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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 18 December 2007

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]


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

9.30 am

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I wish you and all other Members present a merry Christmas, Mr. Martlew. I thank the Speaker for granting me permission to introduce this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his place to listen and respond to my constituents’ concerns. I also thank the Leader of the House for granting permission for Westminster Hall debates to take place on this final Tuesday before Christmas. In previous years, the habit has been to cancel today’s debates, but in a very welcome decision, she has decided to allow them, which will permit another four and a half hours of parliamentary airtime in which a wide variety of concerns can be raised and drawn to the attention of Ministers.

In the next 15 to 25 years, Kettering, which I have the privilege of representing, will face a challenge arising from the number of new houses that the Government say need to be built in the borough. That is causing problems for the local community because, I am sorry to say, the infrastructure needed to support that housing growth is not being delivered at the rate at which it should be. I received a letter from the leader of Kettering borough council, Councillor Jim Hakewill, which I shall read to the Chamber. He sums up very well the concerns of the local community about the so-called sustainable communities plan proposed by the Government and how it will apply to Kettering. He writes:

—growth area funding—

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That is the dilemma that Kettering borough faces.

Much of the infrastructure that Kettering needs is in the field of transport. I know that the Minister has no direct control over the Department for Transport, but it is crucial that his Department regularly engages with the DFT to deliver his sustainable communities plan. I pray in aid a recent comment made on the Floor of the House by the Secretary of State for Transport:

the right hon. Lady was referring to another hon. Member—

I took that as a reassurance that the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government were joined at the hip in delivering the necessary infrastructure that communities such as Kettering require.

In a letter written in August 2006, I was told by another DCLG Minister that the Department

It would appear from the assurances given to my constituents that both Departments are committed to delivering the infrastructure that local communities such as Kettering require to ensure the scale of housing growth that the Government envisage.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, just before Christmas—I, too, wish everyone a very happy Christmas. He talks about transport infrastructure, but I am sure that he acknowledges that other forms of infrastructure, such as dentists, doctors, leisure facilities and schools, are also important. Not only are we not getting the “infrastructure first”—that was the slogan that I suggested for Thames Gateway—but infrastructure is being taken away. For instance, the policy of secondary school closures is set against a backdrop of extending compulsory education to 18 and of Government targets, which are forcing thousands more houses on to those communities. Should the Government not have a moratorium on school closures until we know the impact of those changes?

Mr. Hollobone: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his very helpful intervention. I was disappointed to hear of the difficulties being experienced by him and his community over the lack of joined-up government in the delivery of the ongoing infrastructure required for growing communities. Part of the difficulty is that the Government’s housing expansion agenda is so ambitious and aims to build so many houses in such a short time that it seems to have huge difficulty
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co-ordinating the delivery of the extra infrastructure and support services needed by those who will live in the houses.

The very strong argument for Kettering is that, if the Government cannot fulfil their promise to put infrastructure first, they need to scale back their housing expansion plans; otherwise the result will be tens of thousands of new houses in north Northamptonshire, but a worse quality of life for those moving in to the new houses and for the existing residents, because the already groaning infrastructure endured by local people will be unable to cope. I am very disappointed that a similar situation seems to be arising in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I am disappointed: this is not the first time that I have had to raise this issue in this Chamber. On 12 October 2005, in the first Westminster Hall debate that I secured after the last general election, I was delighted to raise these issues with the Minister’s predecessor, now the Minister for the Environment, in a debate about overdevelopment in Northamptonshire. Overdevelopment is basically lots of houses without the infrastructure needed to support them. What disappoints me is that very little progress seems to have been made towards providing that infrastructure since I brought my constituents’ concerns to the House on that occasion.

I also had the privilege of securing another Westminster Hall debate, on 19 July 2006, on the problems of the A14, the major road that serves my constituency. Despite my raising those concerns with the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), plans to introduce proposals to improve that road have been put back since that debate. The theme of my remarks today is that the strategy of infrastructure, then jobs, then houses, which local people were promised, has not happened. In fact, realisation of the infrastructure commitments that were signalled now seems further away than it was in the first place.

