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What the hon. Gentleman proposes is an excuse for not committing to anything now. Fairly soon, I want to reach an agreement to commit to something. I want to do that now, or in the coming months, not over a longer period. I do not want to leave things vague. [Interruption.] I do not want to have a party political row with the hon. Gentleman. I want to get on and find a way to resolve the matter. Hon.
Members have rightly said that the issue has dragged on for too long, and I agree with that. I want to find a way to deal with it.
The next question was about how circumstances can change for individuals, and whether we would look at changing circumstances as part of the project. The answer is yes, we will. The amount of funding would have to be agreed over a period of several years, and then, as circumstances changed, it would have to change. As individuals develop different health-care needs, the amount of funding would have to address that.
Charlotte Atkins: I want to make a point about the so-called independent review. The Thalidomide Trust has been independently reviewing the issue for 40 years, and it is the organisation that has all the knowledge. There is no need for an independent review. The trust has the information, it has its finger on the pulse and it knows exactly what the needs of its beneficiaries are.
Mr. O'Brien: Which is why we need to access the Thalidomide Trust's knowledge. I hope that my officials can have constructive discussions with the NAC. I met its representatives on 16 July and 22 October, and I hope to meet them again soon for further discussions. My officials plan to visit the trust later this week, and I hope to have a further meeting with the NAC a week or so after that.
The NAC has been clear with me: it wants ex-gratia payments. It has set out its case with force and eloquence. I had the pleasure of meeting a range of thalidomiders just before this debate, and, as I said, I have met with the NAC; they make their points forcefully and persuasively. That is why I am anxious not to get into the traditional
arguments. I could have set out the Government's traditional position, but I want to see whether there are ways to resolve the issue. We need to talk to each other in an honest and straightforward way. I have a view about how we might be able to deal with the matter, and am happy to say that it might work. I hope that it will, but it might not, in which case, if the trust has clear arguments against the proposal, we may have to go back to the drawing board and look at the matter again.
The trust has put forward proposals, but I have concerns about them. For example, if funding is to be directed through the trust, how will we get verification of how it is spent? By and large, we are happy that the trust is a good organisation, and we want to work with it. There is constructive dialogue between it and the Government, but I do not want to drag it out, which is why I said a few weeks ago that I wanted a meeting fairly quickly. I do not know whether we will get a deal before Christmas, but the NAC said that it would like to reach an agreement by then. I do not know whether that is possible, but I would like to do that, if we can.
Dr. Pugh: On a similar point, under the Minister's scheme, if a PCT in the pilot has thalidomide victims who need to be funded via direct payments, the funding presumably will come from additional resources given by the Government for running the pilot, not from existing PCT resources which, as we all know, are stretched right across the country. Presumably the funding will not come from the existing overall PCT budget.
Mr. O'Brien: Yes. Individual budgets will come from PCT budgets, but additional assistance for the Thalidomide Trust to administer the system will not. It is clear that direct payments come from existing budgets in any event.
The question for me is how we ensure that the increased health-care needs of thalidomiders are met. I accept that they need to be met. How are we to do it, and how do we ensure that power remains with individual thalidomiders? If the funding goes to them, they should have some choice about how it is directed, and if they want to direct it through the Thalidomide Trust, we should discuss with the trust how that can best be done.
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings, and a pleasure to talk about the issues to do with Marton Moss and sustainable strategies in Blackpool.
When I was a child growing up in Manchester and Stockport, one of the highlights of our annual visits to Blackpool, after we had done the golden mile and, hopefully, won something on the grab machines and gone on the beach was to go out of the back of the town, which in those days did not have the excellent motorway connection that it has today, and pick up Blackpool home-grown tomatoes from one of the nurseries on Marton Moss. There are not as many nurseries there now as there were when I was a child, but Marton Moss still retains that essential semi-rural character: Blackpool's oldest cottage is nearby-"Blowing Sands". It is criss-crossed with dykes and there are still market gardens, there are horses in paddocks, seven or eight species of birds in many residents' gardens and an 18th century cattle shelter. That is perhaps not what people would expect to find in Blackpool.
