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I have received a number of representations. Some of the most interesting ones, to which I would like the Minister to respond because I am sure that he has received them as well, are from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the wildlife trusts, which are very concerned not only that eco-towns should have regard to newts and other such creatures, but that they should have a concept of being eco-friendly and having green credentials in that regard. The Campaign to Protect Rural England is very disappointed at the eco-towns shortlist, because the eco-towns are being put in the wrong place; they are remote and unsustainable.

I have welcomed the opportunity to have this debate. I understand that the city of Leeds region will confirm its proposals. I am delighted that it has excluded Skelton as an eco-town site, because that would be completely inappropriate, for the reasons that I have given. The timing of today’s debate is very opportune. I regret that the Minister for Housing is not in her place and that the Minister who will respond to the debate has been put in this difficult position, but I am sure that he will rise to the occasion. Not once has the Minister for Housing come to the House and defended her decision, put herself under scrutiny or taken questions from colleagues. I hope that this Minister will send a firm message from this Chamber today that there is no place in parliamentary procedures for a conference call that involved my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough and I being kept hanging on for up to 10 minutes, without a formal record being made, even by the Minister’s colleagues in the Department, of what was said in the call.

I put it to the Minister that the consultation process is flawed. It is a sham. It barely pays lip service to democracy. It flouts normal planning procedures. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said, we have not even had sight of a planning statement, which should be the very essence of the consultation at this stage. It is very difficult for parliamentarians to consult and be consulted on this matter. It is very difficult for the elected councillors to be consulted. It is very difficult for those residents whose properties will be blighted. The Minister must respond to that point. What message is his Department giving to those such as the Henman family, who have vigorously opposed the proposed site in Oxfordshire? What response will the Department give if their property prices are blighted?

These eco-towns are neither sustainable nor environmentally friendly. That poses the question why most of them—all but three—are to be built in Conservative-held seats, not Labour areas. If the Government feel so strongly about them, their flagship policies should be in their flagship constituencies.

Mr. Garnier: Which are they?

Miss McIntosh: There are not many left, but we will not mention Crewe and Nantwich at this stage; we just will not go there.

Most of the towns are to be built on green belt or greenfield sites, on prime agricultural land. If the Minister for Housing is so convinced of the case for eco-towns, she should be here today to defend the case and promote her policy herself. I would like this Minister, in making the case as to why eco-towns are good for the environment,
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to respond to the points that have been raised both by me and by other hon. Members in interventions—I look forward to other contributions.

These eco-towns appear not to have regard to adaptation for climate change. The Minister must make the case in that respect. They should certainly be built from permeable materials and be resilient to flooding. I visited many areas that were flooded in the summer last year and I would like to know who will say which materials are resilient and flood-proofed. Will someone in the Department give them a kitemark? Does that mean that if someone is subsequently flooded, having used those materials in an eco-town or an eco-home, they will have a case against either his Department or the manufacturers of the materials?

These eco-towns will increase congestion. People will have long travel-to-work distances and there will be huge infrastructure implications—I am thinking of the new roads, new schools, public transport routes and access to hospitals. In short, the case for eco-towns has yet to be made. I regret that it falls to this Minister to make the case, but I am waiting to hear, once and for all, why these eco-towns should be built and why this process has been followed, flouting all normal parliamentary channels and all planning procedures.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. A considerable number of hon. Members wish to speak. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind in relation to the length of their speeches.

9.57 am

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): There are two drivers for the Government’s policy on eco-towns. The first is the rising demand for homes, especially in areas of high economic growth or high population growth and places with a severe problem of housing affordability. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)—I will call her my hon. friend—knows well that those strictures apply very strongly to the city of York. The second driver for the debate about eco-towns is the environmental imperative to build in the future in different ways. I want to say a few words about both drivers.

In my response to the housing Green Paper in October last year, I pointed out that City of York council estimates, based on a housing market assessment carried out by Fordham Research, that the population of the city of York will grow over the 10 years to 2016 to 192,600—a 9.5 per cent. increase—and the demand for homes over the same period will increase by some 20 per cent. The study estimated that York needs to build 982 additional homes a year for each of the next five years.

At the time that I made my submission to the Department, the regional spatial strategy agreed that the city of York should have a target of building 640 new homes a year—far short of what is needed. I am pleased to say that the spatial strategy has upped that figure to 850, which is much closer to the figure that City of York council believes is needed. The regional spatial strategy is about to be reviewed once again to take account of the Government’s new housing policies, and I would expect a further increase for York.

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I say to my friend, the hon. Member for Vale of York, that there can be no doubt or disagreement among those from the City of York on the demand for new homes. We know from our surgeries that there is a substantial demand. We hear it from local families, who cannot afford somewhere for their children to live. Children in their late 20s are still living at home as a result of housing pressures in the city. The question is not whether we need these homes, but where and how to build them.

