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22 Apr 2008 : Column 387WH—continued

22 Apr 2008 : Column 388WH

I want to return briefly to “I before E”, or infrastructure before expansion. I am sure that when the Minister replies, he will assure us that all the infrastructure that we need will be delivered. However, I want to give two examples to show how we are failing. This year, we have a £65 million deficit in the basic needs allocation for our new schools. To match new housing levels, we have to build or extend 12 new primary or secondary schools. However, the deficit means that we may not be able to build many of those new schools, so can the Minister suggest where all the children from the new housing will go to school? We have put in an application for the safety valve mechanism to get some of the money back, and we should have heard three weeks ago whether or not we would get some £15 million back. Surprise, surprise, it appears that the decision, or the announcement of this money, will be delayed until after 1 May. I have no idea why that should be—perhaps the Minister can enlighten me. He will be aware that in Milton Keynes, we pay the Milton Keynes tariff, which is known locally as the roof tax. Some £18,500 for each property will be delivered—not directly, but indirectly—back to the community to build infrastructure, but I must tell the Minister that that represents only 10 or 15 per cent. of what we need.

When I spoke to John Lewis, the new chief executive of the Milton Keynes Partnership, he told me that 50 per cent of his budget for infrastructure is a direct grant from central Government and that 50 per cent. comes from the Milton Keynes tariff. The problem is that because of the economic downturn, we are not building the expected number of houses. There has not been a major land deal in the area for more than seven months. When it comes to infrastructure, the one thing that is probably saving us is the fact that we are failing to deliver the quantity of houses that the Government want. We have therefore had to reduce our projected income from the Milton Keynes tariff, because we are not building the houses and will not receive any money. That 50 per cent. of budget that John Lewis expected to use to build new multi-storey car parks around the city has had to be downsized, and all the projects are being moved to the right. Although the Minister promised us that infrastructure would be delivered, that will not happen because of the failure to deliver the money from the Milton Keynes tariff as a result of the economic downturn.

I have one final question for the Minister. Given that his Government have constantly promised the people of Milton Keynes that the infrastructure will be in place before the houses are built, and given that it is clear that the money will not be delivered to the extent that he was hoping from the Milton Keynes tariff, how exactly will he replace that money to ensure that we secure the infrastructure that he promised?

11.52 am

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this important debate. It has given us the opportunity to hear about a number of local circumstances. In particular, we can look at the underlying trends and problems that are faced by hon. Members in their constituencies and, of course, by the people who are living in the areas that are directly affected by housing development.

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The hon. Gentleman has been consistent in raising such issues over a great period of time. In preparation for today’s debate, I have looked at some of his parliamentary questions. It is clear that this is a matter of great concern to him. Whenever an issue impacts on an hon. Member’s postbag in such a big way, it is quite easy to see how it can dictate their workload.

The hon. Gentleman set out the impact of large-scale housing developments, and such developments are huge in his part of the country. At the risk of testing your patience, Mr. Chope, some of the issues that he talked about are also reflected in some of the smaller developments around the country. The great strength of the planning system should be about genuine involvement and consultation. When people share in the future vision for their community, we can achieve social cohesion. We can raise the aspirations of local people and encourage them to participate in their community in all sorts of ways. They can feel confident that their voice matters and that their opinions count. They can also see that development is not always a bad thing.

New housing can offer opportunities for other family members who may have been struggling to find places in which to live. It can offer a good message about inward investment; companies might want to come to the area to invest and to contribute. As regards infrastructure, there are projects that may have been on a wish list for a local area for many years, and if development is carried out successfully and in a way that is in accordance with the wishes of local people, it presents an opportunity to deliver some long-cherished aspirations for infrastructure.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the concept of a referendum in areas in which large-scale housing developments are being proposed, and I am referring to the creation of whole new towns and communities. That is an interesting point. The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who is no longer in his place, was right to point out the potential problems with that. It enfranchises the people who are already in a more fortunate position, and potentially disfranchises those who are not able to participate in that debate.

Mr. Bone: Surely on the argument about the referendum, it would be up to the Government, or whoever is proposing the houses, to put the infrastructure plans on the table to encourage people to vote for the proposal. I may have a lot more houses in Wellingborough if I knew that I was going to get the district hospital that we so richly deserve. It is not just one-sided, is it?

Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman is right. This measure could prove to be a useful tool in the hands of the local community to exert pressure on those who have it within their gift or their power to influence those questions. The other problem is the simplistic nature of the “yes or no” vote. I will expand on that point as other hon. Members have done. Consultation and involvement of the local community is crucial. I am cautious about the concept of a yes/no option as opposed to more open-ended questions about the future of a local community. However, I share common ground with the hon. Members for Kettering and for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on the issue of a bottom-up
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approach. I have referred to that in many debates. I have benefited from seeing the parish plan process in my constituency, which is planning at a very local level. That then feeds into the local development framework process. Some councils do that very well and are very good at involving their local community. It is about raising aspirations and saying that development can be beneficial if done sensitively, correctly and with a view to achieving a sustainable community for the future. Development can deliver housing for people who move to an area and those in the area who are in need of housing, as well as helping to meet the hopes and wishes of people already in the community.

The process that we are in the middle of has involved raising people’s hopes and telling them that their voice matters and that their opinions will be taken account of, but, as hon. Members have outlined, something external has then been imposed on that process. There are several problems with that, such as the issue that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) referred to regarding the local by-election and the parties with different agendas that might try to exploit the situation. It is possible that people will reject the political system out of hand and not bother to vote; they may not want to participate in society by trying to put their views across because they become cynical about doing so. All that means that the planning process as a whole gets a bad name and planning becomes a dirty word. If planning becomes a byword for developers doing what they want, people will not see such processes as an opportunity to move forward and to deliver things for their communities.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) raised the issue of eco-towns, of which there might be one in my region of Cornwall. The announcement about eco-towns, when the term was first shared with us, might, as he said, have been made to distract attention from other things that were going on. There is a nice ring to the name, and a utopian vision of what an eco-town might be. I do not say that that vision cannot be delivered, but if it is to be achieved, it has to be genuinely sustainable. Eco-towns should have the very high standards that the Government are, I hope, advocating. Those standards must not be watered down when the towns are built. They must also be sustainable in terms of the impact that they have on existing communities in their areas. I remain to be convinced that that will be the case, and I think that all hon. Members will watch the process closely to see how it develops. So far, it has been sketchy on consultation and involving local communities. I am sure that that will lead to a backlash that washes over any benefits that might arise.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes talked about his “I before E” campaign. That is a useful catchphrase, and I am sure that other hon. Members who are campaigning on similar issues will have taken note, and that it might appear elsewhere around the country. I am keen that the issue of infrastructure is tackled. Clearly, the Government are attempting to do that through proposals such as the community infrastructure levy; we shall see what emerges in that regard as the Planning Bill continues its progress through Parliament and the other place. The consultation on that is ongoing. It is a good idea, but there are concerns that people are not yet sure what it will mean, how it will work or how it will interact with section 106.

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We are dealing with big questions about the future of communities around the country, who will be watching closely to see how the Government respond to the problems and issues that they are raising. With that in mind, I shall bring my remarks to a close, so that the Minister has the maximum time to respond to the queries that have been raised.

Finally, I reiterate that we could have a planning process that delivers the affordable housing and market housing that this country needs in a way that takes local communities with developers. The result should be a strengthening of the hand of local communities and not of developers. With the way that Government policy is going, all the signs so far do not reinforce the idea that that will be the result.

12.3 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate on this timely and vital issue. He has raised this and related issues on several occasions, and I pay tribute to his diligence and dedication as a constituency Member of Parliament, not least in his capacity as a borough councillor in Kettering. I pay tribute also to all my hon. Friends who have spoken for the eloquent way in which they have put their cases.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering has previously raised several related issues, including housing development in December last year, transport infrastructure in July 2006 and overdevelopment in October 2005. He is, if nothing else, extremely consistent on this matter.

Since 1998, the Labour Government have paid lip service to having proper consultation on large-scale housing developments. As has been made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), they originally rejected the simplistic predict-and-provide approach, but the reality is that local people, elected councillors and local planning authorities have continued to be overruled by planning inspectors and the Secretary of State. We have heard that 13,100 new dwellings are being forced on the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering over the next 13 years, and that there will be 52,000 new homes across the four districts and boroughs of north Northamptonshire in the same period. Those plans arise from the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area plan that dates from 2003.

