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Housing (Milton Keynes)

3.30 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): The subject of this debate is of enormous importance to my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White). It is also crucial to an area of Government policy; that is, the Government's desire to increase housing growth in the south-east, particularly in Milton Keynes, which is to have 34,000 extra homes by 2016.

The Government's designation of Milton Keynes as a housing growth area has been largely accepted in Milton Keynes, although specific details about where the housing is to be built are still a matter of some concern. Essentially, that is because people in the area understand that the shortage of housing, particularly affordable housing, is detrimental to those on lower incomes and to young people who are growing up in Milton Keynes and who wish to have homes of their own there.

The housing shortage is also a threat to the continued health and growth of the economy. Many local firms already experience difficulty in recruiting people because it is hard for individuals to find affordable housing in Milton Keynes. Indeed, many commute.

Notwithstanding the general acceptance, there is huge local concern at all levels that extra housing must be underpinned by the parallel provision of infrastructure. Past experience in Milton Keynes does not inspire confidence. Of course, it is true that Milton Keynes is a planned community. Its development plan has been largely rolled out and adhered to, but there have been problems, particularly in the provision of schools and health facilities. In the growth areas in the west and the east, the school population has overtaken school building. The consequence is that children are forced to travel to more distant schools. Even some who actually live right next door to a brand new school do so, because brand new schools are often oversubscribed from the start.

On health provision, the hospital never had the planned phase 3. Despite the generous new build that has been funded by the Labour Government, it will not be until the end of 2004 at the earliest that hospital bed provision in Milton Keynes will reach the size warranted by the current population. As the population is growing all the time, it is somewhat like trying to fill up the bath with the plug out. Everyone in Milton Keynes is well aware of the consequences for national health service care of the undercapacity across the board. Naturally, there is a huge fear that further growth will simply reduce for everyone the quality of the public services.

The Government have assured us that infrastructure will be provided in parallel to housing growth, but the structures and mechanisms to achieve that are not clear. I hope that the Minister will be able to put more flesh on the bones and to reassure me, my colleagues and our constituents in her response.

In her written parliamentary answer of 21 October, the Minister described the Milton Keynes and south midlands inter-regional board, which I will henceforth

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refer to as the inter-regional board. Chaired by her colleague, Lord Rooker, it will

She also said that it will

I encourage the Minister to be more expansive in describing exactly how that would work.

I wish to focus on health and transport, which have been highlighted in the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategy. It was drawn up by the three relevant regional assemblies and has been out for public consultation. In that document, transport, health and education were diagnosed as areas that already had an infrastructure deficit.

Past underfunding in the NHS in Milton Keynes meant that in the decade up to 1998 and despite population growth of 2 to 3 per cent. each year in that period, no extra beds were provided at Milton Keynes hospital. That caused huge problems and the diminution of its service.

Despite the generous increase in funding that the NHS has received under this Government, Milton Keynes has been badly hit by two factors. First, the 2001 census underestimated the population of Milton Keynes. The Milton Keynes unitary authority and the primary care trust are involved in continuing correspondence with the Office for National Statistics about that, and following written questions that I have put about the census they will meet soon.

NHS funding is set for a three-year period based on the population in year one. So, even if the population in year one were correct, it would not be by year three. It is very difficult to see how further growth can be accommodated within the normal revenue funding mechanism of the NHS. I am not so worried about capital funding, as it is much easier to see how the NHS executive would respond to increased growth in Milton Keynes through the allocation of capital funding, because that does not depend on a formula. Revenue funding depends on a formula, and it is ill suited to the situation in Milton Keynes.

How will the inter-regional board ensure that the NHS funding system recognises the growth requirements of Milton Keynes, with expanding hospital, GP and community NHS services to meet population growth as it happens, rather than years later? The revenue resources are important, because without them the new capital facilities cannot be opened and staffed.

Transport is the second area of concern. The Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategy highlighted the weaknesses in east-west road and rail transport links in the region and said that improvements to those links were a priority for supporting and facilitating growth. The east-west rail link from Cambridge to Oxford through Bletchley in the southern part of Milton Keynes has long been supported by an active consortium of local authorities along the route and a virtual all-party parliamentary group, if I can describe it as that, which includes my hon. Friends the

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Members for Milton Keynes, North-East and for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). It is a high priority for all three regional development agencies.

