Unlike the bizarre and perverse world view expressed by the SNP in the previous speech, I very much welcome as a tonic the enthusiasm, innovation and creativity that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has brought to his brief and exhibited today.
Of course, the success of housing policy is dependent on balancing two elements. The first is encouraging home ownership in order to provide stability and security in the way that many of us have been able to enjoy, but which too many young people are not yet able to. That needs to be balanced against the interests of existing communities where houses are built, so that we do not have overstretch of infrastructure such as healthcare and education. We need to ensure that visual amenity and quality of life are not unduly damaged, and that we are able to create more jobs where housing is being built so that we do not continue to have commuter towns with all the disbenefits that they have seen in recent decades.
As part of my view of Conservatism, I have always had an indispensable view about the value of the green belt. I am pleased that the Secretary of State is placing great emphasis on the maintenance of green-belt land. It is there for a purpose: to stop urban sprawl and the concreting over of our countryside. Once it is gone, it is gone forever. It is therefore our duty to protect it for future generations, rather than giving in to short-term interests in one way or another.
This matter is tied up with the concept that the housing targets set by the Government are not instructions to build, but targets; and they are targets that need to be netted off against other interests that the Government may have set out, for example: the green belt, not wanting to build on floodplains, and not damaging our areas of outstanding natural beauty. They are difficult balances to get and they are always controversial in any one area.
As the Secretary of State knows, we have many of these difficulties in North Somerset—a part of the country that is well away from the nimby part of the spectrum. In fact, as the new Boundary Commission is likely to show, many of my constituents, because of the rise in our population, will be represented in constituencies outside North Somerset. It is very important to point out to district councils that the setting of the Government’s targets is not an excuse for them to try to build on green-belt land, because that is, I am afraid, what some of them are attempting to do.
The Government’s plans on the housing numbers have to be seen alongside some of the other elements of policy and the levelling-up agenda. The regeneration of some of our great cities, particularly in the northern part of England, will stop the drift of people to the south of England, which adds to the pressure on housing. The ability to get greater regeneration in terms of jobs in that part of the country will enable people to stay and to have the sorts of careers that they have otherwise only been able to get by moving closer to London. We must stop being a London-centric country when it comes to our planning system. I very much welcome that, as I do the opening up of competition in the house-building sector. Far too much power lies in the hands of the oligopoly in this country, and we need to see far more smaller companies coming into that sector if we are to see the sort of improvements that many of us want to see.
We still have to deal with the issue of cladding. The £5.1 billion set aside by the Government is a very large amount of money, particularly in the current fiscal circumstances. I caution my colleagues against thinking that they will be able to get substantially more money from the Treasury. We have to ensure that we get the end of forfeiture, which is why I welcome the leasehold reform. We need to ensure that the cost falls in the appropriate place, not on leaseholders, and that we do not absolve developers and builders of their responsibility to put right the mistakes that they created. We must ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent only where it is absolutely necessary and that taxpayers are not ripped off by putting right things through public money that should be put right through the private money of the developers.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to look at Portishead in my constituency as an example of many of these issues. I look forward to welcoming him or his officials—as many of them as would like to come down. I end with a word of warning at the risk of presenting myself as an unreconstructed fiscal Conservative: money will be very tight. The effect of quantitative easing, as set out by the OBR, means that we, as a country, are vulnerable to rises in interest rates, and we must therefore limit the way in which we seem to be splashing money in every single direction. We need to return to sound money and fiscal Conservatism, because we need to conserve the opportunities for the future by not landing the next generation in undue debt.