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13 Jan 2009 : Column 39WH—continued

12.3 pm

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) for obtaining this debate, which is very well timed and presents a valuable opportunity to hon. Members who are affected by the sustainable communities project. I pay tribute to the Minister, who was good enough to visit Northampton. He showed a great interest and willingness to listen and to learn. We are lucky to have such a man, and it gives us hope. [Interruption.] It will be a pint later, Iain.

May I make one simple point? The Government’s plans for the number of houses have gone to the wall. The overview of the infrastructure needs has never been properly created, and we have never really understood where the money is coming from to pay for that infrastructure. We have talked quite sizeably about money from the private sector. I can tell the Minister that whereas prepared land cost £1.4 million an acre 12 to 14 months ago, we would be lucky to get £600,000 an acre now. That means that there is not the leeway within land values to provide the sort of infrastructure that the Government hoped they would be able to provide from that source. I plead with the Minister to review that particular project now, as it impacts on Northamptonshire and on the constituencies of my colleagues here today. Much of the original thinking, which was not very deep at the time, has gone out of the window because of present circumstances. Those circumstances will have a sizeable impact for the next 20 years. By that I mean the time frame that we were talking about in the original Rooker report in our part of the world.

My second point concerns rail transport. After I have discussed it, I will sit down, Mr. Cummings, because I appreciate your concerns, too. We are on a secondary loop link from London. There is no doubt that much of the rationale for the sustainable communities policy as it was originally envisaged was to solve housing problems in London and the south-east. Our projected indigenous population growth is very small. We assume that most of the incoming people will be from London and the south-east, which means that the rail connection is vital.

The Minister will have read of the problems that we have had over a lengthy period, which have been heightened over the past two weeks. I am told that more than 100 trains have been cancelled since the new timetable came in at the beginning of December, that there are not enough drivers to man the trains, and that the new link from the north-west is not performing as it should do. All of that is impacting dramatically on the present population getting to their jobs in London. When we have the sort of increase that the Government are projecting, the problem will be added to. I urge the Minister to consider that issue specifically within the overall review of the sustainable communities project for which I am calling. If the Government do not deal
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with the totally changed set of circumstances, they will create insoluble problems for the future for local planning authorities, urban development corporations and the delivery vehicles. I want a total rethink of the matter. I am not talking about the need for extra housing, but about how we are going to put into effect the sustainable communities programme that the Government wish to proceed with and which we wish to help with, provided it is not too much of a burden for the constituencies and the areas in which we live.

12.8 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The direction of housing growth at Aylesbury is the subject of continuing debate, not least at local level, and notably between advocates of the southern arc on the one hand and the eastern arc on the other. The Minister will be relieved to know that I am not inviting him or expecting him to intrude into private grief on that subject today, or necessarily at a later stage. I want to make one simple plea to him.

Whichever arc goes forward as the accepted option, there is a consensus locally—I am looking with eager anticipation in the direction of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)—that the eastern link road will be essential to the sustainability of the development. Buckinghamshire county council has secured between £3 million and £4 million towards the design work for that road. It is not unreasonable for the county council to look for further finance, both because of the centrality of the road and on account of the fact that Aylesbury Vale, at the request of the Government, is undergoing a proportionately larger expansion than, I think, any other area of the country. I look forward to the good will and positive commitment of the Minister.

12.9 pm

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on securing this debate and I congratulate all hon. Members who have spoken—they have made the case on behalf of their constituents and raised their concerns. I shall try to be brief to allow the Minister as much time as possible to respond.

The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) said that the Minister was lucky. I am sure that he feels very lucky to have the pleasure and responsibility of responding to debates of this nature, but it feels like groundhog day because there are so many in Westminster Hall. There is a consensus that there is a massive unmet housing need, but there is frustration—not only in the region that we are talking about, but the whole country—because the process is the wrong way round. Local people do not feel that they have an opportunity to speak or that what they say will have an impact on the outcome. We end up having so many debates in Westminster Hall on such matters because they provide the only opportunity for Members to raise their constituents’ points.

The organisations that take the decisions lack accountability, but so does the process. I have spoken in such debates before, as colleagues have, and tried to gain an understanding of the process and to see how we could make an impact on it, but we have debates when the regional Minister is absent, which leads to questions
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about their role in decisions. At least, in this case, we have the chairman of Milton Keynes and South Midlands inter-regional board—the Minister—responding to the debate, so there might be some accountability. However, in all too many cases the right Minister is not present.

As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) highlighted, Milton Keynes is different from other parts of the region, which raises the question why the region is carved out as it is. There are major accountability issues, which should be tackled if the Government are keen for people to buy into the process. Hon. Members are more than prepared to make the argument for meeting the housing need, but without accountability it is difficult to counter cynicism, even if the Government show willing.

The issue is important because people are concerned that the sustainability of their communities is being undermined. They are worried about the impact that changes will have on their communities from a social perspective; the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) made that point well. The proposed changes will not only mean that communities grow, but that they will change altogether, so the matter needs to be treated sensitively. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West made a valuable point when she spoke of the need to ensure that we have soft infrastructure. We need to support growth, but we should not undermine what exists. The danger is that the process does just that.

