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Proposed Eco-town (Ford)

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2008

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the concerns of many in the Littlehampton and Arundel area about the potential proposal for an eco-town at Ford and Climping in West Sussex, just south of Arundel, which includes parts of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). We both support measures resulting in sustainable, eco-friendly communities on brownfield sites with the support of the local community. However, the aforementioned proposal most decidedly does not have the support of local people. Nor does it have the support of Ford, Yapton and Climping parish councils, Arun district council, the planning authority, West Sussex county council or the South East England regional assembly.

We understand that the Government have received nearly 60 applications and that they will shortlist about 10. In other words, they will decide the sites, scheme, size and number of houses—all outside the established planning framework. No doubt the Minister will claim that the plan will go through the planning system, but that is not an accurate description of what will happen. The Government will make the decision first about the site and size of the development, after which they will consult the public and instruct regional assemblies to incorporate it into their regional strategies. Over all of that lies the threat that property developers could ask the Secretary of State to call in their application to decide on it or to use the powers in the new towns Acts.

The main proposal for a Ford eco-town is simply a hastily rebadged plan by property developers that was being promoted before the Government announced their eco-town initiative. The proposal was considered by Arun district council as part of the local development framework last year and rejected for not being the most sustainable. That was for a range of reasons, in particular infrastructure problems, of which the most notable is the poor road system: the A259 is congested and the A27 is unlikely to see a bypass around Arundel before 2016, at the earliest, and even that is unlikely. That stretch of the A27 is usually congested as the dual carriageway is reduced to single lanes.

That coastal stretch of West Sussex is already contributing significant new house building, with 1,350 houses being built in Bognor Regis and 700 houses in Littlehampton already under construction. Given the existing level of housing planned, the traffic modelling shows the A27, and all the minor roads feeding from it from Arun district, failing well before 2026. Evidence and research also shows that there were better sites in the area that were far more appropriate than Ford for further development. The inspector’s report from the examination in public last year recommended sites that were extensions of existing urban areas, rather than rural Ford, which, despite a small brownfield area resulting from a wartime aerodrome and a small light industrial park, is still essentially very rural.

A huge amount of work has gone into that local development framework process over the past two years, including consultations and more than £250,000 of consultants’ fees. It seems odd that all that high-quality and careful work to determine the most appropriate sites for development can be overturned from Whitehall at the stroke of a pen on the basis of very little research or evidence, other than drawing a few lines on a map. Even on the basis of the Government’s own criteria set out in their eco-town prospectus, the Ford eco-town proposal comes nowhere near fulfilling the criteria.

The first essential requirement, set out on page 14 of the prospectus, reads:

“Eco-towns must be new settlements, separate and distinct from existing towns but well linked to them.”

If the Minister comes to the area, he will see that it is located between two east-west trunk roads in open land and on a flood plain. It is just to the south of Arundel, which is a unique, historic, hillside town, and immediately adjacent to the existing villages of Yapton and Climping. There is no scope to produce a separate and distinct community. An eco-town of 5,000 or more houses would essentially become an extension of Arundel and create a conurbation linking Arundel to Yapton.

Climping parish council, in its letter objecting to the proposed eco-town, which was sent to the Minister for Housing, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), set out the infrastructure problems of the area, including poor public transport and over-crowded schools. Barbara Edge, the chairman of the council, concluded her letter by saying:

“The Arun valley south of Arundel has remained unspoilt and beautiful for thousands of years. It is a haven for wild life and a recreational breathing space for our intensely overdeveloped coastal area. To destroy any part of the valley would be an act of betrayal to future generations.”

Damaging that beauty would also have economic consequences. Littlehampton is a seaside town. It has beautiful sandy beaches and a river that attracts leisure craft. It is just a few miles from Arundel with its cathedral and castle and the wonderful surrounding countryside. Tourism is still a big employer in the area. Building on the flood plains between Climping, Ford and Arundel would damage a key feature of that beauty and the attractiveness of both Littlehampton and Arundel to tourists.

Our opposition to the proposal is not nimbyist. One of the concerns that I and Arun district council have is about the effect that such a large-scale development would have on the current regeneration plans in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. In particular, about £500 million is being invested in Bognor Regis and that potential investment could be threatened by this eco-town proposal, diverting the focus and resources away from the coastal towns. The Minister should be clear that there is widespread and fierce opposition to this proposal and that people in my constituency do not want the Ford eco-town to appear on the shortlist.

