HC Deb 09 July 2003 vol 408 cc295-301WH 3.32 pm
Phil Sawford (Kettering)

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate to raise important issues and concerns in my constituency about proposals for massive housing development in Northamptonshire.

First, I will outline the background. In March 2001, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions issued proposed changes to regional planning guidance. RPG8—as a draft for consultation—covered the period up to 2021 and superseded previous regional planning guidance for the east midlands.

Page 6 of the guidance identifies: Other areas where further development and research will be required". It then lists a number of points about, for example, waste, minerals, employment and the Milton Keynes and south midlands study.

Page 98 of the report states: Milton Keynes has been identified as an area for possible major development within the Regional Guidance for the South East. The potential for this and development within the wider sub region is to be studied across regional boundaries, to examine the Corby/Bedford/Milton Keynes/Northampton quadrangle". I am not sure how Corby and Northampton suddenly entered the frame: perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can enlighten me.

The study, undertaken by Roger Tym and Partners, was launched by my noble Friend Lord Rooker on 18 September 2002, in Northampton. A four-page summary document—which was not very informative—was available at the launch, and copies of the full report were to be made available shortly afterwards.

Despite repeated requests for a copy of the study, I have only managed to obtain a photocopy of the original report, and most of its maps are unreadable. To this day, I have never received a copy of the actual published document. I also want to put it on the record that, to the best of my knowledge, during the period of the study, I was never at any time contacted by Roger Tym and Partners or its agents or employees.

We are talking about 29,000 houses in my constituency—possibly more, if we knew the exact location of the 13,000 proposed for the Daventry district, which I cannot tell from my map. Is it 29,000 or could it be 40,000? Not a word or a whisper have I had—just a pathetic photocopy of a document. I hope that Roger Tym and Partners does a little better if it has an opportunity to carry out any studies in future.

The report proposes a corridor development, which would include Corby, Kettering, Northampton and Wellingborough. The size of the development in Northamptonshire over a 30-year period to 2031 is 167,000 houses: 29,000 for Kettering, 28,000 for Corby, 25,000 for Wellingborough, 13,000 for Daventry, 12,000 for East Northants, 11,000 for South Northants and 49,000 for Northampton. That is a large-scale development. In the case of Kettering, the proposals represent a doubling of the annual rate. The trend for Kettering between 1991 and 2001 is 405 units. For Daventry, during that 10-year period it is 541.

We must acknowledge the growth trends in our area. This debate is not about choosing between zero and 167,000 houses; the right figure might be somewhere between 60,000 and 167,000. Over recent months, I have sought answers to a number of questions. I shall put some of them to the Minister today in the hope that she will get back to me with some answers. Why was Northampton chosen for inclusion in the study area? How was the figure of 167,000 arrived at? What evidence is there to suggest that any development will ease pressures in the south and south-east, or that people will want to relocate to the midlands? What evidence suggests that businesses want to move and set up in the south midlands? Those are important questions.

For many, the prospect of 29,000 houses being built in the borough of Kettering over the next 30 years came out of the blue. The consultation process was totally inadequate, and the whole thing was presented as a fait accompli. I was told by a fellow Member in February this year that it was a done deal. I recently heard that a local council leader said: Even if there was a change of government in two years time, it will have progressed so far that they would not be able to stop it".

That is unacceptable, and it is no wonder that many of my constituents are appalled at the manner in which this has been done, with an apparent disregard for local feelings, local concerns and local democracy. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister made a statement on 5 February 2003. Since then, I have submitted a number of written questions—I have copies if the Minister would like to see them. The replies read like a directory of quangos: the East Midlands Development Agency, the Housing Corporation, the shadow regional housing board, the regional housing board, English Partnerships. We are talking about 167,000 houses. Welcome to quango city.

Where is the local democracy? Who speaks for local people and represents their interests? Which hon. Members did Ministers speak to before the done deal was announced? There are serious concerns about the level or lack of consultation with local councils, health trusts, local people, businesses and other organisations. I have been seeking further details for several months, and I have tried to keep my constituents informed as much as possible, producing five briefing notes on the issue. I have spoken often to the local media, and asked them to give it due prominence. I have recently sent a six-page submission to the Government office for the east midlands on the revised RPG8. I know that others in the local community have also taken part in the consultation process.

I welcome the fact that the next stage will involve further consultation. A sub-regional spatial strategy is due to be launched on 18 July 2003 for a 12-week consultation period. It is anticipated that an examination in public will be held in December this year, with a final report prepared by summer 2004. Will my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that there will be genuine, meaningful consultation and that the views and concerns of constituents and others will be taken into account? Will she commit to the Government giving this subject the widest possible publicity to encourage debate and contributions as part of the process? A reporter from the local Evening Telegraph is present today. I applaud the interest that that newspaper has shown in this matter and the publicity that it has given to this important issue.

