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19 Jan 2010 : Column 58WH—continued

19 Jan 2010 : Column 59WH

We expect universities to maintain their high standards. Yes, some people say-I am sympathetic to their view-that we want towns that do not have a university. If possible, it is sometimes better to have a satellite campus rather than a new fully independent university, which just repeats the costs of administration, such as vice-chancellor's salaries and so on. We must guard against that. I favour satellite universities and campuses. However, I also believe that we must maintain high standards. My Committee's recent inquiry on the training of social workers and teachers discovered that students in our country can get into university with deplorably low levels of qualification. We must maintain standards in university admissions and in the quality of degrees delivered.

We also need the highest quality of governance in universities. I have recently seen worrying figures about the range of salaries for vice-chancellors. Everybody in the sector knows that we are not breeding enough men and women who are good material for vice-chancellors. There is a dearth of vice-chancellors. I heard of a recent scandal in which a university was so desperate for a vice-chancellor that it appointed one without even taking up his references. The story of what happened to him is a sad one. On the other hand, I heard recently of a metropolitan university that suggested advertising for a head of business studies-one department in the university-at a salary of £250,000. We must have good governance at the very top. I do not mean professors. I looked at the average pay rates for professors and lecturers recently; they are perfectly modest. I have a vested interest, as I have a son-in-law and a daughter in the academic world. Researchers should be paid a decent salary-not the exorbitant bonuses of the City, but salaries that are commensurate with their qualifications and talent.

Lastly, I believe that we must be very careful about the overall governance of our universities-how they are managed and directed. We should look seriously at how they are structured, how staff are included in the governance structure and at the sanctions and precautions for universities that are running into trouble. I mention only the recent problems at London Metropolitan university, although that is not the only one that has had problems, as the Minister knows. We must have better governance and we can have it without too much bureaucracy and without sacrificing the principle that universities are independent. They should value their independence and so should we.

1.20 pm

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) on securing the debate. As all hon. Members know, he is probably the greatest champion of universities in the House.

My hon. Friend is not new to subject of the contribution that universities make to their civic communities and the wider economy; he has returned to it over many years. He considered the issue as Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee. Indeed, last week he questioned me in the House on the subject. I welcome the opportunity to respond to this important debate and to put it on the record that the Government take
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substantially the same view as he does. We believe that universities have an important role to play at the heart of their communities. He made the point well that if we took universities out of the places where they exist, it would be devastating. He will recognise that many hon. Members would love to have a university in their constituency. There are still parts of the country where access to higher education is not what we would like, largely because there are no universities there. He was right to put his comments in the way that he did.

A couple of years ago, research commissioned by Universities UK showed that universities directly employed about a third of a million people and that they indirectly supported the employment of a similar number. The report estimated the economic impact of higher education in the UK to be £45 billion a year. These days, most universities support business growth, standing shoulder to shoulder with other agencies such as local authorities, regional development agencies and regeneration vehicles in local communities in supporting businesses. I recommend to all hon. Members the document "Standing together", published as long ago as November 2008, in which universities moved swiftly to demonstrate to employers and local authorities what they could do to support economic growth in the downturn, many months before others caught up. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that universities have to work in partnership. There are Opposition proposals to abolish RDAs, which make an important impact in keeping local and regional connections intact.

It is important to put on the record the intrinsic value of universities. In our democracy, we value learning for learning's sake. Universities play an important part in the cultural and democratic life of our country. They are autonomous of Government and we celebrate their role. We also celebrate the contribution of many students and the National Union of Students to voluntary work on campus and in surrounding communities. We celebrate the employment that universities bring and their sporting life. Universities bring a raft of contributions.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I apologise for missing the start of the debate, Miss Begg, but I had a constituency visit.

The Minister is making a lot of sense. Does he agree that it is important that universities provide specialist, niche skills so that industry and the economy can thrive? I am thinking specifically of nuclear engineering skills, which are provided by Manchester university. I received correspondence from it only yesterday asking me to draw the Minister's attention to the need for the Government to continue to support and facilitate it in providing nuclear skills for our future.

