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Plymouth Growth Plans

1.28 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I am very proud of Plymouth and the progress that it has made over the past 11 years. Like many MPs, I have spent the past two weeks meeting constituents and hearing their stories, as well as meeting those involved in public, private and community organisations in my city.

I have spent a lot of time walking around my constituency, and what a difference a decade has made. In North Hill, we have our first medical school for 30 years, and a dental school is going up in Brickfields. The wall in Devonport has come down, and there is a new heart to that town within the city. The city centre has an award-winning business improvement district. There is an award-winning east end renewal project, too, which includes new business, community and health centres. The Mount Gould local care centre has been established, and the university has grown in numbers and reputation. However, it is a question not just of buildings and jobs, but of people. Lives have been transformed, and many more people are passing their GCSEs, taking apprenticeships and going into further and higher education. Far fewer people are waiting in pain for treatment for one, one and a half or even two years.

All that has not come about by chance, but because of the choice that people made 12 years ago to elect a Labour Government, who have created economic stability and reordered the priorities that affect not only buildings but people and their life chances.

Those priorities made many more Plymouth children, women and families count; they made communities that were among the poorest in England, including the poorest ward in England on the 1995 index of local conditions, count. It is not surprising, given the starting point, that there is still a great deal to do, but with the cranes, the can-do attitude and the buzz that has infected life in Plymouth, there is no going back.

Plymouth is the 15th largest city in the country, the second largest city in the south-west and the largest city on the south coast. We welcome the Government’s recognition of the importance of cities in driving national and regional economies, and we accept that Plymouth is not punching its weight. It is still true that we have lower incomes and less available skill in the work force than we could and should have. The disparity between the far south-west and the rest of the region is far greater than the differences between our region and other regions. Gross value added in the south-west is 93 per cent. of the UK average, but in Devon, it is only 82 per cent., and in Cornwall, 69 per cent. of the south-west average, so Plymouth has a major role to play in lifting the whole sub-region, including the neighbouring county of Cornwall, which is a European funding convergence area. Our urban population base does not give us the critical mass to support the range and quality of facilities found in other major urban areas.

For all those reasons, the city is planning an increase in population from just under 250,000 to 300,000 or more by 2026. That means that about 30,000 new homes have to be built in that period, 30 per cent. of
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which must be affordable—that is more than 4,000 by 2016—and at least 80 per cent. of which must be on brownfield sites. We have a plan for the built environment by world renowned town planner David Mackay, and our local development framework won a Royal Town Planning Institute prize. The economic aspects of the urban renaissance are being carried forward by our new city development company, which will build on the concept developed in the city growth strategy; some seed corn money from the Department for Trade and Industry made us look at our strengths in the knowledge and creative sectors, health and marine science and technologies, and established and growing industries in digital media. We have the biggest digital media cluster outside the M25, one of only four art and design colleges in the country, and the world-class TR2 facilities for sets, costumes and rehearsal, where rehearsal for major London theatres takes place.

Our city is already a centre of world-class expertise in marine science and technology. Marine sector development will remain the core of our economic strategy. The south yard at Devonport, which is to be released from the naval base estate, offers enormous potential to support the realisation of that growth sector, which is essential to our city’s aspirations to provide an additional 42,500 jobs over the same time scale as the growth about which I spoke earlier. That knowledge and creativity base is complemented by well-established partnerships. Plymouth 2020, the local strategic partnership, has progressed from poor performance and become a national exemplar of how to drive rapid improvement. I am pleased to tell the Minister that my concerns about Plymouth’s potential not being properly recognised at regional level, which I raised when I spoke about the plans in the House three years ago, have been replaced by confidence that it is now well understood.

Plymouth’s importance is recognised in the draft regional spatial strategy, and it has been given greater emphasis in the panel’s report. The regional economic strategy and “The Way Ahead”—the region’s response to the sustainable communities plan—identify the city’s potential for accelerated housing and economic growth. The Government have designated Plymouth as a new growth point, within which the city is developing a delivery infrastructure that will enable us fully to maximise the opportunities presented by the sub-national review. We are, however, under no illusions. Delivery is, and will be, challenging. We shall effectively create the equivalent of a small new town over the next 20 years, and at the same time turn round an economy that has underperformed for decades, to the extent that it has needed European aid.

