It is a pleasure to follow Valerie Vaz, who raised a number of very local issues. We particularly enjoyed all her impersonations. She may get some extra bookings after that.
For tabloid purposes, we are about to head off to a sun-kissed exotic beach for seven weeks, but, back in the real world of being a local MP representing the area my family and friends live in, I am looking forward to a busy, energetic summer, which will include my annual volunteering week. I will be supporting local businesses, which are expanding, providing new jobs and apprenticeships. I am doing lots of charity runs and charity bike rides, following on from the Tour de France, which came through my constituency a couple of weeks ago. I will be holding lots of advice surgeries. Oh, and I will be squeezing in a one-week break to recharge my batteries.
In the next seven minutes, I want to focus on by far and away the biggest local issue in my beautiful part of West Yorkshire—planning. The picturesque Colne and Holme valleys and Lindley are under threat from Labour-run Kirklees council, which is hellbent on supporting unsustainable house building. It is riding roughshod over local communities who are already struggling with infrastructure that is at breaking point. We—and yes, I say we, as I live in the lovely village of Honley—are desperate to preserve what is left of our green countryside in an already congested part of Yorkshire. Fair play, though, to Labour-run Kirklees; they are up front about it. They want to build houses, they want to build lots of them, and they want to build them on green fields. Even Labour’s local election candidates are honest enough to put it on the front of their election leaflets, and I praise them for their honesty.
Tomorrow night I will be joining Lindley community campaigners at Birchencliffe cricket club for the Save Grimescar Valley campaign meeting. We are fighting plans to turn a lovely, picturesque green strip of countryside, which separates Kirklees from Calderdale, into housing and industrial units. Thornhill Estates is applying for planning permission for 200 dwellings on provisional open land in Grimescar valley, and in doing so resuscitating the Kirklees gateway project. The Kirklees gateway project comprises 260 hectares—650 acres—of commercial and residential development with plans for a school, care home and eco-centre, although no nursery places. Lindley is already scarred by a similar controversial plan, which was passed three years ago, for 287 houses on Lindley Moor; a narrow 8-7 vote on the planning committee, with the casting vote by a Liberal Democrat councillor, saw the scheme go ahead.
The threat to Grimescar valley is the latest in a series of applications on provisional open land designated in the old unitary development plan for Kirklees, which is now decades old. Local wishes are being brushed aside. Labour-run Kirklees does not have a local plan; it withdrew its original, flawed plan in October 2013, and we await the start of a new one. As a result, we have a developers’ free-for-all: the old unitary development plan means that land designated as provisional open land is up for grabs. As well as Grimescar valley, developments are going ahead or being planned in Netherthong, Upperthong, Meltham, Slaithwaite, Golcar and many more of my Yorkshire communities. I have already brought the chief executive of Kirklees council and some of my local councillors down to meet the previous planning Minister, and I look forward to discussing these pressing planning matters with the new Minister.
We need a new and radical approach to local development. Confidence in local democracy and the Kirklees planning committee is at rock bottom. We need transparency on the planning committee. Why not have it streamed live and the votes recorded? Councillors need to be held to account for their votes. I am fed up of local councillors saying that they want to protect our green spaces, and then getting into bed with the local Labour group and voting for unsustainable developments. Yes, we need a brownfield first policy. Why is the Thirstin Mills area, a cleared brownfield site in my village of Honley, still empty? It has planning permission; why not build there, instead of on a greenfield site? Why is the Royd Edge dyeworks site, cleared at great expense, still empty? It has planning permission and is ready to go ahead.
Why are affordable homes that have been built in new developments across my patch still empty? Work is being done to bring thousands of empty properties and homes back into use, and I praise the Government for introducing new council tax powers to encourage owners to do up the properties and bring them back into use, by letting them out or selling them. Grants have been made to local councils, including through the future home builders plan, in which young unemployed people learn skills such as carpentry, plumbing and how to be an electrician by working on those properties, which are then brought back on to the market as affordable homes. Those are the sort of schemes we should be promoting and encouraging to bring empty properties in our communities back into use. They are sustainable because people who live in those homes do not need two cars: they can walk to local shops and local schools.
Let us regenerate our town centres. Why not encourage folk to live above vacant shops to stimulate those areas and have people living in them 24 hours a day? My award-winning Huddersfield university investing millions of pounds in new quality student accommodation will release thousands of properties formerly used by students—although they will need some investment. Let us stop doing the easy thing—and the cheapest thing for developers. Let us get smart, and let us protect our beautiful green countryside in West Yorkshire. The battle to save Grimescar valley begins in earnest tomorrow evening. I am up for the fight and so are hundreds—nay, thousands—of local folk, who really love where we live.
I would like to wish all hon. Members a very happy summer. As well as working hard, I hope we all get a chance to recharge our batteries. I thank all the wonderful staff here in the House of Commons, and I would like to pick out Betty, down in the Terrace cafeteria, who always has a smile and a lovely word for my children when they visit during the summer. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Skidmore, who will become a father in just three weeks’ time—he will have a very busy summer indeed. Mr Deputy Speaker, have a lovely summer. We look forward to seeing you again in September.