borough. We return to the question time and again of how overheated economic development is becoming in the south-east. He made some good points about the need to promote economic development in other parts of the country in order to spread the load and, indeed, to allow the benefits of development—there are some—to occur in other parts of the country, where they are crying out for it.
Mr. Lancaster has over the years consistently spoken about development in Milton Keynes. I once served on Bedford borough council, so I am familiar with some of the problems that he mentioned about the area beside the M1.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh highlighted the overall problem when he listed the communities in his constituency that have raised concerns about how their areas will be affected. That takes us back to the level at which we should deal with planning matters.
Sir George Young spoke about planning at town or parish level. In my constituency, the parish plan process has been incredibly positive, drawing communities together to meet the needs that they have identified. That overcomes whatever nimby tendency there may be, which sometimes comes from those who have recently moved into an area and like it as it is—unlike local residents, who have been there for longer and have seen the community changing over the years. I have seen some very positive outcomes from parish plans. Communities have come together to make proposals, sometimes even proposing specific sites where they would like to see development.
One of the key elements in our debate on the south-west regional spatial strategy is the question of sequential sites, a scheme under which local communities and local authorities can identify those sites where they would like development to happen first. The problem with inflated housing targets is that it gives developers a blank cheque, allowing them to go to appeal in order to avoid focusing on those sites first, and instead developing sites on which the local community would far rather resist development. That is yet another problem with the process.
Mr. Blunt pointed out that the Secretary of State has undertaken some vicious pruning of the strategy. She seems to have pruned some of the key provisions that local authorities and their representatives on the regional assemblies sought as guarantees. As I say, we have ended up with a blank cheque for development.
I return to a point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire about the shifting economic sands on which our debate is centred. We have to be honest about where housing development is to happen and how quickly it is to take place, given the economic situation that we face. It is even more important to take advantage of the extra time that we now have in order to get things right on some of those sites. As building may not occur for a considerable time, we should ensure that we do not set down planning and zoning proposals that put the wishes of local communities at risk, as they will hang over their heads and could prevent development in areas that may be more preferable.
My party is increasingly concerned that the planning system is being driven entirely from the centre. Excellent work is being done by local authorities and local communities. They are coming up with sustainable plans that meet the needs of the community, that acknowledge the fact that there may be inward migration in some of these areas as well as a need to look after local people, and that consider the benefits to the local economy and the importance of securing employment land as well as residential land. All that good work is being set aside by centrally imposed targets based on models that must now be re-evaluated.
The Liberal Democrats would far rather see a planning system that is flexible enough to deal with the economic circumstances, and one that is far more accountable to local people. We want a planning system that creates communities, meets local need, and is sustainable for new and existing residents alike.