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20 Mar 2007 : Column 248WH—continued

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Aylesbury Vale

1.26 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving me this opportunity to discuss the impact of the Government’s growth policies on the Aylesbury vale district, particularly the town of Aylesbury in my constituency and the area immediately around it.

The background to the debate is that the Government’s sustainable communities plan has classed Aylesbury as part of the so-called Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional growth area. For Aylesbury vale, that means that the Government require the district council to plan for 21,200 additional homes between now and 2026. The Minister will know that that does not take account of any possible overspill into Aylesbury vale district from the growth planned for Milton Keynes and the Leighton Buzzard-Linslade growth area just across the border in Bedfordshire.

It is fair to say that when the Government’s plan was first announced, it was not greeted with champagne and roses by local councillors in my constituency. However, it is also fair to say that both Buckinghamshire county council and Aylesbury Vale district council decided early on that, as the plan was declared Government policy, they would work with the Government and their agencies to ensure that the policy was delivered in a way that best suited the interests of the local people whom they represented.

I want to concentrate today on some of the detail of the unspoken bargain between local authorities and the Government. The local authorities undertook to work with the Government to deliver their housing targets, but there was an expectation, reinforced by numerous comments and speeches from officials and Ministers, that the Government would ensure that the relevant infrastructure and public services were provided to meet the needs of the forecast large number of additional residents. I want to talk about jobs, infrastructure and public services, but before that I want to touch briefly on two aspects of the planning system’s operation.

First, the Department for Communities and Local Government is carrying out a review of the local delivery vehicle, Aylesbury Vale Advantage. There is a case for slimming down the agency’s board and operations, especially given that Buckinghamshire county council and the district councils have applied to the Government for pathfinder status under the new proposals for the structure of local government. However, it would be remiss of me not to bring to the Minister’s attention my concern about hints from Government bodies that the Government may replace the current vehicle with a Government-appointed agency to take local planning decisions, which has already happened in Milton Keynes, or even give planning decisions affecting Aylesbury to the Government body that operates in Milton Keynes, rather than set up a separate Government agency for Aylesbury.

Secondly, the Minister knows that I have written to her about planning policy statement 3, which has a direct impact on the subject that is under debate. Historically, a large proportion of housing completions in Aylesbury vale have been on windfall sites—largely brownfield former industrial or office sites—that have become available, although it has not been easy to anticipate the timing of
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their availability. Over the past two years alone, permission for more than 1,000 homes has been granted on five large brownfield sites in Aylesbury, and they are now being built. The problem with the Government’s latest version of PPS3 is that it stops local councils from counting those significant windfall housing gains against their overall housing targets, which the Government set. If the Government persist with that approach, the inevitable consequence will be more building on greenfield sites, because brownfield sites—certainly the large sites—tend to be windfall gains.

The local authorities in my area estimate that 3,000 extra homes could be built on greenfield sites in the vale of Aylesbury if, through PPS3, Government policy is pursued. It is a back-door method of subverting the planning system without the Government taking the unpopular step of raising housing targets by means that everybody can see, and I hope that the Minister will reconsider the matter.

All parties in the House share the common ground that if one plans large-scale housing development, one must plan for employment, otherwise one will create the opposite of a sustainable community. About 17,000 people already commute daily from Aylesbury to their place of work elsewhere, and the road and rail systems around the town cannot cope with much more. I welcome the development of the new Aylesbury Parkway station, which has now been approved, but although it will enable residents of the new Berryfield development to reach the town centre easily, it will not provide any extra capacity on the trains that run to Marylebone station.

The south-east draft plan proposes for Aylesbury one new job for every new home, which is, frankly, the minimum that is acceptable. The Minister is the last person to need a lecture from me that in most couples, both partners work. If two adults live together in one of those new homes, they are likely to need two jobs to deter them from choosing or needing to commute. I hope that we have seen an end to the practice—ongoing a year ago—whereby regional officials pressed the local delivery vehicle and local authorities to open up areas such as the new Aston Clinton business park site, which was designated for commercial development, for extra housing, because it would help in meeting housing targets more quickly. It would have done so at the expense of vital employment land, and the key to sustainability is achieving the right mix of jobs and houses.

