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There are no available jobs in the area so people will have to commute to London and will get into their cars. What is sustainable about 40,000 people having to travel 50 miles into London? There are also problems with the infrastructure and the schools. We have good schools in Bedfordshire already, which are looking to use the Government’s legislation to expand and to grow to meet the needs of the areas that they serve. Will we see huge numbers of schools built to meet the needs of those 20,000 homes? I have heard nothing about education or health needs being met. We have terrific problems with Bedford hospital, which is struggling to survive and to serve the community at the moment. How on
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earth will it take on another 40,000 residents in the neighbouring constituency?

Some of my colleagues have not had a chance to speak to the Minister, and I had a chance to speak to her on Monday, so I merely want to make my four points again. Local people are unhappy. We do not have an unemployment situation in Bedfordshire. We do not have the infrastructure to support a new town. The transportation is not only far from satisfactory, but entirely unsatisfactory to meet the needs of the proposal.

1.44 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): The proposed Ford eco-town is a 350 hectare site on which developers propose to build 5,000 houses on ancient and beautiful Sussex countryside that is valued by my constituents in Littlehampton, Middleton-on-Sea, Felpham and Bognor Regis. That is why it is opposed by Arun district council and all the town and parish councils in the area, and why 1,500 people marched on Saturday 7 June against the proposal. The site is 87 per cent. greenfield land and the majority of the remaining 13 per cent. is farmland in the curtilage of the airfield, which is why it is technically regarded as a brownfield site.

What has concerned me most about the proposal is the poor ethics of the construction company, Wates Developments, which is part of the Wates Group. The introductory section of its prospectus for the eco-town states on page 3:

That sentence clearly conveys the impression that the 360 hectare site is made up of brownfield land when it is not—it is 87 per cent. greenfield.

I am also concerned that the Government are setting a new precedent in planning by publishing planning policy statements that are location specific, thereby removing any local discretion over the siting of new developments. Planning policy statements have always been issues of general principle and not diktats from central Government about particular developments.

My final point is about the fact that the Government have said that Arun district council needs to meet its social and housing needs. It is not true that it has not. Some 13,000 houses are being built in Felpham and Berstead, 30 per cent. of which are affordable, and Arun district council’s core strategy preferred option documents have allocated sufficient land to provide at least 9,500 houses, of which between 30 and 40 per cent. will be social housing.

I hope that Ford will not appear on the final shortlist of eco-towns.

1.46 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I add my concerns to those expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). The tiny village of Ford lies in my constituency and is shortlisted to have an eco-town with 5,000 houses. That would make it by far the largest settlement in my constituency, irrevocably transforming the countryside and the small villages around it.

My hon. Friend made a point about the misleading claims made by developers, and I want to reinforce that
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point to the Minister—this is not a brownfield site. It has been described as Ford airfield, but 87 per cent. of the land is greenfield. When the Minister comes to visit—I welcome her visit and hope to join her—she will see that it is largely beautiful open countryside at the foot of Arundel. It is of agricultural importance and is prime farmland. It is not, in the main, brownfield land. According to the figures, that makes up only 13 per cent. of the site and even less if one accounts for what is actually farmed. That is why the Campaign to Protect Rural England, although it supports the policy of eco-towns in general, has said that Ford is not an appropriate site.

My main point is simply about local democracy. This is not an argument about the need for more affordable housing. We all recognise that, and Arun district council recognises it. Some 58,000 new houses will come to West Sussex over the next 20 years, and 11,300 of those will be in the Arun district. That number has already been upped by 2,000 from the recommendation of the South East England regional assembly, and it could be increased still further. Who should decide where these houses should go?

Caroline Flint: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nick Herbert: No, I cannot; I am sorry, but I do not have the time. The Minister can perhaps answer later, but I put it to her that Arun district council, the elected local authority, should decide where these houses should go. That decision cannot sensibly be imposed by Government simply because developers, who have been wanting to develop the site for years—from well before the concept of eco-towns was even thought of—believe that they can impose their views above those of the locally elected representatives.

