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19 Jun 2008 : Column 1099

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con) rose—

Caroline Flint: I will give way in few moments.

Similarly, the Curborough proposal in Stafford would provide 5,000 homes on the doorstep of a business park that currently employs 3,000 people, but has room to expand to 7,000 jobs.

Mr. Lansley: I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge that we are already committed to building 42,500 new homes around Cambridge, of which 17,000 will be affordable homes. I am sure that she will not have seen—it was published only today—a study by Cambridge Healthcare and Biotech, conducted on its own initiative. It surveyed the companies with locations closest to the proposed site at Hanley Grange—in Babraham, Granta Park, Chesterford Park and the Human Genome campus of the Wellcome Trust. There were 20 respondents and I would like to quote the conclusion:

They need the homes, but they do not need an urban environment where they have built their companies. They need the transport there to be accessible, which it is—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

Caroline Flint: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to speak in the debate. All those concerns—transport, the environment, the green spaces, the character of the buildings in these communities—will need to be considered, and not just at Hanley Grange. Again, however, I stress that there are no done deals here. We have an opportunity to set our sights as high as possible, particularly in respect of how we engage with communities. On that front, it is important to listen to people who are against these proposals or have significant concerns about them, but there are also the silent voices, often not heard, of the people who have no home or are living in very difficult circumstances.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): rose—

Caroline Flint: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but that will be the last intervention I shall take.

Peter Luff: I know that the right hon. Lady is very reasonable, so I am delighted to hear that she is coming to see the eco-town proposed in my constituency. When she does, she will realise that there is no hidden need. I freely admit that housing need exists, but it is in completely different areas—not where the town is proposed. When she comes, will she please co-ordinate her visit not just with Warwickshire county council and Stratford-on-Avon district council, but with Worcestershire county council and Wychavon district council, because, contrary to everything her Department says, the eco-town is in two district council areas, not just one?

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Caroline Flint: At all the locations I have visited, I have met local authority representatives of all the affected councils. In order to ensure that I do not miss anyone out, when we get the details about the date on which I am visiting the hon. Gentleman’s area, I will double-check with his office that nobody has been left off the list.

Developers have an important role to play in making sure that people know what their plans are—it is their job to do that—how they would affect them, and what role local people can have in shaping the proposals. Rather than just say, “No, no, no”, it would be worth engaging with what is on offer. As I look at the different schemes, I have to say that they offer exciting ways in which some of people’s concerns can be addressed. I have already said that I have visited some of the proposed locations and I intend to visit them all during July and August. We are ensuring that every voice is heard—not just those with the time and resources, but those who are in desperate need of affordable housing.

We have published a document, “Living a Greener Future”, asking for views on the benefits and principles of eco-towns. We are asking people to tell us what they want and expect in terms of development standards, housing, green space, travel and the wider benefits they would like to see. At the same time, we are seeking views on the 15 shortlisted locations.

The second phase of consultation will focus on the sustainability appraisal, which will run for three months, and the eco-towns policy statement that I mentioned earlier. The sustainability appraisal will be a detailed assessment of each of the locations, setting out the likely environmental, social and economic impact. As I said earlier, the eco-towns policy statement will set out how eco-towns will fit within the existing planning system and relate to existing local plans. Parliamentary colleagues raised in earlier interventions—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

12.39 pm

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): When the eco-town idea was first suggested, it involved just five eco-towns and it must have sounded a bit like motherhood and apple pie—who could argue against the idea of having more housing and making it environmentally sustainable? What a great idea. The problem is that there is almost nothing green left about those plans. They have descended into the kind of farce that we thought we had seen the last of with home information packs, but it has made its way into eco-towns.

To prove that point, we need look no further than a couple of simple facts, which show the extent to which this is all now about spin rather than genuine housing. It goes like this: if—and it is a big if—this Government build all 10 of the eco-towns that they currently propose, that will create just a quarter of 1 per cent. of all the housing that they say needs to be built each year from 2016. On the basis of the 15 plans that they brought forward and a combination of the 10—

Caroline Flint: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Grant Shapps: I happily give way.

Caroline Flint: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have never said that eco-towns are the only solution to the housing needs in this country? Does he not accept, that where there are opportunities for developments
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of this kind, they can contribute? Also, the nature of the development allows us to do things on green energy and sustainable living that sometimes are not possible within an already built environment.