Plymouth has a robust and innovative delivery framework, by way of statutory and non-statutory plans. The local development framework, as I have mentioned, is further advanced than that of any other urban area. The core strategy and four area action plans have already been formally adopted. The LDF is fully aligned with neighbouring authorities’ plans. Our local transport plan is constructed around the Government’s shared transport priorities. A new local economic strategy, prepared with economic and community partners in the local strategic partnership, provides a shared focus for action by a range of public and private stakeholders. We have a world-class skills strategy, through the LSP, which will be implemented by the city’s new skills and employment board.

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The new city development company—it is, I believe, the first entirely new company of its sort, with support from the city council, the South West of England Regional Development Agency and English Partnerships—will give new focus and priority to realising potential in the area of enterprise growth, property development and investment, innovation and technology development. House-building rates are now higher than at any time since the mid-1970s, and are at the level that we need to meet our housing growth targets. The relationship with local and national house builders, with respect to speed and quality of decisions, has improved beyond all recognition. There are challenging targets to meet in the social and affordable housing sectors: as the Minister knows I am preparing a report on that, which I look forward to presenting, so I shall keep my wish list on housing for a future occasion. I have quite a long list of other things with which the Minister can help. Government decisions in policy areas that may not appear to have a direct connection with the growth of the city can have a significant positive or negative effect on our ambitions.

The implications of the recent naval base review go well beyond the immediate defence cost and operational considerations. It is important that that is seen as a whole-Government issue, with respect to both the cost to other areas of government and the delivery of wider priorities. The three-base outcome to the naval base review safeguards Devonport, but the Department for Communities and Local Government should continue to take an interest in the issue if we are to ensure that there is a cross-Government overview of the continuing changes in naval base activity and dockyard-related issues arising from the defence industrial strategy.

The drive for cost efficiencies in the naval base can bring win-win opportunities to the city and the naval base if managed properly. The likely need for the base to divest itself of all but essential land holdings could provide significant development sites. The naval base commander, working with the city council and the South West of England Regional Development Agency, is currently developing proposals, under Project Roundel, for identifying and releasing such surplus sites. The business case to be submitted to the Ministry of Defence requires subsequent Treasury approval, and must adopt the same principles that were used for the London-based Project MoDEL. That is essential if we are to secure the viability of the naval base. We have already approached the Treasury, and the Chief Secretary has undertaken to visit the city, but the Minister and his Department must make sure that the project receives the urgent consideration that it deserves, so that it can realise its potential for us all—city, sub-region and Government.

The outcome of the reviews will have an effect beyond the Ministry of Defence, and there will be a significant impact on the city and its communities. It is a whole-Government issue. There is a need for continued engagement by the Minister and his Department, as happened during the naval base review itself, in relation to the socio-economic impact of changes, including the important issue of base porting of ships, and to ensure that there is value for money for UK plc as well as the Department for Communities and Local Government. That is the only way of producing the optimum outcome for the
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Government and the city. The consequence of not taking such action is that DCLG will have to pick up the tab further down the line.

On the jobs issue, it is in DCLG’s interest, given our shared goal of a successful Plymouth growth strategy, for the Minister to ensure that Plymouth receives full and proper consideration in relation to the relocation of Government offices, and work out of London and the south-east. I refer specifically to the natural choice of Plymouth as the site of the marine management organisation to be set up under the draft Marine Bill that has just been published. Establishing that organisation in Plymouth could lead to a number of wins. For the organisation itself, Plymouth offers a location that, as I have described, has worldwide marine credentials, particularly in coastal marine science, which would provide it with access to unsurpassed research expertise and a supply of skilled graduates. It would help the city to consolidate its role as a marine centre of excellence. It would be a valuable anchor for the building of our marine partnership and science park—potentially, but not necessarily, on a shared site—and would bring high-value jobs. With a decision on the future of the naval base, and the dockyard under Babcock’s ownership, we should be able at least to stabilise employment in those important activities.

