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Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman mentioned media in passing. I trespass on his speech to say that if the BBC listens to the debate or reads his speech it should take cognisance of the fact that there is no Thames gateway television or radio. In Tilbury, on the north bank, I get Kent BBC television, and the area does not get London services. The media must take account of what is demonstrably a new area. The BBC in particular is way behind, but commercial television is not really meeting the challenge either.

Mr. Syms: That is a good point. Although we may disagree about regional identities, TV station identities certainly inform the way in which people think about their region. I am in the Meridian area, and Meridian claims to serve people not too far from the hon. Gentleman's region, so the service stretches all the way from Dorset to the Thames gateway. Media can certainly define an area very successfully.

The Minister said clearly that most of the identified sites for development were brownfield, but the majority of the area is greenfield, and there is green belt within it. It is important to tease out the priorities for development. I know that the CPRE is concerned about the temptation to go for some of the greenfield sites in Essex and Kent before investing in some of the more expensive redevelopment sites in London. Given that the Government have on occasions encroached on green belt, we need a clear statement on how they feel about the piece of green belt on this side of London.

The Minister spoke a great deal about density levels but gave no specific commitment. Figures of 90 to 100 per hectare have been mentioned, and perhaps the Minister who winds up can be more specific about what level the Government consider appropriate. In previous developments, shortcuts have sometimes been taken, so it is important to have high-quality as well as high-density development.

The Environment Agency and others have estimated that perhaps £4 billion will have to be spent on flood defences in the area. The Environment Agency issues maps, and PPG25 should inform planning authorities, but it is clearly a matter for concern. If there is a flood on the site in 20 years' time, when many houses have been built, people will ask how we could let the development go ahead without proper flood prevention measures. The time to consider the issue is now, not after the houses have been built.

Mr. Francois : My hon. Friend will be aware that flooding is an emotive issue in Essex, going all the way back to the great flood of 1953—the terrible events of that night are not lost on us in the county even today. That being the case, it is a great pity that the Government decided to abolish the Essex local flood defence committee, which had a tremendous track record. Does he agree that safety must be paramount and the Government must be more careful about the flooding implications of the proposed developments?

Mr. Syms: Of course. The Minister will have heard what my hon. Friend said, and indeed he mentioned flooding in his speech. Of course we must take sensible measures to ensure that any development is safe.
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Keith Hill: I am sure that neither the hon. Gentleman nor the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) is in the business of scaremongering. The Thames is protected to a level of one in 1,000 years, and that will remain the case up to 2030. In the meantime, much work is being done, led by the Environment Agency, to put in place appropriate defences for the future beyond that year. Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: PPG25 informs every aspect from regional to local planning decisions in terms of flood risk and assessment. Every ODPM and local vehicle delivery project is also subject to rigorous flood risk assessment, and we are using the opportunity of the greening of the gateway to think creatively about sustainable flood defences. I want to establish it absolutely on the record that the Government are seized of the issue and every possible measure is being taken to increase the already high levels of flood defence in the Thames gateway.

Mr. Syms: I thank the Minister for his assurance that Conservative Members are not scaremongering. It is obviously sensible to think before building lots of houses.

Mr. Francois: I, too, am grateful for what the Minister has said. As my hon. Friend will know, there has been a lively debate on these issues between the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but the Minister has given us some reassurance. I hope that he will continue to bear the issues in mind as development proceeds.

Mr. Syms: My hon. Friend has made his own point.

The Minister mentioned skills. There is concern about whether there are enough skills to deal with this level of development, especially in regard to the built environment. The way in which development is going means that there are already shortages of planning officers, which is why planning appeals sometimes take so long. I was pleased to learn that the Minister had announced a skills audit by the Learning and Skills Council. It would be a pity if people affected by unemployment above the national average could not take advantage of the growth and inward investment that will result from this project.

Other anxieties have been expressed. For instance, there is the possibility of people building up land banks on brownfield sites in order to sit on rising land values. There are also general environmental worries. There is, for example, a substantial water shortage; indeed, all the public utilities need to undertake major investment. Given the degree of development involved, we should ask whether we should try to improve environmental standards in some of the homes. In Australia, there are double flushes on lavatories to conserve water.

