Topical Debate – in the House of Commons at 12:21 pm on 19 June 2008.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 12:21, 19 June 2008

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of eco-towns.

Eco-towns offer us a unique opportunity not only to address the housing shortage and to tackle climate change but to trigger substantial economic growth across entire areas. I know that hon. Members will be familiar with the significant housing shortages that the country is facing. The fact is that we are all living longer, thankfully, and, as a result of the growing ageing population, far more people are living alone. That in itself contributes to a major shortfall in housing. It also means that, as we grow older and want to live more independently, we need services that can be provided in our communities, closer to or in our own homes. The people who will provide those services also need access to homes, particularly affordable homes, either to buy or to rent.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Is not that just part of the story? Is not the need for housing in our country increasingly being driven by immigration, which is carrying on at an unchecked rate because of the policies of the present Government?

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

Of course, some of those hard-working migrants also contribute to building more houses in this country. Migration is a factor, but it is not the only factor. The point is that we have not built enough homes for the past 15 years or more. That is a recognised fact. Given this country's present population, we need to build more homes, including homes that are suitable for older people. Let us also recognise the hidden numbers of people who are not necessarily on housing waiting lists but who are living in overcrowded or unsuitable accommodation. Many young men and women, for example, have to live at home with their parents for longer because they cannot afford to get a foot on the property ladder. Let us talk about this in a reasonable manner and recognise that there is a real need to supply more homes of various shapes and sizes.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I understand what the Minister is saying and I agree with her. However, regarding the Ford eco-town proposal, she will be aware that Arun district council, in its core strategy document, has already identified and allocated land for 9,500 houses, of which between 30 and 40 per cent. will be social housing. The council has done what was required of it, and it is therefore wrong to suggest that the Minister needs to intervene to impose housing numbers on the council and to say where those houses should be.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

We have discussed housing needs with local authorities and we will continue to do so. Of all the new homes built in the hon. Gentleman's area in the past year, only 4 per cent. were affordable. So, more houses are being built, but there is a challenge that cannot be ducked: are all the people whom hon. Members represent—those who can afford to buy and those who cannot—getting the chance to have a home that they can rely on, whether to rent or to buy?

I will continue to work with local authorities, as will my colleagues in the Department, to ensure that we recognise the need for housing and that we engage in meaningful debate about where the houses should be. My point to all hon. Members—who are looking at proposals at the moment; this is no done deal—is that, if, at the end of this process, an eco-town is not built in their area, they will still have to face up to the challenge of meeting the need for housing in their community— [ Interruption. ] There are mutterings of "Of course" from those on the Opposition Benches, but the reality is that there are not enough houses being built in many parts of the country, including the areas of the proposed eco-towns, and there are certainly not enough for the people who cannot afford to get on to the property ladder or find homes to rent.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I entirely agree with the Minister about the challenge that people face in finding housing, and I recognise that the Government have invested in existing housing in order to raise standards, but will she explain why, under this Labour Government, so few houses have been built? Is she really confident that more top-down targets will deliver the change in housing provision that this country so badly needs?

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I will look at the Hansard record of that intervention, because it seemed to be a bit of a pushmi-pullyu question. The hon. Gentleman started off by acknowledging the need for housing but then went on to deny it.

At national level, we provide comprehensive data on the housing needs of different communities across the country. For example, we can prove the gap in affordability, which varies around the country but which is increasingly becoming an issue not only for London and the south-east but for other regions, including my own. We can provide that overview, but we also negotiate with local authorities about how to meet the demand. We expect them to meet that demand, but to do so constructively. That is the way in which we work, and how we will continue to work.

There are now 1 million more home owners than there were in 1997, but we have also had to make tough choices as a result of the legacy that we inherited of poorly maintained, and poorly invested in social housing stock, in order to get it up to standard. We have now reached the point at which we can seek to see what more we can do, and it would serve hon. Members well if, instead of nit-picking, they helped us to get on with that by supporting our discussions with local authorities on building more homes, including affordable homes.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

What role will the infrastructure planning commission have in the development of eco-towns?

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

The eco-town programme will be subject to the full planning process at local level, and, as far as I am aware, there are no plans for the commission to have a role in relation to eco-towns.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

I understand what the Minister is saying, but how does that fit in with the Hanley Grange proposal in Cambridgeshire, where the organisation responsible for delivering the very many housing proposals in Cambridgeshire—Cambridgeshire Horizons—is saying that this extra proposal will undermine the deliverability of the existing proposals, never mind the fact that the chosen site is so far out of town that no plausible public transport system can be used to reach it, which means that it will not be very eco?

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. As I make progress in my speech, I will address the process of engagement involved. He referred to Hanley Grange as a proposal, and that is what it is. We asked for expressions of interest, and about 57 bids came in. We drew up a shortlist of 15, after looking at a number of issues, including whether the bids had the potential—I stress the word "potential"—to move forward to the next phase. Every proposal has been thoroughly interrogated, including in terms of looking at existing developments in the areas concerned and how they might complement any new developments or, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, how they might hinder development in other areas.

This is work in progress, and there are no done deals on any of these sites. In this part of the process—prior to the shortlist that I will announce later in the year, and prior to the applications—it is healthy to ensure that we scrutinise the bids and get as much community engagement as possible in order to clarify the matters that local people, local authorities and parliamentary colleagues are concerned about.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I will give way to my hon. Friend, who is the only Labour Member to intervene so far. After that, I shall definitely want to make some progress.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Many among the population have seen through the "vote blue, go green" slogan as a pretty fatuous one and they are also becoming suspicious of eco-labelling, which they see as an underhand way of building new towns in quick time to the detriment of the local environment and to the profit of property developers. Will the Minister thus defend the concept in the light of the widespread concern that exists in Leicestershire, the east midlands and, indeed, more widely?

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

Given the contribution of the built environment to our emissions, the challenge of tackling both housing supply and climate change must be faced. The eco-town programme allows us to see whether we can demonstrate within a whole town's development, and in the light of the skills, technology and innovation available, that this country can be a world leader in building the houses that we will need increasingly in the future. For example, we also face the challenge of meeting zero carbon emissions targets; we are working with the industry on that front and I think that eco-towns may offer something else to that process.

The planning policy statement that we will produce in the next month will help to ensure that eco-towns are benchmarked against very high standards and it will also help local authorities that may be receiving submissions from developers who put "green" or "eco" in front of their applications to assess them. The process will allow us to develop the sort of tools that can be used better to define what eco and green really mean, what standards should apply to public transport and house building, what energy resources can be utilised and how waste can be better managed. That will be beneficial for the eco-town programme and it will add to the capacity of local authorities to make good decisions on other applications—not only now, but 10 or 20 years in the future.

This is such a fast-moving area that we, too, will need to update as advances in technology are made. The work of my colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in looking at energy supply renewables is another factor that plays into the opportunities that both small and large-scale developments can offer. This is an exciting programme. It does not sit on its own; it complements the very important work that we must do across the built environment—commercial, as well as domestic.

