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9 Jan 2008 : Column 137WH—continued

The district council has to employ consultants, often at more than £1,000 a day, to do the work that the Government require. Is that really value for money
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when housing to the value of about £4 billion is being discussed? With the Government demanding that 43,000 houses be built, will they fund the council to do the work that they demand, as they have in Bedford and in west Northamptonshire? Why is south Bedfordshire again being treated worse than other areas? Why should our council officers have to do two jobs for free, when they could work for consultants, doing one, less stressful job at a higher salary that was paid for by local authorities and funded by my local council tax payers’ money?

We want a speedy decision on local government reorganisation. The delay, which will be almost two years after the July 2007 date that we were originally promised, has been damaging, with officers leaving due to the Government’s inability to take a decision and stick to their original timetable.

When the houses are built, can they please be of the highest ecological standards, to limit our carbon emissions? Can we have lifetime homes to help people when they become older, frailer and more disabled, and housing specifically for the disabled? Can we have adequate parking? We want none of this trying to design out cars. Let us really look to the future, when cars will be greener and so will not be a problem. There are massive problems when the Government insist on housing without enough parking being provided. Can we have enough space for fire engines to get through narrow streets when cars park on either side? That is a real problem, and there will be a tragedy if it is not addressed. Can we please not build on flood plains?

In spite of the problems that I have outlined, south Bedfordshire remains a great place to live and work, and I would not want to live anywhere else. It has human-scale communities and beautiful countryside, but it deserves to be treated fairly, which it has not been for many years. We are already close to the edge of viability due to congested roads and trains and the lack of local jobs and other infrastructure. It is because I care about the area that I have raised concerns.

There is a different way. Stop ramming houses into sustainable community plan areas; spread the growth more equitably; put the infrastructure up front; trust local communities; scrap dictated Whitehall and regional targets; put back to use 150,000 empty properties in the south-east; convert more flats over shops into starter homes; and use more redundant public land and less of the farmland that we shall need as grain prices rocket. Do not build on flood plains, as global warming is making floods more frequent and forceful; reduce demand by addressing net immigration and family breakdown; and ensure that more housing is affordable through shared ownership schemes so that more people can get on the housing ladder sooner. Encourage better use of social housing by incentivising couples in social housing that is now much larger than they need, perhaps because their children have left home, to downsize, thus freeing up much needed family accommodation. That is what the Government should be doing, and I should be grateful if the Minister could answer the questions that I have asked.

5.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I wish you a happy new year, Mr. O’Hara. It is a pleasure to see you chairing the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew
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Selous) on securing the debate, and I wish him and the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), who made a contribution, a happy new year, too.

The debate has been important and articulated extremely well. I was intrigued by the contribution of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, and I am looking forward to seeing in Hansard tomorrow the spending commitment shopping list that he made, which seems to be somewhat at odds with the policy of tax cuts of Conservative Front Benchers. We shall leave that be for the moment.

The issue is important, and I shall go back to first principles, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We are facing, and have faced for a generation, a substantial shortfall in houses, particularly affordable homes. We need more homes—it is as simple as that. I believe that that is becoming a political consensus across the spectrum. We have not been building enough homes to meet demand since the 1970s. As the hon. Gentleman said, society is changing—we are living longer and in different ways, including on our own—and that needs to be addressed through the housing stock in a way that it perhaps was not 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

I was interested in the hon. Gentleman’s point about immigration. He said that 40 per cent. of new household formations were the result of migrant flows. I point out to him that 23 per cent. of new households in the east of England are a result of immigration into the region. It has been calculated that only about 20 per cent. of those households can be identified as being due to immigration from overseas; the rest are due to migration from London and the rest of the UK. It is a bit of a myth to say that we need more houses to cope with immigrants. That is not the case. We need more houses to cope with demand, which is a result of society changing. That is an important point to clarify.

There are parts of the country—the hon. Gentleman said that his is one, which I know is the case, as I have been to the area—where it is difficult, if not impossible, for young people to get on to the housing ladder. He will know that we published our housing Green Paper last July to address that, and its title, “Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable”, clearly illustrates where our priorities must lie.

The south Bedfordshire district is located in the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-region and is one of four growth areas that we designated in 2003 in the sustainable communities plan, which sets out how we would tackle sustainably the pressing need for new homes and jobs. It recognised the need for a joined-up approach to development and placed quality of life at the centre of that development for new and existing communities.

Quality of life and sustainability continue to underpin the Government’s approach to delivering new homes and communities. To create a spatial framework for delivery, the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategy was developed to identify not just the best locations to deliver the growth required to meet housing and employment needs until 2021, but those that offered significant regeneration opportunities. Two locations in Bedfordshire have been identified: Bedford and the northern Marston vale and the Luton-Dunstable-Houghton Regis conurbation, which I understand includes the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He rightly said that
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the sub-regional strategy allocated a growth target of 26,300 new homes and 12,600 new jobs by 2021 to Luton and south Bedfordshire and indicated that the primary focus for them should be in and around the existing conurbation. It stated that a green belt review should be undertaken and land safeguarded for a further 15,400 homes and 7,400 jobs to be created from 2021 to 2031.

