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Local Infrastructure (East Midlands)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:57 am on 20th March 2018.

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Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield 9:57 am, 20th March 2018

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I congratulate Lee Rowley on his speech and on securing the debate. He is right that many of the issues he raised also apply to my constituency.

The hon. Gentleman focused on the need to achieve more house-building starts. I entirely concur. Chesterfield has had huge success in attracting new sites for house building, and I am proud to have seen many new house-building starts there over the past few years. The old football ground is now a housing estate, imaginatively called Spire Heights; fortunately the Spireites have a good new ground. The old rugby ground, where I used to run up and down, is now a housing estate called Rugby Drive; we have a very good rugby ground to replace it. The GKN cricket ground is also becoming a new housing estate.

Chesterfield is a very attractive destination for house-building sites, but it faces many of the difficulties between residents and developers that my hon. Friend Alex Norris raised. Interestingly, even on sites where just one or two houses are being built, there are often widespread problems. When it comes to getting planning permission, sometimes it seems more difficult to build two houses than 80 houses. That is a real issue.

It is important that we hold the Government’s feet to the fire on their record on house building. I find it incredible that a Conservative Government are overseeing the lowest number of new people becoming homeowners, as has been the case in recent years. It really is a significant flaw in the Government’s record.

I positively support the opportunity for people to get Help to Buy. A relative of mine is currently going through the process of getting on to the housing ladder through that scheme, and there is some value in it. However, there is a more fundamental issue, which I referred to previously: it is not in the interests of the house building industry for the number of houses being built to fail to meet demand. We all know what happens if there is a shortage of supply—prices go up.

There is also a skills part of this conversation that has not really been referred to yet. At a time when far too many young people are in very insecure work and they do not have huge amounts of skills, it seems a tragedy that we are so short of the people who we need to be trained up in the construction industry. There is a skills part of this whole equation that is missing, and there is certainly a role for Government in that regard.

As a homeowner and mortgage-payer myself, I am not advocating in any way that we should try to orchestrate some kind of collapse in the value of house prices. However, there needs to be a recognition that if the average price of a new home is going to be six or seven times the average wage, it will be increasingly difficult for new people to get into the housing market. As I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire, there will be times when the house building industry is able to meet the level of demand, as it did at times in the early part of this century, but it many cases it will not. There is a role for Government there.

I entirely support people’s aspiration to own a home. I remember unlocking the door for the first time on the day I bought my first home, at the age of 22 or 23. I was a young man on a very modest wage, but I was able to afford a small two-bedroom cottage. It is a magical moment for someone when they buy their first home, so I do not ever want to undermine or underplay people’s aspiration to own their own home. However, at a time when there is so much homelessness and so many people are in insecure accommodation, we should recognise that there is also a real value to people securing their first council house and that council houses can also be a route towards home ownership. That part of the whole equation has also been lost.

In the debate on housing in the main Chamber yesterday, I said that the Government really should look at the issue of right to buy on brand new houses. That is because I know that in Chesterfield there will be a real desire to get more houses built; in a small way, the council are getting houses built. However, there is a real worry that if the council was to make a substantial development and get new people into all those new homes, within three or four years those houses would all be getting bought off and the council would be hundreds of thousands of pounds out of pocket. There is a role for Government in that regard.

Although I support right to buy in general as a principle, if councils were given a moratorium that said that in the case of new homes they did not need to have right to buy for the first however many years, we would actually start to see more houses being built. People would have a choice: they could either take up the opportunity to get a new council house that they recognise would not have the right to buy, or they could stay on the housing list for all the council houses that already exist, which are already massively over-subscribed.

That is something that the Government should think carefully about, as is allowing councils to borrow in order to build. If we are serious about ending the housing crisis but all we are doing is pushing the supply side and trying to make it easier for people to afford a house—even if there is some value in that—simply by effectively providing the deposit, then we will continue to fail to get the number of houses to meet demand. I urge the Government to consider more seriously the steps that can be taken to support councils to do more of this type of thing.

The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire also referred to infrastructure. Again, I do not find myself in disagreement at all with what he said about the need for infrastructure to keep pace with new housing developments. He alluded to a couple of specific infrastructure challenges that both his constituents and mine face on the A61 and the Staveley bypass, and I am very keen to work closely with him on both those issues.

I first came to Chesterfield when I worked at CCS Media, which was slap bang on the A61; it was just inside my constituency and on the border with the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He is absolutely right to say what he did. Right back in 1990, I was sitting in my old Ford Cortina in exactly the kind of traffic jam that he took the Transport Secretary to see 27 years later. He is right to say that these key infrastructure problems exist.

The previous Government made a massive investment in junction 29A, which was a really welcome and positive step in generating hundreds of jobs out of Markham Vale. However, it is a shame that the work on the development of that junction did not continue through to include work at the Stavely bypass, which it should have done.

The Government need to be held to account on infrastructure spending. They came to power in 2010, at a time when all kinds of pressures were slowing the economy down. However, one of their first decisions—I still remember the former Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, standing up to speak—was to cancel all the infrastructure spending. What we saw was two or three years in which all infrastructure spending was slowed down, and although the rhetoric changed from 2012 and 2013 onwards, the level of infrastructure spending in the period between 2010 and 2015 was pitiful. There is a real need for infrastructure, including transport infrastructure, and also for Government intervention in making sure that the people with skills are available, to make construction affordable and to get more houses and more civil engineering projects built.

I will also take up the point that the hon. Gentleman raised about the level of spending in the east midlands. In Chesterfield, we are slightly unusual in that we consider ourselves—I certainly do—to be northern but Derbyshire. The Government consider us to be from the east midlands, but, as I say, I think people in Chesterfield consider themselves more northern than east midlands.

Whatever people consider themselves, the truth is that the east midlands has been massively overlooked in terms of the spending. The hon. Gentleman referred to the amount of spending on both house building and transport. It is true that when someone from the east midlands comes down to London, they meet people who have 10 times more spent on their transport than people in the east midlands do.

There are a number of reasons for that. Part of it is that the east midlands does not fit neatly into successive Governments’ views about how to regenerate areas. I apologise in advance to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, but we are not a region where the cities dominate and where it is all about the cities. Actually, we are a region of small towns and villages, predominantly—much as Nottingham and Derby might like to think that they are the spoke in the centre of our wheel, they are not entirely.

I remember being at an event where we got east midlands council leaders together. Up on the top table, as was always the case, were the leaders of Nottingham City Council and Derby City Council, and sitting quite a way back from them was the leader of Derbyshire County Council. Of course, the leader of Derbyshire County Council has far more constituents than either of the other two, given the size of that authority. Nevertheless, successive Governments have seen the cities as the way to regenerate regions. There needs to be much more understanding both of the role that towns play and of the make-up of the east midlands. I entirely endorse the point made by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire about the need for greater infrastructure spending in the east midlands.