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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) on securing another debate on the subject of the Kent science park. He has raised two key themes: the role of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minster in the planning process and the role that Kent science park may have in the regeneration of the Swale area as part of the Government's Thames Gateway programme.

On that first point, I would like immediately to reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are not pre-determining planning applications on this or any other site. Our national planning system is very clear on this, and we have a robust set of planning guidance to support it. Decisions of this nature on site-specific allocations and on determining planning applications will be made by the relevant planning authorities. Where applications involve a departure from existing policy—and following the planning authority's determination—the Government, via the Government Office, will take a view on how to respond.

I need to say—my hon. Friend will have heard this before—that the Government have made no decisions about the expansion of the science park. As there is no planning application at present, the Government are not commenting on the proposed development. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, that could prejudice the Secretary of State's position. Pre-application discussions may well be happening at regional and local level, but it is not for me or my Department to comment. I am aware that the emerging Kent and Medway structure plan, the local plan and south-east plan suggest that economic expansion is something to be considered, and that the Kent science park is recognised by local authorities as a key employer in the area. I would, however, like to reassure my hon. Friend that there is no way to circumvent the planning process.

My hon. Friend will be aware, following his earlier parliamentary questions, that officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have met and exchanged correspondence with Kent science park. That, however, is in respect of Kent science park and its location within the Thames Gateway area. As a major employer, consisting of some 85 businesses, and with its record as one of the fastest-growing science parks in the country—I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's
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qualification in respect of the definition of a science park—it is only right that local and national officials dealing with the Thames Gateway have the freedom to engage with this company and arrive at the correct judgments.

In the Thames Gateway, there are almost 4,000 hectares of brownfield land—17 per cent. of the south-east's total—located between London and mainland Europe. That is a massive area of market failure and relative deprivation, lying amid the buoyant economy and prosperity of the rest of London and the south-east. Not surprisingly then, the regeneration of the gateway, as a national and local priority, has been in progress since the early 1990s.

The Thames Gateway is an opportunity to deliver growth alongside regeneration—a regeneration that is physical, economic and social. It is an agenda for change—the chance to impact on whole communities in a positive way and enable them to share in the prosperity historically enjoyed by their neighbours. That is why some £450 million from the ODPM's budget is being specifically targeted on projects in the gateway, and some £6 billion of Government spending is going into the gateway to help to create the infrastructure needed to support growth and regeneration.

Significant delivery is starting to occur. For example, last weekend the new Fastrack buses began their first services from Gravesend to Dartford in Kent Thameside. In Medway, the new university campus at Chatham Maritime is open for business and helping to almost double student numbers in the area at that unique facility, which is shared between five higher and further education institutions. In my hon. Friend's constituency, the completion is approaching of the new crossing between Swale mainland and the Isle of Sheppey—some £100 million of investment in transport making a real difference to the area's regeneration opportunities. That is on top of some £25 million that
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has already gone from the ODPM towards a range of local infrastructure needs, ranging from brownfield land assembly and the community consultation work at Queenborough and Rushenden, to creating new vocational learning centres, such as that at Sittingbourne community college.

To make such transformational changes and enable regeneration to occur, we need to be mature about the assets that we have and our priorities. We need to make sure that the economic conditions are correct to accelerate growth. That will be part of the focus for the new strategic framework, which the ODPM is currently taking forward in consultation with all our main local partners. The new framework will clearly set the direction for the future of the Thames Gateway.

With that in mind, we should not be thinking about downgrading Kent science park. It is an economic asset for the Swale and north Kent area, and local partners, including Kent county council, Swale borough council and the South East England Development Agency, need to consider carefully the role that it can play in aiding regeneration of the area. However, any expansion plans will need to be considered with regard to the normal planning process.

To conclude, our planning process remains in place and remains robust, the Thames Gateway continues to gather steam, and by the end of this year we will benefit from a more focused vision that local and national partners will both have agreed. That will act to boost our delivery of growth and the related benefits to local people within the Thames Gateway. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured by my comments about the planning process. Obviously, I will be happy to continue this dialogue, which previous Ministers in my position started, and I look forward to speaking to him about the matter in the near future.

Question put and agreed to.

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