HL Deb 09 December 2004 vol 667 cc1037-45

2.43 p.m.

Lord Rooker rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 13 May be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, if approved by this House and the other place, which is discussing this order today and indeed perhaps even as we speak, the order will establish an urban development area covering Northampton, Daventry and Towcester and an urban development corporation to regenerate that area. In February 2003, the Deputy Prime Minister announced the Sustainable Communities Plan. That is not a house-building programme, but a programme to develop communities that will stand the test of time and create places where people want to live. To make this happen, we are working with partners to establish fit-for-purpose, local delivery vehicles.

In west Northamptonshire, the four local authorities requested an urban development corporation to meet the challenges that they face. The development corporation will provide the focus, powers and capacity necessary to drive forward major new developments, secure private sector confidence and maximise investment. The urban development corporation will have a number of advantages over alternative delivery mechanisms: single-minded focus; direct access to government; its own financial "pot"; relevant statutory powers; expert staff; and the ability to take a long-term view. That is not to say that the other delivery vehicles, some of which are local authority led, are any less valuable. We are seeking to achieve merely what is fit for purpose for the particular locality. The advantages that I have listed will contribute to growth and investment that is better planned, more sustainable and better co-ordinated. Of course, that is in everybody's interests.

On 15 January, we consulted on proposals for the urban development corporation. Responses were received from individuals, the voluntary sector, the private sector, local authorities, non-governmental organisations and government agencies. The issues raised during the consultation have been examined at length by a Select Committee of your Lordships' House. I will save the House any further detailed explanation of the issues, but they were well addressed by the committee during a period of two weeks.

However, the committee highlighted a number of points that I will address. First, on consultation, the committee considered that greater effort could have been made to inform people of the urban development corporation proposals. I take that on board quite genuinely and the Government will certainly seek to ensure that that is the case if there are any other urban development corporations. We have no plans at present, but it is likely that as we develop the growth area agenda, there may be two or three—that may be too many—urban development corporations in addition to the four urban development corporations that have been set up so far. Two are in the Thames Gateway; the third is technically a sub-committee of English Partnerships, but it is operating on a statutory basis on Milton Keynes to the same kind of rules. We would certainly make sure that the consultation is better and that the local authorities involved have carried out such a consultation. We will not accept a one-sentence line in a letter as being sufficient.

Secondly, the committee recommended that the urban development corporation consults not only within its boundaries. The west Northamptonshire urban development corporation is somewhat different from some corporations, although it is not unique. It represents the three districts of Northampton town, Daventry and Towcester. They are not coterminous, but three separate, isolated areas. Therefore, it is crucial that the surrounding area is taken into account in the consultation. I will ensure that the urban development corporation's guidance and targets reflect the request and desire of the Select Committee. That is wholly right and proper.

The committee sought a further undertaking regarding the membership of the urban development corporation. It recommended that the members of the proposed UDC should include: two members representing Northampton Borough Council; one member representing Daventry District Council; one member representing South Northamptonshire District Council—which of course contains Towcester—and two members representing Northamptonshire County Council. It further recommended that the two members from each of the Northampton councils should belong to different political groups. We are more than happy to ensure that.

Indeed, I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, chairman of the Select Committee, on 10 November, to give that undertaking. I can now confirm it to the House. I should point out that all the places on the board will be filled on merit, in accordance with the guidance from the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. In other words, we shall follow the Nolan rules for these appointments.

As noble Lords will know, the difference is that we originally proposed that only one member from each of the four councils should be included on the urban development corporation, but, having listened to the evidence, the Select Committee has obviously deemed that two members should represent each of the Northamptonshire councils. There will be other members, obviously, but there have been public advertisements and the posts will be filled on merit.

The urban development corporation provides Northampton, Towcester and Daventry the opportunity to derive maximum benefit from the growth which is coming anyway. They are not areas devoid of growth; the question is one of deriving the maximum benefit. The regeneration tasks facing the three towns are different, of course. I am very grateful to the Select Committee for taking the time to go and visit the area. However, the towns are intrinsically linked. The objective of the exercise is to ensure that Towcester and Daventry thrive in their own right and do not merely become dormitory satellites of a growing Northampton.

Northampton needs major physical regeneration, with large areas of underused or unused land. Of course, it has a considerable number of brownfield sites. Anyone who has been to any of the great sporting events in the area, or who has been diverted off the M1 when it is closed on to the A5, will realise that Towcester is divided by the A5—my brief says "severed". It has inadequate social infrastructure and is slowly becoming a dormitory town. I had driven through it, but had never stopped the car until a visit in relation to the issue a year ago. Daventry is much further advanced than Towcester into dormitory status. It requires substantial investment to resurrect the town centre.

