Skip to main content

Eco-Town (Harborough)

Volume 471: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2008

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

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate. He knows that I have been attempting to get Ministers to account to the House—and, through me, to my constituents—for an utterly unexplained piece of Government policy. He must have been driven mad by my persistence. I do not wish to draw Mr. Speaker into the issue of the merits of my arguments, or any of those that may emerge this evening from the mouth of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), but he has come to the aid of a constituency Member who has a grievance to express on behalf of his constituents, and thus has enabled the House to perform one of its proper constitutional functions. I thank him for that, as I am sure does my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), whose constituents are as affected by the issue as mine, as a result of boundary changes. I am also grateful to the Minister for being here to respond to the debate, and to his colleague, the new Minister for Housing, who has agreed to meet my hon. Friend and me very soon.

Tonight is the first occasion on which the question of the rightness or wrongness of the Government’s eco-town proposals has been exposed to anything resembling a public debate. There is somewhere in the Government’s digestive system a list of 57 eco-town sites which, we are told, will by some process not yet made known to us be reduced to 10. The specific subject of tonight’s debate, the Co-op’s proposal to build a so-called eco-town the size of Hinckley or a town twice the size of Market Harborough within Harborough district and for it to be one of the 10 chosen sites, has never been debated in Parliament or in the chambers of Leicestershire county council, Harborough district council, Leicester city council, Oadby and Wigston borough council, the East Midlands regional assembly or the East Midlands Development Agency.

That of itself is extraordinary, as the Prime Minister’s eco-town policy, which was announced late last year, has the potential to do a lot of good, although it also has the potential to do a lot of harm. If this is such a good idea, as the Government must believe it is, why have they discouraged discussion on the public stage and confined outside input to meetings such as the one held last Friday in Market Harborough, attended only by officers of Harborough district council and civil servants from the Department for Communities and Local Government?

At that meeting a civil servant from the DCLG grandly opined that there is no over-supply of housing in Leicestershire, and added that there is still demand to be met. Is that the opinion of someone who has been to my constituency before, or is it the imperial prejudice of some Whitehall mandarin who thinks he knows best? He sounds like a man from the 19th century Colonial Office who spends his waking hours drawing lines across maps of far-away places.

Before I am accused of advancing nothing more than a nimby argument, it is worth asking whether that person, who presumably advises the Minister, has ever taken the trouble to see for himself the land in question and how it relates to its hinterland, urban and rural, or taken into account the fact that 80,000 new dwellings are already in the plans under the regional plan for Leicester and Leicestershire in the next 18 years, which will mean 7,000 new dwellings for Harborough alone. If the proposal goes through, we will have to withstand and absorb an additional 15,000 to 20,000 new houses, which will mean a new town of perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 inhabitants.

Arrogantly to treat Leicestershire as though it were no more than a geographical expression is to fail utterly to understand why the proposal is so flawed and why it will cause a lot more harm than good. Each district within the county is different from the next; each has a different relationship to the city in the middle of the county and to its district and county neighbours. Harborough is the biggest district in terms of area, but it is one of the least well served in terms of public infrastructure and infrastructure funding, particularly with regard to public transport and road systems. Outside its farming economy, it is a prosperous area, with high levels of skilled labour, home ownership, employment and car ownership—the last a necessity for business and leisure purposes. The unemployment rate in my constituency, within both Harborough district and the borough of Oadby and Wigston, is under 1 per cent. The same low rate applies to my hon. Friend’s constituency, Rutland and Melton. I would not be surprised if the rate in the villages that will be swamped by the proposal is even lower.

The detail of the proposal and the process by which it will be resolved, however, be it for or against, is a total mystery to me as the MP for Harborough, to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, to the county councillors for the eco-town site, Dr. Kevin Feltham and Mr. Simon Galton, as well as to affected Harborough district councillors and to councillors from neighbouring authorities whose constituents will be affected by the eco-town.

Let me add to the background of this extraordinary state of affairs. The Co-operative Wholesale Society or CWS, through its many tentacles—I am not being legally precise—is not just the owner and manager of shops, funeral services and a bank, or just the supporter of Labour MPs, but a large agricultural landowner. In addition to farmland elsewhere in the United Kingdom, it owns through one of its divisions just under 5,000 acres of farmland, the Stoughton estate, between the A6 Market Harborough to Leicester road and the A47 Uppingham to Leicester road. This farming estate lies about 5 to 8 miles south and east of the city of Leicester. It is classic Leicestershire farmland, partly arable, partly grazing, and it lies on some of the most attractive rolling acres of Leicestershire. It sits within about eight or nine parishes, some encompassing quite big communities such as the villages of Great Glen, Thurnby and Bushy, which are now in reality one village, and Houghton on the Hill, each with populations of between 1,000 and 3,000, as well as some much smaller villages such as Little Stretton, which has a population of about 10, Great Stretton, Burton Overy, Gaulby, Frisby and Stoughton, whose populations vary between the high tens to the mid-hundreds.

