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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 3 June 2008

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mark Tami.]

9.30 am

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew; it is a pleasure to serve under you today. I am delighted to have secured this debate, particularly given the timing, because there is a meeting next week on 12 June to confirm the proposed location that affects my region.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright). It is always a pleasure to see him. I did my level best to prevent him from taking his seat in a previous by-election, but he is welcome today. I hope that he is able to share with hon. Members the reason that the Minister for Housing felt unable to be here. I raised this issue in business questions just before the House rose for the recess. To my certain knowledge, the Minister for Housing has never presented herself to the House to make the case in person for eco-towns, take questions from hon. Members and respond to our constituents’ concerns. I am sure that there is a good reason for that and I am sure that the Under-Secretary will be able to share it with us. However, it bodes ill for the Government’s policy when the Minister mainly responsible for it and who presents it on occasions in the Cabinet does not feel able to attend.

This sorry scenario started on Thursday 3 April at 9 am, when parliamentary convention was breached in the first instance. Rather than the Minister for Housing coming to the House to make an oral statement—there was no pressing business that would have prevented such a statement being made, as is normal practice—I was invited for the first time ever to a conference call with a Minister. I showed willing. I had never experienced such a call before. I found it a little offensive and insulting that the constituents I have the honour to represent were excluded from the process of open parliamentary scrutiny. I was kept on the phone for a full three or four minutes before deciding that this was not the best way forward. So we were faced with a written ministerial statement on Thursday 3 April.

The first noteworthy point is that in the written statement the Housing Minister mentioned the prospectus that the Government announced on the web in July 2007, which set out the key criteria for eco-towns:

Presumably, the Government consulted on the basis of that prospectus. So it was surprising that in the written ministerial statement the Minister mentioned new settlements of between 5,000 and 20,000 people. Therefore, the size of the settlements already consulted on had
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doubled or quadrupled. That goes to the heart of my concerns about the eco-towns policy and the process of presenting it.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I was fascinated to hear that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) had the benefit of a conference call with the Minister for Housing, albeit that she feels that that was an inadequate process. I share her view on that. I have just discovered that another Conservative Member in this Chamber has had the benefit of a conference call. However, I have not. Does the hon. Lady share my concern that this process is opaque and lacking in any public transparency? Does she also share my concern about the time scale over which this is happening? Critical decisions are being reached that will affect local communities substantially without proper time for scrutiny of the procedure.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because what he said goes to the heart of my concerns about this matter. The Minister for Housing paid hon. Members a grave discourtesy by not presenting herself to the House and, indeed, by not inviting the hon. Gentleman to the conference call that I was unable to attend. The consultation process is flawed.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Further to the intervention by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), I took part in the conference call. I was on the line for about 20 minutes, although for the first 10 minutes it was difficult to get through to the Minister for Housing’s office. However, it gets worse. Not only did the Minister for Housing try to make her announcement by telephone on a day when Parliament was sitting, but she failed to make a transcript of the call, so there is no permanent record of what the Minister said. I give my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York my word for what the Minister said, but it would be nice to have an official transcript of that official ministerial statement.

Miss McIntosh: I hope that the Minister in the Chamber today will give a commitment that never again will hon. Members be faced with this procedure, which is wholly inadequate, insulting and offensive. That is not why I stood for Parliament and sought to be elected to represent the people of the Vale of York. I do not know whether the Minister wishes to comment at this stage.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright) indicated dissent.

Miss McIntosh: Perhaps he will comment at the end.

The press reported that the Minister for Housing said that she would:

Although I know the Vale of York quite well, I was mystified to find, in the ministerial statement, that it is now split between two regions: Leeds city region and another one somewhere else further to the north. I discovered that on a shortlist of 15 locations,

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I took that point up with Leeds city region and received a nonsensical reply on 25 April from Councillor Robert Light, the Leeds city region leaders’ board chair—I do not know whether he brings the table with him—who stated the blindingly obvious, saying that the boundaries of Leeds city region include 10 local authority districts of which York is one. He did not tell me whether the eco-town on the Clifton Moor-Skelton site was going to be within the City of York part, which is in the Vale of York.

