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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 3 June 2008

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mark Tami.]

9.30 am

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew; it is a pleasure to serve under you today. I am delighted to have secured this debate, particularly given the timing, because there is a meeting next week on 12 June to confirm the proposed location that affects my region.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright). It is always a pleasure to see him. I did my level best to prevent him from taking his seat in a previous by-election, but he is welcome today. I hope that he is able to share with hon. Members the reason that the Minister for Housing felt unable to be here. I raised this issue in business questions just before the House rose for the recess. To my certain knowledge, the Minister for Housing has never presented herself to the House to make the case in person for eco-towns, take questions from hon. Members and respond to our constituents’ concerns. I am sure that there is a good reason for that and I am sure that the Under-Secretary will be able to share it with us. However, it bodes ill for the Government’s policy when the Minister mainly responsible for it and who presents it on occasions in the Cabinet does not feel able to attend.

This sorry scenario started on Thursday 3 April at 9 am, when parliamentary convention was breached in the first instance. Rather than the Minister for Housing coming to the House to make an oral statement—there was no pressing business that would have prevented such a statement being made, as is normal practice—I was invited for the first time ever to a conference call with a Minister. I showed willing. I had never experienced such a call before. I found it a little offensive and insulting that the constituents that I have the honour to represent were excluded from the process of open parliamentary scrutiny. I was kept on the phone for a full three or four minutes before deciding that this was not the best way forward. So we were faced with a written ministerial statement on Thursday 3 April.

The first noteworthy point is that in the written statement the Housing Minister mentioned the prospectus that the Government announced on the web in July 2007, which set out the key criteria for eco-towns:

“Eco-towns must be new settlements, separate and distinct from existing towns but well linked to them. They need to be additional to existing plans, with a minimum target of 5,000-10,000 homes”.

Presumably, the Government consulted on the basis of that prospectus. So it was surprising that in the written ministerial statement the Minister mentioned new settlements of between 5,000 and 20,000 people. Therefore, the size of the settlements already consulted on had
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doubled or quadrupled. That goes to the heart of my concerns about the eco-towns policy and the process of presenting it.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I was fascinated to hear that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) had the benefit of a conference call with the Minister for Housing, albeit that she feels that that was an inadequate process. I share her view on that. I have just discovered that another Conservative Member in this Chamber has had the benefit of a conference call. However, I have not. Does the hon. Lady share my concern that this process is opaque and lacking in any public transparency? Does she also share my concern about the time scale over which this is happening? Critical decisions are being reached that will affect local communities substantially without proper time for scrutiny of the procedure.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because what he said goes to the heart of my concerns about this matter. The Minister for Housing paid hon. Members a grave discourtesy by not presenting herself to the House and, indeed, by not inviting the hon. Gentleman to the conference call that I was unable to attend. The consultation process is flawed.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Further to the intervention by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), I took part in the conference call. I was on the line for about 20 minutes, although for the first 10 minutes it was difficult to get through to the Minister for Housing’s office. However, it gets worse. Not only did the Minister for Housing try to make her announcement by telephone on a day when Parliament was sitting, but she failed to make a transcript of the call, so there is no permanent record of what the Minister said. I give my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York my word for what the Minister said, but it would be nice to have an official transcript of that official ministerial statement.

Miss McIntosh: I hope that the Minister in the Chamber today will give a commitment that never again will hon. Members be faced with this procedure, which is wholly inadequate, insulting and offensive. That is not why I stood for Parliament and sought to be elected to represent the people of the Vale of York. I do not know whether the Minister wishes to comment at this stage.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright) indicated dissent.

Miss McIntosh: Perhaps he will comment at the end.

The press reported that the Minister for Housing said that she would:

await the results of a study by councils to find suitable sites before deciding which to shortlist”.

Although I know the Vale of York quite well, I was mystified to find, in the ministerial statement, that it is now split between two regions: Leeds city region and another one somewhere else further to the north. I discovered that on a shortlist of 15 locations,

“A number of eco-town proposals were submitted for locations within the area of Leeds City Region.”

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I took that point up with Leeds city region and received a nonsensical reply on 25 April from Councillor Robert Light, the Leeds city region leaders’ board chair—I do not know whether he brings the table with him—who stated the blindingly obvious, saying that the boundaries of Leeds city region include 10 local authority districts of which York is one. He did not tell me whether the eco-town on the Clifton Moor-Skelton site was going to be within the City of York part, which is in the Vale of York.

Only having secured this debate did we have the courtesy of a proper response. My office contacted Leeds city region again and this time we heard from Colin Blackburn, the project manager for the Leeds city region eco-town study, telling us which four locations, all within the Selby district, were going to be included. Incidentally, I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) in his place today. Mr. Blackburn stated not that the City of York or the Vale of York were included, but that,

“No other locations within the City Region are now being considered.”

This process, which takes parliamentarians for a ride, is unfair. I know for a fact that the then leader of City of York council had tremendous difficulties trying to find out which site was included.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on securing this debate. She has mentioned that the Government should make a commitment that there will be consultation and agreement with local authorities. Is she surprised to learn that the proposed eco-town on the Curborough site in Fradley—which incidentally will not be eco in any event because by the time it is ready all buildings will have to be ecologically sound—has no support, either from the West Midlands regional assembly or from Lichfield district council? Moreover, it will cause a huge strain on the local infrastructure and will be ecologically unsound. It will not even be an eco-town.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. There are two separate issues. First, the democratic process has been completely flouted. There has been a flawed consultation process and neither parliamentarians, local residents nor those elected to represent them in local councils have access to the information. The second issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) said, is why these towns will not be sustainable and the fact that they are not environmentally friendly. Interestingly, if the chosen sites were all in Labour heartlands, one would have some sympathy with the Government’s point of view and policy. However, all but three sites are in Conservative-held constituencies.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she not agree that there is a housing crisis and that the Government are right to set an ambitious target for the building of about 3 million new homes by 2020? Should not at least a proportion of those be in rural areas, even if they are in brownfield settings? Otherwise, people will be penned-up in urban areas and we shall
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have more ugly, unpleasant urban sprawls, such as Greater Nottingham, which intrudes into the north of North-West Leicestershire. Is there not the potential for eco-towns to contribute to solving our housing crisis?

