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North-East Regional Spatial Strategy

Volume 461: debated on Thursday 14 June 2007

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

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the complex issues of the north-east regional spatial strategy. The regional spatial strategy is the blueprint for future development in the north-east, so, if we are to flourish, it must reflect the needs and aspirations of the region. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has stated that his objective is to equalise growth rates across the country. Under the Northern Way strategy, it was agreed that our objective should be to narrow the output gap of £29 billion between the north and the south. Despite claiming to be a document that will tackle deprivation, create a buoyant employment market, and adopt an holistic approach to climate change and energy use, the detailed plans completely fail to do that. On this matter, County Durham speaks with one voice. All the local authorities, county and district, and all the county’s Back-Bench MPs are united in our concern about the plan.

Our argument is clear: the regional spatial strategy underestimated the potential for new investment, economic growth and jobs. In doing so, it put a clamp on our excellent, existing employment sites. Consequently, housing allocations are too low and the transport plans inadequate. By concentrating development in the city regions, it does nothing to cut travel-to-work distances, promote sustainability or counter climate change.

NETPark is a highly successful collaboration between Durham university, the county council and the private sector. Let me give one example of what has happened in my constituency as a result of our having NETPark in County Durham. Thorns, the lighting manufacturer, which has its headquarters in Frankfurt, has decided to build a wholly new site, guaranteeing 600 jobs for another 20 years, partly because there is collaboration between the private sector and the university to develop organic lighting at NETPark. That is the best of modern manufacturing. However, by limiting the development at NETPark to 13 hectares instead of the proposed 49 hectares, the regional spatial strategy compromises its stated goal of facilitating north-east regeneration through what it calls

“a significant expansion of the knowledge economy.”

A 49-hectare development at NETPark would bring in an estimated £100 million in project investment and create 10,000 jobs. It would also support the further expansion of Durham university. In the Prime Minister’s words, it would

“create the wealth and prosperity which will generate sustainable jobs and a vibrant, confident North East”.

Similarly, a proposed film and media complex at Seaham in Easington would facilitate residential development and university expansion, create 1,800 jobs and generate nearly £200 million of inward investment. Instead of the green light being pressed on that development, it has been put on amber.

Durham county council estimates that the proposed expansion of Heighington Lane West in Sedgefield and the Tursdale regional freight facility could create an additional 11,000 jobs in the region. The latter has been blocked and the former is to be re-examined.

By failing to sanction the proposed expansion of the biofuels plant at Seal Sands and a renewable energy village at Eastgate, the regional spatial strategy makes it difficult to transform the north-east into a thriving green economy.

Instead of the knowledge-based economy that we want and believe to be completely possible, we are, as the North East chamber of commerce says, contemplating a low wage one. It is little wonder that the North East chamber of commerce has criticised the strategy for

“stifling the emerging dynamism of the North East”.

The Northern Echo has launched a “Shaping the Future” campaign asking the Government to reconsider the proposals.

Not only does the regional spatial strategy assume that, between now and 2021, growth in the region cannot exceed 2.8 per cent., but, by placing restrictions on the employment and housing sites, it will prevent growth from being higher than that estimate.

In other words, the regional spatial strategy is planning for failure. The negative impact of those gloomy growth forecasts is felt most acutely in the housing allocations. Despite net inward migration, which the north-east has experienced in recent years, and the poor quality of housing stock, the regional spatial strategy plans a net increase of 6,500 new properties a year—a small fraction of the 120,000 homes a year that the Barker report stated was necessary nationwide.

Although I appreciate the need not to overdevelop in specific areas, especially on the western side of my constituency, to protect the beauty and tranquillity of the local environment, a high level of sustainable development is clearly possible in the north-east. In County Durham, the regional spatial strategy proposes only 19,000 net housing additions between now and 2021, which equates to 1,100 homes a year. However, the county council believes that we need at least 1,300 homes a year simply to maintain the population at its current level.

Indeed, the Wear Valley 2004 urban capacity study concluded that, in my constituency of Bishop Auckland—I hope that the Minister for Local Government realises that it has twice the national rate of homeless households—there was substantial additional scope for building new houses on brownfield sites. Indeed, if the regional spatial strategy aspires to go beyond its conservative ambition of building 70 per cent. of new houses on brownfield sites, it is essential to consider those in Wear Valley and around Bishop Auckland.

In County Durham, where the regional spatial strategy predicts population decline, the latest Office for National Statistics figures suggest a 3 per cent. population increase. That further highlights the need for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to re-examine the figures before committing to binding proposals.