When I became the MP for Harborough in 1992 the Co-op ran an 800 to 1,000 dairy cow milking unit on the estate. It has since closed because the economics of dairy farming no longer allowed it. Of course, the economics of farming across the board in mixed-farming areas such as mine have become increasingly difficult in the past decade or so; it is not surprising that enterprising farmers look for opportunities to maximise the return on their capital from outside farming. Development is an obvious solution, and the Co-op cannot be accused of avoiding the obvious.

When I succeeded Sir John Farr in the early 1990s, he had been, and I soon became, engaged with our constituents from across the seat, but particularly those in the part of the constituency that I am talking about, in beating off a proposal from the Co-op to build a new town on the very same farming estate. In those days, of course, it was not called an eco-town—the phrase had not been invented—but the proposal was accompanied by some attractive brochures with colour pictures of birds, bees and other flora and fauna.

We were bombarded with public relations material from the Co-op and with political pressure from the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who wanted the proposal to come up with an outer-Leicester ring road across the Co-op’s land to relieve traffic congestion in his constituency. He had a perfectly legitimate interest in making the case for the outer ring road to help his constituents, and the Co-op wanted, entirely legitimately, to maximise the return on its money that was tied up in the land. Farming houses is more lucrative than farming crops or cattle.

I strongly support what the hon. and learned Gentleman is saying. He feels that his constituents have not been consulted; as one whose constituency neighbours his, I can say that my constituents have not been consulted about the issue either.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I do not think that I speak out of turn in saying that the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) takes a similar view on behalf of his constituents. Furthermore, Leicester city council is extremely concerned about the proposal.

In the early 1990s, we were successful in getting the Co-op to withdraw its proposal. It took a lot of effort and time, but eventually it backed off. I was not surprised when I learned towards the end of last year that the Co-op had decided to have another go, this time using the prefix “eco” to give the application added appeal. I attended a briefing given by the Co-op in Market Harborough for Harborough district councillors and me. This time we were shown not a brochure, but a PowerPoint slide show. Much emphasis was put on the carbon-neutral aspects of the project and how it would create 12,000 new jobs. The Co-op did not say, but we knew, that it has a parallel application for what is called a SUE, or sustainable urban extension, for 5,000 houses, pushing out from Oadby in my constituency on to the same land. It is covering all its bases.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is making a powerful case. Does he agree that the anonymous officials pushing such projects ought to be named so that they can be made accountable? I am thinking of the project in Kingston on Soar in the constituency of Rushcliffe; that has a huge impact on Leicestershire, particularly on the village of Kegworth. The issue is not restricted to just one party; the Conservative-controlled county council is imposing a so-called sustainable urban extension on the town of Coalville in my constituency.

I am perfectly happy for there to be greater publicity about that issue, but it is the Minister and the Government, through the House of Commons, who should be accountable. I cannot see civil servants; I can see the Minister, who is here to speak for his Government.

I fear that the Co-op must have been somewhat taken aback by the universally unenthusiastic response that it received, not least because its explanation to us was wholly devoid of detail. Its representatives said that they could not tell us too much because of the need to maintain commercial confidentiality. From the little that we could discover, however, it seemed that the project would have a devastating effect on my constituency. However, it seemed likely that those representing the area would have no say or very little say in the decision-making process.

Yes, I accept that at the moment Harborough is only one of 57 applicant sites, and we may not end up in the shortlist of 10. However, neither I nor anyone else whose interests will be adversely affected by the proposal has any idea of how we can influence the decision. The Co-op’s development manager and public affairs director have given a further, separate briefing to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton here in the House of Commons. In part they told me about, and in part they pleaded with me to appreciate, the benefits of their scheme. However, they would again not give me any details for fear of losing such commercial confidence as there was in their plans. I was not convinced by that or any other of their arguments, although I told them that they had a perfect right to advance such arguments.

