HC Deb 08 September 2004 vol 424 cc277-84WH 10.59 am
Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab)

I applied for this debate back in April, just after the local inspector published the interim report. Having made the last application immediately before the recess, I had given up, so it is typical that this debate should come up now. I originally wanted to talk about the interim report to try to influence its outcome. However, the full report has been released in the past week without substantial change, so I want to highlight some of the issues that have come out of the process.

The process of creating local plans is a long one. Despite my efforts as chair of the Local Government's Association planning committee nearly a decade ago to speed it up, the procedure is still fairly long. Milton Keynes's local plan started in early 2000 and has been through a number of alterations. In addition, the Deputy Prime Minister has made an announcement about sustainable communities and there have been amendments to the regional plan—in our case RPG9.

Milton Keynes is subject to market forces, which will force us to have growth. Milton Keynes will grow, and the question is not "Will it grow?" but "How will it grow?" Will growth be planned or will it be subject to market forces and develop ad hoc? Will we learn the lessons that have made Milton Keynes successful? The key message that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and I have been pushing and, which, I am pleased to say, the Government have accepted, is that any development must have the infrastructure to accompany it. I do not just mean roads. I should like to place on record my appreciation for the way in which the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, particularly Lord Rooker, has responded to the efforts of my hon. Friend and myself to put the case for Milton Keynes and to the local concerns that have been expressed.

It is also important to say how well conducted the local plan process has been, from the start, in 2000, right through to the inquiry. There has been openness, the involvement of local groups and the community, and accessibility. One can therefore imagine the concerns that were expressed when many of the policies in the local plan were challenged in the inspector's interim report. That should not have been a problem in itself, but a matter for debate. The problem was that that came the week before the examination in public of the regional plan was due to take place. That was done either to scupper or influence the regional plan, or, as the inspector put it, to "inform" it.

A number of issues give rise to concerns. There are social housing problems in Milton Keynes: tonight 1,500 families will be in temporary accommodation. I met a family at the weekend with a child with special needs. That family were third generation in Milton Keynes, but were unable to get housing and were living in a friend's house as it was being rebuilt simply because that was the only accommodation available. There is a crisis of affordable housing and a need for social housing in Milton Keynes, but the inspector's report does not address those issues. Indeed, the inspector challenged the plans that address them.

The inspector addressed transport issues and we could have an entire debate about that. My hon. Friend and I have been pressing Ministers about the east-west rail link and on commuting into and out of Milton Keynes. I have also taken up the issue of a new canal to Bedford. There are real transport issues, but what does the inspector say about them? He says: The Council also produced a variety of calculations relating to viability. I attach relatively little weight to these calculations as they are based on many assumptions". He then goes on to make his own assumptions, which counter a lot of the work done in various studies. One of my concerns about the report is that the inspector's assumptions are viewed as okay, but the council's work and the many studies that have been conducted are not.

An example of that is the removal of policy on areas of our attractive landscape, which was designed to protect rural villages so that people did not think that they had to re-fight the battle of the 1960s when Milton Keynes was first proposed. That policy reassured people, but it has been removed from the local plan. The inspector has therefore caused unnecessary fears that those villages will be overrun.

The downgrading of the standards for the linear parks has compromised Milton Keynes's flood defences. Energy concerns have been dismissed, yet Milton Keynes development corporation set the standard for many of the energy ratings. If we built new homes in Milton Keynes, we could create zero carbon requirements that would go a long way to tackling the climate change issues that the Prime Minister rightly identifies as one of the most important challenges that we face. So why does the local plan minimise the opportunities?

In the previous debate, we heard about designing for crime. Thames Valley police wanted to add a target related to the percentage of applications that meet safety by design standards. The inspector says:

The Secure by Design standards go beyond what is appropriate for planning control. An area called Stantonbury Park Farm in the north of the city is to be proposed for 500 houses. The school that serves that area is already full, and the inspector says: Stantonbury Campus…would be expected to accommodate pupils from a development on this…site", but that it is already at capacity, and that the situation will get worse with the planned change in the age of transfer. Some 55 children were not able to get into Stantonbury school this week because of that. The provision of secondary school places to serve that site and the area in general is likely to occur as the result of a long-term review. The inspector says: On this basis this land would contribute some 500 dwellings to the supply side of the housing land equation albeit likely that the site could not come forward until late in the plan period once the education issue has been resolved. In other words, the planners create a problem then say to the local authority, "Get on and solve it." That is not particularly helpful.

