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11.44 am

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who always speaks knowledgeably about sporting matters, especially football. I join him in wishing the England team all the very best as they go off to compete in the World cup.

It is a pleasure to participate in the end-of-term debate today. I reciprocate the kind remarks of my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who has been representing his constituents in the Chamber this morning. I do not have a firm view about the third road off Canvey Island, but I can attest to the strength of feeling on the island, which my hon. Friend ably articulated.

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On the cancer unit at Southend hospital, to which my hon. Friend referred, he, together with my hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) and I intend to maintain a close watch on the issue, to defend our cancer centre at Southend hospital, which is immensely respected locally. Suffice it to say that the cancer centre there is in no way broken, and we implore Ministers, as we have been doing for several months, not to try and fix it.

I turn to the issue of tidal defences in my constituency, particularly at a place called Hullbridge. A proposal has been extant for some time to upgrade the tidal defences on the River Crouch at Hullbridge. As the work may result in the loss of some salt marsh, that requires compensatory habitat to be provided under the European Union habitats directive. A site for that purpose has been identified at a nearby location in Brandy Hole. The Environment Agency is seeking to purchase the site from a local landowner and the Blackwater Wildfowlers Association, which would manage it.

However, although the scheme has already been given planning consent by the local authority, Rochford district council, because it has a tidal defence scheme, it also requires planning approval from the wildlife division of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which to date has been withheld. To make matters more complicated, DEFRA's flood and coastal defence division is refusing to release the capital funding for the scheme until planning approval has been given by its sister division within the Department.

A number of agencies are now involved, including the Environment Agency, English Nature, Essex county council and Rochford district council, and all of them are awaiting approval from DEFRA in order to proceed. The issue has been running for more than a year, and I tabled a priority written question about it back in March. There is a strong local desire to see the work achieved this year, in which case, I am informed, construction would need to begin in June or, at the very latest, by early July.

As I understand that the purchase of the land by the Environment Agency is virtually complete and that the requisite section 106 agreements are awaiting signature, ministerial intervention might be needed to speed matters along, so that approval can be granted, the work can still begin this summer, and my constituents who live in the area can be reassured.

I acknowledge all the work that has been done on the matter by county councillor Tracey Chapman, in whose county division Hullbridge is located, and who is also the cabinet member for environmental matters on Essex county council. I also acknowledge the work undertaken by county councillor Ray Howard, who chairs Essex county council's southern area committee and who has been active in promoting the proposal.

I have asked for a meeting with the relevant Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), and I hope that he will accede to that request, to help bring about a successful conclusion to the issue before much longer.

On a related point, there is also a wider issue about the preservation of sea walls in my constituency. Some Government agencies are now claiming that even traditional maintenance work, which has been undertaken

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on the sea walls for many years, cannot now take place without compensatory habitat being provided. As a result, hardly any maintenance work has taken place for over a year, and obviously there will be safety implications if the situation is allowed to pertain for much longer.

The problem is due to an over-zealous interpretation of the EU habitats directive, which was never intended to be as constrictive as that. I see that the Minister is nodding, and I am grateful that he has taken the point on board. I sincerely hope that the agencies concerned will in future be able to take a much more pragmatic and realistic view, which would allow the maintenance work on the sea walls to continue as it has done for many years, and thus to provide protection to my constituents and to the livelihoods of those who work in agriculture in the area.

I turn now to a pressing issue in the town of South Woodham Ferrers in my constituency. Chelmsford borough council, within whose local government area the town lies, has a proposal in its draft local plan to build some 1,700 houses and an industrial estate on land to the north of the town in an area known colloquially as Radar hill. The proposal is deeply unpopular with the people of South Woodham Ferrers. The town's infrastructure simply cannot accommodate development on that scale. There is a range of reasons for that, but I shall highlight just a few.

