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Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab):
It is expected that by 2010 there will be an influx of 1 million people into the south-east, attracted by the prosperity of the region. The projected construction of 120,000 new houses in the Thames Gateway by 2016, outlined in the sustainable communities plan, is part of an attempt to meet that challenge. The plan also recognises, however,
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that if the development is to be sustainable, the extra houses must be balanced by the creation of new jobs in the Gateway, primarily to cater for the new residents but also to combat social exclusion and low employment in existing communities. There are currently 1.5 million people living in the Thames Gateway, but only 500,000 jobs.
In his evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee during its inquiry into sustainable housing, Sir John Egan, the Prime Minister's adviser on the Thames Gateway, said that the purpose of development in the Thames Gateway is to provide high-quality housing for the most highly skilled people, who are attracted to London as one of the most successful cities in the world. He said that the purpose of development in the Gateway and the rest of the south-east should be to allow anyone to live in any part of the region and commute to any part of London.
That statement wholly contradicts the Government's stated policy and objectives in the sustainable communities plan. The Government need to clarify their intentions with regard to housing growth in the Thames Gateway. Is their primary aim to service the needs of London or to assist the regeneration of the Gateway and combat existing social exclusion? Or is it both? How do the Government intend to reconcile those two conflicting objectives? I should welcome clarification in the winding-up speech.
Dartford is no stranger to development and change. The gradual withdrawal of heavy industry has left many regeneration areas that are gradually being transformed into new communities. That is making the area a more pleasant place in which to live and work. Only yesterday, I visited a company in my constituency called J. Clubb Ltd. to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its existence in Dartford. The company was founded by Jimmy Clubb senior in 1930 and it employs 70 people. It provides aggregates, concrete and services to the construction industry and has been involved in almost every regeneration project in Dartford since 1930. Its new volumetric mixing vehicle has just become the first of its kind in Europe to be given British Standards Institution accreditation.
However, Dartford is also no stranger to controversy. At the heart of an ambitious plan to regenerate the town centre is a proposed Tesco development. I am told that if the development goes ahead, the store will be the second largest Tesco in the country. The development would also include more than 500 new dwellings and would result in the compulsory purchase of some 50 freeholds. More controversially, it would mean a road through the central park in Dartford.
I am very disappointed at the lack of consultation by both Tesco and the developer and the failure to engage with local people and local stakeholders. This is a project of enormous strategic importance to the Thames Gateway area. There are huge local concerns, especially about the road. I presented the council with a petition containing more than 13,000 signatures from people opposing the road. I also held my own referendum in Dartford. Of those who responded, 93 per cent. were against the road and only 6 per cent. in favour. Adjudication was independent. I am disappointed that a company of that size has not sought to engage with local
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people. The only way that we can enable existing communities to live in harmony with big new regeneration projects is to ensure that the existing communities are helped to understand the proposals at every step of the way and are given a chance to have their say. I am very pleased that my colleagues in the Department have agreed to call in the project for an inquiry, because that shows that they have understood local concerns. A planning inquiry will start shortly and it will be interesting to see how it goes.
There is no doubt that regeneration, economic investment and new housing are needed in the Thames Gateway area. I believe, however, that the only way to ensure that housing growth in the area is truly sustainable is to provide a direct link between housing and employment growth. When the first new towns were being planned and built in the south-east after the second world war, to cater for the overspill from London and other cities in the region, every effort was made to match jobs with housing. Indeed, in some cases it was impossible to secure a house in a new town without an offer of employment with a company or service in the area.
The system had inherent flaws and I certainly do not advocate a return to it, but we need to find a way of ensuring that economic growth keeps pace with housing growth. In my constituency, for example, there is a real danger that employment growth will soon begin to lag behind housing growth. The development of more than 1,000 homes in north Dartford is beginning to get under way, while the planned development of between 6,000 and 7,000 homes in Eastern Quarry recently received outline planning permission from the borough council. However, progress in the creation of jobs around the new international station at Ebbsfleet has been much slower.
The potential to create more than 20,000 jobs exists, but as yet few substantive expressions of interest have been forthcoming from either the public or the private sector. A commitment by the Government to a major public sector relocation to Ebbsfleet would undoubtedly help to stimulate greater interest from other potential employers.
I believe that until concrete proposals for job creation at Ebbsfleet are on the table, housing developers in the area and on major strategic sites surrounding it should proceed with caution. A substantial proportion of Dartford's labour forcecurrently 38 per cent.commute to London, and I am anxious to ensure that that percentage does not increase further. Not only would such an increase place further unnecessary pressure on our already overstretched public transport infrastructure, but the viability of the new communities would be undermined if they became, in effect, no more than dormitory villages.
I support the principle of redevelopment in the Thames Gateway area and in Thameside in particular, but development on such a scale must be tempered with economic growth. The proposed developments represent a 20 per cent. increase in Dartford's housing stock. If that happens too quickly, it will unbalance the job market and result in negative rather than positive outcomes.
I would like the Government to consider either setting up an agency or charging an existing agency with responsibility for examining the viability of new housing
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development in the Thames Gateway from an economic and employment perspective. An agency with that responsibility, perhaps an executive arm of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister or the Department of Trade and Industry, would complement the work of executive agencies such as the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency, which are charged with examining the impact of new development of the trunk road network and the environment respectively. If such an agency took the view that a development was unsustainable from an employment perspective, it should have power to issue a holding notice delaying development until its concerns have been satisfactorily addressed.
What about infrastructural improvement in existing communities? Since the publication of RPG9a in 1994, when Dartford was first identified as a major development area in the Thames Gateway, successive administrations at Dartford borough council have sought to underline their commitment to ensuring that Dartford's existing communities, particularly those with high levels of deprivation such as Swanscombe, gain from the new investment being channelled into the borough.