There have been improvements to that route, largely in the eastern section that is already funded by the Strategic Rail Authority. A bid is being discussed between the Strategic Rail Authority and the local authority consortium for the reopening of the Bicester to Bletchley section.

The Minister will be pleased to know that I will not outline the detailed business case for the east-west rail link; I have done so on numerous occasions in letters to Transport Ministers and at an earlier Adjournment debate, as have several other Members. The section from Oxford through Bicester to Bletchley is crucial for growth in Milton Keynes and the south midlands. It is an important alternative commuter route from new houses in western Milton Keynes into Bletchley and Milton Keynes.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): One of the proposed areas of growth is in the villages of Wavenden and Woburn Sands in my constituency, which rely on the Bedford-Bletchley line, part of the east-west line that is to be upgraded. People are concerned about maintaining those communities. Does my hon. Friend accept that transport links are the key to making sure that the communities of Wavenden and Woburn Sands are retained in any development?

Dr. Starkey : Absolutely. The use of the railway as an alternative commuter link is incredibly important to encourage development to occur in a sustainable way, so that it does not simply consume all the countryside round about, and to provide a more environmentally friendly way for people to travel to and from employment, which would almost certainly be in Bletchley or Milton Keynes. The rail route is extremely important to that.

The Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area study suggested a new station at Newton Longville to service housing growth in that area, which is on the western side. The Bicester to Bletchley line reopening would also link in with a putative branch line to Aylesbury, where further growth is also planned. Again, many people in Aylesbury are likely to work in Milton Keynes.

The Oxford to Cambridge route is a key part of the infrastructure underpinning the Oxford to Cambridge technology arc, which is a project that attempts to exploit the academic research discoveries of Oxford, Cambridge and Cranfield universities, and indeed of the Open university in Milton Keynes, to generate employment. At the moment, Oxford and Cambridge are very constrained in terms of land availability, whereas in the middle section of the arc, around Bedford and Milton Keynes, land is available for firms generated by the academic excellence of those universities. Obviously, the east-west rail link is a crucial part of that concept, and indeed is crucial to the economic regeneration of Bletchley.

The Strategic Rail Authority has its own funding priorities, although I was interested to note that its latest report entitled "Everyone's Railway: The Wider Case for Rail" says that the SRA will need to look at its role in underpinning the Government's sustainable communities strategy.

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The latest bid made to the SRA for the Bicester to Bletchley section is said to be being considered as part of that sustainable communities scheme, but it is not clear what that really means. The SRA will be represented on the inter-regional board; again, I want to know what the mechanism is to encourage the SRA to move transport schemes that underpin growth, such as east-west rail, up its priorities. In particular, can the SRA be encouraged to access developer funding to add to its funding for schemes such as east-west rail?

Further pressure on the SRA to rethink its priorities has come from the all-party group on rail's report, which highlights increasing road congestion and the effects that road pricing and other traffic management measures can have in encouraging the transfer of traffic from road to rail. The Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategy points out that there is particularly high traffic growth in our region, and that public transport improvements are crucial to facilitate growth. That, in my view, must make the east-west rail link even more important.

In conclusion, the provision of infrastructure in parallel with housing growth is absolutely crucial if that housing growth is occur. That was recently reiterated by Lord Rooker at a meeting in Milton Keynes, where he was addressing the business community. He said that private development is needed to fund housing, but that will not come in if the infrastructure is not there. It is recognised that it is crucial for the housing growth to occur, but it is also crucial that we retain the support of the population of Milton Keynes for the growth.

I know that the Government appear to recognise the importance of the issue, but I, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East and our constituents need the reassurance that Government can deliver that infrastructure and in particular that the NHS and the SRA can deliver on their part.

3.44 pm

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on securing it and on what she said, with which I entirely agree. Some of the housing about which my hon. Friend spoke will stretch as far as my Luton, North constituency and there will be some expansion to the north of it. Even now my constituency is under-provided with infrastructure, particularly transport.