Only having secured this debate did we have the courtesy of a proper response. My office contacted Leeds city region again and this time we heard from Colin Blackburn, the project manager for the Leeds city region eco-town study, telling us which four locations, all within the Selby district, were going to be included. Incidentally, I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) in his place today. Mr. Blackburn stated not that the City of York or the Vale of York were included, but that,

This process, which takes parliamentarians for a ride, is unfair. I know for a fact that the then leader of City of York council had tremendous difficulties trying to find out which site was included.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on securing this debate. She has mentioned that the Government should make a commitment that there will be consultation and agreement with local authorities. Is she surprised to learn that the proposed eco-town on the Curborough site in Fradley—which incidentally will not be eco in any event because by the time it is ready all buildings will have to be ecologically sound—has no support, either from the West Midlands regional assembly or from Lichfield district council? Moreover, it will cause a huge strain on the local infrastructure and will be ecologically unsound. It will not even be an eco-town.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. There are two separate issues. First, the democratic process has been completely flouted. There has been a flawed consultation process and neither parliamentarians, local residents nor those elected to represent them in local councils have access to the information. The second issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) said, is why these towns will not be sustainable and the fact that they are not environmentally friendly. Interestingly, if the chosen sites were all in Labour heartlands, one would have some sympathy with the Government’s point of view and policy. However, all but three sites are in Conservative-held constituencies.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she not agree that there is a housing crisis and that the Government are right to set an ambitious target for the building of about 3 million new homes by 2020? Should not at least a proportion of those be in rural areas, even if they are in brownfield settings? Otherwise, people will be penned-up in urban areas and we shall
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have more ugly, unpleasant urban sprawls, such as Greater Nottingham, which intrudes into the north of North-West Leicestershire. Is there not the potential for eco-towns to contribute to solving our housing crisis?

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The point is that if the measures were genuinely about building eco-houses and towns, and constructing homes on brown-field sites, I—and I am sure many of my hon. Friends—would be willing to support them. However, an eco-town was to be located—I am delighted to say it has now finally been excluded—in the Skelton part of the Vale of York in the city of York on a green belt site that is prone to flooding. More roads and houses would have needed to be built and one of the few green belt parts of the city of York would have been concreted over. Most of the towns are to be built on green belt or greenfield sites, on prime agricultural land, or on land that is likely to flood or is at risk from flooding. Obviously, I do not know all the locations, but according to the Government’s prospectus, eco-towns do not appear to be separate and distinct from existing towns but well linked to them. Most of the proposed sites seem to be miles away from existing settlements.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): My hon. Friend makes her points well and reflects many of the issues affecting West Sussex, where the Government are trying to impose a development of 5,000 houses. Doing so would turn rural countryside into a vast suburban landscape directly linked to other towns, and would merge villages and such developments into one huge suburban landscape. That is completely against the wishes of local people and would completely contradict the draft local development framework and subvert the local and democratic basis of our planning system. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate so that we can raise these issues in an open forum.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I hope that the Minister is listening because we are being moderate and temperate in tone. I can only express the anger that is being felt and has been made known to me from those who wish me to make these points on their behalf—not just those in the Vale of York, but hon. Friends and those who have been kind enough to have written in. Let us consider the views of someone who is perhaps a floating voter. For example, Ben Fogle wrote recently in The Daily Telegraph that the Government say that the eco-town in his home village of Ford, West Sussex,

Although the Minister represents an urban constituency, he must be aware of the present cost of wheat and food generally. Building in such locations will substantially aggravate that problem. Will the Minister put our minds at rest about what stage the consultation is now at? The consultation period from 4 April to 12 June, when the announcement will be made on the city of Leeds region and the rest of the country, has been very short.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a good case. I congratulate her on securing a timely debate. As she knows, stage two of the
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consultation process concludes at the end of this month. I do not know about her eco-town, but in relation to Middle Quinton, which is right on the border of my constituency, all we know is that there will be 6,500 houses. Yet the second stage of the consultation process concludes at the end of this month by which time the Government will decide how to shortlist 10 towns from 15. If that process is anything like that of getting down from 57 to 15 it will be done in secret. That is completely unacceptable.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. That is why people up and down the country are genuinely angry and feel so aggrieved—[Interruption.] I am sorry for hitting my microphone—I am very angry. We have been excluded from the process and the Minister for Housing has not even got the grace to be with us today. There has not been a lengthy consultation period and the Government even appear to be flouting the usual planning procedures through which people can have their say.

