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9 May 2006 : Column 47WH—continued

Although local authorities are the key to unlocking increases in cycling, we have also enlisted the help of a wide range of cycling organisations and NGOs to work with us. The CTC is helping to deliver improved cycle training by leading a project to provide grants and
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bursaries to help build the capacity to roll out the new national cycle training standards. Sustrans is delivering the very successful links to school programme, British Cycling is helping us and the cycle industry is contributing to the “Bike It” project, which my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands mentioned. I congratulate Cycling England on bringing together so many experts, and I am very much enthused and impressed by the way in which all the organisations are working together and by the amount of work and commitment that they are putting in.

I reiterate that local authorities are the main key to unlocking increases in cycling. Many are already doing a fine job and have been boosted by increased funding. We now need the rest to follow. Cycling England is in a good position to help authorities to spend their money effectively and efficiently, as it is about to launch a free expert advisory service. I encourage authorities to seek such help if they need it. Cycling England is also well placed to promote co-operation between several Departments, of which I hope to see more.

Alongside authorities, we need more employers to adopt cycle-friendly policies and introduce cycle-friendly facilities for their workers. Pioneering work has been done on that issue by GlaxoSmithKline, the BBC and the London cycling campaign to promote cycling to work. In Glaxo’s case, the impact has been impressive, with the number of registered cyclists rising from 50 to more than 300. The BBC has also achieved high levels of people cycling to work. The Department has played its part in that, having negotiated with the Office of Fair Trading to implement a cycle-to-work tax benefit scheme that allows employers who purchase cycles for employees who commute to work to save the VAT on the cost of the bicycles and to make other tax savings. Cycling England aims to promote the scheme more widely in 2006, and the cycle scheme providers estimate that 100,000 cyclists might participate and benefit from it this year.

Research shows that many cyclists are prevented from cycling to work or hampered by the fact that their employers are less than cycle-friendly. We have to show more companies that a healthier, fitter work force is more productive and profitable. Many cycle commuters use their bikes for only part of their journey to work, combining cycling with public transport—mostly rail. Such journeys are important because they allow bikes to be used as part of a longer journey. As Minister with responsibility for both bike and rail, I am keen to encourage such journeys wherever possible. We will continue to encourage all train operating companies to provide facilities at stations to help facilitate more bike-and-rail journeys. We also recognise that there are pressures—

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but the rules are the rules. I thank all hon. Members who took part in the debate.

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Milton Keynes

12.30 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I welcome the Minister to her new appointment. I congratulate her and promise not to be too harsh on her today. If I am remembered for one thing during my time as Member of Parliament for North-East Milton Keynes, I hope it is my campaign for i before e —infrastructure before expansion. That is the key to the future expansion of Milton Keynes.

The phrase “i before e” tells people two things. The first is obvious: that the infrastructure must be in place before the city expands. It also says that I am not opposed to the expansion per se of Milton Keynes. It is vital that our young people have somewhere to live and that they have houses that they can afford. As an aside, while I am on affordable housing, the £60,000 house, which has been much publicised by the Minister, is misleading. People think that they can buy a house for that sum; they do not realise that it represents the building cost and not the purchase cost. In Milton Keynes, a £60,000 house is more likely to cost £130,000.

While I assume that the Minister will not disagree with my i before e campaign, I sense that we differ. She wants Milton Keynes to expand on her terms, with or without the consent of local people, while I am determined that local residents should have the final say on how, and at what rate, it should grow. With that in mind, she may be interested to know that last week I presented a petition to the House signed by more than 4,000 residents. It is relevant, and it declared

The petition sums up my view exactly. Without genuine local support, the Government’s sustainable communities plan is destined to fail in Milton Keynes. I am not calling for a referendum on every decision, but the local authority, which is democratically elected by local people, should be allowed a genuine say on how the city will grow. According to a recent survey, that is a view shared by 88 per cent. of local residents.