This debate is designed to underline a major planning controversy that has blown up about proposals to build hundreds and, in the long run, thousands, of homes in this area and to highlight big challenges about the sustainability and affordability of housing and the regeneration in central areas of Blackpool. The controversy has led to a sustained 12-month campaign to save the Moss, supported across Blackpool by me, as the local Member of Parliament, and by thousands of local residents. It has been further heightened by revelations that the developers wishing to build on the Moss made two £5,000 donations to the Blackpool, South Conservative association-the council is Conservative controlled.
The controversy over the Moss was a central issue in a by-election in the ward in August, not least because of some of the key figures involved in the campaign and allegations that some of the councillors involved would have to decide on the Kensington Developments planning applications. The controversy also throws up big, general questions about the need to have a coherent strategy to link the siting of new homes with coherent skills, employment and environmental policies and the Government's desire to give preference to brownfield over greenfield developments.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one key reason for looking at brownfield sites is that Blackpool has a high water table? If we build on Greenfield sites, we create a danger of flooding not just in Marton Moss, but in parts of Blackpool, North, which I represent, where we have seen exactly that happen.
There are two separate developments at issue. First, the council's core strategy presently envisages nearly 3,000 houses being built in the Marton Moss area.
Secondly, there are two specific planning applications from Kensington Developments to build between 500 and 700 houses, with double that amount of car parking space, on a 17 hectare site. Kensington proposes building on land that already floods frequently and has inadequate sewerage services and roads to cope with such a major expansion. The Kensington applications contain no significant low-carbon or sustainability proposals, no targets for affordable housing and no comments on the threat to local wildlife that is prevalent in the area that would be produced by such a development.
Another issue that is not unimportant is that many other houses that have been built in and around the Marton Moss area in recent years remain unsold. At a time of economic downturn and a certain degree of stagnation in the housing market, there must be grave questions about whether a development of this size would be sold off rapidly.
A key issue is that the council has never had a major consultation with people in the area, either on the core strategy or the Kensington applications, although, as I shall argue, local residents have, in responding to my survey on the issue and via petitions, certainly not been silent on that.
Kensington has been a major developer in the area of Fylde and Blackpool. In late 2008, having sniffed around for about 12 months, trying to acquire parcels of land in and around the Marton Moss area, it formally put in its first planning application for up to 640 houses. On 11 November 2008, I wrote to the team leader for development control in Blackpool borough council, underlining the objections that had already flooded in to me from large numbers of residents in the area about the development, including
"Little consideration for the implications of such a large scale development on congestion and road conditions",
"a number of narrow roads never designed for such a large scale expansion of housing...The potential for deep and significant problems from a major building project...on land where past experience and local knowledge suggests that it could be unstable and unsatisfactory long term for such a development. There are"-
"existing drainage problems in and around Midgeland Road"-
"and the impact on the water table could be severe...Concerns that the character of the area and the richness of its wildlife...could be irreparably damaged by a development which would involve the loss of hedgerows",
"on breeding and foraging habitats as well as...the ability of people to exercise their animals freely-together with small businesses who are sustained by the rural character of the Moss."
"An unacceptable pressure put on existing services-whether schools, doctors or other public provision-in the area as a result of expansion which,"
"did not take into account such increased need."
"I believe in this respect that the Kensington proposals are antipathetic to the Government's and",
"DCLG's objectives of creating high quality, sustainable mixed and inclusive communities".
That was the situation then. But at the same time as the development application had been submitted, the council was producing its own core housing strategy, which produced the large numbers projected over a 15 to 20-year period that I have mentioned. In its defence, the council talked about the need to address the growth point strategy that it had signed up for in 2007 with four other councils. I should like to go back to what the council was obliged or not obliged to do as a result of that. I quote from the general criteria the council was given by the Government in the growth points document on the Department for Communities and Local Government website, which talks about the growth point strategy:
"The Government invited local authorities to submit strategic growth proposals which were sustainable, acceptable environmentally and realistic in terms of infrastructure...proposals will need to set out their local and strategic impacts on the environment (for example regarding water supply, flooding and sewerage)".
There are grave doubts about all those areas in respect of major developments on Marton Moss. The council, in its 2008 document on the central Lancashire and Blackpool growth point, which it signed up to, said that in that area sustainability was its most important consideration.
