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22 Oct 2008 : Column 74WH—continued

That point is particularly timely at present. If there were ever a time when it was in the national economic interest to accelerate infrastructure investment, build more roads, improve transport communications, get more facilities for communities and, yes, build more houses to meet social and economic needs and also, in a contra-cyclical fashion, to support the economy through difficult times, it is now. I will be looking to the Chancellor
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in the pre-Budget report to accelerate capital projects that could meet the kind of infrastructure needs that the hon. Lady has described.

I greatly welcome the proposals for an urban extension to Oxford. I supported it and argued in favour of it at the public examination. We desperately need housing in Oxford, and, whatever people may say about the green belt in other parts of the south-east, in Oxford it is so tightly drawn into the existing built-up area of the city that it is creating a pressure cooker effect. Residential communities are being destroyed as houses are converted to multiple occupation and the building of flats becomes more intensive. We debated those issues in this Chamber on a different occasion. We also have the erosion of the precious green lungs that come right into the centre of Oxford. They are the most distinctive, defining feature of its beauty and unique ecology. Therefore, if we are to provide the extra housing that is needed, we must go into the green belt somewhere, and I believe that the site south of Grenoble road is an appropriate site for building houses without causing the kind of unacceptable damage that is of concern to all of us who care about green spaces and the aesthetic setting of our communities. I welcome what the plan says about that site.

However, I am concerned about the arrangements for bringing the development forward. There must be collaboration between Oxford city council and South Oxfordshire district council, within whose area the development site presently rests. We need specific mechanisms for approaching the development in a collaborative way because, without putting too fine a point on it, the city council is broadly in favour of the development—to a certain extent, that is a cross-party position—and the district council is broadly against it. We need an institutional arrangement that locks the two into working together constructively to build a good community.

Time is short, and I know that many Members want to speak, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. I emphasise the importance of local consultation, which the hon. Lady mentioned. Residents in Blackbird Leys and Greater Leys, which are the communities that will be most affected by the urban extension, must be consulted. So far, only one person has consulted them about it on an individual household basis, and that was me. There is significant support for the development, and much concern as well, but the acid test for local people will be whether the community will have, yes, the infrastructure, but also the facilities.

I would like to make an important point about what I call the social infrastructure. When people talk about new development and new estates, they are often rightly concerned about roads, bricks and mortar, leisure facilities, schools, health centres, shops and so on. But what is every bit as important as that, especially when communities are settling down, is local community leadership, particularly leadership of youth activity. As the Government consider expanded housing provision across the south-east and, in particular, in central Oxfordshire, I hope that some imaginative thinking will be done about how we can build up social capacity on new developments from the outset.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to think about those points. My overall position is that the social and
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economic vitality of Oxford and its remarkable contribution to the regional and national economy and, most importantly, the often dire circumstances of those in housing need, mean that more housing is required. I urge an acceleration in the building of social housing particularly, but we also need many more shared housing schemes. Even with the dip in the property market—this must be true in the constituencies of many Opposition Members as well—property prices are such that it is difficult for people on anything near average salaries or wages to be able to afford housing in the communities in which they grew up. That must be of concern to all of us.

I urge the Minister and the Government to get on with it. I am aware of just how long the process of planning housing numbers for the future takes. I do not think that there is any contradiction between wanting to do such things faster and wanting to do them better. Delay does not always mean better consultation or schemes. People need housing now, and we should get on with it. With will and imagination, we should be able to construct good communities that enhance rather than spoil the environment.

9.56 am

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing this debate and thank her for it. She has taken and fired many of the shots for all of us on this side and so has reduced the time that I shall speak.

I am interested in the points made by the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). We all accept that there is a need for more housing, but I hope that he and the Minister will think about the contrary argument. One of the problems with fuelling demand and not using the planning system to try to persuade and move demand to other areas, particularly areas of unemployment, is that, ultimately, greater demand will be generated, and we will be looking at the issue again with the prospect of even more concrete over the south-east.

When the South East England regional assembly figures came out, there was deep concern in my local area. It changed to horror when the Government inspector produced his figures. My constituency and, of course, Surrey, are on the border with London, so we get the effect of everything coming from London—it feels like it—and not always the greatest things. We have crime problems, and a large proportion of them come from London. It is worth adding that the police do not have enough funding.

