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28 Jan 2009 : Column 96WH—continued

The Minister is aware that many housing associations currently inherit homes from developers who cannot sell them. They are taking over—granted, by purchasing
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them—homes that developers have built for the market but cannot sell, so where is the sense in the eco-town proposal? I hope that the Minister will extend the boundaries of his reply beyond the eco-town to take in the bigger picture of its expansion—the bigger picture from Milton Keynes down to the M1 and those 120,000 homes, because they will not arrive without the eco-town development. It is the key piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and I believe that is why the Government have proposed it.

The Minister must take on board the fact that the Government have not been completely transparent and open about the issue. He is aware that when his predecessor arrived in my constituency, my office was telephoned at 4.55 pm on a Friday evening to be told that she would arrive on the Monday morning to take a meeting. Fortunately, I work my staff hard, they were still in the office and they took the telephone call, unlike most staff, as the Minister knows, who are gone by then on a Friday afternoon. We therefore knew that the then Minister would be arriving, and we were able to ensure that when she did, she had a welcoming committee, so that she knew local people’s feelings. That took some doing over a weekend.

That is not consultation; that is not transparency; that is not being open and engaging with people, or even engaging with Parliament, about what the Minister does. Let us have a little bit more openness. Will the Minister please provide us with some advice and tips on what my residents can do to make sure that the eco-town does not go through the planning process, and will he please answer the question about Bedford and Luton’s housing needs and the impact of the infrastructure proposal for trains between Bedford and London every three minutes? I will sit down now because I would like the Minister to answer all my questions comprehensively.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I am sure you will keep me in order during the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on securing it.

The hon. Lady mentioned in her excellent contribution the fact that it is only a matter of weeks since we were discussing Aspley Guise and, following her strong promotion of the area, I have since had a look at the village’s website. I have to agree that it seems an extraordinarily beautiful village. However, it is slightly longer since I have had the opportunity to speak on the matter of eco-towns, so I am grateful to her for securing such a timely and relevant debate.

There has been a great deal of activity in relation to the Government’s programme for eco-towns, not least in the past 24 hours. In responding to the hon. Lady, I would like to do two things: first, provide some context to the programme and, secondly, focus on her specific concerns about the proposed eco-town development at Marston Vale, as well as the wider concept of housing in her area and Bedfordshire as a whole.

The hon. Lady will be aware that, as in the immediate post-war era, housing needs are increasing. That has made it necessary to explore options such as new
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communities and new ways of living in relation to a green and low-carbon economy. Eco-towns give us an interesting, even unique, opportunity to tackle two of the greatest challenges that this country faces: the pressing need to provide housing—particularly affordable housing—and the need to try to tackle and mitigate the effects of climate change.

In the current economic climate, that is, of course, more challenging, but I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees that everybody deserves a decent home at an affordable price. That is our aim.

Throughout consideration of the eco-towns proposal, I have been blunt and said that it is not a magic wand or the sole answer to our questions about housing delivery. However, again, I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that eco-towns could be exemplars of new ways of living, working and playing in a low-carbon economy and society. They can make an important contribution to the development of new technologies and practices, and we want to encourage that as much as possible.

The nature of the programme means that it is a long-term policy, with a phased approach. The aim is for the first phase of a number of exemplar projects to start in the next couple of years, building on the successes that have occurred in relation to it as a means of moving forward to achieve the 2016 zero-carbon homes target that the hon. Lady mentioned.

The hon. Lady mentioned the judicial review. Before I move on to her specific concerns, I am sure that the House would like an update on that, particularly in relation to the judge’s summary judgment. I am pleased to report that the judge recognised that the Government have acted properly throughout and has dismissed the review on all grounds. That supports the ongoing nature of our consultation. I shall quote from yesterday’s summing up by the judge. In paragraph 13, he states that Better Accessible Responsible Development, the group opposed to the Middle Quinton eco-town proposal,

He goes on to state the following key point:

The hon. Lady will want to reflect on that final sentence, which will naturally be of interest to her.

The underlying theme of the hon. Lady’s contribution, having spoken to her about this matter before, seems to be a supposed lack of consultation. Her concern is that the public have not been consulted. I disagree fundamentally with that assessment of the process. She will be aware that, on 4 November, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing announced in the House a second round of consultation on eco-towns based on the draft planning policy statement on eco-towns. That was accompanied by a sustainability appraisal being carried out on both the policy and the 12 shortlisted eco-town locations, including Marston Vale. If I have time, I shall quote from the appraisal for Marston Vale, because it is very important to put a balanced view.

