Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local
Government, the hon. Member for
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:
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
3 Jun 2008 : Column 180WH
doubled or quadrupled. That goes to the heart of my concerns about the eco-towns policy and the process of presenting it.
Norman Lamb (
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
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.
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:
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
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
This process, which takes parliamentarians for a ride, is unfair. I know for a fact that the then leader of City of
Michael Fabricant (
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
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
3 Jun 2008 : Column 182WH
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
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
“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
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
3 Jun 2008 : Column 183WH
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.
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.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (
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.
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.
3 Jun 2008 : Column 184WH—continued
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
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.
Most of the towns are to be built on green belt or
3 Jun 2008 : Column 186WH
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.
Hugh Bayley (City of
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
At the time that I made my submission to the Department, the regional
spatial strategy agreed that the city of
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
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
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
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
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
3 Jun 2008 : Column 188WH
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
A second small-scale housing pilot is being built in
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
3 Jun 2008 : Column 189WH
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
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
Mr. Andrew Lansley (
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.
As the Minister knows, a high-quality guided busway is being built to
provide a rapid transit solution to
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 (
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
3 Jun 2008 : Column 191WH
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
3 Jun 2008 : Column 191WH—continued
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
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
I congratulate the councils in the
3 Jun 2008 : Column 192WH
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Dan Rogerson (
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
3 Jun 2008 : Column 195WH
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (
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
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.
3 Jun 2008 : Column 197WH—continued
“and ripe for refitting with green technologies. Given that demand for
housing is right across the
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
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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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
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
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
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.