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Mr. Lansley: Last July, the Prime Minister made his initial announcement that five eco-towns were to be built, but the first and only one that he identified was to be at a place called Oakington barracks in my constituency of South Cambridgeshire, an area now called Norstowe. My hon. Friend has said that none of the eco-towns can be delivered within the planned time scale, so does he share my surprise—astonishment, even—that the Norstowe
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project is at the outline planning application stage now? With a certain amount of Government support, it could be the first eco-town to be built, and within the time scale contemplated for the others.

Grant Shapps: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. The extraordinary thing about the project is that the Government’s management and approach have been so incompetent that the eco-town to which he refers has been taken off the list entirely, in favour of another one nearby. The easy delivery of one eco-town that could have gone ahead has been deliberately stripped out of the plans, for reasons that perhaps the Minister will be able to explain when she comes to visit the sites in question. The eco-town project must have sounded like a great idea, but it has not survived investigation or being put under the spotlight.

Peter Luff: My hon. Friend is illustrating, as did my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), that this is a back-of-the-envelope idea that has not been properly thought through. Case study three in the consultation document is about Vauban in Germany. The Government have said that it has 500 residents, but in reality it has 5,000. It is by far the largest example of a so-called eco-town, but it is really an eco-suburb, being an extension of Freiberg and a 4km tram ride from the centre of that town. Should not eco-towns be eco-suburbs? Vauban is right, but the Government’s eco-town proposals are wrong.

Grant Shapps: My hon. Friend is right, and he has a very clear grasp of the matter because an eco-town is planned in his constituency at a place that has been renamed Middle Quinton but is really called Long Marston.

The problem is how these eco-towns can be made to work. I represent two new towns, and I know that they have to be of a certain critical size. Welwyn Garden City works because it has 30,000 people, but people cannot live, work and shop in towns with only 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000 inhabitants. They have to jump into some form of transport—often their cars—to go somewhere, and that is not a sustainable form of life. Some of the eco-towns are planned for locations where there is no transport other than the car, so one wonders what the Government can possibly be thinking of.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one justification for the Prime Minister’s announcement of these eco-towns is that they would deliver a high level of affordable housing? Whatever economic assumptions were made by the Prime Minister last July, the building of new houses has come to a virtual stop, and there has been a decline in the housing market. Will not both those factors make the delivery of the eco-towns very much more expensive for taxpayers than was the case when the Prime Minister made his initial announcement?

Grant Shapps: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and rather suspect that he has identified why the plan is falling apart. The eco-towns are no longer financially viable, and that is driving much else of what is happening. The Minister for Housing has said that they do not need to be built at sustainability code level 6 and that we can get away with code level 3,
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but that is because the developers are saying that the extra £30,000 on the price tag that would bring the houses up to level 6 means that they cannot build the homes to the planned price and cost.

What seemed like a good plan has fallen apart. It is time for the Government to take stock and admit that the embarrassing stories about eco-towns that appear every day in the newspapers have some substance. The Government are going about eco-towns much as they have gone about other policies. Before they create HIPS mark 2 with their eco-town policy, they should withdraw it.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions, in the hope that as many people as possible are able to make a contribution. However, although I have no wish to stifle debate, the number of contributions may be restricted if we get many lengthy interventions. I call Mr. Patrick Hall.

12.49 pm

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I point out that I am a member of the Committee considering the Finance Bill? If I am called to the Committee and have to leave before the end of the debate, I hope you will accept that I mean no discourtesy to the House. However, I hope that that will not happen.

The area to the south of Bedford and Kempston is famous for inspiring John Bunyan, who called his fictitious area the “Slough of Despond”. That may be a little unfair, certainly to the people who live there today, but perhaps it was prescient. What John Bunyan did not know was that, centuries on, the area would become home to the Fletton brick industry. The closure of the remaining brick kilns in February this year ended the supply of numerous jobs that had attracted workers from many parts of the world, but it also ended the pollution associated with the industry. However, the kilns left a legacy of despoiled land and huge pits in the ground.

In recent years, serious attempts have been made to regenerate Marston Vale. Much of the area is attractive, consisting of farmland and a number of pretty villages, but as it is part of the Milton Keynes and South Midlands growth area it has already been designated as an area for housing growth. The plan is to build about 19,500 houses in the Bedford growth area. Some 10,000 are committed, and a few have already been built. Other significant developments that are under way, some at the commitment stage and others at the “serious ideas” stage, include the improvement of junction 13 of the M1, the dualling of the A421 and the Thameslink programme, an important rail investment programme that will benefit Bedford and the surrounding area. A new railway station is also planned. I am pleased to note the revival of discussion of a possible east-west rail link across the country, which would go through Marston Vale and would be useful to Bedford.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Patrick Hall: I am sorry, but I do not have time. I have been given eight minutes to deal with issues about which I could speak for 80 minutes. I mean no discourtesy.

