Draft Thurrock Development Corporation (Area and Constitution) Order 2003

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Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): As a south Essex Member of Parliament, and in the context of my hon. Friend's remarks, I remind the Committee that it is the fiftieth anniversary of the great flood of 1953 when some 300 people lost their lives, around 100 of them in Essex. I amplify what my hon. Friend said and make the point, which I am sure my colleague from Thurrock will also make, that flooding remains an extremely emotive subject in our part of the country. People there are interested to know whether it is being taken extremely seriously, so it seems an apposite time to put that marker on the record.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am sure that the Minister has taken note of his remarks.

The key to the success of UDCs has been the ability to fund infrastructure development ahead of the housing development that it supports. Most people recognise that as the key to successful regeneration. I was therefore surprised that, given the intention to create a development corporation in Thurrock, the Minister's allocation statement on 30 July on the initial tranche of funding to growth areas was so specific. I would have thought that in creating such a body, one would want to send a signal that it was empowered by giving it a block grant of the money available for Thurrock, rather than the same penny-packet, individual-project allocations that areas without the development corporation model receive. Will the Minister throw light on the Government's thinking, as it seems to suggest that they do not see the development corporation as an arms-length, independent body, which will take the baton and run with it?

I want to ask the Minister about transport links beyond the development corporation boundary. In his opening remarks, he said that new jobs—300,000 in the Thames gateway—and a large amount of housing

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would be generated. The Deputy Prime Minister vehemently rejects suggestions that the Thames gateway will become a dormitory from which people will commute from their splendid new houses—affordable or otherwise—to other parts of the south-east. However, the housing crisis in the south-east is happening now. Jobs exist in the hospitals, schools and police stations of Surrey, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Kent and south-west London, as I am sure the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) will remind us. The Government must address the housing crisis, especially for those who work in those public services.

If the Government build roads and houses in Thurrock and other parts of the Thames gateway, young policemen, nurses and doctors who want to take jobs in Surrey will probably live in those houses, and that will add to the daily chaos on the M25. The Government's funding model should not ignore the impact on transport links external to the designated growth area. In this case, the good old M25 is likely to take a large part of the hit.

Economic growth has been much faster west of London than east. I think that we are talking about a 1 per cent. annual increase in jobs east of London and an increase of some 5 per cent. west of London. In addition, cross-London transport links are relatively poor and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. I put it to the Minister that we can expect a significant additional burden on our roads as a result of these initiatives. All those within easy reach of London are concentrated east of the city.

The Minister has said that the development corporation's remit will be to focus on brownfield development and brownfield land assembly. I am delighted to hear that, but could he say where it is enshrined in black and white? I have not been able to reassure myself that the corporation's remit will be thus limited and that it will not have a focus on assembling, through compulsory purchase, greenfield land, which it may find is the quickest way to kick-start the process of achieving its targets, particularly on housing.

Can the Minister say what percentage of the vacant land or, if he wants to subdivide it into a slightly more focused target, derelict brownfield land in the Thurrock development corporation area is currently in public ownership and therefore something that the Government, if they apply the appropriate pressure and give the right incentives, have it in their power to deal with?

The Minister touched on the question of membership of the development corporation. I might have been more reassured by what he said had I not heard what the Prime Minister said about appointments to the House of Lords at Prime Minister's questions a couple of hours ago. In listing the ideal qualities for an appointee, the Prime Minister made no attempt to disguise the fact that his preference is someone who supports the Government. [Interruption.] Well, I think that tomorrow's Hansard will show that the Prime Minister did say that.

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Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): I was in the Chamber and heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister clearly say that he would like to have Labour Members who voted with the Labour Government. I do not think that he was talking about Conservative Members, Liberal Democrat Members or Cross Benchers. What has been said is a misrepresentation.

The Chairman: Order. I do not think that we will get bogged down with what the Prime Minister did or did not say. I ask hon. Members to return to the subject of the debate.

Mr. Hammond: That is wise counsel, Mr. Benton. As the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) would recognise, the presence on this Committee of the hon. Member for Thurrock underlines the fact that there is a distinction between Labour Members in general and Labour Members who always support the Labour Government.

