§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McFall.]
§ 11.7 pm
§ Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)
The subject of the debate should have been linked as a sequel to an important debate in the House yesterday, when we had the opportunity to discuss seriously the compromises required to ensure that we have adequate housing, for 2012 in particular, along with proper protection for the green belt and our rural environment.
Responsibilities in Committee kept me from much of the debate, but, having read Hansard and heard some of what was said, I judge that it was a sad reflection on the House's ability to examine the nation's priorities and policies.
The problem with the Conservative party is its record in government. Having spent 30 years in rural Norfolk, I know the shame with which the Conservatives should regard their planning policies over that period. Like the grand old Duke of York, they first led us to build out of town. Driven by a dogma of priorities determined by a need for competition, they presided over urban sprawl and inadequate facilities for the estates that were built. As chairman of my local education committee, I spent several years picking up the pieces, because they did not even plan for the schools in those urban sprawls.
Again like the grand old Duke of York, the Conservatives then marched us all back into town again and we had a pretty rigid period of policy in which certain developments could take place only in the town centre. It was a shameful record. No wonder they had to use yesterday's tactics of slur and other topics to avoid the serious issues.
I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that people in my constituency want serious debate on serious issues. Last Friday, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary came to King's Lynn, the main market town in north-west Norfolk. Some 600 to 700 people turned up to hear him discuss the serious issue of crime, rather than the drivel from the Opposition that we hear so often, and heard again this afternoon at Prime Minister's Question Time.
Several organisations have written to me in the short period since they found out that I had this Adjournment debate. They include the National Farmers Union, the Norfolk Society, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Council for the Protection of Rural England. I know from the work that I have done with the King's Lynn and West Norfolk borough council and the interest taken by the county council and charitable bodies, especially the Clean Rivers Trust, let alone commercial organisations, that people see that there is a real issue to be tackled and that there is a need for real debate and a change in policy to reflect the needs of the country in the next millennium.
I have noted with interest and pleasure the Government's robust and innovative approach, led by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, to the issues involved. I have read with interest the press releases. I want to bring to the House a specific example of a site. I can speak with some authority, having researched it, about the detail of the problem. I ask the Minister for assurances that I can carry back to my 476 constituents in North-West Norfolk, who are interested in the real debate, not the shambles that we had yesterday, that the Government intend to do something about the problem, which we need to tackle.
The site to which I wish to refer is largely derelict. It is mainly a former fertiliser works, with adjoining land, commonly known in the locality as the muckworks. That reflects the fact that, for many years, the site was used to produce fertiliser for agriculture, which dominated my constituency for so long.
The site is on the outskirts of the town of Lynn on the south side. It is bounded in part by the River Nar and in part by residential properties on the Saddlebow road. It has a mixed history over 100 years of industrial use. Records are poorly kept, but we know that many of the industrial activities that have been undertaken there have left the site contaminated. We know that the contamination includes cyanide, asbestos and a range of pasties that will make it difficult for any owner to clean up the site and for any developer to develop it.
The site currently has three owners. The main site—the muckworks, some 32 acres—is owned by Benside Ltd. a company owned entirely by well-known local business men who will be personally known to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) through his associations with football in the county. The company has little financial backing. The borough council owns some 14 acres of former allotments. One wonders how safe those allotments were for a number of years. The balance of the site, mainly cleared, is owned by Dalgety plc.
I mention that to the Minister because it is interesting that most of the contamination probably came from gas works and the former fertiliser works, which were operated originally by the West Norfolk Fertiliser Company, which has been purchased by Fisons Ltd. None of the current partners had any involvement or association with the activities on the site or with the West Norfolk Fertiliser Company or Fisons. Therefore, the current owners cannot be held responsible for the contamination of the site. I suspect that the land was bought as a bit of a pig in a poke.
The site is identified as a key site within the county of Norfolk because, on its own, it could provide one twelfth of the borough's housing needs in the planning period that we are addressing. Its problems and opportunities are typical of those presented by brown-field sites as an alternative to unnecessarily building on the green and pleasant land which much of Norfolk still remains. We have to build, and some of our villages will need to build on fresh land. We will never build all we need on the brown-field sites, but we can and must ensure that, where possible, there is proper encouragement to do so.
§ Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)
The strong Labour-controlled council in the fine city of Norwich has been responsible for decontaminating land and riverside, and building 1,500 dwellings on brown-field sites of some 24 hectares, and 1,400 houses on city green-field sites of some 46 hectares. Is not that a fine example of how, even in inclement times with no Government support for 18 years, with determination those brown-field sites can be decontaminated and developed to provide the houses that our people need?
§ Dr. Turner
I recognise the importance of local initiative, and I hear and commend what my hon. Friend 477 says. However, local initiative has not been lacking in my constituency either. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that it is not a matter of asking the Government to bail us out.
Those who have responsibility, including the borough council, which has been assiduous in looking for ways forward for these sites, have been considering what can be done. The problem is that their resources remain limited. A proposal to consider the technical requirements of decontamination, which have changed significantly since work was carried out around 1990, is out to tender.
English Partnerships' willingness to fund up to 40 per cent. of the cost of the initial study is most welcome. However, the study of how to decontaminate the site may require a five-figure sum. To pluck a figure from the air of the order of magnitude that is required, £5 million may be required to decontaminate the site once that study is complete. A little more than the contribution that the borough council can make will be required if we are to see building, rather than talk about building, on brown-field sites in my constituency.
In principle, English Partnerships can offer financial assistance for decontamination works, as the site is within one of its priority areas. That support is most likely towards the abnormal infrastructure costs and would be through gap funding the cost of reclamation against the site value. English Partnerships can either make its support as a direct grant or on the basis of a deferred share in any development. At the moment, English Partnerships cannot provide any further information on its level of support. It will not be able to assess that until the proposed development costs and, in particular, the decontamination costs are known.
§ Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although decontamination can be expensive and is a major consideration on a number of brown-field sites, two other factors must be taken into account? First, it can take a long time for a developer to put together a package for a brown-field site and, secondly, VAT is charged on refurbishing houses and not on new-build. Those two factors should be taken into account more in the Government's future planning guidelines, to encourage brown-field rather than green-field development.
§ Dr. Turner
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Indeed, on the site that I am talking about, one option would have been to make a submission under the single regeneration budget challenge fund. However, if the bid is successful, the year-to-year funding does not provide sufficient flexibility, and a complex site in multiple ownership could easily lead to the sort of slippage that the challenge funding would not accommodate under its rules.
The local involvement and commitment to the site are clearly there, but to meet the requirement in the plan that the site be multi-use in future will require some Government involvement and help. If there is to be decontamination of the site and redevelopment of the former fertiliser works, in reality—rather than just talk, which is what happened under the previous Government—there will have to be a strong public-private partnership where the public sector provides the important and essential role of pump-priming the process through the injection of capital both at the beginning and at critical 478 stages throughout the development, assisting the provision of, or directly providing, infrastructure. It will also require a positive and flexible planning process that will enable redevelopment to become a reality. That may mean giving a more responsive interpretation of planning guidance than we have seen hitherto.
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud)
I cannot match my hon. Friend's knowledge of his local scene, but, in a debate yesterday, we had an opportunity to discuss the sequential principle, which is that, if we allow developers to develop green-field sites, that must be as part of a commitment to brown land. The degree to which that is tied in may be the subject of some flexibility, and may require some changes in attitude.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the short term, that could be done by strengthening the conditions under which green-field sites are currently used and making the conditions relating to brown land less rigorous, thus changing the balance in the hope that developers would respond accordingly?
§ Dr. Turner
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but this is only the start of the debate. What I welcome about the Government's approach is that they are clearly interested and willing to make changes to the planning and financing regimes.
§ Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)
At the beginning of his speech, the hon. Gentleman condemned the previous Government in respect of what he describes as urban sprawl. It is all very well to talk about changes in planning procedures, but planning authorities—many Labour, some Tory—have a key responsibility for some of the worst decisions that have been taken. Any liberalisation of the planning procedures should not be designed to give still more power to people who have a dodgy track record.
§ Dr. Turner
That was not a helpful intervention.
I should like the Minister briefly to address the following points. May I take back to my constituents a recognition by the Government that the market towns and the rural environment need the protection that can be provided by proper attention to development on brown-field sites? This is not an inner-city issue, but one related to market towns.
Will the Minister confirm that, with innovative measures in mind, the Government are looking at ways to provide carrot as well as stick in the process, to ensure that we get building in the most appropriate sites? Finally, will he confirm that, in the review of planning procedures and while balancing the protection of the town centre correctly, the Government will ensure that they will sensitively approach the need for mixed-site developments and so enable the development of sites such as the muckworks to become a reality instead of remaining a pipe-dream, talked about year after year as under the previous Government?
