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22 Apr 2008 : Column 381WH—continued

Before I conclude, I want to highlight the role of the Planning Aid service in providing advice and guidance
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to residents who are worried about planning applications. I welcome the Government’s recent grant of extra funding to the service, and hope that, when the Government advance their flawed eco-towns programme, they will ensure that as many residents as possible are advised of the help and support that Planning Aid can provide in resisting applications. It is important that there should be an independent source of high-quality, professional advice to local residents, who can all too easily be bamboozled by the complexity of the planning service.

If the Government really believe in the importance of local democracy, and if they believe that the best decisions are those that are taken locally by people who know what they are talking about, will they listen to parish and town councils, and local councillors. If we want sustainable communities to be built properly, sufficient space and time is needed to put the local development plans in place.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. There is tremendous interest in the debate, and I hope that hon. Members will keep their remarks sufficiently brief to enable me to call everyone who wants to speak.

11.26 am

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I shall act on your kind instructions, Mr. Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on managing to get the debate. I am in a position similar to his, because I represent the fastest-growing area in Scotland. I want to deal with planning applications in particular in relation to the factoring companies that now prevail in many developments in the United Kingdom.

In the past, councils adopted the so-called common land, but that does not happen now. Now companies are involved, such as Greenbelt Group, which is a land management company that is causing major problems to constituents of mine, and throughout the United Kingdom. As hon. Members will be aware, as part of the planning process developers are obliged to provide open spaces around new estates. They must show that long-term arrangements have been put in place to care for those areas. However, a new trend is emerging in which councils, developers and builders—particularly at the planning stage—are awarding companies such as Greenbelt lifelong access to the land. Land is being handed over to those companies, and it is very difficult for my constituents to get rid of them.

Some of the major developers in Britain, such as Bryant Homes, Glendale and Persimmon, are now transferring ownership of open spaces, and the sole responsibility for maintaining them, to companies such as Greenbelt. Greenbelt gets the exclusive right, for all time, to charge home owners whatever it wants, regardless of the service that it provides. That happens at the planning stage. The big problem is that that is set out at about the third to last paragraph in the title deeds of someone’s house, and it is not being pointed out by lawyers or local authorities.

Regardless of the inadequate service that the companies provide, it is very difficult to get rid of them. For example, Greenbelt consistently failed to carry out maintenance work to the standards specified in the title
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deeds. It is an extremely difficult company to deal with, to the extent that it reported me to Mr. Speaker last year for raising it in this place. There are many problems with health and safety issues and its duty to maintain play parks, which it does not do, with the result that many children have been injured. If people do not pay Greenbelt because they are receiving inadequate service, it quickly takes them to court. Because they are living on credit, they receive letters telling them that they will be blacklisted or taken to court.

Developers also charge for a variety of services, as I have heard in a case involving a company called Ross and Liddell. When a car was abandoned on a new estate, Ross and Liddell phoned the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to find out about it. The cost of that telephone—

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Gentleman resume his seat? This is a debate about consultation on large-scale housing developments. I am not sure that talking about an abandoned car or individual cases is in order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep his remarks in line with the subject of the debate.

Mr. Devine: A crucial part of the planning process is which factoring company is involved. I am just pointing out the behaviour of some companies. Home owners become tied to them for life as a result of the planning process and cannot get rid of them. I am just giving examples of how bad service is. When one company found an abandoned car, it cost £2.50 to phone the DVLA, but the company charged all the house owners—

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. This debate is not about the whole planning process; it is about a specific part of the planning process, namely local consultation on large-scale housing developments. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep in order.

Mr. Devine: I think that I have said enough, Mr. Chope.

11.31 am

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), who was making a powerful point relating to large-scale developments. It is something that I was not aware of, and I am glad that he has brought it to the House’s attention. I congratulate my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing yet another debate important to north Northamptonshire, and on explaining so eloquently in half an hour the problem that we face. I welcome the Minister, who is highly respected and is known to be a caring Minister.

One of the problems with consultation is that it is just not being done in north Northamptonshire—at least, not by the Government. I run a tracking survey called “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden”, which goes out continuously to different parts of the constituency so that we can gauge public opinion in snapshots, as well as tracking changes in opinion over time. Two years ago, overdevelopment was not an issue. It is now among the top three. There are eight different protest groups protesting against individual developments that
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will form part of the 52,000 new homes that must be built in Wellingborough. What those groups object to individually refers in total to a lack of infrastructure.