Mr. Lammy: Of course, Manchester is one of our great universities. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Government set out in "New Industry, New Jobs" the importance of key sectors of our economy that are integral to our growth. Universities pipe into those industries, of which the nuclear industry is one. I have not seen the letter, but I will look at it closely and liaise with the Minister for Science and Innovation if there is anything I can do. Of course, it is hugely important that we support the future economy of this country, and universities are key to that.

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Huddersfield university has as one of its mission statements, "Inspiring tomorrow's professionals". It runs programmes ranging from foundation degrees for public service professionals to postgraduate masters degrees in entrepreneurship and research programmes involving close working with businesses, not just in Huddersfield, but across the west Yorkshire region. It has one of the youngest vice-chancellors in the country, and in 2009 he was named business person of the year by TheHuddersfield Daily Examiner for the contribution the university is making in the area. I recognise the importance of Huddersfield university to regeneration. There is no better advocate in this place than my hon. Friend for universities of that type.

It is important to recognise that these are tough times. Like all areas of the economy, we are asking universities to make efficiencies. That must be considered against the backdrop of the Government increasing university funding by 25 per cent. since 1997. Our overall spend in higher education is now more than £12 billion. We must recognise that universities are able to lever in to their sector substantially more money as a result of that investment.

We have asked the sector to make savings, but I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that those savings are relatively small. Indeed, the recent grant letter that the Secretary of State sent to the sector amounted to an additional 1 per cent. on the teaching grant. We have indicated that there will be further savings up to 2013. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that that will be spread across the entirety of higher education, science and beyond. We do not yet know what the outcome of the spending review will be.

I stand behind all that my hon. Friend said and reassure him that the Government are with him in this endeavour. We are committed to higher education, as we are to further education, early years and secondary education. They all needed improvement in 1997. We are now in a position in which HE can be the guiding light as we move forward in this difficult time for our economy. I recognise how important the university will be for the people of Huddersfield.

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Hatchfield Farm Development

1.29 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to have you chairing our proceedings, Miss Begg, and I am grateful to the Minister for being here to respond.

We are here to discuss the proposed Hatchfield Farm development in Newmarket. The proposal is to build 1,640 houses in Newmarket overall-enough to house 5,000 people in a rural town with a population of around 15,000. It is proposed that 1,200 houses will be built on the Hatchfield Farm site itself. Newmarket is a rural town with a unique and colourful history, and it is one of the few places in the country that can genuinely boast of being an international hub for a high-value industry. The proposal would effectively increase the town's population by a third, which would be the equivalent of adding a development for 3 million people on to London. The proposal would damage an industry that provides a large share of all the jobs in the town.

Newmarket is home to two of the country's most famous race courses, almost 70 miles of gallops, 2,800 acres of fully maintained training grounds, 62 stud farms and 79 licensed trainers. At the peak of the season, more than 2,500 racehorses are in training there, and all are stabled in and around the town. Hundreds of horses need to be exercised on a daily basis, which is one of the compelling sights to be observed every day on the streets of Newmarket.

However, there is already a large and growing traffic problem-indeed, that is the very nub of the issue at hand. The more traffic with which trainers and racehorse owners have to deal, the less likely they are to make the commitment to Newmarket that the industry needs to survive in the town. Newmarket can have a more severe traffic problem, or it can have a horse training industry, but it simply cannot have both. To put it simply, under the proposals for the Hatchfield development, Newmarket will have a traffic problem that is potentially destructive.

It should be noted that Hatchfield Farm is not the only place where houses may be built, and that the council's proposals have been for a general urban extension to the north-east of Newmarket. However, Hatchfield Farm is considered the only realistic sizeable site for the extension. The proposal submitted to the council by the landowner of Hatchfield Farm is for 1,200 dwellings to be phased over 15 years, as well as retail outlets, restaurants, community facilities, sport and recreation facilities, a primary school and a park-and-ride facility. We should bear it in mind that the council's proposed plans also include 240 homes to be built on brownfield sites by 2020, as well as 200 more on greenfield sites by 2031. That would take the number of houses to be built in Newmarket to 1,640.

