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German Road, Bramley

Volume 461: debated on Thursday 7 June 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

I am grateful for the opportunity to come to the House and raise an important issue for my constituents in Basingstoke. May I thank the Minister for Housing and Planning for taking the time to come to the House and respond on the Secretary of State’s behalf?

Bramley is a village in the north of my constituency, neighbouring the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). It includes German road where, for the past three years, there have been discussions about house building. The proposals have been rejected, as German road has been deemed unsuitable and unsustainable for development. There has been a great deal of house building in he village over the past decade and little or, indeed, no expansion of local services or improvements to the roads and supporting infrastructure. The village has a very good convenience store and an excellent bakery, but the road that runs through the village feeds into the C32 road and, to the north, there is a surface rail crossing, which is regularly closed to allow freight and passenger traffic to travel between Reading and Basingstoke. Indeed, 99 per cent. of residents in the village leave it in order to shop, and there is no secondary school in the vicinity.

There are therefore a great many reasons why the village has been deemed unsuitable for further development and, indeed, why the proposals that have been submitted have been deemed unsustainable. We are here today, however, because the Secretary of State is “minded”—in ordinary parlance that means “would like”—to allow house building go ahead. I understand from the office of the Minister for Housing and Planning that she will not discuss the merits of the individual case this evening, and I understand her reasons, as the case is ongoing.

In questioning the Secretary of State’s intervention, it is important to set out the context of the application. Over a three-year period, a local government inspector and an inspector appointed by the Secretary of State herself, as well as the locally elected and accountable Basingstoke and Deane borough council, which is the planning authority, all found after long and detailed investigation and consultation with local residents that the proposed scale of development—more than 270 houses were proposed—was wholly unsustainable. Yet the Secretary of State, with no additional new evidence, seeks to overturn those three separate, well thought-out decisions. Even more surprising, the Secretary of State wants to approve a plan that is one third bigger in number of houses to be built than the original plan, which was rejected almost three years go.

The Secretary of State’s main argument is that new residents can come into the village because a train station is located there, and one is indeed—Bramley train station is quite small and has a surface level crossing. She argues that the additional 270 houses would, as a result of the station’s presence, put no real additional strain on the local road network. Her own inspector looked closely at this issue in a report issued in February. In it, the inspector said:

“Bramley is a small village in which shopping, education and employment needs are met to only a limited extent. The appeal site does not occur in a location which would be sufficiently likely to encourage a shift in travel behaviour, away from the private car, for these purposes. Its sustainability is sub-optimal.”

The facts are that fewer than one in five current residents living in close proximity to the station regularly use the train. Given the inspector’s findings, if the development were to go ahead, more than 300 additional cars could be on the local roads, which have not been improved to be able to take them. Those roads already suffer from considerable congestion.

I have heard the Minister talk many times, often at the Dispatch Box, about the need to increase the rate of house building in the south-east of England, and she will perhaps do so this evening. However, I am sure that she is sufficiently well briefed to know that the borough of Basingstoke and Deane has not shied away from Government house building targets. Well in excess of actual local need, the build rate in the borough is more than 900 units a year. Indeed, figures given to me by the council show that last year, well over 1,000 new housing units were built in Basingstoke, so I am sure that the Minister is not about to give the residents of Basingstoke and Deane a lecture about the need to build houses.

Residents in Old Kempshott lane, in Rooksdown, which is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire, and in Popley, Chineham, Eastrop, Brookvale, King’s Furlong and Lychpit are only too aware of the massive rate of house building that is being undertaken in our borough. Indeed, half the wards in the town of Basingstoke are subject to significant house building programmes, yet the borough has only just been given the resources to assess the shortfall in infrastructure.

Therefore, despite the fact that local elected representatives have produced a well thought-through and commended local plan, in accordance with procedures set out by the Government, that has allocated sites for house building in areas where there is access to schools, shops and other local services, the Secretary of State still feels minded to intervene and potentially to release yet more land for development. Does she simply not trust the local community in Basingstoke to get it right? The plan did not include house building in Bramley, because residents and their elected representatives, as well as two inspectors, could see that the community could not sustain further growth. As the chairman of the parish council, John Ferguson, said to me, the village has reached “saturation point”—a feeling that I am sure residents in many other areas of my constituency can empathise with.