Mr. Garnier: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last question and the implied statement contained within it. Is he aware that there are 673,000 empty dwellings in England? Is he aware of the number in the City of York? Does he not think that the Government and city and borough councils ought to ensure that proper use is made of those empty houses before looking only at another solution?

Hugh Bayley: The answer is both/and; it is not either/or. The City of York has an extremely low rate of unoccupied council housing, although in some cities massive estates built in the 1960s are no longer used or needed because of city flight—another real problem. We have seen some good projects in the City of York. One was the living above the shop scheme in the city centre, which was an attempt to open up the upper floors of Victorian and early 20th century buildings to make more housing available. We need to do that, but however much effort we put into it, that alone will not be enough to meet housing needs in all our constituencies over the coming decades.

Secondly, I want to speak about the environmental imperative to build in different ways. In his report on the economics of climate change, Sir Nicholas Stern told us that the world needed to halve its current CO2 emissions by 2050. We know that countries such as China and India are rapidly increasing their CO2 emissions as they industrialise, so the already industrialised countries with the highest emissions—the UK’s emissions are much higher per capita than China’s—need to cut them by more than 50 per cent.

Sir Nicholas estimated that a cut of between 60 per cent. and 80 per cent. would be needed in the UK, which we will discuss in a week or two when the Climate Change Bill comes to the Commons. I recently heard Sir Nicholas speaking on the radio, saying that if he had known then what he knows now he would have estimated that we needed a cut of more than 80 per cent. To achieve those cuts in our carbon emissions, in order to limit the global temperature rise by the middle of the century to a level that does not impoverish hundreds of millions of people around the globe, we need to change the way that we do many things in Britain—including the way that we build homes.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman makes a cogent case. The Government will improve the standard of all new houses, so that they are built to the same standard required in the eco-towns. Therefore, the eco-towns are simply a con, to allow new towns to be built in locations where they would otherwise never be permitted.

Hugh Bayley: I am not persuaded by the hon. Gentleman’s argument. The Government rightly set out the ambition of achieving zero-carbon homes, but they will achieve that aim only by pushing through pilots to
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show how it will be done—to test the new technology in order to discover what works on the larger scale and what does not.

The Government have financed some important small-scale pilots. In my constituency, City of York council recently gained funding from a developer, as a result of planning gain, for a new headquarters for its neighbourhood services direct works department. However, there was only enough money to build a conventional building. The council wanted to do better than that, and it sought funding from the Government. The Government provided £681,000 to allow the new headquarters to be built with environmentally friendly technology. It has a timber-framed construction, with straw bale cladding—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York will be pleased to hear that the straw was grown in the Vale of York. It has low-energy under-floor heating, a wind turbine and photovoltaic cells, and it collects rainwater for washing the council’s vehicles. It is designed to high environmental standards.

A second small-scale housing pilot is being built in Victoria way in York by York Housing Association with Government funding. Eight new homes are being built to the German PassivHaus standard, which includes high levels of insulation. They will gain heat from the sun through windows that allow the greenhouse effect to warm them; they will have excellent airtightness, using a whole-house ventilation system which will extract 95 per cent. of the heat of the warm air from the house and put it into the cold air being drawn from outside to save energy. It is expected that no fuel will be used for 10 months of the year, and fuel use will be much lower than normal for the remaining one or two months.

Those small-scale pilots demonstrate the technology that will be required when building homes for the future. It is not something that can be left for 10 or 20 years: once a house is built it is difficult to retro-fit such high environmental technology. We will be left with those houses for 100 years. We have to make the changes now. It is one thing to make changes on a small scale by piloting the technology, but we need also to do it on a community scale so that we can deal with the sort of issues that the hon. Member for Vale of York so rightly pointed out, such as the environmental impact of travel to work or for shopping. It is not quite as simple as she suggests—that one should not build in rural areas because it is bad; and that one should build in urban areas because it is good. One must balance the whole environmental envelope, including, of course, the transport issues that she raises.

Unless we find places to pilot that new technology on a community scale, we will not learn enough, or learn it quickly enough, to meet the goal of zero-carbon housing set out by the Government. I support the Government on the principle of piloting environmentally sustainable building on a large scale. They clearly need to consult carefully over locations, and take account of local views—although almost any large-scale housing development will attract opposition. However, I also ask them to consider putting money into the building of eco-districts in existing towns and cities—and they could certainly be Labour towns and cities.

When the first eco-towns prospectus came out, I discussed the requirements with people in York and asked whether it would be possible to make a bid, using two large brownfield sites in York—one a large site on
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old railway land about two thirds the size of the area within the city walls; and the other on a large site currently occupied by British Sugar. At the limit, those two sites, which are almost connected, would together be enough for 5,000 homes. I took the view that the area was probably too small for what I imagined would be the one Yorkshire eco-town pilot. However, if the Government want to pilot the ability to create viable communities within urban areas as well as the countryside, they should be piloting eco-districts within existing towns.

