On the Politics Show, Sunday 28 October 2007, Jon Sopel interviewed Caroline Spelman, Conservative Party Chairman
JON SOPEL: I'm joined now from Birmingham by the Conservative Party Chairman, Caroline Spelman, who's also attempted to introduce legislation on this. Caroline Spelman, welcome to the Politics Show, thanks for being with us. Lot to talk about but the point there, why shouldn't people be able to sell their own gardens if they want to, for re-development, after all, you're meant to be the party of aspiration.
CAROLINE SPELMAN: I'm not saying that they shouldn't be able to, but the problem is that the homes that are being built on, the back gardens of Britain's leafy suburbs, tend to be beyond the pocket of the people who are on the housing list that need affordable housing. This is not just a, a south east problem. Your package is from Tunbridge Wells and I'm sitting here in the West Midlands where it's a considerable problem. But the worse affected part of the country for example is Alnwick in Northumbria, where 81% of all new homes built over the last ten years have been on back gardens and Weymouth is even worse affected with 84% of all new homes in the last ten years being built on back gardens and the trouble is, those back gardens are of high real-estate value, so the result is that the luxury apartments that are being built on them, are beyond the pocket of people waiting for housing
JON SOPEL: I don't want to get in to a statistical fist-fight with you but we've spoken to the council in Alnwick in Northumberland, they say the figure for garden building is 7.5%. What you've done is you've amassed not only gardens but where there were houses that have been knocked down as well.
CAROLINE SPELMAN: Because typically that's what happens and your viewers will recognize this phenomenon and it was revealed in your package about Tunbridge Wells, that typically a family house is knocked down and on the plot of that family house and it's surrounding garden, you typically see an apartment block of up to thirteen flats and there's a reason for that figure, and you get incredible densification¿ the reason for the figure is quite simple, the government says that for developments over fourteen apartments, 25% have to be affordable housing, so guess what happens -the developers build just below that threshold so the problem is with government policy, we're not getting the right homes in the right places, for the people who need them.
And I heard the challenge to say, well where would we build them. And I, I would say in two places - both in the town and the countryside we've proposed that genuine brown field sites, there are plenty of them round cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds and Liverpool, old industrial workings or warehousing, should be regenerated, that should be prioritized to provide affordable family sized housing. And in the countryside, we've proposed that using community land trusts, every community, every village and hamlet, should be able to accommodate four or five more homes for local people.
JON SOPEL: If it were that easy, if it were just the land we were replete with old gas works and old post office buildings or whatever else, then that's the solution, the government would have used that. The problem is that they need a lot more housing.
CAROLINE SPELMAN: Well I, of course Conservatives recognize that we need more homes, but the government's own figures show that existing brown field, genuine brown field sites, land banked, would provide accommodation for approximately a million new homes and I've just said that in addition to that we've proposed that in the countryside and rural areas, every community could accommodate a small number of homes for local people, for first time buyers for example or for the elderly, wanted to step down, using community land trusts, which means that the properties remain, the freehold remains in the trust of the community, in perpetuity, but first time buyers can actually get started on the property ladder and through the vehicle of shared ownership, gradually build up capital, so that they can move on and move up. So these things together, will help to meet the demand for housing, which we recognize.
JON SOPEL: Yes, and you said a couple of years back, we need to build more homes, but not on the scale that Barker recommends. Now Kate Barker came up with a report saying that there needed to be a hundred and twenty thousand private sector homes. The government is now saying there needs to be two hundred and forty thousand private homes built a year and the independent inspector says even that's now enough. So how many do you support building.
CAROLINE SPELMAN: Jon, the truth is that nobody really knows the scale of demand, cos the two big drivers for housing demand are unpredictable. One of them is increasing longevity with improvements in medical technology; people are living longer and that is having an impact on the availability of housing stock. And the second reason is family break-down, sadly the result when a couple split up, is quite often both parents actually want a home that's big enough to have the children come to stay at least for the weekend, so these are the two big drivers on demand for housing (interjection) ¿ and they're unpredictable.
JON SOPEL: If you're in government, you need to make an estimate of how many homes you need. How many do you think are needed.