In January 2003, shortly before the launch of the Government's communities planwhich reaffirmed Dartford's status as a key growth areathe Kent Thameside local strategic partnership made Swanscombe, Temple Hill, Tree Estate and Alamein Gardens priority communities in view of the "particular difficulties and challenges" that the communities faced. It resolved that it would
A survey of residents' views on the impact of regeneration on the area revealed widespread apprehension about the impact on Swanscombe in particular. Many residents expressed concern about the affordability of the new housing and the impact of new development on existing house values, while others referred to the disparity between the quality of existing homes and that of new homes in the new communities. That led the survey's authors to conclude that
As a result of those concerns, a Swanscombe and Greenhithe master plan has been drawn up, funded by English Partnerships and commissioned by the South-East England Development Agency. Its aim is to provide a blueprint for future development and investment in the area. It considers how the physical fabric and the character of the community can be enhanced and tries to identify ways in which Swanscombe can be physically integrated into the new communities surrounding the village. The plan has not been costed, but its authors make it clear that
"although the masterplan provides a comprehensive vision, it has to be recognised that delivery will defend on funding availability. A key objective must be to maximise major public and private sector funding to secure regeneration initiatives."
As the master plan's own survey of possible funding opportunities shows, however, there are very few agencies with either the resources or the commitment to ensure that the plan's objectives are even partly met. The ODPM has raised £1 million for
in Swanscombe, which has already been allocated to existing projects. Apart from the ODPM, few of the Kent Thameside regeneration partners have the wherewithal to support the delivery of the master plan. SEEDA and English Partnerships have considerable resources at their disposal, but have made it clear that their priorities lie with the delivery of new development in Kent Thameside. The only projects in the area that they are likely to fund are those that can be shown to deliver clear benefits to new as well as existing developments.
Similarly, although the Housing Corporation could help social landlords to provide affordable housing in Swanscombe, and support schemes aimed at the purchase and refurbishment of empty properties, it is likely that the vast majority of its resources will be used to fund affordable housing on the new development sites. Extra capital funding from Dartford borough council is also unlikely to be forthcoming. The council has been heavily committed in the area over the past year, and has tied up much of its capital in other projects to regenerate other parts of the borough.
Swanscombe will continue to benefit from EU Urban II funding until 2008, but Urban II bids require match funding from other agencies and must adhere to its strict funding criteria. Funding bids to improve public buildings and green space and to promote job creation are permissible, but bids to improve private housing are not. The other drawback with the Urban II project is that the total funding amounts to only £7.4 million over six years and is meant to be available to Greenhithe, Northfleet and Gravesend, as well as Swanscombe.
The only other funding option available to the area are the section 106 agreements signed between the borough council and Land Securities, the company which is developing the Eastern Quarry, Ebbsfleet and the Swanscombe peninsula. The borough council has already concluded that this represents its best chance of securing
It is becoming increasingly apparent, however, that section 106 agreements alone will not provide extra resources for the area on the scale that the borough council and others believe is necessary. Unless extra resources can be made available, there is a real danger that our existing communities will not benefit fully from the regeneration opportunities in the area.
I want briefly to examine the environmental impact of development. Given that the Government have set a target of reducing carbon dioxide levels by 20 per cent. of their 1990 levels by 2010, it is disappointing that they have chosen merely to encourage developers in the Thames Gateway to adhere to their sustainable buildings code, rather than getting them to set actual carbon reduction targets. Instead, it has been left to
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local authorities and regional development agencies to set their own environmental development standards. SEEDA, for example, insists that all its funded projects comply with the EcoHomes "excellent" standard. English Partnerships has set an EcoHomes standard of "very good", although it has required some projects to meet the higher standard. The standard set by local authorities, on the other hand, varies from "excellent" to no EcoHomes standard requirement at all. Dartford borough council recently set an EcoHomes target of "good" in its 2004 housing strategy. There is considerable lack of clarity on this issue and the Government need to deal with the question of targets by giving developers a clear lead on what they expect to see in local areas.
The piecemeal approach to sustainable design and construction in the Thames Gateway has meant that developers have not given sustainable design the priority that it deserves. There are some exceptional examples of high quality sustainable design, such as the Greenwich millennium village, where the use of combined heat and power plants and a high standard of home insulation has resulted in a 65 per cent. reduction in primary energy consumption. So things can be done, but we need great commitment by the Government to ensure that such developments are replicated across the region.
The other critical issue for Dartford is water supply. At present, there is a surplus of water, but the situation could easily change. As the Environment Agency stated in "State of the Environment 2004 in South East England",
"the south-east consumes more water per person than any other region, but receives one of the lowest amounts of rainfall. A huge increase in water demand is expected as a consequence of new housing development in the south-east."
Thames Water, which supplies Dartford, forecasts that by 2029 baseline demand in the region will have reached 2,800 million litres a dayan increase of more than 400 million litres on today's figures. If something is not done to ensure that the new developments are sustainable in terms of water usage, there could be considerable problems in the medium to long term. The targets that Thames Water would like to set might be difficult to reach, but unless the Government give it and developers a steer on the anticipated level of water supply and consumption the situation will be difficult to resolve.
What we really need to do is to ensure that a thorough reassessment takes place from an environmental perspective of Kent Thameside's housing growth plans. The Thames Gateway Kent Partnership has suggested that a cumulative impact assessment of the effect of new housing development on, for example, flood risk in the area be carried out. This is a welcome proposalit should have been made some years agobut there is a good case for expanding the remit and looking at the proposed development in Kent Thameside from a broader environmental perspective, assessing its impact on water resources, climate, biodiversity, air quality and so on. Only then will we really be able to ensure that the very exciting and welcome development in Thames Gateway is genuinely sustainable in the future.
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