As I said, in view of the challenges that we face, we have to find new ways of designing and building our homes. We have to cut carbon emissions from our housing and build homes that are resilient and adaptable to a changing climate. The need for more housing and more sustainable housing is why we have developed the concept of eco-towns; we believe that in some way—they are not the only solution—they will allow us to address both needs.

I also see eco-towns as making a substantial contribution to overall economic development. Jobs and homes are important to families. Where people live is important, but having a job to provide the means to buy a home and enjoy a successful family life is equally important. I commend the work done in the west midlands by the Minister for the West Midlands, who carried out a jobs and homes road show last year that incorporated all those factors.

Some eco-towns are proposed for areas where a lack of housing is effectively putting a handbrake on economic growth, preventing businesses in the community from expanding as far as they could. For example, I recently visited one of the locations and saw that the local market town was absolutely bursting at the seams. There was no more room for building housing or business units without jeopardising the character that makes that market town so special. The local authority says that an eco-town location in the vicinity will allow it to do a number of things. First, it will be able to expand economically and continue to have a thriving local economy. That development will also prevent urban sprawl around the market town, while at the same time provide the much-needed homes for the community. I am talking about the Manby site in Lincolnshire. I was very pleased to visit that area and I shall be visiting all the other locations in the next month or two.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I want to make a bit of progress before giving way again.

The Hanley Grange proposal in Cambridge—I acknowledge the concerns about that site—would build 8,000 homes on the borders of what is known as the Silicon Fen, the region's flourishing high-tech sector, which currently faces extreme house affordability pressure.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I will give way in few moments.

Similarly, the Curborough proposal in Stafford would provide 5,000 homes on the doorstep of a business park that currently employs 3,000 people, but has room to expand to 7,000 jobs.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Secretary of State for Health

I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge that we are already committed to building 42,500 new homes around Cambridge, of which 17,000 will be affordable homes. I am sure that she will not have seen—it was published only today—a study by Cambridge Healthcare and Biotech, conducted on its own initiative. It surveyed the companies with locations closest to the proposed site at Hanley Grange—in Babraham, Granta Park, Chesterford Park and the Human Genome campus of the Wellcome Trust. There were 20 respondents and I would like to quote the conclusion:

"All respondents feel that a major housing conurbation adjacent to their business would make their location less attractive. Many have deliberately chosen their current location because of its rural nature. None believe Hanley Grange would help in their efforts to attract high calibre staff. Many believe that it will hinder their efforts."

They need the homes, but they do not need an urban environment where they have built their companies. They need the transport there to be accessible, which it is—

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to speak in the debate. All those concerns—transport, the environment, the green spaces, the character of the buildings in these communities—will need to be considered, and not just at Hanley Grange. Again, however, I stress that there are no done deals here. We have an opportunity to set our sights as high as possible, particularly in respect of how we engage with communities. On that front, it is important to listen to people who are against these proposals or have significant concerns about them, but there are also the silent voices, often not heard, of the people who have no home or are living in very difficult circumstances.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Chair, Business and Enterprise Committee, Chair, Business and Enterprise Committee

I know that the right hon. Lady is very reasonable, so I am delighted to hear that she is coming to see the eco-town proposed in my constituency. When she does, she will realise that there is no hidden need. I freely admit that housing need exists, but it is in completely different areas—not where the town is proposed. When she comes, will she please co-ordinate her visit not just with Warwickshire county council and Stratford-on-Avon district council, but with Worcestershire county council and Wychavon district council, because, contrary to everything her Department says, the eco-town is in two district council areas, not just one?

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

At all the locations I have visited, I have met local authority representatives of all the affected councils. In order to ensure that I do not miss anyone out, when we get the details about the date on which I am visiting the hon. Gentleman's area, I will double-check with his office that nobody has been left off the list.

Developers have an important role to play in making sure that people know what their plans are—it is their job to do that—how they would affect them, and what role local people can have in shaping the proposals. Rather than just say, "No, no, no", it would be worth engaging with what is on offer. As I look at the different schemes, I have to say that they offer exciting ways in which some of people's concerns can be addressed. I have already said that I have visited some of the proposed locations and I intend to visit them all during July and August. We are ensuring that every voice is heard—not just those with the time and resources, but those who are in desperate need of affordable housing.

We have published a document, "Living a Greener Future", asking for views on the benefits and principles of eco-towns. We are asking people to tell us what they want and expect in terms of development standards, housing, green space, travel and the wider benefits they would like to see. At the same time, we are seeking views on the 15 shortlisted locations.

The second phase of consultation will focus on the sustainability appraisal, which will run for three months, and the eco-towns policy statement that I mentioned earlier. The sustainability appraisal will be a detailed assessment of each of the locations, setting out the likely environmental, social and economic impact. As I said earlier, the eco-towns policy statement will set out how eco-towns will fit within the existing planning system and relate to existing local plans. Parliamentary colleagues raised in earlier interventions—

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party 12:39, 19 June 2008

When the eco-town idea was first suggested, it involved just five eco-towns and it must have sounded a bit like motherhood and apple pie—who could argue against the idea of having more housing and making it environmentally sustainable? What a great idea. The problem is that there is almost nothing green left about those plans. They have descended into the kind of farce that we thought we had seen the last of with home information packs, but it has made its way into eco-towns.

To prove that point, we need look no further than a couple of simple facts, which show the extent to which this is all now about spin rather than genuine housing. It goes like this: if—and it is a big if—this Government build all 10 of the eco-towns that they currently propose, that will create just a quarter of 1 per cent. of all the housing that they say needs to be built each year from 2016. On the basis of the 15 plans that they brought forward and a combination of the 10—

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have never said that eco-towns are the only solution to the housing needs in this country? Does he not accept, that where there are opportunities for developments of this kind, they can contribute? Also, the nature of the development allows us to do things on green energy and sustainable living that sometimes are not possible within an already built environment.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

I entirely accept that it may be a good idea to have something that is called a sustainable eco-town community. My point is that what the Government have invented is not it. We know that for sure because when they started to spin their line about five and then 10 eco-towns, they initially said that they could get—these were the headlines in the newspapers—200,000 environmentally friendly eco-sustainable homes. However, when we look at the list of 15 and the list of any combination of 10, we see that we get to about 75,000 homes. Just 75,000, not 200,000. The Government say that, by 2016, they are going to build 240,000 homes a year, so we realise that 75,000 homes overall is a tiny drop in the ocean. So, first, we have the size and scale of the proposal, which start to make people suspicious.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

The hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that thousands of my constituents are in serious housing need. What they may misunderstand from his comments today is that the Conservative party is opposed to addressing those needs.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, his constituents need not draw that inference in any way, shape or form. The simple fact is that more homes can be produced by working with communities rather than by coming up with large, centrally-driven, Whitehall-driven, top-down, Soviet-style planning schemes from the centre. That is what this plan has come down to—all this fuss, bother and kerfuffle for just 75,000 homes, because it sounds like the Government are doing something green. In fact, they are not green at all.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

The hon. Gentleman, with his facility for basic arithmetic, ought to be shadow Chancellor. He refers to 75,000 houses out of 3 million. That is not one quarter of 1 per cent. It is 2.5 per cent., which is a useful contribution. I do not deny the potential for eco-towns to contribute towards solving the housing shortage, but let us not belittle them by a factor of 10. Come on!

