Thames Gateway

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:13 pm on 20th October 2005.

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Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) 1:13 pm, 20th October 2005

I congratulate Mrs. Engel, who, as I am sure the whole House will agree, made an articulate, passionate and very human speech. It was nice to hear. Often, this House can be tremendously pompous, so it was a great relief to hear somebody speak in a human way about her life, passions and experience, and what brought her into politics. I suspect that as a passionate Liberal rather than a passionate socialist I will often disagree with the hon. Lady, but I look forward to doing so often. I am certain that she will make an enormous contribution to this House. I congratulate her on a superb speech that has set the tone for the debate, which I am sure I shall now let down.

To echo the Conservative spokesperson, Mr. Syms I hope that the comments of Liberal Democrat Members will be taken in a constructive manner. We, too, think that the Thames Gateway offers a tremendous opportunity. We disagree on some of the details, but I hope that the Minister will take my comments in the helpful spirit in which they are intended.

In her usual impressive way, the Minister went through the complexities of the project. It is very complex indeed. We are wholly signed up to the view that there is a need for many more homes in the south-east, but we do not agree that the only way to deal with the housing crisis is through shared equity schemes and the abolition of stamp duty. Such schemes may play a part, but we passionately believe that there is a great need for far more housing in the area. We do not agree that all that housing needs to be provided through brand new homes—there are other opportunities of which the Government need to make more use. We believe that the priority for any development must be to do with sustainability, jobs and transport—issues that the Minister touched on—as well as environmental considerations, which are key. Many of these developments will be on flood plains, but also, ironically, in areas that suffer from a shortage of water resources. My hon. Friend Mr. Rogerson, who is hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would like particularly to cover environmental considerations such as flooding, drainage, building regulations and transport issues, so I will leave the detail of those to him in the hope that he has that opportunity to speak.

We need to recognise that although the Thames Gateway offers something that London lacks—the space that we need—it is not a blank canvas. About 2 million people already live there, many in areas that are among the most deprived in the country. We must ensure that the benefits of the project are felt not only by families moving into the area but by those who already live there. It is vital that, unlike the docklands developments in the 1980s, local people are fully involved all the way through and have their views recognised and put into the proposals.

Let me deal with the need for more homes, which is controversial in this House. We do need more homes because hundreds of thousands of people across the south-east cannot afford a decent place to live. It is not just about buying property—there is a desperate need for social rented accommodation. I represent an area in north-west London where the housing crisis is critical. Every week in my surgery I meet people who have been on a housing waiting list for 10 or 15 years, living in appalling overcrowding. That situation is replicated across the whole of the south-east. The implications for people's lives are enormous and devastating.

It is easy to talk about the statistics, but too often we forget what they mean for families who live in such appalling conditions. I meet people who have a family member with TB, which is then passed on across the whole family. We would not expect to find that in the century in which we live, yet it is happening all across the south-east, and at a frightening level in my constituency. People living in temporary accommodation get moved on, lose contact with their GP and are unable to keep up with their drugs, so the TB develops resistance. We do not expect that level of poverty, but it is what we are dealing with. That is why we need so many more homes. Record numbers of people are in temporary accommodation—Shelter estimates that there are 73,000 across London. Many key workers, as well as young professionals with families, are priced out of the market.

The proposed scale of development is phenomenal, but I do not agree that it should be all about new homes. There are 750,000 empty homes in the UK, including almost 60,000 in the eastern region, about 90,000 in London and 80,000 in the south-east—a total of about 280,000 empty homes in the areas that we are discussing. In addition, about 1 million residential units could be created in empty commercial space above shops—at least 75,000 in London alone. The Government have introduced the empty homes and living over the shop initiatives and they give tax breaks for owners who put flats above shops, but much more could be done. The Government recently closed their consultation on the empty property management orders. I urge them to produce their report on that consultation, use it and introduce secondary legislation as soon as possible. My hon. Friend Mr. Davey argued strongly for that during the passage of the Housing Bill and we are keen for the initiative to be implemented.

We also believe that there is an option of equalising VAT on renovation and new build and we urge the Government to consider that. The Treasury has considered introducing VAT on greenfield development, but that has been postulated more as a method of getting money for infrastructure development than of providing a tax break for renovations and conversion. I would be interested to know whether any discussions had taken place about those proposals.

Localising business rates and giving councils the ability to provide incentives for businesses to come to an area would help to regenerate business and the economy. I was therefore disappointed that the Government postponed the Lyons review, and I would welcome assurances that they are still considering the idea. Since 1997, they have said that they would consider it, and I should like to know whether the Minister remains keen on it.

The demographics of the population should be clearly understood when new homes are built. We have an ageing population, but also many more single people living alone. We also have a high proportion of ethnic minority communities who may require large properties because they live in extended families. That is a problem in my constituency, where the shortage of larger properties especially disadvantages members of Asian communities who wish to live together. In the winding-up speech, will the Minister detail the sort of demographic mapping that the Government have undertaken and what further work they plan?

