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Northamptonshire (Development)

4.10 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Cook. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate. I am grateful also that the Minister is here to listen to—and, I hope, respond positively to—the debate. For the record, I should state that I serve as a councillor on Kettering borough council and am also a member of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

I shall start, if I may, with my conclusion and then attempt to lead the debate through the process of how I arrived at it. My conclusion is that despite Government promises that housing expansion plans for Northamptonshire would be infrastructure and jobs-led, that is increasingly proving not to be the case. Unless the Minister and his Department seize proper ownership of the delivery of their growth-area agenda and bring other Government Departments and their related agencies—primarily the Highways Agency—into line with their own ambitions, then as far as Northamptonshire is concerned, either the target number of houses envisaged for 2021–31 will not be met, or, if that is pushed through, it will be accompanied by poorer quality new housing than need be the case and a local transport network and local public services that are so overstretched and inadequate as to imperil seriously the quality of life for all who live in the county at the moment and make those new communities unsustainable.

As a matter of urgency, the Minister and his Department need to undertake a major strategic reassessment of the ability of the A14—the A1-M1 link road—and the roads off it to cope with the housing that is required to be built along it, and in particular of the need for an urgent solution to the traffic congestion around Kettering.

How have I arrived at that conclusion? A good place to start is at the beginning. As a result of the Government-led Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional spatial strategy, the final version of which was published in March this year, issues on development and its repercussions on local infrastructure and public services will be the dominant political issue in the Kettering constituency for the next 25 years. Under that strategy, north Northamptonshire, which comprises the boroughs of Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough and the district of East Northants, is expected to deliver about 52,000 new homes and 43,800 new jobs over the period 2001–2021 and a further 28,000 new houses in the following decade. The 52,000 new houses to be built by 2021 will be equivalent to a city the size of Worcester and there will be more of them than in any other part of the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area.

The borough of Kettering is due to see 13,100 new houses built during that period, with further thousands of houses thereafter. That will increase the number of houses and people in the borough by more than a third by 2021 and even more thereafter. Other parts of the Kettering constituency outside the borough will also see housing expansion, although not on as great a scale. Given the housing expansion elsewhere in Northamptonshire, the county will see at least 145,000 new houses constructed by 2031, increasing its population by half. That will be a major step change for the local area and will change life for ever for all those who live there now and will live there in future.
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I have to tell the Minister that expansion on this scale is not what local people would have chosen for their area. The rate of expansion is far more rapid than that set out in the 1996 Northamptonshire county council structure plan, which was democratically arrived at, and which has effectively been consigned to the dustbin of history. Expansion on such a scale is widely opposed in Kettering as being too great and too rapid.

There is clearly strong local support for the economic redevelopment of historically underperforming parts of the county—not least Corby, as well as parts of Northampton and Kettering borough—and support for the provision of more affordable housing in general. However, there are real concerns about the loss of valued local countryside and the creation of new and elongated conurbations, leading to the coalescence of separate, distinctive and historic small towns, with the subsequent loss of their identity. It is extremely disappointing that in the sub-regional strategy the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has abandoned its national minimum target for 60 per cent. of new residential development to take place on brownfield sites.

There is also genuine concern about the fact that the local road network and public services are already overstretched; they will be stretched to breaking point unless urgent steps are taken to co-ordinate and provide the necessary funding for their improvement.

Having said all that, we are where we are. Like it or not, the sub-regional strategy is Government policy, and changes made by the ODPM last Parliament mean that the planning system is now driven by the top-down approach desired by the Government. The result is that local councils and planning authorities in the county are given far less latitude to resist major development plans than under the previous system. As that is the case, local authorities and other agencies in the county that are responsible for the delivery of these development plans and the provision of expanded public services want to work with the new system to ensure that the plans are delivered in the best possible way, so that the local population can make the best of future expansion for the county.

The West Northamptonshire Development Corporation, North Northants Together—the north Northamptonshire local delivery vehicle—Catalyst Corby, the North Northamptonshire joint planning unit and the local councils are all set to help deliver the growth that the Government require. These councils and other agencies have not been overly precious about their powers and have pooled their efforts in order to be more effective. Indeed, the districts of Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough and East Northants, together with Northamptonshire county council, are the first in the country to use the new planning system to create a joint committee for strategic planning, which is supported by a joint planning unit staffed by planning officers from the five authorities.