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard, he will notice that I said that from 2016, when the eco-towns start to come on line, the figures add up. I would be happy to go through them with him, but either way I think we agree that this is a tiny figure: 75,000 out of—from 2016—2 million, even, is very little, but we have all this fuss and many green clothes being put on.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

Let me continue with the point. All that suggests that there may be a problem, but the much deeper problem and much more serious concern that the Government should be addressing at this stage is the fact that those homes will not come on line until 2016.

The Minister for Housing and her predecessor have said that, by 2016, all homes will be at sustainability code level 6. When all homes are at code level 6, they will be zero carbon. As every house will be zero carbon when the first eco-town homes come on stream, what, may I ask the Minister, whom I am happy to give way to, is the point of making a big fuss about building eco-towns? At that stage, all homes will in any case be green.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I really think that the hon. Gentleman just does not get it. This is not just about building houses, which is important; it is about whether there is a way to build a sustainable community with the infrastructure necessary to make that happen. People often complain about that when planning applications are submitted. Public transport, tackling waste and renewable energy supplies are all important to a greener, cleaner future. Given what he has said, if, after the shortlist is announced, some of those eco-towns go forward and win at the planning application stage, will he still be against them? That is what it sounds like.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

So now we have it. This is not about building zero-carbon, sustainable communities; it is about experimentation with new technologies to see whether we can find new, greener ways to live. This is what is wrong with that approach: according to a speech made by the Minister earlier this week, it turns out that the new eco-town houses will not have to be built at sustainability code level 6. No, the greatest farce of all is the fact that they can be built at sustainability code level 3. When that happens, those eco-towns will be built at a lower environmental level than the houses that will in any case be built at the same time in 2016. I suggest to her that the entire project is now looking rather shabby to say the least.

If the Minister does not agree about the minuscule nature of this grand plan and the fact that it will build very few homes, and if she does not agree that it will not be green because all homes will be more green than those are by the time they are built, perhaps I can tackle her on another issue that is causing considerable concern. It was said repeatedly that these eco-towns will contain up to 50 per cent. affordable housing. Then the Government said that that might be a bit tough, so made the figure one third. Then they said that the developers should aim for 30 per cent. Most recently, looking at the applications that have been submitted, we have learned that the affordable home element is just 26 per cent. In one development, the figure is just 10 per cent. affordable housing. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on how those eco-towns live up even to the original spin—

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I make it clear that the eco-towns should offer a minimum of 30 per cent. and we would like that figure to rise. All the bidders are making proposals, so the whole point is to test them out and challenge them along the way. When I make a shortlist, I will be looking very closely at what is on offer.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

Unfortunately, that has not cleared the matter up. The combined affordability element of the original 15 bids is 26 per cent., so unless we go back to those and reselect from them, how will we be able to increase the number or the percentage of affordable homes? I am not clear about how that can be done. Are we now saying that all this is going back to the drawing board and that people can resubmit their bids with higher proportions of affordability or are we saying that the figure cannot be higher than 26 per cent. because that is the level already contained in the 15 bids that the Minister is choosing from?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

I will certainly give way to the right hon. Gentleman, whose knowledge of these subjects may surpass that of the Minister.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

As the hon. Gentleman is expressing concern about a reduction in the proportion of homes designated as affordable and social—clearly he thinks that is a mistake—what discussions has he had with the Mayor of London about the London plan and the appropriate element within it of affordable and social housing in London?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

I do not want to stretch the boundaries of the debate, but I think that the fundamental difference between Conservative and Labour Members is simply that we believe it is important to build more homes—more homes of every kind in every way. It is no good coming up with small schemes that are spun so that they sound as though they are the answer to problems to do with green issues or the supply of homes; nor is it to come up with arbitrary numbers for affordability that may not in the end supply more homes overall.

We know that the best way to improve affordability is to build more homes throughout the country, not just in the specific places and of the specific types that the Minister in Whitehall thinks are right. That brings us to the fundamental differences between us. In her opening comments, the Minister made it clear that the Government think that they are doing this because they wish to supply more housing to the marketplace, but for 11 years they have failed to build housing of any kind. The annual average over that period has been 145,000 new homes per year, compared with 176,000 in the preceding two decades.

Moreover, the homes that have been built have been less affordable. Not once have the Government returned to the 1997 level of 28,000 affordable homes being built each year. Only 284 council homes were built last year, but that is the best that the Government have managed. They have never managed to equal the 1,500 plus affordable homes that the previous Conservative Government were still building in 1997.

Given that the Government's record on housing is so lamentable, is it not somewhat surprising that they still come to this House with plans, policies, half-baked ideas and spin about eco-towns? They produce Green Papers and White Papers, all of which seem to forget the simple principle that they must work with local people and engage and incentivise local communities to come forward with plans that work for them. Such plans would fit with the desires of local populations, enhance their quality of life and improve the quality of housing locally. Without all that, these eco-towns will never be built.

Although the Minister has said that that is exactly what the Government are doing, I would not mind putting a small wager on the number of eco-towns that will be built. To anyone who spends time taking a serious look at the project, it is obvious that there is very little chance that any of them will get that far.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. If people are going to place bets, they should do so somewhere else, and not in the Chamber.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. You are quite right. We shall see to this afterwards.

I know that the Minister has had the same briefings that I have had, from people who know about house building. They have spent 30 or 40 years building large estates of 5,000, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 or 30,000 houses, and they have told us both that it would be impossible to get the homes built in the time scale that the Government are talking about—that is, by 2016 and 2020. With the best will in the world—and even if all the stops are pulled out, no one goes for a judicial review and it is plain sailing from day one—the planned homes cannot be built on time.

For that to happen, it would require a lorry delivering material to turn up once every 20 seconds at sites throughout the country. The plan is logistically impossible, but the problem is worse than that. Earlier, the Minister gave my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Garnier a sort of half reassurance about the role of the infrastructure planning commission. She said that it would have nothing to do with easing the path of the eco-town developments, and we take her at her word that the commission will not necessarily change the way that the eco-towns are planned and delivered. However, we know—because it is on the face of the legislation—that the commission will certainly have an impact on how roads, sewerage and water and energy supplies are put in place around the eco-towns.

Therefore, it is not the case that the new infrastructure planning commission will have no influence at all on the development of the eco-towns. It most certainly will, but the Minister seems to believe that it will ride to the rescue and ensure, through the back door and by means of planning sewers, roads and the rest of it, that the eco-towns are built on time. I am afraid that there is very little chance of that happening.