Let me consider transport. Two years ago, shortly after I was elected, we held a conference on the local economy. Local businesses raised the major issue of poor transport connections, which anyone who has travelled along the main road through Yorkshire or tried to drive north to Scotland has experienced. There is also significant overcrowding on the east coast main line. We in the region are united in our view that Teesport is a vital development. Yet on none of these issues is there any firm commitment.

I am sure that you will appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the very great frustration that we feel over this spatial strategy. Moreover, I find the document’s underlying premise incomprehensible. We are not setting out to compete with our colleagues in Newcastle, but the fact is that we are constantly hearing from Members who represent constituencies in the south-east that they are overdeveloped, that there is congestion and excessive housing development—yet in the north-east, we are crying out for more. I very much hope that the Government will not endorse this plan for failure and will look again, so that we can fulfil our potential.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this Adjournment debate. It has proved extremely timely and I have to say that I agree with her. One of the arguments that she has put forward against this plan applies equally to many areas in Northumberland. I represent a rural area, which will suffer from virtually no development over the period of the plan. Indeed, Tynedale council has an allocation of fewer than 200 houses over the next five or six years—totally inadequate.

Many families in my constituency wish to own their own homes. I am not talking about affordable homes, which is a somewhat separate matter I am referring to ordinary families who want to own their own houses, but who are increasingly priced out of the area because my constituency now has million-pound houses: the era of million-pound houses has arrived. People cannot afford to live there, so families are moving from rural Northumberland areas into the Durham area, where they can sometimes buy houses cheaper, particularly around Consett. That can break up families and the loyal connection that many people have developed with their communities.

If that trend continues, the very people on whom rural communities depend to provide services in future years will not be there. We can see the problem in places such as Gloucestershire and we do not want to repeat the same mistake, having to bring in people from the cities to run shops, entertainment centres, pubs, hotels and other services in country areas. We want to maintain a healthy, balanced community and the regional spatial strategy simply does not meet those requirements.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland also mentioned transport and I suspect that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) will have a lot to say about it, too. The A1 Newcastle western bypass is the most heavily used dual carriageway in the UK, and we have been promised time and again that there will be a review of the problems caused by that congestion. We were told that the Department for Transport had a plan on how to improve that highly congested bit of road, but the regional spatial strategy has now changed the terms of that plan by stating that the Department is only “investigating” the prospect. We have moved from a situation in which we were encouraged to believe that there would be a plan to solve the problems within the next few months to one in which the problem is simply being investigated, as the appropriate paragraph of the regional spatial strategy makes clear.

The regional spatial strategy also talks about “investigating” improvements to the Tyne and Wear metro system—a very important part of transport infrastructure, which is now 30 years old and beginning to show wear and tear. Nexus, the transport authority, had put forward a plan for its modernisation, but once again, the regional spatial strategy has downgraded it to a problem to be investigated.

I agree with the hon. Lady and I believe that the regional spatial strategy is, to use an awful cliché, not fit for purpose. I hope that the Government will go back and revisit it once again.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this timely debate. The regional spatial strategy has more to do with the era of Soviet-style planning than a modern dynamic economy such as the north-east’s. It will put a stranglehold around County Durham, which will affect not only jobs and industry, as my hon. Friend has articulated, but, more importantly, as the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) has outlined, the actual make-up of communities. I would like to concentrate mainly on the housing element of the regional spatial strategy.

My constituency is growing in size because people are moving to County Durham for some of the reasons that the hon. Member for Hexham has outlined. If the proposals are agreed to, not only will the number of new house builds in my constituency not meet the existing demand, but house prices, which are already quite high, will go through the roof. The proposals would also not allow councils and other agencies to redevelop some of the former mining villages in my constituency. When I was elected to this place in 2001, one of the first things that I did was to ask Northumbria university to carry out a study of the dire need for housing and redevelopment in those villages. Chester-le-Street district council has taken on board some of the findings of that report, and it is using some of the development sites to cross-subsidise other developments involving social housing and other projects in the villages. That redevelopment plan will be extended to other villages across County Durham, but unless we add to it the housing element that can be put to private development, the schemes will not stack up financially.

It is ironic that such schemes across County Durham have been supported by central Government and by English Partnerships—they have worked up a plan with Government money—while at the same time, a restriction has been put in place that will prevent any of those developments from happening. That will be as bad as the old D-notices that were put on villages in County Durham during the 1960s and 1970s. Some of those villages will actually die, as the hon. Member for Hexham said, because people will not be able to afford to live in them. Furthermore, the population in those areas will grow increasingly old, which will put a great deal of pressure on social services and the remaining communities.