In simple terms, I believe in a bottom-up approach, but the Government prefer the top-down approach. If the Minister does not want to take my word for it, she need only consider last week’s local elections in Milton Keynes. Just over a year ago, my constituency was represented by a Labour Member of Parliament, yet last week Labour polled less than 15 per cent. of the vote there. I am convinced that one of the reasons for the Conservative revival in my constituency is that we are the only major party promoting the active involvement of local people in deciding how the city will expand.

The Government’s approach is rather different. I sense that the Minister and her colleagues are rather nervous about what might happen if, God forbid, local
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residents have some form of control over their future. The Government prefer the autocratic approach via unelected and unaccountable quangos. In Milton Keynes, we are talking about English Partnerships and its local delivery vehicle, Milton Keynes Partnership.

The Government occasionally, via the Milton Keynes Partnership, like to give the impression of local involvement. After all, there are three elected members of the local authority on its board, complete with a generous salary, but they have no authority. While I accept that such a situation is becoming the norm for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, it is not the way forward.

The Milton Keynes Partnership recently consulted the local population about its six options for growth for the city. Even though, according to the survey that I mentioned, 78 per cent. of people in the city had no idea that the consultation had taken place—either because it was so poorly advertised or so short—the residents who did respond flatly rejected all six options. Presumably, it is a case of going back to the drawing board. Of course, the advantage of being an unelected, unaccountable quango is that one can press on regardless of local views.

Milton Keynes cannot just do its own thing, and there must be co-ordination with other regional organisations. To be fair, I should say to the Minister that Jane Hamilton and her staff at English Partnerships are very professional, but often their hands are tied as they cannot serve two masters and, however sympathetic they are to the needs of Milton Keynes, they know that their principal loyalty is to central Government, not the city. Let me give the Minister just one example of what I mean. Between 2004 and 2008, via English Partnerships the Government will rob Milton Keynes of £494 million by selling off the city’s land bank, and put back just £201 million. Therefore, there will be a net outflow of nearly £300 million, stolen from the city by Government via an unelected, unaccountable quango.

Assuming that the Minister supports my i before e campaign, I am sure she will share my concern at the detrimental effect that this drive to squeeze every penny out of the city is having on the local community. For example, numerous green reserved sites across the city are now being considered for sale for residential development. Walton high school in my constituency—an excellent school that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor visited in the run-up to the general election, presumably to bask in its reflected glory—recently wanted to expand its sixth form on to a reserved site next to the school owned by English Partnerships. The site was originally valued at £12,000, but the school found that English Partnerships had revalued the site at its residential value of £234,000, thus making it unobtainable by the school. I am pleased that, having raised the matter in the House, that decision has been reversed. However,it is a classic example of e before i —of expansion before infrastructure—rather than of i before e, which is what I am calling for.

I shall address the financing of the expansion shortly. I acknowledge that some infrastructure improvements have been promised—for example, the upgrading of central Milton Keynes railway station and the improvements to junction 14 of the M1, both of which are due for completion in the next few years.

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John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I echo his call for infrastructure before expansion in Milton Keynes, asI issue a similar call in respect of neighbouring Aylesbury vale.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly perverse and objectionable that a quango in the form of Milton Keynes Partnership should propose a whole series of options upon which it fails to consult and among which there is not numbered an option which would allow for expansion east of the M1? Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a lacuna, which ought to be put right?

Mr. Lancaster: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which I agree with. All options should be considered. Indeed, when the six options were published, it was notable that there was a caveat to the effect that it might well be decided not to proceed with any of the six options, and that an entirely different option could be chosen. Such is the way that quangos seem to operate in the city.

Let me return to the infrastructure improvements. I mentioned those to junction 14 of the M1 and central Milton Keynes station. Although they are welcome, they are a mere drop in the ocean in relation to what the city requires. I sense that they may be mere titbits thrown to the city to keep it quiet. It will come as no surprise to you, Mr. Hancock, that normally such announcements are made just before a general or local election.

