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4 Dec 2007 : Column 192WH—continued

In the context of infrastructure I have to refer to electricity supply. Our local supplier, EDF, has made the point that it cannot plan ahead. There is, effectively, a presumption under regulation against investment in expectation of substantial additional housing numbers. That is a regulatory matter that is within the auspices of and can be changed by Government. A shortage of electricity supply either for homeowners or business customers is not an irremediable problem, but the matter needs to be addressed; otherwise, by 2012 a shortage is likely. That is a real consideration, as is the judgment of Thames Water that there needs to be very significant expansion and improvement of sewage treatment facilities in and around Aylesbury to which “very significant costs” are attached. I hope that the Minister will not think that I am speculating idly or engaged in a polemical rant against him, because that is not the case. I recognise
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that there is always a limit to what is available, but I want the Minister to appreciate the significance, scale and urgency of our requirements. Those cannot be swept under the carpet.

Finally, having talked about housing and infrastructure per se, I would like to say something more broadly about public service provision. Approximately three years ago, the hospital and primary care trusts in Milton Keynes and south midlands hired consultants to look at the expected health service provision needs in the light of anticipated and, dare I say, as far as the Government are concerned, mandated expansion of the area. As the Minister will know, the area was the subject of a development study and is a development area. The consultants reported—and Ministers have access to all this material—that an additional 142 hospital beds would be required by 2031, that an extra 84 beds in the community would be required, that 56 additional day care places would be needed, that the area would have to be able to deliver 100,000 accident and emergency admissions, that an extra 3,000 999 calls would have to be capable of being dealt with, that a further 1,100 initial meetings with a district nurse would be required on top of existing numbers, and that an expected increase of 200,000 in general practitioner consultations would be necessary.

Those are very significant numbers, as I know the Minister will appreciate. In that context, I ask myself what, in reality, seems likely to be delivered. I am not a harbinger of doom. I go about my business with an additional glint in my eye and spring in my step on a daily basis, and the Minister certainly would not accuse me of spreading gloom and doom. However, I have to temper my natural enthusiasm for life with a recognition of the constraints under which we are operating and the obvious disparity between what Hedra consultants are saying we need, and what seems likely, on present trends, to be on the table. The reality is that in our area we are struggling. We are not vastly expanding health services: we are struggling on a daily basis to keep the ship of state afloat. The Vale of Aylesbury primary care trust has a very substantial deficit which it is seeking to reduce and ultimately, perhaps, to eliminate. To put it bluntly, the order of the day in our area is not “expansion, expansion, expansion”; it is “cuts, cuts, cuts.” It is the responsibility of local Members of Parliament to seek to resist or mitigate the effects of those cuts, in the interests of our constituents, as best we can, while lobbying Government for the best possible allocation of resources to meet local need.

The fact is that we have a cuts agenda locally, not an increased resources agenda, and I say to the Minister that, as in respect of infrastructure, there is an issue in respect of the development of the health service. What we need is not the belated provision of partial infrastructure, but the timeous and parallel provision of the necessary infrastructure. Very often, as the Minister will concede, the history of development shows that when we get the houses, we get the infrastructure either late—and often inadequate—or simply not at all. That will not do. We must have the resources on time; otherwise, we will not have that symmetrical and sustainable development to which—rhetorically at least—we are all are signed up.

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In relation to health provision, I know from the evidence of my local GPs, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, who has eloquently made this point on previous occasions, that frequently there is a huge time lag—a time lag of up to 18 months—between the arrival of new residents in the area and the passage through the primary care trusts and to GPs’ surgeries of the necessary capitation payments that allow for the provision of the additional facilities which, frankly, we should be able to take for granted. Those are very big and important issues, and I would welcome Members’ comments on them. The fact is that there is a huge funding challenge: funding of infrastructure; funding of our health service; funding of education facilities; funding of adult arrangements and social care provision; and funding of the Thames Valley police force, one of the worst-funded police forces in the country.

Of course, the Minister will say that that is a matter for his right hon. and hon. Friends at the Home Office, and I accept that in departmental terms that is so. Equally, I hope that he will acknowledge the responsibility to try to ensure that there is joined-up government in these matters. A great deal is expected of district and county councils by way of commitment to development, and it is perfectly proper for the Government to take a view as to which areas should develop.