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The point is that if the measures were genuinely about building eco-houses and towns, and constructing homes on brown-field sites, I—and I am sure many of my hon. Friends—would be willing to support them. However, an eco-town was to be located—I am delighted to say it has now finally been excluded—in the Skelton part of the Vale of York in the city of York on a green belt site that is prone to flooding. More roads and houses would have needed to be built and one of the few green belt parts of the city of York would have been concreted over. Most of the towns are to be built on green belt or greenfield sites, on prime agricultural land, or on land that is likely to flood or is at risk from flooding. Obviously, I do not know all the locations, but according to the Government’s prospectus, eco-towns do not appear to be separate and distinct from existing towns but well linked to them. Most of the proposed sites seem to be miles away from existing settlements.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): My hon. Friend makes her points well and reflects many of the issues affecting West Sussex, where the Government are trying to impose a development of 5,000 houses. Doing so would turn rural countryside into a vast suburban landscape directly linked to other towns, and would merge villages and such developments into one huge suburban landscape. That is completely against the wishes of local people and would completely contradict the draft local development framework and subvert the local and democratic basis of our planning system. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate so that we can raise these issues in an open forum.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I hope that the Minister is listening because we are being moderate and temperate in tone. I can only express the anger that is being felt and has been made known to me from those who wish me to make these points on their behalf—not just those in the Vale of York, but hon. Friends and those who have been kind enough to have written in. Let us consider the views of someone who is perhaps a floating voter. For example, Ben Fogle wrote recently in The Daily Telegraph that the Government say that the eco-town in his home village of Ford, West Sussex,

“will be on brownfield land. This is not the case. Arable land constitutes more than 640 acres of the proposed site and that is where most of the homes will be built...Last year, wheat was grown in more than 40 per cent of the fields”.

Although the Minister represents an urban constituency, he must be aware of the present cost of wheat and food generally. Building in such locations will substantially aggravate that problem. Will the Minister put our minds at rest about what stage the consultation is now at? The consultation period from 4 April to 12 June, when the announcement will be made on the city of Leeds region and the rest of the country, has been very short.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a good case. I congratulate her on securing a timely debate. As she knows, stage two of the
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consultation process concludes at the end of this month. I do not know about her eco-town, but in relation to Middle Quinton, which is right on the border of my constituency, all we know is that there will be 6,500 houses. Yet the second stage of the consultation process concludes at the end of this month by which time the Government will decide how to shortlist 10 towns from 15. If that process is anything like that of getting down from 57 to 15 it will be done in secret. That is completely unacceptable.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. That is why people up and down the country are genuinely angry and feel so aggrieved—[Interruption.] I am sorry for hitting my microphone—I am very angry. We have been excluded from the process and the Minister for Housing has not even got the grace to be with us today. There has not been a lengthy consultation period and the Government even appear to be flouting the usual planning procedures through which people can have their say.

On one or two of the points raised in interventions, will the Minister confirm whether eco-towns will be located in areas that people want to move to and whether there will be jobs for people in these towns? Otherwise, they will have to travel further to work than they do where they currently live. Will people want to live in these houses, and will they be economic to run and maintain? Will the houses be affordable in the present climate? Does the Minister believe that these houses will be built and if they are built, will they be sold?

On the affordability factor, environmentally sustainable housing is more expensive to build, even taking into account the economies of scale proposed by the Government. How will the Minister avoid the eco-towns of today being the sink estates of tomorrow, and what do the Government mean by carbon-neutral? That does not appear to be defined anywhere—either in the prospectus or subsequent Government missives.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): In giving her chronology, my hon. Friend needs to draw hon. Members’ attention to an important issue: the planning policy statement. I do not know whether she will come on to that matter, but the process will involve a departure from any planning situation that has occurred since the second world war and the introduction of the present planning system. The Government intend to issue a planning policy statement that lists the 10 shortlisted eco-towns. That statement will then supposedly be a material consideration for local authorities when they consider planning applications. For the first time since 1945, the Government will effectively direct local authorities that they have little alternative but to approve planning applications for those eco-towns identified by the Government under the planning policy statement.

Miss McIntosh: I have not mentioned that simply because I do not know whether that is the case. The question has to be asked about that. If there is such a planning policy statement, why has it not been published, at what stage will it be published, and can local authorities or groups of residents appeal against it? Those questions are important.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) does the House a great service by pointing out that there has not been a planning policy statement. We have had planning policy guidance on just about everything else but not on eco-towns. Perhaps the Minister could tell us when he intends to publish one. Will the eco-towns attract new business, because in the prospectus that does not appear to be the case? What will happen if businesses are not attracted to these towns as commercial developments? Will they be unsustainable without jobs or amenities, and simply become isolated blots on the countryside? Will work units be provided, and why are some of the proposed shortlisted sites to be located on greenfield, rather than brownfield, land? That is, after all, part of the Government’s criteria.

Michael Fabricant: Before my hon. Friend leaves her comprehensive list, should not the Minister be asked another question? If a town is to be ecologically sound, it must take everything into account, including, as my hon. Friend has pointed out in her excellent speech, distance to work, transport facilities, whether there are adequate roads, whether there is rail and whether there is all the other infrastructure required. Even if a town were ecologically sound, it might be made unsound as a whole by virtue of the fact that people had to move to and from that town. Have all those factors been taken into account? They certainly have not been at Curborough.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend pre-empts the points that I want to make on transport, because currently there is not much reference to transport and infrastructure generally in the prospectus. There are what might at best be described as indifferent public transport facilities available in most of the rural areas where the towns are proposed. That means that those living in the countryside depend more on the motor car, and we know the costs of driving, particularly for those who drive diesel cars.

Michael Fabricant: And the carbon footprint.

Miss McIntosh: Obviously, one is concerned about the carbon footprint, too. Similarly, eco-towns that are proposed to be developed on isolated sites in rural areas will no doubt suffer from a lack of connectivity to nearby towns and cities, which is likely to lead to new infrastructure such as roads and possibly railways, and related infrastructure. As regards other services, each new town will have to have its own schools and presumably there will be access to hospitals. The harsh reality is that schools, particularly small schools, in rural areas cost more and are currently threatened with closure in great numbers.

Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a very good point about transport. That relates to the issue of housing need, which was raised earlier. In my area, 4,000 households are on the waiting list for social housing, but of those 4,000, 1,600 want a house in Bognor Regis and 861 want a house in Littlehampton. There is no demand for housing in a rural isolated spot without transport links and, indeed, without jobs for the people to go to.

Miss McIntosh: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Surely people would prefer to live in an established town such as Bognor Regis, which is so well represented by him, if I may say so. I do not see what the attraction would be to the new towns.

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I have received a number of representations. Some of the most interesting ones, to which I would like the Minister to respond because I am sure that he has received them as well, are from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildlife Trusts, which are very concerned not only that eco-towns should have regard to newts and other such creatures, but that they should have a concept of being eco-friendly and having green credentials in that regard. The Campaign to Protect Rural England is very disappointed at the eco-towns shortlist, because the eco-towns are being put in the wrong place; they are remote and unsustainable.

