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Eco-towns

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2008

Before the House rises for the recess, I will publish a shortlist of the locations that we believe have the best potential to be eco-towns and which will go forward for further assessment and public consultation. Later this year, we will announce up to 10 locations that we are satisfied meet our criteria.

In the selection of sites of eco-towns, will my right hon. Friend take into account the needs of existing communities to expand and regenerate, and resist attempts by organisations such as UK Coal to use eco-towns as a way of exploiting their existing land bank, which in some cases will affect the expansion of existing communities?

It is essential that the proposals for eco-towns not only meet high environmental standards but recognise where they sit in relation to other communities, particularly those that we seek to regenerate. It is also essential that they do not become simply commuter-belt communities, but have an identity of their own that includes homes, infrastructure and employment within the communities.

Will the Minister confirm that neither she nor the Secretary of State will entertain as suitable to go on the shortlist those sites that are no more than reheated and previously rejected or withdrawn applications? She will know, as will the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), of the case in my constituency involving the Co-op, which has sought for the third time to build on its 5,000-acre farming estate. It withdrew its application in 1992 and tried again in 1996 with a sustainable urban extension. Will she confirm that this reheated application system should not be permitted?

We are certainly not interested in any reheated plans. For the next phase of consultation, it is important that we look at the locations that have the potential to be sites for eco-towns and that they undergo cross-government scrutiny, with advice from the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Highways Agency and others. It is important that we scrutinise the proposals in more depth to ensure that they fit the bill, and that is laid out clearly in the prospectus that we produced last year.

Will the Minister give an assurance that in the next phase to which she has just referred there will be an adequate opportunity for neighbouring local authorities to express their very real concerns about the potential effect of eco-towns on transport and regeneration?

Yes, we want local authorities and communities to look further into issues regarding infrastructure and transport, both in terms of getting from one place to another and reducing the reliance on the car by providing more sustainable transport options for those who will eventually live in the communities.

From the constructive and good-natured debate that I had on development in Aylesbury Vale with the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), in Westminster Hall on 4 December, the Minister of State should be in no doubt that I am an enthusiast for sustainable development, including new housing which we need. Will she, however, accept it from me that the proposed impost in the minds of some of 5,000 new homes in Little Horwood in my constituency would represent a disproportional and unjust burden? If she chooses to trifle with the people of Little Horwood and to bite them, I can assure her that they will bite back.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in recognising that new homes have to be part of the future and that we need to build more. Part of the scrutiny for the eco-towns is to look at the housing supply and the housing need in the local communities where they will be placed, and we will look into that in great depth. One of the priorities for locations is housing need, and we cannot duck that because this is about homes for people who cannot get on the housing ladder and have a home of their choosing.

I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that the amount of research that the Government have done into the development of eco-homes eclipses anything that we might expect from our opponents. Does she agree that the new homes entail a 40 per cent. reduction in energy use? Crucially for the British economy, those homes will also provide significant employment opportunities and opportunities to gain funding from countries such as China, because we will export that investment.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is involved in engineering—she is an eminent engineer—and who always looks for opportunities to support that profession. She is right: homes built today are 40 per cent. more efficient than those built a few years ago. Our aim through eco-towns and other approaches is to capitalise on the skills, ideas and innovation in this country to build homes and provide jobs and be a potent force for overseas export and investment back into this country.

Airport infrastructure in the United Kingdom is a subject of much interest. Is the Minister aware that small airports and airfields around the UK provide an important sub-infrastructure and that many business people use them? Will she provide an assurance that airfields such as Leicester airport and others will not be regarded as easy targets on which to build eco-towns, given that they are important parts of the infrastructure of the communities that they serve and are significant generators of wealth in the areas that they serve?

I declare an interest, because there is a growing airport in my constituency. It is very successful, and there has been house building and job creation as a result of that investment. I will not be drawn into specifics because, as I have said, I will publish the shortlist of locations before the House rises. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that all factors in relation to eco-towns, including transport infrastructure, other amenities in the local area and the use of brownfield sites, are part of the mix, which we will study further to see what more we can get out of developers and to ensure that developers are meeting our exacting benchmarks.

On 4 March, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), told us that an announcement was imminent. Why has there been a delay, and why has it taken almost a month for the proposals to be published? Is the delay not a sign of the disarray in the Minister’s Department, which has ignored the need for proper infrastructure planning, failed to carry local support and even advanced proposals for sites that have already been rejected by planners? Will eco-towns join the growing list of botched projects, such as Thames Gateway and pathfinder?

Well, I do not know about reheated plans, but those are reheated Tory arguments. Behind the attacks on eco-towns, which is what this is really about, is a fundamental attack on the need to build more homes. We have not built new towns for 40 years. Of course infrastructure is important, which is why we are introducing the community infrastructure levy, the community infrastructure fund and all the proposals that will go through to the next round. There will be much closer scrutiny involving local authorities, Departments and other agencies to see what more we can get from those bidders to deliver on infrastructure. A community is not a community without infrastructure, and those eco-towns will show how it can be done well and how they can be the best.