Can I ask my hon. Friend and her colleagues in the Department to remind the Government office for the east midlands, the East Midlands Development Agency, the Housing Corporation, the shadow regional housing board, English Partnerships, the Local Government Association in the east midlands and the plethora of consultants and advisers that they have a duty to listen to and take on board my views and those of local people?

There is already concern that the next step in the process will be to set up a development corporation or a regeneration company, or some other form of quango. I seek reassurance from my hon. Friend that local people will not be marginalised or excluded from the process. Let us make that clear and get it on the record. Hon. Members and democratically elected local authorities speak for local people, whose voice must be heard if the process is to have any legitimacy. I am not alone in expressing serious concerns. My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), has also expressed his concerns publicly, although he is unable to attend the debate today.

Large-scale housing growth may be right for some areas. There is a problem of housing shortages in the south and south-east, because there are more single-person households and people are living longer. More affordable housing is needed as house prices continue to rise beyond the reach of those who want to get on the first rung of the ladder. Hon. Members and people outside are aware of those needs and they understand the pressures. However, there are many serious concerns about the scale of the development that is proposed.

Kettering and other areas in Northamptonshire have expanded over many years. Corby and Northampton are designated new towns, Wellingborough grew significantly with a London overspill population in the 1970s and Desborough, my home town, is a strategic development area, in which work is in progress on a large housing development. Milton Keynes is a new city. The area has grown and it will no doubt continue to grow.

It is right to consider the scale of future development and associated pressures on jobs, health care, education, transport links and public services. We want somewhere for our children to live. We cannot keep the area secret for ever. People are bound to find out how good it is and will want to move there. We have kept it secret for a long time. We want there to be growth with the co-operation of local people and the consent of the local authorities. However, we want it to progress at a rate that is consistent with local needs. Local authorities must take account of growth pressures when they draw up their local plan, but such provision should be made on current trend and existing growth patterns. Growth should not be artificially imposed.

It is important that there be safeguards in any growth process to protect the countryside, preserve the environment, enhance the quality of life of the people who live there already and, importantly, to conform to our own policies on sustainability. Those points are recognised in a letter that I received recently from the Minister for Housing and Planning. He states: The Tym & Partners recommendations were reviewed in a subsequent study by DTZ. This growth area assessment looked at technical aspects and concluded that higher levels of growth in Kettering could have negative impacts Many hon. Members would agree with that. I have pointed out some of those negative impacts.

Importantly, the letter continues: When the regional planning guidance alterations for the Milton Keynes-south midlands area are launched for public consultation on the 18th July these are likely to adopt a trend based growth for Kettering rather than a higher growth scenario."

It seems that the Government are listening, and I welcome that. I trust that common sense will prevail. I fully endorse the comments in the letter, and I will continue to press the case for trend-based growth for Kettering, as it gives more say to local people, recognises local needs and gives more democratic accountability on the issue of where we want and need houses. Trend-based growth will bring decision-making closer to local people, rather than making it part of a grand scheme for a wider area. I welcome the fact that we are now seriously considering such growth at current levels. I will continue to press for that, and I think that local people will endorse that view.

I thank the Minister for her time today. I recognise that she has not been involved in the process to date, but I trust that she will take note of the serious matters that I have raised.

3.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Phil Sawford) on securing the debate and on choosing to raise a subject that is clearly important to him and his constituents. He has been assiduous in championing the views of the people of Kettering, not only on this subject but on wider issues, too.

I want to respond directly to some of my hon. Friend's points about where we are on the issue and the consultation process ahead, but let me start by outlining some of the background to the growth area proposals, and by saying how they were conceived. The origin was in the discussion held about the future development of the Milton Keynes area during the public examination of regional planning guidance for the south-east in autumn 2000. It was recognised that the Milton Keynes and south midlands area, including Northamptonshire, had already demonstrated considerable economic success. From 1990 to 2000, employment growth was more than three times the national average. The discussion centred on the need to provide adequate levels of housing for the local population and to match the expected increases in job creation in the area.

When the final version of the regional planning guidance for the south-east was published in March 2001, it was stated that an inter-regional study should be undertaken to consider the further development potential of the Milton Keynes sub-region. The study was intended to consider growth potential in the 30 years to 2031, in order to inform the next reviews of regional planning guidance for the south-east, the east of England and the east midlands.

Each region has its own regional planning body, which is part of the relevant regional assembly. As my hon. Friend will know, those assemblies will include elected local councillors. The bodies advise the Government on strategic planning and transport issues, and are responsible for drawing up regional planning guidance. The three regional planning bodies that were involved in this case, along with Government offices and other key stakeholders, commissioned a feasibility report—the Tyms study to which my hon. Friend referred, which was completed last September.

That report considered the potential of the area to accommodate sustainable growth and recognised the need to create jobs in the growth areas and to integrate transport and other essential infrastructure with housing development. As my hon. Friend is aware, it proposed building 167,000 houses in four towns over 30 years.