Arun has already provided for a large number of affordable homes over the next three years—about 700, which is much more than has been claimed. That will go a long way towards providing the 2,000 homes that would be provided under the eco-town proposal. Let us leave these decisions to locally elected planning bodies. It is wrong in principle and will result in the wrong decisions if these decisions are imposed from on high by the Government.

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1.49 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): Now I get to play “Just a Minute”. Will the Minister please designate an eco-town in my constituency? Northstowe should have been the first eco-town and should now be designated as an eco-town. I talked to Sir Bob Kerslake from the Homes and Communities Agency last Friday and he said that the principal objection was that zero-carbon homes could not be built starting from the end of 2009. The Minister says that that is not required. The agency proposes level 3, but the local authority is asking for level 4.

Secondly, the Minister says that the process should be based on local planning procedures. On 3 April, she published a consultation document, to which we will respond. In mid-May, the Government published the regional spatial strategy for the east of England, which sets out a sequential development test for the Cambridge sub-region that clearly prioritises Northstowe, and the urban extensions to Cambridge and the market towns, over a new settlement. If we are following the planning process, it seems obvious that the proposal at Hanley Grange should have been ruled out by the Government at the outset.

1.50 pm

Caroline Flint: We have had a good discussion. I have heard many reasons why we should not have eco-towns, but I have not heard much from Opposition Members about an alternative to eco-towns that would allow us to meet housing need in communities; that has not been forthcoming.

Helpful points were raised by some Opposition Members, and by the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). Thoughtful points, which I will take on board, were also made by colleagues from my party. The fact is that we need homes, but they need to be cleaner, green, and built in more sustainable communities. My ambition is to deliver those homes, and that is what I will try to do.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of the proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to the Temporary Standing Order (Topical debates).

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Defence Procurement

[Relevant documents: T he Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, on Ministry of Defence Annual Report and Accounts 2006-07, HC 61, and the Government Response , Fifth Special Report from the Committee, HC 468, and the Tenth Report from the Committee, on Defence Equipment 2008, HC 295, and the Government Response, Seventh Special Report from the Committee, HC 555.]

1.51 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I beg to move,

May I start by expressing my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Sarah Bryant of the Intelligence Corps, Corporal Sean Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Paul Stout, who were tragically killed in an explosion during an operation east of Lashkar Gar on Tuesday? Their deaths are another stark reminder of the sacrifices that our people are making on our behalf. We must never forget them, nor must we allow their sacrifice to go unrecognised.

In my first year in post, I have been increasingly impressed by the men and women of our armed forces, who are doing an outstanding job while deployed on operations around the world. I have seen their dedication and resourcefulness at first hand in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are, quite simply, outstanding professionals, and I know that the House will join me in paying tribute to their dedication and commitment. They are the best in the world and we are lucky to have them.

Over the past few years, we have focused on providing our people with the best possible support on current operations. Providing them with the right equipment is essential if they are to do the job that we ask them to do. Since current operations began, we have spent more than £3.5 billion, through the urgent operational requirement process, on equipment to do just that. The money comes direct from the Treasury reserve and is additional to the Defence budget, which is 7.5 per cent. higher in real terms than it was in 1997. The recent Defence Committee report on defence equipment recognised that effort, and praised the speed with which we are delivering, through the UOR process, substantial amounts of vital equipment to our armed forces on the front line. Those efforts are also recognised by the most important audience of all: the troops themselves. According to Brigadier Carleton-Smith, currently commanding 16th Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan,

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The Minister rightly paid tribute to the servicemen who recently lost their lives in Afghanistan. I know that the Snatch Land Rover has limitations, but what more can be done to offer our troops protection when travelling in those vehicles? One suggestion is that a device could be fitted that would intercept mobile phone signals, which can detonate improvised explosive devices. Is that sort of measure being considered by the Ministry of Defence? We will need to carry on using the Land Rovers, but surely more protection can be provided.