In a letter of 13 February to the Minister for Housing, the chairman of SEERA raised a concern about eco-town proposals in the south-east:

“Few of these have local authority support and you need to understand the concern councils feel about the process for moving these developer-led bids forward… A great deal of time and effort has gone into preparing the draft South East Plan and the Local Development Frameworks… It is, therefore, a matter of considerable concern that the bidding and selection process associated with Eco-towns has, to date, been independent of the spatial planning process.”

The Minister’s response to that concern would be appreciated.

Finally, I would like clarification of the point made by the Minister for Housing in her speech at Earls Court on 27 February:

“I want to assure local authorities which include an eco-town in their future housing plans that it will, of course, count towards their future housing targets”.

That contradicts everything that we have been told by civil servants and others, and the thrust of the Prime Minister’s comments that it will create further housing. Whether or not the numbers count, our opposition to the Ford eco-town proposal will continue, for all the reasons that I have given concerning the suitability of the site. However, clarification on that point would be helpful.

I hope that the Minister will be left in no doubt that there is universal opposition to any plans for an eco-town at Ford. Should the development appear on the shortlist—I hope that it will not—it will trigger the start of demonstrations and protests by the people of Ford, Climping, Yapton, Littlehampton, Arundel, Bognor Regis and beyond as we seek to maintain the environment and protect plans for the regeneration of seaside towns.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) on securing the debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in it. Ford village and most of the airfield on which an eco-town might be sited are currently in my constituency. Following a boundary change at the next election, they will largely be in the constituency that my hon. Friend represents, but they will still be of huge interest to my constituents and to neighbouring villages.

First, I echo my hon. Friend’s point that in this country, there is a need for more housing—particularly more affordable housing. The inability of young people, in particular, to get their feet on the housing ladder is a serious concern, not least in the south-east, and one which Members on both sides of the House share. Already, 58,000 new houses have been proposed for West Sussex over the next decade. That would represent a significant increase in housing, and there are already substantial concerns about the availability of infrastructure to support house building increases on that scale.

Secondly, the eco-town, which would add to the housing numbers that have already been announced through the regional assembly, would be located on a site that Arun district council, in its consideration of the housing framework, has already rejected. The real concern about the eco-town proposal is its serious subversion of the normal planning process. There is an established planning framework for making such major decisions about housing. It is evidence-based, it includes a large number of stakeholders and the public, and it is subject to independent scrutiny. The eco-towns idea sits outside the system entirely, and it is misleading to say that it will be processed through the planning system.

Effectively, the Government want to make the decision first and then consult the public. Then, they will instruct the regional assemblies to incorporate the eco-towns idea into their regional strategies, with the threat that if private sector backers make an application, the Secretary of State will call it in for her decision, or seek to use provisions in the new towns Acts. Effectively, the Government are saying that whatever the decision of local authorities or the established consultation procedures, they will be able to drop those towns, irrespective of concerns, on to the local community.

It is quite wrong to set aside the views of the local planning authorities, which have to take decisions based on their local knowledge, about where to allocate what is already a very large number of houses. Indeed, it is wrong to subvert the decisions of the regional assembly. Why spend millions of pounds of public money on evidence gathering and analysis at all levels—from district through county to the regional assembly—only to have the results wholly overridden by fiat, or by diktat, from Whitehall? That lack of proper local accountability and decision making is of particular concern.

Thirdly, I echo the anxieties of my hon. Friend about the serious infrastructure deficit locally. The A27 Arundel bypass is long-awaited; indeed, there has been a clamour for it for decades. It has consistently fallen out of the programme, and it was about to be implemented 10 years ago, but it was dropped. The earliest that it can be brought into the programme is 2016, and without an Arundel bypass, it is impossible to conceive that there will be sufficient infrastructure to support a new town on the scale of Ford, which would need that road link to connect it to the outside world.

It is not just the inadequacy of roads that is a concern, but the inadequacy of public services, such as schools, as my hon. Friend said, and hospitals. There are proposals to downgrade local hospital services, including maternity units and accident and emergency services, and there appears to be a disconnection between, on the one hand, proposals for a very substantial increase in housing numbers and, on the other, a failure to upgrade infrastructure. It would be necessary to upgrade or preserve the infrastructure even if the housing did not materialise, let alone if housing numbers were to grow so substantially.