Similarly in Wavendon, Walton high, which is the school that the Prime Minister visited along with the Chancellor in March, is already over-subscribed. Someone with two daughters who came to Milton Keynes found that one was accepted at the school and the other was not. There are 3,000 houses proposed for that area in the regional plan.

My major concern is the way in which the balance in Milton Keynes has been changed by the inspector's report. After a great deal of work, the local plan proposed certain areas, and I know that, in a moment, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West will want to raise an issue that affects her constituency. The local council, with local groups, proposed areas for development round the western flank of Milton Keynes, but the local planning inspector says: The area to the west is a distinctive 'natural area' with strong landscape features and attractive views. It is part of the Whaddon/Whaddon Chase ambience. That is despite the fact that the other studies, including regional planning studies, say that the work favours westerly and south-westerly growth in Milton Keynes in preference to continuous major eastward expansion over the M1 motorway. However, the inspector simply says: I agree that the land to the east of Milton Keynes is suitable for long-term development as I consider that this area is much less sensitive in landscape terms than the Whaddon Valley…In reaching this conclusion I appreciate that the assessment by Landscape Design Associates ruled out the designation of the Whaddon Valley as an area of attractive landscape. So, the inspector has removed the area of attractive landscape to the north of the city to protect the villages there, but when other villages cannot reach that standard, he still thinks that they are "sensitive". Such inconsistency in the inspector's report has led him to say: My view is that the Ml should not be seen as a long-term barrier to development. When areas are owned by the great and good of Buckinghamshire, they are somehow sensitive, while the areas of the ordinary people of Milton Keynes are not. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West has argued strongly for the regeneration of Bletchley and Wolverton, and such a policy has a major impact on her position.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab)

May I take this opportunity to say that I wholeheartedly concur with my hon. Friend's overall critique of the inspector? However, does my hon. Friend not agree that one particularly egregious part of the inspector's findings is that by removing the area known as 10.4, which he has just described, on the basis of recommendations primarily from a developer, he has increased pressure on area 11, which is owned by that same developer? That is a matter of huge concern to my constituents in Stony Stratford and Calverton.

Brian White

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. Which should take preference: developers' legitimate aspirations or the local community? The unfortunate timing of the inspector's report means that there has been no chance to debate such issues. Had we had the chance to do so in the run-up to the regional plan public examination, many of these concerns would not exist. However, because the examination took place the following week, the impression was given that the inspector was trying to influence—or as he put it, to "inform"—the examination in public.

If I believed in the conspiracy theory, it would lead me to question such issues. For instance, why do the great and good of Buckinghamshire seem to benefit when the ordinary people of Milton Keynes do not? Why, when considering their land interests, do certain developers benefit and others do not? Why were previous reports, such as the Milton Keynes in-field study, not considered and developed? Why, at the last minute and against its planners' advice, did the South East England regional assembly executive committee remove certain growth options and insert others into the assembly's planning policy for the area that my hon. Friend spoke of. These options went for examination in public.

Such matters give rise to a number of concerns, and those who subscribe to conspiracy theories will have noted them. I do not believe in the conspiracy theory. I believe in the cock-up theory, and those who try to conspire will still cock it up. However, it raises the possibility of those disappointed developers opening the process to judicial review, and that could raise further issues.

Since the interim report, the examination in public has reported. Luckily, it was not influenced by the local inspector's report. However, the local plan report and the regional plan are at odds. The question is how to resolve that. The Milton Keynes partnership committee has been established, and the recruitment of staff at English Partnerships for developing Milton Keynes is going ahead. The delivery of the Government's sustainable objectives rather than the developers' wishes is moving ahead. That is something that my hon. Friend and I have been pushing for.

The Deputy Prime Minister visited Milton Keynes only a few weeks ago. He said that people should learn the lesson of what has worked in Milton Keynes and recognise that the developers have to bring the community with them; we should remember that it is about developing communities and not just buildings. If it was down to what my right hon. Friend said, we would be fairly relaxed, but will the courts take note of what he said or will they consider the words of the inspector and the local plan? It is the conflict between them that concerns me.

Ministers will need to consider a number of questions when they come to consider the inspector's final report. The way in which the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister considers those issues will be critical to the development of the city. Particularly important is the relationship between the Milton Keynes partnership committee, English Partnerships and Milton Keynes council. Given their interrelationship, to whom will their officers be accountable, and which plans will they follow?