The eco-town project must have sounded like a great idea when five of them were originally announced—so good, in fact, that the Prime Minister could not resist enlarging the number to 10 in his conference speech last year.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Secretary of State for Health

Last July, the Prime Minister made his initial announcement that five eco-towns were to be built, but the first and only one that he identified was to be at a place called Oakington barracks in my constituency of South Cambridgeshire, an area now called Norstowe. My hon. Friend has said that none of the eco-towns can be delivered within the planned time scale, so does he share my surprise—astonishment, even—that the Norstowe project is at the outline planning application stage now? With a certain amount of Government support, it could be the first eco-town to be built, and within the time scale contemplated for the others.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. The extraordinary thing about the project is that the Government's management and approach have been so incompetent that the eco-town to which he refers has been taken off the list entirely, in favour of another one nearby. The easy delivery of one eco-town that could have gone ahead has been deliberately stripped out of the plans, for reasons that perhaps the Minister will be able to explain when she comes to visit the sites in question. The eco-town project must have sounded like a great idea, but it has not survived investigation or being put under the spotlight.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Chair, Business and Enterprise Committee, Chair, Business and Enterprise Committee

My hon. Friend is illustrating, as did my hon. Friend Mr. Lansley, that this is a back-of-the-envelope idea that has not been properly thought through. Case study three in the consultation document is about Vauban in Germany. The Government have said that it has 500 residents, but in reality it has 5,000. It is by far the largest example of a so-called eco-town, but it is really an eco-suburb, being an extension of Freiberg and a 4km tram ride from the centre of that town. Should not eco-towns be eco-suburbs? Vauban is right, but the Government's eco-town proposals are wrong.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

My hon. Friend is right, and he has a very clear grasp of the matter because an eco-town is planned in his constituency at a place that has been renamed Middle Quinton but is really called Long Marston.

The problem is how these eco-towns can be made to work. I represent two new towns, and I know that they have to be of a certain critical size. Welwyn Garden City works because it has 30,000 people, but people cannot live, work and shop in towns with only 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000 inhabitants. They have to jump into some form of transport—often their cars—to go somewhere, and that is not a sustainable form of life. Some of the eco-towns are planned for locations where there is no transport other than the car, so one wonders what the Government can possibly be thinking of.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

Does my hon. Friend agree that one justification for the Prime Minister's announcement of these eco-towns is that they would deliver a high level of affordable housing? Whatever economic assumptions were made by the Prime Minister last July, the building of new houses has come to a virtual stop, and there has been a decline in the housing market. Will not both those factors make the delivery of the eco-towns very much more expensive for taxpayers than was the case when the Prime Minister made his initial announcement?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and rather suspect that he has identified why the plan is falling apart. The eco-towns are no longer financially viable, and that is driving much else of what is happening. The Minister for Housing has said that they do not need to be built at sustainability code level 6 and that we can get away with code level 3, but that is because the developers are saying that the extra £30,000 on the price tag that would bring the houses up to level 6 means that they cannot build the homes to the planned price and cost.

What seemed like a good plan has fallen apart. It is time for the Government to take stock and admit that the embarrassing stories about eco-towns that appear every day in the newspapers have some substance. The Government are going about eco-towns much as they have gone about other policies. Before they create HIPS mark 2 with their eco-town policy, they should withdraw it.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions, in the hope that as many people as possible are able to make a contribution. However, although I have no wish to stifle debate, the number of contributions may be restricted if we get many lengthy interventions. I call Mr. Patrick Hall.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford 12:49, 19 June 2008

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I point out that I am a member of the Committee considering the Finance Bill? If I am called to the Committee and have to leave before the end of the debate, I hope you will accept that I mean no discourtesy to the House. However, I hope that that will not happen.

The area to the south of Bedford and Kempston is famous for inspiring John Bunyan, who called his fictitious area the "Slough of Despond". That may be a little unfair, certainly to the people who live there today, but perhaps it was prescient. What John Bunyan did not know was that, centuries on, the area would become home to the Fletton brick industry. The closure of the remaining brick kilns in February this year ended the supply of numerous jobs that had attracted workers from many parts of the world, but it also ended the pollution associated with the industry. However, the kilns left a legacy of despoiled land and huge pits in the ground.

In recent years, serious attempts have been made to regenerate Marston Vale. Much of the area is attractive, consisting of farmland and a number of pretty villages, but as it is part of the Milton Keynes and South Midlands growth area it has already been designated as an area for housing growth. The plan is to build about 19,500 houses in the Bedford growth area. Some 10,000 are committed, and a few have already been built. Other significant developments that are under way, some at the commitment stage and others at the "serious ideas" stage, include the improvement of junction 13 of the M1, the dualling of the A421 and the Thameslink programme, an important rail investment programme that will benefit Bedford and the surrounding area. A new railway station is also planned. I am pleased to note the revival of discussion of a possible east-west rail link across the country, which would go through Marston Vale and would be useful to Bedford.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

I am sorry, but I do not have time. I have been given eight minutes to deal with issues about which I could speak for 80 minutes. I mean no discourtesy.

The National Institute for Research into Aquatic Habitats has been given planning permission to locate in an exhausted brick pit. New jobs will result. The proposed Bedford-Milton Keynes waterway is being backed by active local people who have formed a trust. In the Forest Centre, despoiled land is being converted into an attractive leisure location. This is an area with tremendous potential, which has considerable significance for Bedfordshire and for the county town of Bedford in particular.

The concept of the eco-town is relevant to the delivery of developments that are at the planning stage, perhaps rather more ambitiously and with higher standards that would otherwise be the case. The Conservative party seems very exercised about the term "eco-town", but all that it really means is good planning. Is any Member going to say that he or she opposes good planning? If the Conservatives are in favour of good planning, let them be in favour of notching up the standard a bit more. What we need is a strategic master plan.

As I understand it, in the context of my constituency and the county in which I live, the eco-town concept is all about a strategic approach, as opposed to the approach that we have adopted too often since the second world war. Local communities are whipped up into opposing any new growth and development—that is happening now in Bedfordshire—and then what happens? The development of housing estates is allowed on appeal. We have seen that happen time and again, with poor planning and without the necessary infrastructure. Housing estates have been tacked on to towns and villages, putting existing populations under considerable stress. We can and must do better. We must learn from past mistakes and adopt a measured approach to planning—a master plan approach—rather than whipping up ridiculous campaigns based on ignorance and fear. Marston Vale and Bedford deserve that.

We are talking not just about higher energy-efficiency standards but about schools, shops, jobs and—especially important—affordable housing. There are 2,600 and nearly 3,000 people on the housing waiting lists in the Bedford Borough council and Mid-Bedfordshire respectively, and there are many other people in housing need who do not appear on the lists. The number of affordable houses being built to meet those people's needs is totally inadequate: 160 new units have been built per year in Bedford, and half that number in Mid-Bedfordshire.

The DCLG document "Eco-towns: Living a greener future" suggests that at least 2,000 affordable homes could be provided in Bedford and Marston Vale. I think that that ambition needs to be notched up, because more than 2,000 homes are needed. I think we should aim for about 5,000. Inadequate housing choice is a serious local problem in Bedford as well as in Mid-Bedfordshire, as the figures show. It is one of the most significant issues raised in my case load.

Similarly, we have heard that because unemployment is low in the area, there is no need for jobs for the future. That is absolute nonsense. Serious economic analysis of the requirements in Bedfordshire shows that although wages there are above average, the better paid and more highly skilled jobs are taken by those who commute to London, Leicester and other locations to the north. Local jobs tend to be low-skilled and low-paid: warehouse jobs, for instance. We desperately need for the future a range of—

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

—adequate, better-paid—

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

—skilled jobs, which would also provide a more sustainable way of living than having to rely on commuting.

