I thank you, Mr. Chope, and Mr. Speaker for granting me permission to speak on this subject. I welcome the Minister to his place to hear my constituents’ concerns, to which he will respond in due course. It is not the first time that I have had the privilege of debating housing issues with him and I hope and expect that it will not be the last, because planning issues are extremely important to Kettering, north Northamptonshire and many places around the country. I see that many distinguished colleagues from all parties wish to take part in the debate and I shall welcome interventions on any subject that they feel is particularly important and will do my best to respond.
I begin with a quotation from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. On assuming that exalted position on 28 June 2007, she said:
“I have always championed local communities, and sought to give local people more influence and control over their lives”.
That is a laudable aim, but I am afraid that the evidence on the ground in places such as Kettering suggests that people actually have less influence and control over their lives when it comes to large-scale housing applications.
Kettering and north Northamptonshire form part of one of the fastest growing housing development areas in the country. North Northamptonshire is the area covered by the districts of Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough and East Northamptonshire, which forms part of the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area that is being promoted by the Government through their sustainable communities plan. There are four major areas of growth coming out of London: north Northamptonshire, the area that extends from London to Peterborough and beyond, the Thames Gateway, and the area between London and Ashford in Kent.
North Northamptonshire is the biggest single growth area outside London. It is set to grow to a planned population of more than 370,000 people by 2021—the equivalent of Bristol today. There will be 52,100 new houses and 47,400 new jobs. The rate of growth is faster than in the Thames Gateway or Milton Keynes: more than 2,100 new houses were built in 2006, and that will rise to 3,700 a year in the coming years. To deliver that growth on behalf of the Government, the district councils in north Northamptonshire, together with the county council, have worked through a joint planning committee to create an overall town planning strategy for the area, which is known as the north Northamptonshire core spatial strategy. That has been submitted to the Secretary of State and a public inquiry has taken place. Local people await the results with interest.
My starting point is this: local people have had absolutely no say on whether they want to live in an area with a population equivalent to that of Bristol. Local people want new houses for local people, but they do not want to live in the equivalent of a city.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. The Government are keen to talk about sustainable communities, but does he agree that any truly sustainable community must have the support of local people? Without that, a community cannot be sustainable. All too often, when we have consultations, local people feel that their views are simply ignored.
My hon. Friend is spot on as usual, and I pay tribute to him for the work that he does on behalf of his constituents on planning and many other issues. He is quite right—the biggest flaw in the development of north Northamptonshire is that there has not been a test of whether local people want the plans.
Will the hon. Gentleman include in that the opportunity to look at dispersed development? One problem with the process is that local areas are never given the opportunity to look at how they can develop in a more dispersed way in smaller towns and villages. Such development is never put on the agenda.
Dispersed development might be looked on in one of two ways, depending on one’s locality. There is a powerful case for saying that if development is to take place, it will need to be as concentrated as possible in some areas so that it does not gobble up large parts of the countryside with greenfield development. I am sure that most of us would agree that brownfield development should take place before greenfield sites are built on. However, in other localities, local people might want more dispersed development. After all, in many parts of the country, development that has evolved over time has happened in such a dispersed way. It will vary from area to area, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point that is doubtless important to his constituents and to his local area.
There are 36,000 houses in the borough of Kettering. The Government have made it a statutory provision on Kettering borough council, on which I have the privilege to serve as a local councillor, to provide an extra 13,100 new houses by 2021. In other words, the number of houses in the borough must increase by one third in a little more than 15 years. That is the Government’s plan for the constituency that I represent. They would have had a far more powerful case for that development if they had had the courage of their convictions and put it to a referendum of local people. The Government could have made a powerful case for expansion on such a scale and if they had such a case, they could have won a referendum. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) would have been satisfied—popular support for the development could have been demonstrated in a referendum. However, there has been no referendum of local people.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on this important issue, and I agree with him about the importance of consultation with local people. However, is there not an almost unavoidable asymmetry? Those who might be adversely affected by development, or who fear that they might be adversely affected and who have a legitimate interest in infrastructure provision, traffic consequences and so on, are already there and know about the issues. However, many of the potential beneficiaries of a development, such as those struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder or those in desperate need of social housing, do not know that they will have the opportunity to live in such developments. All of us with public policy responsibilities must take account of the often desperate housing need that people face, but that might not be reflected fully in the sort of consultation that he advocates.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point and I agree with much of what he said. Clearly, some important housing needs are not being addressed sufficiently by Government policy, but it is not good enough to say, “There are housing problems in major cities, so we are going to build hundreds of thousands of new houses in areas that do not want them and on greenfield sites that should never be developed”. Such developments will not enjoy the support of local people. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes hit the nail on the head when he said that if such communities are to be sustainable, they must enjoy popular support.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) that we must do more to sort out housing provision in some of our large towns and cities, but the answer is not to increase the population of Kettering borough by one third, to knock down large numbers of terraced houses in cities in the north or to prevent areas such as Scotland, which want to grow, from meeting their housing needs. This is the 21st century, and the Government have espoused the importance of involving local communities and emphasised that local democracy should be seen to work, should take people’s views into account and should influence Government policy. However, there is a great danger that the so-called sustainable communities plan will create no sustainable communities at all.