Indeed, throughout the borough there is a deep and growing concern that insufficient investment is being made in improving local services. Investment simply has not gone hand in hand with Government house building targets over the past 10 years. We now see regularly the consequences of that, which are becoming a cause of deep concern for residents throughout my constituency. There is regular flooding of the sewerage systems in the northern part of the town, and the level of phosphates in the River Loddon is causing concern. The M3, which runs through the centre of my constituency, is consistently running well over capacity. The Minister may be aware that a tragic spate of deaths has resulted from that congestion in the past two years.

Other issues include a growing problem of rat-running through villages and residential communities. New areas, such as Rooksdown which I mentioned earlier, have few local community facilities to support the families who live there, who often have very young children. We already have an infrastructure gap of more than £200 million on our roads in the area, and I fear that the Government are creating further problems that will be far more costly for us to deal with in the future.

At every stage of the process, local residents and their very able elected representatives have worked with the inspectors and the planning authority. More than 200 residents directly contributed to the most recent inspection in public. A local ward councillor, Marylyn Tucker, summed up the situation:

“The site has gone through the democratic process, and at all levels the professionals (including two Inspectors) have ruled against the development, but it appears the Secretary of State believes she knows best.

What a complete waste of time and money on behalf of the Local Authority, the Local Plan process and the local residents.

It is no wonder that the electorate have little confidence in government when this is what is seen as democracy.”

Councillor Tucker’s words reflect many of our local residents’ feelings on this matter.

I have several specific questions for the Minister who is responding to the debate on behalf of the Secretary of State. First, what new evidence is there that the plan to build more than 270 houses in German road is now sustainable when previously it was deemed not to be? Did the inspector make some serious errors in her report earlier this year, or does the Secretary of State have some special plans to offer money to develop Bramley even further? Perhaps she will offer the new residents a free train pass so that they will use the train rather than their cars. I would be interested to know what plans she has to make the development more sustainable.

Both the Secretary of State and the planning inspector agree that the proposal is not in compliance with the local development plan, because it is outside the settlement policy boundary of Bramley, it would increase dependency on the car, and the scale of the proposals has increased significantly since the original proposal was submitted. Did the elected representatives and the local planning authority get it wrong? What mistake did they make to lead the Secretary of State to want to intervene?

There was extensive consultation with the people of Bramley and the people of Basingstoke on the local plan, but the Secretary of State can override that from afar. What message does the Minister think that that sends to my constituents about the usefulness of being involved in future so-called consultations, especially on planning issues or of the involvement of local government in the planning process?

As the Minister will be aware, the problem in Basingstoke, and indeed in many other areas of the south-east, is not a shortage of land on which to build but the rate at which builders are prepared to bring houses on to the market. A number of major developments have significantly slowed their build rate as too many new developments are coming on to the market in Basingstoke. Although the Government would like to control all aspects of house building more closely, the Minister—who, like me, is an alumnus of the London School of Economics—will understand that she still has to rely on market forces and the need of developers to make a profit on the houses that they sell. What evidence does she have that overriding the local plan in this way will not just lead to other developments slowing their build rate?

“There is a duty in the modern constitution to ensure the best possible consultation throughout out society. Public consultation is a mark of a mature democracy, not only when Government seeks to make major legislative changes—for example over taxation—but also at a smaller scale when new developments are planned. We must also ensure the fullest democratic participation in decisions”.

Those are fine words indeed, and they were used by our Prime Minister-in-waiting when he was still just the Chancellor. There has been an exhaustive consultation about the decision, but is the Minister for Housing and Planning happy that the Secretary of State is putting into practice the words of the man who will soon be her party leader? Or does she agree with local residents in Bramley and Basingstoke that consultation and democratic participation take on very different meanings when used in connection with the Secretary of State’s current approach to planning?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) on securing this debate. She has set out her concerns about the role of the Secretary of State in the planning application in respect of German road, Bramley.

The hon. Lady was right to say at the beginning of her remarks that I am very constrained in what I can say in the House about these matters. The case is still under consideration by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the matters that she has raised. I am unable to take action that could prejudge the determination of the planning decision.