I hope that the House, and local communities and councillors, will want to make progress on this matter, whatever we choose to call it. I hope that Members and others will concentrate on good planning rather than becoming exercised about the label. What we need from the Minister as soon as possible is some certainty and clarity. The number of proposed new houses has been quoted as between 14,000 and 30,000. We need to have more precise information, so that communities can work on the basis of that knowledge and discuss their future in a measured way, while being properly consulted. That will help to raise standards in an area that has been neglected for far too long, to increase environmental capabilities, and to meet housing needs that have also been neglected for far too long.

I see this as a positive opportunity, not as something to be negative about.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government 1:07, 19 June 2008

I am pleased that we heard more from the Minister than we have heard before about the strategy behind the eco-towns. I shall say more about that shortly, but first let me praise Grant Shapps for his entertaining, interesting and passionate speech. He is a good speaker and a good friend, and indeed a fellow pilot. I think that, in the interests of consistency, he and I should be the first private pilots in Britain to power our aircraft entirely on biofuels. In the spirit of friendship I shall let him go first, and if his aircraft works properly I shall follow suit.

What concerns me slightly is that although the Conservatives are good at complaining, they are not very clear about what they would do themselves. Perhaps we shall hear more from the hon. Gentleman's colleagues when they catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

As Patrick Hall suggested, by referring to "eco-towns" the Government risk being accused of gimmickry—reasonably, in my view. Every new house that we build should be eco-friendly. The Minister was honest when she said that the aim of the eco-town strategy was really to address the housing shortage and promote economic growth. I agree with that but, as has already been said, if we are to have a carbon-neutral Britain we must recognise that the overwhelming majority of homes that will be inhabited in 2050 have already been built. I assume the Minister meant—and I think it a useful clarification—that what are being called eco-towns are, in effect, primarily an effort by the Government to use innovative technology to deal with the housing crisis.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a contradiction in the conditions established in the eco-town project. If the Government are to use eco-towns as probing technology, the houses need to be code 6 rather than code 3. The Government need to show more courage in that respect.

I suspect that the Government have been rather ambitious in this context. At present there are 12 carbon-neutral homes, all of them built by Barratt. That means that achieving the Government's carbon-neutrality target by 2016 would require a 200 million per cent. increase in zero-carbon housing stock. I look forward to hearing how the Government intend to achieve that 200 million per cent. increase. I hope they do, but it is a tall order.

In addition, rather than concentrating on new build in greenfield sites, what about the 675,000 empty homes in England alone? Why build on greenfield sites when we could find a cheaper solution, even if we zero-carbon retrofit those houses? The public consultation has, in the view of many, been a near sham. It is not just a question of middle-class nimbyism accusations—that would be unreasonable on this occasion. It is a fact that many people from across the social strata have complained that these proposals have not been thought through. Fifteen thousand local people signed a petition against the Penbury site in Leicester. I declare an interest, as it is to be built on Leicester airport. I am very concerned that if that is done I will not be able to visit my mum. I offer the Minister the opportunity to fly with me, and perhaps with the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, to have a look at the glories of Leicester airport and what will be lost if it is built upon.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

A correction: it is not in Leicester, but in rural Harborough.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

I apologise to the hon. and learned Gentleman, who has my full support, for relocating his constituency into the city of Leicester.

The Government do not seem to have understood the importance of vehicles in the new town proposals, because unless there is to be some utopian change in public transport, it seems almost inevitable that these towns will prompt a massive increase in driving rather than an improvement in eco-friendly commuting.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

Is my hon. Friend aware that the only land owner interested in the Hanley Grange site is Tesco? When Tesco was challenged on the public transport problems of the site, it apparently suggested that the residents of the new town be charged for leaving the new town. That is a most extraordinary proposal: being trapped in Tesco-town. It is becoming more like "The Truman Show" every day.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

I was aware of that, but only because my hon. Friend told me a few minutes ago. It is a good line and if this were "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue", he would get an extra point. But I still have the Floor. On that point, it looks as though the economic potential for profit making from these eco-towns has not been lost on large developers. That is fair enough, but once again it underlines the reality, which is that this is not about the environment but about securing extra housing to resolve the housing shortage.

I mentioned the Penbury example and we will probably hear more about that when Mr. Garnier speaks. I am pleased that the Minister goes to listen directly to the concerns. She said that she would visit all the locations. I welcome that; it is a helpful commitment.

Where do we go from here? First, all new housing should be eco-friendly. I am in discussions with Powys county council to see what I can do to make my house code 6. It is very expensive, but unless we make the investment in technology now we will not achieve any of the Government's environmental targets for housing. Secondly, we have to be careful that despite the credit crunch and the looming housing crisis in economic terms, the environmental commitments that the Government have made on our behalf, rightly, are not abandoned. In this sense, I am concerned that we could have code 3 houses in what sounds like a code 6 project. I do not really understand how the Minister can reasonably use the phrase "eco-town" if some of those houses are to be rather worse than what Barratt is building already.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There are currently only two code 3 houses—[Hon. Members: "No."] If I could finish, please. Therefore, our aspiration for code level houses is very important. These towns will develop over time, so other building regulations or conditions will come into play. However, they have to demonstrate in their plans that they will be zero-carbon across the whole development. That is very important in looking at the definition of zero-carbon and how the energy supply will contribute to the built environment of the homes we create. That is a practical and important matter that we are discussing with the building industry.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

I am pleased to hear the point about carbon neutrality. That is something I have been looking at as well. I hope that on another occasion we can discuss in more depth what it means to achieve code 6 and whether it is reasonable to have entire communities like that, or whether we should set the individual targets for individual houses to achieve code 6.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

Has the hon. Gentleman, like me, gone round the country visiting the many code 3 houses that are currently being built?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

There are many code 3 houses being built, but it is not that difficult to get to code 4. It gets challenging after that. On another occasion, we should perhaps have a debate about this very question: code 6 for an entire community or for individual houses?

My concern is that we might lose the commitment to the environment because of the pressures on the economy. I implore the Minister to give an assurance, now or later, that the Government will not throw out the challenging and, let's face it, expensive objective of a zero-carbon Britain. Barratt is suffering the greatest-ever decrease in orders, even worse than in 1990. Nevertheless, it is a willing and co-operative partner in the grand project of fulfilling our environmental commitments.

I would hate for the first casualty of any potential recession to be the commitment that we should all embrace: that of having a zero-carbon country. To engineer a climate for building while destroying our climate for living would be something for which our successors would not forgive us. The Government are on trial to see how serious they are about their environmental commitments on housing. If they do well, they will have the co-operation of the Liberal Democrats. If they do not, it will be disappointing to see a noble intention descend into an uncompleted gimmick.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich 1:17, 19 June 2008

First, I draw attention to the interests declared in my entry in the Register.

