First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 15 October 2003
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Draft Thurrock Development Corporation (Area and Constitution) Order 2003
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): I beg to move
That the Committee has considered the draft Thurrock Development Corporation (Area and Constitution) Order 2003.
Let me begin, Mr. Benton, as is conventional, though for all that expressed with the deepest sincerity, by saying how delightful it is to be serving under your wise guidance yet again.
The order was laid before the House on 2 July. If approved by the House and the other place, it will establish an urban development area coterminous with Thurrock council's administrative boundary, and an urban development corporation to regenerate it. The Thames gateway presents a huge opportunity. Its growth potential was recognised over 10 years ago; indeed at that time it was colloquially known as ''Heseltown''. It is in a strategic location with major transport links to the continent; it has one of the largest concentrations of brownfield sites in the country; and it offers the opportunity to regenerate existing deprived communities and the capacity to accommodate about 300,000 new jobs by 2031.
The regeneration of the gateway is a broad-based project that needs to tackle brownfield development, economic growth, environmental improvement and urban renewal in an integrated fashion to achieve sustainable development. The Government are keen to realise the development potential of the gateway. We are working in partnership with local authorities, the Greater London Authority, the regional development agencies and other stakeholders in the region. The Housing Corporation and English Partnerships, as key national delivery agencies, also have important roles.
Our policy statement, ''Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future'', published in February this year, identifies the crucial role that the Thames gateway will play in regenerating existing communities, accommodating new homes and providing new jobs. To make that happen, we need to put in place appropriate delivery mechanisms that will ensure co-ordinated and timely progress. We have announced plans to set up new agencies for specific areas where more focused intervention is required, and to that end we seek to establish new UDCs in east London and Thurrock and a range of bespoke local delivery partnerships and urban regeneration companies elsewhere in the gateway.
We are firmly of the view that a UDC is the most appropriate delivery vehicle for Thurrock. That will provide the single-minded focus and clout necessary to
Column Number: 004
get things done and will help to secure investor confidence. The UDC will facilitate the growth, development and regeneration of one of the most deprived areas of south Essex, opening important new opportunities for housing and jobs at a key strategic location in the gateway. The UDC's work in Thurrock will also have an important impact on London and the wider south-east, underpinning the capital's continued economic success and accommodating housing growth.
I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) in his place this afternoon. Thurrock has a wide range of complex land-use and land assembly problems that currently constrain housing and economic growth. In addition, some communities in the borough experience some of the most acute levels of multiple deprivation in south Essex. That is characterised by poor quality, unpopular and isolated social housing, high levels of antisocial behaviour and higher-than-average levels of unemployment. Those factors contribute to widespread poverty and a culture of welfare dependency. Tilbury St. Chads and Tilbury Riverside are in the 10 per cent. most deprived wards in the country.
However, Thurrock is also a key growth location in the Thames gateway. It has the potential to become an important centre for international trade and enterprise, building on its rich maritime history, maximising the value of the river and empowering its diverse communities to provide an exciting, vibrant and sustainable place to live, work and visit.
The UDC's overriding objective will be to secure the regeneration of the Thurrock area. It will bring land and buildings into effective use and encourage the development of existing and new industry and commerce. It will create an attractive environment, and it will ensure that housing and social facilities are available to encourage people to live and work in the area.
The UDC will be charged with delivering economic growth and building sustainable communities. Its operational area must therefore be large enough to provide the scope necessary to effect real change. The order therefore allows for the UDC's operational boundary to be coterminous with Thurrock council's administrative area. That will provide the UDC with the flexibility to consider development opportunities across the borough, to create new settlements and to improve the sustainability of existing communities. It would also enable the UDC to undertake a detailed appraisal of current land use within the borough and to develop strategic proposals for regeneration, housing and economic development.
According to the proposal, housing, commercial and industrial growth would be focused predominantly, but not exclusively, on brownfield land south of the A13. The UDC would operate in line with the development principles established in Thurrock council's local plan—and first deposit unitary development plan—as that relates to the protection of the green belt.
Column Number: 005
UDCs are intended to be short-life bodies. It is important that they focus on achievement within a clear time scale rather than regard themselves as having an open-ended remit. Typical lifespans for earlier UDCs have been seven to 10 years. That has given them sufficient time to develop and implement a strategy and delivery plan and to tackle complex land assembly problems. The Thurrock UDC will therefore have an indicative lifespan of seven years, with a full review after five years.