My constituency shares part of Guildford with my hon. Friend and extends through to the Mole Valley district council area. It has the restrictions mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman and even more: it has green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty, special protection areas, special areas of conservation, and farms that produce food for our area and for London, which are particularly important now, with all the concern over food and food prices.

My hon. Friend said that the problem is that the figures are not a target but a floor. The refusal to accept the windfalls makes that floor damaging. In my area, recent growth has come from developers purchasing large single properties or achieving an amalgam of purchases—a few houses—then demolishing them and building additional homes. The developments do not
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come in sizes that are large enough to count on plans, so they cannot be predicted—they are a windfall—but they are where the growth is happening.

I know the Minister’s constituency a little from the past, and I know how admirable the local authority is. I am sure that he supports its every move and benefits from its excellent services and low council tax. It provides development, but not large development. Developers there do the same kind of thing that most of the developers in my area do. The fact that in the present economic climate they are developing houses that are then taken by the bank is a temporary blip.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the point is also that, since there are no large sites, and since such sites have to be predicted for the plan, that will mean that precious green belt has to be taken into account and will be lost. I hope that the Minister will think of his constituency. My memory of it is such that I can barely imagine the outcry if Tooting parks and commons, and so forth, were eaten into and covered with houses. The outcry would be phenomenal. If the Minister supported that in his ministerial position, he would definitely be without a job come the next election—as he may be anyway.

The Minister needs to take notice of the concerns, which are tempered with the recognition that we need housing. However, with regard to the argument that I have just touched on, can he see that to supply endlessly fuels the demand? He can, in his position as Minister, use the planning system to try to encourage the movement away from the south-east to areas where there is deprivation, land, empty properties and shortages of jobs.

The then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee had a rare visit from the Deputy Prime Minister. He was invited on many occasions but did not come. Finally, he came and the business of infrastructure, building and house numbers, particularly in the south-east, was raised. The Deputy Prime Minister agreed that housing development should work hand in hand with improved infrastructure, but that has not happened.

Secondary schools in my constituency are overflowing; they have temporary accommodation attached to them, but they are still overflowing. Children are being bussed miles to other areas’ schools from my constituency, through my hon. Friend’s constituency. The county has no capital to build schools. It has had no capital for road improvements and has been given no such capital for years. My hon. Friends the Members for Guildford and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and I—and others—have been fighting to save hospitals. We are trying to save them, whereas what we really need is more, bigger hospitals and better facilities. There are concerns about water throughout the whole area. Our private water company is struggling to find water supplies.

All right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber could talk to the Minister for a good hour each about the problems. However, we are putting the case succinctly and asking him to look at the figures, including the SEERA figures, and move to those, at least; to allow windfalls to be taken into consideration; and to recognise that despite the pouring of houses, and the people in them, into its area, Surrey county council has been deprived of funds to provide the infrastructure and turn the situation round at the same time as, if not before, the houses go in. It is quicker to build a house than to build a hospital or a school, and so on. If we are to have the growth—we need some—we need that infrastructure.

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Finally, I ask the Minister to recognise that the success of the south-east could be mimicked elsewhere if planning were used. That would ease the demand and would not, as he is doing with his figures, put petrol on the fire that is already there.

10.3 am

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing this important and timely debate. The consultation closes on Friday. I hope that the Minister will treat this speech as my submission to it.

The people of Milton Keynes are not opposed to building more houses; they are not nimbys. Indeed, with a constituency that is growing by nearly 2,000 every year, it is fair to say that we are building our fair share of houses in Milton Keynes. However, people there feel strongly that there should be some local control over that building. They also feel incredibly strongly that there must be “i before e”—infrastructure before expansion—which is not being delivered at the moment. They also feel strongly that they have not been listened to by the Government.

In a debate in this Chamber shortly before the summer recess, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), agreed with me that, for any community to be truly sustainable, it must have the support of local people. That is where I fear we are going wrong.

I will focus my brief comments on just one area: the late imposition of 5,600 houses to the east of the M1 motorway, which has always been the natural border of Milton Keynes and which has been put in the latest draft of the local plan by the Secretary of State. This area is rural green belt—prime rolling fields that are not connected to Milton Keynes. Importantly, this cuts across the wishes of everybody, including local people; the local government quango, Milton Keynes Partnership; and the regional development agency. It appears that everybody is opposed to these 5,600 new houses, apart from the Secretary of State.