Why would the building of so many houses have such an impact on the all-important horse racing industry in Newmarket? First, the raising and training of young thoroughbreds requires a quiet and tranquil environment. The disturbance that will inevitably be associated with the construction and occupancy of so many houses and the noise of so much extra traffic will destroy that tranquillity. That is what has led Richard Fletcher, the chairman of the Newmarket town council development
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and planning committee, in his role as a spokesman for the town council, to assert that:

He goes on to say that:

Barton Willmore's evidence to the public examination in respect of the draft Forest Heath core strategy that was commissioned by Tattersalls, which is the leading bloodstock auctioneer, states:

Barton Willmore goes on to point out that:

In the document planning policy statement 3, which was released by the Department for Communities and Local Government on 29 November 2006, criteria were set out. That document states that local authorities

Will the community that such a development creates help to destroy the predominant local industry and employer?

Beyond those essential considerations, it has been suggested in the Barton Willmore evidence that

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Peter Grimm, the strategic traffic manager of Suffolk county council, has said about the nearby junction between the A14 and the A142-a key arterial junction into Newmarket-that

That is significant, given that the proposed developments would increase the size of the population using the junction quite dramatically. However, as it stands, nobody seems to be willing to pay for the upgrade.

At best, there is a widespread perception in the horse racing industry that Forest Heath district council has failed to consult and communicate effectively with it. That is particularly regrettable because Forest Heath has defended and promoted the industry in an exemplary way. For example, in my lifetime as the local MP, a one-time slump in racing meant that a number of local training yards were up for sale and their owners approached me-and, indeed, the council-aggressively to get permission for change of use into residential housing. The council admirably rejected those pleas, and the essential character of much of Newmarket was retained.

The overriding question is why the proposal is still moving forward. Two key issues need to be addressed: why are the houses potentially being built, and why are they being built on this site in Newmarket, when there is no demand and space is available in the nearby village of Red Lodge? The answer to both those questions can be found in the regional spatial strategy, which has been imposed by the East of England Development Agency. That strategy has in turn been imposed on Forest Heath district council and requires it to build 6,400 homes between 2001 and 2021. The requirement for 2021 to 2031 is 3,700 dwellings. That adds up to 10,100 houses by the year 2031. In the seven years between 2001 and 2008, 1,625 homes were built, which leaves 8,475 still to go. We are, of course, talking about one of the smallest local authorities in the country.

To put it simply, no local authority can avoid the targets set out for it in the regional spatial strategy, as the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 strengthened the powers of the Secretary of State over local planning authorities. The local development framework, which the local district council produces, must be in general conformity with the regional spatial strategy and must go before an examination in public by a planning inspector before approval. That planning inspector can recommend changes, and if the planning authority refuses to carry them out, there is a default power for the Secretary of State to impose changes in the LDF.

As well as strengthening the powers of the Secretary of State, the 2004 Act abolished the next level down from regional planning bodies-the county structure plan. The Act therefore strengthened central powers and the powers to override the concerns of local councils and local people to move planning strategies forward, while at the same time detaching the setting of quotas further from local circumstances.

The regional spatial strategy is the driving force behind the proposed development at Hatchfield Farm. The councillors at Forest Heath have been left with no option but to plan for the overall construction of 8,475 houses between 2008 and 2031 in their area of jurisdiction and responsibility.

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The reason more houses are being considered on the scale of the Hatchfield site is that Forest Heath district council is being required by law to do so by the regional planning authority. If the council had not submitted its core strategy, as part of its local development framework, it would have left the district with the risk of a policy vacuum, meaning that it would lose control over many planning applications because it would no longer have a five-year housing land supply. That is the draconian reality of the situation.

A letter from the Government office for the east of England dated 14 September 2007-the time of a campaign on saving local planning policies-stated that the local planning authorities

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