In a response to an intervention, the Minister said that the Government recognised the great need for affordable housing. Have they set a target for that in the Thames Gateway development? What would be the breakdown between affordable housing and the social rented sector? As other hon. Members have said, that is a key priority for the area. In a deprived community, the social rented sector is often squeezed out in favour of affordable housing initiatives. Although the latter are important, they leave many people in a position that is no better than their previous circumstances.

The Government have a national target of 60 per cent. for new development on brownfield sites, but the Thames Gateway development has exceeded it so far. That is welcome. Is there a presumption that such developments should take place on brownfield sites? I hope that that question will be answered later.

The Government are publishing new planning guidance this autumn setting out what regional density should be. They said that the density in the Thames Gateway should be 40 dwellings per hectare, which means, given the existing brownfield site, that almost all that housing could be built on brownfield, with extra capacity. Perhaps more could be said about that later.

The key point is to ensure that the development is carried out with great care. Other developments have not always been as successful as we hoped. New towns are the only analogy to the project when we look back to try to learn from previous mistakes. Many of the English new towns constitute some of the most deprived areas in local authority terms. All but two are more deprived than the counties in which they reside and many have never grown as planned. For example, Skelmersdale was supposed to have a population of 80,000, but never made it beyond 40,000. Corby was planned for 100,000 people, but has never grown beyond 50,000. We need to examine what stopped that growth.

A key factor is the way in which we develop the plan. We have argued that developments should be based around town centres and not simply be urban sprawl, to ensure that the transport links are as efficient as possible. I appreciate that the 14 growth zones have been proposed, but to what extent is the development happening in them? What is being done to ensure that it is situated around key towns and clear town centres?

The Thames Gateway has challenges but also benefits. The Minister mentioned the wonderful opportunity that the Olympics provides. She also referred to the Eurostar terminal. However, much of the brownfield land is contaminated and expensive to redevelop. The Government have introduced a contaminated land tax credit. That is an interesting idea and I would like to know whether the Government will publish any figures or feedback on how well it is working and say whether it has borne fruit or made no impact. I should be interested to hear about that in the winding-up speech, or perhaps the Government could place some of that information in the Library.

As other hon. Members have said, Crossrail is a vital part of the redevelopment. The Crossrail Bill is progressing slowly through Parliament. Second Reading was on 18 July, but the measure needs to go to a Special Select Committee, yet no date has been set for that. What is being done to ensure that it gets through Parliament as quickly as possible so that the development can happen?

Conservative Members made interventions about social infrastructure. It will be tremendously expensive. Kent says that it alone will need £1.05 billion by 2021 to provide transport, schools, health and community facilities and to make the growth sustainable. In March 2005, the Government announced approximately £2 billion for the next five years. However, the management consultants Hornagold and Hills reported in January 2005 that the Thames Gateway will need 300 primary schools, 70 secondary schools, two universities, 100 playgrounds, 70 water-pumping stations, 80 sewage treatment works, 4,000 police officers, 10 hospitals, 180 GP surgeries, 150 recycling sites and 50 additional railway stations. That is quite a shopping list of requirements. Do the Government propose to commit to funding them? If so, how? Are they reserving land now, while it is cheaper because it is undeveloped, for those purposes before land prices increase?

The Government have hinted at a variety of initiatives that they may use to fund the infrastructure. I have already mentioned VAT on greenfield development. A planning gains supplement, planning tariffs and a development land tax have been mooted. When are the Government likely to introduce proposals so that they can be discussed, debated and scrutinised in the House? What work is being done to ensure that any proposals for consultation are not likely to damage land supply, which has been a problem when such schemes have been introduced previously?

I want to deal with some of the other issues to do with ensuring that communities benefit. Six of the London boroughs in the Thames Gateway area have long housing waiting lists. Their combined housing waiting list is approximately 51,000 households. All waiting lists in London are rapidly getting longer. Many people live in poor quality housing. What assurances can the Government give that people in such circumstances will benefit in 2016 from the proposed development?

The Learning and Skills Council has said that 112,000 of the 194,000 new jobs to be created in the area by 2016 will need applicants with A-level or degree-level qualifications. However, the number of people in higher education in the area is 20 per cent. below the national average. The Minister spoke about the expansion of the three universities, but what work is being done to encourage those people into higher and, especially, further education? My constituency includes one of the main centres of excellence for construction courses. It has found that the Government's initiatives to get people into level 2 and access courses in further education are causing a squeeze on the expensive construction courses and making it difficult to meet the required demand. I hope that the Minister will comment on that in the winding-up speech.

We are committed to the project. We have some specific concerns, which I have tried to detail, but the project is exciting and it is important to work together in a cross-party way to ensure that it works and is a lasting monument to regeneration in the area.