I am a little concerned about the appointment process for members of the corporation, especially as it will have significant powers and, as I understand it, limited democratic accountability.

Perhaps the Minister can explain this small point. He has confirmed that the boundary of the development corporation area will be coterminous with the borough council area. Why, then, is it necessary to go to the elaborate lengths of defining the area in the order by reference to a map appended to it? Surely it could be more efficiently defined, at the cost of much less paper and with much less hassle, simply as the administrative borough of Thurrock. Have I missed a reason why it has to be done in that way? [Laughter.]

Well, I say to the Minister that given the increased use of electronic means of communication—I originally accessed the order electronically to read it—he will know that electronic media are very good at handling the printed word, but they get rather more cumbersome when trying to deal with things such as maps. They get slower and use up more memory space. I could see no conceivable reason why a map had to be appended to the order because the definition required could easily have been made without the map.

History shows that the Government's targets can be effectively achieved by this time-limited, focused development corporation approach. The experience here is slightly different from that of the 1980s because we are not talking merely about the regeneration of derelict areas and areas with specific problems for its own sake. We are talking about it as part of a wider strategy to deliver large amounts of additional housing in the south-east.

That strategy has an inward-looking focus—regenerating the area—and a broader regional or supra-regional focus on delivering large amounts of additional housing. Whether the people of Thurrock come to resist, over time, the development corporation's making large and inevitably controversial planning decisions, only time will tell. They will clearly see the merit of regeneration in its narrow sense, but they may be less persuaded of the merits of all the large town expansion schemes that I understand will be part of this.

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The Minister was at pains to say that the corporation's planning powers would be the same as those of the borough council. He will correct me if I am wrong, but I take it that the huge difference will be that the members of the development corporation will not be accountable at the ballot box to the people of the borough if they make decisions that the people find unacceptable. The real challenge for this initiative will be whether it will be able to retain the support of the people of the borough as it does what the Government intend it to do. We shall certainly watch with great interest how the experiment unfolds.

2.57 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I am grateful that I have caught your eye, Mr. Benton, and I shall try not to detain the Committee long. I am conscious that there are several colleagues present from various parts of the United Kingdom—from Scotland, Bradford and some points distant from Thurrock. I hope they might find that our deliberations are relevant to them because this is a national issue. I particularly want to acknowledge their attendance; I do not take it for granted. I know that the Whips asked them to be here but, equally, I hope that they find the debate to be of some relevance and excitement, because the order is the fulfilment of a serious part of the Government's programme, of which they can be justifiably proud.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), so many of whose points were legitimate questions to be flagged up. So far, our deliberations have not been dogged by what disfigures so much of parliamentary proceedings—petty, party points. The hon. Gentleman made some positive, legitimate points to which my right hon. Friend the Minister will wish to respond.

I am proud that the order shows Labour fulfilling its electoral promise by creating more homes in a nice environment and an attractive part of the Thames gateway in which many people can live. People already in Thurrock are going to benefit enormously, as will the others who I hope will be attracted to the area. I understand that some £63 million is already up front for Thurrock alone. However, I was amused when preparing for this afternoon's deliberations to realise that the vehicle by which that is coming about is legislation enacted by a Conservative Government. It is very progressive legislation: the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 was a vehicle of Michael Heseltine, a real pinko who got under the net and who managed to produce some very progressive legislation. We need to acknowledge that and although I do so light-heartedly, I want to make a serious point. The Act allows the urban development corporation to do so many things, including creating businesses, and land assembly. The functions exist to some extent in local authorities, but not so comprehensively. The Act will charge and enthuse the urban development corporation.

According to the 1980 Act, an urban development corporation may

    ''seek to ensure the provision of the water, electricity, gas, sewerage and other services; carry on any business or undertaking for the purposes of regenerating its area; and generally do anything

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    necessary or expedient to this purpose, or for purposes incidental to those purposes.''