I myself have tried to be and will continue to be thoroughly constructive in these matters. I think it comes with the turf, just as it does for district and county council leaders. We do not just say “the houses must go to Hull,” because that is not a responsible position, and it is also, ultimately, a rather selfish stance. It is fine for people who have houses, who live in my, on the whole, fortunate, successful and affluent constituency, but we do need to provide additional housing, and I am quite happy to play my part in selling the case for necessary development, on the understanding that I am also selling the case for sustainable development. I cannot realistically, in all conscience, be invited to tell my constituents that they can have the houses but will not get the infrastructure.

My ambition is simple: I want a sustainable development that will lead to improvement, not deterioration, in the quality of life of residents of the Buckingham constituency. I hope that the Minister can help me to achieve that for the benefit of my area. I look forward to what the hon. Member for Chesterfield, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham and the Minister have to say.

10.5 am

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): In following the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I want to congratulate him on securing this debate. In his speech, the hon. Gentleman said that he hoped that the Minister would not accuse him of a polemical rant. There is no danger of that, for every time that I hear the hon. Gentleman speak, on whichever subject, he always puts forward the most rational, coherent and reasoned analysis of that topic. That is absolutely true on this occasion, and I would not disagree in the slightest with a word that the hon. Gentleman has uttered. I will simply try to add my comments as an outsider, who has never, as far as I know, been through Aylesbury Vale, let alone visited it, so I bow to the knowledge of a local expert.

This is the second debate in which I have participated in the past two or three weeks where the Minister and
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the Front-Bench spokespeople have been outsiders. They are no experts on the issues that we are debating. One debate was on local government reorganisation in Norfolk, and now we are on housing development in Aylesbury Vale. Is that really the best way to run the country and make policy on such local issues? The people who should be deciding on the best shape of local government reorganisation in Norfolk are the locally elected politicians who represent their communities. Those who should have the power and control to decide on development in Aylesbury Vale—or, indeed, in my constituency of Chesterfield or anywhere else in the country—are the locally elected politicians. They know their communities and their local conditions and circumstances.

That is how the power would be held more or less anywhere else in Europe, including Scandinavia, or the United States that I have visited. We are the most centralised of the western democracies, with 90 per cent. of our taxation raised in London and handed out, with strings attached, by various Ministers to various arms of local government—and, unfortunately, increasingly to local quangos that are totally unaccountable, unelected and appointed. This debate is a classic illustration that that is not the way, and we should reverse all of that. The local knowledge on how to implement housing growth, for example, is far superior to that of any politician speaking in this place who is not a local, or to any Minister or civil servant sitting in their offices in Eland house off Victoria street and deciding what happens, in fairly minute detail, across the whole length and breadth of the country.

For example, I know that central Government have expressed some impatience with what they perceive as unnecessary delays with some housing development in Aylesbury Vale. Yet if we look at the local circumstances, we can see some good reasons for that. One development at Berryfields, for example, where all of the section 106 agreements have now been signed, has taken some time to negotiate since there were a considerable number of small developers involved and the local authority had to do separate negotiations with every one of them. That is quite complex, and I know that the local authority is now looking to try and deal with those problems differently, by having lots of pre-planning meetings before planning applications are even submitted and by adopting the simplified tariff approach pioneered by Milton Keynes. I know, from talking to Barratt, the FTSE 100 company that builds 10 per cent. of this country’s houses every year, that it is full of praise for such a simplified approach. Where there is a flat tariff, it knows what it is going to pay on every building that it puts up, and it does not have to get into the same detailed level of local negotiations each time. It is simpler for everybody.

With another development, the Princess Mary hospital in Wendover, there has again been central Government impatience about how quickly the local authority gets on with building new houses. Yet there, the problem is not with the local authority but with an arm of central Government, because the Princess Mary site is an ex-Ministry of Defence hospital. The problem is with the Ministry of Defence and the Government side getting their act together to move the process on. Central Government are so quick to blame local authorities on all sorts of issues, but closer analysis often reveals that the problem is much more complex and may indeed sometimes lie with central Government.

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Another issue, which the hon. Member for Buckingham perhaps skirted around when he discussed eco-towns, is private developer Greenway’s proposal for Aylesbury Vale. Greenway suggests that it could build an eco-town, although, as we have heard, the conditions under which it could do so are not yet known and are in the gift of central Government. There is a suggestion that Greenway’s proposal, which is to build 4,000 houses just north of Winslow—a town with just 4,000 residents, not 4,000 houses—would hardly qualify as an eco-town. The proposal would create huge infrastructure problems, and we have heard lots of examples of that. Traffic in the area is already way beyond capacity, and building another 4,000 houses would create huge infrastructure issues.

