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3 Jun 2008 : Column 191WH—continued

10.17 am

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I congratulate my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), on securing the debate. I would certainly not keep her waiting on the phone for 10 minutes for a conference call, but I have taken great pleasure in co-operating with her on a large number of issues in North Yorkshire in recent years.

I am conscious of the time and how frustrating it is to sit here and not get the chance to speak, so I shall condense my remarks. I support eco-towns in principle and I should like to see what is possible in the Selby district—there are several possibilities. Two types of people come to my surgeries to talk about housing issues. In the first category are people who are desperate for housing. They could be among the nearly 2,000 on the council house waiting list in Selby district or those who simply can no longer afford to buy in the district. When I first became an MP, the average house price in the district was about three times the average salary, but it is now about seven times, so many of my constituents who want to start a family and get on the housing ladder cannot do so.

The second category of people who come to speak to me about housing are those who are worried about unplanned development in their villages. People in Church Fenton and Sherburn in Elmet, for example, complain that the infrastructure does not necessarily come with the housing that is built. I thought that eco-towns would be a way to square that circle—they would bring much-needed housing and infrastructure to the rural area of Selby, including the necessary public transport, schools and medical services.

We are part of the wider Leeds city region. The regional spatial strategy that has been agreed by councils and the Government for Leeds shows that we need to build 13,800 houses annually, but we are building only 9,000 at the moment. An eco-town would not solve the problem entirely, but it would make a big contribution towards solving it.

I congratulate the councils in the Leeds city region on their approach. As the hon. Member for Vale of York said, they are meeting on 12 June. They have commissioned the consultants GVA Grimley to look around the Leeds city region to find the best site. Four sites in the Selby district are being considered. Burn, which has a big airfield on which economic development is planned,
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and Church Fenton, where a third of British pilots are still trained, are probably not the front-runners. The choice probably boils down to the site at Eggborough and Kellington and the site at Gascoigne Wood. The rumours are that the consultants will recommend Gascoigne Wood to the Leeds city region next week, but we will have to see. I have not had sight of the papers and I do not know what the Leeds city region will decide.

Eggborough and Kellington has been debated a great deal, but the Gascoigne Wood site has been debated less, so let me put on record what I think it consists of, having spoken briefly to UK Coal. The total area of Gascoigne Wood is 640 acres. The site is an old mine, and its core was previously a rail-head—all the coal from the old Selby mine came to the surface there. About 200 acres of the 640 are farm land. There is consent for commercial use on 150 acres, which would result in a net area of 100 acres for development, according to UK Coal. The remaining land would be used for screening mounds and green areas on the eco-town site.

If the city region backs the site, a lot of questions will have to be answered about road access and about improving public transport and the existing rail link between Hull and Leeds. There is therefore an awful lot of work to do, but having backed the policy in principle at the national level because of the housing shortage, it would be absolutely hypocritical of me to turn around and say that there should be no possibility of our having an eco-town in the Selby district.

If Leeds city region backs a site in the Selby district next week, I hope that the Government will add it to their 15 sites. They have already allocated one of the sites to the Leeds city region, but I hope that they will confirm the site that the region puts forward for further work and development. As I said, my support for a particular eco-town site is not unconditional, and a lot of work must be done on the planning, roads, infrastructure and so on. My starting point, however, is that I want the proposals to work, such is the urgent need for housing in the Leeds city region and in Yorkshire and such is the urgent need for environmentally friendly housing.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. I would like to start the winding-up speeches by 10.30.

10.22 am

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing this Adjournment debate. As she said, this hapless process began on 3 April, when the Housing Minister telephoned us in that ridiculous conference call, before publishing her document “Living a Greener Future”, or whatever it was called. An O-level student would have had that document sent back to them if they had presented it as an exam piece. It has all the hallmarks of having been pulled together very quickly; indeed, it was probably put together in the previous 24 hours—the wonders of computer printing now enable Departments to do such things. The document’s intellectual content—particularly as it relates to the eco-site in my constituency, which the developers call Pennbury—demonstrates to all of us in my constituency that this is a pretty shoddy process.

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The process did not, however, begin on 3 April. In 2006, a number of secret meetings—secret is perhaps an emotive term, but it is accurate—were held by the developers of the site, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), to see whether their previously withdrawn application could be reheated as a sustainable urban extension. Once the Prime Minister returned from his trip to China, however, the developers decided to change their application and to propose an eco-town of 15,000 dwellings, rather than a sustainable urban extension of 5,000 dwellings.

The site is sometimes described as brownfield by those with an interest in developing it. English Partnerships owns 400 acres of prime grazing land, which used to be part of the farm attached to the Stretton Hall hospital. It is still prime grazing land—it is not brownfield land in any possible understanding of the term. The Co-operative Wholesale Society owns not quite 5,000 acres on the site, which are also prime farm land. That estate contains Stoughton airfield, where there is a private aerial club belonging to a number of individuals—I cannot say what the club’s membership is, but a substantial number of people belong to it. The only bit of brownfield land, properly described, is the two runways. There are also some airfield buildings, which house the clubhouse, and a control tower. The land within the perimeter of the airfield is farmed. I was there not long ago with my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who is my party’s shadow Housing Minister. We went on to the top of the airfield buildings and saw tractors cutting hay within the airfield’s perimeter. This is not, therefore, a brownfield site, and the concrete and tarmac cover approximately 6 per cent. of the entire development site.

