Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Urban regeneration and preservation of the countryside are two sides of the same coin. Both those who live in towns and those who live in the country want their green fields preserved, and everyone wants more housing. We can have both, as long as we ensure that we build primarily in built-up areas or on built-up land, not on green fields. That will be a major concern of the public in the coming months, and it will be a major issue in the coming election.

    I draw the attention of the House to four very recent events that have a bearing on those issues. The first occurred yesterday, when the Minister for Housing and Planning sneaked out in a written answer the figures for the number of houses to be built in the south-east by the Government. He tried to give the impression that the target number had been reduced. In fact, the target is higher than that proposed by the south-east regional planning committee–39,000, instead of 33,000. The target is only for five years. The Government propose then to raise the level to 43,000 houses a year, or possibly even higher. That is a fudge to get the Government through the election next May. They hope that they can obscure the burden that they are imposing with the demand for new houses in the south-east.

    The second event occurred today, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the leader of the Conservative party, launched the Conservative campaign to save our green fields. He launched it, I am happy to say, in Hertfordshire, on a piece of greenbelt land threatened by planning development under this Government.

    The campaign proclaims my party?s commitment to protect green fields and to promote urban regeneration. It spells out our policies and highlights the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties? hypocrisy on the matter. They say one thing, but they do another–[Interruption.] As I think the Minister for Housing and Planning is saying, no doubt echoing the words of his boss, the green belt is a Labour achievement and the Government are building on it.

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    Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. After the consensus of the past hour, I am pleased that we are back to good old-fashioned party politics. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the net impact of what he suggests will be higher house prices, when those are already going through the roof, and more homelessness in the south-east?

    Mr. Lilley: I am saying that house building should be focused on the already built-up areas. I am simply pointing out what the Government are doing, as opposed to what they are saying, and the discrepancy between the two. The hon. Gentleman is rather more open than those on his Front Bench, and I give him credit for that.

    The third event to which I draw the attention of the House is occurring simultaneously with this debate. It illustrates the Government?s attempt to do one thing and say another, and the problems that are caused as a result. While we are engaged in the debate in the House, the North Hertfordshire district council in my constituency is considering advice from its officers to withdraw its local district structure plan. That advice is based on legal opinion delivered to the council by Queen?s Counsel, who has pointed out that the Government?s own policy planning guidance note 3 requires the council to do that. He spelled out the fact that the Government have created a dilemma for local authorities. The origins of that dilemma lie in an earlier period when Hertfordshire county council–under the control of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with a majority of one–steamrollered through a proposal to build 10,000 houses on greenbelt land west of Stevenage.

    The council did that using an undemocratic procedure, which prevented the full council from voting on the issue. Only 14 councillors–Liberal Democrat and Labour, of course–voted for the measure. The Conservatives tried to take the issue in full council, and a majority of councillors voted to do so, but the standing orders were then changed so that abstentions counted as votes against taking the matter to full council. By that undemocratic procedure, the measure was steamrollered through.

    My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Conservative party came to my constituency to highlight the proposal, because it was the biggest incursion into the green belt ever approved by the Secretary of State, who is not in the House today. The resulting uproar at what the Government were authorising, and at the precedent that it would create throughout the country–planning proceeds by precedent, after all–led the Secretary of State to come to the House in a panic with a proposal to try to cover up what the Government were doing and to pretend that they were changing direction. As a result of that, they introduced the new planning policy guidance.

    The Secretary of State said that the Government would never in future authorise massive incursions into the green belt or on green land, but would instead give priority to development on brown fields. I said that, if the Government were genuine about that, I would salute what they were doing.

    Mr. Lilley: They would live in houses that were not built on the green belt. That is my proposal. They would live in houses built on brown land, or, if there had to be any incursion into greenfield land, it should be greenfield land that is not green belt.

    The Government also gave the impression that that was to be their priority when they introduced the planning policy guidance. Meanwhile, in the small print, they were still pressing ahead with concreting over Hertfordshire and other areas. They intended that those proposals should still go ahead. However, they did not realise that they had launched a torpedo that would threaten to sink their proposals to build those massive developments west of Stevenage and elsewhere. It now appears, from the legal advice of Mr. Christopher Lockhart-Mummery, QC, that that is just what they have done.

    I wrote to the Minister and received a reply from him. Mr. Lockhart-Mummery considered that reply and wrote:

    I find it hard to accept some of the logic in the letter to Peter Lilley MP from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the DETR.

    He went on to say that that reply from the Minister was the “antithesis” of what PPG3 was seeking, and that it was “illogical”. He also said:

    The course suggested in the Minister?s letter cannot be appropriate.

    In short, the Government are on a course of action that runs contrary to the law and to the legally binding advice that they have set out. I hope that North Hertfordshire district council will take a decision tonight that will expose the contradiction between the Government?s proclaimed policies and their actions on the ground.

    A fourth, very sad event that was announced last week–a tragedy to many local people–was the closure of the Vauxhall plant at Luton, just adjacent to my constituency. If there is no possibility of rescinding that decision, the priority must be streamlining planning processes on the site to ensure that the development of new business is as rapid as possible. I was glad that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry responded positively when I put that proposal to him. I hope that he has taken it up with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and that the Department will include in the remit of the taskforce that is considering the Vauxhall works the question of whether it can streamline the process to ensure the rapid development of new businesses on the site. The site is massive, and if there is any spare land after the first priority of developing new businesses is met, it should be available for housing, which could further remove the need for the development that is proposed only a few miles away, west of Stevenage.

    Those four major recent events demonstrate the importance of the issues that we are discussing. They show that the Government are not doing what they are purporting to do, and also demonstrate that the Conservative party is probably speaking for the bulk of people in towns and rural areas when it calls both for more development–focused, above all, on brownfield land and developed areas–and the regeneration of city centres. We would not, as the Government have done, authorise the largest incursion of building on the green belt ever authorised by a Government in living memory.