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1.17 pm

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): First, I draw attention to the interests declared in my entry in the Register.

The case for new towns as part of overall housing provision is a very strong one. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing made the case for the need for additional housing provision to satisfy the problems of under-provision for many years and to ensure that the full range of people, including those needing affordable and social housing, will be catered for. We are going through an extremely difficult economic situation, to which the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) referred. I say to him that by the time the eco-town programme is coming on stream, I hope that we will be out of that recession and that the approach that the Government are adopting—rightly trying to ensure mixed communities with elements of affordable and social housing as well as market housing—should ensure the successful implementation of the programme in what we hope will be a revived market.

During the lifetime of the Government, there has been an important shift in the focus of housing development towards brownfield sites and inner-city regeneration. I applaud that. It has been a success, as I can see in my constituency: on the Greenwich peninsula we are in the process of building a new community that is of exactly the same size as an eco-town and will have exactly the same qualities of very high design and environmental standards. It will be a mixed community and an exemplar of good development.

That is splendid, but development just in our existing cities, avoiding any further development on greenfield sites, will not be sufficient. There will be a need for some greenfield development. The question is how we plan that and whether we do it well and cleverly to ensure that those developments are attractive and sustainable, or whether we follow the pattern of the Conservative party in government of leaving it to the market. We saw the consequences of that throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when there was a rash of badly planned developments of very low density on greenfield sites, making profligate use of land without sufficient numbers of people to sustain local bus services or local shops and thereby ensuring that they were not sustainable. That is exactly what we should avoid, and the Conservative party should be ashamed of its record in government. The Conservatives should be more constructive than the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) about the Government’s plans to ensure a more intelligent approach towards new housing development.

As a country, we have a very distinguished record in encouraging high-quality planned developments, both
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in the UK and overseas. The post-war generation—the 1940s generation—of new towns set exemplary standards for better housing for people who were being moved out of very crowded city slums. In the 1960s, there was a further generation of new towns. Although they were not all successful, a number of highly successful, attractive new communities were created. I am thinking not only of towns such as Milton Keynes, but of towns that were expanded, such as Peterborough and Northampton. There is a lesson in that, to which I shall return in referring to urban extensions.

Since those successes, our planners and urban developers—our experts—have been contributing internationally to planned new settlements throughout the world; indeed, they are in the lead in many parts of the world. For example, Arup is developing the Dongtan eco-city in China to very high standards. It is, thus, extraordinary that a country that has that proud record of new town development and great expertise in the field has not designated any new towns since the 1960s. No attempt has been made since then to designate new urban developments. One might say that the Thames Gateway has been an urban development—I could make a case for it being a new city—but, with that one exception, there has been no planned new development in this country. It is entirely logical that we should be planning some new developments, to exemplary standards, to ensure that we meet the full range of housing need in ways that demonstrate that good development is not necessarily a blot on the landscape and can enhance the environment and create a fine living environment for people. In the same way as that is being done in my constituency in an urban environment, it can be done elsewhere too.

I do not agree with all aspects of the implementation of the eco-town proposals, and I shall highlight one or two areas where I think the Government need to have further thoughts. However, I applaud their positive approach, and I contrast it with the negative carping approach that we have heard from the Conservatives. They are only too willing to criticise, to pick holes, and to try to mock and make fun, but they are not willing to make any sensible, concrete proposals to improve living conditions.

In an intervention, I raised with the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield the question of affordable housing quotas. He had expressed concern that a reduction in the affordable housing quota was expected in eco-towns, so I asked him about his discussions with the Mayor of London. He was notably silent on that. We know that the Mayor of London is seeking to reduce the affordable and social housing content of housing in London. If the hon. Gentleman was serious and responsible about such housing, he would be telling the Mayor of London not to do that and to ensure that the London plan commitment to affordable and social housing is maintained. In the absence of the hon. Gentleman’s doing that, no one will give any credence to him on this issue.

In conclusion, I shall turn to the areas where I think the Government have not got things absolutely right. It was a mistake to make an invitation to tender, as that allowed a number of entirely unsuitable proposals to be made. Some of them risk damaging the concept of eco-towns, because they were not proposals for eco-towns; they were old development plans that were simply pulled out of the back drawer and attached to a green label to
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try to make them attractive. I am pleased to say that the Government have recognised that. They are now being far more selective in their approach, but I think that they made a mistake at the start.

Secondly, it was a mistake to focus only on freestanding new developments and not to consider the scope for urban extensions. Sustainable urban extensions have a role to play. Indeed, as I have highlighted, in the 1960s generation of new towns, the development of Peterborough and Northampton involved highly successful extensions of existing towns, rather than new developments such as Milton Keynes, which was a greenfield city. We can and should take both approaches, and there is scope for sustainable urban extensions as part of this programme.

Thirdly, it was foolish to say that there should be one eco-town in every region, because they should be located where they are most needed and where they are most likely to work. The Government have rightly moved away from that approach now. A deplorable article in The Sunday Times, which showed all the faults of a clever journalist who makes fun copy but makes no logical sense, criticised the fact that three of the possible eco-towns are in the south-east region, on the grounds that the south-east region is already full up. The south-east region is the one place in the country where there are the greatest pressures, so we must be intelligent about how we respond to them. We need to be selective and to focus eco-towns where they are required.

