We need houses - but don't forget the sewers

To those reading this over breakfast, an apology. Thanks to the great    achievements of Sir Joseph Bazalgette and others in the 19th century, we    rarely have to discuss sewers, taking their efficiency for granted - except    for some residents in my constituency, for whom heavy rain, as we have had    recently, causes lavatories to overflow and sewage to run in the streets. 

This is an extreme symptom of an ever more common problem - a lack of    infrastructure to support development. Residents move into new homes, only    to discover that the local schools are oversubscribed. Roads that may have    been adequate in a village become congested in what is now a small town. 

There is meant to be a system in place that lets communities capture some of    the profits made from selling land for development, allowing local    infrastructure to be improved. But it hasn't delivered sufficiently. The    Government hopes that a new community infrastructure levy will do better.    And the National Planning Policy Framework, published earlier this year,    says that planning authorities should work with others to assess the    "quality and capacity of infrastructure... and its ability to meet forecast    demands". 

While this sounds good, it doesn't actually require planning authorities to    ensure that the roads, school places and sewage systems will be there when    development is permitted. A stronger duty is required. And that's why,    supported by 20 Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, I have tabled an    amendment to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which is being debated in    the Commons today, requiring planning authorities to identify that there is,    or will be, sufficient infrastructure to support new development in their    plans. 

Let me be clear. Our aim is not to prevent necessary new housing. The rapid    growth in our population, as revealed by last week's Census figures, cannot    be ignored. Even if immigration is reduced, the demand for new housing will    remain.

But in seeking to get housebuilding moving again, the Government must target    its policies correctly. It isn't the planning system that's the cause of our    dismally low number of new homes - buyers aren't there because of the    downturn. Developers are sitting on planning permissions, unwilling to sell    cheaper homes today when they can hold on to an appreciating asset. 

Vince Cable has said that a 1930s-style mass housing expansion would help to    fuel growth. But at that time, there weren't any planning controls, and the    result was rapid and uncontrolled suburban sprawl. That was why the 1947    Town and Country Planning Act was introduced in the first place. Political    leaders then saw no conflict between driving national renewal and ensuring    that the countryside - whose very image had been held up as a cause for    defending the nation - was protected. 

It's also been argued that only 12 per cent of England is developed, so what's    a percentage point or two more? That makes it sound as if we have plenty of    countryside left to concrete over. In fact, we can't build on mountains,    hills and heathlands, national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty or    the green belt. Moreover, delivering a ringing commitment to landscapes that    are already specially protected ignores the half of our still-precious    countryside that isn't. 

The reality is that in the Sixties, nearly three quarters of England was    undisturbed by development. Today, urban sprawl and the roads it brings    intrudes across more than half of the country. It's the casual loss of this    England, the quiet countryside around our towns and villages, that people    worry about. Perhaps some home owners do try to protect their backyards. But    most of us care about the countryside whether we can see it from our window    or not. There's nothing selfish about wanting to conserve it for its own    sake and for future generations. 

Still, the planning minister, Nick Boles, is surely right to remind us that we    cannot be complacent about the need for more homes. His call for new    developments to be more aesthetically pleasing is one way to encourage    popular acceptance of extra housing. Another is neighbourhood planning, in    which communities are given the power and responsibility to plan for their    future. In contrast to Labour's counterproductive housing targets, which are    at last being abolished, neighbourhood planning has the potential to deliver    exactly what's needed: realistic levels of new housing provision with local    support. 

But this new localism, which was pledged in the Coalition Agreement, must not    be undermined - and there are worrying signs that local authorities feel    unable to set the housing numbers they want, for fear of being overturned by    the Government's planning inspectors. Communities who were promised a    "fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people" will not be pleased    if Labour's unfeasible housing targets are merely replaced with ones set    through the back door. 

The Government's definition of "sustainable" development is "ensuring that    better lives for ourselves don't mean worse lives for future generations".    This means that we should not deny young people the chance we've had to own    our properties. But it also means taking care not to damage the countryside.    And at the very least, it means ensuring that where such housing is needed,    there is adequate infrastructure to support it. 

Christopher N Howarth