There is another east-west transport link—the proposed relief road going across the north of the Dunstable-Luton conurbation through the A5, the M1, the A6 and the A505. That is fundamentally important now, but there have been suggestions recently that it should start at the A5 and stop at the M1. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister seriously to consider giving a higher priority to that relief road and ensuring that it goes right across to the A505. There will then be another genuine east-west trunk link between the centre and the east of England and people will not be required to travel on inappropriate residential roads in my constituency, as they are now.

If the houses are built without the relief road being built at the same time, serious congestion problems will be caused—even beyond those we have now. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that.

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3.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on securing a debate on matter of such importance to her constituents. Milton Keynes is already well established as Britain's fastest growing urban area from the 1970s to the 1990s. Its planning targets require growth of 27,500 dwellings by 2016 and consultation is underway on proposals that would see that target increase to up to 33,900 dwellings. I know that my hon. Friend is a strong advocate for improving the infrastructure in her constituents' area, both currently and in future.

My hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) and for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) have also been strongly engaged in that debate. They are right to argue that as we expand growth in the housing supply—including affordable housing—and support growth in the area, it must be underpinned by the necessary critical infrastructure for those communities and the communities of the future.

I should like to talk briefly about the background to the growth area proposals and the recent update, before responding directly to some of the points made by my hon. Friends. Following the identification in 2001 of the Milton Keynes and south-midlands area as one of the four growth areas in the south-east, independent studies have highlighted the considerable potential for further growth there. My hon. Friends are right to point out that that is critical to the local economy in Milton Keynes and the general area, and to the supply of affordable housing. It also has an impact on the needs of the economy and housing requirements of the south-east and London as a whole. That is why the sustainable communities plan published earlier this year, and the progress report released in July, set out a substantial programme for providing the additional housing and infrastructure required to create sustainable communities. That programme included the allocation of £136 million in funding to pump prime the delivery of growth. Milton Keynes has had a history of considerable success in urban development, but we must also recognise that there have been difficulties in the past and learn from those as we expand growth in the area in future.

The level of growth for the area is the subject of an extensive consultation process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West said, the three regional assemblies are taking forward the growth proposals. The draft alterations they have prepared propose that the Milton Keynes area should seek to deliver up to 33,900 dwellings between 2001 and 2016. Under the proposal, new development would be delivered through the completion of developments that are already planned, urban intensification, and the creation of new sustainable urban extensions, which will need to be integrated with the provision of new and enhanced public transport systems and interchanges. The consultation document also sets out what local partners consider to be the key elements of local transport infrastructure that require enhancing and upgrading by 2016 in order to facilitate the growth. That will need to be examined through the regional planning guidance process.

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The planning consultation document has already gone through an initial period of public consultation—including public consultation events. I understand that more than 1,600 submissions were received during the first phase of the consultation. The next phase will be the public examination run by an independent panel, which will be held in March 2004. That panel will scrutinise all the proposals, including those at Milton Keynes, and the wider transport infrastructure required to go with the proposals. Further public consultation on the proposed changes will be undertaken later in 2004, before the alterations are finalised towards the end of 2004. The consultation process has some way to go.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North mentioned the transport issues affecting his constituency. I will discuss that further with my noble Friend Lord Rooker, who is closely involved in the Milton Keynes growth area, but I also point my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North towards the public consultation process, which will give considerable opportunity to consider transport infrastructure issues in more detail.

Sustainable communities are not just about housing. This cannot simply be about building dormitories; it must be about building sustainable communities. That is why we need to look at issues around jobs and economic infrastructure, and around transport and public services, including access to good schools and health facilities.

A number of initiatives are in place, including the additional Government funding to pump prime the delivery of growth, which has already been provided to the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area. The announcement that was made in July allocated £136 million for specific projects across the three growth areas over the next three years. Part of that money has been used to fund a study of the strategic primary and social health care provision in the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area. That is crucial for anticipating the kinds of problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West raised with regard to the health care needs of the existing community, and the community in future as growth occurs. There are additional resources to fund similar projects, which we expect to announce shortly.