The major environmental issues in the south-east were raised, such as access to water, and the impact of building on greenfield sites and of not protecting the green belt. Because of the planning process, developers have every incentive to develop sequentially, and we can guarantee that the greenfield sites will be the first to be identified. That needs to be addressed.

Ultimately, everything boils down to the economic sustainability of the plans. Hon. Members have already questioned the numbers of jobs and houses that will be generated, and we are now living in a completely different climate. There are Government announcements day after day on what they are doing to tackle the economic downturn, so I am at a loss about the continuing denial about housing numbers. The fact is that the Government’s target for house building is not being met. The jobs are not there, and the construction industry faces huge difficulties, and the Minister and the Department for Communities and Local Government must adapt to reflect that changed world.

There are some practical things that the Government could do. The new situation does not mean giving up on meeting housing need, because if anything the need for social housing will be even greater. What are the Department’s plans to meet the changing need? For example, if properties are not being developed in the private sector, and if there is greater need for social housing, what can it do to meet the new need? Could the Minister show some flexibility on the percentage grant for social housing, and can any money be brought forward? How will he respond to the Taylor report, which focuses on building economically sustainable communities, and not simply massive urban extensions, to safeguard the sustainability of existing communities as well as provide for future housing need? Practical steps could be taken.

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I would like the Minister to say that he is prepared to listen to the views of the constituents whom hon. Members have represented today. Will he provide a reassurance that the targets will not be set in stone, to be pushed forward regardless of those views, in the light of the changed economic realities with which we now live?

12.15 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on securing this timely and important debate, and on his assiduous and consistent advocacy for his constituents. We have discussed such things on a number of occasions, regarding a number of areas, in the past few years, including the M40, the provision of health services in Milton Keynes and funding. As Yogi Berra, the American sports coach, said, it is déj vu all over again. It is regrettable that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) filibustered for 18 minutes on the tangential issue of housing in Milton Keynes, rather than address the substantive issue, when so many other hon. Members wished to represent their constituents. I hope not to repeat what my hon. Friends said, but I congratulate them on making the effort to represent their constituents eloquently and determinedly in the debate.

I hope that the Minister heard what was said about planning policy statement 3 and the sleight of hand that is being used to encourage more development on green belt land. The Campaign to Protect Rural England estimates that up to 75 per cent. of housing could be built on green belt land in the Milton Keynes South Midlands area. I also hope that he is thinking about transport infrastructure, and specifically about the 2003 independent study by Roger Tym and Partners, to which my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (John Bercow) and for Aylesbury referred. He will know that the South East England Development Agency estimates that £25 billion is needed to finance infrastructure planning as a consequence of housing built under the sustainable communities plan. That will not be funding by section 106, the Milton Keynes supplement or planning gain supplements—I am talking about roads, schools, clinics, bridges, hospitals, community centres and so on.

Energy and water infrastructure are also important. When the Minister speaks, he could address the fact that the current constitution of the regulatory system militates against long-term planning for facilities by, for instance, EDF, in the Aylesbury area, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury has said.

It is ironic—one is entitled to be cynical—that at its launch in July, the Secretary of State said that

That simply has not happened in the past few years.

In the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, the Government missed an opportunity and have failed to right the wrongs of too much central control. They had an opportunity to transfer power downwards to local people but, instead, they have junked regional assemblies, and intend to vest unprecedented planning powers in the hands of the
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regional development agencies. As we know, buried in the small print of the Bill is the capacity to create new, unelected economic and transport quangos, which is in effect a green light for yet more stealth taxes on our constituents.

The Bill also strips away the last vestiges of democratic accountability at regional level by giving major housing and planning powers to unelected appointees of regional development agencies with reserve powers for Secretaries of State to revise or completely disregard regional plans as they see fit. That is an example of Labour’s Stalinist quango state of unelected party elites. It is not a way to proceed—[Interruption.] I am glad that the Minister is easily amused.

I wish to mention some other specific areas that my hon. Friends have mentioned. Obviously, the regional spatial strategy is a flawed process. It is unaccountable, distant, and undemocratic and corrodes people’s faith and trust in the planning system, which is bad for local democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) made an apposite point on the impact of migration from the EU and elsewhere. He is absolutely right that it is incumbent on mainstream parties to talk about those issues and their impact on the delivery of public services. Otherwise, the extremists in our midst will make hay and undermine the system, which is what they intend to do.

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend referred to the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, and I can tell him that the British National party is leafleting this week in Leighton Buzzard on that issue. I say to the Minister that this is a real threat that we need to be serious about.

John Cummings (in the Chair): We are running short of time and I will soon have to call the Minister.

Mr. Jackson: Thank you, Mr. Cummings. I will not be too much longer. I will not be able to develop all of the points that I would have liked to make, but I reassure hon. Members today that a Conservative Government would abolish regional spatial strategies, facilitate their post facto review, get rid of the floor density and housing targets, legislate for proper consultation at the local level with local councils and other stakeholders and revisit the flawed Barker report, which is the basis of the Stalinist housing targets across the south-east of England and the rest of the country, which are crazy, especially in light of the economic downturn in the housing market. We will also revisit the projections of the Office for National Statistics on demography and population change. A Conservative Government will give power back to local people and restore local civic pride.