When businesses decide whether to locate to Aylesbury or anywhere else in the south-east, one consideration is whether the town has a decent transport infrastructure, which is important for customers, suppliers and people who work for the enterprise. However, Aylesbury’s roads are increasingly clogged, and the A41 Tring road in Aylesbury is in breach of the atmospheric pollution limits set by European law. I see no change to that problem unless action is taken to improve the road network around the town. There are similar problems in the north of the town on the A413 Buckingham road near the Watermead development, and in west Aylesbury on the A418 Oxford road. The Oxford road queues are a deterrent to people coming to Aylesbury to shop or to trade, and they cause real problems both for residents around Roland way and Fowler road, and for the new Fairford Leys development in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow).

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The traffic generated by building in Aylesbury is not the only problem. The Government have determined that there should be major new development in Milton Keynes, Dunstable, Leighton Buzzard and Linslade, and as a consequence, additional traffic will funnel through Aylesbury on its way to the M40 and M4 corridors and to the growing towns of the Thames valley. Chiltern Railways provides a good railway service, but its capacity is limited and the scope for improvement is restricted because the Mayor of London and Transport for London control the track and signalling inside Greater London. Neither the council nor Chiltern Railways has the power to determine that situation, but I hope that the Government will ensure that measures are taken to add to Aylesbury’s transport capacity in line with growth projections.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): There is certainly the threat of damaging gridlock for residents of the southerly villages of my constituency, consequent on the development in and around Aylesbury, and, looking to the future, in the north, for reasons of the Milton Keynes expansion, which my hon. Friend rightly describes. Given that the Government have shown no sign of agreeing to finance or to find a way of financing the estimated £713 million cost of the required infrastructure, and that even the Minister, when she talks about the planning gain supplement, has in all conscience to acknowledge that it will be top-sliced and that its proceeds will not go exclusively to our area, are our constituents not amply justified in fearing that sustainable development does not seem likely, and that development that is unsustainable seems substantially more so?

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is spot on. Roger Tym and Partners conducted an independent study that put the cost of new infrastructure and public services in Aylesbury alone at £768 million. Although I welcome the Government’s contributions, such as £6 million to help fund the new Aston Clinton business park, such relatively small contributions must be seen in the context of that much greater bill. Of course we should look for developer contributions, too, but I fear that the Government are expecting too much out of that pot. Is it realistic to assume, as the Government sometimes appear to, that developers will subsidise roads, railways, GP’s surgeries, schools and parks, as well as pay for the cost of social housing into the bargain? I see no evidence that the sums of money needed will be forthcoming from that source, whether under section 106 agreements or the proposed planning gain supplement.

It is not just in transport that we have infrastructure problems. There are difficulties, too, with electricity and water. I should like to make a plea for the Minister’s Department to talk to other parts of the Government about a more joined-up approach. Demand for electricity is projected to start outstripping existing capacity by about 2012. The problem can be solved. However, as the electricity supplier to Aylesbury, EDF Energy, said in a paper presented to the South East England regional assembly in September last year:

Thames Water has made a similar complaint, saying that the capacity in the existing sewer network in Aylesbury is extremely limited. Indeed, current growth of water consumption and the impact of infill development has already led to some controversial proposals for the upgrading of the sewerage system in the Bedgrove area. However, looking to the future and the Government’s housing plans, Thames Water has said that the expansion of Aylesbury sewage treatment works is critical to accommodating the growth at Aylesbury and that the “costs will be significant”. There is no provision in the current quinquennial round approved by Ofwat for investment in water. If the Government want the new houses built, it is essential to ensure that those new homes and businesses are provided with a proper electricity supply and proper water and sewerage services. I have yet to see any clear evidence that that joined-up thinking is taking place.