Greenway suggests that it can build a relief road to get around the problem, but when would that infrastructure be built? The proposal appears to be to build 200 houses a year over 15 years, but would Greenway build the relief road before the 4,000 houses, given that the local roads are already over capacity, or would it wait 15 years, until it had built all 4,000 houses, which would obviously be the wrong way to do it? There are therefore lots of local issues, and the county, district and borough councils involved are far better placed to understand and deal with them than anyone in central Government.

Other infrastructure issues have been touched on, and I want to explore them further. We are talking about building large numbers of houses in the area. Milton Keynes, which is just over the border from Aylesbury Vale, has the greatest planned housing growth in the entire south-east, and some of that massive growth may spill over into Aylesbury Vale. Although that is an issue for discussion and some disagreement, Aylesbury Vale itself has the third-largest planned growth in the south-east. If house building takes place on such a massive scale, there will obviously be huge infrastructure questions, which the hon. Member for Buckingham has raised.

Road issues have been mentioned, for example. The A413 and the A418 are the two main roads in and out of Aylesbury, but they are already over capacity. We may end up building large numbers of houses on greenfield sites north, east or south of Aylesbury. Interestingly, we have not had mention of building on the green belt, and although the distinction between green belt and greenfield is pretty clear, people often confuse the two. In this case, nobody is saying that we cannot build on green fields, and there are plenty of places to build in a rational, planned way, so that, thankfully, does not seem to be an issue here. However, if we build large numbers of houses on what are essentially greenfield sites, we will create an awful lot of extra traffic. Unless we build everybody a light railway or other railway system, there will be a lot more car traffic, which will require a lot more roads to be built in a planned way before, not after, the development is opened. If the local road structure, including the A413 and the A418, is already over capacity and more or less gridlocked at rush hour, we cannot possibly throw huge amounts of extra traffic on to it without completely bringing to a standstill not only the central town of Aylesbury, but outlying villages such as Wing and Bierton, which already have huge problems and need new road networks now, not when thousands of extra houses are built in the area.

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On rail links, the north-south links are, as always, fairly good, but the east-west links are not very good. There is strong pressure in the area to reopen the east-west link, with a rail line from Aylesbury to Milton Keynes, but where would the funding come from? Would it come before or after significant housing development creates even more pressure, because roads either do not exist or are massively congested? If we want to get people out of cars and on to rail, we must have the rail network before the event, not after, when areas are already gridlocked and congested.

I also want to pursue slightly further the issue of electricity. There are all sorts of examples relating to the EDF issue, and I have a copy of the detailed five-page letter—hon. Members will be relieved to hear that I do not propose to read it out—that Alan Sherwell, a councillor on Aylesbury Vale district council, wrote to a Minister in the Department on 19 October, although he has not yet had a response. It is a detailed letter on one specific issue—the infrastructure for the electricity supply. Given the number of houses and the development in the area, capacity has already been reached for delivering electricity. We have heard that if people want to build a new cluster of 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 houses, they have to provide a new sub-station and new electricity infrastructure.

EDF gives the example of the Aylesbury East grid at Bierton, just north of the town, which is already at capacity. Further development would require more electricity infrastructure. EDF estimates an up-front cost of £6 million and says that, from the order being placed, it would take two years for the components to build the sub-station to be delivered and for it to be built. We are talking about a two-year run-in time and £6 million up front, before progress can be made. Where does the £6 million come from? Does it come in small, piecemeal amounts from different housing developers, most of which do not even have the contracts yet? We have discussed Greenway’s proposal to build a road. Would the road come after it had built 4,000 houses or before? From the developer’s point of view, it would always be after; from the local community’s point of view, it has to be before.

What happens in the case of EDF? Do the Government step in with a private company such as EDF and provide the up-front funds to allow the infrastructure to be put in place before the houses and, we hope, the offices and other units required to provide employment are put in place? There is a major issue in relation to the two-year gap or run-in time between order and completion. The infrastructure will have to be in place before the houses are built, but who will provide the money? EDF is not. Small, piecemeal developers are not; they would not be capable of providing all that money anyway. Who will fill the infrastructure gap, which in this case relates specifically to electricity?

