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Infrastructure

Part of Opposition Day — [17th( )Allotted Day] — Horsemeat – in the House of Commons at 5:18 pm on 12th February 2013.

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Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans 5:18 pm, 12th February 2013

I profoundly disagree with the motion, particularly what it says about “dithering” and “delay”. I am all for a bit of dithering and delay, but I would call it caution and sensible planning. I am speaking up for the environment because I want us to take a considered approach to planning as well as kick-starting our economy. Carpenters have the old adage, “Measure twice and cut once.” We should be very careful that we get our infrastructure right rather than just dashing forward and building on any old place.

The motion stresses the need to get Britain building, but we need to have a cohesive approach, not a mad dash for growth without considering local communities or what is actually needed. I am concerned that we are intrinsically entwining planning and the Treasury. I want to make sure that we are giving these matters due consideration and are not trampling over communities, historic landscapes, and, importantly, the green belt, but getting our infrastructure right and getting it in the right place.

I want the infrastructure debate to be associated with economic benefit, local regeneration and jobs, but never to lose sight of the environment. The two are intrinsically linked. Local communities need to ensure that plans are not granted in a hasty fashion just to join the ranks of unimplemented or badly located permissions. The absence of a joined-up approach to getting our infrastructure right and ensuring that there are full appraisals of alternative sites for large, private-funded proposals, such as those for rail freight interchanges, is likely to result in a developer-led scramble to see who can get their project through first, and it will often not end up on the best site for the local area or for national economic growth. That can also affect investment in other sites that may be more suitable, but which are starved of potential investment as investors are holding fire in case another rival site gets permission through the planning system.

I want to make sure that we ask where we need to deliver such infrastructure in Britain. It is obvious that large infrastructure projects can create jobs and they should, if possible, be based in those areas where there is a need for those jobs, while at the same time doing minimum harm to the environment. That would be a win-win situation for everyone.

There has been a “minded to grant” decision on a rail freight terminal in my constituency. According to the developer of the site, it will create more than 3,000 jobs, the vast majority of which will be blue collar. Such a development could—I agree with the Labour party on this—provide a considerable boost for a struggling local area if it had the work force. It would be a shot in the arm for an area that needed those jobs. In St Albans, however, we are fortunate to have an unemployment rate of just 2.5% and the vast majority of those 1,155 people are white-collar workers. In fact, we have a deficit of blue-collar workers. Beyond that, neither my constituents—some of whom would be situated 100 metres from the development—nor Hertfordshire county council want the site, we are not a regeneration area, and the site will depress our local house prices, concrete over 10% of our green belt and compromise commuter routes into London.

The site has had three refusals, but on the Friday before Christmas, there was a volte-face and the “minded to grant” decision was made. Residents were stunned, because, if we compare and contrast the situation with that of a nearby site in Upper Sundon, just a few miles north of St Albans, we will see—this may be coincidental —that it has all the supposed national benefits that I believe we should be looking for and none of the drawbacks, or very few of them. The site is located in an old quarry—it is not on the green belt—and a ready, accessible work force, who would not need to travel in an unsustainable fashion, want it. It is also on the M1, which I am pleased to say is being upgraded, as we have heard from the Government today.

The site is in the central Bedfordshire development plan and has the support of the council, which would make the planning process simple and, I hope, amicable. Luton airport is also nearby, which is also looking to expand. The site will have easy accessibility to roads and road freight. From the economic point of view, the site is located near Luton, where the most recent figures show that 5.6% of the population are unemployed, most of them blue-collar workers.

I want to marry up those two happy coincidences, but I am concerned that the prevailing mood—driven by the Opposition in particular—is that, in the name of economic necessity, we must give permission to build at whatever cost. [Interruption.] Rachel Reeves would not let me intervene when I wanted to ask her whether she agreed—