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19 Jan 2010 : Column 65WH—continued

The risk of a policy vacuum would also jeopardise the ongoing application of the existing saved policies that protect the training and breeding industry, which is a key and difficult point in the context of Newmarket.

Newmarket is one of only three towns in the district covered by Forest Health district council. It has, in practice, restrictions placed on it for expansion purposes by the fact that it has training grounds around it for horses and many training yards in the middle of the town. That highlights more than anything else the total inflexibility of the regional spatial strategy. Instead of allowing the housing stock in the area to grow organically, it requires an amount of housing to be built without regard to the local constraints faced. That is what leads us to the position we find ourselves in today, hence the debate.

Newmarket is not the only place where houses are being built. For example, the nearby smaller town of Mildenhall, which has a population of 10,000 and has certain restrictions placed on it because of existing flood plains and the presence of the US air force, has a target of 1,330 houses to be built by 2031.

Residents of Newmarket, to their great credit, have shown that activism is not dead in the 21st century. The group Save Historic Newmarket has shown a remarkable ability to galvanise people to action and organise them. I would like in particular to acknowledge the campaign led by Rachel Hood, Fiona Unwin, Jacko Fanshawe and many others for effectively raising civic awareness and attempting to preserve the built heritage of the town and its unique character, which stretches back over several hundred years.

That is why the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), has said that, if the Conservatives are elected, she will abolish the bureaucratic and undemocratic tier of local planning. That will include the abolition of the regional spatial strategies, the regional planning boards and national and regional targets. She has said that she anticipates primary legislation in the first year of any new Conservative Government and that, prior to introducing such legislation, she would consider whether to use the executive powers of the Secretary of State to revoke the regional spatial strategies in whole or in part.

The core of the issue is this: if the current framework for planning applications remains in place, not only will the people of Newmarket be left with the Hatchfield
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Farm development, but similar developments will be imposed on other communities with little or no regard to the feelings of the local people who have to live there or to their livelihoods.

Towns and villages all over the country are being considered for expansion to meet the quotas for housing that are set down in the various regional spatial strategies. The central targets are laid out before the regional planning bodies, which then impose targets on district councils such as Forest Heath. Those councils are then forced to propose developments such as the one that I have described. The people who live in the places affected then have to organise themselves and expend huge amounts of time and energy defending their interests and those of their town for sense to prevail. It is time for the Government-I hope we will get some comment from the Minister on the matter-to recognise all the difficulties they have created for so many people due to the implications of their draconian policies.

Housing must reflect the real needs of real people, which is why developments such as those proposed for Hatchfield Farm must be prevented before they are begun. I hope that the Minister will now understand why I have introduced the debate. It is clear that there appears to be insufficient flexibility in existing legislation to deal with the problem that has arisen in Newmarket, which I dare say is replicated in other parts of the country. As a result, the local council has found itself at the receiving end of a huge tide of local anger, and the situation has been compounded by communication and consultation issues. I cannot believe that such absurd inflexibility, which in this case will damage the quality of life and the main industry of the town, was in the minds of the Government when the 2004 Act was drawn up.

Newmarket is a precious jewel in the life of England, with its extraordinary character and history. Frankly, however, the proposed development, which is obscene, has the capacity to destroy it.

1.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg, and to respond to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on securing it. He is clearly a champion for his constituency and for the racing industry that has made it famous. He has set out a passionate and fascinating case for the industry and its contribution to the local economy.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, because a planning application has been submitted to Forest Heath district council that could come before the Department for consideration, I am unable to comment on the details of the proposal. As he said, the local authority is at an advanced stage with its core strategy for Forest Heath, and that plan is being tested by the Planning Inspectorate through an examination in public, so I hope that he will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the merits or otherwise of that plan. However, I can discuss some of the more general points he has set out and try to respond to them.

It is through the core strategy that Forest Heath district council is planning for the future development of the district in the years up to 2021. Its aspiration is to achieve a suitable balance between protecting the area's
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local distinctiveness and enhancing the district's high-value business and tourism economy, which the hon. Gentleman so eloquently described.

The recently published comprehensive area assessment for Suffolk highlighted the fact that although people in the county generally enjoy a good quality of life, the economy is not as well developed as it could be. I am told that high wage opportunities are relatively limited, especially in the more rural parts, that modern businesses are not being attracted into the county in sufficient numbers and that there is a lack of housing to meet the needs of local people.

The east of England plan, as the hon. Gentleman said, puts in place a framework to deal with some of those issues. It promotes sustainable development, especially in respect of housing shortages, supports the continued growth of the economy and enables all areas to share in prosperity in the future. It has identified a need to deliver 6,400 homes in Forest Heath by 2021.