A number of applications have been made under section 7(1) of the New Towns Act 1946, the Act under which Milton Keynes was built and designed. The new partnership committee and the council both have planning powers; that is why the interrelationship between those bodies will be important, and the Department needs to give guidance on the matter. What will be the role of the Government office? How will departures from the local plan be dealt with?

Caldecote in my constituency was built under a section 7(1) application, but part of the estate was left undeveloped. In 1995, the existing local plan designated part of that area as open space. In 2000, English Partnerships told the council that it wanted the promontory to be developed, as in the original plan. English Partnerships's brief, which is contrary to the local plan, is currently before Milton Keynes council development control committee; its decision is due at the end of the month.

I have asked the Government office to call in that decision, because the principle that we are discussing is important—whether precedence should be given to the local plan, the inspector's report on the local plan or the existing local plan. What happens if an application fits into the regeneration aspirations of central Milton Keynes but not into the inspector's report? Which should take precedence? We heard in the previous debate that one size does not fit all. That is why it is important to get the process right.

Milton Keynes has always been an innovative city. It is a can-do city, and it has delivered for its citizens. My concern is that the inspector's report creates a number of obstacles, and the Government's vision for a sustainable community in Milton Keynes and the south midlands is right and important. To ensure that it happens, Departments need to work together. We need cross-regional working. At the moment, there are Highways Agency proposals for dualling the A421 as far as junction 13, but Bedfordshire county council and Milton Keynes council have not done similar work on extending dualling from junction 13 to the Kingston roundabout in Milton Keynes. The Highways Agency is doing good work, supported by local people, and the dualling is absolutely right and necessary, but it is not being completed, because Government offices, agencies and local authorities have not got their acts together and are not working to the same time scale. The role played by the Government offices for the south-east, the east of England and the east midlands will therefore be crucial to delivery. However, there is a perception that the inspector's report has ignored Milton Keynes's success and the reasons for it.

Today is not the day to debate funding, although we could have several debates about it. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West and I have consistently reiterated to the Minister that the provision of infrastructure must go ahead at the same time as development. The Government have accepted that in principle, and, to his credit, Lord Rooker said so publicly in Milton Keynes. However, success will be determined by whether highly individual Departments and agencies, such as the Highways Agency, can co-ordinate their individual plans with the Milton Keynes partnership committee's plans and the south midlands plans. The local plan will be a key means of delivering that success, but if we do not get it right, the issues that arise could compromise the Government's aspirations. The inspector's report is not an auspicious start, because it has raised fears without providing solutions.

I do not expect the Minister to be able to answer my points today, nor do I want an instant remedy. However, Ministers will need seriously to address them when they come to consider the council's final report, because they raise several serious issues. The way in which the different agencies react will also be important. The local plan is the vehicle by which we can turn some people's fears into opportunities and ensure that my city remains the success that it is.

11.17 am
Paul Clark (Gillingham) (Lab)

At the outset, let me congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) on securing the debate. He has raised many issues and, at the heart of them, is the question of how we promote joined-up thinking and joined-up government at all levels—nationally, regionally and locally—to ensure that we deliver the communities for which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) have argued at every possible opportunity at ministerial and local level.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East said that Milton Keynes was a can-do city, and he is right about the success that it has enjoyed. We want to celebrate that success and build for the next phase to ensure that we have sustainable communities in which people want to live and work.

Several of the detailed matters that my hon. Friend raised are for the local council to decide through planning processes. He has substantial expertise in that regard because, in a former life before he came to the House, he was chairman of the Milton Keynes planning committee. He will recognise that many of the decisions will be taken at the local level, rather than anywhere else.

It is worth while setting out to the Chamber the processes involved. Everyone should recognise that there are still substantial opportunities for public consultation. All sections of the community should be involved, not just key stakeholders. I am sure that my hon. Friend and other colleagues in the area will do their utmost to ensure that people take those opportunities.

Let me attach a Government health warning to what I have to say. I am constrained by the fact that the independent panel report following the public examination of the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategies was published at the beginning of last month and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is now considering his response to its recommendations. Although the contents of the report are public, no comments can be made on them at this stage. However, we expect to publish our response in October, and that will lead to a further round of public consultation.