I cannot over-emphasise how disastrous these proposals are for the future of my constituency and for County Durham. It saddens me that they are seen to be needed at all. I support proper planning regulation and local people having a say in their local district’s unitary plans; that is the way in which to do planning locally—we do not need some top-down centralist approach such as this.

When I asked about the public scrutiny of the strategy, I was told that the regional assembly had been overseeing it. I have to say that if this is an example of the assembly’s scrutiny, it simply reinforces my view that the North East assembly needs to be abolished.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this extremely valuable debate. I agree with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) that, in respect of housing, the regional interim strategy is an outdated relic of Soviet-style planning. It is simply not necessary; it is also harmful and damaging.

A survey has just revealed that median house prices in my constituency are six to seven times average earnings. People who were brought up there and who work there cannot afford to live there. If the strategy is continued, and areas such as Berwick and Alnwick are allowed to build only 60 or 70 houses a year, the price of the existing housing stock will soar even further, and the impossibility of people buying a house locally will extend to more and more people in my constituency.

In the meantime, the builders will not go down to Tyneside and build 100 houses because they have been denied the opportunity to build 10 somewhere near Berwick. They will either give up that side of their work completely or move over to Berwickshire, in Scotland, where these restrictions do not apply, and build houses there. This process is not going to assist the regeneration of the central urban areas in the region. Social housing simply will not be built, partly because it is increasingly dependent on deals involving private sector building, as the hon. Member for North Durham pointed out. In many rural areas, it also involves the conversion of, and sensitive development around, existing buildings.

Relaxation of the housing limit would not harm anyone. The builders would not go mad and build vast numbers of houses that nobody wanted to buy. They understand the market, and they know that they have to sell the properties that they develop. There is no reason to suppose that a vast explosion of house building would occur if the restrictions were taken away completely from the rural areas that I represent.

Is not the real point of the local plan that local people have an input in dividing up their local unitary development plan? That would lead not to a free-for-all but to sensitive development, and at least local people and councils would have a say over it.

Existing planning laws, regulations and practices are a sufficient protection for all the things that we care about. They ensure that we have a village envelope, that there is not continuous building from one place to another, and that building is subject to some restraint. Central Government must say to the north-east, “You don’t need to impose this kind of restriction on housing.” That restriction arises from central Government pressure to impose such restraint. I ask the Minister to lift that restraint and to tell the regional assembly to forget about putting housing limits on areas such as the one that I represent or other parts of rural Northumberland or County Durham.

Transport is another issue, which the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) mentioned. A lot of our problems in relation to the A1 date from the extraordinary practice of referring matters to the interim regional transport board, which then overlays whatever is in the spatial strategy. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) now blames that for the failure to dual the A1. It has become a useful buck-passing exercise, but the way in which the matter has been handled makes a nonsense even of the aspirations in the plan.

One other element of the regional spatial strategy that is causing anxiety to many of my constituents is the vast number of wind farm applications. The reason that we are getting so many in the beautiful area that lies between the area of outstanding natural beauty and the Northumberland national park is that it is an area of least constraint in relation to wind farm applications. That is not simply a bit of gentle guidance to planning authorities to consider each case on its merits, but is having the effect of funnelling lots of applications into the area. Local planning authorities do not have the capacity to cope with those applications—they do not have the staff to deal with them, still less the large developers that they face. One of the effects of the strategy has therefore been to place an unreasonable burden on giving proper consideration to wind farm planning applications in a beautiful area where each case must be considered extremely carefully. The risk of harm to the landscape, the environment and tourism must be placed against the objective to expand our renewable energy generation.

The regional spatial strategy is not popular in my constituency. It imposes a wholly unnecessary and extremely damaging restriction on the provision of desperately needed housing, and its effects in relation to transport and the handling of wind farm applications are not benign either.

I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for securing the debate and for her excellent exposition of the key issues relating to County Durham.

This very long process started in 2005 with the submission being put on deposit for six months. Evidence was then taken for 14 weeks from 98 organisations. Then the panel made a series of visits around the region, as I presume that the panel knew nothing about the region to begin with. Then there were revisions. The Government then had about eight or nine months to comment on the revisions. We are now in a period of consultation on the Government’s response. Changes will then be made. Finally, another eight-week period of consultation will take place. I apologise to the House if I have missed out a stage in the process, because it is labyrinthine in the extreme. I am not sure how the public or their elected representatives are supposed to engage in it.