The case for new towns as part of overall housing provision is a very strong one. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing made the case for the need for additional housing provision to satisfy the problems of under-provision for many years and to ensure that the full range of people, including those needing affordable and social housing, will be catered for. We are going through an extremely difficult economic situation, to which Mr. Clifton-Brown referred. I say to him that by the time the eco-town programme is coming on stream, I hope that we will be out of that recession and that the approach that the Government are adopting—rightly trying to ensure mixed communities with elements of affordable and social housing as well as market housing—should ensure the successful implementation of the programme in what we hope will be a revived market.

During the lifetime of the Government, there has been an important shift in the focus of housing development towards brownfield sites and inner-city regeneration. I applaud that. It has been a success, as I can see in my constituency: on the Greenwich peninsula we are in the process of building a new community that is of exactly the same size as an eco-town and will have exactly the same qualities of very high design and environmental standards. It will be a mixed community and an exemplar of good development.

That is splendid, but development just in our existing cities, avoiding any further development on greenfield sites, will not be sufficient. There will be a need for some greenfield development. The question is how we plan that and whether we do it well and cleverly to ensure that those developments are attractive and sustainable, or whether we follow the pattern of the Conservative party in government of leaving it to the market. We saw the consequences of that throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when there was a rash of badly planned developments of very low density on greenfield sites, making profligate use of land without sufficient numbers of people to sustain local bus services or local shops and thereby ensuring that they were not sustainable. That is exactly what we should avoid, and the Conservative party should be ashamed of its record in government. The Conservatives should be more constructive than Grant Shapps about the Government's plans to ensure a more intelligent approach towards new housing development.

As a country, we have a very distinguished record in encouraging high-quality planned developments, both in the UK and overseas. The post-war generation—the 1940s generation—of new towns set exemplary standards for better housing for people who were being moved out of very crowded city slums. In the 1960s, there was a further generation of new towns. Although they were not all successful, a number of highly successful, attractive new communities were created. I am thinking not only of towns such as Milton Keynes, but of towns that were expanded, such as Peterborough and Northampton. There is a lesson in that, to which I shall return in referring to urban extensions.

Since those successes, our planners and urban developers—our experts—have been contributing internationally to planned new settlements throughout the world; indeed, they are in the lead in many parts of the world. For example, Arup is developing the Dongtan eco-city in China to very high standards. It is, thus, extraordinary that a country that has that proud record of new town development and great expertise in the field has not designated any new towns since the 1960s. No attempt has been made since then to designate new urban developments. One might say that the Thames Gateway has been an urban development—I could make a case for it being a new city—but, with that one exception, there has been no planned new development in this country. It is entirely logical that we should be planning some new developments, to exemplary standards, to ensure that we meet the full range of housing need in ways that demonstrate that good development is not necessarily a blot on the landscape and can enhance the environment and create a fine living environment for people. In the same way as that is being done in my constituency in an urban environment, it can be done elsewhere too.

I do not agree with all aspects of the implementation of the eco-town proposals, and I shall highlight one or two areas where I think the Government need to have further thoughts. However, I applaud their positive approach, and I contrast it with the negative carping approach that we have heard from the Conservatives. They are only too willing to criticise, to pick holes, and to try to mock and make fun, but they are not willing to make any sensible, concrete proposals to improve living conditions.

In an intervention, I raised with the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield the question of affordable housing quotas. He had expressed concern that a reduction in the affordable housing quota was expected in eco-towns, so I asked him about his discussions with the Mayor of London. He was notably silent on that. We know that the Mayor of London is seeking to reduce the affordable and social housing content of housing in London. If the hon. Gentleman was serious and responsible about such housing, he would be telling the Mayor of London not to do that and to ensure that the London plan commitment to affordable and social housing is maintained. In the absence of the hon. Gentleman's doing that, no one will give any credence to him on this issue.

In conclusion, I shall turn to the areas where I think the Government have not got things absolutely right. It was a mistake to make an invitation to tender, as that allowed a number of entirely unsuitable proposals to be made. Some of them risk damaging the concept of eco-towns, because they were not proposals for eco-towns; they were old development plans that were simply pulled out of the back drawer and attached to a green label to try to make them attractive. I am pleased to say that the Government have recognised that. They are now being far more selective in their approach, but I think that they made a mistake at the start.

Secondly, it was a mistake to focus only on freestanding new developments and not to consider the scope for urban extensions. Sustainable urban extensions have a role to play. Indeed, as I have highlighted, in the 1960s generation of new towns, the development of Peterborough and Northampton involved highly successful extensions of existing towns, rather than new developments such as Milton Keynes, which was a greenfield city. We can and should take both approaches, and there is scope for sustainable urban extensions as part of this programme.

Thirdly, it was foolish to say that there should be one eco-town in every region, because they should be located where they are most needed and where they are most likely to work. The Government have rightly moved away from that approach now. A deplorable article in The Sunday Times, which showed all the faults of a clever journalist who makes fun copy but makes no logical sense, criticised the fact that three of the possible eco-towns are in the south-east region, on the grounds that the south-east region is already full up. The south-east region is the one place in the country where there are the greatest pressures, so we must be intelligent about how we respond to them. We need to be selective and to focus eco-towns where they are required.

Finally, the Government have made a mistake in the lack of clear governance arrangements and financing to ensure successful implementation over a period of years. The earlier new town programme had a development corporation framework and a funding stream. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to consider those issues, but I applaud the Government's general approach.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice) 1:25, 19 June 2008

I welcome the final few paragraphs of the speech made by Mr. Raynsford, because if he were to apply the principles that he has just set out to the site in my constituency—the Co-operative Wholesale Society calls it Penbury, but everyone else calls it Stoughton—the Government would simply not plonk a town of 40,000 people down in the middle of rural Harborough. The sustainable urban extension idea, which he mentioned, is a good one. Where does the county council suggest that such an extension should go? It suggests the north and west of the city of Leicester, where the infrastructure—the motorways and the airport—exists and the employment is required.

In my constituency, 748 people are unemployed. The Co-op, which is the main driver behind the proposal, originally said that it wanted to bring 12,000 new jobs—it now gives a figure of 14,000—to the area, but although that is doubtless a wholly altruistic intention, this is not a place where the jobs are needed. If one wants to supply jobs to the east midlands, I suggest that the middle of rural Harborough is not the place to do it.

I am grateful to Lembit Öpik for paying regular visits to my constituency and for his views on the suitability of that particular site. My hon. Friend Grant Shapps, who speaks from the Front Bench, has also visited the site, and his opinions on its suitability are well known locally and have much approval.

Today, I received a written answer from the Minister for Housing stating:

"I am currently planning a programme of visits to all the shortlisted eco-town locations over the next couple of months, and this will include the eco-town site at Harborough. At least two officials in my Department have visited the proposed site."

I only wish that I could have a copy of their notes on the meeting and their conclusions, because I suspect that, having been to the site, they will have realised that it is not the greatest place on which to dump a town of 40,000 people.

The site is convenient because the Co-op owns about 5,000 acres and attached to it are about 400 acres belonging to English Partnerships. However, it is all farm land, but for the runway strip, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. The site is not genuine brownfield land. The only genuine brownfield land that can be attached to the site is the very popular airstrip, which is used by an aero club and by business men flying in and out of Leicester in their small private aeroplanes.

