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18 Dec 2007 : Column 201WH—continued

However, if that town is to be a genuine eco-town, to be sustainable, and not to put a burden on the wider infrastructure of south Worcestershire, and if half the houses are to be affordable, half the jobs provided locally must be affordable, too. I do not think that planners can get right that magic equation in which all the people who live in the new Throckmorton super eco-town will also work in the same town. No, they will get in their cars and drive, putting a huge strain on the
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infrastructure and damaging the environment. We do not know what criteria the Government are using to assess the eco-towns. We do not know how big they are going to be. We know nothing about them. Freedom of information requests have failed and parliamentary questions have produced very little. Three district councils are trying to plan their joint core strategy and their infrastructure, without knowing what the regional spatial strategy numbers will be or how many eco- towns they will have imposed on them. It is absolutely ludicrous.

The district councils should not commit to the location of any of the housing that they need to find under the regional spatial strategy plan until they know what those eco-towns are and how the infrastructure is going to be funded and planned. I am not saying that the Government necessarily have to find all the money for the infrastructure. The Milton Keynes model—the roof tax for providing private sector developer money for infrastructure—is a good one. I am not saying that we necessarily need to use public money. But we must know the precise mechanisms that will be in place to deliver the money that we need to fund the infrastructure for these new houses.

If we get that wrong, not just the people in the new houses, but the people in the houses that are already there will suffer. Their quality of life is at stake, too. Getting to London from my constituency is already a nightmare. The roads are at breaking point and the railway cannot cope. Fifteen years ago, that journey was an acceptable part of my life; now it is one of the most unpleasant features of it. Putting in massive new numbers of houses on that infrastructure will compound the problem and make existing residents’ lives miserable, as well as failing to provide a proper quality of life for the people who will live in those new houses.

It is this failure to understand the impact on current residents that I want to drive home. I say to the Government, please be more open with us now about the eco-towns and tell us how big they will be. Will they have 5,000 houses or 20,000? That is the range of possible numbers. Please tell us what assessment will be made of the impact of the infrastructure on the area and on other towns around it. If a new eco-town is built at Throckmorton, what impact will it have on the very attractive Georgian market town of Pershore, which is only a couple of miles away? How can the Government decide that it is right to go ahead with that eco-town when they do not understand the dynamic of south Worcestershire and the possible impact on the town of Pershore, which lies outside my constituency in that of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer)? Therefore, big questions about those eco-towns must be resolved.

I also ask the Government to tell us in precise detail how the infrastructure that we need is going to be funded. If we do not have that detail, we cannot plan with any confidence. One of our key jobs as constituency MPs—my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale did this very well in their opening remarks—is to defend the interests of our constituents. The Government are tying our hands behind our backs as we seek to do that. I hope that the Minister will shed some light on the issue.
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10.28 am

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this debate. He has given us a very detailed exposition and analysis of the problems facing a growth area such as Kettering. It is an area that he knows far better than I do, so I will not try to go back over the detail of that local case, which has been more than eloquently laid before us.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) gave different examples, but all made the same point. Many of the problems outlined in the opening speech are common across huge parts of the country and are seen not only in the specific high growth areas designated by the Government. A number of common themes have emerged from the speeches of the hon. Members who have contributed so far. One such theme centres around the question of housing growth. From the Government’s point of view, that growth is concentrated in a number of handpicked high-growth areas in which the sheer volume of housing that is to be provided will cause enormous problems and strains on the surrounding infrastructure. The issue of jobs was also raised. If sustainable communities are to be created, jobs need to be created in the locality of the housing.

This country has a generally inadequate road system, and public transport is very inadequate compared with that in most of our continental counterparts. In some growth areas, there will be tens of thousands of new houses—for example, 160,000 in the Thames Gateway—and we cannot have such large conglomerations without public transport and road transport infrastructure, particularly if people must commute long distances to find work elsewhere. If growth areas are in the London satellite areas, it will be impossible, given the state of the infrastructure, for residents to commute to London. Even if the infrastructure could be improved to cope with that amount of commuting, would one want that? How would that fit with our commitments on tackling climate change, for example? If we are to have truly sustainable communities, we must look not just at an area’s transport infrastructure—roads and public transport—but at the development of local employment in tandem with growth areas.

