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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 4 December 2007

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Development (Aylesbury Vale)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mark Tami.]

9.30 am

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Good morning, Mrs. Humble. In welcoming you to the Chair, I confidently look forward to your firm, fair and wise stewardship of our proceedings. I welcome other hon. Members present, including the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats; and I welcome very warmly my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who will speak from the Conservative Front Bench.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) is not able to be present today. He has championed the cause of local interests in respect of sustainable development over a long period and he would ordinarily be here, but he is a shadow Foreign Office Minister and is today in Israel, involved in discussions about the future of the middle east. I hope it will be understood that he cannot be with us this morning.

I pay particular tribute and take this opportunity warmly to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), upon his deserved elevation. I was pleased to hear of it, and I genuinely wish him well in the exercise of his new responsibilities.

The subject matter for debate today is development in Aylesbury Vale, to which there are a number of components. I start by focusing on housing. In doing so, I make it clear beyond peradventure that I am not one of those who say, “We do not want any housing here.” The logic of the situation is inescapable. The facts are clear: there is and will continue to be a substantial demand for new housing, long into the future, and I readily accept that Aylesbury Vale must take its fair and allocated share.

We all know the facts of the situation, which would inevitably press upon any Government. On the whole, people are leaving the family home at a younger age than they used to do; they are marrying or partnering later than they used to do; sadly, they are breaking up more frequently than they used to do; and they are living longer than they used to do. For that combination of reasons, it is an inescapable reality that we must have more units of housing. That has always been my position, and I have often stood up for or conceded the inevitability of new developments, sometimes including historically new settlements, even in the face of some local opposition. One must take a responsible view on such matters.

The issue is not whether we have new development in Aylesbury Vale but how much we can realistically be expected safely to absorb. The south-east plan was published and submitted to the Government in March 2006, and the panel of inspectors advising the Government
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responded to it in August 2007; as a result of that process, a number of things have become clear.

In particular, I confess that I very much welcome the strong conclusion in the panel of inspectors’ report that, as far as south-west expansion and the ambitions of the Milton Keynes Partnership are concerned, it would not be proper at this stage to think ahead and plan prescriptive numbers for as far into the future as 2031. That was the ambition of Milton Keynes Partnership, and it is absolutely right that the judgment was made that it would be better to stick at planning and providing for the period up to 2026. I also welcome the fact that the ambition of Milton Keynes Partnership to secure agreement to a figure of 7,500 new properties to the south-west of Milton Keynes—for my purposes, that means the village of Newton Longville in my constituency—has been rejected. Between now and 2026, the figure is not to be 7,500, unless the Government were so injudicious and maladroit as to intervene to insist on it; instead, it is to be 5,400. That is very welcome. It would be even more welcome if the Minister felt able to give a clarion commitment to the acceptance of that rather more satisfactory proposal.

I am also pleased, and I know that residents of my constituency engaged in these matters are pleased, that the principle of the urban intensification of Milton Keynes has been accepted, with plans for 10,400 new homes within the urban area of what even now is the relatively new city of Milton Keynes. Above all, I am pleased that as a result of the commentary of the inspectors, no new settlements are proposed.

That is a short and pithy summary—believe it or not—of a vast array of issues that had to be considered, both at the time of the submission of the original plan and of the inspectors’ determinations. However, I want to make it clear to the Minister that I am not cavilling at everything, or saying that is all thoroughly bad news, and that it is dark, dingy and gloomy—that is not the case. There are some compensations for Aylesbury Vale, and I have put them on record today.

In relation to housing, there are three other points to which I would like briefly to allude. First, I confess that in my constituency there is some regret and not a little frustration that the inspectors should have rejected the argument that some significant development could and should take place east of the M1; it would have been justified in itself and, as an inevitable corollary, it would have significantly reduced the pressure on Aylesbury Vale. That was not accepted, but even so there is a crumb of comfort—a substantial one—for my constituents. The inspectors’ panel report says clearly that it does not accept that the east side of the M1 should be viewed as some sort of permanent boundary, and that no development east of the M1 could ever take place. It is prepared to contemplate the possibility. It would be helpful, notwithstanding his understandable reluctance to make precise long-term commitments at this stage, were the Minister to signal nevertheless that there seemed to be a good deal of merit in what the inspectors had said. That is the first point that I want clearly to put on the record.

The second point is the question of affordable housing. It seems to me that the south-east as a whole, and arguably Aylesbury Vale in particular, faces a real and demanding challenge, and it is not always clear to me that Ministers are completely sensitive to the extent of it. I hope that the Minister, who is a rising star in the
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Prime Minister’s firmament, can demonstrate today precisely that sort of sensitivity to the concerns of a constituency Member of Parliament; it could augur well for his future but, more importantly, for the well-being and contentment of my constituents.