After all the drafts, counter-drafts, evidence and deliberation, the document has ended up being extremely damaging to my constituency and my constituents in a number of ways. First, on housing, which other Members have mentioned, the figures in the document would allow a couple of hundred houses each year to be built in Durham from now until 2021. We have independent planning inspectors’ reports showing that, because of the backlog in the provision of affordable housing in Durham, about 500 units a year are needed just to catch up.

It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

The allowances would not enable us to deal with the backlog. The underlying message is that the Government do not consider County Durham to be worthy of growth, but it is an environment where there should be growth.

The second issue that I want to raise is that of the Tursdale rail freight depot. After many years, we have a developer who has experience across the country of providing rail freight depots and who wants to develop one at Tursdale. That has been taken out of the regional spatial strategy as a potential opportunity apparently because it will get in the way of the development of the ports of Tyne and Tees. However, extensive arguments have been made to suggest that they are complementary developments. There is not necessarily any competition between the two, but the Government have not taken that on board.

The third issue that I want to raise is that of NETPark. It is not in my constituency but it provides the space for the spin-out companies from Durham university, which is in my constituency. We know from the regional economic strategy and its action plan that the Government and One NorthEast want to develop a knowledge base as the basis for future economic development in the region. Durham university and its spin-out companies will be critical to that. Yet the development of NETPark will be capped. Not only does that not make any sense, but there seems to be no alignment of the regional spatial strategy and the regional economic strategy. That also sends out a very damaging message. We are trying to raise aspirations in County Durham and get our young people jobs in the knowledge sector, yet they are being denied that by the document. That is not acceptable.

My last point relates to sustainability. It is important that we mean what we say in our rhetoric and develop sustainable communities. That means having employment bases that are close to our communities and not dragging everybody in County Durham either north to the Tyneside area or south to Teesside to get employment. The transport network for that does not exist and there is nothing in the document to develop it. Crucially, we must take the environmental concerns on board and develop economic bases close to communities when that is possible.

If ever there was an argument in favour of unitary government in County Durham, this is it. We must have unitary local government so that we can have a strong voice, play our card effectively in the region and ensure that the needs of County Durham and its constituents are well heard by the Government. I want to hear what the Minister has to say about needing a regional policy from the Government, so that they start investing seriously in the north-east to give all our young people and workers secure and good jobs for the future.

Congratulations are due to my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing the debate at a timely point, as I think the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) described it.

The Government of course share the ambition for the north-east region and have a proud record in investment and in improving its economic prosperity. The test, however, is for us not only to improve gross value added in the north-east, but to narrow the gap between the north-east and the rest of the country. We could achieve that goal by reducing the GVA for the rest of the country, but having discussed the possibility, we decided that it was not appropriate. The setting of that test presents us with a real challenge. I know my hon. Friend agrees that it would be unfortunate and unfair if the successes of the region were diminished by the difficulty of the test that we have set ourselves.

The timeliness of the planning of the House’s business has ensured that a wide range of opinion has been expressed from across the region, both geographically and politically. I never thought I would hear my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed unite in describing a process as a Stalinist conspiracy.

A Soviet-style Stalinist conspiracy.

As the Members who have spoken reflect the whole region geographically and politically, it is particularly important for the Government to take account of what has been said. I congratulate Members on raising these issues.

I am happy to set out the background to the regional spatial strategy, the current state of play and the next steps in producing a final version for publication by the Secretary of State. However, my hon. Friends and, I hope, Opposition Members will appreciate that because of the nature of the process I am constrained in what I can say at this stage. The propriety guidance provides that once a regional spatial strategy revision has been submitted for examination, Ministers and their officials ought not to enter into discussions with interested parties on the changes that may be made. The purpose is to ensure that the process is fair and transparent by channelling representations on a draft revision through the examination in public and the statutory consultation process.

The House is, of course, the forum for debate on emerging Government policy, and I have the opportunity to set the process before it. I hope that Members will understand, however, that I cannot answer specific points about the regional spatial strategy. Suffice it to say that at this stage the Government have not accepted the recommendations on large sites or affordable housing. As for the number of houses, the Government are seeking feedback through consultation. I think it is clear what the feedback from Members will be.

We published regional planning guidance note 1 for the north-east region in November 2002. Subsequent legislation—the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004—strengthened the role and importance of regional planning. That was of course a devolution of powers from the centre to the region, although Members and their constituents often see it as a sucking up of powers from the local area to the region.