On one or two of the points raised in interventions, will the Minister confirm whether eco-towns will be located in areas that people want to move to and whether there will be jobs for people in these towns? Otherwise, they will have to travel further to work than they do where they currently live. Will people want to live in these houses, and will they be economic to run and maintain? Will the houses be affordable in the present climate? Does the Minister believe that these houses will be built and if they are built, will they be sold?

On the affordability factor, environmentally sustainable housing is more expensive to build, even taking into account the economies of scale proposed by the Government. How will the Minister avoid the eco-towns of today being the sink estates of tomorrow, and what do the Government mean by carbon-neutral? That does not appear to be defined anywhere—either in the prospectus or subsequent Government missives.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): In giving her chronology, my hon. Friend needs to draw hon. Members’ attention to an important issue: the planning policy statement. I do not know whether she will come on to that matter, but the process will involve a departure from any planning situation that has occurred since the second world war and the introduction of the present planning system. The Government intend to issue a planning policy statement that lists the 10 shortlisted eco-towns. That statement will then supposedly be a material consideration for local authorities when they consider planning applications. For the first time since 1945, the Government will effectively direct local authorities that they have little alternative but to approve planning applications for those eco-towns identified by the Government under the planning policy statement.

Miss McIntosh: I have not mentioned that simply because I do not know whether that is the case. The question has to be asked about that. If there is such a planning policy statement, why has it not been published, at what stage will it be published, and can local authorities or groups of residents appeal against it? Those questions are important.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) does the House a great service by pointing out that there has not been a planning policy statement. We have had planning policy guidance on just about everything else but not on eco-towns. Perhaps the Minister could tell us when he intends to publish one. Will the eco-towns attract new business, because in the prospectus that does not appear to be the case? What will happen if businesses are not attracted to these towns as commercial developments? Will they be unsustainable without jobs or amenities, and simply become isolated blots on the countryside? Will work units be provided, and why are some of the proposed shortlisted sites to be located on greenfield, rather than brownfield, land? That is, after all, part of the Government’s criteria.

Michael Fabricant: Before my hon. Friend leaves her comprehensive list, should not the Minister be asked another question? If a town is to be ecologically sound, it must take everything into account, including, as my hon. Friend has pointed out in her excellent speech, distance to work, transport facilities, whether there are adequate roads, whether there is rail and whether there is all the other infrastructure required. Even if a town were ecologically sound, it might be made unsound as a whole by virtue of the fact that people had to move to and from that town. Have all those factors been taken into account? They certainly have not been at Curborough.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend pre-empts the points that I want to make on transport, because currently there is not much reference to transport and infrastructure generally in the prospectus. There are what might at best be described as indifferent public transport facilities available in most of the rural areas where the towns are proposed. That means that those living in the countryside depend more on the motor car, and we know the costs of driving, particularly for those who drive diesel cars.

Michael Fabricant: And the carbon footprint.

Miss McIntosh: Obviously, one is concerned about the carbon footprint, too. Similarly, eco-towns that are proposed to be developed on isolated sites in rural areas will no doubt suffer from a lack of connectivity to nearby towns and cities, which is likely to lead to new infrastructure such as roads and possibly railways, and related infrastructure. As regards other services, each new town will have to have its own schools and presumably there will be access to hospitals. The harsh reality is that schools, particularly small schools, in rural areas cost more and are currently threatened with closure in great numbers.

Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a very good point about transport. That relates to the issue of housing need, which was raised earlier. In my area, 4,000 households are on the waiting list for social housing, but of those 4,000, 1,600 want a house in Bognor Regis and 861 want a house in Littlehampton. There is no demand for housing in a rural isolated spot without transport links and, indeed, without jobs for the people to go to.

Miss McIntosh: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Surely people would prefer to live in an established town such as Bognor Regis, which is so well represented by him, if I may say so. I do not see what the attraction would be to the new towns.

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