The boundaries focus development on the three major settlements; we do not seek to go into the outlying villages. As I set out in my evidence to the committee, protection of the countryside and the need to concentrate development on brownfield land will be key priorities for the urban development corporation.

The corporations are of course intended as short-life bodies. They are there for a particular purpose—to manage the sustainable growth and make sure that we get maximum benefit from it. The typical lifespan for urban development corporations has been seven to 10 years. That is normally sufficient time to develop and implement a strategy, organise a delivery plan, tackle land assembly problems—they can be very complicated—and then revert to the normal local government arrangements. This urban development corporation will have an indicative lifespan of 10 years, but we will conduct a review after five years.

It is the Government's intention to seek approval at a later date to give the urban development corporation powers to determine strategic planning applications. I want to emphasise that all the householder and minor planning applications will always remain with the local authority, even when we have the powers for the strategic sites. We are talking about the large strategic sites, although I fully accept that strategic sites are sometimes not necessarily the largest. It is those key sites that determine the growth at which we need to look from the urban development corporation's point of view.

In exercising its development control function—the granting of planning permission or otherwise—the urban development corporation will undertake at least the same degree of community consultation as ordinary planning authorities. Of course, that has considerably increased as a result of the passage of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act, so a lot more consultation is to take place. Although the corporation is not fixed—a chairman-designate has been appointed—frankly, I have every confidence that the chairman will out-consult anyone else in the area. That is the nature of the person concerned, Mr Keith Barwell.

The urban development corporation will operate on the basis of partnership with the community and the key players. Partnership and a commitment to effective community engagement represent a fundamental change from what has happened with urban development corporations in the past. I do not want to be critical of the past, but this is not London Docklands or Milton Keynes mark No. 1. I pay tribute to the previous government; both governments have used urban development corporations in a wholly different way. I know that from what happened in Birmingham Heartlands, the Black Country with the development corporation, and, I believe, in Manchester. Different and more benign kinds of urban development corporations worked on a partnership and consultative basis there, rather than putting a wall up and doing everything themselves. They have also been much more effective in taking the population along with them.

The corporation represents a new era of co-operation to drive forward an urban renaissance for the benefit of all the people of west Northamptonshire. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 13 May be approved.—(Lord Rooker.)

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the order, which is also going through the other place. A few questions arise from it. In principle, everyone is obviously in favour of it, but it should not go through with a completely quiet life; the Minister would not expect me to allow that.

I note with relief that the number of local authority members has increased substantially from the initial proposals. Will the Minister confirm that the number of members of the urban development corporation is to remain at 13–11 plus the chairman and vice-chairman—so six of those members will be from local authorities? He nodded and said yes. Can we have it in Hansard that he said yes to both points?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am more than happy about that. I sought not to over-speed the process, but we have changed from four members to six for local authorities. The number remains at 13. It was always the case that no section should have a dominant role; that fits with six out of 13. It means that adjustments will be made to the other representatives, particularly those of some of the government agencies, as we will still go through the normal process of appointments.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I want to pick a little more at the planning role of the development corporation. The Minister said that normal planning control would be left with the local authorities—I imagine that that is the sort of fairly routine planning that deals with house extensions and things that are already there—but that the strategic planning would be carried out by the development corporation. That planning will include the number and type of houses, and whether they are terraced or tower blocks. How much responsibility will the local authority have for input into that strategic planning? I am pretty certain that all that will rest with the development corporation, but it will need to make sure that it has the local planning authority on board. The question is really whether there will ultimately be a local authority planning role in relation to the matter.

We probably discussed it with the Thurrock corporation, but we are back again to the problem with the infrastructure that, where we extend by the relevant amount in such parts of the world, there will presumably also be a need for adequate schools, hospitals, transport, water and amenity provisions. Will those be the responsibility of the development corporation, or will they he left with the local authority?

The Minister indicated that the development would be based largely on brownfield sites. How much will be on greenfield land, in light of the Kate Barker recommendations that it should be used more than it is?

The Minister also drew attention to the main urban centres of Northampton, Daventry and Towcester. I am tempted to ask whether the A5 will skirt round the whole development, or whether it will stay as a severance. The Minister might like to comment on that. Are there any plans on how each area will be extended and by how much? We are looking at a probably very substantial increase in population. If Daventry and Towcester are to be protected more or less as market towns, it would be interesting to know how much extra population is expected.