The National Institute for Research into Aquatic Habitats has been given planning permission to locate in an exhausted brick pit. New jobs will result. The proposed Bedford-Milton Keynes waterway is being backed by active local people who have formed a trust. In the Forest Centre, despoiled land is being converted into an attractive leisure location. This is an area with tremendous potential, which has considerable significance for Bedfordshire and for the county town of Bedford in particular.

The concept of the eco-town is relevant to the delivery of developments that are at the planning stage, perhaps rather more ambitiously and with higher standards that would otherwise be the case. The Conservative party seems very exercised about the term “eco-town”, but all that it really means is good planning. Is any Member going to say that he or she opposes good planning? If the Conservatives are in favour of good planning, let them be in favour of notching up the standard a bit more. What we need is a strategic master plan.

As I understand it, in the context of my constituency and the county in which I live, the eco-town concept is all about a strategic approach, as opposed to the approach that we have adopted too often since the second world war. Local communities are whipped up into opposing any new growth and development—that is happening now in Bedfordshire—and then what happens? The development of housing estates is allowed on appeal. We have seen that happen time and again, with poor planning and without the necessary infrastructure. Housing estates have been tacked on to towns and villages, putting existing populations under considerable stress. We can and must do better. We must learn from past mistakes and adopt a measured approach to planning—a master plan approach—rather than whipping up ridiculous campaigns based on ignorance and fear. Marston Vale and Bedford deserve that.

We are talking not just about higher energy-efficiency standards but about schools, shops, jobs and—especially important—affordable housing. There are 2,600 and nearly 3,000 people on the housing waiting lists in the Bedford Borough council and Mid-Bedfordshire respectively, and there are many other people in housing need who do not appear on the lists. The number of affordable houses being built to meet those people’s needs is totally inadequate: 160 new units have been built per year in Bedford, and half that number in Mid-Bedfordshire.

The DCLG document “Eco-towns: Living a greener future” suggests that at least 2,000 affordable homes could be provided in Bedford and Marston Vale. I think that that ambition needs to be notched up, because more than 2,000 homes are needed. I think we should aim for about 5,000. Inadequate housing choice is a serious local problem in Bedford as well as in Mid-Bedfordshire, as the figures show. It is one of the most significant issues raised in my case load.

Similarly, we have heard that because unemployment is low in the area, there is no need for jobs for the future. That is absolute nonsense. Serious economic analysis of the requirements in Bedfordshire shows that although wages there are above average, the better paid and more highly skilled jobs are taken by those who commute to
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London, Leicester and other locations to the north. Local jobs tend to be low-skilled and low-paid: warehouse jobs, for instance. We desperately need for the future a range of—

Mrs. Dorries: Jobs.

Patrick Hall: —adequate, better-paid—

Mrs. Dorries: Jobs.

Patrick Hall: —skilled jobs, which would also provide a more sustainable way of living than having to rely on commuting.

I hope that the House, and local communities and councillors, will want to make progress on this matter, whatever we choose to call it. I hope that Members and others will concentrate on good planning rather than becoming exercised about the label. What we need from the Minister as soon as possible is some certainty and clarity. The number of proposed new houses has been quoted as between 14,000 and 30,000. We need to have more precise information, so that communities can work on the basis of that knowledge and discuss their future in a measured way, while being properly consulted. That will help to raise standards in an area that has been neglected for far too long, to increase environmental capabilities, and to meet housing needs that have also been neglected for far too long.

I see this as a positive opportunity, not as something to be negative about.

1.7 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am pleased that we heard more from the Minister than we have heard before about the strategy behind the eco-towns. I shall say more about that shortly, but first let me praise the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) for his entertaining, interesting and passionate speech. He is a good speaker and a good friend, and indeed a fellow pilot. I think that, in the interests of consistency, he and I should be the first private pilots in Britain to power our aircraft entirely on biofuels. In the spirit of friendship I shall let him go first, and if his aircraft works properly I shall follow suit.

What concerns me slightly is that although the Conservatives are good at complaining, they are not very clear about what they would do themselves. Perhaps we shall hear more from the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues when they catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

As the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) suggested, by referring to “eco-towns” the Government risk being accused of gimmickry—reasonably, in my view. Every new house that we build should be eco-friendly. The Minister was honest when she said that the aim of the eco-town strategy was really to address the housing shortage and promote economic growth. I agree with that but, as has already been said, if we are to have a carbon-neutral Britain we must recognise that the overwhelming majority of homes that will be inhabited in 2050 have already been built. I assume the Minister meant—and I think it a useful clarification—that what are being called eco-towns are, in effect, primarily an effort by the Government to use innovative technology to deal with the housing crisis.

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Grant Shapps: The houses need to be code 6 rather than code 3.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a contradiction in the conditions established in the eco-town project. If the Government are to use eco-towns as probing technology, the houses need to be code 6 rather than code 3. The Government need to show more courage in that respect.