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As part of the second-stage consultation, we have been running a number of activities to encourage the giving of the public’s views. The hon. Lady will be aware of the road shows and stakeholder events in venues close to the sites of potential eco-towns, including Marston Vale, as well as online questionnaires and feedback forums. The road shows were designed to help to provide information to people locally and went beyond required consultation practices. They enabled us to hear from hundreds of local people, both for and against eco-towns. They were never intended to be about the detail of individual schemes for proposed locations, but directed people to information and encouraged them to have their say.

I shall move on to the proposals for Marston Vale and the hon. Lady’s concerns. As she is aware, Marston Vale is identified as a priority area for regeneration in the sub-regional strategy, and work on the longer-term growth points towards Marston Vale as the preferred direction for long-term growth. That is acknowledged by local authorities. The proposal for an eco-town at Marston Vale plans to provide about 15,000 homes, with jobs, community infrastructure and open space, which will offer the opportunity for the regeneration being sought. That could have many benefits beyond the building of more homes.

An eco-town proposal for Marston Vale would draw on existing delivery expertise and make good use of former industrial sites. As well as adding to existing settlements and enhancing their eco-credentials, it would help people to live more sustainably by providing access to a variety of infrastructure. The green infrastructure proposed for this eco-town will build on the excellent work by the Marston Vale Trust in this area. There is also potential to deliver sections of the Bedford and Milton Keynes waterway park, which is identified in the east of England plan as a strategically significant green infrastructure project.

There are also proposals for green rapid public transport routes through Marston Vale helping to connect local communities with Bedford and Milton Keynes. Marston Vale, and all the shortlisted locations, has the potential to deliver vital affordable housing for tens of thousands of young people and families. The hon. Lady will agree that their needs cannot be ignored. Those proposals will also help us to respond to the challenges of climate change.

I have mentioned the sustainability appraisal for Marston Vale. Like the majority of the other locations, it has been classed in group B—locations that might be suitable subject to meeting specific planning and design objectives. We are at one of the earliest stages in the process and issues remain to be worked through, at Marston Vale and elsewhere, and the sustainability appraisal identifies those. I shall be blunt with the hon. Lady: the appraisal identifies a number of weaknesses that we would want to see addressed before moving to the next stages.

According to the appraisal, the weaknesses of the Marston Vale location are that

and that

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The third point, about which the hon. Lady spoke strongly, concerns food security. Another key weakness of the location is that

The appraisal discusses other weaknesses of the proposal, including the presence of priority habitats and species, and water supply status.

Mrs. Dorries: Ninety per cent. of the proposed land is arable. The Minister said that the development would make use of previous industrial sites. There are industrial sites there, and that land needs to be taken care of, but 90 per cent. of the proposal deals with greenfield or arable land.

Mr. Wright: I understand that a sizeable proportion of the proposal is about regenerating former brick pits, but I agree with the hon. Lady’s analysis that food security and the provision of good arable land are important. The sustainability appraisal says strongly that that is a key weakness of the proposal. I am not saying that it is not an issue that needs consideration—of course it is—but I am trying to be as balanced and forthright as possible.

To be balanced, the proposal has a number of strengths, including the potential to generate ecological gain, proximity to Marston Vale community forest for leisure and recreational pursuits, and proximity to railway stations, as the hon. Lady mentioned, for important transport infrastructure.

To work through the proposals, a more detailed assessment is under way covering the scheme’s financial viability, the transport infrastructure requirements and its deliverability. Alongside the sustainability appraisal and feedback from the road shows, the work will help us to make decisions on the final list of locations with the potential to become eco-towns.

I cannot stress enough that we are still at a relatively early stage in the process. A lot of work is being done and a lot of strengths and weaknesses are being identified in Marston Vale and other proposed eco-towns. Further work to ensure that all the proposed locations meet the criteria must be undertaken. The final version of the planning policy statement will be delivered later this year. We have also been working with local authorities and promoters to develop and understand the proposals further, including the proposal for Marston Vale. I hope that that will continue as the eco-towns programme goes forward.

The hon. Lady described the eco-towns vividly as having landed out of the sky from Westminster. I fundamentally disagree. There are concerns in her local community, and others, that the Government have somehow imposed the eco-towns on communities, that there has been some sort of done deal in a smoke-filled room and that eco-towns will go ahead regardless of local people’s feeling. That is categorically not the case. After the announcement of the list of potential locations for eco-towns, individual schemes will need to submit planning applications. They will be for local authorities to determine through the local planning process, which will provide a vital opportunity for further consultation.

The PPS reinforces the Government’s commitment to the plan-led system, as was mentioned by the judge in his summary judgment yesterday. We have undertaken
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what we believe to be a full and comprehensive consultation at this relatively early stage on the potential eco-towns and the standards that they must meet, which involve very high criteria for environmental sustainability. We also acknowledge that we need to undertake further work.