I will not detain the House further, because many Members with local interests want to speak. There is considerable common ground, and we have a great opportunity. Investment must be made at the outset to give confidence to the private sector; we need design of a decent quality; and we need to involve people in the area, because much of the development will change its geography considerably. If it is all done properly, however, I think we can offset some of the pressures affecting greenfield sites.
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I welcome the debate, and look forward to hearing other speeches.

7.3 pm

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak in such an important debate.

The people of Dartford are extremely proud of their heritage, which they see as one of the engine rooms of the Kent economy. Dartford has been home to many great engineers and thinkers of bygone ages. Hiram Maxim, who made such a contribution to powered flight, lived there. Trevithick did much of his engineering work there. Burroughs, Wellcome, one of the first and most important drugs companies in the world, set up shop in Dartford and has done extremely well. Dartford is also reported to be the site of the first-ever commercially successful paper mill. It has a long and proud heritage. We recognise, however, that we have moved into a post-industrial age, and that businesses that have long outlived their usefulness need to be regenerated. Dartford needs new jobs, new investment, better and more modern housing and a cleaner environment if it is to be an exciting area of which we can be proud in future.

That is all very well and good and the people of Dartford are certainly onside, but development must take place in a measured way. We must ensure that the area can sustain so much investment, and we must pay careful attention to detail in terms of infrastructure. The area must be enhanced rather than being damaged further.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), the new shadow Secretary of State for deregulation, has called for the creation of a new city to be called Thames Reach, with its heart in the Swanscombe and Greenhithe areas. He wants to see thousands of extra houses built in Kent Thameside, in addition to the proposed brownfield developments at Eastern Quarry, Swanscombe peninsula and Ebbsfleet, to meet the housing needs of the rest of the south-east. He has said:

The right hon. Gentleman's proposal amounts to nothing less than the concreting over of north Kent, with large swathes of green belt and farmland in Dartford bulldozed to make way for new housing. It will destroy the character and integrity of existing communities such as Swanscombe and Greenhithe, which every effort is being made to preserve. It will effectively swallow up the communities of Bean, Darenth, Betsham and Southfleet, pleasant Kent villages that currently enjoy the countryside and the rolling green fields that surround them. It undermines the claims of local Tories that their party is committed to the defence of the green belt and the countryside. Moreover, it demonstrates that the Tories want to use
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parts of north Kent to meet all the south-east's future house-building needs, thus ensuring that their own heartland areas are not affected.

Even if this madcap scheme could somehow be brought to fruition, I seriously doubt that the local infrastructure could begin to cope with so much strain on its limited resources. A recent report by the planning committee of the South East regional assembly questions whether even the projected housing growth in the Thames gateway is sustainable, given the limitations of our water supply and sewage treatment network and the fact that one of the lowest levels of annual rainfall in the country is found in the south-east, and north Kent in particular.

The Environment Agency has pointed out that per capita water consumption has risen by between 3 per cent. and 5 per cent. in the last 10 years, and that 80 per cent. of water in Kent comes from groundwater. The level of rainfall received by the south-east is the lowest among UK regions: it is only about 740 mm a year. All that will obviously put a huge strain on existing supply, and Kent county council estimates that an additional £70 million will be needed in Kent Thameside in the next few years to speed up utility connections, flood defences and land reclamation. We are already seeing signs that the infrastructure needs to be upgraded significantly even to deal with the planned development, let alone another entire city.

What about the effect on air quality? Dartford borough council has set up an air quality management area around the A282 tunnel approach road to mitigate the impact of traffic emissions. Traffic emissions in the area 72 per cent. above the Government's nitrogen dioxide objective, and 54 per cent. above the PM2—that refers to particulate matter—objective. Through traffic along the A282 accounts for at least 25 per cent. of emissions in the area.

As traffic levels in Kent Thameside increase over the next 20 years, air quality in Dartford could easily deteriorate further. Additional air quality management areas are already being planned at the Bean interchange, St. Clements way, East Hill and Park road, the Brent-Watling street junction and Lowfield street. Dartford council is at least doing its bit to monitor air quality, but we must ensure that an appropriate standard is maintained. Additional funds to promote more sustainable local transport solutions are urgently needed.

One obvious source of income is the Dartford river crossing. Each year it generates £55 million in income. Only about £1 million of that is earmarked for local transport uses in Kent Thameside. I believe that its share must be increased, as a matter of urgency.

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