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on initiating the 479 debate. After yesterday's debate on the protection of the countryside, my hon. Friend could not have chosen a more topical subject. I am especially pleased, however, that he has chosen the positive dimension of building on previously developed land as the focus for debate tonight. He was supported in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), and other hon. Members contributed to the debate. They all predominately focused on the positive dimension to which I referred.
My hon. Friend's topic has a clear and constructive purpose, and that is to make our town centres and cities better places, rather than focusing on a narrower, more negative and possibly "not in my backyard" approach. On the strength of last night's performances, that approach tends to dominate the Opposition's thinking.
The debate provides another opportunity to clarify some misunderstandings, to set out some of the facts and to clarify how the Government's thinking on this important subject is developing. As we said in yesterday's debate, we shall be making an announcement next month on household growth, on household projections, on how they are to be translated into development plans, on targets for the use of previously developed land and on how to prioritise where new development should go. I am sure hat the House will understand that I cannot anticipate that announcement, but I should like positively to respond to my hon. Friend's comments.
The latest household projections, produced under the previous Government, were for an extra 4.4 million households between 1991 and 2016. Already, more than 1 million of the homes that we need have been built since 1991. The projections have been endorsed by two independent inquiries. The numbers may seem large, but they involve only an extra 175,000 households a year. If that is translated into housebuilding, it means 175,000 extra homes a year, which is a low figure when compared with the rates of housebuilding since the war, and far lower than the levels of new housebuilding during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. We need to get that into perspective.
Those who wish to raise scares conjure up the figure of 4.4 million as a horrible prospect. The reality is that it will be one of the lowest levels of new housebuilding in the post-war era.
When we make our announcement next month, it will be seen that we propose a number of things. First, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning told the House yesterday, we shall move away from the old "predict and provide" philosophy in housing. We do not believe that the patterns of the past should always dictate the future. Changes in policy can, and will, make a difference. At the same time, we recognise our responsibility to ensure that every member of our society has the opportunity of a decent home.
Secondly, just as we want to give political power back to people in Scotland, Wales, London and the English regions, we want to decentralise decision making on a range of issues, including how the regional housing figures will be arrived at. We shall listen more to what people have to say locally, on how to accommodate household growth.
480 Thirdly, we want to avoid unnecessary building in the countryside. The presumption against development in the green belt will remain as strong as ever, but that does not mean that there will never be any building on green-field sites.
Fourthly, we want to make the maximum use of previously developed land and buildings within urban areas. My hon. Friend is particularly interested in that. We recognise that what is achievable will vary from place to place. North Norfolk, for example, is very different from south-east England, let alone the north-west. Our policies will seek to reflect significant regional differences.
We see making the best use of previously developed land and buildings as central to our strategy. We are concerned that too many approaches to assessing capacity are conservative. They have been defensive exercises designed to show that a county is full up and not serious attempts to explore the options by examining more imaginatively issues such as densities, car parking and other standards.
A recent study for London, commissioned by the London Planning Advisory Committee and the Government office for London, considered what that would mean. I accept that the study's findings are not necessarily appropriate in every part of the country, but there are general lessons to be drawn from them. The scope for creating more housing, especially round town centres, needs to be more fully explored. We should look at buildings as well as sites, and ways of finding more housing and providing a wider range of choices.
We are committed to enhancing the quality of life in both town and country. Part of that means a good-quality environment. We must ensure that, when we build or convert housing in our towns and cities, those new homes add to the quality of the urban environment. Good design is crucial to creating a better quality of urban life—so, too, are jobs, good transport links and access to services. We must not forget the importance of parks, green spaces and recreation facilities. Our approach will encourage high-quality urban design and developments that enhance the urban environment—not "town cramming", which would be an inappropriate response.
We are committed to the regeneration of our towns and cities. We want to make them more attractive and more sustainable. We are already refocusing our regeneration efforts on the worst areas. We have allowed councils to increase investment through the capital receipts initiative, to renovate rundown housing.
It is crucial to improve our towns and cities. If we cannot make them more attractive, people will continue to leave and the pressure will really be on the countryside. We cannot protect the countryside at the price of a poor urban environment.