Finally, the Government have made a mistake in the lack of clear governance arrangements and financing to ensure successful implementation over a period of years. The earlier new town programme had a development corporation framework and a funding stream. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to consider those issues, but I applaud the Government’s general approach.

1.25 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I welcome the final few paragraphs of the speech made by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), because if he were to apply the principles that he has just set out to the site in my constituency—the Co-operative Wholesale Society calls it Penbury, but everyone else calls it Stoughton—the Government would simply not plonk a town of 40,000 people down in the middle of rural Harborough. The sustainable urban extension idea, which he mentioned, is a good one. Where does the county council suggest that such an extension should go? It suggests the north and west of the city of Leicester, where the infrastructure—the motorways and the airport—exists and the employment is required.

In my constituency, 748 people are unemployed. The Co-op, which is the main driver behind the proposal, originally said that it wanted to bring 12,000 new jobs—it now gives a figure of 14,000—to the area, but although that is doubtless a wholly altruistic intention, this is not a place where the jobs are needed. If one wants to supply jobs to the east midlands, I suggest that the middle of rural Harborough is not the place to do it.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) for paying regular visits to my constituency and for his views on the suitability of that particular site. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who speaks from the Front Bench, has
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also visited the site, and his opinions on its suitability are well known locally and have much approval.

Today, I received a written answer from the Minister for Housing stating:

I only wish that I could have a copy of their notes on the meeting and their conclusions, because I suspect that, having been to the site, they will have realised that it is not the greatest place on which to dump a town of 40,000 people.

The site is convenient because the Co-op owns about 5,000 acres and attached to it are about 400 acres belonging to English Partnerships. However, it is all farm land, but for the runway strip, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. The site is not genuine brownfield land. The only genuine brownfield land that can be attached to the site is the very popular airstrip, which is used by an aero club and by business men flying in and out of Leicester in their small private aeroplanes.

It would be absurd to treat the site as brownfield land, because it is not a disused Royal Air Force station in the proper sense of the word and, so far as English Partnerships is concerned, it is not a disused hospital. It is farm land for as far as the eye can see, and using it for an eco-town would be outrageous, as I hope the Minister will agree when she visits. I hope that she will give us proper notice of her intention to visit the site, so that we can bring the relevant people to meet her—a number of people would like to exchange views with her about the site.

There are 62,700 hectares of brownfield land in this country, of which 26,000 are suitable for housing. At a density of 40 homes per hectare, that would provide more than 1 million new homes. If approved, eco-towns will, as we learnt a little earlier, supply only about 75,000 new homes. That is a very small percentage of the requirement for new homes. When the Government consider the site in my constituency, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), I urge them carefully to consider what they think brownfield land is and whether the site is appropriate for any development, let alone for a so-called eco-development.

I appreciate that it is tempting to go for the easy shot, with one large landowner. It is a complete coincidence that the Co-operative bank happens to be providing the Labour party with an overdraft of £13.5 million. That is not relevant to this issue, but it is causing misunderstanding—shall we say—in my constituency and I hope that it can be put well aside.

In relation to the effect that the proposed development will have on the rest of my constituency and the city of Leicester, I understand that the transport spokesman for the city said that it would support the scheme if it could have a tram system. However, the cost of an 8 mile tramline in Edinburgh will be some £750 million, or £1,500 an inch. To achieve the same result between my constituency and Leicester—5 or 6 miles—it would cost £500 million just to build the tramway, and would not take into account the compensation costs for houses that would have to be knocked down along the route. It
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would cost some £1,750 per inch. The area is already congested with road traffic, and to relieve pressure an expensive road would be needed from the site to the M1—a distance of about 20 miles—and that would cost the thick end of £1 billion.

Time is short, but I have much to say on this issue. I have said it before in an Adjournment debate on 29 January and in Westminster Hall 10 days ago. Extracting facts from the Government and the developers is like pulling teeth. It is time that the Government expressed themselves coherently and gave the public in my area the real facts about what they intend to do to us, because at the moment there is massive uncertainty, massive disappointment, and massive opposition—not to eco-towns, but to this particular development.

1.32 pm

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), many of whose concerns I share. Before I mention those concerns, however, I wish to say a few words of welcome for the concept of eco-towns. I am provoked to do so by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who expressed again today the Tories’ concern to pay lip service to the need to build more houses while opposing specific schemes whenever they emerge, whether under the banner of eco-towns or not, thus preventing such development from taking place.

The hon. Gentleman was very negative about the percentage contribution that eco-towns would make to overall housing need and, at the same time, inconsistently concerned about the impact of lorries and the construction involved in building the eco-towns. The hon. Gentleman revealed the Tories’ true attitude on this issue.