I suspect that the Government have been rather ambitious in this context. At present there are 12 carbon-neutral homes, all of them built by Barratt. That means that achieving the Government’s carbon-neutrality target by 2016 would require a 200 million per cent. increase in zero-carbon housing stock. I look forward to hearing how the Government intend to achieve that 200 million per cent. increase. I hope they do, but it is a tall order.

In addition, rather than concentrating on new build in greenfield sites, what about the 675,000 empty homes in England alone? Why build on greenfield sites when we could find a cheaper solution, even if we zero-carbon retrofit those houses? The public consultation has, in the view of many, been a near sham. It is not just a question of middle-class nimbyism accusations—that would be unreasonable on this occasion. It is a fact that many people from across the social strata have complained that these proposals have not been thought through. Fifteen thousand local people signed a petition against the Penbury site in Leicester. I declare an interest, as it is to be built on Leicester airport. I am very concerned that if that is done I will not be able to visit my mum. I offer the Minister the opportunity to fly with me, and perhaps with the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, to have a look at the glories of Leicester airport and what will be lost if it is built upon.

Mr. Garnier: A correction: it is not in Leicester, but in rural Harborough.

Lembit Öpik: I apologise to the hon. and learned Gentleman, who has my full support, for relocating his constituency into the city of Leicester.

The Government do not seem to have understood the importance of vehicles in the new town proposals, because unless there is to be some utopian change in public transport, it seems almost inevitable that these towns will prompt a massive increase in driving rather than an improvement in eco-friendly commuting.

David Howarth: Is my hon. Friend aware that the only land owner interested in the Hanley Grange site is Tesco? When Tesco was challenged on the public transport problems of the site, it apparently suggested that the residents of the new town be charged for leaving the new town. That is a most extraordinary proposal: being trapped in Tesco-town. It is becoming more like “The Truman Show” every day.

Lembit Öpik: I was aware of that, but only because my hon. Friend told me a few minutes ago. It is a good line and if this were “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”, he would get an extra point. But I still have the Floor. On that point, it looks as though the economic potential for profit making from these eco-towns has not been lost on large developers. That is fair enough, but once again it underlines the reality, which is that this is not about
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the environment but about securing extra housing to resolve the housing shortage.

I mentioned the Penbury example and we will probably hear more about that when the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) speaks. I am pleased that the Minister goes to listen directly to the concerns. She said that she would visit all the locations. I welcome that; it is a helpful commitment.

Where do we go from here? First, all new housing should be eco-friendly. I am in discussions with Powys county council to see what I can do to make my house code 6. It is very expensive, but unless we make the investment in technology now we will not achieve any of the Government’s environmental targets for housing. Secondly, we have to be careful that despite the credit crunch and the looming housing crisis in economic terms, the environmental commitments that the Government have made on our behalf, rightly, are not abandoned. In this sense, I am concerned that we could have code 3 houses in what sounds like a code 6 project. I do not really understand how the Minister can reasonably use the phrase “eco-town” if some of those houses are to be rather worse than what Barratt is building already.

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There are currently only two code 3 houses—[Hon. Members: “No.”] If I could finish, please. Therefore, our aspiration for code level houses is very important. These towns will develop over time, so other building regulations or conditions will come into play. However, they have to demonstrate in their plans that they will be zero-carbon across the whole development. That is very important in looking at the definition of zero-carbon and how the energy supply will contribute to the built environment of the homes we create. That is a practical and important matter that we are discussing with the building industry.

Lembit Öpik: I am pleased to hear the point about carbon neutrality. That is something I have been looking at as well. I hope that on another occasion we can discuss in more depth what it means to achieve code 6 and whether it is reasonable to have entire communities like that, or whether we should set the individual targets for individual houses to achieve code 6.

Grant Shapps: Has the hon. Gentleman, like me, gone round the country visiting the many code 3 houses that are currently being built?

Lembit Öpik: There are many code 3 houses being built, but it is not that difficult to get to code 4. It gets challenging after that. On another occasion, we should perhaps have a debate about this very question: code 6 for an entire community or for individual houses?

My concern is that we might lose the commitment to the environment because of the pressures on the economy. I implore the Minister to give an assurance, now or later, that the Government will not throw out the challenging and, let’s face it, expensive objective of a zero-carbon Britain. Barratt is suffering the greatest-ever decrease in orders, even worse than in 1990. Nevertheless, it is a willing and co-operative partner in the grand project of fulfilling our environmental commitments.

I would hate for the first casualty of any potential recession to be the commitment that we should all
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embrace: that of having a zero-carbon country. To engineer a climate for building while destroying our climate for living would be something for which our successors would not forgive us. The Government are on trial to see how serious they are about their environmental commitments on housing. If they do well, they will have the co-operation of the Liberal Democrats. If they do not, it will be disappointing to see a noble intention descend into an uncompleted gimmick.

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