No matter how pure the Co-op’s motives, I am speaking in a democratic and information vacuum, and all the indications do not allow for much optimism. It will not do lazily to advance a case for this development on the basis, “We need more housing, so why not have it here?” All development should be eco-friendly and should occur where it is right and needed, not just because a 5,000-acre plot is available. Just because there is a private flying club operating from an airstrip near Stoughton, it does not make this a brownfield site. Clearly, the Government will be attracted by convenience—think how much easier it is to deal with only one landowner as opposed to several. In this case, the Co-op owns 99 per cent. of the development site, with English Partnerships, an arm of Government, owning just a few hundred acres, but it is a willing partner.

I am not suggesting that there is an improper relationship between the Co-op and the Labour party, but it is undeniable that the links between the Government party and the Co-op, generally, are old and deep. The Secretary of State, the Minister for Housing, and the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Hartlepool, all represent northern constituencies in regions where the Co-op has been a strong presence. They will be comfortable with each other, and although there is, I repeat, no suggestion of impropriety, there may be a natural sense of familiarity between an organisation that has its headquarters in Manchester and northern Members of Parliament. No matter how unfair or inaccurate that may be, it has created a perception of bias among the residents of Harborough district, whose enjoyment of their own properties and way of life will be irreversibly and undeniably damaged by this proposal. They also represent areas entirely different from Harborough. Employment levels in their areas are not as good as those in my area or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, average incomes are not as high as in my area, and owner-occupation and the availability of good quality housing may not be as prevalent as in Harborough or in Rutland and Melton. I can therefore understand the surprised reaction of the former Minister for Housing, now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when I suggested to her in DCLG questions before Christmas that this massive development was not wanted or needed in Harborough.

What are the most obvious consequences of letting this proposal go forward? The lack of existing transport infrastructure and the limited amount of strategic thinking about new roads in the Co-op’s briefings is an area of particular concern to me and to the county’s planners. The massive congestion that would result from linking the A47 to the A6 without further improvements would bring the whole area to a standstill at peak times. These problems would not happen overnight, but over a period while more and more homes are completed, with a slow creep towards gridlock as millions of tonnes of concrete and other building materials were brought on-site. Leicestershire county and Leicester city councils are looking for someone to fund a southern bypass from the A6 to the Ml, a route that is to the south and to the west of the Co-op site and which will become imperative if this new town arrives, but the Co-op has shown no enthusiasm to accept the implications of its development beyond the limits of its own land. Furthermore, it would face negotiating with multiple landowners, and construction would be expensive and take some time. Other potential eco-town sites are alongside motorways and astride train lines. The Stoughton estate is far away from either, and the concept of reopening a station near Great Glen is most unlikely to be seen as a priority by Network Rail or East Midlands Trains when they are trying to construct East Midlands Airport Parkway station in Nottinghamshire, which has so far taken some 20 years to get close to reality.

The Co-op’s own sustainability report, published in April 2007 in preparation for its SUE bid, admits:

“There is no existing public transport infrastructure serving the majority of the SUE”—

or, for that matter, an eco-town. The Co-op is relying on people living and working locally, and therefore walking, cycling or using the limited public transport, which is expected to be beefed up as numbers grow. That is frankly fanciful unless the new town is going to be a gated community with restrictions on the residents preventing them from travelling outside its perimeter. Despite Co-op hopes on the subject, a large percentage of the inhabitants of the new town would be commuters to London. That amount of additional commuters trying to get on to the A6 at peak times would mean that Kibworth will need a dual carriageway bypass, the road from Kibworth to Market Harborough will need upgrading to dual carriageway, and the Market Harborough bypass will need dualling. How much of that will be funded by the Co-op development?

To begin with, as the first new residents arrive, their children will no doubt be educated in Oadby. Oadby’s schools are already full and taking children from both the county and city. The pressures on all local authority budgets—already among the lowest funded by Government—will intensify as they try to cope with the additional workload of another major town before it is fully occupied and there is a full council tax income stream. New roads create new journeys. Eco-town residents will want to make their own decisions about where to work, what cars to have and what journeys to make. It is reckless to destroy rural Harborough on the back of a few aspirations on a PowerPoint slide.

I wrote to the Secretary of State on 20 December. She did not reply, so I tabled a written question. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), replied on 17 January—although the answer did not arrive until 22 January. He said that the eco-town programme would be subject to the statutory planning process,

“for example through a review of the regional spatial strategy. As a consequence the local community and planning authorities will have the ability to engage with the process.”

Will the Minister specify the statute that allows for the process that his colleague wrote about and explain what the expression “to engage with the process” means in plain English? What is the legal status of that phrase?