North Northamptonshire has been pre-eminent in the delivery of additional housing as part of the Government’s sustainable communities plan. In the borough of Kettering, there are 36,000 houses. Under the Government’s proposal, a statutory duty has been placed on the borough to make provision for an additional 13,100 houses by 2021. In other words, the borough will increase by one third, which must be one of the fastest growth rates of any community in the whole country—it is an extremely ambitious target. The four communities of Kettering, Corby to the north, Wellingborough to the south, and east Northamptonshire to the east form north Northamptonshire. Overall, the requirement is for an extra 52,100 houses in north Northamptonshire by 2021, as part of a county-wide increase of just under 100,000 houses by that date. By 2031 the population of Northamptonshire is set to rise from 660,000 people to just under 1 million.

That rate of growth is unprecedented in the history of the county and of the borough of Kettering. Traditionally, Kettering has been a successful and thriving market town, which has evolved over the years and never had growth imposed upon it. Because it has evolved, it has a settled infrastructure that has served the community extremely well until now. Now, despite the rate of growth
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that is being imposed, it is increasingly unlikely that local people will receive the extra infrastructure that they require.

In north Northamptonshire as a whole, 2,500 new homes are completed every year. The area forms part of the wider Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area, which delivers a higher rate of annual housing growth than that of the Thames Gateway, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has raised concerns. However, developers, local councillors, residents and planners all agree that local growth on that scale will be sustainable only if there is sufficient investment in the associated infrastructure. An example of that is the supposed—yet to arrive—improvements to the A14.

The A14 is a road of European significance. On maps in the European Commission, it runs from Dublin, through Wales and England, past Kettering to the east coast ports and then into Europe. An “E” number is attached to it. Some 70,000 vehicles a day use it driving past Kettering, and the road is close to capacity. Everyone agrees that it is the major brake on housing expansion in north Northamptonshire, so the Highways Agency needs to introduce a proposal to sort out the capacity on that road. Currently, however, there are no proposals to do anything about it until 2016 or 2017. The plans that the Government have placed a duty on local councils to deliver are meant to be completed in 2021, but major improvements to that major road are not scheduled until almost the end of that programme. It is a perfect example of infrastructure not leading but following housing expansion.

When I expressed local concerns about the A14 in the debate on 19 July, the then Transport Minister assured me that the Highways Agency was considering an options study of the road’s Kettering bypass section, and that the agency would make proposals to him in due course. Unfortunately, the timetable continues to slip. February 2003, when the sustainable communities plan was published, was the first opportunity for local people to try to understand the imminent changes to their local community. In July 2003, the then Secretary of State for Transport, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, responded to the recommendations of the then London to south midlands multi-modal study to widen the A14. In 2004, the Highways Agency appointed consultants Scott Wilson to work on the potential for widening the road, and throughout 2005 the agency issued a number of article 14 directions against housing developments in the locality on the basis that the proposed developments could not go ahead because the A14 did not have enough capacity to cope with them.

In November 2005, however, at a north Northamptonshire summit, the agency advised local people that there was no automatic expectation that it would recommend investment in the A14 before 2021. I secured my parliamentary debate in July 2006, and later that year the A14 issues group was established, involving various Government agencies, the county council, the local planning unit and the Government office for the region; however, Kettering borough council was not invited.

The important point is that DCLG, or perhaps it is the Department for Transport, often seems to forget that planning powers lie with local district councils. In November 2006, Kettering borough council granted planning permission for an office development on a site
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known as Cransley park, or “the scrapyard” to local people, at the entrance to Kettering from Northampton by the A14. The council was unaware, however, that the Government had established the A14 issues group. That site is now blighted because no one locally knows the proposed route of an offline extension to the A14, which seems to be the Highways Agency’s favoured proposal. In yet another example of joined-up government, the local council, in all good faith, has granted planning permission for a development to create job opportunities in the borough, but because it was not involved in major transport decisions, the site is effectively blighted.