Finally, I should like to touch briefly on public services. I shall confine myself to the NHS, largely because we have some evidence on which to assess what is now happening. Just over two years ago, the NHS trusts and primary care trusts in the Milton Keynes and south midlands area commissioned a study from Hedra consultants about the impact of planned growth on the demand for health and social services provision. That report was published in March 2005. Hedra predicted on current trends that Aylesbury vale as a whole would need 489 acute hospital beds by 2031 or 142 additional beds, provided that there were major changes in the configuration of services in order to provide extra community care beds, more day surgery and more domiciliary support for patients discharged to be looked after and supported in their own homes. The same study predicted on the basis of the Government’s housing targets that Aylesbury vale would need 84 more community beds and 56 more community day places, and the capacity to make 100,000 more accident and emergency visits, 3,000 more 999 calls to the ambulance service, 1,100 more first contacts with a district nurse and more than 200,000 more GP consultations by the end of the growth period.

However, the reality is that the NHS in Buckinghamshire is not planning for growth. The Buckinghamshire PCT is in a desperate struggle to contain its deficit. The very community services that the expert study said had to be developed and improved are now being squeezed and cut, largely because they are not subject to a Department of Health target. There is an issue for the Department for Communities and Local Government to take up with the Department of Health, which does not seem to share the Minister’s priorities.

There is a further problem. As new residents move in, NHS capitation payments to the Buckinghamshire PCT will inevitably increase. However, as the Hedra report said, it is essential to ensure that services can be provided in parallel to population growth, rather than lagging behind it. That means early agreement on land, capital and revenue requirements, but at the moment that is simply not happening. If anything, the reverse is true. My local GPs tells me that even when local residents move into an area, under the Department of Health’s so-called normalisation procedure, it can take as long as 18 months before the extra money finds its way to the primary care trust and through to the GP practice. That is a year and a half during which there is additional
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demand for health care, yet the capitation payment that is supposed to fund it is not made. I hope that the Minister will take that up. Indeed, I have read speculation in the press over the past few days about the Minister being the next Secretary of State for Health, so—who knows?—perhaps the advice that I am giving her will be especially constructive and helpful.

I conclude with this comment. It is in the interests of all my constituents that, if the Government’s policy of growth is to be implemented, it should be implemented in a way that makes present and future residents of Aylesbury confident that they live in a community that is both dynamic and sustainable. To do that, we need greater evidence of Government strategic planning and more co-ordination between different agencies and Departments in Whitehall than I believe is yet happening.

1.47 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on securing this debate on the important issue of housing growth in Aylesbury vale. He and the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will know that the proposals on the level of housing growth in Aylesbury vale and throughout the south-east of England are currently being examined by the independent panel, which is conducting an examination in public of the proposed south-east regional spatial strategy. The panel is also considering infrastructure, and economic and environmental assessments. The hon. Member for Aylesbury will therefore appreciate that there is a limit to what I can say while that process is continuing. However, I shall attempt to address the points that he has raised in as much detail as I can.

The hon. Gentleman will, of course, know the background to the additional housing needed in the area. More than 200,000 new households are formed each year—in fact, the latest figures suggest that more than 220,000 a year will be formed over the next 20 years. That is a result of the ageing population and, in particular, more people living alone. According to the latest figures, we currently build around 170,000 new homes a year. That is a significant increase from 140,000 new homes a year, but it is nevertheless clear that new demand is increasing faster than new supply. As long as there is that long-term shortfall between household growth and additional homes being built, we shall see long-term pressure on house prices, growing pressures on first-time buyers and social housing waiting lists, and overcrowding for families on low incomes.

For all those reasons, it is only fair that we take decisions now about the long-term need for additional housing across this country. If we do not, we will be deeply unfair on the next generation. Our research shows that if we simply carry on at the current rate of house building, the proportion of two-income, 30-year-old couples able to afford their own homes from their incomes will drop from more than 50 per cent. today to nearer 30 per cent. in 20 years’ time. Faced with those figures, the South East England regional assembly has proposed a reduction in house building in the south-east that is simply unsustainable. We have to increase the numbers of homes that we build for the sake of those future generations, and it would be deeply wrong of us not to. That means that we must have a serious debate about
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where those homes should be built, the sustainability of new developments, issues of infrastructure and making sure that we build the homes in the best possible way. We are clear that every region, including the south-east, needs additional housing. I hope that the hon. Gentlemen and their party recognise that need.