I have welcomed the opportunity to have this debate. I understand that the city of Leeds region will confirm its proposals. I am delighted that it has excluded Skelton as an eco-town site, because that would be completely inappropriate, for the reasons that I have given. The timing of today’s debate is very opportune. I regret that the Minister for Housing is not in her place and that the Minister who will respond to the debate has been put in this difficult position, but I am sure that he will rise to the occasion. Not once has the Minister for Housing come to the House and defended her decision, put herself under scrutiny or taken questions from colleagues. I hope that this Minister will send a firm message from this Chamber today that there is no place in parliamentary procedures for a conference call that involved my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough and I being kept hanging on for up to 10 minutes, without a formal record being made, even by the Minister’s colleagues in the Department, of what was said in the call.

I put it to the Minister that the consultation process is flawed. It is a sham. It barely pays lip service to democracy. It flouts normal planning procedures. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said, we have not even had sight of a planning statement, which should be the very essence of the consultation at this stage. It is very difficult for parliamentarians to consult and be consulted on this matter. It is very difficult for the elected councillors to be consulted. It is very difficult for those residents whose properties will be blighted. The Minister must respond to that point. What message is his Department giving to those such as the Henman family, who have vigorously opposed the proposed site in Oxfordshire? What response will the Department give if their property prices are blighted?

These eco-towns are neither sustainable nor environmentally friendly. That poses the question why most of them—all but three—are to be built in Conservative-held seats, not Labour areas. If the Government feel so strongly about them, their flagship policies should be in their flagship constituencies.

Mr. Garnier: Which are they?

Miss McIntosh: There are not many left, but we will not mention Crewe and Nantwich at this stage; we just will not go there.

Most of the towns are to be built on green belt or greenfield sites, on prime agricultural land. If the Minister for Housing is so convinced of the case for eco-towns, she should be here today to defend the case and promote her policy herself. I would like this Minister, in making the case as to why eco-towns are good for the environment,
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to respond to the points that have been raised both by me and by other hon. Members in interventions—I look forward to other contributions.

These eco-towns appear not to have regard to adaptation for climate change. The Minister must make the case in that respect. They should certainly be built from permeable materials and be resilient to flooding. I visited many areas that were flooded in the summer last year and I would like to know who will say which materials are resilient and flood-proofed. Will someone in the Department give them a kitemark? Does that mean that if someone is subsequently flooded, having used those materials in an eco-town or an eco-home, they will have a case against either his Department or the manufacturers of the materials?

These eco-towns will increase congestion. People will have long travel-to-work distances and there will be huge infrastructure implications—I am thinking of the new roads, new schools, public transport routes and access to hospitals. In short, the case for eco-towns has yet to be made. I regret that it falls to this Minister to make the case, but I am waiting to hear, once and for all, why these eco-towns should be built and why this process has been followed, flouting all normal parliamentary channels and all planning procedures.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. A considerable number of hon. Members wish to speak. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind in relation to the length of their speeches.

9.57 am

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): There are two drivers for the Government’s policy on eco-towns. The first is the rising demand for homes, especially in areas of high economic growth or high population growth and places with a severe problem of housing affordability. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)—I will call her my hon. friend—knows well that those strictures apply very strongly to the city of York. The second driver for the debate about eco-towns is the environmental imperative to build in the future in different ways. I want to say a few words about both drivers.

In my response to the housing Green Paper in October last year, I pointed out that City of York council estimates, based on a housing market assessment carried out by Fordham Research, that the population of the city of York will grow over the 10 years to 2016 to 192,600—a 9.5 per cent. increase—and the demand for homes over the same period will increase by some 20 per cent. The study estimated that York needs to build 982 additional homes a year for each of the next five years.

At the time that I made my submission to the Department, the regional spatial strategy agreed that the city of York should have a target of building 640 new homes a year—far short of what is needed. I am pleased to say that the spatial strategy has upped that figure to 850, which is much closer to the figure that City of York council believes is needed. The regional spatial strategy is about to be reviewed once again to take account of the Government’s new housing policies, and I would expect a further increase for York.

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I say to my friend, the hon. Member for Vale of York, that there can be no doubt or disagreement among those from the City of York on the demand for new homes. We know from our surgeries that there is a substantial demand. We hear it from local families, who cannot afford somewhere for their children to live. Children in their late 20s are still living at home as a result of housing pressures in the city. The question is not whether we need these homes, but where and how to build them.

Mr. Garnier: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last question and the implied statement contained within it. Is he aware that there are 673,000 empty dwellings in England? Is he aware of the number in the City of York? Does he not think that the Government and city and borough councils ought to ensure that proper use is made of those empty houses before looking only at another solution?

Hugh Bayley: The answer is both/and; it is not either/or. The City of York has an extremely low rate of unoccupied council housing, although in some cities massive estates built in the 1960s are no longer used or needed because of city flight—another real problem. We have seen some good projects in the City of York. One was the living above the shop scheme in the city centre, which was an attempt to open up the upper floors of Victorian and early 20th century buildings to make more housing available. We need to do that, but however much effort we put into it, that alone will not be enough to meet housing needs in all our constituencies over the coming decades.

Secondly, I want to speak about the environmental imperative to build in different ways. In his report on the economics of climate change, Sir Nicholas Stern told us that the world needed to halve its current CO2 emissions by 2050. We know that countries such as China and India are rapidly increasing their CO2 emissions as they industrialise, so the already industrialised countries with the highest emissions—the UK’s emissions are much higher per capita than China’s—need to cut them by more than 50 per cent.

Sir Nicholas estimated that a cut of between 60 per cent. and 80 per cent. would be needed in the UK, which we will discuss in a week or two when the Climate Change Bill comes to the Commons. I recently heard Sir Nicholas speaking on the radio, saying that if he had known then what he knows now he would have estimated that we needed a cut of more than 80 per cent. To achieve those cuts in our carbon emissions, in order to limit the global temperature rise by the middle of the century to a level that does not impoverish hundreds of millions of people around the globe, we need to change the way that we do many things in Britain—including the way that we build homes.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman makes a cogent case. The Government will improve the standard of all new houses, so that they are built to the same standard required in the eco-towns. Therefore, the eco-towns are simply a con, to allow new towns to be built in locations where they would otherwise never be permitted.

Hugh Bayley: I am not persuaded by the hon. Gentleman’s argument. The Government rightly set out the ambition of achieving zero-carbon homes, but they will achieve that aim only by pushing through pilots to
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show how it will be done—to test the new technology in order to discover what works on the larger scale and what does not.