I also echo what my hon. Friend said about the impact of an eco-town at Ford on the regeneration of coastal communities. The proposal is absolutely not the way to achieve that regeneration—indeed, it might threaten it. There is significant and, perhaps to some, surprising deprivation along the south coast, which has been partly caused by the lack of infrastructure. The eco-town proposal would do nothing to address the issue; indeed, it would be to the detriment of existing regeneration plans. There is strong opposition to the scheme from Arundel town council, Ford parish council and Yapton parish council in my constituency. They feel that they are being shut out of the normal planning processes, and it is to that subversion—the subversion of proper examination—that I hope the Minister will address his remarks.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Pope. I thank you for your hospitality a couple of weeks ago when I visited your constituency. We had a great time, albeit a very rainy one, but I enjoyed it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) on securing the debate and the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on contributing to it. I know that they are assiduous workers for their constituents, and I pay tribute to the manner in which they have advanced their case today.

Both hon. Gentlemen know that shortly, once an initial assessment has taken place, we will announce the proposals for eco-towns and for public consultation. They know also that while the assessment is under way, neither I nor my ministerial colleagues can comment specifically on any scheme. I know that some developers have already publicised their bids, but that is a decision for them rather than for the Government. However, I should like to reassure the hon. Gentlemen—this is the main thrust of my response to their contributions—that there will be considerable opportunity for consultation before the process is complete, and that we will take every opportunity to engage with local authorities and the public during that time to ensure that all views are heard. I shall say more about that process in a moment, because it is the key. However, first, I shall provide a little context and explain why we are committed to providing more homes that are affordable and sustainable.

May I suggest that a huge amount of taxpayers’ money could be saved because I can tell the Minister now that the consultation process that he mentions will reveal total opposition from the public, all parish and town councils in the area, and Arun district council? Why proceed with announcing Ford as part of the shortlist if that is going to be the result of the consultation process?

When my Department replied to oral questions in the House last week, I mentioned that the consultation will not take place in a smoke-filled room behind closed doors. It will be a complete part of the regional spatial strategy and the local development framework process, which is right and proper. On the merits and disadvantages of the Ford eco-town proposal, I reiterate that because of judicial reviews and call-in by the Secretary of State, I cannot possibly comment on any individual schemes, as the hon. Gentleman will understand.

I was pleased with what the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said about affordable housing. I am glad that he recognises the massive need for us to address the issue nationally and in his constituency. Affordability pressures are nationwide. We can no longer duck the need for more affordable housing, because if we do, we will let down future generations of families and young people throughout the country. All regions are experiencing major increases in the number of households, and the question of affordability is particularly acute. For that reason, by 2016, the Government want 240,000 new homes to be built every year to keep up with the demand caused by increasing life expectancy, rising aspirations and the increasing number of people living alone.

I was particularly interested by the comments made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton about affordability in his area and in West Sussex. The problem is particularly acute in his constituency and that of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. The coastal towns, as he said, have areas that are relatively low income for the south-east, yet house prices are very high, averaging about £234,000 in West Sussex as a whole. The average weekly wage in Arun district is one of the lowest at £428, and average earnings are about £542 a week in coastal West Sussex. In 2007, the average house price in West Sussex was nearly 10 times the average annual income. The situation is worse in the neighbouring district of Chichester, where the ratio of the average house price to the average salary has reached 12:1. On that basis, it is fairly clear that we need to do something nationally as well as locally to address the acute need for affordability.

The Minister is right about house prices in West Sussex. Will an eco-town reduce house prices in the area?

No, it will not, but it is a question of providing greater choice and supply. That is important. I have seen a similar situation in my own region of the north-east, and it is certainly acute in London and the south-east. Do we want to ensure that people do not have choice, so that they have to move out of their own area, thus reducing its prospects for economic sustainability until the only people left are increasingly older and more affluent? I do not think that that is particularly sustainable for every area.

There is a need for a greater supply of affordable housing in the hon. Gentlemen’s constituencies. I must be blunt with them: recent evidence shows that that has not been provided. The need for affordable housing has not been addressed, and I shall give a couple of examples. Ford supplied 14 units of affordable housing in 2006-07, or 4 per cent. of its total completions for that year. In West Sussex as a whole, the total figure was 458 affordable homes, or 19 per cent. of the total. The draft south-east plan recommends a target of 40 per cent. It is clear that we need to do a lot more to ensure that the need for affordability is addressed and that young, hard-working families doing their best in life and playing by the rules have a chance to get on the property ladder and own affordable homes.