Why do I mention affordable housing? The Government are very keen to put on record the desirability—no, the overriding imperative—of substantially greater housing numbers, including and, arguably, particularly in the growth areas, of which Aylesbury Vale is one. I understand that, and there is a certain amount of criticism from time to time of the level of housing completions taking place in the south-east, uttered not least by the Minister for Housing on Second Reading of the Housing and Regeneration Bill last week. I say that the Government must be realistic. The estimated shortfall in public subsidy for the provision of housing that the Government regard as essential has been calculated as being no less than £56 million. I think that that is a huge consideration.

A £25 million shortfall is estimated in respect of social rented housing, and I think the sum is of the order of £31 million to fulfil the requirement of low-cost home ownership. The former is of special significance in my constituency but I do not entirely dismiss the significance of the latter. That is not my view, nor is it the judgment of the Conservative party or the hack estimate of an amateur unfamiliar with the terrain, it is the considered and, I think, authoritative view of the South East Regional Housing Board.

The board has put it to Ministers that it is simply not credible—I underline those words and, I think, quote them—to suppose that the south-east as a region can construct 10,900 social houses with £407 million when on the strength of the previous year’s £406 million it could put up only 8,100. To suppose that on the strength of another £1 million one can produce another 2,800 houses beggars belief—these are tales told to the marines—and I appeal to the Minister, who is nothing but an emblem of common sense at all times, to appreciate that there is a lacuna in Government thinking.

If Ministers want that substantially greater development of the social rented sector and of low-cost housing, they have to be prepared, to put it bluntly, to stump up the cash. It is not acceptable to fail to stump up the cash but then to berate and belabour decent, committed providers in my constituency, or simply to lambast the developers. That is a significant additional concern to which I would welcome a reassuring response from the Minister.

My third concern in relation to housing is on the subject of the intended eco-towns. That is a concept that I feel sure, Mrs. Humble, will require no elaboration for you. I suspect that you are familiar with the background to and the minutiae of Government policy in that arena and I therefore do not intend to detain the Chamber overly long on the matter. The Government are proposing a competition for the establishment of eco-towns and I want to tease out of the Minster whether there has been an application for the establishment of an eco-town in Aylesbury Vale. That would be illuminating information. Even if he does not have the facts at his fingertips, he is guided by wise individuals to whom the rules of order prevent me from referring, and it may be that a piece of handy information will squirrel its way towards him
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during the debate and he will be able to answer that important question. I emphasise that my constituents will be interested to know.

I would be struck, and to a degree perturbed, if an application had been submitted and received by the Minister’s Department. My understanding is that the precise form that the eco-towns will take is as yet undetermined. Indeed, I am advised that it is part of the competition to tell the Government what the towns ought to look like. However, certain criteria have been set out, one of which, if memory serves me correctly, is that the towns should be for at least 5,000 new homes. If such an application had been received by the Minister that would clearly and brutally cut across the advice of the inspectors’ panel report, which was that no need for new settlements had been demonstrated. Palpably, if one were creating a whole community that was to be dignified with the term “eco-town” it would effectively amount to a new settlement.

I would also like to establish from the Minister what the rules will be governing the creation and development of such eco-towns. Will they proceed on the basis of a requirement for full planning permission, a wholly rigorous public consultation process, and an independent examination? That would seem to be entirely proper, and the minimum safeguard required by my constituents if such a monumental development were to proceed.

Is it alternatively the case, or might it become so, that the Government are so keen to see towns of this kind established that a less rigorous—or dare I say, to use the jargon, more “light-touch”—planning procedure might be envisaged? I very much hope that the latter is not the case, and of course the Minister has a heaven-sent opportunity today to reassure me and to say: “The hon. Member for Buckingham has absolutely nothing to worry about. There may or may not be an application, but it will have to go through a very rigorous process, no less rigorous than—indeed, identical to—the arrangements that typically obtain at the moment.” The Minister has in front of him an open goal if the evidence suits his case. He has merely to kick the ball into the net.

That deals with the housing element of the equation. However, as someone recently said to me in a neat encapsulation of the challenge from the point of view of my constituency and beyond, the housing element is mandated; the infrastructure is not. The Minister might be aware that Roger Tym and Partners, the consultants who were deputed to look into these matters and offer their assessment, did a very substantial piece of work on the subject of infrastructure in the light of the proposed growth-area status for Aylesbury Vale. They concluded that for Aylesbury alone, £768 million of infrastructure expenditure would be required. That is an enormous sum and it leads me to focus on an important issue of principle. If we are talking, as Ministers, shadow Ministers and Back Benchers have consistently done, about the requirement for sustainable development, what we need to know is whether the Government accept what has previously been acknowledged to be true—that if we are to have the housing established, we need to have the infrastructure to go with it.