All the local agencies that I have seen in the county are of the view that, as a Northamptonshire County Council memorandum says,

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Will the Minister confirm that he is committed to ensuring that the delivery vehicle for North Northamptonshire—North Northants Together—will succeed as a strong co-ordinator, and that it is properly financed out of public funds? There is widespread recognition that up-front investment in jobs, infrastructure and services is essential if we are not to repeat the mistakes of failed development opportunities that Northamptonshire has endured in the past.

There is also recognition locally that more resources need to be provided to the delivery agencies if progress is to be made. Sir Patrick Walker, chairman of North Northants Together, said that

Given that NNT has not even been granted sufficient funds to maintain a full-time chief executive and is having to borrow a deputy chief executive from Kettering borough council for one and a half days a week to fulfil this role, Sir Patrick's comments would appear to be spot on. Sir Patrick also highlights that

The message that the Minister needs to hear today is that although Northamptonshire wants to make the best of the housing expansion plans for the county, it is now being hindered in achieving what needs to be achieved by a lack of co-ordination and drive by central Government with regard to development-related funding and initiatives. That is not just my view: it is also, without exception, that of all the major local authorities and agencies that I met during the recess to discuss my preparation for this debate.

To put it bluntly, unless the Minister and his Department seize proper ownership of this growth-area agenda and bring other Government agencies—primarily the Highways Agency—into line with their own ambitions, these development plans will fail. The Government are saying, "Deliver this growth" at the same time as the Highways Agency is saying not to do so while the local roads are at their current level of congestion. That is clearly a failure of joined-up government of considerable proportions. The agency is looking at solutions 10 years or more hence, but local district councils are statutorily bound now to provide tens of thousands of new houses.

The same county council memorandum to which I referred earlier goes on to say that

which is where the Kettering constituency is located—

Article 14 directions are issued under the Town and Country Planning (General Development Procedure) Order 1995, which limit or stop developments on the basis of inadequate transport infrastructure.
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I have even been provided with evidence that a firm wishing to invest in high-quality jobs in Kettering—and itself located near the A14—is being told by the Highways Agency not to invest in the local area. It wants to locate on an existing industrial estate, and the agency has said that it is minded to issue a direction to prevent the council giving permission on already allocated land.

The A14 around Kettering is already operating over its design capacity; it is used by upwards of 70,000 vehicles a day. I understand—perhaps the Minister will want to confirm this this afternoon—that the Government are introducing congestion targets later this year. If necessary, that will mean that the Highways Agency will seek to control access on to the A14 at peak times, which will push congestion back on to the local road network. There are particular concerns over junction 7, located to the north-west of Kettering, which is now acting as a constraint on housing growth in Corby, and in due course will do the same for Kettering, when major planning applications come forward. Highways Agency assessments for major planning applications in Corby also appear to assume only background traffic growth outside Corby. That approach is patently wrong given the growth required from elsewhere, including Kettering.

A memorandum from one of the local planners involved in the development of the area makes it clear that

Indeed, in the final version of the sub-regional strategy published in March, this was the new timetable agreed by the Minister's Department, taking the expansion of this road back from 2012 to 2016. The Minister and his Department need to undertake as a matter of urgency major strategic reassessment of the ability of the A14 and the roads off it to cope with the housing expansion plans for the area.

It is true that a number of initiatives have been announced by the ODPM to encourage development and regeneration in parts of the county. However, the sums already announced fall well below the eventual hundreds of millions of pounds that my area will require. An increase in the population of 50 per cent. means a need for 50 per cent. more GPs, 50 per cent. more dentists, 50 per cent. more schools, 50 per cent. more hospital beds, 50 per cent. more police and so on. Far from being forward looking, most of the funding formulae for future revenue streams for major Departments look backwards to 2001 census data and not forwards to take into account the step change in local population that Northamptonshire is set to experience.

The Milton Keynes and South Midlands health and social care sub-group estimates that relative to the local population there are one fifth fewer nurses and one third fewer hospital-based doctors in the Milton Keynes and south midlands area than in the country as a whole. It also anticipates that the sub-region will see a 44 per cent. growth in population but an 80 per cent. growth in the demand for acute care. What is the Minister's Department's assessment of the total amount of
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infrastructure investment that will be required for the county up to 2021? I want to see the Government guarantee that that sum will be provided.

