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1 Jun 2009 : Column 104

We supported better local transport, urban light rail and low-carbon vehicles as the alternatives to short car journeys, which, in terms of sustainability, seemed to be the only rationale for the urban extensions. Indeed, low-carbon vehicles are, I hope, only a couple of decades away now, and that is well within the planning scope of either these regional spatial strategies or their successors. We argued that the housing numbers themselves, handed down as they were from national Government models, were unreliable, first, because almost any 20-year model predicting economic and housing development would be unreliable; and secondly, because the growth assumptions were fast becoming out of date. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), who is seated on the Front Bench, confirmed late last year the economic growth assumptions underlying the south-west regional spatial strategy—still intact, I understand. I am not sure whether he would care to intervene on me to defend them now.

The assumption under the south-west regional spatial strategy is that over the 20-year period, economic growth will average 3.2 per cent.—that is plus 3.2 per cent., I should say, for the avoidance of confusion. Clearly, that is utter fantasy. It is a dangerous assumption. On the ground, it translates into the assumption that towns such as Cheltenham will grow enormously through more economic activity, more migration and more growth. However, it completely ignores the important environmental constraints that we are discussing.

We also argued that the Barker review and the whole strategy that gave rise to the numbers were flawed because the issue was about affordability rather than identified local housing need. In 2004, in evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, Barker herself said that if there was a downturn, the targets should be reduced; the downturn has happened, but the numbers have not been reduced. Ministers questioned by the Environmental Audit Committee steadfastly refused to budge on whether they would ever reduce the numbers in a downturn, as Barker had recommended. The Government have departed from even their own adviser’s original strategy and are sticking to the numbers as if they were religious dogma.

There is no connection at all with locally identified housing need. In Cheltenham, the numbers that we have ended up with compare with a housing waiting list of some 3,500 people in my constituency. If a high enough percentage of the original number of 8,500 had been for social housing for rent, that housing need could easily have been coped with. The number that we have ended up with in and around Cheltenham is 13,800. Inevitably, that has forced green belt land and other valuable green spaces into the area freed up for development, and that was based on no rational analysis that I can see. That last bump up in the numbers came as a result of the examination in public and visits by what the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) called “fatuous” inspectors.

Mr. Gummer: Pompous inspectors.

Martin Horwood: Pompous inspectors, then.

I made a freedom of information request to discover exactly how much time those officials had spent in one of the communities into which an urban extension that
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had not been in the regional spatial strategy before was added. I discovered that on the trip to examine the various areas, the inspectors in the examination-in-public process went from Bristol to Thornbury, Quedgeley, Brookthorpe, Gloucester docks, Twigworth, Innsworth, Down Hatherley, Brockworth, Gloucester business park, Crickley Hill and the community in question, Leckhampton. They then went on to Shurdington, Cheltenham, Uckington, Swindon—I think they meant Swindon village—Cheltenham racecourse, which implies a strange route, Prestbury, Bishop’s Cleeve, Ashchurch, Tewkesbury, the southern edge of Cheltenham, Avonmouth and the Avon gorge, before finally finishing in Bristol. How long did that tour take—a month, two weeks? No. It was completed in a single day.

My local paper spent time with a satnav and worked out how long could have been spent in each location. The answer was no more than five minutes. In the examination-in-public report, the tour resulted in precisely 12 words relating to the Leckhampton community. They were:

That was it; there was no further explanation or rationale. On that basis, an area that has been fought over for decades—and repeatedly rejected by local planning inquiries and local planning inspectors as inappropriate for development—is to be handed over to greedy developers.

On the other side of Cheltenham, to its north-west, is an area that is almost entirely made up of green belt land; it stretches up to the toxic waste dump at Wingmore farm, and is also being allocated for housing. As both areas are subject to flooding, I would not rush to buy a house in either area. The treasured green fields that people have enjoyed and valued will be built on as a result of the process.

The Bill does not introduce the greater powers for local authorities that we might have sought. It does not seek to consult bodies such as the Sustainable Development Commission or even allow local regional bodies such as Sustainability South West to influence the development of these strategies to bring in more sustainability. Instead, economic prosperity boards will be brought into the process, so we will have more of the manic pursuit of economic growth without regard to sustainability. I would trust a body such as the Sustainable Development Commission to have a positive influence on this, because it might clear out some of the fluff around the definition of sustainability, and the Government could do worse than to consult it on the definition that they should have in the Bill. Jonathon Porritt, who is my constituent, I am proud to say, has done an exceptional job as chair of the commission, and I am sure that he would gladly oblige the Minister by providing him with a robust definition of sustainability that might give the Bill slightly stronger environmental criteria.