As the hon. Gentleman said, those are challenging targets, but we now have a planning system in place that will give local authorities every opportunity to deliver that ambition. To prepare the local development framework in a joined-up fashion, we have passed legislation that allows the three relevant local authorities—Luton borough council, South Bedfordshire district council and Bedfordshire county council—to set up a joint planning committee. It is now statutorily constituted as the local planning authority for the area for the purposes of preparing the local development framework. I congratulate our local government colleagues in the area on taking such a constructive and joined-up approach to delivering the local growth agenda that their population needs. I recognise that, for each authority, it represented a considerable political challenge.

One of the greatest things that I do as a Minister is chair the Milton Keynes and south midlands inter-regional board. Time and again, when I visit the region, I am struck by the ambition, can-do and positive attitude of the people there. I am inspired by what I see in the constituencies of the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire.

The new planning system, which we introduced in 2004, is designed to ensure much greater public input than in the previous system. Extensive public consultations have been carried out already in Luton and south Bedfordshire on a number of options for growth, and the authorities will now act on their results. As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire said, they will produce a preferred core strategy setting out the spatial framework necessary to deliver growth in accordance with the agreed vision for the area.

The options that were published for consultation identified a wide range of potential housing locations, primarily on the periphery of the conurbation and around Leighton-Linslade. I can understand why some of the options caused concern to the hon. Gentleman and those whom he represents, but many of the potential locations were put forward by landowners and developers. It would have been remiss of the joint committee to exclude them from its consultation, even though some were outside the area recommended by the sub-regional strategy. It was an appropriate approach, as it was better to put those locations in the public arena now than have them emerge later.

Andrew Selous: Will the Minister kindly address the two specific points that South Bedfordshire district council asked me to put to him? Will he allow plans to be lodged before the core strategy document is in place, which the Government are allowing under PPS3, and will he help South Bedfordshire council to do the work in the way that it is being done in Bedford and west Northamptonshire?

Mr. Wright: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I am coming to the specific points. I hope that I shall address all his points of concern, but I pledge that, if I
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cannot do so in the time available, I shall write to him and to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire if she wishes.

I have mentioned the public consultation, and it is important to have public accountability and engagement in the process. I urge the hon. Gentleman, if he has not already done so, to respond to the consultation and encourage his constituents to take full advantage of it and express their views on how their area can best be developed. It is their community, and the Government have given them the opportunity to have a full say in how its future should be shaped.

Let me come on to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. He mentioned the important issue of the green belt. The Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategy, which was adopted following extensive public consultation, states that

That review will be taken forward through the local development framework process with full public consultation. I should also like to confirm that, while green belt boundaries may be reviewed in a small number of locations, it is not our intention to alter green belt policy as set out in planning policy guidance note 2. It has been a good policy framework for the past half a century, and I think that it will continue to be so. It has had the direct and personal commitment of the Prime Minister.

I was interested in the hon. Gentleman’s statement about making housing growth more equitable and wondered whether he was taking a contradictory position. I may be wrong, but I took that to mean urban sprawl. Green belt is a planning designation that is specifically designed to avoid urban sprawl. It allows us to concentrate as much development as possible in brownfield and, if necessary, greenfield sites. I should be interested to know whether the two views are contradictory.

Andrew Selous: As the Minister becomes more familiar with my area, he will realise that almost all those houses are in urban extensions. We can only accommodate a very small proportion of them on existing brownfield sites. We just do not have the space to do otherwise. May I ask him in his remaining minutes if he could address the issue of the ongoing funding of the community hospital? We were promised infrastructure. If the Government were not forcing 43,000 houses on us, we would not need the infrastructure. Will the Minister address the hospital, train capacity and water bill issues in the remaining three minutes?

Mr. Wright: I shall address the wider point about infrastructure, because it is very important. The hon.
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Gentleman mentioned road links as well. The point about road links, community facilities, health services, utility facilities and the wider infrastructure is vital, and I should like to address it, as it is very much on my mind as the House goes forward with the Housing and Regeneration Bill, on which we start our detailed clause-by-clause considerations tomorrow. One of the things that we will consider is the establishment of the Homes and Communities Agency, which will provide infrastructure. We have defined that provision in the widest possible sense, so that road links can be addressed. That has happened with the A41 in Bedford, not a million miles away from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, to free up space for 2,500 homes. In other respects, that could follow on from what English Partnerships is doing.

English Partnerships has funded 11 schools in the country over the past few years as a means of regenerating an area and freeing up land that developers want for housing. The Homes and Communities Agency could undertake such exciting and ambitious projects to ensure that the infrastructure is there to free up space and to provide commitment to developers that housing is available. As we go through the Bill, I think that we will be looking at that issue more and more. That is a tremendous opportunity.

Andrew Selous: I implore the Minister to talk to his colleagues in the Department for Transport about the A5-M1 link. At the moment, the Government are going to widen the M1 without putting in junction 11A. Will the Minister address that as well?

Mr. Wright: My understanding is that, when the Government asked the East of England regional assembly to identify the schemes that it wanted to deliver in the next decade or so and when it wanted to deliver them, it programmed the A5-M1 link for the period after 2011. As part of the process of devolving greater power to the regions, we accepted the regional assembly’s recommendation, while recognising—the hon. Gentleman is indicating a bit of dissent about this—that we would prefer the scheme to go ahead earlier if funding could be found.

I understand that, in consultation with the Treasury, my Department and the Department for Transport, the Government office for the east of England has been exploring alternative ways of funding the scheme. Partners in the region are increasingly interested in pursuing the possibility of increasing the total funds available through combining private and public sector resources. In the longer term, the Homes and Communities Agency could be involved as well.

It being fifteen minutes past Five o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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