Marine science is a growth sector for UK plc as well as for Plymouth. We have 450 scientists and 1,600 students in marine and environmental sciences studying at the university, and can build on, and draw on, a strong skills base. I have raised the subject in meetings with colleagues at the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The MOD is aware of the potential of the south yard as a possible site. It would be ideal if it were released in time, so I urge the Minister to ensure cross-Government working on the matter.

Maintaining the council’s capacity to deliver and that of its partners involves a significant risk not just to physical regeneration and economic growth but to the wider inclusion agenda that sits alongside them. The commitment of the newly established city development company and the partners working with it are key to enhancing our capacity for economic growth and job creation. Continuing to pursue excellent services with our partners and improving service delivery on skills, health, education, crime, housing and environmental outcomes, particularly in the city’s most deprived communities, are also key. Everything that can strengthen those twin pillars is vital to our ability to grow and regenerate the city.

The council has made tough decisions to bring about greater financial stability while addressing major improvement challenges in areas such as child care, planning, transport, waste and recycling. By May last year, it had become the fastest improving council in the country, whereas it used to be a failing council travelling in the wrong direction. Some Government policies have major financial implications for all local authorities, particularly new growth authorities, and anything that breaches the principle of no new burdens is a drain on capacity. I am sure that the Minister is familiar with a range of claims relating to waste management, concessionary fares and infrastructure that arise when there are more people and more houses.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) has arranged a meeting with the Minister for Local Government. We want to discuss with him the need to set up a regular reporting system to ensure that Plymouth, which is growing at a rate of 2,000 a year, is given every consideration where cross-departmental issues are concerned. Funding for such issues needs to recognise the pressure on authorities with faster and greater housing growth to deliver Government targets. Infrastructure funding, especially through the regional funding allocation, should be aligned with the delivery of regional growth priorities. Enhanced new growth point funding, the continuation of funds beyond 2007-08 and the relocation and establishment of Government offices can make a difference to the strength of our base for delivering that ambitious agenda, and deliver it we must.

This time last year, under Labour control, we were the fastest improving local council in the country. That was no mean feat, as we had taken over a failing authority from the Conservatives just three years before. This time last year, we had earned all the award-winning projects that I mentioned. It is little wonder that this time last year, more people voted for Labour councillors than in previous years, but despite our boldness of vision, excellence in performance and positive direction of travel, some people who came out to vote did not support us. They supported a populist manifesto involving a pool in the north of the city and car parking, and they opposed the new sports centre that we championed. In power, those people have realised the sports centre’s importance—it is called the Life centre—but the way in which they are developing it raises major questions about its viability, as the genuine cross-party working needed to realise its full potential is not taking place. Sadly, there will be no affordable housing in the development that will pay for part of the centre. The fact that those people are falling at one of the very first hurdles on such an important issue is a matter of concern.

I understand that people will be able to buy tea and buns at the centre, but not sports gear and swimming trunks. Where else in the country could one find that happening? It is all to meet a dogma that there should be no commercial activity on the site. There will be no swimming pool in the north of the city, as the council leader recently confirmed that there is no provision for that promise in the capital budget for the next five years. Those councillors have broken one of the promises on which they campaigned. Council tax is going up, but children’s services, development and community services are being cut. This year, Plymouth will experience one of its three highest increases in local council tax since becoming a unitary authority, and all three of those increases have occurred under Tory control.

Plymouth’s is no ordinary story, and ours is no ordinary city. Every day of my life for the past 11 years, I have woken up determined to support the Government who have brought us the hard-won economic stability that has underwritten our growth and development. The Government have realised a vision of urban renaissance that has brought people back to our cities and made them good places to live again. While going from door to door in Plymouth last week, I saw people in inner-city wards whose lives had been, and are being, transformed. There is so much more to do. It reminded me, if I needed reminding, how important our task is.

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We should take no lessons from the Tories, who left Plymouth with a legacy of deep-seated poverty that blighted people’s lives, about tackling poverty or creating fairness. We certainly should not take any lessons from them about economic competence. Increasingly, people in Plymouth have a sense of drift stemming from a lack of clear, strong political leadership in the council. Like me, they hope that the drive and ambition of social and economic partners will see us through. As always, I stand ready and willing to work with anyone who has Plymouth’s interests at heart.