The Government have financed some important small-scale pilots. In my constituency, City of York council recently gained funding from a developer, as a result of planning gain, for a new headquarters for its neighbourhood services direct works department. However, there was only enough money to build a conventional building. The council wanted to do better than that, and it sought funding from the Government. The Government provided £681,000 to allow the new headquarters to be built with environmentally friendly technology. It has a timber-framed construction, with straw bale cladding—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York will be pleased to hear that the straw was grown in the Vale of York. It has low-energy under-floor heating, a wind turbine and photovoltaic cells, and that it collects rainwater for washing the council’s vehicles. It is designed to high environmental standards.

A second small-scale housing pilot is being built in Victoria way in York by York Housing Association with Government funding. Eight new homes are being built to the German PassivHaus standard, which includes high levels of insulation. They will gain heat from the sun through windows that allow the greenhouse effect to warm them; they will have excellent airtightness, using a whole-house ventilation system which will extract 95 per cent. of the heat of the warm air from the house and put it into the cold air being drawn from outside to save energy. It is expected that no fuel will be used for 10 months of the year, and fuel use will be much lower than normal for the remaining one or two months.

Those small-scale pilots demonstrate the technology that will be required when building homes for the future. It is not something that can be left for 10 or 20 years: once a house is built it is difficult to retro-fit such high environmental technology. We will be left with those houses for 100 years. We have to make the changes now. It is one thing to make changes on a small scale by piloting the technology, but we need also to do it on a community scale so that we can deal with the sort of issues that the hon. Member for Vale of York so rightly pointed out, such as the environmental impact of travel to work or for shopping. It is not quite as simple as she suggests—that one should not build in rural areas because it is bad; and that one should build in urban areas because it is good. One must balance the whole environmental envelope, including, of course, the transport issues that she raises.

Unless we find places to pilot that new technology on a community scale, we will not learn enough, or learn it quickly enough, to meet the goal of zero-carbon housing set out by the Government. I support the Government on the principle of piloting environmentally sustainable building on a large scale. They clearly need to consult carefully over locations, and take account of local views—although almost any large-scale housing development will attract opposition. However, I also ask them to consider putting money into the building of eco-districts in existing towns and cities—and they could certainly be Labour towns and cities.

When the first eco-towns prospectus came out, I discussed the requirements with people in York and asked whether it would be possible to make a bid, using two large brownfield sites in York—one a large site on
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old railway land about two thirds the size of the area within the city walls; and the other on a large site currently occupied by British Sugar. At the limit, those two sites, which are almost connected, would together be enough for 5,000 homes. I took the view that the area was probably too small for what I imagined would be the one Yorkshire eco-town pilot. However, if the Government want to pilot the ability to create viable communities within urban areas as well as the countryside, they should be piloting eco-districts within existing towns.

Many colleagues wish to speak, so I shall conclude with some specific questions for the Minister. The latest “Eco-towns: Living a greener future” document identifies the Leeds city region as an area for an eco-town. It says that eco-towns will have a 30 to 50 per cent. affordable component and that they will include social housing to rent. If the 10 local authorities of the Leeds city region work together, identify a site and build a new community, the nomination rights of that social housing will lie directly with one of those local authorities, yet it is clear that the entire sub-region will need to work together. The north Leeds-Harrogate-York triangle is often called the golden triangle—housing pressures are most intense in that part of Yorkshire. Will the Minister tell us whether the nomination rights for social housing will be shared by authorities in the region once a site has been identified and built?

City of York council has put forward a bid to the Government for housing growth point status for the combined railway land and sugar factory site, which is called the York Northwest project. The plan appears not to fit the criteria for eco-town or eco-district status under the Government rules, so will they support the growth point bid?

Clearly, York has enormous housing demand, huge problems with housing affordability and a lack of political consensus about where to build, partly because it has never defined the green belt—that did not happen under the Conservatives, Labour or Liberal Democrats, nor under the current hung council arrangements. I have asked the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust to organise a round-table conference to bring everyone together to build a consensus on where the housing in York should be built. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York will attend, but will the Minister ensure that Yorkshire Forward, the Government regional office and DCLG are represented at the meeting?

10.11 am

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing this timely debate—it is only four weeks until the end of the consultation on the original shortlist of eco-towns.

The Government announced last July that they were in favour of eco-towns. The Prime Minister said that he wanted five and for the first to be built at the Oakington barracks in my constituency—the Minister has visited the site—which will become the new town of Northstowe. We welcomed that and said that we wanted Northstowe to be the first eco-town. However, since the announcement, an outline planning application for Northstowe that does not meet eco-town standards has been submitted.

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As the Minister knows, a high-quality guided busway is being built to provide a rapid transit solution to Cambridge’s major employment sites. Northstowe could certainly accommodate 8,000, and the outline planning application is for 9,500. The new town ought to be the first eco-town, which would mean that it meets a higher standard for sustainable homes, for example, but the outline planning application came in at level 3, so the local authority is having to go back and say that it wants at least level 4 to begin with. Ministers said that the development ought to be powered by solar and wind, but the application is for only 20 per cent. renewable energy, so the local authority has had to say that it should be better.

The Government do not have no control over the situation because English Partnerships is a principal partner in the new town. We in Cambridgeshire wanted Northstowe to be in the eco-town list and for it to be the first eco-town. If the Government get behind Northstowe with English Partnerships and support the local authority—we have high-quality transport and the housing growth fund is examining new biomass combined heat and power for energy supply—we could create the first eco-town and begin building homes perhaps within only two years.

We were therefore surprised, when the Government published the shortlist of eco-towns, that Northstowe was not in the list after the Prime Minister said it would be. By contrast, Hanley Grange—for the benefit of my constituents who will read the Official Report of the debate, it will be at Hinxton Grange—is in the list. Why is Northstowe, which could be the first prototype eco-town, not in the list, and why is Hanley Grange, which is in my constituency, in the list when it should not be? Time will not permit me to go through all the reasons why the Hanley Grange proposal does not meet the criteria for an eco-town—the consultation will demonstrate that—and this is not the occasion on which to set those out in detail.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) rightly pointed out, the policy is the planning framework that the Government are creating to bring the list forward. The county structure plan inquiry in Cambridgeshire went through all the sites of potential new towns and established that Northstowe and Waterbeach were the first and second priorities respectively and that the third, which is being actively promoted by Cambridge city council, is for an urban district like that described by the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley)—for an urban extension of 12,000 on the east Cambridge site on the airport to have an eco-town that is part of Cambridge city. We are actively working toward that, as set out in the county structure plan. The developers for Hanley Grange put forward their proposal for the county structure plan—it was submitted in April 2004—but it was rejected because there was no infrastructure south of Cambridge to support the development. The only green thing about the proposal is that it has been recycled since 2004.