Hon. Members have touched on other areas of infrastructure and given local examples, such as the provision of schools, hospitals, shops, community facilities, water, sewerage and so on. The hon. Member for Castle Point spoke about schools and asked what would happen in areas where schools had been closed, or were bursting at the seams—one example was in Kettering—because tens of thousands of new houses had been built. Does one wait until the problem has developed and then provide the schools, or does one plan ahead, which creates funding issues?

Only two weeks ago, some of us were debating a similar issue concerning Aylesbury Vale, another housing growth area, which is south of Milton Keynes, and the same issues arose. A specific issue in Aylesbury Vale is pertinent to some of the points that hon. Members have
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made about water, sewerage and power supplies. In one area the proposal was for 4,000 to 6,000 new houses, but the electricity company said that there was no capacity for delivering electricity to the area without building a new sub-station, which would cost £6 million up front. The electricity company could not provide that money up front and said that someone else would have to raise it. Who will provide £6 million up front to supply the electricity infrastructure to allow those 4,000 to 6,000 houses to be built? One cannot have one without the other, but where will the up-front money come from? There are other examples, and I shall return to one when I look at possible solutions.

North of Chesterfield, the Brimington and Staveley area runs up to the M1, where a large development is under way to create a new motorway junction—29A—and a large industrial park on an old colliery site. Over the next five, 10 or 15 years, it will become a major employment area for a deprived coalfield community stretching from Chesterfield to Bolsover. The Government may create a motorway junction and the huge industrial park on the reclaimed colliery site will create jobs. However, it will also generate a huge amount of traffic—and not just extra traffic on the M1, for which lane-widening is already being considered because it is so congested, but extra transport on the existing road infrastructure through Staveley and Brimington to Chesterfield, and the other way from Chesterfield through Brimington and Staveley up to the huge new industrial park that will be created.

The Brimington and Staveley area has been promised a bypass since 1936, but the money has never been available, although it was promised repeatedly, usually around the time of county council elections. The bypass never happened, because the money was not available. The county council and the Government say that even to think about the bypass is not on the books, but when the industrial park near junction 29A is up and running in five, 10 or 15 years with the additional employment and the additional transport problems on the road through Brimington and Staveley, which is already too congested, they will think again about a bypass. We shall create the problem and then think about a solution. That is the wrong way round, as we have heard with the other examples of schools, sewerage, electricity supply and so on. Those are common problems.

The hon. Member for Kettering said that the East Midlands Development Agency should put more money into major road infrastructure in the Kettering and Northampton area, but Chesterfield is in the far north of the east midlands region and we want some of that money for road infrastructure in our area—for example, for the Brimington and Staveley bypass. The danger is that we will rob Peter to pay Paul, unless infrastructure is planned systematically. Those problems are common throughout the country.

What are the solutions? Hon. Members have suggested that some of the major growth areas, which the Government have handpicked in willing partnership with local councils, are too large. Should we be looking at spreading them out? In my area, Derby is a growth area. It is a small city and has been selected by the Government for considerable growth, but some people in Derby are asking whether they want that with the accompanying infrastructure problems and huge population growth. On the other
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hand, Chesterfield, which is not far from Derby—about 20 miles further north—has been restricted to 280 new houses a year, but we want further expansion. We are recovering from the massive unemployment that followed pit closures and then the loss of engineering works, and we need more housing than we have been allowed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale spoke about homes on farms for people in lower income brackets who cannot afford to buy in the normal way in a popular tourist area such as the Lake district. The problem is the same in Cornwall, and similar in Derbyshire. Some of the new homes in growth areas such as Derby are for people who will commute from the suburbs to low-paid jobs in the Derbyshire Peak district. They cannot afford to live in the Peak district because the houses are either in the upmarket commuter belt or are second homes. It would be more sensible to look at planning issues throughout the country rather than focusing on huge growth areas because we would minimise some of the problems.