When the initial core strategy was produced in March 2009, there was an enormous amount of protest. I received 400 plus responses from constituents that were almost unanimously against both the core strategy as it then was and the Kensington application. On Friday 6 March there was a protest meeting at Highfield school in my constituency, near the Moss area, at which I spoke. The leader of the "Save Our Moss" campaign, Angelia Hinds, spoke as well. I pay tribute to Angelia Hinds and all her colleagues on that committee for their sustained and detailed questioning of the council and the developers throughout the whole process. At a council meeting on 15 March, Councillor Fred Jackson, a colleague, moved an amendment to the core strategy to prevent a decision being made on it without proper consultation and detailed examples of its impact. The council gave neither, but moved the goalposts rapidly.
What are the opposition and the arguments? Of course people who live on the Moss, both old and new residents, are concerned and passionate about their circumstances. They have a quality of life that they want to preserve. The practical objections are to the council's core strategy for the whole of Blackpool, as well as what may or may not happen on Marton Moss with Kensington's large development. There is opposition from ecologists at Lancashire county council, and the protesters have a strong understanding about the choices to be made between peripheral and central development in Blackpool.
Many hon. Members know about Blackpool's history. Its drive for regeneration and its bid for the casino and so on were posited on our need for growth, development and stimulus in the town's central areas, where some wards are among the most deprived in the country. I have said repeatedly, and said at the protest meeting, that money is available from the Government and other sources for a properly costed regeneration strategy for housing in that area.
The Moss is called that for a reason. Blackpool is riddled with examples of over-optimistic building producing sunken driveways and constant flooding. I could take you to parts of my constituency, Mr. Cummings, where expensive houses that were built on the periphery several years ago have driveways that are not level, but are v-shaped, because they are in areas where the sand meets the moss. That is why people who live in south Blackpool are known as sandgrown'uns, and those who live at Marton Moss are known as mossheads. There is a lot of history behind the reasons for being cautious about building in the area.
In the wake of all that criticism, the council delayed, and Kensington became impatient and appealed to the Department for Communities and Local Government, when the Government's planning inspectorate stepped in and said that the matter would have to be referred. On 4 June, the front page of my local newspaper, the Blackpool Gazette, quoted the Government's inspector:
"The size of the proposals would significantly impact on the Government's objective to secure a better balance between housing demand and supply, and create high quality sustainable mixed and inclusive communities."
Kensington then made a second application with very few changes-for 570 houses, down from 640-and withdrew its appeal on the back of the second application. To many of us at the time, that seemed a curious, smoke-and-mirrors exercise, which was one reason why I wrote to the chief planning officer on 9 July making exactly those points. At the same time, the council said that it had made major changes in its core strategy, which turned out not to be the case. In my letter, I said that the new proposal was
"essentially a cosmetic exercise and...will have...very little effect in lessening the negative congestion, service use and environmental and other impacts".
I said that nowhere did the application address alternative scenarios for the Moss, to provide substantial employment for the area, such as developing a nature reserve, eco-tourism, and other green business initiatives. I pointed out that it would do nothing to support the housing market restructuring and renewal that Blackpool council, under the regional spatial strategy, had signed up to, nor to renew, refurbish or bring housing space in the town back into use. The regional spatial strategy plan says that local authorities should maximise reuse of vacant and unused buildings.
It seemed that the council wanted to move the goalposts, and a detailed executive report of 15 July to the cabinet executive left the overall direction of travel unchanged. There was no broad consultation with people in the area, and no comprehensive rethink, which Councillor Jackson and other opposition councillors had asked for in the March 2009 debate. A proposal by the opposition for further consultation on the core strategy was blocked by the ruling group. On the back of that, on 15 July I wrote to the leader of the council again querying what the strategy was designed to do. I talked about the lack of a proper in-area bid, and said that the report had not taken any account of the new environmental and local carbon requirements that the Government would demand in housing strategies, let alone new proposals. I also said that any genuinely thoughtful review, which this was asked to be, would have addressed issues such as the revival of allotments, eco-tourism and a nature reserve that might bring new employment to the Moss and to Blackpool's outskirts.
The only response I received to my letter to the leader of the council, after waiting months for a detailed reply, arrived only two or three weeks ago but, curiously, was dated 4 August, and dealt only peripherally with my letter. It included the words:
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