Giving UDCs the role of determining planning applications for the types of development likely to be most relevant to their purposes will allow them to deliver action quickly and effectively in areas of intended change. The Government intend to place an order before the House and the other place which will give the Thurrock UDC powers to determine large-scale and strategic planning applications. Householder and minor planning applications are expected to stay with the local authority for determination.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): In section 4.7 of the Government's consultation paper on the issue, which concerns planning powers, the Government said:
''Primary legislation would be needed to make available this option of giving a UDC operational flexibility to deal only with applications relevant to its strategic purpose.''
Are the Government now saying that secondary legislation will be able to fulfil that purpose?
Keith Hill: Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to clarify that. We are now saying that secondary legislation will serve the purpose.
Hon. Members should note that such a transfer of planning powers would not change the nature of those powers, nor would it lessen the transparency of the planning process. The UDC, as a local planning authority, would follow the same or similar procedures to the borough. So, for example, if the borough would have consulted, so will the UDC, and if the public has a right of appeal against borough decisions, they will enjoy that same right against the decisions of the UDC. It is not necessarily the speed of planning decisions that will be accelerated by their transfer to the UDC, but the speed with which the area could be regenerated, as a result of combining planning powers with the UDC's single-minded focus.
Mr. Davey: Will the Minister give way?
Keith Hill: If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself, I have only a few more words to say. He will then have ample opportunity to raise his points in the debate. I am sure that members of the Committee are only too anxious to make their own contributions, so I shall conclude my remarks by saying a brief word about board membership.
The role of the board is to set the strategic vision for the UDC and to take the decisions required to deliver that vision. All the places on the board will be filled on merit in accordance with guidance from the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Four seats have been allocated to representatives of Thurrock council. The chair, deputy chair and the
Column Number: 006
remaining seven seats on the board were advertised in the national and local press.
Finally, on 16 April a consultation paper was published on the proposed Thurrock UDC; responses were received from individuals, the voluntary sector, the private sector, local authorities, non-governmental organisations and Government agencies. About half of all respondents, including Thurrock council, explicitly expressed their support for the UDC proposals. No respondent stated opposition to the principle of establishing a UDC. I therefore commend the proposal to the Committee.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I, too, am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I am particularly delighted that the hon. Member for Thurrock is present. It is a pity that the Selection Committee did not make the hon. Gentleman a member of the Committee. Notwithstanding his track record of occasionally not being entirely compliant with his Whips Office, I should have thought that it would be normal practice for the local Member to be on the Committee considering such a measure.
I shall be brief. The experience of the 1980s showed that urban development corporations could be effective in delivering relatively large quantities of housing and effective urban regeneration over a fixed period. The Government need to tackle the housing crisis, especially the crisis in social housing which is of their making. Their solution, which focuses on designated growth areas in south-east England, may not appeal to all of the Minister's colleagues who will speak in the Westminster Hall debate tomorrow on reducing regional disparities in economic growth and well-being.
Typically, Members' concerns in addressing this, and similar proposals, are about the loss of power and accountability that comes from removing powers from a local authority, especially when all political parties, even the Government—I say that with a little nerve—claim to be interested in devolving power to local authorities. In this case, the local authority supports the measure; no doubt the hon. Member for Thurrock will say more about that in a moment.
It is curious that a single-borough urban development corporation is being created when the local authority is fully supportive. I could understand why it would be necessary to create a UDC if there were recalcitrant local authorities who did not want to play ball, and I could understand the logic of creating a development corporation that extended beyond the boundaries of a single local authority. However, what is not immediately obvious to me is the logic of transferring certain planning powers of Thurrock borough council to the Thurrock development corporation, whose boundaries are coterminous, unless it is to thwart democratic accountability in making the planning decisions necessary to get regeneration moving on the scale and at the speed that the Minister suggests.
If I have understood the underlying primary legislation correctly, the power to designate
Column Number: 007
development areas and create development corporations is based on its being in the national interest to do so. The Minister told us that there will be no additional planning powers, and that it is a single-borough solution. As the single borough in question is supportive, I do not understand how the national interest is served by the creation of this development corporation. Perhaps the Minister will say something else about that in due course.
As the Minister said, the development corporation will be part of the wider Thames gateway project, which of the four designated growth areas is the least likely to fail, if I may put it that way, but still faces challenges. One of the concerns expressed about significant housing expansion in the Thames gateway relates to the flood risk and the cost of providing flood defences. In his summing up, will the Minister tell us what are the implications for Thurrock? Will the development corporation have powers or money that the borough council would not have had, and will it address that issue? The House Builders Federation said that if the Government rely on developers to bear the whole burden of flood defences in the Thames gateway, they are likely to be disappointed.