The critical point is that we have the planning structure in place. We have the county structure plan and the local development plan has been adopted, but three weeks ago the Minister published a regional spatial strategy that said that the infrastructure south of Cambridgeshire would not support a large new settlement. The RSS said that an examination leading to the next
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RSS of the possibilities for a large new settlement with the associated changes to infrastructure necessary to support it should begin.

We supposedly have a plan-led system and the whole of the local plans have been adopted—there is no bit of draft planning outstanding. The plan in Cambridgeshire is for 42,500 new homes, of which 17,000 will be affordable, and I must tell hon. Members who talked about urban and rural areas that my constituency is the combined urban and rural district in which new homes are being built faster than anywhere else in Britain. On what basis can Ministers say, “Hang on a minute: do something that isn’t in the plan, that slows the process of development locally, and that every local authority believes will impede progress in building the homes that are required for the local population and for the employment growth in the area”? Why is Northstowe not in the list, and why is the plan-led system not following the established plans?

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10.17 am

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I congratulate my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), on securing the debate. I would certainly not keep her waiting on the phone for 10 minutes for a conference call, but I have taken great pleasure in co-operating with her on a large number of issues in North Yorkshire in recent years.

I am conscious of the time and how frustrating it is to sit here and not get the chance to speak, so I shall condense my remarks. I support eco-towns in principle and I should like to see what is possible in the Selby district—there are several possibilities. Two types of people come to my surgeries to talk about housing issues. In the first category are people who are desperate for housing. They could be among the nearly 2,000 on the council house waiting list in Selby district or those who simply can no longer afford to buy in the district. When I first became an MP, the average house price in the district was about three times the average salary, but it is now about seven times, so many of my constituents who want to start a family and get on the housing ladder cannot do so.

The second category of people who come to speak to me about housing are those who are worried about unplanned development in their villages. People in Church Fenton and Sherburn in Elmet, for example, complain that the infrastructure does not necessarily come with the housing that is built. I thought that eco-towns would be a way to square that circle—they would bring much-needed housing and infrastructure to the rural area of Selby, including the necessary public transport, schools and medical services.

We are part of the wider Leeds city region. The regional spatial strategy that has been agreed by councils and the Government for Leeds shows that we need to build 13,800 houses annually, but we are building only 9,000 at the moment. An eco-town would not solve the problem entirely, but it would make a big contribution towards solving it.

I congratulate the councils in the Leeds city region on their approach. As the hon. Member for Vale of York said, they are meeting on 12 June. They have commissioned the consultants GVA Grimley to look around the Leeds city region to find the best site. Four sites in the Selby district are being considered. Burn, which has a big airfield on which economic development is planned,
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and Church Fenton, where a third of British pilots are still trained, are probably not the front-runners. The choice probably boils down to the site at Eggborough and Kellington and the site at Gascoigne Wood. The rumours are that the consultants will recommend Gascoigne Wood to the Leeds city region next week, but we will have to see. I have not had sight of the papers and I do not know what the Leeds city region will decide.

Eggborough and Kellington has been debated a great deal, but the Gascoigne Wood site has been debated less, so let me put on record what I think it consists of, having spoken briefly to UK Coal. The total area of Gascoigne Wood is 640 acres. The site is an old mine, and its core was previously a rail-head—all the coal from the old Selby mine came to the surface there. About 200 acres of the 640 are farm land. There is consent for commercial use on 150 acres, which would result in a net area of 100 acres for development, according to UK Coal. The remaining land would be used for screening mounds and green areas on the eco-town site.

If the city region backs the site, a lot of questions will have to be answered about road access and about improving public transport and the existing rail link between Hull and Leeds. There is therefore an awful lot of work to do, but having backed the policy in principle at the national level because of the housing shortage, it would be absolutely hypocritical of me to turn around and say that there should be no possibility of our having an eco-town in the Selby district.

If Leeds city region backs a site in the Selby district next week, I hope that the Government will add it to their 15 sites. They have already allocated one of the sites to the Leeds city region, but I hope that they will confirm the site that the region puts forward for further work and development. As I said, my support for a particular eco-town site is not unconditional, and a lot of work must be done on the planning, roads, infrastructure and so on. My starting point, however, is that I want the proposals to work, such is the urgent need for housing in the Leeds city region and in Yorkshire and such is the urgent need for environmentally friendly housing.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. I would like to start the winding-up speeches by 10.30.

10.22 am

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing this Adjournment debate. As she said, this hapless process began on 3 April, when the Housing Minister telephoned us in that ridiculous conference call, before publishing her document “Living a Greener Future”, or whatever it was called. An O-level student would have had that document sent back to them if they had presented it as an exam piece. It has all the hallmarks of having been pulled together very quickly; indeed, it was probably put together in the previous 24 hours—the wonders of computer printing now enable Departments to do such things. The document’s intellectual content—particularly as it relates to the eco-site in my constituency, which the developers call Pennbury—demonstrates to all of us in my constituency that this is a pretty shoddy process.

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The process did not, however, begin on 3 April. In 2006, a number of secret meetings—secret is perhaps an emotive term, but it is accurate—were held by the developers of the site, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), to see whether their previously withdrawn application could be reheated as a sustainable urban extension. Once the Prime Minister returned from his trip to China, however, the developers decided to change their application and to propose an eco-town of 15,000 dwellings, rather than a sustainable urban extension of 5,000 dwellings.

The site is sometimes described as brownfield by those with an interest in developing it. English Partnerships owns 400 acres of prime grazing land, which used to be part of the farm attached to the Stretton Hall hospital. It is still prime grazing land—it is not brownfield land in any possible understanding of the term. The Co-operative Wholesale Society owns not quite 5,000 acres on the site, which are also prime farm land. That estate contains Stoughton airfield, where there is a private aerial club belonging to a number of individuals—I cannot say what the club’s membership is, but a substantial number of people belong to it. The only bit of brownfield land, properly described, is the two runways. There are also some airfield buildings, which house the clubhouse, and a control tower. The land within the perimeter of the airfield is farmed. I was there not long ago with my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who is my party’s shadow Housing Minister. We went on to the top of the airfield buildings and saw tractors cutting hay within the airfield’s perimeter. This is not, therefore, a brownfield site, and the concrete and tarmac cover approximately 6 per cent. of the entire development site.

