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Housing (South Derbyshire)

Volume 471: debated on Friday 1 February 2008

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

May I first set out some historical background to this subject? House building in South Derbyshire between 1991 and 2007 averaged 590 units a year. Over the shorter period of the 10 years since 1997, the average has been 665 units a year, which represents a significant acceleration. According to the Office for National Statistics, South Derbyshire was the joint fourth fastest growing district in England between 2001 and 2006.

Between 1991 and 2007, the village of Hilton has grown from being a relatively small place to being the size of a small town as a result of the addition of some 1,500 homes. Large developments at Midway, Church Gresley, Woodville, and between Swadlincote and Woodville, have substantially merged the various communities focused on Swadlincote into one continuous built mass. The decommissioning of three hospitals in the areas, those at Aston Hall, the Pastures, just outside Derby, and Bretby, just outside Swadlincote, has provided the basis for significant, and, in two cases, rather isolated developments. There have also been significant developments on the edge of Derby, sprawling across what were previously open fields toward what may start to be seen as the next natural boundary of the city, the new A50.

Such rapid growth has placed strains on local infrastructure. Although the new A50 was completed during this period, temporarily taking some strain from the former A50 north of Swadlincote, there have been no other significant road schemes. Population growth has sharply increased congestion on roads around Swadlincote and has increased pressure on the A514 linking Swadlincote to Derby, causing particular problems at Swarkestone, where the ancient monument causeway, which is the main road—the A514—has suffered accordingly. The area has no significant rail systems; it has two minor and seldom used halts at Willington and Hatton. Bus services have no dedicated road facilities and are relatively expensive compared with major urban services. In some areas, such as the large Pastures estate just outside Derby, there are no services at all, making the residents of a brand-new housing estate entirely car dependent.

With the arrival of new residents, pressure on public services has also increased. GPs in the area have larger than normal lists and have struggled to cope at times. Despite major building programmes producing numerous extra classrooms, schools have also been stretched, particularly when families arrive after the next year's allocations have been made. Although employment has grown in the area, it remains true that much development has had no substantial associated employment growth, thus producing dormitory lifestyles.

Much of South Derbyshire forms part of the national forest. Since the early 1990s, tree cover in the area has nearly trebled to around 17 per cent. of the landscape. I shall return to the compatibility of projected future growth with completion of the target of 30 per cent. tree cover in the future. Nevertheless, we have coped—just about—and homes sell in South Derbyshire. It remains an attractive place to live, with generally good schools, low crime and a pleasant environment.

Let me turn to the future. The county structure plan, which runs to 2011, is being superseded by the emerging regional spatial strategy for the east midlands, which covers the period up to 2026. The strategy has been examined by an expert panel and modifications are expected within the next few weeks, and part of the point of this debate is that those modifications will be considered by the Secretary of State. The RSS proposes a continuation of the district’s growth, at much the same pace as in the past 15 years. It would mean the completion of 605 units per year through the next 18 years to 2026. It is worth recalling that a large proportion of the 1991 to 2007 growth has been either on brownfield sites—such as the Hilton military depot—or sites that could have been brownfield, including former coal mining areas and especially a large site that was threatened with opencast mining. The more desirable alternative was to build houses. We also have some old hospital sites that have formed the basis for further new development.

Such substantial sites are not so obviously available now. There are two largely disused power station sites, although power generation is planned in the future at Drakelow. At Willington, previous examination—in the aborted South Derbyshire local plan—highlighted a variety of problems that obstruct potential development. At the other site, Drakelow, any development would require major infrastructure investment. Both at least have some rail connections.

Proposals for much of the rest of the growth would inevitably involve loss of green fields, particularly around the southern edge of Derby. I cannot see how the district could meet its target of accommodating 60 per cent. of this huge growth on brownfield sites. To illustrate the problem, there is currently concluding a conjoined public inquiry—caused by the failure of the local plan—into proposals for more than 4,500 houses on four sites around the southern edge of Derby, but within South Derbyshire. Only one of those, for 950 to 1,000 homes, is on a largely brownfield site at Willington power station. There remains little brownfield land with any potential for development around Swadlincote, which is the other proposed major focus for new house building. Indeed, parts of the edges of Swadlincote have only recently been afforested and added to the national forest tree cover.