In one development, 1,000 homes are to be built on a brownfield site. Most people would say, “Well, that’s a great idea. Let’s build the homes on a brownfield site. It won’t take up any green belt, as it’s an urban area.” The problem is that no infrastructure increase will accompany that development. The road leading to it is already far too busy. There are some airy-fairy plans to build a relief road some time in the future, but there are no concrete plans—pardon the pun. What we want is concrete first. We want new roads. I understand entirely where the Government are coming from. They recognise that there is a housing problem, and their solution is to get large areas and to tell the rotten Tory councils to get off their backsides and build some homes. I understand that the Government want the homes, but they are forgetting about the infrastructure.

In Wellingborough, we have an extraordinary situation. The last time that the Labour party controlled the county council, it knocked down the secondary school. We have lost our secondary school, we do not have a hospital, we lost six post offices during the first round of closures and we have just lost another five. The A45 is a huge problem at the moment, especially the interchanges in my constituency. The Chowns Mill roundabout is always clogged up, but there is nothing in the regional programme—even in the 15-year programme—to say that anything will be done about it. The council, the county council and the Highways Agency all say that it needs to be improved. Thousands of homes are coming, but it seems that local people are not being consulted and cannot influence decisions in any way. It is causing real hardship in many parts of my constituency. Schools are overcrowded, people cannot get a GP and it is impossible to find an NHS dentist. People are saying to me, “If local councillors can’t decide this, what is the point of voting in local elections? What is the point of supporting political parties if decisions are dictated from Whitehall?”

The biggest problem at the moment is the Redwell north development. Wellingborough is a well-established market town, Rushden is a town in itself and there are a lot of villages between them on the way to Kettering—Little Harrowden, Great Harrowden and Isham—with clear countryside in between. The local plan agreed by the political parties in Wellingborough says that that is open space and not for housing, but a developer has taken options on all the land around that area. If that developer puts in a planning application and the councillors are bold enough to turn it down, they know that it will be overturned on appeal. That is destroying local democracy.

Last Friday I met the chief executive of Wellingborough council, who is concerned about the development process. She is concerned that Wellingborough’s rail services have been cut, as have Kettering’s, and she asked me to arrange a meeting with East Midlands Trains. I have spoken with Wellingborough Homes, which is responsible for the development of social housing and has concerns. The leader of Wellingborough council, not knowing about this debate, rang me to request a meeting to discuss development policies.

This argument may be regarded in some quarters as academic. The Government have decided. They will push through the homes, and tough luck to the people
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of Wellingborough. That is wrong and unfair, and there should be proper consultation, but my point is that it is more serious than that. Two or three weeks ago, we held a local council by-election in Redwell. The Conservatives won by a country mile. That is nothing new; we always win by a country mile. The problem was which party finished second. It was not the traditional party—Labour, which ruled Wellingborough and controlled the council for a considerable number of years—but the British National party. It was the first time that the BNP had stood in Wellingborough, and it scored more than 15 per cent. of the votes, pushing Labour into third place.

The BNP did not come into the area screaming racist chants; it put a reasoned case about the overdevelopment and concentrated on that. People said, “It’s no good voting Labour or Tory. They’re not listening. They’re not going to do anything about it. They’ve been in power all this time, and all these houses are coming.” That is what I want to convey to the Minister. If proper consultation is not held and the views of local people are not taken into account, extreme parties will come in, which is something that I do not think any of us want.

11.38 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): In the dying days of any Government, Ministers think that they need to introduce initiatives to keep the media at bay. Before the right hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) trucked off to the Treasury to explain how the Government are raiding money from one group of poor people to fund another, she came up with what she thought was a whizz-bang idea for eco-towns. She thought that eco-towns had everything—they were green and gave the impression that the Government were building more affordable housing on brownfield sites.

The difficulty is that eco-town programmes have absolutely no public participation. I have with me the 2008-11 regional housing strategy for the south-east in which there is absolutely no mention of any eco-town. That strategy was developed by the Government office for the south-east, the Housing Corporation, South East England Development Agency, English Partnerships and every local authority in the south-east. How in God’s name is anyone meant to plan anything and involve local people in a bottom-up planning system, if suddenly the Government come along and say, “Hey guys, we’re going to impose on you a number of so-called eco-towns”?

Eco-towns are just that—towns. The one proposed in my constituency, Weston Otmoor, will be larger than Bicester, which is already one of the fastest growing towns in the UK. If it is built, the Weston Otmoor eco-town will be home to 25,000 people, growing eventually to 35,000, with 10 schools—two secondary and eight primary—and 15,500 properties. Apart from the fact that such a development might well undermine the vitality and viability of a town such as Bicester, it seems bizarre that it is to be imposed by Ministers with no local consultation or involvement. Effectively, developers bought options on land, produced pretty maps and said to the Department for Communities and Local Government, “Give us a run on this.”