First, the rail line connecting South Woodham Ferrers to London is single track, at least to the interchange at Wickford. That means that it is technically possible to run only a very limited number of trains along it, and already those trains are often extremely overcrowded, particularly during the morning and evening peaks. For technical reasons, it would be very difficult to generate extra capacity, and it is a reasonable assumption that many of the people who would come to live in those houses would want to work in London, as many of the people who now live in South Woodham Ferrers do. It seems simply nonsensical to attempt the development when the service would not be able to accommodate that number of commuters because it can barely take the number that it has to deal with already.

Secondly, the medical services in the town are barely sufficient for the extant population. There is a small health centre with limited facilities, although there is a local campaign called South Woodham Ferrers health care 2000, with which I am glad to be associated, which is doing its best to improve the range of facilities.

I am personally indebted to a local GP, Dr. John Cormack, who is very active in the town and, one morning, took me on an impromptu tour of all the GP surgeries in South Woodham Ferrers. I was able to speak to a number of them. The average number of patients on a GP's list is between 1,700 and 1,800. Most of the GPs in the town already have a list of more than 2,000, and one has a list of nearly 3,000. I do not see how the medical facilities in South Woodham Ferrers can possibly cope with increased development on the scale that is proposed.

Thirdly, the local secondary school, William de Ferrers, has good results and is popular, but it is already one of the largest in the county, and it is bulging at the seams. Essex county council simply does not have the money to build and, importantly, to staff another secondary school in the area. Again, I do not see the large number of

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children requiring secondary education who would be generated by the development of 1,700 houses could possibly be accommodated by the town's one secondary school, effective and popular as it is.

Fourthly, there is an engineering matter concerning the power lines that intersect the proposed site. National Grid Company, which has responsibility for the lines, is adamant that it does not intend to move them, and it is difficult to see how the houses could be built while the lines are in the way.

Last July, shortly after I was elected, I attended a public meeting in the town which was called to discuss the proposal. It was due to take place in the hall at William de Ferrers school, which accommodates some 300 people. Fifteen minutes after the meeting was due to start, the hall was packed and there were at least as many people outside waiting to get in. To prevent a minor riot, the then town clerk, Mrs. Peggy Carter, rapidly came up with plan B, which proposed moving the meeting from the hall to the market square in the middle of the town.

We all processed down to the square, where there is a convenient bandstand, and the meeting took place around that. We spent about three hours discussing the matter in theatre in the round, as it were. At the end of that thorough discussion, in what the Americans would call a town meeting, a vote was taken in which one person voted in favour of the development proposals and every other person in the packed town square voted against.

Subsequently there was a formal consultation exercise by Chelmsford borough council, and some 6,000 forms were returned, the vast bulk of which were from South Woodham Ferrers objecting to the proposals. When one considers that there are only some 12,000 adults in the town, that gives the House some idea of the intense feeling about the matter. I pay tribute to Mr. Malcolm Farrington and the members of the South Woodham action group for all the good work that they have done in connection with the issue.

Partly as a result of that opposition, Chelmsford borough council has delayed its response to the consultation exercise. When I spoke to the council recently, it was still unable to give me a firm date for its response, although it has promised to write to me in due course. I very much hope that when the council, which is under Liberal Democrat control, responds to the consultation, it will heed the strong feelings of the residents of South Woodham Ferrers and accordingly abandon those deeply unpopular proposals.

That takes me to a related issue with an impact on South Woodham Ferrers. I refer to national housing targets. As we know, the current system means that the Government set a national housing target, which is then broken down by region, by county and by district. I first raised the issue last autumn in my very first oral question to the Prime Minister. The practical effect of that policy is to cram ever more housing into already highly populated areas against the wishes of the people who live there.

That seems especially pernicious when empty council estates are being demolished in the north of England, particularly in the north-east, even though they are in a state of good repair, because people simply do not want to live in them. Yet at the same time we are trying to cram more and more houses into southern England, not least into my county of Essex. We have to give local

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people greater influence over those decisions if we want to encourage them to keep participating in local elections. One very good way to do that is to abolish the whole system of national housing targets and give local people the power to decide how many houses should be built in their area.

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