If I were the owner of 5,000 acres of prime agricultural land and I thought that income from farming was not too hot, I would of course do my best to maximise the return on my capital and use every lawful means to apply for housing and other forms of commercial development. However, I would do that on the basis of the facts and I would be candid with members of the public—particularly those who would be affected by the development.

Time does not permit me to repeat what I said in my Adjournment debate on the Floor of the House on 29 January—the Minister also responded to that debate, although he was cut short by the half-hour knife. Unfortunately, the level of public knowledge about the process and the particulars of the site in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton has not improved one iota. Representatives of the Co-operative Wholesale Society gave us a briefing in November 2007—English Partnerships has kept remarkably quiet throughout the process. They gave us a pretty little PowerPoint slide show in Market Harborough, with lots of birds and butterflies and all sorts of things of that nature. It was hugely reminiscent of the slides that they showed us in 1990, when they were trying to develop the very same site, although they called it Stretton Magna in those days; it is now called Pennbury. However, there was no detail, because those who gave us the slide show said that such things were commercial in confidence and that it would be embarrassing for them to have to reveal too much.

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The short point, however, is that the development would provide us with 15,000 dwellings and 12,000 jobs. Fifteen thousand dwellings would mean a town of approximately 40,000 people, which is the same size as Banbury, twice the size of Cirencester and just a little smaller than Lichfield. This town will go nowhere other than on top of prime agricultural land, but what is it that we need more than anything else at the moment? We need food that is grown and processed in this country for the home market. If this ludicrous proposal goes through, 5,000 acres of some of the finest agricultural land in England will go under the bulldozer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York powerfully set out our arguments against this process. I urge hon. Members, the Minister and the Housing Minister to reread what I said on 29 January. Not even a moron in a hurry would put an eco-town—or any town—of this size and nature on the site in my constituency. I urge the Minister to get it off the list of 15 sites before the credibility of the Government and the two developers goes beyond and below basement level, which is where it is at the moment.

10.29 am

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate. As we have seen from the involvement of hon. Members—and I am happy to receive interventions from those who have not yet had the chance to speak, and want to raise local concerns—the subject is causing great alarm in several areas where proposals have been put forward quite quickly. Some of those are for sites that have been subject to the threat of development in the past, as we have just heard from the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). In other cases, the spectre of unplanned development, in the context of the local development plan, has arisen quickly.

The hon. Member for Vale of York raised several points, including the speed with which the proposals have been advanced, and the lack of consultation with elected representatives at all levels. Of course there is then the concern that the media get hold of it straight away, and no one is prepared to respond, or to react to the concern and alarm among constituents.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Is the hon. Gentleman aware, from parliamentary questions that I have tabled, that the Government have a major interest in seven out of the 15 sites, and stand to make nearly £1 billion if the proposals go through?

Dan Rogerson: I am certainly aware that the hon. Gentleman has been pursuing the issue through parliamentary questions, and, as we have heard from other hon. Members, there could be a bonanza for landowners, whether they are in the public or the private sector.

Hon. Members including, I think, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, have raised in interventions the matter of empty homes, and I sympathise with that point, as I represent a constituency where, in addition to empty properties, the growing number of second homes is a huge problem. The issue of environmental standards has also been raised. We need those to be tightened, and of course we welcome the fact that the
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Government are gradually, inch by inch, moving to the sort of environmental standards that other countries have had for many years. However, the point has repeatedly been raised that eco-towns will not be doing anything over and above what other developments will be required to do in the not too distant future.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) raised an important question: do the bids that have moved to the next stage—because, let us be honest, the amount of scrutiny to which they are subject is limited by the time scale—meet the original criteria? That is a crucial question and I hope the Minister will consider it. Will the towns be sustainable? Will there be the required public transport links, which are being developed in existing communities and would be present to a far greater extent in the eco-district developments that the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) described? Will they be built on sites with great environmental value for the community, whether that is agricultural or other community value?

We spent a long time last night and yesterday afternoon debating major projects, and the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) played quite a part in that debate. My party’s great concern is that the current process represents another part of the trend to ignore the local consultation process and all the investment that has been made in consultation and building the community’s confidence that its views—whether on large-scale infrastructure projects or housing development—matter. That is all being set aside by the quick imposition of new development that does not meet the criteria within which local authorities must demonstrate that they are working.