Transport issues have been addressed. I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has announced a package of improvements worth £2.2 billion for the growth areas. They include improving and widening the M1 motorway south of Milton Keynes, the Dunstable northern bypass, and the dualling of the A421 between Bedford and junction 13 of the M1. In addition, there is the Stoke Hammond and Linslade bypass to help improve road links between Aylesbury and Milton Keynes. The Strategic Rail Authority has committed to local upgrades as part of the west coast main line improvements, which will assist Milton Keynes with its north-south links.

I recognise the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West and strongly reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East about the need for east-west public transport links. It is therefore welcome that the

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SRA is examining the business case for rail services on the western section of this line between Oxford and Bedford, and working closely with the East West Rail Consortium, comprising local authorities and key stakeholders. This is clearly an important issue that will need to be addressed further over the coming months and years as part of the programme to support growth around Milton Keynes.

We have also been working closely with colleagues in the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills to ensure that health care provision and education facilities in the growth areas properly recognise the impact of growth and anticipate it. Those discussions are also under way at ministerial level.

I come now to the important questions raised my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West about local delivery vehicles and the nature of the inter-regional board. As hon. Members know, we have said that we will establish an urban regeneration area for Milton Keynes to be led by English Partnerships and the local authority and in which local partners must play a key role. We have said that new delivery arrangements must involve working in close partnership with Milton Keynes council, the local strategic partnership and the local business community. They also need to facilitate a strong input from those who represent potential private investors and professional bodies concerned with growth and development.

Successful growth across the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area requires engagement at regional level and a wide variety of local and regional partners. To ensure that that occurs, the proposal is to establish an inter-regional board, to be chaired by my noble Friend Lord Rooker. The function of the board is to support growth, and to influence and encourage integration between the different organisations. The board will not supplant the operations of existing agencies or delivery vehicles. Normally, it would not have its own funds to allocate, and it will focus on high-level executive intervention. We expect it to involve senior representatives from strategic health authorities, regional development agencies, regional planning bodies, the Strategic Rail Authority, water companies and other utilities, the Highways Agency, the Housing Corporation, county councils and unitaries, the Confederation of British Industry, the House Builders Federation and others.

It is critical that my noble Friend Lord Rooker will chair that board. That recognises our strong ministerial commitment to making the board work effectively and engaging the different agencies that need to be involved at a sufficiently senior level. We expect proper senior representation from the organisations, and for them to work closely with each other and my noble Friend Lord Rooker to ensure that infrastructure issues are anticipated early enough. We will continue to raise issues with individual Departments and have discussions across Whitehall and at regional and inter-regional level. We expect to establish the membership shortly. The hope is that the board will hold its first meeting in the new year, and will begin to anticipate its programme of work over the next few months.

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Dr. Starkey : Can the Minister assure me that when the members are appointed their names will be made public, and preferably that the MPs affected will be given first notice, so that we can report our concerns directly to those individuals?

Yvette Cooper : I see no reason why that should not happen. I shall raise that point with Lord Rooker. We recognise the important role that the contributions of MPs play in this process.

Milton Keynes council has made clear representations to the Government about its unique circumstances and the way in which funding for the council has lagged behind growth. In recognition of that, my noble Friend Lord Rooker has given approval for English Partnerships to contribute additional funding for the council towards the cost of providing amenities for the town. English Partnerships is working closely with Milton Keynes council to define how best to apply the funding of up to £2 million a year over the next three years.

There is a real opportunity to plan for sustainable growth for the benefit of Milton Keynes. The Government are keen to do everything they can to assist in providing the infrastructure to go with growth, and to enable Milton Keynes to continue to prosper and reform.

The ethos of the sustainable communities plan is that we should support the entire community, and that we should invest in the infrastructure needed. We are not simply discussing the bricks and mortar of houses, but crucial community infrastructure, so that such areas can thrive in future. I note the points made by hon. Members from the area. I assure them that we strongly agree with the points that they made about the need to ensure that that growth occurs in a sustainable way.

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