In 2005-06, over the Christmas period, the people of Milton Keynes were given just six weeks to take part in a consultation entitled “Options for Growth”, which was put forward by Milton Keynes Partnership. It contained six options, five of which effectively involved the expansion of Milton Keynes within the designated expansion areas to the south-west and south-east. Just one option dealt with building in the rural green belt east of the M1 motorway.

Option six was the least popular; nobody wanted it. Everybody said that they wanted to continue to expand in Milton Keynes, but within the city itself. Yet after the consultation had taken place, Ubiqus, which put the report together, said several things. Three of its findings particularly interested me. First, it said:

I am quoting from annex C to item 9, dealing with the regional spatial strategy.

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Secondly, the majority of respondents strongly supported calls for a directly elected body to oversee the growth of the city. Thirdly, as I just said, option six—the option that the Secretary of State has now ruled on and decided will be imposed—was the least popular with anybody in the local community.

Interestingly, once local bureaucrats from Milton Keynes Partnership had had their say—let us be clear that Milton Keynes Partnership does not support this move—the matter moved to the RDA. Once again, the independent body that the Government charge to look at these things did not support the plans. Indeed, the RDA said:

that is, the south-east of Milton Keynes—

Why, Minister—despite all the advice, despite local concerns and despite Milton Keynes Partnership and the RDA saying no, and now that we are finally moving away from local people who have some charge over those matters—has the Secretary of State decided that she knows best?

The answer to my question is given away in the Secretary of State’s comments. She starts by saying:

She continues:

But we get down to the truth when we discover a footnote:

Whose requirements? Government’s requirements.

Despite a public consultation overwhelmingly saying no and despite a regional quango saying that the site east of the M1 was unsustainable and lacked infrastructure, which would be extremely expensive to put in, the Secretary of State has ignored all those constant warnings. Despite all the evidence, it is clear that the only goal of the Department for Communities and Local Government is to impose centrally driven housing targets that are simply not needed and are not the wish of the local people.

I finish by pointing out briefly a couple of practical problems that the Minister will, I hope, be able to deal with in his winding-up speech. The M1 motorway is, as I have said, the natural boundary of Milton Keynes. The Government have already made Milton Keynes Partnership, not the local authority, the planning authority for the eastern expansion area up to the M1. Already, outline planning permissions have been granted and
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detailed planning permission has been granted in places. Now the Government want to build houses on the other side of the M1, in the rural green belt.

The Government accept “i before e”—infrastructure before expansion. We must build new bridges across the motorway and new roads to link the new community that the Government so desperately want to the existing community. Given that planning permission has been granted on one side of the motorway, a bridge may be launched, but where will the Government land it? How short-sighted it is to have two planning authorities doing entirely different things that cannot be joined up? It is ridiculous, and I ask the Minister, even at this late stage, to listen to the independent advice that he has been given at every level—from the wishes of local people and the local planning quango to those of the regional planning quango—and think again about this ridiculous plan to impose 5,600 houses east of the M1 motorway at the last minute, simply to fulfil artificial Government targets.

10.10 am

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing the debate, and I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), because some of the experiences that he graphically described are familiar to my constituents.

I have been asked by a number of local organisations in my constituency to raise the issue directly with the Minister. Botley parish action group, Botley parish council and Eastleigh borough council oppose the proposals for a substantial strategic development area to the north and north-east of Hedge End on the basis of inadequate transport infrastructure, and water and sewerage facilities. Because of how the process has been handled, many of my constituents in Botley and Boorley Green have had less consultation on the proposals than if a neighbour had proposed an extension to their home. They were not notified individually, but Boorley Green, for example, will be swamped by the strategic development area.

The whole process—not just this consultation, which closes on Friday and is supposed to be narrow in that it is considering the changes that the Government have made, but the previous one—is deeply inadequate, given the dramatic changes that the proposals will make to some people’s lives. My first point, therefore, is about process.

The second point is about substance. We are still dealing with an extraordinary, top-down decision by the Government, which is essentially predict and provide, on housing levels. Given the Government’s decisions on changing their previous projections on households, how much of the growth that we are seeing results from the population growth projected for the south-east, and how much from household formation? We know that people are getting married later and, unfortunately, getting divorced earlier, and they are living longer, but that does not increase the number of people in the region. It may increase household formation and, therefore, demand for housing, but in itself it does not have the same effect on environmental sustainability as an increase in population. It is crucial to make that distinction.

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