If I were the owner of 5,000 acres of prime agricultural land and I thought that income from farming was not too hot, I would of course do my best to maximise the return on my capital and use every lawful means to apply for housing and other forms of commercial development. However, I would do that on the basis of the facts and I would be candid with members of the public—particularly those who would be affected by the development.

Time does not permit me to repeat what I said in my Adjournment debate on the Floor of the House on 29 January—the Minister also responded to that debate, although he was cut short by the half-hour knife. Unfortunately, the level of public knowledge about the process and the particulars of the site in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton has not improved one iota. Representatives of the Co-operative Wholesale Society gave us a briefing in November 2007—English Partnerships has kept remarkably quiet throughout the process. They gave us a pretty little PowerPoint slide show in Market Harborough, with lots of birds and butterflies and all sorts of things of that nature. It was hugely reminiscent of the slides that they showed us in 1990, when they were trying to develop the very same site, although they called it Stretton Magna in those days; it is now called Pennbury. However, there was no detail, because those who gave us the slide show said that such things were commercial in confidence and that it would be embarrassing for them to have to reveal too much.

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The short point, however, is that the development would provide us with 15,000 dwellings and 12,000 jobs. Fifteen thousand dwellings would mean a town of approximately 40,000 people, which is the same size as Banbury, twice the size of Cirencester and just a little smaller than Lichfield. This town will go nowhere other than on top of prime agricultural land, but what is it that we need more than anything else at the moment? We need food that is grown and processed in this country for the home market. If this ludicrous proposal goes through, 5,000 acres of some of the finest agricultural land in England will go under the bulldozer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York powerfully set out our arguments against this process. I urge hon. Members, the Minister and the Housing Minister to reread what I said on 29 January. Not even a moron in a hurry would put an eco-town—or any town—of this size and nature on the site in my constituency. I urge the Minister to get it off the list of 15 sites before the credibility of the Government and the two developers goes beyond and below basement level, which is where it is at the moment.

10.29 am

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate. As we have seen from the involvement of hon. Members—and I am happy to receive interventions from those who have not yet had the chance to speak, and want to raise local concerns—the subject is causing great alarm in several areas where proposals have been put forward quite quickly. Some of those are for sites that have been subject to the threat of development in the past, as we have just heard from the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). In other cases, the spectre of unplanned development, in the context of the local development plan, has arisen quickly.

The hon. Member for Vale of York raised several points, including the speed with which the proposals have been advanced, and the lack of consultation with elected representatives at all levels. Of course there is then the concern that the media get hold of it straight away, and no one is prepared to respond, or to react to the concern and alarm among constituents.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Is the hon. Gentleman aware, from parliamentary questions that I have tabled, that the Government have a major interest in seven out of the 15 sites, and stand to make nearly £1 billion if the proposals go through?

Dan Rogerson: I am certainly aware that the hon. Gentleman has been pursuing the issue through parliamentary questions, and, as we have heard from other hon. Members, there could be a bonanza for landowners, whether they are in the public or the private sector.

Hon. Members including, I think, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, have raised in interventions the matter of empty homes, and I sympathise with that point, as I represent a constituency where, in addition to empty properties, the growing number of second homes is a huge problem. The issue of environmental standards has also been raised. We need those to be tightened, and of course we welcome the fact that the
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Government are gradually, inch by inch, moving to the sort of environmental standards that other countries have had for many years. However, the point has repeatedly been raised that eco-towns will not be doing anything over and above what other developments will be required to do in the not too distant future.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) raised an important question: do the bids that have moved to the next stage—because, let us be honest, the amount of scrutiny to which they are subject is limited by the time scale—meet the original criteria? That is a crucial question and I hope the Minister will consider it. Will the towns be sustainable? Will there be the required public transport links, which are being developed in existing communities and would be present to a far greater extent in the eco-district developments that the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) described? Will they be built on sites with great environmental value for the community, whether that is agricultural or other community value?

We spent a long time last night and yesterday afternoon debating major projects, and the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) played quite a part in that debate. My party’s great concern is that the current process represents another part of the trend to ignore the local consultation process and all the investment that has been made in consultation and building the community’s confidence that its views—whether on large-scale infrastructure projects or housing development—matter. That is all being set aside by the quick imposition of new development that does not meet the criteria within which local authorities must demonstrate that they are working.

Some of the settlements that we have heard about in the debate may have some value, but it is difficult for people to scrutinise the bids and put forward their views in the tight time scale. There is a proposal in Cornwall, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor). Initially he was suspicious about whether the bid would be able to provide all the benefits of a true eco-town, as one might understand the concept in relation to links and the use of brownfield land. As things have moved forward, he has become more confident that it will, but like everyone else he is concerned that local consultation should play its full part in what happens.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As the hon. Gentleman says, he and I took part in the debate on the Planning Bill yesterday. Would not a better idea, in the interest of sensible planning, be to pilot a few of the towns, particularly in areas where they are wanted, and not to proceed with towns in areas where there is huge local opposition and huge opposition from all the authorities involved, as is the case in Middle Quinton, next door to my constituency?

Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible proposal, and a bidding process that involves local authorities, representing their communities, is a far more effective one. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire explained how it had been hoped that one proposal would move forward with the full benefit of Government support; however, those hopes were dashed, and to add insult to injury, another site not too far away, which does not necessarily meet the criteria, was selected. That seems bizarre.

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We must be sceptical about whether the transport links can bring about truly sustainable settlements that will offer the country the benefits it wants in meeting CO2 reduction targets. It is not only that the houses that are built need to be energy efficient; there are questions about the materials that will be used, and whether the techniques will be available for sustainable building practices. The hon. Member for City of York mentioned a public building in his constituency that meets those standards, and houses that are intended to do so. However, that will not necessarily happen, and I will welcome any reassurance that the Minister can give about how the building is to take place, and whether the settlements will truly be able to be called eco-towns.

My party wants reform of the planning system, not along the lines that we discussed yesterday, but more to ensure that local authority development plans are sustainable, incorporating targets for CO2 emission reductions to encourage the development of renewable energy facilities, and accounting for the climate change consequences of policies, including transport. Of course, strong feeling was expressed in the very close votes last night about whether the Planning Bill goes far enough, with respect to major infrastructure projects, in putting climate change at the heart of what is happening.