Grant Shapps: I entirely accept that it may be a good idea to have something that is called a sustainable eco-town community. My point is that what the Government have invented is not it. We know that for sure because when they started to spin their line about five and then 10 eco-towns, they initially said that they could get—these were the headlines in the newspapers—200,000 environmentally friendly eco-sustainable homes. However, when we look at the list of 15 and the list of any combination of 10, we see that we get to about 75,000 homes. Just 75,000, not 200,000. The Government say that, by 2016, they are going to build 240,000 homes a year, so we realise that 75,000 homes overall is a tiny drop in the ocean. So, first, we have the size and scale of the proposal, which start to make people suspicious.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that thousands of my constituents are in serious housing need. What they may misunderstand from his comments today is that the Conservative party is opposed to addressing those needs.

Grant Shapps: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, his constituents need not draw that inference in any way, shape or form. The simple fact is that more homes can be produced by working with communities rather than by coming up with large, centrally-driven, Whitehall-driven, top-down, Soviet-style planning schemes from the centre. That is what this plan has come down to—all this fuss, bother and kerfuffle for just 75,000 homes, because it sounds like the Government are doing something green. In fact, they are not green at all.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman, with his facility for basic arithmetic, ought to be shadow Chancellor. He refers to 75,000 houses out of 3 million. That is not one quarter of 1 per cent. It is 2.5 per cent., which is a useful contribution. I do not deny the potential for eco-towns to contribute towards solving the housing shortage, but let us not belittle them by a factor of 10. Come on!

Grant Shapps: If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard, he will notice that I said that from 2016, when the eco-towns start to come on line, the figures add up. I would be happy to go through them with him, but either way I think we agree that this is a tiny figure: 75,000 out of—from 2016—2 million, even, is very little, but we have all this fuss and many green clothes being put on.

Caroline Flint rose—

Grant Shapps: Let me continue with the point. All that suggests that there may be a problem, but the much deeper problem and much more serious concern that the Government should be addressing at this stage is the fact that those homes will not come on line until 2016.

The Minister for Housing and her predecessor have said that, by 2016, all homes will be at sustainability code level 6. When all homes are at code level 6, they will be zero carbon. As every house will be zero carbon
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when the first eco-town homes come on stream, what, may I ask the Minister, whom I am happy to give way to, is the point of making a big fuss about building eco-towns? At that stage, all homes will in any case be green.

Caroline Flint: I really think that the hon. Gentleman just does not get it. This is not just about building houses, which is important; it is about whether there is a way to build a sustainable community with the infrastructure necessary to make that happen. People often complain about that when planning applications are submitted. Public transport, tackling waste and renewable energy supplies are all important to a greener, cleaner future. Given what he has said, if, after the shortlist is announced, some of those eco-towns go forward and win at the planning application stage, will he still be against them? That is what it sounds like.

Grant Shapps: So now we have it. This is not about building zero-carbon, sustainable communities; it is about experimentation with new technologies to see whether we can find new, greener ways to live. This is what is wrong with that approach: according to a speech made by the Minister earlier this week, it turns out that the new eco-town houses will not have to be built at sustainability code level 6. No, the greatest farce of all is the fact that they can be built at sustainability code level 3. When that happens, those eco-towns will be built at a lower environmental level than the houses that will in any case be built at the same time in 2016. I suggest to her that the entire project is now looking rather shabby to say the least.

If the Minister does not agree about the minuscule nature of this grand plan and the fact that it will build very few homes, and if she does not agree that it will not be green because all homes will be more green than those are by the time they are built, perhaps I can tackle her on another issue that is causing considerable concern. It was said repeatedly that these eco-towns will contain up to 50 per cent. affordable housing. Then the Government said that that might be a bit tough, so made the figure one third. Then they said that the developers should aim for 30 per cent. Most recently, looking at the applications that have been submitted, we have learned that the affordable home element is just 26 per cent. In one development, the figure is just 10 per cent. affordable housing. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on how those eco-towns live up even to the original spin—

Caroline Flint rose—

Grant Shapps: I gladly give way.

Caroline Flint: I make it clear that the eco-towns should offer a minimum of 30 per cent. and we would like that figure to rise. All the bidders are making proposals, so the whole point is to test them out and challenge them along the way. When I make a shortlist, I will be looking very closely at what is on offer.