Another issue concerning solutions is infrastructure funding. The pre-Budget report referred to £1.7 billion of targeted funding, which is a step in the right direction, but only for growth areas. The Milton Keynes levy from 2005 has been held up as a great example throughout the country of how to raise money for infrastructure. The community infrastructure levy in the Planning Bill, which has just started its progress through Parliament, is another step in that direction. Many people would say that it is based on the Milton Keynes roof tax idea. The Bill, which has only just been presented to Parliament, contains 10 sketchy clauses with almost no detail of how it will work, but it will be some time before it is implemented.

The community infrastructure levy will not completely solve the funding gap. In Aylesbury, £6 million was required up front to provide the electricity capacity for new homes. In Ashford, the Highways Agency vetoed the building of new houses because of the pressure that they would cause on the M20. Taylor Woodrow said that it would put up £7 million to improve capacity on the motorway and that Ashford council could repay it over a number of years as it received levies from developers. We need more up-front funding, and cannot rely totally on piecemeal funding from this or that company. Otherwise, many such developments will be stymied. The Government and regional agencies must consider providing up-front funding.

We need less Government diktat, particularly in large growth areas, and more joined-up planning and more thought about up-front funding for infrastructure before houses are built, not after problems have been created.

10.38 am

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): It is a pleasure, Mr. Martlew, to see you in the Chair. I join other hon. Members in wishing you and everyone else the compliments of the season on our last sitting day.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this debate on an important issue. He has been assiduous in raising his constituents’ concerns about this and related topics throughout his
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time in the House. I pay tribute to his work in that regard, and I am delighted that he has given us the opportunity to debate the matter today.

The debate has been worth while and constructive, and I am grateful for the contributions from other hon. Members. It is interesting that the common thread running through the observations is the need to provide infrastructure if there is to be a sustainable supply of good-quality housing. Those elements must all be equally stressed, which is why the sequential approach taken by the borough council leader in my hon. Friend’s area is so important. A real concern for many of us, however, is that that approach does not appear to have been taken in practice, and we look to the Minister today to deal with that. If we do not provide transport infrastructure or, as other hon. Members have said, the social, education and health infrastructure to go with it, existing communities will inevitably resist new development and we will be in danger, as many professionals have observed, of creating the sink estates of the future.

Such problems are apparent to me as a London Member of Parliament, although London has not yet been mentioned. My constituency borders the Thames Gateway, and I know that the Minister takes an interest in the project, but I am sorry to say that, so many years on, the Government’s handling of it remains disjointed. Such condemnation is all too typical of much regeneration and growth policy, and the Thames Gateway project has been described—rightly, I fear—as an alphabet soup of disparate agencies, none of which are pulling together. In that respect, it was useful to hear the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who represents part of the gateway.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who made a number of important points. Among other things, he stressed, as Conservative Members always have, that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution—there needs to be much more flexibility. If there is a criticism to be made of the Government, it is that their top-down, centralised, target-driven approach is too one size fits all to meet current needs, and I hope that the Minister will address that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) dealt with the important impact of development on the quality of life of current residents. As I hope that I have suggested, it is important that we deal with that if we are to get existing communities to buy in to development. That links to the need for openness—not only in terms of eco-towns, but generally—and for precision about funding, which is a key point.

In London, that has been an issue in relation to the long-running Crossrail saga. In my constituency, people are still waiting for the delivery of the Thameslink rail link, which is a key piece of infrastructure. Thameslink 2000 is now likely to arrive in about 2016, which is a pretty significant delay, even by the standards of South Eastern Trains. That lack of precision and clarity causes many people to believe that the projects will not be delivered and that we will create rather soulless dormitories with inadequate links. In that context, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) made a hugely important point about the need for local employment, but the issue has perhaps not been sufficiently addressed.

