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Bob Spink: Will the Minister give way?

Keith Hill: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am conscious that I may be straining the patience of the House. [Hon. Members: "No!"] I am sure that hon. Members are eager for me to move on to the fifth and final principle that informs our approach, so I shall hurry along to it.

The private sector is already very active across some of the key development areas in the gateway. It is already investing massive resources in planning and site preparation: Stratford city, Isle of Dogs, Silvertown quays, Ebbsfleet, north-east Gravesend, Dartford Park and Barking Reach are all either on site or at an advanced planning stage, and those are just the big projects. We have established a developer forum to meet regularly with developers to identify and tackle key barriers to delivery.
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The fifth principle of the gateway strategy lies in securing the key policy goals to achieve sustainable objectives, which involves quality and imagination of design and construction and the reuse of brownfield land. We have taken steps nationally to promote higher densities and better design. For example, English Partnerships has already used urban design codes at Greenwich Millennium village.

The Government have also made a commitment to developing a sustainable buildings code to establish higher standards for energy and water efficiency, waste and use of materials. The Thames gateway will be the focus for demonstration schemes to test sustainable construction methods, supply chains and economic viability. The gateway will rightly be in the vanguard of new design and construction standards.

It goes without saying that the gateway is a big project. It will require time, resources, imagination and a lot of effort to realise, but it offers enormous rewards. It is currently fashionable to say how complicated the scheme is. Yes, the project can look complicated from the outside, and we recognise that we must present the gateway in a way that existing businesses and residents and potential new investors can understand.

Most importantly, local people, both those who currently live in the gateway and those who will move into the area, will need to see the benefits. On Tuesday of last week, I went on a whistle-stop tour of the gateway to coincide with our announcement of a further £100 million tranche of investment in infrastructure, and I saw for myself the progress in creating sustainable communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) and I visited Poplar to celebrate our investment of £4 million in the A12 junctions project, which will, for the first time, link hitherto isolated housing estates, such as the Teviot estate, to the new employment, retail and leisure opportunities of the Leaside regeneration.

I visited Basildon to celebrate, with the Basildon Renaissance Partnership, our investment of £100,000 in the feasibility study for the proposed Basildon centre for sporting excellence, which, if successful, will provide first-class opportunities for sports development, recreational sport and preventive health care, and will offer a key training location for the 2012 Olympics in London. That comes on top of nearly £30 million of investment by my Department in housing and regeneration projects in Basildon.

I also visited Swanscombe in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) for further celebrations, this time of our £1 million investment in road and environmental improvements, not least the refurbishment of community halls in a locality that sometimes feared that it would not benefit from planned housing developments in the Dartford area.

In Swanscombe, in Basildon and in Poplar, there was a recognition of the opportunities for a better quality of life arising out of the Thames gateway project, and an enthusiasm for the Government's determination that both existing and future communities will benefit from the gateway scheme. The Thames gateway is positive, exciting and it is definitely now on the move.
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6.41 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I welcome this debate on the Thames gateway. I am pleased to see so many hon. Members from that area both behind me and on the Government Benches. [Hon. Members: "Not behind you."] I do not think that the area is over-represented by Conservatives yet, but perhaps by the end of next year things will change. [Interruption.] I am a modest person.

There is an all-party consensus on this issue. If the commitment to communities is to mean anything, it must be a commitment that all of us sign up to. A long-term investment is necessary to turn many communities around, and one hopes that it will continue when Governments change.

Much of what the Government have done has built on the work of previous Governments, under both Baroness Thatcher and John Major, and Lord Heseltine provided much of the vision that started the process. If we look at what happened in docklands, we see that there are some useful lessons on how to approach extending development to the Thames gateway.

In most of the post-war years, very little was done in some of these communities. There is now a great deal more hope about what politicians with sensible policies can bring to many communities. London is a success story.

Richard Ottaway: My hon. Friend speaks of post-war success. If I had made a third intervention on the Minister, I would have reminded him that there was an urban development corporation for docklands. If the Thames gateway were made into an urban development corporation with powers, Ministers would be even more certain about the proposal. Does my hon. Friend have a view on that?

Mr. Syms: I understand that there is consultation about whether to create a corporation for some of the area, but the concern is that the corporation would take in three regions: the eastern region, the southern region and London. A good deal of co-ordination will be required if that is to be successful. I see no reason why that should not happen, as long as there is the clear vision that the Minister mentioned.

Planning policy guidance 9A needs to be updated. As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said, it is nearly 10 years old. Some things have certainly changed over the past 10 years, so I suspect that an update is necessary. From what I can see from the information, there is already a commitment to update it after the south-east plan has been updated.

