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18 Dec 2007 : Column 195WH—continued

Weekday peak evening services from London to Kettering will be cut by a third; Saturday day-tripper services will be cut by 40 per cent., and the number of trains north from Kettering to Sheffield, Derby and Nottingham will be halved. In effect, Stagecoach is saying that it wants to take away Kettering’s inter-city status and make the service just outer-suburban. That does not fit with the Minister’s plan to build a sustainable community in Kettering.

Given the 52,100 extra houses that are to be built in north Northamptonshire by 2021 and the need to create an extra 47,000 jobs to go with those houses, what sort of message do such extensive cuts to the local rail service send to the local business community? It now appears that the Government, through the Department for Transport, have been involved in encouraging the new operator to make cuts, to speed up train services to more distant destinations such as Sheffield, Derby and Nottingham. That is a perfect example of the Government not fulfilling their commitment to local people to provide infrastructure first—before jobs and houses.

We cannot have local councils busting a gut to introduce plans to accommodate all the extra housing on one hand, while on the other a major transport provider for the area is seeking to scale back its services to that extent. I strongly encourage the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Transport to get involved and to ensure that Stagecoach does not proceed with those proposals. Last night, I presented to the House a petition objecting to the proposed cuts in the rail services, which has been signed by 2,485 local Kettering residents.

Local roads in the county also need urgent attention, but are not getting the funds they need. Kettering has always been the capital of north Northamptonshire, and the county town is Northampton. One would think that the road between the county town and the county’s second town would be one of the major road arteries in the county, but not a bit of it. Instead, the A43 between Kettering and Northampton is the most dangerous and congested road in Northamptonshire. The county council has recently reprioritised that road in its local transport plan, but the regional funding allocations, which are determined by the east midlands region, mean that the pot simply is not big enough for money to be directed to that urgent scheme. The population in the county is set to increase by at least a third, but the main road between the two largest towns in the county cannot attract the funds needed for improvements. It simply is not good enough for the Government to say that such work must be funded by developers. They have to
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understand that the infrastructure deficit in the county is so big that if the developers have to pay for it all, they will not come to build houses there.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point and the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) have commented, roads are not the only issue. We require more than one-off infrastructure investments. There must be a recognition that the populations of counties such as Northamptonshire are increasing anyway, not only as a result of the sustainable communities plan. I refer hon. Members to evidence from Bob Lane, chief executive of the North Northants Development Company, who rightly said:

That message from the highly respected chief executive, Bob Lane, in whom the Government have a lot of confidence, should send alarm bells ringing in the Minister’s head. Mr. Lane is absolutely right: the quality of life of people coming to new housing areas in north Northamptonshire, and of the people who live there now, will be adversely affected if the Government do not appreciate the scale of the ongoing revenue commitment required to fund local services.

Kettering general hospital is working at breakneck speed to treat an ever-growing local population. It is not only people from Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough who use those services; people from Market Harborough, Leicester and further afield also use them. It is a well respected and hard-working local hospital, but there is only so much that it can do without Government recognition of the pressures that it is under.

Local schools are full, and it is difficult to get one’s child into the school of one’s choice. All the good schools are full, and some of the not-so-good schools will also be full. There seems to be a lag in the provision of new school facilities whenever a new housing proposal comes forward. I know that the local county council has a role to play, but the Government need to recognise that when they allocate funding to local authorities such as Northamptonshire county council.

There are not enough police in Northamptonshire, partly because the Government funding formula for local policing is skewing money into the police community support officer programme and taking it out of the programme for police officers with full powers. I know that is not the intention behind the formula, but the effect in Northamptonshire is that although there are more PCSOs, there will be fewer police officers on the streets. I suggest that if the population is to increase by one third, we need one third more police officers, but little assurance is being given to the chief constable and the Northamptonshire police authority that that is the Government’s intention.

Bob Spink: May I make a brief point before my hon. Friend concludes? Homelessness and inadequate housing concern us all, particularly at this time of year. Does he agree that there is no inconsistency in calling for more
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social and low-cost housing while also calling for lower and more responsible levels of development?

Mr. Hollobone: There is no conflict. The Government must realise that developers cannot pay for everything. Yes, we need them to pay for some of the social housing and extra infrastructure that the Government want and local people need, but they cannot pay for it all. The Government must recognise that if the sustainable communities plan is to work as they intend. They must join up government better, and the Minister and his Department must take the lead, because it is their plan. The Minister must also recognise that much more money will be required; otherwise, the communities that are created will not be sustainable. Communities such as Kettering are crying out for extra social housing—there are 2,700 people on the local council’s housing waiting list. I hope that many of the new homes that are built are affordable houses, but the Government cannot have it both ways. They must get out their cheque book to ensure that those communities are sustainable.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister has got the point. I am not making a party political point, but speak on behalf of local residents of all political persuasions, or none, who enjoy living in Kettering. I also make a plea on behalf of all the local councils, which have got together to co-operate with the Government and to ensure that the programme is delivered effectively. My main message is that there is a real problem: local people were promised infrastructure, jobs and houses, but it looks as though they will get lots of houses and not enough infrastructure or jobs. That should cause the Minister serious concern.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. Gentlemen, I would like to start the winding-up speeches at 10.30.