Concentrating most of the growth around Derby and Swadlincote will at least ensure that access to public transport and local employment will be possible. But that is likely to threaten the separate existence of villages such as Findern, just outside Derby, and Hartshorne, Castle Gresley, Stanton and Linton around Swadlincote. So the RSS growth presents substantial challenges. It will certainly not be accommodated on brownfield sites. Without significant investment to utilise what are currently freight rail lines, there will be no use of rail systems and the likelihood is of continuing strong reliance on cars. It will threaten the achievement of tree cover targets for the national forest. Based on past experience, public services will be severely stretched as councils receive the recognition of population growth only after it happens.

There are more problems still. South Derbyshire abuts the west midlands. Burton-upon-Trent, the neighbouring town, has been identified as a growth point for the west midlands, and it has been suggested that South Derbyshire should accommodate a part of Burton’s growth. The expert panel reviewing the east midlands regional spatial strategy responded to that suggestion by indicating the potential for

“a major expansion of the corridor”—

which encompasses Coalville, Ashby de la Zouch, both in North-West Leicestershire, and Swadlincote in South Derbyshire—which would

“bring together the present separate towns as a principal urban area in its own right”.

The panel suggests that its startling proposal be considered as part of a mini-review outside the RSS exercise, although it notes that the review will hardly be mini in its impact.

Finally, we have the eco-town initiative. In principle, we all welcome such ideas. However, the proposed eco-town has been dropped into the area between Burton and Swadlincote, which is currently unspoiled farmland. The plan actually fails to include the one major brownfield site in the area—Drakelow power station. The site is close to the edge of Burton, thus suggesting more a suburban sprawl than a new town. It would, in effect, sweep away small forest communities such as Cauldwell and Rosliston, uproot a large section of the national forest and replace a fitting network of minor roads serving small communities with a large link road between the A38 and the A444—hardly an argument for sustainable transport from those who support the eco-town proposal. The 5,700 homes proposed would be additional to the regional spatial strategy proposals, and additional to any growth required to meet Burton’s growth point needs.

Frankly, if all the proposals were to proceed the area would be entirely unrecognisable in 18 years’ time. To give the House a picture, taking 1991 as a base point and 2026 as an end point, we would see 75 per cent. growth in the population of South Derbyshire over that period, even based on the RSS proposals alone. If we included the additional major proposals, the figure would be substantially more.

Swadlincote would become part of a much larger urban unit stretching as far as Coalville. It would be joined to Burton by the eco-town—as it has been branded—and by Drakelow’s redevelopment as a housing community. Derby would sprawl southwards to the A50. The RSS gives little indication of significant infrastructure investment beyond the possible opening to passengers of the Leicester to Burton freight line, known as the national forest line or the Ivanhoe line depending on how long one has been arguing for the particular proposal.

Growth at that pace and scale will place immense strain on public services, the planning system and community cohesion. What should we do?

The location of hugely disproportionate growth in one district is unacceptable, particularly when added to relentless and partially undigested growth in the immediate past; we have still not fully accommodated the people who have moved into our area over the past five to 10 years. The RSS proposals alone will be impossible to accommodate without heavy use of green space. We should instead aim to hold to the 60 per cent. brownfield target and build our volume projections from what is available to meet that goal.

Our past experience shows that growth even on a scale that I could accept places high stress on public services and planning functions. Areas such as ours deserve some resource ahead of population data catch-up, delivered through additional planning expertise, capital funding towards public services and infrastructure and marketing support to draw in private sector investment in jobs and services in synchronisation with population growth. Any additional development falling within South Derbyshire to meet Burton’s growth needs should be subtracted from the district’s planned housing growth.

The eco-town proposal is unacceptable. It does not utilise brown fields, it is unlikely to form a distinct community and it is potentially ill-served by sustainable transport systems. It should be rejected. I await the Minister’s response.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing the debate. South Derbyshire, as he said, is the fastest-growing district for new development in the county. He is well aware of the pressure to build new housing to accommodate the needs of those who want to have a home. He has also emphasised that with that chance to have a home come other considerations and pressures on local services.