London is a successful city. It is a city of contrasts. As with other wealthy communities, in and around London there have always been areas of great deprivation. Any sensible politician will want to do what they can to improve the conditions of people in that area. People in parts of the east end and the Thames gateway suffer from poor health and education and higher unemployment than perhaps other areas of the capital. Generally speaking, that is why we welcome the approach that has been taken. As the Minister set out, it is no small undertaking. There may be substantial differences between Opposition Members and Labour
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Members on the sustainable communities plan in its entirety, particularly on building on green fields in some of our shire counties, but the Thames gateway is one aspect of the plan where there is much common ground.

If we can make the Thames gateway a success, we can mitigate a lot of the urban migration that is putting pressure on some of our shires, where there is great opposition to development. If we make it a success, I do not think that we will necessarily need to build the number of houses to which the Government seem to be committed.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): May I characterise the hon. Gentleman's position as being that the Conservatives are happy to build houses in areas where they are not represented, but that they do not want to build houses in any of their own areas?

Mr. Syms: The Government and the Opposition agreed that it is best to build on brownfield sites. There are many opportunities in the Thames gateway. It would be a pity if we did not look at those opportunities before we took decisions that meant that we had to build on greenfield sites.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): Would the hon. Gentleman comment on the plan of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) to build a new city called Thames Reach south of Swanscombe and Greenhithe in the middle of the green belt in my constituency? He envisages a major city with many thousands of houses— more than the number currently agreed. I wonder whether that is now Tory party policy and whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Syms: It is not policy. The key issue is that the sensible thing for any politician to do is to look first at urban areas where there are brownfield sites and opportunities. Otherwise, businesses and investment will be driven towards greenfield sites, which, as we all know, are cheaper to develop than many brownfield sites. With this development—120,000 new homes, 180,000 jobs, 80,000 hectares, 40 miles by 20 miles—we are talking about a major concern. If it is a success, it will be a major area of growth and building for the next 20 to 30 years.

What needs to be done to make it a success? We need to set more targets, so that we can measure how we are getting on. Up-front investment is the key. If there is confidence among the financial institutions, they will invest because they will see the long-term ability to make profit from those areas. The Government have talked about levering in £2 billion of investment. We all know that the area will develop and grow only if private sector funds, pension funds and other major financial institutions feel that it will be profitable and take an interest in those areas.

The key difficulty is transport and infrastructure. We all know that there is a shopping list of transport projects, some of which are coming to fruition, some of which are planned. We have heard about the channel tunnel rail link, which we think will be finished by 2007;
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the Greenwich waterfront and east London transit scheme; the east London line extension; the docklands light railway extension to City airport by 2005 and further extensions. The proposal for the Thames gateway bridge at the moment is for a private finance initiative scheme with a toll to link both sides of the estuary, which will open lots of opportunities. Substantial road improvements are also proposed. The Government have so far committed about £600 million for these schemes. It is important to get the transport right. In docklands, there was growth but the extension of the underground was delayed. Transport should come first if we are to lever in investment for housing and development.

There is concern that there has already been some backtracking on certain schemes. Transport for London's scheme for linking Barking Reach and Barking town centre is now proposed to be a bus route rather than a transit scheme. The rail passenger committee for southern England says that the poor rail network in the region could cripple development.

The Minister did not mention Crossrail. The City of London and many hon. Members have long felt that Crossrail, with its Stratford link, is essential to the development of the area, but we are also aware that it is a remarkably expensive scheme. Whenever Crossrail has briefed me, it has said that most of the track is there, but it just needs to link up this area and that area. As a Transport Minister is to wind up the debate, perhaps he can enlighten us a little more about progress on Crossrail and how it could affect investment in the area.

Infrastructure is key, but as the region covers not only London but parts of Essex and Kent, it needs to be fairly distributed between the urban and non-urban areas. Most of the schemes that I have seen so far tend to concentrate on the London bit rather than on Essex or Kent. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has tabled several parliamentary questions about services in Essex. Those communities must get the investment if they are expected to take additional housing and development. If development is to be forced in, the investment must come first. The siting of hospitals, for example, is a key issue.

The Mayor and the regional planning bodies of both the south and the east believe that there is substantially more capacity to build in the area if sufficient investment is made. As many as 300,000 houses have been mentioned; again, investment is the key. The Campaign to Protect Rural England, which, along with some of the Labour Members present today, is not all that keen on development in rural areas, has also cottoned on to the fact that one could lift some of the levels and targets in the Thames gateway. The investment has to be up front.

When the housing is built, it is important that the communities are as self-contained as possible, with health, education, culture, media and open spaces all provided for. The Minister mentioned that in his speech. It is important that all the facilities be included in planning guidance. It is important also to be able to get in and out of the Thames gateway, as one suspects many people will need to do for employment purposes. It is also important to minimise the number of people who have to move around.
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