Overall, the Act empowers the urban development corporation to do anything that it needs to do to fulfil its mission of creating a new, wonderful residential and commercial environment. As I said, I must acknowledge that the authors and architects of the legislation that this Government are now legitimately exploiting were the Conservative Government of two decades ago.

That also partly answers that question of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, who asked why we needed a Thurrock development corporation when the boundaries are coterminous with those of the local authority. The first reason is that urban development corporations are specifically charged in a way that local authorities are not.

Secondly, I remember that before the docklands development corporation was created, there was great enthusiasm among the then London boroughs and the Greater London council to develop the docklands. Despite that, there was simply inertia, for a variety of reasons. Local authorities were preoccupied with other matters, and sufficient progress was not made. If we have an organisation whose sole mission is the creation of the new concept of—for want of a better term—a new town, it can provide the momentum that we do not get when the matter is left to local authorities.

The third reason is that the other urban development corporations in the Thames gateway are within the curtilage of the Greater London area. I am not advocating that Thurrock should become part of London, and I do not want it to appear in ''Focus'' that I am, but if we were redrawing the boundaries of Greater London today, they would logically include Thurrock and leave out, for example, some areas of Bromley. The Greater London boundary is an artificial creation that arrived in 1963 during the middle of the night in the Committee that considered the London Government Bill in the House of Lords. Thurrock was excluded from the area, so under existing legislation we need a separate body. Also, our interests are different from those of the London boroughs, which share an urban development corporation.

I should have mentioned at the outset that although I proudly identify with Thurrock, one third of the district is part of the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith). She clearly cannot speak today because of her ministerial responsibilities, but I am confident enough to confirm her enthusiasm for the measure.

We share the longest riparian frontage of any local authority in the Thames area, and our borough has London's last working docks and port. Like your constituency of Bootle, Mr. Benton, our borough has a rich Celtic heritage. In the 19th century, the port of Tilbury was cut by Irish labourers, who then became dockers. There were subsequent waves of Irish immigration during the next hundred years, and with

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birth, deaths and marriages, it became quite a Catholic area. People also moved eastwards under the radical schemes of the London county council after world war two. We have a rich social mix, which can now be added to in a real way. I mentioned the housing stock of the LCC. It was tremendous housing in its time, but now it needs a lot of refurbishment and supplementation because of its age.

The Minister made several points about Thurrock, which I want to comment on, if I can delay the Committee for a few more moments. He referred to the fact that there are some areas of multiple deprivation, which is reflected by poor quality, unpopular and isolated social housing in some areas. Some of it is pretty old housing stock. Unfortunately, there are pockets with high levels of antisocial behaviour and youth crime.

There was also under-achievement at school. Again, I should like to pause for a moment. I am a great enthusiast for unitary authorities: I can tell my hon. Friends who do not have them that they work. I will always be grateful for the fact that the Labour MP—myself—the Labour local authority and the then Conservative Minister, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), collaborated to get unitary status. We now see the benefits in education, which was neglected by the old Essex county council. It did not matter who controlled Essex county council, as we were a million miles from Chelmsford. That is relevant to the order. We are creating a unitary authority that will collaborate with and complement the UDC. Again that demonstrates why a separate function and entity are needed for the creation of this new town. I hope that the UDC will be able to cajole the other agencies, the local authority, the police, the health authorities and the Government to ensure that there is appropriate funding commensurate with growth.

Health services are also extremely important. Unfortunately, shortly before I became a Member of Parliament it was decided that the hospital accident and emergency department that served Thurrock should close. Throughout my time as an MP, I have argued that that was foolhardy in the extreme. Short of running naked across Parliament square, I could not draw more attention to my belief that it was foolish, bonkers and short sighted. The build-up of the Thames gateway could be foreseen, yet the A and E department was still closed.

I have spoken informally to the Minister about this. We must get the appropriate health authorities to re-examine whether, in view of the development that will take place, an accident and emergency facility is needed in Thurrock, exclusively for Thurrock. As sure as night turns into day, I believe it will be necessary. The sooner that is recognised, the better.

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