South Derbyshire has already shown that it is ready to meet those challenges. As a member of the three cities and three counties growth point, which is one of the Government’s long-term partnerships for growth with local authorities, South Derbyshire has delivered on average more than 580 new homes a year since 1991. More than 1,000 people are waiting for social housing in the district, and they understand the need to perform even better against the regional allocation. The district council is to be commended for its commitment to contribute more than 600 homes a year to meet the housing needs of the Derby area, and we are supporting that commitment with revenue and capital funding.

I know that my hon. Friend will appreciate that we need to do even more nationally to meet the rising demand for homes. Clearly, there are nationwide affordability pressures. All regions are experiencing major increases in the number of households, not only because people are living longer but because of the fact that there are more single-person households than ever before. By 2016, the Government want to see 240,000 new homes built every year to keep up with demand.

We are inviting local authorities to come forward with further growth point proposals and we are also encouraging expressions of interest for new eco-towns from the public and private sector. We have had an enormous response on both fronts, with more than 30 expressions of interest for growth points and more than 50 for eco-towns. I shall explain a little more about the process in a moment, as I hope not only that that will reassure my hon. Friend but that the record will be taken up and read by other hon. Members who have raised concerns about the process.

First, I want to say something about the pace of growth. Of course, any proposal has to be subject to further assessment and ultimately to assessment though the planning system. As my hon. Friend has said, we must ensure that growth is taken forward sustainably and that the phasing and delivery of housing is accompanied by appropriate investment in infrastructure and the avoidance of unnecessary pressure on transport and the surrounding areas. We are committed to helping authorities to deliver when extra resources are needed.

Eco-towns are a different approach to providing homes as they involve designing a wholly new development with the highest standards of sustainability built in from the start. Such schemes offer a tremendous opportunity to revolutionise the way we plan and deliver our towns, as well as radically changing for the better the way that people travel, work and live. They will be exemplar communities that other towns and developments can draw from.

The eco-towns prospectus was published alongside the housing Green Paper. Eco-towns must be designed to meet the highest standards of sustainability, including low and zero-carbon technologies and good public transport. They must lead the way in design, facilities and services, and above all in community involvement. Only schemes with the potential to meet those criteria will be considered by Government to have the potential to be new eco-towns.

Is the Minister suggesting that an important consideration in determining whether an eco-town should be accepted is general community acceptance in the area in which it is proposed, as well as some demonstration of sustainable transport systems that might support it?

That is the case. I shall elaborate a little more on the opportunities for people to have their say in the process.

The eco-town as a whole—not just the homes—must be able to reach zero carbon through energy provision and use, the sensitive design of the town, and innovative methods of encouraging low-carbon living. Sustainable transport is essential to the new eco-towns. They must clearly demonstrate how they will encourage a reduction in people’s reliance on their cars and a shift towards other more sustainable transport options. We are looking for high-quality offers on accessible public transport and promotion of cycling and walking, and we expect transport plans to be drawn up for each scheme outlining how those can be achieved both within towns and, importantly, in their links to surrounding towns and villages.

In the prospectus, we have highlighted many good examples from Europe and some exciting smaller-scale developments in the UK. We have asked the Town and Country Planning Association, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Prince’s Foundation and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment to bring their considerable expertise to bear on the eco-towns. We are looking across Government at the potential impact of the proposals on the road and rail networks and the environment, and we are assessing how they will deliver on plans to link to other centres and to employment in the most sustainable way.

The locations of growth points and eco-towns are highly important to us in coming to a view on sustainability, which is why we are considering the proposals across Government. We are assessing in particular whether there are issues of potential flood risk or scarcity of natural resources, and considering effects on the natural environment—the green spaces that we all have the right to enjoy and the protected landscapes or species in them. We are also looking for innovative proposals to enhance biodiversity and improve the natural environment by integrating green spaces into new eco-towns. Once we have completed an initial assessment of the applications received, we expect to publish the shortlisted proposals for eco-towns in February for full public consultation. Clearly, while the assessment is under way, I cannot comment on any particular scheme, but I will comment on the process that will apply in all cases, as I know that there is concern about it.