22 Apr 2008 : Column 386WH

In fact, the only brownfield land on that site consists of a former RAF airstrip still used for adventure training and parachute jumps by the RAF. The developers have not even secured it, and some 25 per cent. of the site is green-belt land. It straddles a main road, over which developers have proposed to build something like the Ponte Vecchio—they say—with shops that will go over the A34. It is absolutely crazy that the Government are threatening to develop a whole new town largely on green-belt land, and on very little brownfield land, undermining the viability of one of the fastest growing towns in the UK—Bicester. Unsurprisingly, organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the local naturalist trust are aghast. The CPRE estimates that the development, if it goes ahead, will lead to at least 7,500 extra car movements a day on the A34 and M40.

I can never persuade Ministers to visit my constituency, which I really do not understand—it must have something to do with my aftershave. However, I would welcome a visit from the Minister to the site of the proposed eco-town. He would observe the congested A34 where it meets the slow-moving M40, and its nearest junctions—9 and 10—which are already a nightmare, as a result of traffic from the south coast and Southampton travelling towards Oxford. It takes a dogleg down the M40 and up towards Northampton. Those two junctions are congested, and begging meetings with Transport Ministers have been held to discuss proposals to enhance them. The idea of putting a whole new town in the midst of that traffic congestion defies belief.

The Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust is tearing its hair out in despair, because it is concerned that

The BBOWT said:

It takes some skill to propose a massive new site on primarily greenfield land and sites of special scientific interest with the only brownfield land being a grass-covered runway, used by the RAF for parachute drops, that the developers have not even secured.

The involvement of local people in the proposal is absolutely zero, but that is the world in which we live. I hope that, in the dying days of this Government, Ministers will stop thinking up ideas and concentrate on sorting out the mess of last year’s Budget and the 10p rate, and back away from ideas about imposing 42 day’s detention on us. Successive Governments have developed a planning system that is not perfect, but which is at least plan-led and under which local people have the opportunity to make contributions at different stages, leading to local development plans and regional spatial strategies. In these eco-town proposals, Ministers are threatening to overthrow, undermine and destroy all of that. Why on earth should any local authority or councillor make any
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contribution to the development of things such as the regional spatial strategy when Ministers who just want a headline dream up eco-towns?

11.47 am

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) who made a passionate speech on behalf of his constituents. As ever, I am sure that he will be proved right. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on raising this incredibly important debate, which affects our broad region a great deal. It is the key issue on which I have been campaigning for the past few years.

For us at least, the situation began in 2004 when the then Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), announced that the Government intended to expand Milton Keynes over the following few years by some 70,000 houses—up to 370,000 by 2031. Ever since, I have campaigned for “I before E”—infrastructure before expansion, which I am sure that the Minister will assure me will come to Milton Keynes. We had a consultation of sorts in Milton Keynes, between July and September 2006, but just 1,600 replies were received. Ubiqus, which produced a report on the consultation, said:

In the short time available to me, I want to make some quick points. If the Minister takes nothing else away from this debate, he must understand that the Opposition wants a bottom-up approach, not a top-down one. Certainly in Milton Keynes, in 2004, there was a belief that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East was rather like a world war one general with a very small map and big hands saying, “I want houses there, there and there”, without any genuine feeling about the impact on local communities. That is further demonstrated by the fact that English Partnerships, which is charged with delivering those houses, and Milton Keynes Partnerships, our local delivery agent, have become the planning authority for the eastern and western flanks. While Milton Keynes council maintains control of central Milton Keynes, the planning authority for the new expansion areas in the east and west of the city is an unelected, unaccountable quango that is responsible only to central Government, and not to the local people. Does the Minister understand why people feel so strongly about the decision being taken out of their hands and imposed from above?

The density in Milton Keynes is increasing rapidly. New developments such as Oakgrove are far denser than previous developments in the city. When it was first developed some 40 years ago, Milton Keynes was flagged up as great city to which to move because it had vast areas of open space. Housing density was not high. People were encouraged to move out of London and into Milton Keynes. However, that is changing as housing densities continue to increase. People feel very strongly that their city motto of “By knowledge, design and understanding” will be lost, because they are no longer in charge of their destiny. Central Government are dictating how local people should lead their lives.

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