I understand the Minister’s difficulty, but perhaps he can clarify one point. Can he assure us that if an elected assembly in the region decided that the north-east needed more houses in general—this is, as the Minister says, a devolution of powers—central Government would respond, “That is for you to decide. We will consider the plan in the normal way”?

Broadly, the answer to that question is yes, that is the purpose. However, I would not, of course, want to give a specific commitment on numbers or the outline. I think that the right hon. Gentleman will be reassured by what I have to say on the process.

The September 2004 RSS remains in effect. Its purpose is to set out a broad development strategy for the region for the period up to 2021. I acknowledge that the process that is being gone through is often described as laborious, but the RSS is an important document. It is part of the statutory development plan under the 2004 Act. Local planning authorities prepare the other components of the development plan, the local development frameworks, which must be in general conformity with the RSS. Therefore, this affects not only regional policy, but the LDFs of local authorities. The regional transport strategy is also incorporated.

The North East assembly is constituted as the regional planning body for the purposes of the Act. In June 2005, the assembly submitted a draft revision of the current RSS to the Secretary of State. A public consultation on the draft revision was held from July to October 2005. Various parties made representations, and the strategy was tested at an examination in public in March and April 2006.

The panel’s report broadly endorsed the growth scenarios and spatial strategy in the draft revision. It also made numerous recommendations for changes to the strategy, which have been taken into account in deciding on the proposed changes. The Secretary of State’s proposed changes to the draft revision were published on 29 May for public consultation. The panel raised concerns over three matters in particular, and because they have had implications for the consultation process, I shall outline them and the response that we have made in each case.

First, the panel said that it was not persuaded that the transport proposals set out in the submission draft reflected the proper balance, or that the priorities for investment set out could be justified, and it recommended that the Government review them. In light of that, we have prepared a revised version of that material in the section of the RSS that deals with transport. That new material was based on the outcome of the regional funding allocations exercises.

Secondly, the panel recommended that further consideration should be given to the district housing allocations for Easington, Sedgefield and Blyth valley, with a view to ensuring that they were consistent with the locational strategy and the panel’s conclusions and recommendations on the de-allocation and urban capacity study assessments. In view of the importance of the issue, we asked the panel for further clarification on this view, and it suggests in its addendum report that the assembly should be asked to review its forecasts in the light of that analysis.

How does what the Minister has described is proposed on housing in County Durham fit with what the Government are trying to do nationally, and with County Durham funding from English Partnerships for village regeneration and the possibility of new housing for villages in County Durham? How does all that fit together if we still have an artificial figure, as national Government are paying for something with taxpayers’ money at one level and at the local level things are prevented from happening?

That is precisely one of the questions that will be given consideration—or, more precisely, the answer to it will be given consideration. That is illustrative of both the complex nature of the decisions and the importance of them. Suffice it to say that it would be a retrograde step if there were no regional input. That may be achieved in other ways, and my hon. Friend makes his views known with characteristic clarity, but some consideration at that level is important.

The panel recommended including a proposal that changes be made to policies 19 and 20 of the submission draft. In English, those changes would have the effect of constraining the development of certain major employment sites and deleting policy references to others. We considered that, before making final decisions on the recommendation, it would assist the Secretary of State to have further information on the local circumstances. Consultees have therefore been invited to supply information on matters relevant to aspects that the panel have recommended be changed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland welcomes that acknowledgement. We anticipate that many stakeholders will wish to comment on the proposed changes, and they have been widely circulated.

As we announced in both Houses on 24 May, we have decided that in the light of the requests for supplementary material we should carry out a two-stage consultation. In the first and current stage, we are consulting on the proposed changes now being put forward. That stage will last for 10 weeks. Following that, Ministers will consider the material that they receive, and will then hold a further consultation, to last eight weeks, to give all concerned an opportunity to consider any further changes that may have been made as a result. Following the consultation, the Secretary of State, having considered the representations, will then approve and publish the final version.

It will be clear from the approach that we have adopted that we are seeking both views and further information before reaching our conclusions. Indeed, there will be a further opportunity for all concerned to consider, and comment on, further proposed changes that may be made as a result of the first consultation. That has of course extended the timetable, and I appreciate the frustration that my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) expressed.

I hope that I have convinced hon. Members first of the importance that we place on the economic success and growth of the north-east; secondly, that we are aware of the concerns of hon. Members which have been raised during the first phase of the consultation and are therefore timely; and, thirdly, that we are committed to our goal of narrowing the gap between the north-east and the rest of the country and that this policy area is a crucial means to that end.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland on securing the debate and I look forward to the further deliberations on this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Six o’clock.