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.