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Will the Minister specify the statute that allows for the process that his colleague wrote about and explain what the expression “to engage with the process” means in plain English? What is the legal status of that phrase?

On Second Reading of the Planning Bill, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), the Secretary of State said:

There is room for a good deal of confusion about what the Government collectively intend and the planning process that governs eco-town developments. To allow planning authorities such as Harborough district council to be merely consultees as opposed to decision makers is to abuse local democracy and to divert ownership of the decision from my constituents to Ministers.

This urban development, if allowed to go through, would utterly destroy a much valued green lung south-east of the city of Leicester to the commercial advantage of the Co-op but for no obvious local or county-wide public benefit. In reality, there will be nothing eco-friendly about that vast new urban settlement, albeit that I can see it has enormous financial advantages for the Co-op and English Partnerships at a time when farming incomes are low and wholesale development offers better rewards.

The enormous development would create a town of more than 40,000 inhabitants on open farm land that would dwarf the neighbouring villages and even the nearest urban community of any size, Oadby. It will also gravely damage Leicester’s plans for its regeneration. It will create an urban wedge that will break down the local rural environment and community in south-east Leicestershire and will allow the swamping of an area of considerable beauty with thousands of houses, cars and lorries and all the permanent infrastructure that would be needed to support such a large town.

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The Co-op claims that the development will create 12,000 or so new jobs. As I have said before, my constituency’s unemployment rate is 1 per cent. Any new jobs would require people to be imported to do them. Strange as it may seem to MPs from less economically vibrant parts of the country, we do not need thousands of new jobs to provide work for jobless people in Harborough or Oadby and Wigston. It is, furthermore, unreal to think that the incoming occupants of the 15,000 new homes would all work in the alleged eco-factories that the Co-op claims will provide the jobs. Thousands of people will necessarily commute by car to work elsewhere within the region and, given that the Co-op wants to build a parkway station at Great Glen on the Sheffield main line that goes from St. Pancras to Leicester, it is likely that many hundreds of residents will commute to jobs in London.

We do not need the type of forced or artificial economic regeneration that the proposal would mean. If one wants to create 12,000 more jobs in an area with virtually full employment, one has to import the jobs and import the housing to accommodate the employees and their families. We are beginning to see what only 800 new houses have done to Kibworth, a village on the A6 barely five miles from the proposed development site, in terms of disturbance and placing strains on our local services and infrastructure. We can only imagine what 15,000 new houses will do not only to Great Glen and its neighbouring villages but to inner and outer Leicester, to Oadby and to rural Harborough, too.

I urge the Government to distinguish between the immediate or short-term financial interests of the Co-op, and the environmental, economic, social and other long-term interests of the people of Harborough district and Oadby and Wigston. The Government’s attitude towards so-called eco-towns should not be allowed to be affected by a misunderstanding of the facts on the ground or public relations material put out by the developers. If the development goes ahead without local input or consent it will arouse untold anger and revulsion. If we get it wrong we get it wrong for ever.

11.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on securing the debate. I also pay tribute to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I also appreciate the attendance of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan).

I am very much aware of the concerns expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. He will know that planning rules mean that I am restricted in what I can say, but I am sure he will agree that eco-towns are a new and radical approach to designing and creating new places to live. Such schemes offer a tremendous opportunity to revolutionise the way that we plan and deliver towns, and to change radically the way that people travel, work and live. They will be exemplar communities, and other towns and developments will be able to draw lessons from them.

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The pressures on housing affordability are felt nationwide, including in the constituency of the hon. and learned Gentleman. All regions are experiencing major increases in the number of households. We are inviting local authorities to come forward with growth point proposals, as well as encouraging expressions of interest for eco-towns from the public and private sectors.

By 2016, the Government want 240,000 new homes to be built every year to keep up with demand. Our desire is that 3 million new homes will be built by 2020. We need more homes in all regions of the country, but we also need greener homes. The new homes must be sustainable in every sense of the word, and they must minimise damage to the environment. That is why we have set a target that is the most ambitious in the developed world—that, by 2016, all new homes will be zero-carbon.

Eco-towns are a highly sustainable way of meeting some of that demand. We expect that there will be up to five eco-towns by 2016, and 10 by 2020. The size range for each town is between 5,000 and 20,000 inhabitants.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): It would seem from what the Minister is saying that the eco-towns project is a way of developing a lot of homes fast by simply bringing the word “eco” to the fore. Will he guarantee that no fast-track planning system will be used and that everything will be submitted to the usual planning application system after being referred to the usual planning authority? Or is it his intention to invoke some of the schemes for new towns that have lain dormant since the 1960s, or to incorporate old powers into new legislation so as to accelerate developments of the type that he has described?