In January 2007, the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet, came to Kettering and gave a commitment that the Highways Agency would submit proposals to him on the future of the A14 by spring 2007. Those proposals have still not arrived, and I understand that it could be late in 2008 before any hard and fast proposals are advanced. The problem is that local people are suffering. Congestion in Kettering itself is getting worse, and access to the A14 for my constituents who live in Burton Latimer, Rothwell and Desborough is extremely difficult at peak times.

The local business community is also suffering. The Northamptonshire chamber of commerce recently commented:

Mr. Griffiths, who heads up that chamber, went on to say:

In a comment that I wholeheartedly endorse, he went on to say:

A very ambitious housing expansion target has been imposed on the county of Northamptonshire, but the road network in the county is not good enough to cope with it. At Government level, the Highways Agency is dragging its feet on proposals to improve the A14, and the Department for Communities and Local Government needs to have a serious discussion with the agency about that. I must tell the Minister that his housing expansion plan in Kettering and north Northamptonshire will simply not be achievable unless there is a sensible solution to sorting out that road, and sorting it out fast.

Kettering also needs an eastern bypass before housing expansion goes ahead. There are proposals for up to 5,500 extra houses to be built to the east of Kettering. At the moment, traffic travelling there goes through the villages of Weekley and Warkton. Warkton is a very small village, almost a hamlet, and the road that goes through it is a C-class road—the busiest in the county. If proposals to build up to 5,500 houses to the east of Kettering are adopted, that road will become an absolute nightmare, not just because of the volume of traffic but
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because of construction traffic. There is an urgent need for an eastern bypass to relieve Weekley and Warkton of that traffic.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I have been listening intently to what the hon. Gentleman has said about Kettering and the surrounding area, with which I am not familiar. As a fellow member of the Select Committee on Transport, does he agree that what is important is improving not just the road network, but public transport in the surrounding area? That is a far more vital component of a sustainable community, because if we just build more roads, we will just create more traffic.

Mr. Hollobone: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In the plans for Northamptonshire, there is a clear commitment to what is called multi-modal shift, which apparently means getting people out of cars and on to public transport. In the proposals for new housing expansion in the county, the county council has an ambitious target of 20 per cent. multi-modal shift. The problem is that, although the Government say they are encouraging such a shift to public transport, they are not funding it. In counties such as Northamptonshire, where infrastructure is cheaper than in some other development areas such as the Thames Gateway, the Government are not rewarding value-for-money schemes. Every pound of extra investment in Northamptonshire would go further in encouraging multi-modal shift than a pound spent in other expansion areas. The penny does not seem to have dropped with the Government that they could achieve a lot more if they looked to areas such as Northamptonshire to deliver the housing expansion that they require.

People in the county have picked up on that point. A local developer contacted me ahead of today’s debate, stating:

The local councils in north Northamptonshire are doing their best to ensure that the Government’s housing expansion programme works sensibly. They could have taken an alternative view and said, “We are not going to co-operate at all. This is a Government plan, local people don’t want it.” Local people do not want housing expansion on such a scale, but Her Majesty’s Government have placed a statutory duty on Kettering borough council and the other local authorities to make provision for the extra housing, and the local authorities have taken the pragmatic view that they will co-operate with the Government to deliver the plan as best they can and to maximise the involvement of local people in its preparation. That is a pragmatic and sensible way forward, and they are doing their best.

Local councils are at the forefront of trying to persuade local people that the plans can work, but they are having their feet pulled from under them by the fact that, time and again, the Government’s infrastructure
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commitments have not been delivered. Another example of that is Kettering’s rail service. One might think that if the Government were going to increase the population of the borough by a third by 2021, they would want to improve the rail service to Kettering; in fact, with the franchise changing last month, the new operator, East Midlands Trains—part of the Stagecoach Group—has proposed dramatic cuts to the train service to Kettering from next December. The reason for that, to quote a Government official in the Department for Transport, is that the reduction in Kettering services is a direct result of the introduction of a new service to Corby,

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