Yet again, my hon. Friend is sticking up for the residents of north Northamptonshire. The problem with the argument put forward by the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) is that it addresses only half the issue—the building of the houses, although we understand the need for them. The concern of my constituents, however, is that although they can see the houses being built, they cannot see the infrastructure—the schools, the hospitals and the roads. It seems that only half the problem is being tackled.
My hon. Friend is right. Wellingborough is next door to Kettering, and he and I deal with many similar problems on behalf of our constituents. Like me, he will know that the Government—perhaps despite their best intentions—are simply not living up to their promise to provide infrastructure, jobs and houses in that order.
When the plans for Northamptonshire were first unveiled in 2001, I got involved with a campaign group called STOP—Stop the Over-development Plans for Northamptonshire. We were not against development, but overdevelopment, which was defined as too many houses for the available infrastructure. At a meeting in the offices of Wellingborough council, we spoke to Lord Rooker, the Minister driving the plans forward at that time. He promised me and Sir Peter Fry, the chairman of STOP, that we would have infrastructure first, then jobs and then houses, but the evidence on the ground simply does not support that.
Services at Kettering railway station will be cut this December, and the number of trains going north from Kettering will halve, while all the fast trains from London to Kettering will disappear. Similarly, some 70,000 vehicles a day use the A14 around Kettering, and the road is already at capacity. Despite having secured Adjournment debates and asked questions in Parliament about when the Highways Agency will introduce plans to improve the A14, we are still waiting for something to be done. Indeed, the agency is now talking about restricting local vehicles’ access to this Highways Agency road. Furthermore, the number of police officers in the county is falling, school places are full and Kettering general hospital is bursting at the seams. It is not infrastructure that is leading the development, therefore, but houses, which is why more houses are being built in north Northamptonshire than in the Thames Gateway or Milton Keynes.
My point to the Minister is that if we are to have sustainable communities, the Government should test local opinion and put their case to local people in a referendum. However, I must tell him on behalf of my constituents that if he had held a referendum, he would have lost it. An overwhelming majority of people in my constituency are very suspicious of the Government’s plans and do not believe that they are sustainable. They believe that the number of houses intended for Kettering borough is too great, that they will be delivered in too short a time and that we will not have the necessary infrastructure to support them.
In that respect, I pay tribute to two Kettering residents, John and Pat Brunige from Warkton village, who laboured night and day in the spring and summer of 2007, knocking on doors across Kettering—particularly around the Ise Lodge estate—and asking people to sign a petition. The petition, which I presented to the House in July 2007, asked that any new housing developments in the Kettering area should be sustainable and that the necessary additional infrastructure should be in place to support such housing provision. The petition was signed by almost 5,500 local people. On their own, Mr. and Mrs. Brunige have done more consultation with local residents than the Department for Communities and Local Government.
I want to use the second half of my speech to concentrate on a recent planning application for 215 houses, which demonstrates that, as far as the local authority is concerned, the Government simply are not being fair when it comes to the development of housing plans for Kettering borough. The big weakness in the Government’s plans is that they have not tested local opinion, which is hostile to the proposed developments. Kettering borough council is doing its best in the face of a central Government diktat to make provision for the extra 13,100 houses. At the Government’s behest, it is drawing up a local development framework to identify the sites where those houses will be built.
The background to the issue is that Kettering borough council’s local development plan was in place in 1995 and ran through to 2005. The council was just about to update and renew it when the Government came along and said, “No, you can’t do that. We’re going to change the system. You’re now part of this growth area. We want you to produce a local development framework to make provision for 13,100 extra houses.” Ever since, the council has been working extremely hard to identify sites where the new houses could go.