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I can confirm that the eco-town proposals will be subject to the statutory planning framework. They will not be outside that framework, and there will be no fast-track proposals. I shall expand on that important point later in my remarks. The hon. Gentleman mentioned new towns, and I shall also deal with that subject in a moment.

The eco-town as a whole must be capable of reaching zero-carbon standards, and must demonstrate a strength in one area of sustainability. That could be technological, such as the treatment of waste water or the supply of energy, or it could be through an innovative means of encouraging low-carbon living.

Locations are also important, as well as innovation on site, and that is why, across government, we are looking at proposals to assess whether there are issues of potential flood risk or of scarcity of natural resources. We are also considering the effects that an eco-town might have on the natural environment, on the green spaces that we all have the right to enjoy, and on the protected landscapes or the species that inhabit them. We will look for innovative proposals that enhance our biodiversity and improve the natural environment by integrating green spaces into the new towns.

The Government have made it clear that they want to make use of brownfield land where there are good opportunities to do so, and a number of schemes using brownfield sites have been put forward. What is more
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important than anything, however, is that towns are built in sustainable locations that relate well to existing towns and villages.

The hon. and learned Gentleman also mentioned transport, and I agree that strong transport links are essential to the new eco-towns. The new towns must demonstrate clearly how they will encourage a reduction in reliance on the car and a shift towards other, more sustainable transport options. We are looking for high-quality offers on accessible public transport, and want cycling and walking to be promoted. We will expect transport plans to be drawn up for each scheme which will outline how such objectives can be achieved—both in the eco-town itself, and in its links with surrounding towns and villages.

We are looking across government at the potential impacts on the road and rail network of the proposals that we have received, and we are assessing how they will deliver on plans to link to other centres and to employment in the most sustainable way.

Even though he does not agree with the proposal in his area, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough said that there had been enormous interest in the eco-towns idea. More than 50 bids have been received, many of them with excellent proposals for new developments. We expect to publish the proposals for eco-towns in February, once we have completed an initial assessment of the applications received, which will be subject to public consultation prior to final decisions on location.

In the time left to me, I want to stress the following point: while the initial assessment is under way, I cannot comment on any specific scheme. However, I can make some comments about the eco-towns process that will apply in all cases. I must stress that there will be considerable opportunity for consultation on the proposals, including with local authorities and the public, before the process is completed.

Mr. Garnier: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I know that he is short of time. Would it not be better to adopt the default position that eco-towns should go where people want them, and where local authorities are asking for them, rather than the other way round?

Mr. Wright: I shall come on to that by talking about the role of the planning system, because it is crucial. As I have just said, the public will have a full say in the eco-town proposals. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that everything had been done behind closed doors, in smoke-filled rooms. I would say that that is a myth. I want to make it clear that there is no truth in the claim that we are deciding the locations of the 10 eco-towns behind closed doors, without reference to the views of the public or the local authorities where expressions of interest have been put forward.

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It may help if I explain in some detail the process that is going on at the moment. As I said earlier, an initial assessment of the sites for eco-towns is being carried out by the relevant Departments.

Alan Duncan: Will the Minister give way on one tiny point?

Mr. Wright: I have an awful lot to cover, including important points about the planning framework, and I have only got two minutes, so if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not give way.

An initial assessment is taking place with Departments and their agencies on the issues of transport and the environment. The issues to consider include accessibility of public transport, impacts on the road network, constraints in terms of landscape, special protection and flood risk. Those are the sort of sustainability issues that need to be considered in taking forward any large development.

In this early stage, the Government are also taking soundings from regional partners in the Assemblies and development agencies.

Alan Duncan: Can the Minister guarantee to the House that any planning decisions will not override existing spatial and development plans?

Mr. Wright: Yes, I can. That is an important point.

In addition to the Departments, Natural England and the Environment Agency will have an input into the scheme, but that is not the end of the story. This is an initial assessment of the potential of all the bids that have come forward; its purpose is to exclude sites where there are too many showstoppers to allow development to take place. Immediately following that process, we will publish a shorter list than the original 50—probably about 10—for public consultation, and we will take every opportunity to engage with local authorities and the public during this time to ensure that their views are heard.

Following that period of public consultation, we will make final decisions on the 10 areas that have the most potential to become the eco-towns of the future. I would like to say a little about the planning system because it is the aspect that is causing the hon. and learned Gentleman and others, such as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, the most concern. I confirm what my right hon. Friend—

The motion having been made after Ten o’clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eighteen minutes past Eleven o’clock.

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