We go back to the sustainable communities policy, over which we have had much discussion and about which there remains certain concern. The population is attracted to the south and south-east by the provision of the excessive amount of housing, rather than being held, kept or encouraged to stay in more northern regions. There are vehicles to deal with that, but does the Minister think that the corporation will be an added incentive for people to move in search of housing and work?

Other than those short questions, we are happy to see the order go through.

3 p.m.

Lord Dykes

My Lords, I join the previous speaker in acceptance and approval of the report and order presented by the Minister today. This was the first occasion that I had an opportunity to be on this special Select Committee for the purpose of examining the order, and I pay tribute to the process, which I considered to he thorough and meticulous. I also thank the officials, the staff, the Doorkeepers and everyone who exercised maximum patience and ensured that the members of the committee were able to conduct a proper examination of the issues.

We on this side of the House are grateful that the Minister accepted the suggestions made in the Select Committee report. There had clearly been overwhelming evidence of inadequate consultation because of the inherent speed with which the process was originally launched and then developed. I am grateful that the Government have seen fit to redress that problem. I am also grateful that the composition of the UDC will be altered significantly to take care of the additional necessities of the local authorities involved in the area, including the two major Northampton councils. From now on, through that additional membership and the other related consultation processes, it will be possible to ensure that the public have the opportunity and the right to give their views as the process unfolds. Therefore, it gives me pleasure to support the order and for it to be approved today in the House.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I was pleased to be appointed to serve on the Select Committee to consider the order. At one stage, I said to a witness whom one of the petitioners had called that I had cut my political teeth on trying to chase the unelected, wholly appointed Commission for the New Towns out of the town of Hemel Hempstead, where, in my view, it had outstayed its welcome. Therefore, the changes which the Government have made in this case, and others, to the composition of the urban development corporation are extremely welcome.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, in thanking all those who helped the committee to do its job. I include the witnesses on both sides of the argument and everyone else. I do not wish to embarrass my noble friend Lord Boston of Faversham, but I pay tribute to his sensitive and sensible chairmanship. He did a marvellous job in keeping most of us in order most of the time.

I want to pick up the point about sustainability and about what the committee made of the way in which the four local authorities which had requested the establishment of a UDC had gone about writing to the Minister and asking for that to happen. There is no question that they did it; it was the manner in which they did it. It was done mainly by the leader of the four councils concerned and the chief executive—that was all. No one else on the council was told that it was going to happen. Apparently, it did not cross anyone's mind that the leaders of the other groups on the council should he told that it was happening, let alone that they should be consulted about whether or not it was a good idea, and clearly that got up the nose of all the petitioners.

That matters, and it is not simply a case of amour propre. From my experience of the housing action trusts in my former constituency in Castle Vale—arguably one of the most successful of about eight or nine just coming to the end of their life in the country—sustainability is not something that one sprinkles on like salt over a bag of chips; sustainability is built into the process right from the start. The residents of an area feel that they have some ownership of the process and, on a continuing basis, some input into the decisions taken on their behalf about the shape of the homes and so on. That is the one great lesson to be learnt from Castle Vale on the edge of north-east Birmingham and elsewhere.

I am grateful for what my noble friend said about the Government taking on board the point about continuing consultation—not just playing with it but going out of their way actively to involve residents of the area—both within the walls of the boundaries of the UDC and also beyond those walls because what happens within those walls will affect people beyond them. In my view and on the back of my experience, that is the way to reawaken and reinvigorate the communities in areas with enormous potential. There is scope to manage the expansion, which will happen in any event, in a holistic way. It is not simply a question of extra houses; it is the schools, the roads, the water and the entire infrastructure. But, above all, it is about encouraging and enabling the communities within those areas of the UDC to get their hands around this matter and to feel that they are going to help to make it happen.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I do not want to prolong the debate but I want to endorse what was said by my two fellow members of the committee. I thank the Doorkeepers and I thank those on the local authorities who looked after us and gave us a good lunch. I also thank my noble friend Lord Boston for chairing the committee so well. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for agreeing to our recommendations. We felt very strongly about them and I am glad that he has done so.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am truly grateful to noble Lords. I think that only the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, is missing from our deliberations, although the noble Lord, Lord Boston, has remained in watchful silence. As a Minister, I also pay tribute to the way in which the committee was handled. I turned up to it every day except when I was out on a visit all day and could not get back in time. Sometimes I dipped in just for half an hour in order to listen to the evidence on both sides and to the questioning by counsel and Members.