On Second Reading of the Planning Bill, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), the Secretary of State said:

“Matters such as eco-towns and large housing developments will continue to be decided by local authorities under the town and country planning system and by reference to the local development plans that have been selected.”—[Official Report, 10 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 27.]

There is room for a good deal of confusion about what the Government collectively intend and the planning process that governs eco-town developments. To allow planning authorities such as Harborough district council to be merely consultees as opposed to decision makers is to abuse local democracy and to divert ownership of the decision from my constituents to Ministers.

This urban development, if allowed to go through, would utterly destroy a much valued green lung south-east of the city of Leicester to the commercial advantage of the Co-op but for no obvious local or county-wide public benefit. In reality, there will be nothing eco-friendly about that vast new urban settlement, albeit that I can see it has enormous financial advantages for the Co-op and English Partnerships at a time when farming incomes are low and wholesale development offers better rewards.

The enormous development would create a town of more than 40,000 inhabitants on open farm land that would dwarf the neighbouring villages and even the nearest urban community of any size, Oadby. It will also gravely damage Leicester’s plans for its regeneration. It will create an urban wedge that will break down the local rural environment and community in south-east Leicestershire and will allow the swamping of an area of considerable beauty with thousands of houses, cars and lorries and all the permanent infrastructure that would be needed to support such a large town.

The Co-op claims that the development will create 12,000 or so new jobs. As I have said before, my constituency’s unemployment rate is 1 per cent. Any new jobs would require people to be imported to do them. Strange as it may seem to MPs from less economically vibrant parts of the country, we do not need thousands of new jobs to provide work for jobless people in Harborough or Oadby and Wigston. It is, furthermore, unreal to think that the incoming occupants of the 15,000 new homes would all work in the alleged eco-factories that the Co-op claims will provide the jobs. Thousands of people will necessarily commute by car to work elsewhere within the region and, given that the Co-op wants to build a parkway station at Great Glen on the Sheffield main line that goes from St. Pancras to Leicester, it is likely that many hundreds of residents will commute to jobs in London.

We do not need the type of forced or artificial economic regeneration that the proposal would mean. If one wants to create 12,000 more jobs in an area with virtually full employment, one has to import the jobs and import the housing to accommodate the employees and their families. We are beginning to see what only 800 new houses have done to Kibworth, a village on the A6 barely five miles from the proposed development site, in terms of disturbance and placing strains on our local services and infrastructure. We can only imagine what 15,000 new houses will do not only to Great Glen and its neighbouring villages but to inner and outer Leicester, to Oadby and to rural Harborough, too.

I urge the Government to distinguish between the immediate or short-term financial interests of the Co-op, and the environmental, economic, social and other long-term interests of the people of Harborough district and Oadby and Wigston. The Government’s attitude towards so-called eco-towns should not be allowed to be affected by a misunderstanding of the facts on the ground or public relations material put out by the developers. If the development goes ahead without local input or consent it will arouse untold anger and revulsion. If we get it wrong we get it wrong for ever.

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on securing the debate. I also pay tribute to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I also appreciate the attendance of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan).

I am very much aware of the concerns expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. He will know that planning rules mean that I am restricted in what I can say, but I am sure he will agree that eco-towns are a new and radical approach to designing and creating new places to live. Such schemes offer a tremendous opportunity to revolutionise the way that we plan and deliver towns, and to change radically the way that people travel, work and live. They will be exemplar communities, and other towns and developments will be able to draw lessons from them.

The pressures on housing affordability are felt nationwide, including in the constituency of the hon. and learned Gentleman. All regions are experiencing major increases in the number of households. We are inviting local authorities to come forward with growth point proposals, as well as encouraging expressions of interest for eco-towns from the public and private sectors.

By 2016, the Government want 240,000 new homes to be built every year to keep up with demand. Our desire is that 3 million new homes will be built by 2020. We need more homes in all regions of the country, but we also need greener homes. The new homes must be sustainable in every sense of the word, and they must minimise damage to the environment. That is why we have set a target that is the most ambitious in the developed world—that, by 2016, all new homes will be zero-carbon.

Eco-towns are a highly sustainable way of meeting some of that demand. We expect that there will be up to five eco-towns by 2016, and 10 by 2020. The size range for each town is between 5,000 and 20,000 inhabitants.