10.10 am

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. I am sure that we agree on many matters, and we fight with a common spirit as we represent one third of the constituencies in the county of Cumbria. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), who raised important issues about the infrastructure that is necessary for new housing developments in his constituency and many others.

I would like in a brief time to turn the matter on its head. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the Government’s plans for housing development in his part of the world are over-ambitious, or at least the infrastructure that is being provided is insufficiently ambitious to match the plans. I represent Westmorland and Lonsdale, which contains a large chunk of the Lake district and also a significant part of the Yorkshire dales and much other attractive countryside in south Cumbria. What we have there is, perhaps, a lack of ambition when it comes to the provision of new housing, specifically affordable housing. In the next few minutes, I shall encourage the Minister to consider making provision to allow building where infrastructure already exists, in a way that underpins and safeguards that infrastructure.

In a nutshell, the problem in south Cumbria is that average house prices are around £250,000 and average
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incomes are some £17,000 per year. One does not need to be a mathematician to work out that that means that the average person is stuffed when it comes to getting a mortgage for a home.

We also have a problem in that three quarters of our social rented homes—council houses—have been sold off in the past 25 years. The local authority in my area, South Lakeland, is working hard to increase the number of social rented properties, but it is starting from a poor and low position. Some 28 per cent. of our young people leave the area and never return, and the principal reason for that is expensive houses without the commensurate work to enable people to afford them.

I and other people have been seeking solutions to the problem. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution. We have been looking for innovative ways of tackling the problem. One potential scheme that I have come up with and have worked with others on is something that we dub “home on the farm”. I am pleased to say that it has received formal backing from the president of the National Farmers Union.

I estimate that in my constituency several hundred affordable, social rented properties could be created in buildings that already exist—that is, underused or disused farm buildings. The buildings already exist, as does the infrastructure to underpin them. Typically, on many farm sites there may be a disused or underused farm building in which one could create two or three affordable, social rented cottages. Two of them might be put into the general social housing pot for the district, and the third would be an agricultural tied cottage. In my constituency and many others, a principal problem with the sustainability of farming, particularly in the uplands, is anybody being in a position to take on the tenancy or ownership of a farm once the farming couple reach retirement age. It would be wonderful if one could provide a social rented agricultural tied cottage on site. Typically, it would be a place for the daughter and son-in-law, or son and daughter-in-law, of the farmer to live in, and then the couples would swap when the older couple reached retirement age. As I said, the other two houses would be put in the social rented pot to try to alleviate the pressure on the local housing market.

Such a scheme would help to underpin and make use of the existing infrastructure of local farming, help to ensure sustainability in a vital industry in our area, and maintain the countryside that other Members’ constituents love to visit. It would also be important in trying to keep young people, families and people of all ages in rural areas.

In relation to underpinning infrastructure, I think of a village that I represent. The school in Satterthwaite, which is near Hawkshead, closed last year. Ironically, it is about to be converted into affordable housing. If there had been affordable housing in the village five years ago, the school would not have shut. If we can create living, vibrant communities in places such as those that I represent, we will be able to safeguard our schools, post offices, public transport routes and so on, prevent young people from leaving and create balanced communities.

I simply ask for a reclassification of existing buildings to brownfield sites to allow development for the exclusive, narrow purpose of providing affordable rented accommodation. Guidance should be given not just to local authorities and district councils but to national
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parks, which also hold the reins on planning in areas such as those that I represent. One of our great problems, understandably, is dealing with people who say, “Not in my backyard.” The wonderful thing about this scheme is that it calls for development in the backyards of people who desperately want it.

10.15 am

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on the way in which he introduced this important debate, and on the passionate plea that he made for his constituents. Similarly, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made a passionate plea for his constituents and helpfully demonstrated how different the questions of house building and infrastructure are in different parts of the country. In the time remaining, I would like to make a similar plea on behalf of my constituents in Worcestershire, which I believe also has broader national policy implications.

I was interested particularly in my hon. Friend’s final remarks about the broader quality of life issues that are at stake. When people hear the word “infrastructure”, they often think just about roads, and possibly railways, but infrastructure is actually so much more than that, as he rightly said in the concluding part of his speech.

Three aspects of infrastructure most worry me when considering the prospects that face my constituents as a result of significant increases in housing. Rail networks are the element of public transport that can play a real part in relieving some of the pressures in my county. If we had decent co-ordination between cars and rail, decent car parks at railway stations and, by the way, a decent rail line to London—that is another matter—we could see a big shift to public transport. The problem too often is that one cannot leave one’s car at a railway station.

The hospital service in my constituency is at breaking point. I now fully admit that I was wrong to support the construction of the Worcester Royal infirmary at its current size—it is too small to serve the existing population of the county. An additional significant population coming from whatever process—I shall come to one specific issue later—will stretch that hospital beyond its capacity to serve my constituents.

Another issue that is crucial but does not get much attention is how we deal with refuse and waste. That system, too, is under huge pressure and strain in my constituency, and additional house building will put it in a serious situation.