Our ambitions have produced an exciting agenda. I hope that the Minister will draw some inspiration from what I have said about Plymouth’s story over the past 11 years, and is willing, too, to engage with our agenda. The sort of renaissance occurring in Plymouth is also occurring in our urban areas, and it is based on an unprecedented period of growth and economic stability.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): Minister, it is time for your third speech this morning.

1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): Mr. Wilshire, it is a pleasure to see you again so soon. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on securing this important Adjournment debate on Plymouth and its challenging growth agenda, and I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) in her place. Both my hon. Friends are recognised in the House and elsewhere for their strong representation of Plymouth and their hard work to advance fairness, prosperity and ambition in their city. I do not wish to embarrass my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton, but one of their strengths is the ability to put aside party political differences and work with other groups to make things work for Plymouth. That is often not the case in the House and elsewhere. I admire her passion for Plymouth and her willingness to see the city work. I heard what she said about being willing to work with anyone who has Plymouth’s interests at heart. That is an admirable stance.

I have enjoyed today’s debate. I agree that Plymouth has a rich and fascinating history based largely on its seafaring tradition, but from what I have heard today and from my consideration of the matter, I think that the city can look confidently into a bright future for the 21st century, with ongoing investment and commitment from this Labour Government. Plymouth has major opportunities and a new vision, and is undergoing an urban renaissance involving substantial growth in housing and employment. It aims to deliver accelerated growth in line with the Government’s sustainable communities plan and to reassert itself as a confident regional centre and leading European waterfront city.

One of the themes of the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton was the importance of getting the framework right. The topic might not be particularly sexy, but governance arrangements are key to ensuring that Plymouth’s ambition can be realised. I welcome the vision commissioned by the
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private sector-led Plymouth 2020 partnership, developed by the group led by Barcelona-based architect David Mackay and launched in November 2003.

The vision for Plymouth proposes a revitalised city with a higher density of activities and a better urban fabric. It proposes a larger city, as my hon. Friend mentioned, aiming for a population of between 300,000 and 350,000 people—the current population is 250,000—to achieve critical mass as a substantial urban centre with a bigger and better range of higher-order activities. The Government welcome the fact that the city council has adopted the vision as the basis for future development plans and strategies and the development of the city’s design panel. The challenge is to support Plymouth in providing the foundations on which that growth can be achieved.

As part of our support for an environment in which to take the vision forward, the Government recognise the city’s achievement as a planning authority in making good progress with the new style of planning policy documents and local development frameworks that will take the city to 2021. In replacing its local plan, Plymouth is using its LDF to progress the Mackay vision and give spatial effect to its city strategy. We applaud Plymouth for becoming the first urban authority in England to adopt a new-style core strategy, in April 2007, setting out the city’s overall planning framework and vision. By 2021, that framework will provide at least 17,250 extra houses, including at least 3,300 affordable units, and 40 hectares of new employment land between 2006 and 2016, with a further 22 hectares by 2021.

Plymouth has also adopted three area action plans for Devonport, Millbay and North Plymstock, focusing on housing delivery and regeneration, and converting the strategic content of that core strategy into a set of site-specific development proposals. In making that vision a reality, the Government welcome the work carried out, in 2006, by the South West of England Regional Development Agency, English Partnerships, the Government office for the south-west and the city council, which agreed to create a public-private partnership in order to grip the opportunity afforded by the city’s growth agenda and economic strategy.

As my hon. Friend hinted, in the past 12 months, great progress has been made: a company has been formed, the chairman, chief executive and board members of which have been recruited. The development company was launched locally in early March 2008, and internationally in the second week of March, and has brought together a strong team to take the city forward. With that experienced board, I think that the company is well placed to take the vision forward, supported as it is by a launch funding framework of £750,000 a year for three years from the city council’s new growth point funds, which are provided by my Department, the regional development agency and English Partnerships.

Clear and regular reporting form part of a good and effective governance structure, and I take on board fully what my hon. Friend said about regular reporting systems. She made an important point and I shall consider what role my Department can play in that.

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