We now have a regional spatial strategy based on a completely unsustainable economic growth rate. A growth-based set of housing numbers will be handed down to the regional spatial strategy, but without the growth. What happens when we have growth-based numbers without the growth? The areas that have been brought into play, including all the large greenfield sites and green belt areas, will be the first, not the last ones that developers make a beeline for. The Government introduced the sequential test for greenfield sites and tried to prioritise brownfield sites but have since abandoned it, which
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might mean that developers end up developing the greenfield sites but never get around to the brownfield ones because, in practice, the numbers will not be delivered.

Nothing in the Bill reassures me that this unsustainable policy will be reversed by the Government, let alone by the democratic will of local communities. There is a lack of a clear definition of sustainability. There is the reinforcement of undemocratic, unaccountable regional governments. There is more hidden power for the centre and the Secretary of State, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) rightly pointed out. There is no reference to any obligation to take climate change, either mitigation or adaptation, into account. There is not even a reference to the Government’s own natural environment public service agreement as part of the regional strategies. There are precious few environmental safeguards, and there is less democracy and less accountability.

The south-west regional spatial strategy is the last such strategy still awaiting implementation—it is still on the Secretary of State’s desk. Perhaps even now she may delight my constituents and get me off her back and those of her Ministers by making some of the changes that local people have asked for. We have some hope of that, but we also have a great deal of fear. My constituents in Leckhampton, Hatherley, Swindon village, Hesters Way and Springbank fear that they will lose their last defence against many of these development proposals, which have already started, and cite the emerging regional spatial strategy as the reason for that. Others fear many other things. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds fears that

prevent biodiversity loss

The Campaign to Protect Rural England is certainly fearful of what may happen. It has identified the potential loss of 27,000 hectares of greenfield sites—an area the size of Birmingham is at risk. That means higher CO2 emissions, loss of local food production, and a catastrophic loss of the green space that is good for our physical and mental health and adds peace and beauty not only to great, sweeping landscapes but on a small scale that is very valuable to local people. It allows them to go for walks in green fields rather than through housing estates, and preserves small fields and small rural environments that are an escape from urban sprawl. Once lost, those vital green spaces will be lost for ever.

Expenses scandals may well be forgotten one day; I think that some hon. Members would like that to happen quite soon. Ministers at the Department should look to the long term and hope that they will not be remembered as the people who empowered regional governments, not local people, and enabled the destruction of large swathes of the British countryside.

8.45 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I sympathise hugely with what the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) has said. I was much amused, but
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equally horrified, by the journey made by the inspectors from Bristol as they travelled around, ostensibly inspecting where the visitation of development should be placed in his neck of the woods. I sympathise with him not simply because he and I have race courses in our constituencies, but because he described the utter absurdity of this Government’s activities in that area of public policy. That absurdity is highlighted and reinforced by the title of the Bill. Others have mentioned it, but it is worth repeating. It is the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill. Let us forget for the purposes of my remarks the aspect of the Bill to do with construction and concentrate on whether it will produce or encourage local democracy or have any effect on economic development.

The provisions in the Bill to set up economic prosperity boards remind me of some sort of Soviet plan or communist China—the direct command economy systems that we thought had died out in the 1980s before the collapse of the iron curtain. But no, this absurd Government, in the final days of their death throes, are coming up with the language of the communist era and the idiotic hope that by passing laws that mean nothing, they will achieve something.

It was notable that the Secretary of State could not be bothered to tell me, when I intervened, how many artificial quangos, boards and other forms of public authority she was creating, or how many they would replace. I suspect that they will not replace any, and that there will be a doubling or trebling of the number of absurd bodies created by this absurd Government in their dying days.

I remind the House that this Government are past masters at the misuse of language. Here we have the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill. I remember in 1998, as the shadow Minister for what was then the Lord Chancellor’s Department, having to face up to the current Secretary of State for Transport, who in those days was a Minister in that Department. He was introducing to Parliament something called the Access to Justice Bill. If any piece of legislation did more to deny access to justice, I have yet to see it.

Since then, an avalanche of Bills have been passed by Parliament, at the behest of this Government, with names that wholly misdescribe the purpose and intent behind their contents. They have all been the size of a telephone book, and the current Bill is no exception. They have all had many pages, schedules and clauses. Looking at the backs of them, one finds that they all repealed huge chunks of legislation passed in the recent past by this Government. I find it difficult to admire a Government who continually behave as though passing Bills were the answer to all our problems and do not concentrate on the issues that need to be dealt with.

The fatuous nature of the Bill is highlighted in its early stages, as I pointed out to the Secretary of State. Clause 1, “Democratic arrangements of principal local authorities”, states:


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Those are perfectly laudable aims, but it strikes me that they are not the priority ambition of a local authority. Sensibly, and at an economic public outlay, its priority ambition is to deliver public services at a local level.