Of course, roads, public transport and bus services are important. Schools are also important, but as there is some decline in Worcestershire school populations at present, schools may be able to cope with the increased development. Getting energy to the new houses is important, as are water and sewerage, and, as my hon. Friend rightly said, the emergency services. Leisure services and open spaces are part of a community’s infrastructure, too. We must not lose our open spaces by cramming houses into existing urban areas. I particularly draw attention to flood defences and flood protection work, which are part of the infrastructure in my constituency, and which new house building in the wrong location threatens.

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The problem is that we are trying to work out what we need to do while steering a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of two different and conflicting parts of Government planning policy. Perhaps I should call them, in the spirit of the season—a happy Christmas to you, Mr. Martlew—the ugly sisters of planning policy: the regional spatial strategy revision and the joint core strategy. I congratulate the Worcester News, my local paper, on its attempt to make those two arcane subjects comprehensible to the people who live in south Worcestershire. They are difficult subjects, and people find it difficult to wrestle with them, but they have huge implications for house building and infrastructure in my constituency and also in Worcester city and Malvern Hills.

The problem is that the timetable for the joint core strategy, which is how the local districts decide how they will provide housing and the infrastructure to support it, is out of sync with that of the regional spatial strategy revision. The RSSR second-phase numbers have been agreed. They are high—higher than I would like—but we can probably just about cope with them. The problem is that Worcester city is full and my constituents have to take a large proportion of the houses that are actually Worcester city houses.

My concern is that the Government, when it comes to the examination in public, will actually increase the numbers. At present, the joint core strategy is being consulted on locally and effectively by the three district councils. They have come together in a joint strategy, which is really good and helps to get a picture across south Worcestershire, but they do not know the final housing numbers for which they will have to cater. The questions are being asked the wrong way round. The joint core strategy should be decided a year later when we know what the housing situation is.

However, it is even worse than that. Phase 3 of the regional spatial strategy has only just begun. It looks at some important issues for my constituents: rural services; Gypsy and Traveller sites; culture; environment, including flood risk, air quality, renewable energy and green belt; and minerals. We are conducting our joint core strategy before we even know what the regional assembly will say about those things, never mind what the Government will agree to. It seems a bizarre way in which to run something.

I entirely agree that we need more houses in south Worcestershire. I am not someone who says that we cannot build them. Clearly, the existing population is ageing, household formation rates are increasing and we need some more new houses. However, I have doubts about the levels. I think that the Government have over-predicted on immigration. They have taken three years of very high immigration levels and projected them into the future. They should have projected the last 20 years, and then we would have seen a lower demand for new house building, but that is a separate debate. I agree, though, that we need more houses and more affordable houses, which my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech. There is a serious problem with affordable housing in my constituency. I am not one who says that we should not have houses, but I think that we are probably being asked to provide too many at present, and the Government risk asking us to provide many more. We must ensure that a good number of those houses are genuinely affordable and not built by developers
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to meet a market need that they perceive for themselves, rather than the market failure that affordable housing should address.

If we do not know how many houses the Government are going to ask us to build in Worcestershire, I do not see how can we plan or fund the infrastructure in an intelligent way. Here, I bring in the pantomime villain of the piece to go with my earlier metaphor of the ugly sisters. On top of the regional spatial strategy plan numbers and the uncertainty of the south Worcestershire joint core strategy, the Government are considering plans to build two eco-towns in my constituency. One is entirely in my constituency, on the old RAF airfield at Throckmorton, and the other is two thirds in Warwickshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), and one third in my constituency.

The trouble is that we know nothing about what those plans involve. We can only guess how many houses are being proposed by the developers. We do not know the criteria that the Government will use to assess whether those towns should go ahead. We know and understand that they will have their own local infrastructure, but they will also put huge demands on the wider infrastructure of south Worcestershire, particularly on the things that worry me—the railways, the hospitals, the waste disposal systems and the rest. I am worried that the Government are saying that those eco-towns will be in addition to regional spatial strategy plan numbers. They may be playing a very clever game. Although we have the West Midlands regional assembly’s preferred numbers, I bet that the Government will up those numbers miraculously next year to meet whatever number of eco-town houses they are trying to impose on my constituency. Technically, the numbers will be within the regional spatial strategy plan, but the Government will have been shuttling around and doing some very clever arithmetic to justify their numbers.

Initially, when the eco-towns were proposed, my constituents did not seem too concerned—after all, everything that is eco is good. If the word “eco” is put in front of anything, it makes it acceptable. One councillor spoke to me about the Government’s proposal for the eco-town at Throckmorton, where the Government have previously tried to build an asylum seekers centre, which was rejected, and where they have dumped large numbers of diseased cattle—they probably were not diseased—from the foot and mouth epidemic. I do not know what the Government have got in for Throckmorton, but there we are; never mind. The ambition was to ensure that half of the houses were affordable, which sounds great. We would have an eco-town with affordable houses. One could not possibly oppose such a magnificent combination. It would be like being against apple pie or against Christmas.

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