It would be absurd to treat the site as brownfield land, because it is not a disused Royal Air Force station in the proper sense of the word and, so far as English Partnerships is concerned, it is not a disused hospital. It is farm land for as far as the eye can see, and using it for an eco-town would be outrageous, as I hope the Minister will agree when she visits. I hope that she will give us proper notice of her intention to visit the site, so that we can bring the relevant people to meet her—a number of people would like to exchange views with her about the site.

There are 62,700 hectares of brownfield land in this country, of which 26,000 are suitable for housing. At a density of 40 homes per hectare, that would provide more than 1 million new homes. If approved, eco-towns will, as we learnt a little earlier, supply only about 75,000 new homes. That is a very small percentage of the requirement for new homes. When the Government consider the site in my constituency, which I share with my hon. Friend Alan Duncan, I urge them carefully to consider what they think brownfield land is and whether the site is appropriate for any development, let alone for a so-called eco-development.

I appreciate that it is tempting to go for the easy shot, with one large landowner. It is a complete coincidence that the Co-operative bank happens to be providing the Labour party with an overdraft of £13.5 million. That is not relevant to this issue, but it is causing misunderstanding—shall we say—in my constituency and I hope that it can be put well aside.

In relation to the effect that the proposed development will have on the rest of my constituency and the city of Leicester, I understand that the transport spokesman for the city said that it would support the scheme if it could have a tram system. However, the cost of an 8 mile tramline in Edinburgh will be some £750 million, or £1,500 an inch. To achieve the same result between my constituency and Leicester—5 or 6 miles—it would cost £500 million just to build the tramway, and would not take into account the compensation costs for houses that would have to be knocked down along the route. It would cost some £1,750 per inch. The area is already congested with road traffic, and to relieve pressure an expensive road would be needed from the site to the M1—a distance of about 20 miles—and that would cost the thick end of £1 billion.

Time is short, but I have much to say on this issue. I have said it before in an Adjournment debate on 29 January and in Westminster Hall 10 days ago. Extracting facts from the Government and the developers is like pulling teeth. It is time that the Government expressed themselves coherently and gave the public in my area the real facts about what they intend to do to us, because at the moment there is massive uncertainty, massive disappointment, and massive opposition—not to eco-towns, but to this particular development.

Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South 1:32, 19 June 2008

It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour, Mr. Garnier, many of whose concerns I share. Before I mention those concerns, however, I wish to say a few words of welcome for the concept of eco-towns. I am provoked to do so by Grant Shapps, who expressed again today the Tories' concern to pay lip service to the need to build more houses while opposing specific schemes whenever they emerge, whether under the banner of eco-towns or not, thus preventing such development from taking place.

The hon. Gentleman was very negative about the percentage contribution that eco-towns would make to overall housing need and, at the same time, inconsistently concerned about the impact of lorries and the construction involved in building the eco-towns. The hon. Gentleman revealed the Tories' true attitude on this issue.

Eco-towns as a concept are to be welcomed, and they will make a significant contribution to housing need. Most hon. Members hold surgeries and so will be aware of the desperate housing shortage up and down Britain. Eco-towns will contribute to meeting the needs of young families, the need for affordable housing and, especially, the need for social housing for rent. However, eco-towns are even more important because of the opportunity they provide to show how sustainable communities can be developed. It is not only the individual houses and the code—one hopes that they go beyond code 3—but the opportunity to develop communities and consider issues such as waste, water supply, the disposal of sewage, the provision of community facilities and, especially, transportation within communities. That goes beyond the standard to which individual houses are built.

We should welcome the opportunity—as previous generations did with garden cities and new towns—to showcase the best of development by responding to the needs of climate change and experimenting, to pick up the word used by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield. We should be proud to experiment, and I welcome eco-towns for that reason.

Having made those positive comments, I must say that I share many of the concerns of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough about the Penbury proposal. It raises issues that will be equally applicable to other eco-town areas. It is clear that the proposers of the scheme have not yet demonstrated that sufficient employment will be provided in the area to meet the needs of the population that will be drawn there, without it becoming merely a dormitory town for the nearby city of Leicester.

Nor have they yet produced credible plans for transportation. No matter how much employment is contained within the area, many people will want to travel into Leicester and, with the A6 and A47 already overcrowded, that would exacerbate the problems. It will not be enough for the Penbury developers, or those elsewhere, to hope that some local authority or other agency—such as the Government—will provide funding for a tram scheme, which would be very expensive, to provide a solution to the problem posed by what are at the moment incredible proposals.

The third area of concern is the potential impact that the Penbury scheme would have on the regeneration of Leicester and the existing proposals for development elsewhere in the central Leicester area. There is a real prospect that the Penbury scheme will draw investment from brownfield sites in Leicester and elsewhere and will have a significant detrimental effect on the regeneration of that city.

My final concern is that, if the scheme were to go forward through the normal planning process, it will significantly exclude the major area that will be most affected, which is of course Leicester. The proposed developers are working closely with the city authorities, but were the proposals to go just through the standard processes, there would be real concerns about the impact on Leicester and how the local authority could continue to be actively engaged in the process of development.

In conclusion, I welcome eco-towns if they are to be truly sustainable communities. I welcome the Minister's process of engagement with local communities and the prospect of eco-towns providing affordable housing and social housing for rent. However, those who propose Penbury and, I guess, other similar developments still have several difficult questions to answer. Until we have satisfactory answers, we cannot say that the Penbury proposals, or those for other eco-towns, would be acceptable.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire 1:38, 19 June 2008

It was interesting to hear Patrick Hall describe a Bedford that I failed to recognise. However, as I wish to keep my remarks short so that my colleagues can speak, I shall not rebut the comments he made about transportation, the need for homes, the location for the proposed development, the lack of available jobs or the lack of growth in the area. I recognise the need for social housing in his constituency and in mine, but I suggest that people do not want to travel from Bedford to Marston Vale when there is no transportation and no jobs for them to go to. Instead of having 20,000 homes miles from where anybody else lives and where there is no opportunity for employment, we should look at regenerating areas in both constituencies, which already have good transport links, doctors, schools, shops and employment. The homes should be built in those areas, instead of having an eco-town on the outskirts of both constituencies.

The Minister came to visit my constituency on Monday and we are very grateful for that. If there had been more extensive and in-depth consultation with local residents, the Minister might not have experienced the welcome that she did. People are very angry, and I think that the Minister gathered that. We did not know about the Minister's visit—my office was informed at 4.55 pm on Friday—

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

It is absolutely true. We received a telephone call to say that the Minister would be visiting on Monday afternoon at 1 o'clock. I was promptly also told that I would not be invited to the meetings—with the developers who are to build on the proposed site and with local councillors and representatives of the local authorities—as they were private. However, the hon. Member for Bedford was invited to my constituency for that meeting. Another phone call quickly changed that—I hope that none of my hon. Friends ever has such an encounter. Thankfully, it was sorted out and I attended the meeting.