The Minister is right and we do not disagree with him on that point. The issue is where the new houses should be built. Gill Brown, the leader of Arun district council, said:

“After years of study following detailed technical advice set by the Government that has cost taxpayers a small fortune, and after an independent inquiry, we have a regional policy for the South Coast based on economic regeneration aligned with the sustainable extension of existing urban areas.”

That extensive work is based on evidence and research, not a Minister simply deciding in Whitehall with the stroke of a pen where the building will happen. We accept the argument, but the question is where the building should be and where it will be most sustainable, and the work on that question has been done.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I reiterate that 4 per cent. of all homes built in 2006-07 were classed as affordable. That cannot be sustainable in terms of providing suitable accommodation for hard-working young families who want to get on the property ladder. The area must do a lot more to address the situation.

We need to address the big issue of affordability, but this is about not simply more homes, but greener homes, which is where the eco-town concept comes in. Eco-towns are a different approach to providing homes incorporating the highest standards of sustainability and green features from the start. The schemes offer a tremendous opportunity to revolutionise the way in which we plan and deliver towns, as well as to change radically the way in which people travel, work and live. I suggest that they will be exemplar communities from which other towns and developments can draw.

In the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech, he mentioned the eco-towns prospectus, which was published alongside the housing Green Paper and says more about what we expect of the new places. They must be designed to meet the highest standards of sustainability, including low and zero-carbon technologies and good public transport. I know that transport is an issue that concerns him, and I shall return to it in a moment. The towns must also lead the way in design, facilities and services, as well as community involvement, which the hon. Gentlemen have made clear is particularly important. Only schemes with the potential to meet those criteria and to work best in each location will be considered by the Government to have the potential to be eco-towns.

Sustainable transport is essential to the new towns. Proposals must clearly demonstrate how the towns will encourage reduced reliance on cars and a shift towards other, more sustainable, transport options. We are looking for high-quality offers on accessible public transport and developments designed around the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, and we will expect transport plans to be drawn up for each scheme outlining how the transport aims can be achieved both within the eco-town and in its links to surrounding towns and villages.

In the prospectus, we highlighted many good examples from Europe, as well as exciting developments on a smaller scale here in the UK, that could help to shape the eco-towns. 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 proposals’ potential impacts on the environment and the road and rail network—I understand that there are particular concerns about the A27, which I will take on board—and assessing how they will deliver on plans to link to other centres and employment in the most sustainable way.

We will need to look carefully at the transport implications of all proposals during the public consultation period. The Department for Transport will ensure that sustainable transport is properly incorporated in all eco-towns and will be looking for employment, educational and community facilities within easy access of all homes, as well as public transport and walking and cycling facilities of the highest level within and beyond the sites. We expect all developers to focus their efforts on delivering sustainable transport and smarter choices.

I have mentioned more homes, which is important both nationally and, from the statistics that I have read, in the constituencies of both hon. Gentlemen. We also need greener homes. There has been an enormously positive response to the concept of eco-towns—we have received about 60 proposals. I suggest that that demonstrates an appetite for the programme and for the concept. However, as we have heard in this debate, there is uncertainty in some areas about eco-towns. The hon. Gentlemen have expressed their concerns on behalf of their constituents most eloquently. I reassure them that the process that we are undertaking is robust and transparent, and, crucially, that it will include full public involvement.

We are considering the proposals across Government and with agencies to assess, in particular, whether there are potential problems of flood risk or scarcity of natural resources, and to consider their possible effects on the natural environment: the green spaces that we all have the right to enjoy, protected landscapes, and the species that inhabit them. In the case of eco-towns, we are looking for innovative proposals that will enhance our biodiversity and improve the natural environment by integrating green spaces into new towns. I stress that only the best proposals will make it through the process. We will be publishing the shortlisted proposals for eco-towns for consultation shortly—indeed, almost imminently. That will allow us to conduct a full and comprehensive public consultation with communities, local authorities and stakeholders.

Although I do not have time to say more about the process, I am more than happy to write to the hon. Gentlemen to articulate the situation at length, as I know that it causes them concern. We are carrying out an initial assessment of the sites for eco-towns involving the relevant Departments, such as my own and the Department for Transport, and their agencies, including transport and environment agencies. The purpose of the assessment is to find out whether there are any issues with proposed sites that are so significant and such show stoppers that the Government could not support those locations as eventual eco-towns. Issues might include accessibility to public transport, or landscape constraints in terms of special protection and flood risk. We are also taking soundings from our partners in the regional assemblies and regional development agencies and, to address the point made by the hon. Gentlemen, seeking the important views of the local authorities that will be affected by the sites.