12.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I begin by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings, and wish you and other Members a happy new year. I must also apologise to you, Mr. Cummings, as I am afraid that I have three Adjournment debates today and you will be seeing rather a lot of me. This debate was a good start. It was a high-quality, well-argued debate, so perhaps I will now bring the average down.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on securing the debate. Future growth of housing is of critical importance across the country, and it is essential that we have a good, mature debate and a positive and constructive conversation about the right way forward. As he said in his speech, I visited Aylesbury in October in my position as chair of the Milton Keynes and South Midlands inter-regional board, and I was pleased to see the progress that had been made there. The growth of Aylesbury is important to the success of the sub-region, and a successful sub-region there, given its location, is important to the entire country. Its strategic location and its close proximity to London and to world-class universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the centres of higher education in its own area, means that it is well positioned to play a leading role in the UK economy as we move forward in the 21st century. It is important that we facilitate growth and development in that regard. I was pleased to see a report—my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope) mentions this to me on a regular basis—by Oxford Economics claiming that Corby, which is in the north of the sub-region, was the best placed of any town in the country to weather the current market conditions.

I know from my visits throughout the region, which I really enjoy, and my meetings with people across the sub-region, that there is huge potential and ambition in the area. Council leaders and delivery partners have great ambitions for the future of the area, and the important vision of how growth can benefit existing and future residents was captured in today’s debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey).

Three themes have been raised in the debate, and I would like to address all of them. The first is the need for more homes, and not just any old places, but quality homes built with local consultation. I absolutely agree with that. When I last visited Milton Keynes, I went to the Oxley park development and was really impressed by its sustainability and the high-quality environmental materials used. I hope that that model can be applied across the rest of the country.

The second theme relates to jobs and how we cannot have a mismatch between housing and jobs. Again, I agree with that approach. The third theme relates to the key element of infrastructure, which has to be well planned in conjunction with local needs. That is the key theme, because we cannot think of any of those aspects in isolation. The location of homes needs to be thought about in close relation to the location of enterprise and employment areas, and the infrastructure and public services to help service those areas are absolutely key. The approach suggested by Opposition Members today runs contrary to the concept of the benefit of planning and of bringing everything together to ensure that we do not think of things in isolation.

I will now look at the need for more homes. On his website, the hon. Member for Aylesbury states that almost everyone agrees that new homes need to be built, and it was pleasing to hear every hon. Member who has spoken today state that that is important. There is a broad national consensus about the need for more housing in the country, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West was right in saying that people genuinely believe that we need
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more housing, but want it built nowhere near them, and we need to combat that. I was disappointed to see that the hon. Gentleman had put his name on the petition on the No. 10 website to say no to new homes in his areas, because without new homes people will have to move away from where they grew up in order to get a roof of their own.

There is a question of affordability. The ratio of house prices to average salaries in his area of Aylesbury is nine, meaning that house prices are nine times the average salary. That is not sustainable in any sense of the word. I would hate to see a situation in his constituency in which people who grew up in Aylesbury were forced out by higher prices. We need to address that by providing more affordable housing and more social housing. That is vital for combating that real social problem.

The past 30 years have seen a 30 per cent. increase in the formation of households but a 50 per cent. drop in house building. There are 200,000 people in the south-east on waiting lists for affordable housing and over 37,000 on waiting lists across the Milton Keynes/South Midlands sub-region, with over 2,500 in Aylesbury. We simply cannot afford to ignore that, because it is of absolutely vital importance. Good, long-term planning is key. Yes, it should be done in consultation with the local community, but it is vital if we are to address those real concerns.

I do live in the real world and recognise that the circumstances in the housing market at present are obviously very difficult, but there is no evidence to suggest that those long-term demographic changes are altering at all. Thankfully, we are all living longer, so we have an ageing population. Given social changes, such as more single people living alone, those trends will continue. I suggest that failure to act and plan for more housing now would simply store up problems for the future and that that would be irresponsible. That is my response to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), who questioned whether we should look at changing the targets. Given that the statistical evidence behind those targets is very robust and that it includes long-term demographic factors, we have to do it. Yes, in the current economic climate it will be difficult to get back up to the necessary speed and trajectory, but it has to be done, and the Government are up for the challenge.

An awful lot was discussed in the debate, and unfortunately I do not have the time to address all of it, but I want to mention one last point before concluding, and that is the point about planning and not looking at things in isolation. I absolutely agree with the sentiments expressed by those on the Opposition Benches on how housing must be thought about in terms of long-term planning, together with employment and infrastructure, but some of the suggestions made today, not least by the hon. Gentleman, run contrary to that. I think that he was trying to say that we should return to emphasising windfall development and ad hoc planning so that, when a site becomes available, we embrace it for planning, and I think that that view is wrong. It is not the right approach. Long-term planning for the future, bearing in mind the various pressures and circumstances, are absolutely vital. The ambition in the sub-region for—

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. We need to move on to the next debate.

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