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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:06 pm on 24th March 2014.

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Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 6:06 pm, 24th March 2014

I shall not follow Robert Flello in his comments about the Chancellor. Instead, I congratulate the Chancellor on a first-class Budget, for the reasons given and expounded on by my right hon. and hon. Friends in earlier debates. For reasons of time, I shall not repeat them.

I would like to comment on the new garden city planned for Ebbsfleet. That is not in my constituency, but it holds an attraction for all those who see a new garden city as a way of meeting expectations to provide the number of houses required by tomorrow’s inhabitants.

It represents a good way of bridging the gap or squaring the circle between making planning and development local and providing for the future. As part of the Budget, as we have heard, the Chancellor set out an ambitious plan and up to £200 million of public investment for a major new development around the high-speed rail station in Ebbsfleet in Kent. That is only 19 minutes from central London, and the 15,000 new homes it will provide are to be welcomed.

The excellent transport links to London will make Ebbsfleet a very attractive commuter location, but development at Ebbsfleet will also provide tens of thousands of new jobs, many of which, it is expected, will be taken up by local residents. I make two points about this. The first is the involvement of local people. The Royal Town Planning Institute commented:

“The Government’s announcement of a ‘new Garden City’ in Ebbsfleet is a welcome, if limited initiative.”

The word “limited” is misguided. It fails to recognise the new localist age we are in. This is not a case of central Government imposing a solution. It must be driven by local councils.

In this context I was pleased to see Hilary Benn comment on neighbourhood plans, and particularly the neighbourhood plan in Thame in my constituency. The most important thing about that is that in the referendum that was held on the same day as the county council elections, one in 10 people went into the polling booth and voted for the neighbourhood plan, but did not vote for their county councillor. One in 10 people did that because the neighbourhood plan is a crucial way of determining the future of their town. The Government want local people to be involved in towns such as Ebbsfleet. That is crucial as part of the consultation, to make sure that it is going to be a good place for people to live, and for us to make the necessary investment to turn derelict sites that are currently local eyesores into green places to live.

The relevant local councils usually sit on the boards of development corporations. It is vital that urban development corporations are democratically accountable. It is therefore necessary to ensure that local councils are represented, including the county council, which will be crucial in providing much of the infrastructure.

Urban development corporations are designed to be time-limited local vehicles that drive major development forward, especially when the scale of change is significant. The experience since the 1980s suggests that UDCs work best when they channel their efforts into the development of specific major sites, where extensive capacity and resources are required. The Government are determined that this UDC will learn the lessons from previous ones. Therefore, it will have a clear focus on the accelerated delivery of large, strategic sites; there will be significant local buy-in, with members of the relevant local authorities playing an important role on its board; and there will be strong transparency about costs to ensure that taxpayers’ money is used effectively.

A key element of Ebbsfleet must be an emphasis on design. It is essential that it is an attractive place where people want to live. Design must play a key role because of the importance that the project will have in the minds of other people who are thinking about having a garden city. We do not just want rabbit hutches and boxes to be built. All eyes will be on this city in determining whether communities are willing to participate.

In my last few minutes, I will say a few words about the planning reforms. I encourage the Government to take a good look at the general permitted development order. The simplification of the planning system is essential, not just to support the case for development now, but for the future. It is not in anyone’s interests to have a complex system, except for the socialist antecedents of the planning system. I am glad that the Government have set out their three-tier approach to general permitted development, with permitted development for small-scale changes, prior approval rights for larger changes and planning permission when the scale is even larger. The changes that we have made to residential planning are being followed through with the proposals on warehouses and light industry. Such things are already happening in some places, which is very much to be welcomed. This is a great extension of the changes.