I am pleased to follow James Morris and I want to make a few points about clauses 5, 21 and 23. I am pleased that the planning Minister is back in his place, because I would be interested to hear how clause 21, in particular, will apply in certain local circumstances.
Although Opposition and Government Members are in favour of measures that will encourage growth and infrastructure, we have a saying about selling something that is inherently unfit for purpose. It goes something like this: a fishmonger would never be heard shouting, “Rotten fish for sale”. I do not know whether other hon. Members have that saying—I do not know whether it comes from Grimsby, or Hull—but after my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn had comprehensively demolished the Government’s position in his opening speech, I felt that the Bill had a distinctly fishy smell. The more I have heard from Members on both sides of the House, including Government Members, the more my suspicions have been confirmed.
As the economy is showing signs that it is out of the longest double-dip recession since the 1950s, Government Members are perhaps being a little complacent. There is little comfort in that for those I represent in Easington who have lost their jobs. The claimant count in Easington has gone up by 800 since the coalition took power. There will also be little comfort for those who have seen their public services cut. Durham county council, my local authority, has undergone spending cuts of nearly £200 million, equivalent to 40% of its 2010 budget. There will be little comfort for those families struggling to cope with tax rises and benefit cuts while top-rate income tax earners receive a tax break. Indeed, the increase in jobseeker’s allowance claimants is just the tip of the iceberg. Figures provided to me by Durham county council that come from a study by Sheffield Hallam university show that worklessness in Easington is up 3,292 since last year—a worklessness rate of nearly 20% of the working-age population.
No constituency in the country requires more stimulus for growth and infrastructure than mine. Some potential projects are in the pipeline—such as Dalton Park and the centre of creative excellence, which is a transformative project for a brighter future in Easington—but for those projects to progress we need Ministers to recognise that sector-specific support is required, and I want to return to that if I have a chance a little later.
The problem that we have in the north-east is a lack of investment. The Government have succeeded in stripping away demand and jobs from the local economy, with job losses in my constituency at Dewhurst, Caterpillar and JJB Sports, as well as the closure of Cumbrian Seafoods in recent months. Those job losses are considerably higher than those at Ford in Southampton that have attracted such national publicity.
The Government are failing to invest in Britain, and they are failing to invest in the north-east in particular. Analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research North shows that almost half of major transport projects that involve public funds benefit only London and the south-east and account for 84% of planned spending, compared with 6% for the north and only 0.4% for the north-east. That is quite an incredible figure. The IPPR North analysis shows that transport spending in London is an astronomical £2,731 per head, compared with just £5 per head in the north-east, and people say that there is no such thing as a north-south divide.
What is the justification for such skewed infrastructure spending, which only reinforces and widens the north-south divide? The lack of spending is restricting growth in the north-east, and the Government’s policies of austerity have taken demand out of the local economy, so undermining jobs and growth, especially in my constituency.
In my view, the Government must go further and faster in delivering major infrastructure projects in the north-east and increase current funding. Obviously, building new and more affordable homes is part of that. Concerns have been expressed, which have been alluded to, by David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, about the consequences of the abolition of section 106, which could lose the country 35,000 affordable homes a year. Members have said that it is a good thing to renegotiate section 106 agreements. That may well be so, but it is possible to do that now. Indeed, many local authorities are involved in renegotiating section 106 agreements to meet local needs.
I do not believe that the planning system is failing. Figures have been referred to, but I remind Members that 87% of all planning applications are approved and the vast majority of applications—90%—are decided within 26 weeks. As my right hon. Friend Mr Raynsford said, it seems that Conservative councils are the most underperforming in determining planning applications in a timely fashion. The Government must be free to look into the failings of any authority, but they should not misconstrue the exception as the rule. Indeed, if time limits are part of the criteria applied to judge performance, we should consider that, with major planning applications, 63% of the slowest 10% of councils are Conservative and that with all planning applications 50% of the slowest 10% of councils are Conservative. There is not really a case to suggest that Labour is dragging its feet in respect of timely considerations.
One of the affordable housing issues that I wanted to raise has already been covered, so I shall leave that. Although I feel that house building can boost the economy, it already employs more than 1 million people and accounts for 3% of our gross domestic product. Indeed, money spent on housing stays in the UK: 90% of the building materials used in the construction of houses are made in the UK. Few other sectors can support the UK economy to the same extent. It is estimated that each new home built creates one and a half full-time jobs directly and at least twice that number in the supply chain, so raising house building to the level of official projections could create 195,000 jobs directly and 400,000 in the supply chain.
One of the issues that I want to raise relates to the large-scale private sector developments that are ready to proceed in my constituency. I refer to a new retail development in Peterlee and the second phase of retail and mixed development in Dalton Park, near Murton. The reason for the delay is not that the local authority has held them up, but that spurious challenges have been made by a company called Praxis Holdings, despite the fact that the developments would be a major boost to the construction industry and could deliver 1,000 much-needed jobs in east Durham.
Sadly, I did not see any action or intervention from the Government to deter unscrupulous companies from delaying those developments. I am sorry that the Minister is not paying attention. I wonder whether clause 21 would make any difference. As one of his colleagues—a previous Local Government Minister—Robert Neill suggested, even if the Secretary of State were determining such applications, an objector would still have the right to use the judicial review process, which has held up one of the developments for more than a year.
A truly transformative project could revitalise east Durham: the centre of creative excellence. The scheme would involve a media park, including film, television, animation, music and digital media production, associated work space, leisure facilities, a multiplex cinema, a tourist hotel, educational facilities for digital media and executive and student housing. The planning permission has been extended because the project was delayed by the 2008 financial crisis, the loss of One North East, the abolition of Film UK and the loss of funding for the County Durham development company.
I hope that the Government will return confidence, demand and jobs to the east Durham economy, but we need a strong Government willing to seize the opportunity to provide sector-specific support for projects such as the Seaham centre of creative excellence, to realise private sector investment, jobs and training opportunities. Investment in my constituency, particularly in infrastructure, is necessary if we are to bring a new age of economic activity to former industrial areas. I hope that the Government will recognise that and, during the Bill’s subsequent stages, agree to appropriate amendments, including to clause 23 on employment rights, which is a retrograde measure.