I am sure that the Minister, like me, was perhaps slightly unimpressed with the proposals put forward by the developers. I was looking for a vision, but all we got was the story of a proposal that did nothing to inform us about how the properties and developments would qualify for the "eco" credential. There was nothing eco about the proposals.

The town in Marston Vale will include 20,000 homes for about 40,000 residents. There are no new jobs, as we have zero unemployment in the area. One reason that I championed the Center Parcs proposal was to mop up the 1,300 job vacancies that we had. As the mayor of Bedford points out, he has brownfield sites all over Bedford and no employers queuing up to build on them.

It would be true to say that we have almost zero growth in the area and 20,000 new homes mean that 40,000 new people will get into their cars and commute into London along the M1, but the M1 widening scheme has been halted and put on the back burner while it is reconsidered. The same is happening with the rail networks. The Minister informs us that there will be an east-west rail network, but a Transport Minister says that that is still under discussion. Two Departments have different stories about what will happen to the east-west link.

It is not just about the jobs. This eco-town will completely surround and swamp local settlements. Local people do not want that. They have an absolute right to say what should happen to their local environment, how it should function and look and whether they should have these 20,000 homes, which they feel are landing out of the sky right on top of their settlements.

There are no available jobs in the area so people will have to commute to London and will get into their cars. What is sustainable about 40,000 people having to travel 50 miles into London? There are also problems with the infrastructure and the schools. We have good schools in Bedfordshire already, which are looking to use the Government's legislation to expand and to grow to meet the needs of the areas that they serve. Will we see huge numbers of schools built to meet the needs of those 20,000 homes? I have heard nothing about education or health needs being met. We have terrific problems with Bedford hospital, which is struggling to survive and to serve the community at the moment. How on earth will it take on another 40,000 residents in the neighbouring constituency?

Some of my colleagues have not had a chance to speak to the Minister, and I had a chance to speak to her on Monday, so I merely want to make my four points again. Local people are unhappy. We do not have an unemployment situation in Bedfordshire. We do not have the infrastructure to support a new town. The transportation is not only far from satisfactory, but entirely unsatisfactory to meet the needs of the proposal.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 1:44, 19 June 2008

The proposed Ford eco-town is a 350 hectare site on which developers propose to build 5,000 houses on ancient and beautiful Sussex countryside that is valued by my constituents in Littlehampton, Middleton-on-Sea, Felpham and Bognor Regis. That is why it is opposed by Arun district council and all the town and parish councils in the area, and why 1,500 people marched on Saturday 7 June against the proposal. The site is 87 per cent. greenfield land and the majority of the remaining 13 per cent. is farmland in the curtilage of the airfield, which is why it is technically regarded as a brownfield site.

What has concerned me most about the proposal is the poor ethics of the construction company, Wates Developments, which is part of the Wates Group. The introductory section of its prospectus for the eco-town states on page 3:

"Ford Airfield is a 360 hectare site comprising brownfield land between Littlehampton, Bognor Regis and Chichester".

That sentence clearly conveys the impression that the 360 hectare site is made up of brownfield land when it is not—it is 87 per cent. greenfield.

I am also concerned that the Government are setting a new precedent in planning by publishing planning policy statements that are location specific, thereby removing any local discretion over the siting of new developments. Planning policy statements have always been issues of general principle and not diktats from central Government about particular developments.

My final point is about the fact that the Government have said that Arun district council needs to meet its social and housing needs. It is not true that it has not. Some 13,000 houses are being built in Felpham and Berstead, 30 per cent. of which are affordable, and Arun district council's core strategy preferred option documents have allocated sufficient land to provide at least 9,500 houses, of which between 30 and 40 per cent. will be social housing.

I hope that Ford will not appear on the final shortlist of eco-towns.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice) 1:46, 19 June 2008

I add my concerns to those expressed by my hon. Friend Mr. Gibb. The tiny village of Ford lies in my constituency and is shortlisted to have an eco-town with 5,000 houses. That would make it by far the largest settlement in my constituency, irrevocably transforming the countryside and the small villages around it.

My hon. Friend made a point about the misleading claims made by developers, and I want to reinforce that point to the Minister—this is not a brownfield site. It has been described as Ford airfield, but 87 per cent. of the land is greenfield. When the Minister comes to visit—I welcome her visit and hope to join her—she will see that it is largely beautiful open countryside at the foot of Arundel. It is of agricultural importance and is prime farmland. It is not, in the main, brownfield land. According to the figures, that makes up only 13 per cent. of the site and even less if one accounts for what is actually farmed. That is why the Campaign to Protect Rural England, although it supports the policy of eco-towns in general, has said that Ford is not an appropriate site.

My main point is simply about local democracy. This is not an argument about the need for more affordable housing. We all recognise that, and Arun district council recognises it. Some 58,000 new houses will come to West Sussex over the next 20 years, and 11,300 of those will be in the Arun district. That number has already been upped by 2,000 from the recommendation of the South East England regional assembly, and it could be increased still further. Who should decide where these houses should go?

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

No, I cannot; I am sorry, but I do not have the time. The Minister can perhaps answer later, but I put it to her that Arun district council, the elected local authority, should decide where these houses should go. That decision cannot sensibly be imposed by Government simply because developers, who have been wanting to develop the site for years—from well before the concept of eco-towns was even thought of—believe that they can impose their views above those of the locally elected representatives.

Arun has already provided for a large number of affordable homes over the next three years—about 700, which is much more than has been claimed. That will go a long way towards providing the 2,000 homes that would be provided under the eco-town proposal. Let us leave these decisions to locally elected planning bodies. It is wrong in principle and will result in the wrong decisions if these decisions are imposed from on high by the Government.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Shadow Secretary of State for Health 1:49, 19 June 2008

Now I get to play "Just a Minute". Will the Minister please designate an eco-town in my constituency? Northstowe should have been the first eco-town and should now be designated as an eco-town. I talked to Sir Bob Kerslake from the Homes and Communities Agency last Friday and he said that the principal objection was that zero-carbon homes could not be built starting from the end of 2009. The Minister says that that is not required. The agency proposes level 3, but the local authority is asking for level 4.

Secondly, the Minister says that the process should be based on local planning procedures. On 3 April, she published a consultation document, to which we will respond. In mid-May, the Government published the regional spatial strategy for the east of England, which sets out a sequential development test for the Cambridge sub-region that clearly prioritises Northstowe, and the urban extensions to Cambridge and the market towns, over a new settlement. If we are following the planning process, it seems obvious that the proposal at Hanley Grange should have been ruled out by the Government at the outset.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 1:50, 19 June 2008

We have had a good discussion. I have heard many reasons why we should not have eco-towns, but I have not heard much from Opposition Members about an alternative to eco-towns that would allow us to meet housing need in communities; that has not been forthcoming.

Helpful points were raised by some Opposition Members, and by the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Lembit Öpik. Thoughtful points, which I will take on board, were also made by colleagues from my party. The fact is that we need homes, but they need to be cleaner, green, and built in more sustainable communities. My ambition is to deliver those homes, and that is what I will try to do.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of the proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to the Temporary Standing Order (Topical debates).