Of course the Minister will be aware that the south-east plan, which included quite ambitious proposals for new housing, did say that the housing needed to be “closely related”—I use that expression advisedly, as it is a direct quote from the report—to the availability of infrastructure
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and associated services. My understanding, not least from replies to me and other hon. Members from the Minister of Housing, was that that was also the stated position and promise of the Government. I then saw the inspectors’ panel report and one of the less agreeable features of it. It said that it did not accept that housing expansion needed to be contingent on the delivery of necessary infrastructure. That was a bolt from the blue for me, for my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, for the North Bucks Parishes Planning Consortium, with which I met last week to discuss these important matters, and a good many other constituents besides.

Last week, on Second Reading of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, I asked the Minister on which side of the argument she fell. Did she accept what I thought was regarded as a prosaic truism, namely that housing had to be accompanied by infrastructure, or did she side with the panel of inspectors? I yield to no one in my admiration for the talents of the Minister, but I was somewhat disappointed by her judgment. She seemed to think that the argument was more in the direction of the inspectors. She did not say that in so many words, but she offered me no comfort and proceeded to bemoan the low levels of completions and to bang on about what the Government were doing on infrastructure, which was far from giving the commitment that the two had to go hand in hand—which I regarded as axiomatic.

We need to know clearly whether Ministers accept that housing and infrastructure must go hand in hand. Do they accept the judgment of the south-east plan authors or do they side with the inspectors? That is a matter not of detail, but of principle, which underlies development both in my own area and, potentially, in others around the country.

The Government, of course, are minded to talk about the community infrastructure levy and to wax lyrical about the scope for investment in infrastructure, but I am simply not sure how easy it is to get substantial funds for strategic infrastructure projects. In other words, I accept that one can get some quick wins with smaller-scale initiatives necessary at the time of housing development, but it is not always easy with the big issues and the high-cost projects. I refer, for example, to the present and past difficulties with the A418, which is in my constituency and also relevant to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury.

Perhaps the Planning Bill will usher in a Huxleyite brave new world and there will be some good news to report on that front: procedures will be more timely procedures, resources will come on stream and, all of a sudden, we will have much less to worry about. However, resting content on that basis would probably be a triumph of optimism over the evidence of history. If the Minister is able to speak about what the Planning Bill might betoken for speedier agreement for infrastructure, that would be welcome, but I have to point out that Buckinghamshire county council—in pursuit of a section 106 agreement—recently required three and a half years from conception to completion of the agreement. I am very concerned that it is not going to be easy to get substantial projects.

Let me place on record my relief and satisfaction that, as a result of good work done locally by Buckinghamshire county council and Aylesbury Vale district council, something in the order of £33.4 million of funds for infrastructure projects—a miscellany of
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different projects—has been secured. Moreover, as far as the third phase of the growth area fund resources is concerned, the local authorities have applied for an additional £27.4 million of financial support. We do not yet know the outcome of those applications, but I am cautiously hopeful that we might garner additional funds by that route. I hope that the Minister will not sniff at what I say, or think me unappreciative of what my own area has managed to achieve, but those are relatively small sums when considering the overall estimates of Roger Tym and Partners and the supposition that, for big projects, we are talking about several hundred million pounds of required funds. So far we have levered in just less than £33.5 million and are pursuing almost another £27.5 million, so there is, frankly, still a great deal to be done.

Why do I attach so much significance to the pursuit of such large funds? The answer is simple. When considering Aylesbury, we are talking about the biggest expansion—relative to its existing size—of any town in the south-east of England. That is the scale of the project that we have to consider. In those circumstances, with something so big, how will we get the necessary resources? Buckinghamshire county council has told me that sometimes feasibility studies and initial design can already be a huge drain. That is committing resources on a wing and a prayer, when the expectation of managing to attract public funding is somewhere between remote and non-existent. We are talking about the A413, A41, A418, A4146, about increasing the size of Stoke Mandeville stadium, about a higher education facility, about green spaces, community resources, flood defence, public utilities and so on. Very significant sums of money will be required.

The South East England Development Agency chief executive, Pam Alexander, is very explicit on the matter, and I am grateful to her. She has said that major social, environmental and economic infrastructure is a “critical requirement” for the success of a more ambitious housing programme. She is very clear.

Similarly, the South East England regional assembly and the inspectors advising the Government are clear about the crucial strategic significance of the east-west rail route. They think that it is indispensable. Does the Minister agree with that proposition? How does he envisage that Government can assist in bringing it on-stream expeditiously? What prognosis for its future and its interaction with housing development can he offer to me and other right hon. and hon. Members today?

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