One of the biggest problems that the city faces, however, is uncertainty. Although the current expansion plans run to 2031, the Government refuse to commit to infrastructure projects beyond the short term, making it very hard for the city to plan with any certainty. It was announced just before the local elections that the Government now support the east-west rail link through the city, but when pushed after the local elections Baroness Andrews admitted that that would take place only if private funding could be found. The Government need to take a longer-term view on growth and sustainability, and to support the local communities in planning their future by providing long-term certainty in infrastructure funding. Such an approach will strengthen community commitment to the growth project and help make the Government’s sustainable communities project genuinely sustainable.

Mr. Hancock, time is marching on and I would like briefly to look at the financing of the expansion of Milton Keynes. Under current arrangements, section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 allows a local planning authority to enter into a legally binding agreement or planning obligation with a land developer over a related issue. The Milton Keynes tariff is using that legislation to develop an agreementwith landowners and developers in the expansion areas and contribute a flat rate per dwelling of £18,500, or £33.4 million per employment space. The total will fund the strategic and local infrastructure that arises from the developments. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, that system raises key concerns for the local authority. First, the total budget will not fund the total cost of all pieces of infrastructure. There is a25 per cent. gap in the funds required, and it increases
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each time Government standards increase, because increased standards for schools, for example, are invariably more expensive. Secondly, to fulfil the tariff agreement, all Departments must be prepared to guarantee that the requisite additional funds will be forthcoming. If the council is unable to secure the additional funds that it requires, the delivery of the tariff and associated items of infrastructure will be at risk. Thirdly, Departments must be able to guarantee that the overall revenue costs will be available to public authorities to support service delivery once the infrastructure is operational. Fourthly, there are genuine concerns that the tariff is designed to operate in greenfield areas and that it is far from straightforward to operate a similar vehicle in relation to infill and brownfield developments. Those are some of the problems associated with the current system.

As the Minister is aware, the planning gain supplement is the Government’s proposal for capturing the land value uplift through the centralised collection of a proportion of that uplift. Once again, however, there are key concerns for the local authority. First, there is the issue of the net loss of revenues to the local area. Naturally, I believe that the uplift created in Milton Keynes should be retained there, not distributed across the region and the country. I have explained how the Government are robbing Milton Keynes, and the planning gain supplement is set to see that continue. Secondly, the planning gain supplement proposal will mean a loss of local autonomy over the revenue received from planning contributions, because the central and regional collection of funds will dislocate the decision-making process. The funds should be determined and distributed locally, using local criteria. Thirdly, the local authority and I believe that the planning gain supplement will not improve the transparency of the planning system, but will weaken community engagement in the growth agenda because funding decisions will be taken remotely, not in the locality.

All those factors simply add to the feeling that decisions will be made more remotely from Milton Keynes. If I am right that the Government’s sustainable communities project must enjoy the support of local people to be successful, none of the factors that I have highlighted will be a step in the right direction, because they all appear to move decision making from Milton Keynes to central Government.

I have highlighted the fact that there is a massive outflow of cash from Milton Keynes via English Partnerships, and it appears that the planning gain supplement will add to that. The local authority believes that capital receipts should be used to supplement the tariff and fill the gap between the total project costs of infrastructure and the tariff available. If the Minister can answer only one question today—I have given notice that I would like it answered—I hope that it is this. Exactly what percentage of the planning gain supplement will be returned to Milton Keynes so that it can spend that money? Without that figure, there is no way that the local authority can plan for the long term.

I could touch on many other financial issues, not least the lack of fairness in revenue funding for Milton Keynes, the lack of recognition given to the population expansion in the city and the fact that funds are given with one hand and taken away with the other through the floors policy. However, if the Minister takes only one thought away from this debate, I hope that it will be
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that if the Government continue to alienate local people from the decision-making process in the sustainable communities plan, last week’s poll in Milton Keynes will probably be the high point of Labour popularity there.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I welcome the Minister to her new role.