The infrastructure issues raised by the hon. Member for Aylesbury are important. We take seriously the need for additional infrastructure to underpin the new homes of the future. The growth area assessments done for the wider Milton Keynes and south midlands area and for Aylesbury looked at the need for additional infrastructure and considered issues of transport, of community facilities and of affordable housing, the promotion of urban renaissance, how to attract inward investment, the focus on jobs and employment and delivery issues. I take seriously the hon. Gentleman’s points about the delivery vehicle—as he will know, the review is under way.

We are already putting new investment into the Aylesbury vale area, partly to support the additional homes being built. The local authority saw an increase in resources for social housing as a result of the stock transfer of 8,000 homes to the Vale of Aylesbury housing trust last July. That has generated a capital receipt of £30 million, the majority of which, I understand, is intended for the provision of new social housing, which will be important in the area.

We have already awarded £3.5 million for the infrastructure projects in the first round of the growth area funds. Last year, there was a further investment of £25 million for crucial projects to improve infrastructure around the town and the vale. The committed funds in Aylesbury include £6 million for a major new business park to help deliver more than 100 homes, £4 million to enable the development of Circus Field and £1 million for improving green spaces in the vale. Some £14.3 million is being provided for the Aylesbury transport hub, which is designed to promote the use of public transport. That includes bus priority measures around the ring road, which will improve links for buses and pedestrians between the railway station and the town centre, and the complete refurbishment of the bus station. In addition, £8.1 million will go to Aylesbury Vale Parkway, which is a new railway station adjacent to a proposed housing site of 3,000 homes. That station, with its associated track upgrades, will go along the proposed east-west rail route. However, we are clear that that is only the start of a long process. The investment in growth areas is about pump-priming the delivery of growth and the need to lever in investment from private-sector partners as well as long-term public sector investment.

The hon. Gentleman has raised issues around railways and capacity. He will know that Buckinghamshire county council is the lead authority for the western section of the east-west rail project, which is being promoted by a consortium of 35 local authorities along the entire route. We have committed Government money to looking at the project and at the Aylesbury-Bletchley link.

Clearly, infrastructure work is already under way. Further work is being done as part of the regional planning process, the local work around the options and opportunities for Aylesbury and the wider Government work on the cross-cutting review of infrastructure requirements, which is being conducted as part of the spending review. Furthermore, work is under way around the Aylesbury
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area in respect of tariff proposals. The Government have also been considering planning gain supplement proposals.

We are clear that we need the additional homes and that additional homes require additional infrastructure. The question then becomes about how we should finance that infrastructure and ensure that additional homes are properly built in a sustainable way. The hon. Gentlemen seem not to want additional funds to be raised from the private sector through development gains and planning gains locally; they simply want lots of Government cheques to be written for their areas. I appreciate that hon. Members often lobby and call for additional resources for their areas, and the hon. Gentlemen are obviously not the only hon. Members to do so. We have said that additional Government resources are required to support additional homes. However, the hon. Member for Aylesbury will also recognise that he has issues to square with his own party, which is calling for reductions in overall public spending.

Mr. Lidington: I make it absolutely clear: I strongly support, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), the idea that developers should contribute. However, our experience of observing the difficulties in negotiating section 106 agreements leads us to think that it is unrealistic to expect that all the infrastructure and public service development made necessary by the Government’s proposals will be met from that source. It is not enough for the Government to try to abdicate responsibility as the hon. Lady, at times, seems to suggest.

Yvette Cooper: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should take that argument up with his own party. As he will know, we have made it clear that additional investment needs to go into areas with additional homes. In fact, we are putting it in through such things as the community infrastructure fund and the growth areas fund. He will also know that his party is rather more hostile to increases in investment than mine—indeed, it has been advocating cuts in public investment. If he is arguing for additional spending from the public sector, he has a few internal issues to resolve and should not accuse us.

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