However, I can tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to the parties involved on 3 April 2007 indicating that she is minded to disagree with the inspector and to grant planning permission, subject to conditions and in particular subject to receipt of a satisfactory reformulated planning obligation in respect of securing the appropriate provision of affordable housing. The parties involved have been asked to submit such an obligation and any other representation by 3 July this year. Subject to the substance of those submissions, I understand that it is anticipated that a decision would be issued on or before 2 August.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke will know that clear procedures exist for the determination of planning cases. Such cases involve private as well as community interests, so it is appropriate that the procedures are properly followed to ensure that decisions are fair to all sides and appropriately transparent. She will appreciate too that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s role in such cases is quasi-judicial, and that it is therefore inappropriate for Ministers to debate cases in Parliament while they are passing through the process.

In addition, I am afraid that we are also unable to have a slightly wider debate that uses an individual case as an example, as to do so could give the appearance that we were prejudging the case, which would be inappropriate. The hon. Member for Basingstoke will want to ensure that the views of her constituents and of everyone involved in the case are fairly taken into account and are not prejudiced by the debate.

However, I can draw the attention of the hon. Member for Basingstoke to the letter of 3 April, which sets out the Secretary of State’s consideration of the development plan, the sustainability of the site, transportation matters and planning policy guidance note 13. It also sets out my right hon. Friend’s consideration of housing matters and planning policy statement 3, and of the relevant conditions under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Finally, it sets out my right hon. Friend’s conclusions in the light of those considerations. I am afraid that it would be inappropriate for me to comment further, and I am also unable to comment on the relationship between the application and the wider plans for the district.

The hon. Lady raised wider issues around the need for infrastructure and for housing. I preface my comments on those two wider issues by saying that I am not commenting on them with regard to their implications for this individual case. As I have made it clear, it would not be appropriate for me to do so. We believe that there is a need for more investment in infrastructure to support housing growth across the country. That is why we have been looking at issues around planning gain supplement and why we have been working with areas, such as Milton Keynes, on ideas around tariff. She has to recognise that infrastructure requires investment and that that investment needs to be found. I hope that she will urge her Front Bench to support additional investment in infrastructure across the country.

The hon. Lady may be aware that the national housing and planning advice unit has today published a report that looks at the impact of affordability on current and planned levels of house building and concludes that if more homes are not built, there will be a big increase in pressures on first-time buyers over the next 20 years and that this is a serious matter.

The Tory party’s position is clear: house building must go hand in hand with infrastructure development, but in Basingstoke and throughout the south-east of England those two are in no way linked. Will the Minister clarify her position on that?

I do not think that that is the Tory position. Rather it is that while perhaps the two should be linked, Tories will not provide any investment, and thus have a good excuse not to build any houses. Tory Front Benchers, as the hon. Lady will know, have been hostile to increases in investment and have proposed cuts. Nevertheless I hope that her party will think about the benefits, for example, of raising additional resources from planning gain and about other ways of putting appropriate additional investment into infrastructure and in support of housing.

The majority of the hon. Lady’s speech concerned the individual planning application and I cannot comment further on it. I know that there will be proper consideration of all the appropriate issues before the Secretary of State makes her final determination on the individual application.

My officials helpfully suggested that, as I was unable to respond in any great detail to the issues around the individual planning application, I could take the opportunity to remind the House of the major messages of the planning White Paper that was published on 21 May. I am sure that the hon. Lady and, indeed, the whole House will be pleased to learn that I intend to refrain from that as I do not think that they were pertinently raised in her speech.

Part of the Secretary of State’s comments when she presented the White Paper concerned the importance of consultation and the fact that it should be at the heart of the planning process. To return to my earlier comments, what message can I take back to my constituents? When next the Government ask them to participate in a consultation, they will merely say, “It didn’t get us very far last time, did it?”

All that I can say again is that there are processes to be followed in planning cases. Processes throughout the planning system involve consultation, including extensive consultation with local communities, especially at the plan-making stage. There are different opportunities to put views forward, but it is not appropriate for the House and Ministers to engage in detailed debates about a planning application. It is important that the procedures are properly and fairly followed. I know that hon. Members generally respect that process and recognise that it is an appropriate way for decisions to be taken. I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise that I am trying as best I can to respond to the points that she has made, but I am not prepared to go outside the clearly set planning guidelines. It would not be fair on her constituents or on anyone else for me to do so.

With that, I congratulate the hon. Lady again on securing the debate. The Secretary of State will certainly take all relevant issues into account when making her final decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Five o’clock.