12.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on securing the debate. I also thank him for giving me my first opportunity to speak in the House on behalf of what is a new Department. Although he referred a couple of times to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, he will recognise that this is a very new Department, and it is exciting to be part of it. It will do things very differently and consider how to bring communities and local government together.

The issue of private housing is a crucial one for this generation and future ones. The hon. Gentleman has highlighted one of the most pressing issues faced by us all, and we have an obligation to ensure that everyone has a decent place in which to live. I am grateful that he has given me the opportunity to clarify some of the issues relating to the expansion and administration of Milton Keynes. If he wishes to be reassured about some of his concerns, I hope that I can reassure him. I should say at the outset that I am constrained in what I can say at this stage about the future scale and direction of the expansion. The matter will be considered in the emerging south-east regional spatial strategy, which is known as the south-east plan, and it is something that we will consider in due course.

To set the debate in context, the south-east is the most successful English regional economy and it competes on a world stage, but that success brings with it demands and pressures on housing. In order for the south-east, including Milton Keynes, to remain competitive and to develop in a sustainable way, we have to address the need for housing. From the hon. Gentleman’s comments, I know that he would not want to deny the right to decent housing to any constituent or potential constituent.

The Government are not putting the south-east under development pressure. The pressures exist now, and the important question that we must address is how they are best managed. There is no doubt that we have not been building enough homes generally. The hon. Gentleman will know that the country has seen a massive increase in the number of households, and the latest forecasts predict that that trend will continue. Two thirds of new households created are in the south-east, but we have also seen the lowest levels of house building in the post-war period. In the south-east, actual build rates have been lower than planned, and that is especially true in Milton Keynes, which has since 2001 provided more than 1,300 new homes fewer than it should have. Although it is in some ways the largest provider of new homes in the south-east, it is also the largest under-provider. We have to consider that problem and address the demand.

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When we consider the impact of that demand, we see that house prices have risen by about 160 per cent. Recent research shows that, if we do not build more homes, two thirds of couples in their 30s will not be able to afford a home of their own in 20 years’ time. That is why it is so important that we invest in new homes and communities. I am concerned that those who suffer most are often those on lower incomes. It is often our key workers who fail to get a foot on the housing ladder. However, many people campaign, sometimes understandably, in opposition to new homes proposed in their area. The other consequences of not building new homes in relation to the impact on the local economy and business, however, are often ignored and not given the same credence and credibility as the issues raised by those who campaign against new homes.

We are seeking to create new and sustainable communities. That is why proposals for Milton Keynes have been subject to extensive independent testing and evaluation. In 2003, we published the sustainable communities plan, which identified Milton Keynes as part of the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area. The sub-regional strategy was published in March 2005, following almost two years of public consultation and a public examination by an independent panel.

The approved sub-regional strategy anticipates that Milton Keynes will accommodate about 45,000 new homes by 2021, with further scope for about 23,000 by 2031. Under the approved strategy, the majority of development will be accommodated within the existing central urban area of Milton Keynes, while other development will be provided through sustainable urban extensions. The growth proposals for Milton Keynes have been shown to be realistic and achievable.

This is not just a social issue. There is a fundamental right to a decent home, as I said, but there is also an economic imperative behind the demand for new homes. The hon. Gentleman spoke about businesses being the lifeblood of any community. Businesses nationally and in Milton Keynes tell us that the economy is being held back by the lack of new homes. I am sure that he is aware that Milton Keynes already has 16,000 more commuters coming into the area daily than are leaving it.

Mr. Lancaster: Will the Minister give way?

Angela E. Smith: I shall just finish the point that I want to make, then take a very brief intervention. I want to address the points that the hon. Gentleman made in his speech.

Many of the commuters whom I mentioned want to live in Milton Keynes and contribute to the economy not only by working there, but by spending money there, living there and being part of the community.

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