I thank you, Mr. Cook, for the opportunity to debate this subject this afternoon and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. We have only 14 minutes remaining so any further contribution must be as brief as possible to give the Minister adequate time to respond.

4.26 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I shall be brief. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate, which is of enormous importance to all who live in Northamptonshire, and particularly on his points on the funding formulae. I hope that the Minister will take those points on board. The formulae are retrospective; they should be forward looking. That is the cause of many of the problems.

Where are the plans for the increase in infrastructure needed for that rapidly expanding county? My constituency does not have enough of an infrastructure to support the people living there at the moment. In Wellingborough, people are unable to register directly with a GP. They have to travel outside the county to get an NHS dentist. Northamptonshire roads are the sixth worst in the country. A secondary school has been closed down and demolished, leaving many children without any education. Our police stations have now become part time. The chief constable states that he is 200 officers short.

My constituents have to travel a long way to get to the nearest hospital. The waiting times are long; operations are cancelled at the last minute. If someone is lucky enough to get an appointment, they can spend an hour looking for a car parking space at the hospital. We need a community hospital in Wellingborough with minor accident and emergency facilities. We used to have one, but that went as well. With the huge increase in population, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering has so eloquently described, it is about time that the Government delivered the proper infrastructure that my constituents and the people of Northamptonshire deserve.

4.28 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas) : Not only do I offer the traditional congratulations to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate, but I congratulate him on the thoroughness with which he has approached the matter. I congratulate also the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). They were courteous enough to co-operate in advance of the debate. I am conscious that many issues have been raised of substantial importance to their constituents and to the wider area. If I am not able answer each specific point, and the hon. Member for Kettering has had the courtesy to forewarn me, I undertake to give him a full reply in writing. I accept that it is an important issue for his constituents, as it is for the Government.
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Before I move on to specifics, let me briefly set out Government policy on housing growth and sustainable communities, which forms the backdrop to the debate. We all know that the demand for housing is rising, especially in London and the south-east. Estimates show that by 2016, at least 1.1 million more households will be added to the current backlog of those without their own home in the wider south-east. In parallel, house building in the UK is not keeping pace with increasing demand. House building in 2001 was at its lowest level since world war two. The scale of housing growth outlined in the sustainable communities plan is essential if we are to tackle the problems of housing demand. We must build these homes. Indeed, figures published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister this week show that only three out of 10 of today's 10-year-olds will be able to buy their own home unless house building increases.

The Government have a duty to the population to meet the housing needs of the country. It is our policy to do so in a planned and sustainable way, taking proper account of the needs of individuals, the economy and the environment. We do not want growth at any cost; there must be high-quality, high-density development with the transport links and services that communities need. I think that the hon. Member for Kettering probably agrees with that statement of policy, and that it is the method of implementation that he questions.

What Government support is there for growth areas? There is a wide range of funding streams across Government that directly benefit such areas. The sustainable communities plan is a cross-Government agenda, and we are working closely with all Departments. A £1.25 billion ODPM growth areas fund for 2003–08 has been made available to support the four growth areas. The ODPM and the Department for Transport are providing a £200 million community infrastructure fund, and the Department of Health's growth-area-related funding package brings extra revenue allocations for primary care trusts in the growth areas, as well as an extra £20 million of revenue funding in 2004–06, which is being allocated to the growth areas. Primary care trusts in the growth areas will receive funding increases of £860 million in 2006–07 and £970 million in 2007–08. There is a strong case for saying that the money is there.

In Northamptonshire, about £60 million has been allocated to infrastructure projects over the past three years. We have invested in transport infrastructure with schemes such as the X4 inter-urban bus network, which links Kettering with Corby, Wellingborough, Northampton and Milton Keynes. We have also invested in the Rushden town centre link road. Our £8 million funding of a county-wide investment promotion agency has already been responsible for the creation of 1,500 jobs. There are other examples.

We want to continue our investment to support growth in Northamptonshire, and we have invited new schemes throughout the county, worth up to £50 million over the next two years, to bid for the second round of the growth area fund for the period 2006–08. That includes up to £5 million in Kettering for regeneration and urban renewal in the town centre and surrounding towns, up to £9 million for the Corby Parkland Gateway for town centre renewal and new housing, and £750,000 for environmental improvements in two of east Northamptonshire's market towns.
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In addition, up to £6 million has been earmarked for the continuation of the Fit for Market/Invest Northants project, which brings high-grade employment opportunities to the county; more than £4.5 million has been provisionally allocated to greenspace projects across the county; and in west Northamptonshire a £25 million block grant has been provisionally allocated to the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation to help with regeneration.