In February, the Government published the sustainable communities plan, which identified four growth areas—Milton Keynes and the south midlands, Ashford in Kent, the London-Stansted-Cambridge corridor, and the Thames gateway. Northamptonshire, of course, is part of the Milton Keynes and south midlands area. My hon. Friend is right that the Tyms study alone was clearly not sufficient basis for decisions of such magnitude that would affect such a broad area over such a long period. That is why it was necessary to carry out considerable further assessment of the practicalities and considerable consultation with local communities.

The regional planning bodies have therefore undertaken further detailed assessment of the proposals. They have considered the effects of the different growth levels on Kettering and the other towns involved, on the capacity of existing infrastructure and on the environment. That work is informing the preparation of a draft alteration to regional planning guidance in the three regions, which the regional planning bodies will publish on 18 July. I can tell my hon. Friend, therefore, that the regional planning authorities are already taking into account many of the issues that he raised, including the capacity of towns to accommodate further growth. It is clearly important that such issues are properly investigated.

The regional planning authorities will publish their own recommendations on the number of houses that should be required in their area. That will be followed by a 12-week consultation period, that will end on 13 October 2003. The consultation period is important, because it will give members of the public and local organisations a full opportunity to make representations about the proposals. An independent panel will deal with the issues that arise from the consultation at a public examination, which is expected to be held in March 2004. We expect a final version of the proposals, which will be formally incorporated into regional planning guidance documents, to be published in December 2004. It will include any necessary changes that arise from the public examination or from the further round of public consultation that will take place after the independent panel has published its report. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is crucial for there to be the widest consultation on the growth proposals at all stages of the planning process. It is important that up-to-date and accurate information is available to the local media and local organisations, including electronically.

We must be clear about the fact that growth requires investment, by which I do not mean simply investment in housing. Too often in the past, developments have been simply about bricks and mortar. It is right to invest in sustainable communities and to ensure that new communities and growth areas have effective infrastructure and the facilities that will make them sustainable in the long term.

The Government have announced that £164 million for essential infrastructure works will be made available for the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area, the London-Stansted-Cambridge growth area and the Ashford growth area over the next three years. That money is in addition to the funding that is available through mainstream programmes. It is intended to deal with issues such as site assembly, the remediation of brownfield land, delivery mechanisms, additional affordable housing and essential local infrastructure. It is another indicator of the Government's commitment to supporting the development of growth areas and achieving a change in our approach to housing and communities as a whole.

The Northamptonshire Heartlands primary care trust is spending an extra £63 million to improve health care in Kettering, Corby, Wellingborough and the Nene valley. It is also proposed to create a diagnostic and treatment centre at Kettering general hospital, which will significantly increase the capacity for treatment and reduce the length of time that patients must wait in accident and emergency before having their condition assessed.

Northamptonshire local authorities and other local bodies have forwarded 33 bids for key infrastructural works to support the proposed new development, and an announcement on those bids will be made shortly.

Clearly, it is important that any investment in sustainable communities considers not only immediate housing issues but broader issues, such as community facilities and designing communities in such a way as to ensure that they are sustainable in the long term. That is why the sustainable communities plan has allocated £200 million to hell) local authorities to improve the quality of life in local communities and to promote better design of buildings and public spaces.

The growth proposals for the Milton Keynes and south midlands area were initiated as a response to the need to provide adequate housing to match the potential increases in job creation in the area, not as an approach to establishing isolated dormitory areas for long-distance commuters working in London. With all the growth areas, we intend to ensure that transport and other essential infrastructure is provided with new housing, and that places are built to the best possible design standards.

The sustainable communities plan is a broad programme of action to deal with problems of housing affordability in some areas and abandonment in others; to ensure decent homes and a good-quality local environment in all regions; and to create balanced sustainable communities where people want to live and where they can work and spend their leisure time. We need to respond to housing pressures wherever they occur and to provide the opportunity for everyone to have a decent and affordable home.

I assure my hon. Friend that the regional planning bodies and regional assemblies are taking account of many of the points that he has made on behalf of people in Kettering. I assure him that once the revised proposals are published on 18 July, both he and people in the Kettering area will have a chance to comment on them and to respond in detail to the consultation. The Northamptonshire growth area proposals are being developed in partnership with Northamptonshire local authorities and local organisations. The truth is that they simply could not be developed without effective partnerships with local organisations, including elected organisations. The 12-week public consultation will be important, but there will be further opportunities as part of the process of the independent panel assessment and the consultation process after that.

I know that my hon. Friend will continue to raise the issues that are raised with him by constituents and members of his local community, and will continue to champion their interests. The growth proposals provide great opportunities for the Milton Keynes and south midlands area to benefit from the most modern approaches to sustainable communities, and to modern design and infrastructure, which underpin long-term sustainable communities. I hope that people in his area will take part in the consultation, express their views and look towards the advantages that many of the growth proposals could bring, not only to Kettering but to the wider area and to people who will be able to live in modern sustainable communities in the next few years and for many decades to come.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising these important issues. He will continue to do so, and I certainly expect to discuss them with him further in months to come.