Grant Shapps: Unfortunately, that has not cleared the matter up. The combined affordability element of the original 15 bids is 26 per cent., so unless we go back to those and reselect from them, how will we be able to increase the number or the percentage of affordable homes? I am not clear about how that can be done. Are
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we now saying that all this is going back to the drawing board and that people can resubmit their bids with higher proportions of affordability or are we saying that the figure cannot be higher than 26 per cent. because that is the level already contained in the 15 bids that the Minister is choosing from?

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Grant Shapps: I will certainly give way to the right hon. Gentleman, whose knowledge of these subjects may surpass that of the Minister.

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman is expressing concern about a reduction in the proportion of homes designated as affordable and social—clearly he thinks that is a mistake—what discussions has he had with the Mayor of London about the London plan and the appropriate element within it of affordable and social housing in London?

Grant Shapps: I do not want to stretch the boundaries of the debate, but I think that the fundamental difference between Conservative and Labour Members is simply that we believe it is important to build more homes—more homes of every kind in every way. It is no good coming up with small schemes that are spun so that they sound as though they are the answer to problems to do with green issues or the supply of homes; nor is it to come up with arbitrary numbers for affordability that may not in the end supply more homes overall.

We know that the best way to improve affordability is to build more homes throughout the country, not just in the specific places and of the specific types that the Minister in Whitehall thinks are right. That brings us to the fundamental differences between us. In her opening comments, the Minister made it clear that the Government think that they are doing this because they wish to supply more housing to the marketplace, but for 11 years they have failed to build housing of any kind. The annual average over that period has been 145,000 new homes per year, compared with 176,000 in the preceding two decades.

Moreover, the homes that have been built have been less affordable. Not once have the Government returned to the 1997 level of 28,000 affordable homes being built each year. Only 284 council homes were built last year, but that is the best that the Government have managed. They have never managed to equal the 1,500 plus affordable homes that the previous Conservative Government were still building in 1997.

Given that the Government’s record on housing is so lamentable, is it not somewhat surprising that they still come to this House with plans, policies, half-baked ideas and spin about eco-towns? They produce Green Papers and White Papers, all of which seem to forget the simple principle that they must work with local people and engage and incentivise local communities to come forward with plans that work for them. Such plans would fit with the desires of local populations, enhance their quality of life and improve the quality of housing locally. Without all that, these eco-towns will never be built.

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Although the Minister has said that that is exactly what the Government are doing, I would not mind putting a small wager on the number of eco-towns that will be built. To anyone who spends time taking a serious look at the project, it is obvious that there is very little chance that any of them will get that far.

Caroline Flint: I’ll give you a tenner!

Grant Shapps: I hear the Minister offer me a tenner across the Dispatch Box.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. If people are going to place bets, they should do so somewhere else, and not in the Chamber.

Grant Shapps: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. You are quite right. We shall see to this afterwards.

I know that the Minister has had the same briefings that I have had, from people who know about house building. They have spent 30 or 40 years building large estates of 5,000, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 or 30,000 houses, and they have told us both that it would be impossible to get the homes built in the time scale that the Government are talking about—that is, by 2016 and 2020. With the best will in the world—and even if all the stops are pulled out, no one goes for a judicial review and it is plain sailing from day one—the planned homes cannot be built on time.

For that to happen, it would require a lorry delivering material to turn up once every 20 seconds at sites throughout the country. The plan is logistically impossible, but the problem is worse than that. Earlier, the Minister gave my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) a sort of half reassurance about the role of the infrastructure planning commission. She said that it would have nothing to do with easing the path of the eco-town developments, and we take her at her word that the commission will not necessarily change the way that the eco-towns are planned and delivered. However, we know—because it is on the face of the legislation—that the commission will certainly have an impact on how roads, sewerage and water and energy supplies are put in place around the eco-towns.

Therefore, it is not the case that the new infrastructure planning commission will have no influence at all on the development of the eco-towns. It most certainly will, but the Minister seems to believe that it will ride to the rescue and ensure, through the back door and by means of planning sewers, roads and the rest of it, that the eco-towns are built on time. I am afraid that there is very little chance of that happening.

The eco-town project must have sounded like a great idea when five of them were originally announced—so good, in fact, that the Prime Minister could not resist enlarging the number to 10 in his conference speech last year.

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