There is still time for people to feed in their views. That is my tip to the hon. Lady, who asked for advice. Our second consultation on the shortlist of locations and the proposed standards remains open, and I urge people in her constituency and others to contribute. After we have identified a final shortlist of potential locations, developers will need to go through the local planning process. As I have said, that will give people a third opportunity to have their say, but whatever the outcome with Marston Vale, I think she will agree that we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture that she mentioned.

Eco-towns provide an opportunity for hard-working families to have much-needed affordable housing—great, innovative, sustainable places to live—in her area and in others.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

28 Jan 2009 : Column 102WH

Retrospective Business Rates

2.30 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I am grateful for this opportunity to debate a monstrous injustice that is being perpetrated on businesses in ports: the levying of a retrospective rate demand that goes back to 2005. The rating assessments were made and the bills charged in 2008, yet businesses are being asked for retrospective payments going back all that way.

I am concerned primarily with the ports of Humberside, but the issue affects 678 businesses in ports nationally. It will lead to bankruptcies, labour lay-offs and a failure of investment in our ports at a time when they are already going through difficulties because of the state of the general economy. It will be a particular blow to the ports of Humberside, which are my preoccupation and that of the hon. Friends by whose beauty and intelligence I am surrounded. It is not just a mess; it is a disaster.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Adding to the other side of the equation, will my hon. Friend press the Minister on cancelling the retrospective taxes? When we debated them on the Floor of the House of Commons, the Minister said that primary legislation would be necessary and went on to tell us that primary legislation would be used to phase in the retrospective taxation. If there is time for that bit of primary legislation, there is surely time for primary legislation to eliminate this injustice.

Mr. Mitchell: My right hon. Friend, who fights the valiant fight for Liverpool, makes an excellent point, and I shall raise it later. That is the way we must go.

Until April 2005, the rateable values of hereditaments in the docks and harbours were prescribed by the Secretary of State, who in fact still has that power. Businesses on the docks paid rates via the port owners: the rental that they paid to the port owners went in part to pay the rates on the dock businesses. That system, the cumulo system, still prevails and rates are still paid to port owners in that way, through the rental. However, it was under threat. The Government proposed to end the prescription rating and charge individual rates on port businesses in all 55 statutory ports.

In 2000, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), who was then Under-Secretary of State at the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, postponed the change to the new system, saying that good progress was being made with new valuations, but that they could not come into effect until 2005. She therefore issued an order prolonging the prescription system until 2005.

At that stage, the Valuation Office Agency was required to do new valuations for the individual ratings of port businesses that were to apply from 2005, but it did not. That was the first of a number of failures by the valuation agency, which have got us into this mess. In fact, it did the opposite. In 2002, when Grimsby Fish Dock Enterprises was set up to provide a landing company for fish coming into Grimsby, the valuation agency first asked it for rates, then accepted on the basis of barristers’
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advice that it should pay the rates indirectly through the cumulo system to Associated British Ports, as was happening with all the other businesses.

The valuation agency has a statutory duty to compile and maintain accurate rating lists and to have accurate rating lists to come into force on 1 April 2005, so it was obliged to carry out a revaluation of the ports by 1 April 2005. It did not do so, and the owners of the port businesses were not notified of any change in the system, increase in rates or new rating arrangements from 2005.

The valuation agency woke up to the need to do so only in 2006, when it began to do new assessments. I do not know about Liverpool, but in Humberside those new assessments started in 2007, two years after they should have come into force, and they are still not complete. Four ports have still to be assessed by the valuation agency. That does not bespeak great efficiency or concern on its part.

As a result, at this late stage—since the end of 2008—port businesses in Liverpool, Humberside and other areas have been notified not only of increased rate bills, but of even bigger bills for retrospective rates going back to 2005. For instance, rates for Freshney Cargo Services, which has been persistent in putting its case, increased from £48,000, the normal business rate, to £800,000. Its backdated bill is £2,900,000. In a business that must struggle to increase fees and where importers haggle over every penny increase per tonne, it will have to impose massive increases on business coming through the ports.

The ferry trade is competitive, with very tight margins. P&O in Liverpool and Humberside faces a backdated bill of £6 million. The backdated bill for Rowlinson Timber is £1 million. DFDS Seaways, a Danish shipping organisation, faces a bill of £9.9 million. DFDS says that if it must pay that bill, there will not be any more investment in this country or in the ports of Humberside where it maintains its activities. Grimsby Fish Dock Enterprises now has a rateable assessment of £120,000 and a total back payment of £560,000.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He is making an articulate and powerful case. Is he aware that the retrospective rates increases will affect not just the larger ports that he mentioned, but smaller ports such as Boston in my constituency? The port occupiers’ rates bill will roughly double and, as he said, be backdated three and a half years, which will have a detrimental impact on the economic sustainability not only of the port operating businesses, but of all the tangential businesses that rely on ports, such as haulage.

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