§ Mr. Raynsford
I will indeed, but the debate was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk, and I shall say a little bit about regenerating small towns, such as King's Lynn. I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that, in an Adjournment debate, prime attention must be given to its initiator, and that I show no disrespect to his concern.
481 Overall, it is our approach that is getting support—whether from the Countryside Commission or the House-Builders Federation. People are starting to understand that we must look at the big picture—how to create more sustainable towns, make the best use of brown-field sites, and protect the countryside and the green belt.
Household growth is an opportunity not only for urban regeneration but to promote more sustainable patterns of development. We can build on the advantages of existing towns, using and supporting existing infrastructure and services. In Norfolk, as the county has suggested, that could mean putting major new developments in the key urban areas, such as Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk. It could mean encouraging development in various towns that act as centres for rural areas, including some in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior), and allowing development in other smaller market towns, represented by the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend. I think especially of Hunstanton in my hon. Friend's constituency.
I know that King's Lynn and West Norfolk borough council, which has one of the highest housing figures in Norfolk, has been actively considering that issue—indeed, it is one of the few local authorities that have a policy that sets a minimum density. I only wish that more did that, because low-density housing developments tend to be the biggest consumers of land. Therefore, if we can achieve higher density in appropriate circumstances—I am talking not about a return to soulless estates or to high-rise housing, which was a disaster in the past, but about sensitively, well-planned housing at high density—that can help to contribute to the solution.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk is worried about other types of development—not just housing. Even though housing accounts for about 70 per cent. of land used for urban development, other uses can be a greater threat to sustainable development. Our planning policy guidance on town centres—to which we formally reaffirmed our commitment in our response to the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs in July 1997—makes it clear that we expect offices, shopping, leisure and other key town-centre uses to go to town centres.
That policy is especially important for small market towns, which are easily undermined by out-of-town-centre shopping and leisure developments. Not building out of town also saves green-field sites.
One of the issues that my hon. Friend raised is how to get brown-field sites back into use, especially if they are contaminated. In particular, he raised the question whether a tax on green-field development could be used for that purpose. The issue of taxing green-field development was raised by a number of respondents to the previous Government's Green Paper. Many respondents who argued for high brown-field recycling levels called for economic instruments to help local authorities to achieve that end.
482 We have not taken decisions yet on those options. We want to hear people's views and undertake more research and analysis. Unlike the previous Government, we want to open up a debate about the scope for using economic instruments to help to achieve our planning objectives.
In his intervention, the hon. Member for North Norfolk referred to VAT. That is another important issue, but when we are discussing bringing back derelict and empty sites such as the one to which my hon. Friend referred, VAT is not relevant, as no VAT is chargeable on new housing. Any decisions on national taxation are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) raised the issue of a sequential test. He will know that we are considering the matter. We shall say more about it when we make the statement in due course.
With regard to the muckworks site in King's Lynn, I understand that a study on the potential for redevelopment on the site may soon be undertaken, as my hon. Friend said, and that English Partnerships has indicated that it will contribute a significant proportion of the costs of the study. My hon. Friend questioned English Partnerships' potential on-going contribution. My understanding is that subject to the outcome of the study, and subject to demand and to detailed development proposals demonstrating a shortfall of developed value against development cost, English Partnerships will consider financially supporting the regeneration of that site.
Finally, I shall deal with the countryside—the other side of the coin. Let me make it clear that we are committed to protecting the countryside, but we cannot freeze it in a time warp. People in the countryside need homes and jobs. In some cases, change is inevitable, but it must be positive and sustainable. Our planning policies already promote such change with an emphasis on strict control, decent design and rural regeneration.
From some accounts, one would think that the English countryside was now confined to a few pockets of land. In fact, almost 90 per cent. of England remains rural; 12 per cent. is green belt and another 33 per cent. is specially protected—for example, national parks. Urban areas look set to grow from 10.6 per cent. to 11.9 per cent. of England by 2016. That figure could be even smaller if local authorities and private developers did more to recycle land. Even at 11.9 per cent., there will be more green-belt land than urban land.
However, we are concerned not just with protecting the green belt. We are concerned about the countryside as a whole. We are looking for the most sustainable solutions, and sometimes, as was said last night, a green-belt site will offer the most sustainable place for new development—for example, when the alternative would mean developing on better quality land beyond the green belt.
Overall, we must look at these difficult issues—
§ The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at twenty-three minutes to Twelve midnight.