We do not need an Act of Parliament to tell a local authority how to give a civics lesson, yet the early part of the Bill is designed to do precisely that. When I intervened on the Secretary of State to ask her why it is thought appropriate for a principal local authority to have a duty to promote understanding of the functions of other bodies, which are not local authorities—I cited independent monitoring boards established under the Prison Act 1952, courts boards and youth offending teams—the answer was a stream of new Labour garbage.

That was followed by an inability to explain clause 4, which states:

a justice of the peace or a magistrate. There are plenty of people beyond a local authority who can sensibly tell the people in that local authority area what a lay justice does,


That is not a function of a local authority. Yes, individuals, citizens and residents in a local authority area, some of whom may be local authority members, can have an interest in what a magistrate does and what is involved in being a lay justice, but surely it is not a function of a local authority, whether a district or a county council, to promulgate the sort of thing in clauses 3 and 4.

Let me use some local examples to deal with the revisions of regional strategy and other matters in part 5. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) has said, the local citizen, resident and elector is most closely touched and affected by a local authority’s work through planning matters. I assure the Minister for Local Government and his colleagues that my constituents in Harborough are far more concerned about planning matters than discovering from Harborough district council or Leicestershire county council what a lay magistrate does. I also assure the Minister that, if he came to my constituency, he would be left in no doubt about my constituents’ views of several things and what the Government could do with them.

The biggest local planning problem that currently faces my constituency is a plan dreamed up by the Co-operative Wholesale Society, which, by an extraordinary coincidence, comes from Greater Manchester, like the Secretary of State—I put that to one side. It owns 5,000 acres of reasonable, albeit not prime, agricultural land, which it has farmed since just after the first world war. In the past 18 years, since I became a Member of Parliament for the constituency, it has attempted three times to build on it. I understand why it wants to do that, because, at the moment, one gets more money from building houses than from farming. However, if people are to behave as good neighbours, they should take account of their neighbours’ concerns when they decide to build additional housing.

We are considering not an eco-village of 2,000 or 3,000 people, but a massive new town of 40,000 people—twice the size of Market Harborough. That great town will be plonked—parachuted into the middle of rural
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Leicestershire—between Market Harborough, to its south, and Leicester, immediately to its north-west. The Co-operative Wholesale Society doubtless reckons that, given its close relations with the Labour party and the use of the word “eco” stuck in front of “town”, it has a swimming chance of getting the town of 40,000 people up and running.

If we are to have local democracy, economic development and sensible construction, the Bill will not appease my constituents if the eco-town plan goes through. We have agreement in Harborough district and with Labour Members who represent the city of Leicester—I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) in his place—and the affected Conservative Members, who are my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) and myself. This is not all that unusual, but we even have agreement from Liberal Democrat district and county councillors. We also have agreement from the best run county council in the country, Leicestershire, which is run by Mr. David Parsons—I hope that he is returned with a thumping great majority on Thursday, along with an increased number of Conservative councillors. We also have agreement with the citizenry—the voters, the electorate—of those parts of Leicestershire that will be most directly affected by this appalling scheme.

But what has happened? The Government pay absolutely no attention to cross-party or individual objections, nor does the Co-operative Wholesale Society, which has behaved with the tin ear of some petty despot, as it seeks to railroad the plan through, with the connivance of central Government, to the detriment of my constituents.

Mr. Gummer: Will my hon. and learned Friend add to the list of ridiculous expressions the phrase “eco-town”? What kind of eco-town can result in 40,000 homes being built in an area that is currently rural? That is not an eco-town; it is an eco-outrage. Only this Government could call it an eco-town.

Mr. Garnier: I entirely agree. Only the Co-operative Wholesale Society could jump on that bandwagon in the hope of having a third shot at building on that site. It tried to build a new town when I first became a Member of Parliament. Its plans were accompanied by lots of pretty brochures and pictures of butterflies and birds and so forth, but the plan was exactly the same as before. It did not involve such an intensive amount of building or such a huge operation, but none the less, that was the plan. When that plan failed, the Co-operative Wholesale Society withdrew it. In 2007, the society came up with something called a sustainable urban extension, or SUE. It wanted to build a projectile of buildings from Oadby and Wigston, the suburban borough in my constituency that is right up against the city of Leicester, into the area concerned.

The Prime Minister returned from China in late summer or early autumn of 2007—he had been Prime Minister for just a few weeks by then—having spoken to the leadership of the People’s Republic of China, where I understand the planning laws are rather different. He returned with an enthusiastic desire to build something like 10, 12 or 15 eco-towns, which would no doubt be similar to the eco-cities that he saw in China. The hapless Housing Minister—I have forgotten who it was; there have been one or two since—was invited, in that polite way that the Prime Minister has, to provide him with a list of 10 sites from a wider list of 50 or so sites.

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