Then there is the employment issue. If we massively expand the housing capacity around Aylesbury, Aylesbury Vale and Milton Keynes just next door, where will those people find employment? Will they all be commuters, heading into London? The railway route from Aylesbury to Marylebone in London is already at capacity. The line is partly shared with London Underground and there is no more capacity on it. Where will the tens of thousands of people who will live in the extra thousands of houses over the next few years work?

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The hon. Member for Buckingham talked about sustainable community development. If it is to be sustainable in every sense of the word, where will the people work? Local employment must be provided, because those people could not use the existing transport capacity in terms of road or rail to commute to London to work. One fear of local government in Aylesbury Vale relates to the fact that it is under pressure from the Government to keep hitting central targets on development of housing. Some of that pressure could lead to the use of land that is suitable for developing industrial parks and office parks that would provide employment for the growing population, but there is pressure to release such land quickly for housing. Some land is suitable for employment purposes or housing and some land is suitable only for housing. What a short-sighted mistake it would be if, in pursuit of centrally imposed targets and pressure, houses were built on land that was suitable for employment purposes and then in five or 10 years people turned round and said, “But where are the jobs for these people? Where can we build the employment parks?” We must have infrastructure planning, whether it relates to road, rail, electricity or employment. We have to sort those issues out up front.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling point. It would be an irony indeed if the displacement of appropriate business premises on the one hand and the paucity of wider infrastructure on the other proved to be the lethal cocktail that discouraged enterprises from taking root in Aylesbury. Does he agree that the proposal that we should be thinking in terms of an extra job per household is very modest? We have to be 21st century about this and realise not only that two people in many of these households will want to work, but that they will need to do so.

Paul Holmes: As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The local council has talked about wanting at least one-to-one sustainability in terms of new employment for new housing and a new population, but one house does not equal one person seeking a job. Couples today expect that both people will work more or less throughout their adult lives. One of them may be part-time for part of that, but they will be working and both will be full-time for the bulk of their working lives. Of course, when children become adults, they are often in the original family home—I know, as I have two adult children who rarely seem to be out of the house, even though they have left home—as they cannot afford to get on the housing ladder until much later in their lives than our generation used to expect. One home may well have not one person but two, three or four who are looking for employment in the area, just as it may well have not one or two but three cars. Runaway housing development, with no employment infrastructure, will cause massive problems a few years down the line.

I saw an example of that recently on a visit to the High Peak of Derbyshire, an area that I know well—I worked there for 17 years. There was an industrial estate, and the eyes of some people there lit up with pound signs at the thought of selling it off for housing development. The value of the land for housing is immeasurably higher than its value as industrial land. There is huge pressure to sell land for housing, but
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where then will be the jobs for people living in small communities, in that case in the High Peak of Derbyshire and in the case that we are discussing in the largely rural area around Aylesbury Vale? We cannot have everyone commuting to Milton Keynes and London when the road and rail infrastructure either does not exist or is already overloaded before many thousands of extra houses and tens of thousands of extra people are added.

We need joined-up thinking and planning, and we cannot just leave it to piecemeal developers and local authorities, whose financial capabilities are restricted because central Government control 75 per cent. of their finances and what they can borrow to invest. The Government do not want to affect the public sector borrowing requirement, hence their disastrous policies on social housing to rent and stopping the building of council houses entirely for the past 10 years. In that climate, local authorities cannot deal with the problem on their own. Both the other parties keep talking about localism, even though they destroyed it, starting in the 1980s and continuing in the 1990s. If we were to reverse the central control, local authorities would have the power to raise funds for local infrastructure and to plan and decide locally, as they do in France, Germany, Sweden and southern Illinois, all of which I have visited. That power does not exist in this country at the moment.

Central Government should have a light touch and not impose hard, centrally driven targets that are not suitable for local circumstances. They should get their act together and, as has been mentioned, provide the infrastructure of road, rail, schools, health services and employment before they rush into building huge housing estates with thousands of houses, tens of thousands of people and no local facilities to serve them. It must be planned well, and who should the Government listen to in that planning? It must be local people, communities and their elected representatives. They are the experts, and they know their area, its problems and the places where building could or could not take place far better than anyone sitting in the offices at Eland house on Victoria street, just up the road from the Houses of Parliament.

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