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Mr. Ainsworth: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. It is early days; the tragedy occurred on Tuesday and will need to be looked into in detail. Yes, the people concerned were in a Snatch Land Rover, according to the information that I have received so far. Another vehicle—a Mastiff, for instance—would not have been suitable for the task they were doing in the area where they were required to work. Electronic countermeasures—the kind of capability that the hon. Gentleman talks about—are already fitted to Snatch Land Rovers, and I am told that they were fitted to the vehicle in question. Of course there needs to be a full investigation, and we need to look into the detail of the tragedy, as I am sure we will. We must learn any lessons that there are, and we cannot do that overnight. That is the extent of my information so far, the tragedy having only just occurred.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Without going into too much detail, is the Minister confident that the configuration of the signals capability of our front-line troops fits well with the electronic countermeasures?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman says, “Without going into too much detail,” and then asks me a highly technical question that can be answered only in time, after investigation. We have to use every incident as an opportunity to learn lessons, if we are to minimise the tragedies that will inevitably occur from time to time and minimise the impact on our people. Those issues will need to be considered.

Equipment procured from our core budget has played a critical role in current operations. Platforms such as Harrier, Tornado, Warrior, Bulldog and Viking were procured with very different operational circumstances in mind, but they continue to prove their worth on current operations, giving the lie to the accusation that such high-end capability has no value in the complex operational situations that we face in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those platforms can be used across a range of operational scenarios; that has been proven in combat in the past few years. There will continue to be a place for such high-end capability in our future procurement plans.

UOR procurement is rightly designed to deliver capability to meet the threats that we face in current operations, but we have to use our core budget to ensure that our armed forces are properly equipped for every eventuality, not just current operations. We need to strike a balance between the concrete needs of operations today and the risks that we might face tomorrow. Used properly, those two funding streams should complement each other. Whereas our core budget provides an equipment package that will act as a national insurance policy, the UOR process allows us to tailor and supplement that equipment package to meet immediate and unforeseen threats.

Our last planning round focused on the near-term issues facing the core equipment programme. We now need to take a closer look at our medium-term plans and concentrate them further on supporting operations, in line with our commitment in the national security strategy. That is why we are undertaking a short examination of the equipment programme to look at our planning assumptions over the next 10 years. The examination will take in the whole equipment programme, within the context of our basic defence policy. We are doing that because priorities can change, particularly as a result of our experience on operations.

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Our estimates of the cost and phasing of expenditure change, too. That is why we have set ourselves the following key objectives: to adapt to rising costs, to shift the balance more towards support for current operations, and to do more for our people. It is simply sensible planning to re-examine our priorities in the light of operational experience and changing spending profiles. The examination will be an important input into the next planning round.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Minister just referred to the last planning round. Which one was it? Has planning round 2008 merged with planning round 2009?

Mr. Ainsworth: The planning round is complete. Planning round 2008 is complete. Planning round 2009 needs to commence. The short examination that we are now undertaking will effectively inform the next planning round, which is the planning round for 2009. There were difficulties and, as I said, we concentrated on the short term in planning round 2008. We now need to take a longer look because of the spending profile that we have.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): rose—

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones).

Mr. Jones: I fully support what is being done, because we need to balance the urgent operational requirements and the kit that we are now buying with the longer-term decisions. That is correct, but may I ask the Minister’s civil servants—his Department—to hold their hands up for once and say that things have changed? I tabled a parliamentary question about where the Mastiff fits in the future rapid effect system programme, only to be told this week that it does not. I am sorry, but that answer absolutely contradicts what Lord Drayson and Brigadier Applegate told me and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), last year, when they said that the Mastiff was now part of the FRES family of vehicles. I should have thought that that was the correct approach. May I ask the Minister’s civil servants, when they draw up the plans, to come back to reality rather than to the old script, which has clearly been ditched?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am going to move on to talk about the vehicle programmes—the current vehicles on operations and the FRES programme. My hon. Friend has made himself quite an expert on the subject, and he knows that we will need to look at how we use Mastiff beyond current operations, so he makes a very valid point.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): For the sake of clarity, will the Minister confirm whether the Nimrod MRA4 will be part of the short review that he just mentioned?

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