Eco-towns as a concept are to be welcomed, and they will make a significant contribution to housing need. Most hon. Members hold surgeries and so will be aware of the desperate housing shortage up and down Britain. Eco-towns will contribute to meeting the needs of young families, the need for affordable housing and, especially, the need for social housing for rent. However, eco-towns are even more important because of the opportunity they provide to show how sustainable communities can be developed. It is not only the individual houses and the code—one hopes that they go beyond code 3—but the opportunity to develop communities and consider issues such as waste, water supply, the disposal of sewage, the provision of community facilities and, especially, transportation within communities. That goes beyond the standard to which individual houses are built.

We should welcome the opportunity—as previous generations did with garden cities and new towns—to showcase the best of development by responding to the needs of climate change and experimenting, to pick up the word used by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield. We should be proud to experiment, and I welcome eco-towns for that reason.

Having made those positive comments, I must say that I share many of the concerns of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough about the Penbury proposal. It raises issues that will be equally applicable to other eco-town areas. It is clear that the proposers of
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the scheme have not yet demonstrated that sufficient employment will be provided in the area to meet the needs of the population that will be drawn there, without it becoming merely a dormitory town for the nearby city of Leicester.

Nor have they yet produced credible plans for transportation. No matter how much employment is contained within the area, many people will want to travel into Leicester and, with the A6 and A47 already overcrowded, that would exacerbate the problems. It will not be enough for the Penbury developers, or those elsewhere, to hope that some local authority or other agency—such as the Government—will provide funding for a tram scheme, which would be very expensive, to provide a solution to the problem posed by what are at the moment incredible proposals.

The third area of concern is the potential impact that the Penbury scheme would have on the regeneration of Leicester and the existing proposals for development elsewhere in the central Leicester area. There is a real prospect that the Penbury scheme will draw investment from brownfield sites in Leicester and elsewhere and will have a significant detrimental effect on the regeneration of that city.

My final concern is that, if the scheme were to go forward through the normal planning process, it will significantly exclude the major area that will be most affected, which is of course Leicester. The proposed developers are working closely with the city authorities, but were the proposals to go just through the standard processes, there would be real concerns about the impact on Leicester and how the local authority could continue to be actively engaged in the process of development.

In conclusion, I welcome eco-towns if they are to be truly sustainable communities. I welcome the Minister’s process of engagement with local communities and the prospect of eco-towns providing affordable housing and social housing for rent. However, those who propose Penbury and, I guess, other similar developments still have several difficult questions to answer. Until we have satisfactory answers, we cannot say that the Penbury proposals, or those for other eco-towns, would be acceptable.

1.38 pm

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) describe a Bedford that I failed to recognise. However, as I wish to keep my remarks short so that my colleagues can speak, I shall not rebut the comments he made about transportation, the need for homes, the location for the proposed development, the lack of available jobs or the lack of growth in the area. I recognise the need for social housing in his constituency and in mine, but I suggest that people do not want to travel from Bedford to Marston Vale when there is no transportation and no jobs for them to go to. Instead of having 20,000 homes miles from where anybody else lives and where there is no opportunity for employment, we should look at regenerating areas in both constituencies, which already have good transport links, doctors, schools, shops and employment. The homes should be built in those areas, instead of having an eco-town on the outskirts of both constituencies.

The Minister came to visit my constituency on Monday and we are very grateful for that. If there had been more
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extensive and in-depth consultation with local residents, the Minister might not have experienced the welcome that she did. People are very angry, and I think that the Minister gathered that. We did not know about the Minister’s visit—my office was informed at 4.55 pm on Friday—

Caroline Flint: That is not true.

Mrs. Dorries: It is absolutely true. We received a telephone call to say that the Minister would be visiting on Monday afternoon at 1 o’clock. I was promptly also told that I would not be invited to the meetings—with the developers who are to build on the proposed site and with local councillors and representatives of the local authorities—as they were private. However, the hon. Member for Bedford was invited to my constituency for that meeting. Another phone call quickly changed that—I hope that none of my hon. Friends ever has such an encounter. Thankfully, it was sorted out and I attended the meeting.

I am sure that the Minister, like me, was perhaps slightly unimpressed with the proposals put forward by the developers. I was looking for a vision, but all we got was the story of a proposal that did nothing to inform us about how the properties and developments would qualify for the “eco” credential. There was nothing eco about the proposals.

The town in Marston Vale will include 20,000 homes for about 40,000 residents. There are no new jobs, as we have zero unemployment in the area. One reason that I championed the Center Parcs proposal was to mop up the 1,300 job vacancies that we had. As the mayor of Bedford points out, he has brownfield sites all over Bedford and no employers queuing up to build on them.

It would be true to say that we have almost zero growth in the area and 20,000 new homes mean that 40,000 new people will get into their cars and commute into London along the M1, but the M1 widening scheme has been halted and put on the back burner while it is reconsidered. The same is happening with the rail networks. The Minister informs us that there will be an east-west rail network, but a Transport Minister says that that is still under discussion. Two Departments have different stories about what will happen to the east-west link.

It is not just about the jobs. This eco-town will completely surround and swamp local settlements. Local people do not want that. They have an absolute right to say what should happen to their local environment, how it should function and look and whether they should have these 20,000 homes, which they feel are landing out of the sky right on top of their settlements.

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