Many colleagues wish to speak, so I shall conclude with some specific questions for the Minister. The latest “Eco-towns: Living a greener future” document identifies the Leeds city region as an area for an eco-town. It says that eco-towns will have a 30 to 50 per cent. affordable component and that they will include social housing to rent. If the 10 local authorities of the Leeds city region work together, identify a site and build a new community, the nomination rights of that social housing will lie directly with one of those local authorities, yet it is clear that the entire sub-region will need to work together. The north Leeds-Harrogate-York triangle is often called the golden triangle—housing pressures are most intense in that part of Yorkshire. Will the Minister tell us whether the nomination rights for social housing will be shared by authorities in the region once a site has been identified and built?

City of York council has put forward a bid to the Government for housing growth point status for the combined railway land and sugar factory site, which is called the York Northwest project. The plan appears not to fit the criteria for eco-town or eco-district status under the Government rules, so will they support the growth point bid?

Clearly, York has enormous housing demand, huge problems with housing affordability and a lack of political consensus about where to build, partly because it has never defined the green belt—that did not happen under the Conservatives, Labour or Liberal Democrats, nor under the current hung council arrangements. I have asked the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust to organise a round-table conference to bring everyone together to build a consensus on where the housing in York should be built. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York will attend, but will the Minister ensure that Yorkshire Forward, the Government regional office and DCLG are represented at the meeting?

10.11 am

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing this timely debate—it is only four weeks until the end of the consultation on the original shortlist of eco-towns.

The Government announced last July that they were in favour of eco-towns. The Prime Minister said that he wanted five and for the first to be built at the Oakington barracks in my constituency—the Minister has visited the site—which will become the new town of Northstowe. We welcomed that and said that we wanted Northstowe to be the first eco-town. However, since the announcement, an outline planning application for Northstowe that does not meet eco-town standards has been submitted.

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As the Minister knows, a high-quality guided busway is being built to provide a rapid transit solution to Cambridge’s major employment sites. Northstowe could certainly accommodate 8,000, and the outline planning application is for 9,500. The new town ought to be the first eco-town, which would mean that it meets a higher standard for sustainable homes, for example, but the outline planning application came in at level 3, so the local authority is having to go back and say that it wants at least level 4 to begin with. Ministers said that the development ought to be powered by solar and wind, but the application is for only 20 per cent. renewable energy, so the local authority has had to say that it should be better.

The Government do not lack control over the situation, because English Partnerships is a principal partner in the new town. We in Cambridgeshire wanted Northstowe to be in the eco-town list and for it to be the first eco-town. If the Government get behind Northstowe with English Partnerships and support the local authority—we have high-quality transport and the housing growth fund is examining new biomass combined heat and power for energy supply—we could create the first eco-town and begin building homes perhaps within only two years.

We were therefore surprised, when the Government published the shortlist of eco-towns, that Northstowe was not in the list after the Prime Minister said it would be. By contrast, Hanley Grange—for the benefit of my constituents who will read the Official Report of the debate, it will be at Hinxton Grange—is in the list. Why is Northstowe, which could be the first prototype eco-town, not in the list, and why is Hanley Grange, which is in my constituency, in the list when it should not be? Time will not permit me to go through all the reasons why the Hanley Grange proposal does not meet the criteria for an eco-town—the consultation will demonstrate that—and this is not the occasion on which to set those out in detail.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) rightly pointed out, the policy is the planning framework that the Government are creating to bring the list forward. The county structure plan inquiry in Cambridgeshire went through all the sites of potential new towns and established that Northstowe and Waterbeach were the first and second priorities respectively and that the third, which is being actively promoted by Cambridge city council, is for an urban district like that described by the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley)—for an urban extension of 12,000 on the east Cambridge site on the airport to have an eco-town that is part of Cambridge city. We are actively working toward that, as set out in the county structure plan. The developers for Hanley Grange put forward their proposal for the county structure plan—it was submitted in April 2004—but it was rejected because there was no infrastructure south of Cambridge to support the development. The only green thing about the proposal is that it has been recycled since 2004.

The critical point is that we have the planning structure in place. We have the county structure plan and the local development plan has been adopted, but three weeks ago the Minister published a regional spatial strategy that said that the infrastructure south of Cambridgeshire would not support a large new settlement. The RSS said that an examination leading to the next
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RSS of the possibilities for a large new settlement with the associated changes to infrastructure necessary to support it should begin.

We supposedly have a plan-led system and the whole of the local plans have been adopted—there is no bit of draft planning outstanding. The plan in Cambridgeshire is for 42,500 new homes, of which 17,000 will be affordable, and I must tell hon. Members who talked about urban and rural areas that my constituency is the combined urban and rural district in which new homes are being built faster than anywhere else in Britain. On what basis can Ministers say, “Hang on a minute: do something that isn’t in the plan, that slows the process of development locally, and that every local authority believes will impede progress in building the homes that are required for the local population and for the employment growth in the area”? Why is Northstowe not in the list, and why is the plan-led system not following the established plans?

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