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Looking back to 2003-04, the Campaign to Protect Rural England was already commenting in that period about the efficacy of the consultation process. It said that formal scrutiny of the plan was limited and that consultation was severely lacking. Even before the public examination ended, in 2004, the Government had announced that a committee with planning powers that were separate to those of the local planning authority would be set up to deliver growth in Milton Keynes. They had also moved to establish an urban regeneration company to take planning powers from local authorities in west Northamptonshire and begun recruiting board members. They had also already established an inter-regional board, chaired by Lord Rooker, whose declared main function was “to support growth”, and the board had already met before the consultation process had
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ended. It is a key issue that the Government have gone ahead with the plans without properly soliciting the views of local people.

As a result of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, the top-down culture of centralised housing and density targets has been entrenched and formalised. Sections 9 and 10 of the Act allow the Secretary of State to direct that changes be made to the regional spatial strategy, notwithstanding significant consultation that has already taken place locally. County plans have been abolished and local plans under section 21 of the Act are subject to the direct control of the Secretary of State. Furthermore, since July 2007, and the publication of the “Review of sub-national economic development and regeneration”, regional assemblies—which at least had a vestige of legitimacy, although they are an imperfect form of democracy—are to be abolished and regional development agencies are to take over as the regional planning bodies, with no local democratic accountability. The consultation document that was published last month contains little, if any, detail about regional spatial planning.

Local councillors, residents and other key stakeholders know that consultation is a sham in Brown’s Britain. How can it be otherwise? Even parking spaces are heavily prescribed by Whitehall under planning policy guidance note 14. Let me provide an example of the ludicrous and prescriptive nature of housing targets, and I shall restrict my comments to north Northamptonshire. Despite the area being forced to accommodate an enormous number of new dwellings, it is only now, in 2008, that the north Northamptonshire strategic housing land availability study—that is quite a mouthful—is pushing ahead with identifying 40 key sites for development in the area, but without considering the problem of the A43 link road, south-east of Corby and north-west of Kettering.

In a written answer to a parliamentary question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering on 29 November last year, the Minister failed to give any reassurances that the capacity of the vital A14 trunk road had been considered when allocating huge housing targets in north Northamptonshire. That is despite several promises from the Department and a visit from the former Transport Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman).

Let me focus on planning policy statement 12 in relation to consultation. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has made a very important point and it bears repetition:

It is no wonder that civic leaders and other key people in Northamptonshire feel marginalised and excluded by the Government’s relentless drive for inappropriate and damaging house building targets. I quote Councillor James Hakewill, leader of Kettering borough council, who said last year:

I would like to go back to the point that the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) made about an “asymmetric” consultation. What he fails to recognise
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is that, at the end of a process, the commensurate result is that, without proper infrastructure, the quality of life is reduced for all people, both existing residents and residents who are new to a particular area.

Top-down targets are creating unsustainable and unsuitable developments. I refer to the sage words of the Minister, when he spoke in a Westminster Hall debate before Christmas and said:

I could not have put it better myself, after 11 years of a Labour Government.

A Conservative Government will empower local communities to build more homes by incentivising local communities. We will engage local residents more fully and restore authority and autonomy to local planning authorities, elected by local voters. People want to be consulted on the number of homes in their communities, not on the colour of the paint on the lamp posts. We do not want lip service and a Conservative Government will deliver proper consultation. We will scrap flawed density targets, which force the construction of flats and apartments at the expense of family homes. While I am at it, I will point out that the whole population and housing targets are flawed; the Barker report is flawed, and the statistics driven by the Office for National Statistics on population are completely flawed and inaccurate. The Conservatives will revisit those social and demographic data, which have driven the push for unpopular and centralised housing targets.

This Government have failed, even by their own limited terms, to honour their pledges on house building, and the answer is not even bigger and bolder targets. It is time to scrap those central targets and the predict-and-provide policy, and give power back to people and communities in Northamptonshire and across our country.

12.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): May I just say, Mr. Wilshire, what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship? I, too, would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this important debate. Like the debate that he secured in December on infrastructure, it has been incredibly well attended, particularly by Opposition Members.

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