Of the four statutory bodies established, this was the only one which had been petitioned against and therefore a Select Committee inquiry was set up. It was useful for the Government and for the department's officials to be exposed. They enjoyed it in the sense that it helps to tighten up the processes in the department. Therefore, from that point of view, the parliamentary scrutiny of the order, led by this House, has been extremely valuable. The lessons will be learnt and taken on board, both in relation to this UDC and, if there are any, other statutory bodies.

I turn briefly to some of the specific questions asked by the noble Baroness. She asked me about the A5. The boundaries of this urban development corporation are specific to Northampton, Daventry and Towcester. As one is reported outside and this is an important matter, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the town of Brackley is not forgotten. For reasons which are understood by those involved, it is not part of the UDC because a legal regeneration case could be not made. But it is not possible to carry out the regeneration of Towcester, Daventry and Northampton without taking account of Brackley and without taking account of some of the possible benefits to that town. It is important that regeneration is not damaging to other nearby areas but is a wholly positive arrangement.

The proposed A5 bypass at Towcester will be an early priority for the urban development corporation. It will be better placed to bring the players to the table, including the Highways Agency—it is always a pleasure to do business with that organisation—the private sector and all the bodies that will need to work together to consider this proposal. The extension of the boundary of the UDC will also bring an additional area of land into the UDC that is already flagged up for housing development. Obviously residential, employment and infrastructure development will help to rejuvenate the existing services as well as deliver employment opportunities.

I turn to the subject of planning control. Let us be clear that once the order becomes a legal force, which I understand will occur on Monday because the Houses are not sitting tomorrow, and once the body is set up—obviously the other membership must be organised—the development control powers on the strategic sites (once Parliament has given the approval; I shall have to come back with another order) will remain and will be exclusively for the urban development corporation. It will take the planning decisions on the strategic sites. Of course, it will do it after the fullest and most detailed consultation with all those affected—not just the landowners and neighbours, but, by definition, the local authorities. As the local authorities, which in this case are cross-party—three Conservative and one Labour—willingly wanted this kind of arrangement, I believe there will be substantial consultation before the decisions are made. The actual development control, the decisions for the strategic sites, will be made by the board of the urban development corporation.

On infrastructure, in some ways one of the advantages of the UDC is to acquire the buy-in from the increase in land values for the infrastructure. I want to put the matter into context. The urban development corporation is not setting sail on its own, devoid of any other support. This is part of the Milton Keynes and South Midlands growth area, in which there are already other local authority-led delivery vehicles of north Northamptonshire, Aylesbury, and, of course, Milton Keynes. We are still in discussion with our partners at the southern end—the Luton and south Bedfordshire area.

Therefore, the totality of the infrastructure process, which is sometimes road or rail links, health and education, transcends the boundaries of some of the small councils. As I have said, one example is that a study of £800,000 has been funded as part of the growth programme for the totality of the area on the health needs of the area, over a 10 to 20-year plan. So we know which district general hospitals will grow and whether a new one will be required and matched properly.

While the urban development corporation will clearly be a lead and a help in infrastructure projects being born out of some of the increases in the land value, it is not left to do that alone—other bodies will assist. We are already experimenting in the Milton Keynes and South Midlands growth area with new forms of alternative financing arrangements with the landowners as an experiment. At the moment, we are looking at consulting them, and that was recently approved by the sub-regional board.

On the point made about land, our figures still apply. Our target is to have 60 per cent of all new dwellings built on brownfield sites. At the moment we are operating at about 66 to 67 per cent. By definition, one allows up to 40 per cent on greenfield sites. Not all the brownfield sites are spread evenly around the country and they are certainly not spread evenly in this growth area.

I want to remind the noble Baroness that we have the density directive under which we can build at greater densities—at least 30 dwellings a hectare. We have done some calculations in the department. We may be able to achieve higher densities over a period of time, and concentrate on the brownfield sites. We have already said that if the whole of the growth programme succeeds, it will bring something like 1 per cent extra into the urban take of the country, increasing the figure from 10 per cent to 11 per cent. But it is possible that we can have the growth on the same land, build more dwellings on the same land, or even less land than was used in the past, simply because we have been building at too low a density. That is a very important point to take on board.

That is part of a big process, which will be reported back to the House from time to time in relation to other debates. I hope that I have covered most, if not all, the points.

At the moment, it is not possible to give the housing figures. A consultation process is taking place, following the study and following the examination in public over a five-week period earlier this year, for the whole of the Milton Keynes and South Midlands growth area. The ODPM issued its amendments some weeks ago. The final decisions, announcements and publications in relation to that consultation will be made by the Secretary of State early next year. Broadly, the figures are known and are already in the public domain.

On Question, Motion agreed to.