Previous Section Index Home Page

22 Jan 2008 : Column 390WH—continued

11.40 am

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I shall be brief as at least two more hon. Members wish to speak. I hope that I can secure a separate debate to discuss the impact on Gloucestershire of the regional spatial strategy, because I have many detailed points
22 Jan 2008 : Column 391WH
that are not appropriate now that I should like to make in another debate while the Minister considers the report.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing a debate on this important subject. He tackled the issue as I would have hoped to myself, covering the nonsense of the Government’s policy of being elected on the ending of the predict and provide approach to housing. We all applauded that at the time, because it was a necessary policy. I am sorry that it has been ditched. He could have gone on to say that when the regional government concept was rejected in the north-east, it would have been sensible to reject it throughout the country. Instead, we have regional government by stealth, and there is no worse example than this issue to show what an inappropriate way that is of carrying on government. When things are done regionally, there is no feel for the position locally, so inappropriate recommendations are inevitably made—no more so than in Gloucestershire.

I take us back to last July. My hon. Friend said that he would not discuss flooding, but with your permission, Mr. Olner, I shall. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) was kind enough to visit Tewkesbury at that time, when he saw some of the devastation that the floods caused. Indeed, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and several other Ministers from DEFRA and the Department for Communities and Local Government have been kind and generous with their time in the past six months. They have visited the area several times and are giving some money. We could do with a lot more, but does not everyone say that?

All that time, energy and interest will be wasted if we ignore the central problem in my area, which includes not only Tewkesbury but a wider part of Gloucestershire. We understand that we live in a flood risk area—two rivers converge at Tewkesbury, so there are bound to be problems—but there are still hundreds of people living in caravans in my constituency. It is six months since the main event, and those people are months away from being settled back into their homes. The question that bothers them more than anything else is whether lessons will be learned from the flooding. The DEFRA inquiry is going on and Sir Michael Pitt is carrying out an inquiry—I am meeting him tomorrow morning—and the main thing that my constituents would want me to say is, “For goodness’ sake, we know that we live in a flood risk area, but let’s not make things worse than they need to be.”

It will rain heavily again in the future; indeed, the rain has been quite heavy in the past few weeks. People in other areas of the country have probably suffered a little more than we have this time. We know that it will rain again and that the water table is high in my area. We also know that the building of thousands of houses in the past few years has made the matter worse, but the RSS, which was, unbelievably, submitted to the Minister at a time when we were frightened that flooding would recur in Gloucestershire, proposes thousands more houses in my constituency, some of which will be on fields that have flooded. The RSS is not site-specific, but those of us with local knowledge can guess where the houses are going to go. Some will be close to areas that flood and some will take up green fields that would otherwise
22 Jan 2008 : Column 392WH
soak up water, preventing it from going elsewhere and causing flooding. It is important that the people who frame such documents understand that if houses are built on fields that previously soaked up flood water, there is a question not only of whether those houses will be flooded, although that is obviously important, but whether they will cause other houses in the area to flood. That concept seems to pass conveniently by people who want to find places to put thousands of houses.

I have a home, as does everyone present, I expect. Everyone is entitled to a home, but do we really want to build houses and homes for which the owners are unlikely to get insurance, certainly against flooding, or are likely to have large excesses on their insurance policies if they do get them? It is not unusual nowadays to have a £20,000 excess, which effectively means that those people are not insured against flooding. Should houses be in areas where they might flood or cause other homes to flood, or should we take a more sensible approach, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch suggested in his opening remarks?

Finally, the report starts by stating that its central guiding feature is sustainability. I am not quite sure what that word means, and I am not sure that the report’s authors know what it means. I should like them to give an example of what is not sustainable. Is a house flooding sustainable? Is failing to get insurance sustainable? Is a lack of infrastructure sustainable? The report talks about Ashchurch railway station, which has twice recently had train services cut. It talks about the possible Parkway station and says that it should be built between Cheltenham and Gloucester, but the Government recently turned down funding for it. However, I do not think that they were wrong to do that at this point, as there needs to be an awful lot more thought on it. We do not have the necessary infrastructure or land that is safe from flooding, so will the Minister give us her idea of what is sustainable? The proposals in the RSS to build in large parts of Gloucestershire certainly would not be sustainable on any understanding that I have of the word.

11.37 am

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing the debate. I asked for one on exactly the same topic last week, so I was delighted when it came up. I shall, inevitably, raise a few local points, but some of the issues I raise will be of general interest, and I hope that the Minister will respond to a few of my points about procedure and going forward to the next stages of the process.