Let me give the background to the Milton Keynes process. There are two key documents: the Milton Keynes local plan, which is the responsibility of the local authority, and the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategy, which was jointly presented by the three regional assemblies to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister last year. Both are relevant to the debate. We recognise that there might have been some confusion due to their running concurrently, so I shall deal with them separately.

The first document, the local plan, was placed on deposit in October 2002 by Milton Keynes council. It covers the period up to 2011, and contains detailed policies about land use for specific areas of land.

Brian White

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that one of the difficulties is that the local plan covers the period up to 2011, the regional plan runs until 2016 and the sustainable communities plan covers 30 years? The interaction of the three is causing concern.

Paul Clark

Absolutely. I realise that that does not make things easy. It has become clear in Milton Keynes that in order to deliver the sustainable communities plan, we need to run the processes concurrently. Then we can achieve what I know my hon. Friend desires—joined-up thinking that will allow us to get it right for all who live there now and who will do so in the next 10, 20 or 30 years. The processes have to come together at some stage, and part of the difficulty relates to the concurrent running of the documents.

As hon. Members know, we have introduced changes to the planning system to speed up the process and increase its transparency. They will come into force at the end of the month. Yesterday, the Minister for Housing and Planning launched two new advice notes concerning spatial strategies and local development frameworks, precisely to enable communities to have greater and earlier involvement than they have had in the past.

Returning to the Milton Keynes plan, the inspector who conducted the inquiry into the local plan is due to submit his report to the council later this year, and the council will then, if necessary, advertise any modifications that it wants to make in light of it. Further consultation will then take place. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was consulted on the draft local plan and commented on how it fitted with national policy guidelines. As my hon. Friend will know, it is the responsibility of the local authority and its elected officers to implement it.

I have already mentioned that we are changing the system to bring forward a better, more streamlined system. Many of us have been involved in local councils in the past and are well aware that housing and the demand for it—where it ends up and the levels of it—are invariably the most contentious issues. However, we have to deliver. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, some 1,500 will be sleeping rough tonight.

Brian White

They are in temporary accommodation.

Paul Clark

I am sorry. They will be sleeping in temporary accommodation tonight in Milton Keynes. I am aware that within the local authority stock there were only 140 voids—or there were at the end of April, according to the figures that I have—and I recognise the problems with that. I am sure that my hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West have had many cases in their surgeries of people seeking accommodation. I know that they will recognise that we have to meet those demands, but in a sustainable way.

The plan identifies 36,700 additional homes in Milton Keynes in the plan period up to 2011. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East will recognise that the plan period runs from 1991 and that many of those homes were already built or had permission through the planning permission system to be built when the plan was being drawn up. Therefore, in reality, the additional number of homes being sought is about 6,800. That is largely to be achieved through developments in the centre of Milton Keynes. A development is being considered as part of the centre of Milton Keynes expansions that would include some 10,000 residents returning to the town centres, where we are seeing a major renaissance and revival.

The second document is the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategy, which was submitted to the Government by the three regional assemblies in July 2003. Although the regional assemblies bring forward proposals for regional guidance, regional planning guidance—RPG—is approved and decided by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. Those are to change regional spatial strategies under the new system. A proposal to alter regional guidance in such a way during the final stages of the local plan is unusual, as I have said, but it was made necessary for us to make sure that the implementation of the sustainable communities plan went ahead.

All the comments in the inspector's report will be dealt with by the council as the local planning authority. As far as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is concerned, we would get involved only in extreme circumstances. Many of the matters raised by my hon. Friend are matters of detail and would not have been discussed at the sub-regional examination whenever the inspector's report had come out. The interim report was put out to inform debate. A substantial number of opportunities are still available at different stages of the process for members of the public, Members of Parliament, key stakeholders and the community to be involved in the sub-regional strategy and the local plan process.

I want to comment on one or two points that have rightly been made. If we are to have sustainable communities, they are not only a matter of bricks and mortar, but a matter of the social infrastructure that binds those together into communities. My hon. Friends will be aware of the Deputy Prime Minister's personal commitment to seeing that happen, and of how much he puts into it. In fact, the underlying strategy of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is to create such sustainable communities.

The comments made about health and education provisions were absolutely right. The moneys given under the growth area fund, for example, include about £800,000 for studies into what is needed for health provision and so on to meet the expansions, and about £135,000 for a sustainable strategy in terms of education and training in skills. That work is under way.

In terms of the designing-out of crime features, the ODPM and the Home Office have worked closely—

Sitting suspended till Two o'clock.