Housing targets have been determined using a strategic, evidence-based approach that takes into account current and future need and demand. Forest Heath's target of 380 homes per annum was delivered last year, but more housing will need to be delivered to make up for under-provision in the past, when only 50 per cent. of the target was achieved between 2001 and 2004, and to meet growing local needs.

There remains a significant unmet need for housing, especially affordable housing, right across the county, and that is no different in Forest Heath. Only 23 per cent. of homes built in the district in 2008-09 were designated as affordable homes against the target of 35 per cent. in the east of England plan. It is therefore important that authorities across Suffolk continue to work to deliver much-needed homes and to provide for the local community's needs.

As we know, it is Government policy to ensure that everybody should have the opportunity to rent or buy a decent home at a price that they can afford in a place where they want to live and work. Indeed, this Government invested more than £11 million between 2005 and 2009 in the form of grants to registered social landlords to support delivery of low-cost home ownership and social rented housing in Forest Heath.

We continue to support authorities in delivering more affordable homes through the housing pledge, in particular the national affordable housing pot. Two developments in the area have also been shortlisted for Kickstart funding. The district of Forest Heath lies in the Cambridgeshire housing sub-region, which was allocated £112.3 million for 2008-11 to help to ensure that more affordable homes can continue to be developed locally.

Newmarket, as the largest town in Forest Heath and the international home of horse racing, as we have heard, plays a key role in driving forward the area's future prosperity, and that is recognised in the council's draft core strategy. The plan-it was not drawn up by me, and I am not a spokesman for the council-identifies the need to develop and promote Newmarket's role as the living heart of British horse racing while at the same time seeking to increase the town's potential for business and economic growth, and for better fulfilling its role in the Cambridgeshire sub-region. The plan proposes
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1,640 homes to be delivered in Newmarket by 2021 to help to meet the needs of local people and businesses. It also identifies the need to develop and promote the area's economy.

The core strategy sets out the vision and policies that have been formulated in consultation with the local community. As I said earlier, it is being tested through the examination-in-public process, which is an important forum for considering the area's future. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and others who are interested in the area's future and who have a passion for the area, as he set out this afternoon, will follow it closely. I hope that once it is complete, a strong vision for the future will be in place that everyone with an interest in Newmarket can get behind.

Mr. Spring: I am most grateful to the Minister for replying so courteously and comprehensively. I want to understand the procedure if there is a situation in which, for whatever good intent, a housing development is likely to have an extremely corrosive impact on the life of a community, employment or the environment. I would like to understand what the role of the Government might be in considering how to take the matter forward if a proposal does not correspond with what is set out in the local development framework.

Mr. Austin: An application for a proposed development at Hatchfield Farm has been lodged with the district council. In the first instance, it is for the local authority to consider it. However, the scheme could come before Communities and Local Government Ministers for determination, which is why, as I said earlier, it is not possible for me to comment on the proposals at this point.

It is the policy of the Secretary of State to be selective about calling in planning applications. In general, he will take such a step only if planning issues of more than local importance are involved. Such cases could include those that may, for example, conflict with national policies on important matters, have significant effects beyond their immediate locality, give rise to substantial regional or national controversy, raise significant architectural or urban design issues or involve the interests of national security or foreign Governments. There is a range of factors on which applications could be called in, and each one is considered on its individual merits. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will be making representations as the issue develops to the local authority and to the Government.

In conclusion, I wish to make one more point. The hon. Gentleman said that it is his party's policy to abolish regional spatial strategies, targets for housing development and all the rest of it if it were elected. The challenge that he and his colleagues face is to demonstrate to their constituents and, indeed, families across the country how they will ensure that they can provide the homes that this country needs and that families are desperate to buy-there are young people in his constituency, like everywhere else, who are desperate to own a home of their own-without some kind of national, regional and local planning framework that ensures that such homes are, in fact, developed.

The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues need to demonstrate how we could rely on local authorities across the country-on their own, without any form of co-ordination at a local, regional or national level-to
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ensure that homes were developed. It is simply not true to suggest, as his party does, that regional spatial strategies are some kind of new and terrible invention, when we in England have had regional planning functions for decades. Even in the past, the county structure plans were drafted within a strategic planning context set by regional planning guidance. In one form or another, it has always been the position that we need co-ordination at a national, regional and local level if we are to ensure that the homes that people need to live in are developed, and that jobs in the
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construction industry are protected. I apologise again to the hon. Gentleman for not being able to comment in detail on the development about which he is concerned, and I thank him again for securing the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

1.58 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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