I have great regard for the Minister on a personal level, but the Government have so far failed to tackle the issues before us. The Housing and Regeneration Bill
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gives us no confidence that Ministers have learned the necessary lessons, because it, too, is predicated on a centralised, target-driven strategy. It simply is not adequate to pile target upon target or, as the Bill does, quango upon quango; that is not the way to get communities to buy into the projects that we need. I do not doubt the Government’s good intentions, but Ministers must unfortunately face the fact that their performance does not match their good intentions. They are building fewer homes, including social homes, than the previous Conservative Administration; their targets are not delivering on the ground, and that is the key issue.

The Planning Bill, which proposes a community infrastructure levy, falls into the same trap. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield said, it is sensible to look at the means by which local communities can harness the added value of development, but the CIL, as currently proposed, seems extremely remote and potentially bureaucratic. It is administered at a rather distant, regional level and breaks the key link between the local community, where the development takes place, and that community’s ability to have a say over where funds will go and what projects it will finance and support locally. If local people are to buy into development, such decisions must be taken much closer to them, rather than at regional level.

In the spirit of Christmas, I am prepared to offer the Minister one or two potential goodies, and perhaps he will want to steal them from our bag. I hope that the Government will look more favourably at giving communities incentives to recognise that it is in their enlightened self-interest to welcome development. That requires them to be certain, as my hon. Friends said, that infrastructure will be properly funded and delivered. That requires the Government to be open about the fact that confidence in their official population statistics has collapsed in many parts of the country. In growth areas in much of the south-east, local authorities of all parties have raised concerns about the fact that current statistics do not adequately reflect population growth and, therefore, that funding formulae do not adequately reflect the real population on the ground. That creates pressure on existing populations and makes them even more resistant to new development, which could, if properly funded, be of great benefit. The Treasury’s unwillingness to move away from Office for National Statistics formulae, which are now largely discredited at all levels, is, with respect, a serious mistake, and I hope that the Minister will look at the issue again.

I also hope that the Minister will look at some of the proposals that we have had from others with experience in this field, including Lord Heseltine, who had a pretty good track record on regeneration, if I may say so. He has suggested that we look at the possibility of councils keeping the additional revenue from council tax and business rate growth, perhaps for five years or so, to give them an incentive to welcome growth. When I was a local councillor in the 1970s, it was useful for us to encourage commercial development in our area because we kept the additional revenues from business rate growth. I hope that the Government will seriously consider moving back in that direction.
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Paul Holmes: Instead of keeping the revenue from the growth of business tax for five years, why not keep it for longer or, indeed, permanently? Should not all fundraising be in the hands of the local council, as would be the case with local income tax, as opposed to council tax? In that way, the council would have control over what happens in its area.

Robert Neill: Unfortunately, there was a time when some local authorities—not those controlled by the Liberal Democrat party or the Conservative party—stretched the limits of what local businesses could afford, and that damaged local authorities’ credibility, although we are now moving towards a better situation. We must start from a position that commands the confidence of the business community and see how things develop. That is why it is worth the Government examining the details of the formulation that I suggested, and I hope that the Opposition, too, would look at the issue constructively.

On an issue that concerns rural and other areas, we should consider the greater use of community land trusts. That would allow us to build local homes and ensure that homes remained available to local people. That important need must be met.

I also hope that the Government will look more constructively at allowing local communities to introduce new social enterprise zones to promote social enterprise, particularly in disadvantaged communities. That is not the whole answer to the question of how to encourage local employment, but it is an important part of it.

There are therefore many positive things that could be done locally, but I regret to say that the current top-down, target-driven approach does not address them. I hope, however, that the Minister will give us some Christmas cheer by saying that he will look at the issues that we have raised and move away from the Government’s needlessly rigid approach, which his heart is perhaps not really in.

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