We believe that we should move much closer to the passive house standard that Germany has had for some time, which the hon. Member for City of York mentioned—certainly no later than 2011. If we did that, carbon emissions from new homes would be reduced by 95 per cent., compared with existing stock. That would bring us far closer to where we need to be. As the CPRE has pointed out, even if the eco-towns provide the number of houses that are being suggested, that is only about 7 per cent. of the homes that will be built in the relevant period. That will not have a huge effect. It is somewhat tokenistic as far as fulfilling a commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

Planning policy must be based on evidence, on local and regional need and on consultation, and carrying the community along. I am reminded of a recent debate on large-scale housing development, in Northamptonshire. We discussed exactly the same issues, and exactly the same point of view in the community, whose hopes of having their views listened to were raised and then seemed to be dashed. Planning policy does not deliver for those communities. The process that we are discussing is not based on evidence or need, and is certainly not based on consultation.

10.39 am

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on her eloquence and passion in making her case, and on securing this important and topical debate. I congratulate also my hon. Friends who have spoken, as well as those who have not and who have campaigned on the issues on behalf of their constituents in the past few months. My hon. Friend made a valid point about parliamentary accountability, and in particular the ludicrous conference call. I caution her to count her blessings: she could have received a one-on-one 6 am conference call from the Prime Minister.

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The Opposition have taken a pragmatic and practical view of eco-towns. We are not against them per se, but we have set a number of key indicators and measures to test their efficacy, and as I shall say later, if time permits, we believe that the Government are failing those tests. We will support on a cross-party basis locally supported measures to build sustainable, eco-friendly communities on genuine brownfield sites. The precedent in respect of the 2003 sustainable communities plan is not strong. If anything, it is not sustainable. We will certainly not give carte blanche support to controversial and unsuitable developments that have merely been re-badged as eco-towns—one possible example is Ford in West Sussex—or those that seek by a circuitous route to meet the Government’s centralised, top-down housing targets.

We believe that there should be strong local support based primarily on the local authority’s agreement. Measures should not be imposed by Whitehall or regional quangos, and there should be a clear benefit to the wider community. We also believe that there should be supporting infrastructure. Even if the town is eco-friendly, there must be sufficient infrastructure around and near it, including sufficient transport capacity. I shall come to those issues later when I speak about Cambridgeshire in particular. Front-line public services such as schools and hospitals are also important, as is water supply, for which demand will increase. We will need incentives from central Government and support from developers.

We believe in environmental protection. Eco-towns should not be built on green-belt land, in areas of special protection such as areas of outstanding natural beauty or sites of special scientific interest, or in areas of flood risk—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York made a powerful case in that respect—unless new and additional flood prevention measures are put in place. We believe that eco-towns should champion new green technologies, low and zero-carbon technologies, technologies to reduce water use and sustainable building materials. In Curborough, for example, that is certainly not what is happening. I shall refer to that later.

We believe in real communities. Eco-towns are being plonked in the middle of rural areas without any affinity for local communities or the people who are supposed to live there and with no real thought for those people’s medium-term quality of life. Social housing should be included, and we should be championing flexible forms of tenure such as private rent and do-it-yourself shared ownership as well as private ownership.

Those tests are being failed. It is as well to consider the rationale for eco-towns. Only last month, Lord Rogers of Riverside said at the Building Centre in London:

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“I think eco-towns are one of the biggest mistakes the Government can make... They are in no way environmentally sustainable.”

He argued that they will damage both rural and urban environments while increasing road congestion and carbon emission.

Brian Berry, director of external affairs at the Federation of Master Builders, said that

“building brand new eco-towns outside existing towns and cities is a really bad idea when there are 675,000 homes in England alone sitting empty”—

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a point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)—

“and ripe for refitting with green technologies. Given that demand for housing is right across the UK it makes more sense for every village, town and city to have new housing rather than creating brand new settlements.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who may be an old cynic but who has been in the House for 16 years, made an important point in questioning Ministers about the issue of the capital receipt that will accrue to the Treasury from the sale of several Ministry of Defence sites such as Ford, and Middle Quinton in Warwickshire. It is a shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) is not here, as he has made a big contribution to that local debate. I hope that the Minister will answer those questions as he goes along.

We need to focus on infrastructure. It is as well that the Campaign for Better Transport has made a valid contribution to the debate. It considered the situation in its document “Lessons from Cambourne”. Cambourne, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), is described as a proto-eco-town—

Mr. Lansley: It is a village.

Mr. Jackson: Well, it has been described as a proto-eco-town. In fact, owing to the lack of transport infrastructure, car use there is higher than it has ever been: 95 per cent. of households own a car, 56 per cent. own two or more and 81 per cent. of the working population drive to work. That is a powerful lesson. Unless the Government get transport infrastructure right, they are disregarding the whole concept of the eco-town. I hope the Minister will consider that issue.

Dermot Finch, the director of Centre for Cities, supports that view on the lack of infrastructure:

“Most of the new eco-towns will be plonked in the countryside, miles away from the concentrations of jobs, shops, and services found in existing city centres...symbolic measures like low-speed limits won’t stop them from getting into their cars to commute to work, generating both congestion and emissions in the process.”

Hugh Bayley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jackson: I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I need to make some progress and conclude in order to let the Minister answer.

Openness and transparency are key issues. The CPRE feels strongly about the

“unwarranted level of secrecy surrounding the initiative so far; the fact that it appears to lie outside the planning system, and a lack of evidence demonstrating that these schemes will offer truly sustainable models of living and working.”

That is important: the proposals seem to be outside both local plans and regional spatial strategies. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) made that point in his eloquent remarks during his Adjournment debate on this issue not long ago. Professor David Lock and the Local Government Association made the point that the planning system is being circumvented in order to drive centrally imposed housing targets. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s viewpoint. The proposals have sadly lacked accountability in respect of Parliament. Local accountability
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and transparency have been non-existent and there is a great deal of ignorance about the proposals at all levels. Frankly, an arrogant disdain has been showed towards democratically elected local councillors, residents associations and others.

The Government have failed to make the case for eco-towns coherently, transparently and with the benefit of strong local support. Indeed, they have not commanded the support of Members of the House: early-day motion 920, tabled earlier this year by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), indicated his concern about consultation on eco-towns, and the Minister will know that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) has objected strongly to proposals in his area. The Government need to think again about eco-towns in order to win the support of local people and the House in their laudable aim of delivering homes for people who need them. They have failed to do so. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who I hope will address some of the key issues raised by me, my hon. Friends and other hon. Members.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr. Martlew. We seem to be permanent fixtures in this Chamber. I have enjoyed today’s debate and the contributions from the Conservative Members lined up in front of me. I now know what it feels like to be before a firing squad, but their contributions were valid and worth while. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing this important debate. I know from seeing her in the Library from dawn till dusk that she works incredibly hard on behalf of her constituents. It is fair to say that she has demonstrated that again today with extremely pertinent questions.