My constituency falls under South Gloucestershire unitary authority. The original RSS proposed an extra 23,000 houses over a 20-year period, and the panel came back with 30,800—an increase of one third. That takes South Gloucestershire to a very unwelcome second place in the rather dubious league table of all the unitary authorities and district councils. We are second only to Swindon. Our area has already had phenomenal growth in housing numbers with very little infrastructure to go with it. We are worried that the growth is simply unsustainable.

I shall try to give people a feel for what 30,000 houses will look like. Just as newspapers enjoy talking about a country the size of Wales, we have a local unit called a
22 Jan 2008 : Column 393WH
Bradley Stoke. Bradley Stoke is a large new town in our area, and a Bradley Stoke unit is about 7,500 houses. To give my constituents a feel for what is planned, it is four Bradley Stokes, or an extra Bradley Stoke, compared with the last plan. We are worried that we cannot cope with development on that scale. I do not dispute that we need more houses, including affordable houses—indeed, I have twice led debates in this Chamber on affordable housing in South Gloucestershire. This is not nimbyism. It is not about saying no to development but about saying that we need sustainable, manageable development and more affordable housing for local people.

The biggest change affecting my constituency is the extra 5,000 houses north of Yate. Yate town council made representations to the panel, but was not allowed to make oral representations. Even the developers asked for only 2,000 houses north of Yate, but the panel said, almost out of the blue, “No, we think there should be 5,000.” It is a regional strategy, not a site-specific local proposal. If the proposal in the original plan had been for 5,000 houses, there would have been a huge response locally, but now it appears to be too late for that. I hope that the Minister will clarify, first of all, what happens inside the Department between now and the Secretary of State giving her response? In other words, is now the best time for the people of Yate to feed in what they think, or should they wait for the Secretary of State to give her response and comment in the consultation period? Clearly, the sooner we feed comments in, the better. The people of Yate want to reopen the process of giving evidence to the panel, because they were denied the opportunity to do that. They had no idea that this was coming and it was a complete bolt from the blue.

What are the problems? First, transport infrastructure is a problem. The situation is laughable. The document, at paragraph 4.1.61, says of Yate that

We have a rather poor and expensive bus service, and a train service that is so poor and unreliable that people drive from Yate to the north fringe of Bristol, so the idea that that is the basis for 5,000 more homes seems absolutely incredible.

What about health care for these people? The local hospital is actually being closed, on the basis of population projections that are out of date. What will happen there?

What about drainage? Downstream from Yate, we are already getting substantial flooding. Where is the evidence that this number, which really feels as if it has been plucked from the air, will not make things worse? The document says:

That is it. Where does that number of 5,000 come from? It has just been plucked from the air and thrust upon us. What I fear is that, when we come to planning applications two or three years down the track and the people of Yate say, “We don’t want this,” I will have to say, “It’s too late. The die is cast. Some panel you have
22 Jan 2008 : Column 394WH
never heard of in some hearing that you were not allowed to go to has decided, and that is it.” Where is the local accountability in that?

The key question is this: why is what is supposed to be a strategic regional assessment giving these very detailed local proposals and how do local people now have their say?

11.52 am

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to contribute briefly to this debate. It is an important debate for the south-west, particularly for Dorset, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing it.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and east Dorset is now one of the largest conurbations—perhaps it is the largest—in the south-west, challenging the Bristol and Bath area. For some reason, Bournemouth has been selected as one of 21 key towns and cities across the country for development. Can the Minister explain why Bournemouth has been targeted and why its citizens did not get an opportunity to have a say on whether they wanted to be on that list of 21 key strategic towns and cities?

We have heard that there will be an increase of 48,000 houses or dwellings in east Dorset. We should place on the record that Dorset has already contributed hugely to an increase in housing. We have already done a massive amount and it is important to continue that point about the not-in-my-backyard consideration. Of course, we need houses, but the massive contribution that Bournemouth has already made means that we are all the more astonished by these increases in the targets.

I touched on floodplains. The report specifies north Bournemouth. As I said, I stood in those fields last weekend and they were under water; I had to wear my large wellies to make the point. Now we are seeing these pictures on television—in fact, we see them today—of other areas of Britain where building on floodplains has caused serious problems. I would hate to be here in three or four years’ time saying, “I told you so. This is exactly the reason why we should not be building.” I also found it ironic that an organisation based in Exeter can pinpoint so specifically where the housing developments should be in Bournemouth.