CAROLINE SPELMAN: Well I've just said to you that it's very difficult to put a precise figure on it, but I've identified using the government's own figures, where on genuine brown field land, genuine old industrial workings, we could provide an additional million homes and then I've just said to you that incrementally, if every village up and down the country, using a community land trust, provided four or five extra homes for local people, you'd go a long way to address the demand. But the important point is, both those locations could be used to provide affordable housing. What happens at the moment when luxury apartments are built on back gardens in say my constituency, a two bedroom flat comes on the market at two hundred thousand pounds, and that is frankly beyond the pocket of people on the housing list.
JON SOPEL: But isn't that cake and eating it politics, in the sense that you're trying to give a nod and wink to the people who don't want to see their gardens redeveloped and they want to protect the greenfield sites but also at the same time we're on the side of the person who's trying to get their foot on the housing ladder.
CAROLINE SPELMAN: I think, what I've just proposed to you is, is an eminently practical solution to the demand for housing, providing more housing in both town and country. I'm not saying people should never be able to develop a back garden, because of course if gardens were defined as gardens, which is what my private members bill set out to do, it doesn't mean you couldn't put in an application for example, to build a granny annex, that would be a very sensible use of .. (overlaps) ¿..
JON SOPEL: But when you said two years ago that a hundred and twenty thousand houses was too much, and you've got the independent advisors saying today that what the government is proposing of two hundred and forty thousand is not enough, that seems to be an enormous gap.
CAROLINE SPELMAN: Well the truth is that the government actually cannot be accurate about a figure for housing demand, because it's very difficult Jon. And there's a third factor, now this one, the government would have some control over, that is fuelling demand for housing and that is the relative unattractiveness of other savings products. So for example, people are buying property, as a safe place to put their money, because it's proved unsafe to save under Labour's raid on pension funds. ¿(interjection and overlap)
JON SOPEL: Sorry to interrupt. So what you're saying is, that actually, you just don't buy the Government's figures on the number of properties that are needed and that justifies why you're not going to build more.
CAROLINE SPELMAN: I haven't said we're not going to build more. I've just told you where I would see great potential to build lots more of genuinely affordable housing. Sitting here in Birmingham, we're surrounded by genuine old brown field sites. Why - sadly, because of the demise of manufacturing. Now those could be transformed in to the new garden suburbs of the 21st century, providing family sized housing. The government's own planning quango has reported this week, saying, there's a real dearth of family sized accommodation. The Housing Minister has admitted as much and it - the report says, the problem is we're getting a lot of small flats that are unsuitable for families. Now I've just said to you, how we can provide new family sized accommodation in both town and country.
JON SOPEL: Okay, let's move on. I want to talk about Scotland. One of the left-overs, unfinished business of devolution, which is Scottish MPs being able to vote on matters that only affect English constituencies, I don't know, hospitals, schools for example. And I see that the Tories are thinking of changing that, tell me what you're thinking of doing.
CAROLINE SPELMAN: Well Sir Malcolm Rifkind has been contributing to the work of our democracy task force, which is chaired by Ken Clarke. They're due to report finally, just before Christmas and Malcolm Rifkind is proposing a re-balancing of the settlement, following devolution and the creation of a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. He's proposing that English MPs should sit at Westminster in an English grand committee to debate and discuss and vote on policy that just applies to England. Now, it's just a policy proposal and like all the other policy proposals that we have received, from our policy groups, we're going to consult on that.
JON SOPEL: Do you favour it?
CAROLINE SPELMAN: I think it would give a greater sense of fairness to the settlement between England and the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. (overlaps)
JON SOPEL: So that's a yes?
CAROLINE SPELMAN: Personally, I think it's a proposal that has merit, it needs to be consulted on properly, but I think it would give a sense of fairness in completing if you like, the devolutionary process. Having devolved power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to complete the process, by having English MPs, voting on laws only pertain in England, would address that sense of unfairness that English MPs had when the Labour government only got its way on tuition fees for example and foundation hospitals, because Scottish MPs were able to vote on that, even though those laws would not apply in Scotland.
JON SOPEL: Okay, Caroline Spelman, thank you very much for being with us, thank you.
CAROLINE SPELMAN: Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW WITH CAROLINE SPELMAN
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The Politics Show Sunday 28 October 2007 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.
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