I will now address some of the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman. It is worth stating that the growth figure of 145,000 houses is not Government policy. The current regional spatial strategy extends only to 2021 and calls for 99,500 houses in the county. Growth figures past 2021 will be subject to full review as the next regional spatial strategy is prepared. Local authorities had ample opportunities to influence the content of that strategy: they made submissions and were present at the examination in public. Local authorities have always operated within housing targets set by strategic documents. In the past, structure plans set overall housing requirements. In the new planning system, they will be set by RSSs, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

There is also a great opportunity for the county. Sustainable growth, and the jobs, hospitals, schools and transport links needed to support it, will bring economic prosperity and town centre renewal, along with affordable housing that will benefit both the current and future residents of these communities.

The hon. Gentleman rightly expressed concerns about environmental protection. The Government have increased environmental protection as part of the sustainable communities plan. More than 70 per cent. of new homes are now being built on brownfield land compared with 56 per cent. in 1997. New building standards will mean that new homes are 40 per cent. more energy efficient compared with five years ago.

We will protect the historic villages and the distinctive rural character of north Northamptonshire by ensuring that growth is high density and high quality, and that it maximises the capacity of the existing built-up areas. The sub-regional strategy states that urban extensions, where required, must be sustainable and planned to prevent the physical coalescence of Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough. We are supporting the local authorities in this goal through, for example, the £4.5 million green-space funding allocated for the next two years of growth area funding.

The hon. Gentleman said that it was disappointing that the 60 per cent. target for new residential development on brownfield sites had been abandoned. We have not abandoned that target. He was, as he acknowledged, referring to a national target. National planning policy as set out in PPS 3 requires that priority be given to brownfield sites, and that policy approach will apply to development in Northamptonshire, as it will anywhere else.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about planning, local authorities have always operated to housing targets set by strategic documents. In the past, structure plans set
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overall housing requirements. Under the new planning system, those requirements will be set by regional spatial strategies, as I said.

The Government have already allocated a considerable amount of funding to the two delivery vehicles in north Northamptonshire to which the hon. Gentleman referred. North Northants Together received £934,000 during its set-up phase. This year, we have committed £500,000 funding, comprising revenue and capital, to the body, and we will continue with at least that level of funding in the next two years. We are in the process of working out the future level of funding available to this and other local delivery vehicles across the growth areas, and we hope to make an announcement on that in the near future. I hope that that will reassure the hon. Gentleman.

In the short time available to me, I want to put on record my response to the hon. Gentleman's point about the A14—a road with which anyone will be familiar who has travelled in his part of the world. The Highways Agency's approach to development and the possible impact on trunk roads is set out in circular 4/2001. The A14 is a core national route that links the midlands with east coast ports. It is also part of the European strategic road network. It is vital that those functions are not compromised by development in his area.

The Highways Agency is already investigating options for widening the Kettering bypass section of the A14. There are also long-term proposals for other sections of the A14 that link with the M1 and the Al. Together, these schemes will provide a long-term solution. Inevitably, however, major improvements such as these will take time to plan, design and build. In the meantime, we will need to consider also the potential of minor improvements and other solutions to help to limit the impact of growth on the functioning of the A14. The joint core strategy that is being prepared by the north Northamptonshire joint planning unit provides a key forum for considering in detail how to deliver growth while managing the impact on the A14. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are significant constraints on growth in north Northamptonshire that will need the pro-active engagement of the Highways Agency, the Environment Agency and others in order to be resolved.

The hon. Gentleman has made several specific and comprehensive points, on which I congratulate him. The time limit on these debates is such that I cannot answer all his points in detail, but I have information for him on the levels of funding that will justify the Government's policy, and some points for the future on infrastructure spending that I hope he will consider in response to his speech.

I undertake again to complete my replies to the many points that the hon. Gentleman has made, in writing, and to treat the debate as part of the dialogue that we are engaged in with him and the agencies in his area. It is important to the Government and to his constituents that we get it right.
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