It would seem from what the Minister is saying that the eco-towns project is a way of developing a lot of homes fast by simply bringing the word “eco” to the fore. Will he guarantee that no fast-track planning system will be used and that everything will be submitted to the usual planning application system after being referred to the usual planning authority? Or is it his intention to invoke some of the schemes for new towns that have lain dormant since the 1960s, or to incorporate old powers into new legislation so as to accelerate developments of the type that he has described?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I can confirm that the eco-town proposals will be subject to the statutory planning framework. They will not be outside that framework, and there will be no fast-track proposals. I shall expand on that important point later in my remarks. The hon. Gentleman mentioned new towns, and I shall also deal with that subject in a moment.

The eco-town as a whole must be capable of reaching zero-carbon standards, and must demonstrate a strength in one area of sustainability. That could be technological, such as the treatment of waste water or the supply of energy, or it could be through an innovative means of encouraging low-carbon living.

Locations are also important, as well as innovation on site, and that is why, across government, we are looking at proposals to assess whether there are issues of potential flood risk or of scarcity of natural resources. We are also considering the effects that an eco-town might have on the natural environment, on the green spaces that we all have the right to enjoy, and on the protected landscapes or the species that inhabit them. We will look for innovative proposals that enhance our biodiversity and improve the natural environment by integrating green spaces into the new towns.

The Government have made it clear that they want to make use of brownfield land where there are good opportunities to do so, and a number of schemes using brownfield sites have been put forward. What is more important than anything, however, is that towns are built in sustainable locations that relate well to existing towns and villages.

The hon. and learned Gentleman also mentioned transport, and I agree that strong transport links are essential to the new eco-towns. The new towns must demonstrate clearly how they will encourage a reduction in reliance on the car and a shift towards other, more sustainable transport options. We are looking for high-quality offers on accessible public transport, and want cycling and walking to be promoted. We will expect transport plans to be drawn up for each scheme which will outline how such objectives can be achieved—both in the eco-town itself, and in its links with surrounding towns and villages.

We are looking across government at the potential impacts on the road and rail network of the proposals that we have received, and we are assessing how they will deliver on plans to link to other centres and to employment in the most sustainable way.

Even though he does not agree with the proposal in his area, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough said that there had been enormous interest in the eco-towns idea. More than 50 bids have been received, many of them with excellent proposals for new developments. We expect to publish the proposals for eco-towns in February, once we have completed an initial assessment of the applications received, which will be subject to public consultation prior to final decisions on location.

In the time left to me, I want to stress the following point: while the initial assessment is under way, I cannot comment on any specific scheme. However, I can make some comments about the eco-towns process that will apply in all cases. I must stress that there will be considerable opportunity for consultation on the proposals, including with local authorities and the public, before the process is completed.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I know that he is short of time. Would it not be better to adopt the default position that eco-towns should go where people want them, and where local authorities are asking for them, rather than the other way round?

I shall come on to that by talking about the role of the planning system, because it is crucial. As I have just said, the public will have a full say in the eco-town proposals. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that everything had been done behind closed doors, in smoke-filled rooms. I would say that that is a myth. I want to make it clear that there is no truth in the claim that we are deciding the locations of the 10 eco-towns behind closed doors, without reference to the views of the public or the local authorities where expressions of interest have been put forward.

It may help if I explain in some detail the process that is going on at the moment. As I said earlier, an initial assessment of the sites for eco-towns is being carried out by the relevant Departments.

I have an awful lot to cover, including important points about the planning framework, and I have only got two minutes, so if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not give way.

An initial assessment is taking place with Departments and their agencies on the issues of transport and the environment. The issues to consider include accessibility of public transport, impacts on the road network, constraints in terms of landscape, special protection and flood risk. Those are the sort of sustainability issues that need to be considered in taking forward any large development.

In this early stage, the Government are also taking soundings from regional partners in the Assemblies and development agencies.

Can the Minister guarantee to the House that any planning decisions will not override existing spatial and development plans?

Yes, I can. That is an important point.

In addition to the Departments, Natural England and the Environment Agency will have an input into the scheme, but that is not the end of the story. This is an initial assessment of the potential of all the bids that have come forward; its purpose is to exclude sites where there are too many showstoppers to allow development to take place. Immediately following that process, we will publish a shorter list than the original 50—probably about 10—for public consultation, and we will take every opportunity to engage with local authorities and the public during this time to ensure that their views are heard.

Following that period of public consultation, we will make final decisions on the 10 areas that have the most potential to become the eco-towns of the future. I would like to say a little about the planning system because it is the aspect that is causing the hon. and learned Gentleman and others, such as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, the most concern. I confirm what my right hon. Friend—

The motion having been made after Ten o’clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eighteen minutes past Eleven o’clock.