I am disappointed, however, at the point that the hon. Lady made today, and in business questions last Thursday, about how she was disappointed to see me responding to the debate. I shall respond to that important point about the availability for this debate of the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), and to the one about her conference call mentioned a number of times by hon. Members. The hon. Lady will know that it is entirely within the confines of parliamentary convention for Under-Secretaries to respond to debates in this Chamber, which is entirely fitting—I think that she knows that and was being slightly cheeky in raising that point. However, I am profoundly disappointed that she was disappointed to see me.

The hon. Lady also made a very important point about the conference call, and suggested that it showed a disregard for parliamentary convention. I believe passionately that quite the reverse is the case. My right hon. Friend wrote to all MPs ahead of the announcement on 3 April, on the day of publication, made a written ministerial statement, which fell entirely within the confines of acceptable parliamentary convention, and wrote to hon. Members whose constituencies would be affected by the eco-towns list. The offer of a telephone briefing was made over and above the written ministerial statement, because she believed—rightly, in my opinion—that the availability of hon. Members at Westminster on the last day before recess might be low. She actually moved in
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advance of parliamentary convention, so I do not accept the point made against her that that amounted to a lack of clarity or transparency.

Miss McIntosh: I am never disappointed to see the Minister, whether in the Library or in his customary place responding to debates. However, what is the right hon. Lady frightened of, and why will she not subject herself to parliamentary scrutiny? We all have to do it, whether as a humble Back-Bencher or from the giddy heights of a Cabinet Minister. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, it is one thing to write a letter, but another thing to present herself to her peers and take questions from them—we are only asking them on behalf of our constituents who feel so strongly about this issue.

Mr. Wright: I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but, on 20 May, my Department answered questions in the House, and I seem to recall that she herself asked a question about flood risk in her area. My right hon. Friend was available to answer questions on eco-towns and other matters, so she is not running away at all; she is available to be scrutinised by Parliament on the Floor of the House at departmental questions. That is obvious to all.

Since I last had the opportunity to speak on this matter, there has been a great deal of activity in the Government’s eco-towns programme. I shall bring to the Chamber’s attention the work going on in this significant area and respond to points raised by the hon. Lady and other hon. Members. Before that, however, it is worth repeating, as other hon. Members have done, what we are trying to achieve by building eco-towns.

Mr. Gibb: The official in charge of the eco-town policy, Henry Cleary, gave evidence last week to Arun district council’s scrutiny committee inquiry. He said that the planning policy statement, to be issued at the end of July, would be “location specific”. Does that not change the nature of planning guidance, which ought to be about general principles, rather than turning them effectively into central Government directives that subvert the locally and democratically based planning process?

Mr. Wright: I would like to draw out of this debate two essential themes: one is the important point about process, which the hon. Lady mentioned quite a lot, and which I shall go on about quite a bit too. The second important point is about location-specific issues, which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) has raised with me and others on many occasions and in an excellent fashion.

I shall start from the beginning, however, and explain what we are trying to do with eco-towns. As my hon. Friends the Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) mentioned, eco-towns give us a unique opportunity to tackle in tandem two of the greatest challenges facing the country: to ensure that we provide the homes so sorely needed for the people of this country, and to address climate change and environmental and sustainability issues—two extremely important points. Eco-towns have the potential to deliver vital, affordable housing to tens of thousands of young people and families. We want to build 10 eco-towns
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delivering up to 100,000 new homes, with a significant proportion—between 30 and 50 per cent.—being affordable homes.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: For the record, I am on no circulation list, even though my constituency abuts Middle Quinton. Could I be put on one? I also suggest gently to the Minister what I said to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson): out of this debate the Government should trial one or two eco-towns, learn the lessons about where they are wanted and then roll out the programme. That is what the Chinese are doing at Dontang, just outside Shanghai.

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I think that we can build in new thinking to our eco-towns policy, as he suggested, on a variety of things, such as health, community empowerment, age-friendly development—as a country, we are all getting older—and cutting resource and carbon use. The eco-towns will, and should, be designed around the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, so that residents have more flexibility in how they travel, rather than no option other than to drive everywhere.

The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of process, with which I agree wholeheartedly. In April, the Minister for Housing made a statement to the House outlining the process so far. We have received 57 expressions of interest for eco-towns, and have looked at proposals across Government and with other agencies, particularly to assess flood risk—I know that the hon. Lady is very interested in that—and scarcity of natural resources. We have also considered effects on the natural environment, the green spaces that we all have the right to enjoy and the protected landscapes or species that inhabit it, which was a point made by the hon. Member for Peterborough. Crucially—this theme has emerged in today’s debate—we also looked at sustainable transport, which is essential to the new eco-towns. Submissions must clearly demonstrate how they will encourage a reduction in the reliance on the car, and a shift towards other, more sustainable transport options.

In the expressions of interest, we looked for high-quality offers on accessible public transport and developments designed around the needs of pedestrians and cyclists.
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As the Chamber is aware, following that initial scrutiny, we are now conducting a full public consultation on the 15 shortlisted locations, and we will take every opportunity to engage with local authorities and the general public during this time to ensure that all views are heard. The consultation document elicits views on the benefits and principles of eco-towns, and we are asking people to tell us what types of technologies, development standards, housing, green space, travel and wider benefits they would like incorporated, as well as to give us their views on the 15 shortlisted locations. We will feed outcomes into the second round of consultations.

Miss McIntosh: The Minister touched on the sustainability of transport, but has not mentioned where the jobs in such towns will be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) asked, will people have to travel further to work?

Mr. Wright: The hon. Lady raises a very important point. We do not want a mismatch between employment, business activity and homes. With technological advances, there is an ability to work from home and so on, but that is another very important point to be considered.

Hugh Bayley: The hon. Lady ignores the fact that at the moment people travel large distances because of housing shortages. Poor people, who supply the service jobs in York for the rich incoming professionals, often travel from Selby or Goole by car. Additional housing, which we need, might well be closer to where people work.

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point.

Unfortunately, I do not have time to answer many of the points raised, but I promise to write to hon. Members. Building a new generation of towns is a tough challenge, but one that we must meet if we are to achieve our goal of meeting the demand for housing, which is so sorely needed, while tackling climate change and sustainability issues. We have a real opportunity to do something new and innovative, to create some great places for people to live in and to leave a tremendous legacy. Eco-towns can provide that, but decisions will not be made in some darkened room, but as part of the full planning application process. I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for providing an opportunity to give further guidance on the Government’s policy on eco-towns.