Some of the settlements that we have heard about in the debate may have some value, but it is difficult for people to scrutinise the bids and put forward their views in the tight time scale. There is a proposal in Cornwall, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor). Initially he was suspicious about whether the bid would be able to provide all the benefits of a true eco-town, as one might understand the concept in relation to links and the use of brownfield land. As things have moved forward, he has become more confident that it will, but like everyone else he is concerned that local consultation should play its full part in what happens.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As the hon. Gentleman says, he and I took part in the debate on the Planning Bill yesterday. Would not a better idea, in the interest of sensible planning, be to pilot a few of the towns, particularly in areas where they are wanted, and not to proceed with towns in areas where there is huge local opposition and huge opposition from all the authorities involved, as is the case in Middle Quinton, next door to my constituency?

Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible proposal, and a bidding process that involves local authorities, representing their communities, is a far more effective one. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire explained how it had been hoped that one proposal would move forward with the full benefit of Government support; however, those hopes were dashed, and to add insult to injury, another site not too far away, which does not necessarily meet the criteria, was selected. That seems bizarre.

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We must be sceptical about whether the transport links can bring about truly sustainable settlements that will offer the country the benefits it wants in meeting CO2 reduction targets. It is not only that the houses that are built need to be energy efficient; there are questions about the materials that will be used, and whether the techniques will be available for sustainable building practices. The hon. Member for City of York mentioned a public building in his constituency that meets those standards, and houses that are intended to do so. However, that will not necessarily happen, and I will welcome any reassurance that the Minister can give about how the building is to take place, and whether the settlements will truly be able to be called eco-towns.

My party wants reform of the planning system, not along the lines that we discussed yesterday, but more to ensure that local authority development plans are sustainable, incorporating targets for CO2 emission reductions to encourage the development of renewable energy facilities, and accounting for the climate change consequences of policies, including transport. Of course, strong feeling was expressed in the very close votes last night about whether the Planning Bill goes far enough, with respect to major infrastructure projects, in putting climate change at the heart of what is happening.

We believe that we should move much closer to the PassivHaus standard that Germany has had for some time, which the hon. Member for City of York mentioned—certainly no later than 2011. If we did that, carbon emissions from new homes would be reduced by 95 per cent., compared with existing stock. That would bring us far closer to where we need to be. As the CPRE has pointed out, even if the eco-towns provide the number of houses that are being suggested, that is only about 7 per cent. of the homes that will be built in the relevant period. That will not have a huge effect. It is somewhat tokenistic as far as fulfilling a commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

Planning policy must be based on evidence, on local and regional need and on consultation, and carrying the community along. I am reminded of a recent debate on large-scale housing development, in Northamptonshire. We discussed exactly the same issues, and exactly the same point of view in the community, whose hopes of having their views listened to were raised and then seemed to be dashed. Planning policy does not deliver for those communities. The process that we are discussing is not based on evidence or need, and is certainly not based on consultation.

10.39 am

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on her eloquence and passion in making her case, and on securing this important and topical debate. I congratulate also my hon. Friends who have spoken, as well as those who have not and who have campaigned on the issues on behalf of their constituents in the past few months. My hon. Friend made a valid point about parliamentary accountability, and in particular the ludicrous conference call. I caution her to count her blessings: she could have received a one-on-one 6 am conference call from the Prime Minister.

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The Opposition have taken a pragmatic and practical view of eco-towns. We are not against them per se, but we have set a number of key indicators and measures to test their efficacy, and as I shall say later, if time permits, we believe that the Government are failing those tests. We will support on a cross-party basis locally supported measures to build sustainable, eco-friendly communities on genuine brownfield sites. The precedent in respect of the 2003 sustainable communities plan is not strong. If anything, it is not sustainable. We will certainly not give carte blanche support to controversial and unsuitable developments that have merely been re-badged as eco-towns—one possible example is Ford in West Sussex—or those that seek by a circuitous route to meet the Government’s centralised, top-down housing targets.

We believe that there should be strong local support based primarily on the local authority’s agreement. Measures should not be imposed by Whitehall or regional quangos, and there should be a clear benefit to the wider community. We also believe that there should be supporting infrastructure. Even if the town is eco-friendly, there must be sufficient infrastructure around and near it, including sufficient transport capacity. I shall come to those issues later when I speak about Cambridgeshire in particular. Front-line public services such as schools and hospitals are also important, as is water supply, for which demand will increase. We will need incentives from central Government and support from developers.

We believe in environmental protection. Eco-towns should not be built on green-belt land, in areas of special protection such as areas of outstanding natural beauty or sites of special scientific interest, or in areas of flood risk—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York made a powerful case in that respect—unless new and additional flood prevention measures are put in place. We believe that eco-towns should champion new green technologies, low and zero-carbon technologies, technologies to reduce water use and sustainable building materials. In Curborough, for example, that is certainly not what is happening. I shall refer to that later.

We believe in real communities. Eco-towns are being plonked in the middle of rural areas without any affinity for local communities or the people who are supposed to live there and with no real thought for those people’s medium-term quality of life. Social housing should be included, and we should be championing flexible forms of tenure such as private rent and do-it-yourself shared ownership as well as private ownership.

Those tests are being failed. It is as well to consider the rationale for eco-towns. Only last month, Lord Rogers of Riverside said at the Building Centre in London:

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