Infrastructure has been mentioned. I am astonished to read that the report is saying that the Hurn road links to an international airport, but there is no extra funding or supported funding for that road. Any development of what I would call a country bumpkin road would have to come from local funds, but there simply is not the money available locally for that. If we were to do any decent development, that is exactly the first infrastructure that we would like improved, along with the continuation of the Wessex way and indeed Castle lane, which is close to gridlock.

We are challenging the quality of life and having a social impact on Bournemouth, Christchurch and east Dorset. It will only get worse if we build on this level of density. Bournemouth is already committing more than 640 dwellings every single year. We have now been told to up that number by another 200. That is an astonishing number, when we have also heard that the north-east of England actually wants more dwellings. It does seem to be a disparity in the logic of a unified strategy for the housing requirement for the country as a whole.

22 Jan 2008 : Column 395WH

I ask for a meeting with the Minister. I would be grateful for the opportunity to talk with her about the challenges that Bournemouth specifically faces. Because it is such a small unitary authority, we are simply running out of space where we can build the new dwellings that are required of us, so I plead for a few minutes of her time to put the grave concerns that the people of Bournemouth, Christchurch and east Dorset have. That is the key issue beyond any other. As I have said, the character of Bournemouth is being challenged and I would be grateful for her assistance in ensuring that it is not completely wrecked.

11.56 am

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on giving us all the opportunity to raise this issue. He could have spoken on a much more narrowly drawn title—just on his constituency—because clearly there are specific concerns there. However, the number of people in the Chamber demonstrates the strength of feeling about this issue, although I am surprised that no Members from the Minister’s side feel strongly on it.

It is important to remember—it is a recurring theme—that what we are talking about is the housing strategy in the south-west region for the next 20 to 25 years and that this is a decision that is being taken by the regional assembly, which is about to be dissolved. We are at the stage where the draft has gone out, there has been an examination in public and we are now expecting a further consultation before the document is finally signed off.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): Does my hon. Friend take into account that the people of south-east Cornwall want to have nothing whatsoever to do with any regional strategy that involves the area with Plymouth? They find it offensive that the report says:

the examination in public—

They are not, they never have been and they never will be.

Julia Goldsworthy: As my hon. Friend makes clear, people feel that large numbers of communities are being lumped together and treated the same, whether or not they are being lumped together as part of a wider urban area. The people of north Cornwall feel pretty much the same and object to being lumped in with north Devon. They feel that their towns have specific identities and different needs and that they should be allowed to be treated differently, if that is what they wish, or have some kind of say over their own future.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will the hon. Lady agree to allow the Isle of Wight to have a similar view?

Julia Goldsworthy: The hon. Gentleman adds to the list.

22 Jan 2008 : Column 396WH

A series of problems need to be identified and underlined. It is clear is that growth is not necessarily going where people want it and it seems to be entirely centrally dictated; it is a region, not a local area, making a decision about where growth points should be. Again, I am just thinking of an area, Truro and Falmouth, in my own constituency. There is a golden triangle that is relatively urban and it has been identified as a growth point. Within that same area, there are villages that are crying out for more affordable housing but there will be no opportunity for that housing because everything is being focused and it is easier to lump together 7,000 houses in one place than to allow communities to say, “We would like to be able to begin a negotiation process to enable us to have the housing that we need.”

Another concern that I have is about how effective the liaison will be with the Department for Transport, because the examples that I have seen raise significant concerns. In my constituency, there are plans for a significant number of houses in the Camborne, Pool and Redruth area, which I support. However, the regeneration company itself has said that it is necessary to improve a road link, or build a new one, to support that development. The Department for Communities and Local Government do not have a problem with that, but the Department for Transport’s approved model only considers congestion, journey time and safety, not jobs, employment and housing, which is the remit that the regeneration company has been asked to consider. On that basis, the Department for Transport has turned down that improved road link. Basically, the Department for Transport is saying that the building can go ahead, but people will have to wait until they see the congestion before the issue can be resolved. I worry that there is not sufficient co-operation between the different Departments and that that will be a wider theme emerging from this document, if that situation is not improved.

I also wonder whether the demographic issues have really been taken into account. Unlike the constituency of the hon. Member for Christchurch, Cornwall relies on migrant workers to sustain our economy. I do not see that as the driving force, but the fact that many people move to Cornwall to retire, and are not economically active, is an issue. I am not convinced that such specific considerations are taken into account in this document.

Another concern is the capacity of the building trade. I am not sure that there is sufficient capacity at a sub-regional level. Although representations are made from very large developers, development in many regional areas might be on a smaller scale. In my experience, there have been times when local developers have lacked the capacity to build on the scales that are required. While I welcome the development of more houses, I worry about the capacity to deliver on the scale that this document outlines.

Next Section Index Home Page