We are carrying out an initial assessment of the sites for eco-towns that involves the relevant Departments—including the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and their agencies. The purpose of the assessment is to find out whether there are any concerns about locations that are so significant that the Government could not support them as sites for eventual eco-towns. We will take into account issues such as accessibility to public transport, impact on the road network, landscape constraints, special protection, and flood risk. During this early stage, the Government are also taking soundings from regional partners in the assemblies and regional development agencies, as well as seeking the important views of local authorities affected by the sites. All local authorities have been informed that their views on the schemes are actively sought.

That is not the end of the story. As I said, we are making an initial assessment of the potential of all bids with the purpose of excluding sites with too many show-stoppers for development to take place. Immediately following that assessment, we will publish a shorter list for public consultation, and we will take every opportunity to engage with local authorities and the public during that time to ensure that their views are heard. After the period of public consultation, we will make final decisions on the areas with the most potential to become the eco-towns of the future. They will be the sites that the Government want to help develop through direct funding to local authorities using the growth areas money, so that studies and further assessments requested by the agencies can be done and local authorities are resourced to work on the schemes.

I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is no truth in the claim that the Government are deciding the locations of the 10 eco-towns behind closed doors without reference to the views of the public or the local authorities in the areas where expressions of interest have been submitted. Importantly, I also confirm what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said in the House about eco-towns: they are indeed a matter for local authorities under the town and country planning system. Any eco-town site regarded favourably by the Government must be subject to testing through the planning system, including an appraisal of its sustainability, in order to proceed. We will work with local authorities in the areas where the Government would like to see eco-towns built. In most cases, the scheme will be supported by an up-to-date local development plan. We know that in some cases local authorities are including new settlements in their issues and options consultations.

In some circumstances, an authority without an up-to-date plan but with a housing shortage may want to proceed with development. In such cases, the local authority will still need to make a decision on a planning application, and will have to be satisfied that all options for the development’s location have been tested. Eco-towns will need full planning applications; section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 requires that applications be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Some areas will also want to consider reviews of the development plan or mini reviews of the regional spatial strategy.

We have previously mentioned the use of new towns powers to deliver and maintain an eco-town, and we remain open to the possibility that, in the specific circumstances of a scheme and its location, it may be appropriate to establish a new town development corporation. In every case, there would still need to be a planning application, or a master plan for each eco-town, which would have the benefit of full public consultation and robust testing of the proposal. Whatever the case, the views of councils and the public are integral to the debate about the ultimate location of sites, and the planning system is the right place to have the debate.

I hope that those observations have demonstrated to my hon. Friend and others the Government’s commitment to getting the processes right.

The Minister mentioned the mini review process. As I said in my speech, there is a proposal in the expert panel review of the regional spatial strategy to conduct a mini review on accommodating Burton’s growth-point growth in South Derbyshire. What sort of mechanism does she envisage for dealing with such dramatic proposals?

As the regional spatial strategy has not been formally adopted, it is difficult to say whether a mini review would happen. The Government are still considering the full regional spatial strategy, but I am happy to ascertain whether there is any further information that I can provide to my hon. Friend. Clearly, I am limited in what I can say.

We want to make it clear that we are no less committed to the goal of delivering significant new homes in new growth locations, and to ensuring that that new housing does not harm the environment. Indeed, it can be imaginative in design, landscape and the use it makes of natural assets. I also fully recognise that infrastructure is an important partner to new homes so that they and the places in which they exist are successful.

We want sustainable homes in well-designed and attractive towns, and I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that many people who are waiting to buy an affordable home or rent a house want that as well.

Will my right hon. Friend expand on the importance of brownfield sites for new developments? She heard the reference in my speech to the potential difficulties to meeting the 60 per cent. use of brownfield growth targets. I drew attention to the fact that the eco-town proposal is not for a brownfield site. How critical is the use of brownfield for new housing development?

Of course, brownfield sites are critical for new housing development. We are trying to do as much as we can to take advantage of the opportunities that brownfield sites provide. We are also considering across Government what public land is surplus to requirements and can be used.

We are not simply considering numbers or bricks and mortar but real people who want homes. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with me that access to affordable housing is no longer a priority only in London and the south-east. There are many other areas of the country, including my hon. Friend’s and mine, that need to offer that opportunity. It is part of our social justice agenda to ensure that those most in need have a chance to have a home, which many of us enjoy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o’clock.