That is not, however, preventing developers from coming forward. Kettering borough council is doing what the Government told it to do and identifying what we hope are sustainable sites for new houses. However, developers are also picking sites and putting in planning applications, and Kettering borough council is turning around and saying, “Just hang on a minute. We’re doing what the Government instructed us to do. We’re trying to identify where sustainable communities could best be placed.” One such application—for a site with 215 houses in Cranford road, Burton Latimer—was submitted by developers called Deejak Properties Ltd. The application went in in 2006, and Kettering borough council worked closely with the applicants to see whether the site identified by them would be suitable for development, but it came to the conclusion that it would not. The developers appealed to the Secretary of State against the non-determination of the planning application by the council. To cut a long and very interesting story short, the developers won the appeal and the application has been given permission to proceed.
The point is that the area identified in the application—Cranford road in Burton Latimer—was in an area that had been designated as open space in the 1995 Kettering borough plan, but which had not been identified in the local development framework that the Government had insisted that the council draw up. Burton Latimer town council was unanimously against the application, largely on the grounds of surface water run-off, inadequate sewerage systems and the development’s proposed location close to the Church street conservation area in Burton Latimer, which is very much at the heart of the village. There were also worries about the impact of traffic on the village’s historic heart.
The Burton Latimer action group was established and included some very hard-working local residents, such as Tom Kelly, Harry Fry and Jan Smith. Numerous letters of objection to the application were sent in. The whole of Burton Latimer was opposed to the application and Kettering borough council recognised the concerns. The site was not one of those identified in the emerging local development framework. Agreement could not be reached with the developers, who appealed and won their case.
My point to the Minister is that if the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government really believes in involving local people in decisions, she should let local people have a say on important matters that affect their towns and villages. The appeal was granted because the Government inspector said that the number of houses set to be built in Kettering in the next five years was not enough. She relied on paragraphs 69 to 71 of planning policy statement 3 in saying that Kettering needed to build more houses in the next five years, and that the application should therefore be granted. The problem with that is that it completely undermines the sustainable communities project. On the one hand the Government are telling borough councils such as Kettering: “Go and identify suitable sites that will be sustainable; we will have a look at your plan, and we might amend it, but basically it will be the master plan for the development of your local area”; but at the same time, under PPS3, they are allowing developers to put forward plans for unsuitable sites, and effectively granting them permission, because they say that the rolling five-year housing targets are not being met. Yet in north Northamptonshire more houses are being built than in the Thames Gateway or Milton Keynes, so the ability of local authorities to try to create the sustainable communities that the Government want is being undermined.
Tom Kelly was one of the Burton Latimer residents who worked hardest on behalf of the action group, and I want to quote from his closing statement to the inquiry about the application:
“This brings me to the last point I want to make to the Inquiry, and it concerns the Secretary of State and the housing minister. If we are to take seriously their stated intentions that they would like local people to have a greater involvement in planning matters, not deciding how many but where houses should be built, we feel there must surely be some mechanism by which this can happen. Just wishing will not make it so. We have seen in this inquiry that virtually all comments made by local residents are considered not to be compelling enough to have any weight when it comes to decision making about applications if they cannot in some way be related to one or other planning policy statement...We can understand that in situations where there is a real shortfall in housing delivery the feelings of locals may well have to be set aside in the interests of targets, but in a situation like Burton Latimer where there is no shortfall and no shortage of potential sites, these should be the ideal conditions for allowing local people to have some influence on the choice.”
The Burton Latimer case is one in which local residents are saying they do not mind having lots of new houses built in their town. Between 700 and 900 new houses are meant to be built there, and residents do not object. The borough council has identified 17 potential sites where developers could build—100 houses here, 200 there. However, the Government inspector is saying, “We are not going to wait for the local development framework to be finalised”—something that is only a few months away—“but are going to allow a speculative application to go through, on a site that is not among the 17 identified sites, in the interest of getting as many houses on the ground as we can, as fast as possible.”
It is even more worrying when such decisions come up against the infrastructure deficit that the relevant developments lead to. Many concerns have been expressed by Anglian Water about the inadequacy of the local sewerage system. Everyone knows in Burton Latimer and Kettering that local roads are full. The Government have effectively created a first-past-the-post system in which developers can make speculative planning applications and planning inspectors will nod them through on the basis that we must build as many houses as possible in the shortest period of time. People in Kettering are worried that that will be a green light for other speculative developments.
What I am saying is a warning to the Minister that the sustainability of his sustainable communities plan is being undermined by his own inspectors. It is simply not fair to impose housing targets on communities such as the borough of Kettering without asking local people if they agree with them. But if such housing targets are imposed on councils, for goodness sake allow them the time and space to make sure that the communities really can be sustainable.
Before I conclude, I want to highlight the role of the Planning Aid service in providing advice and guidance to residents who are worried about planning applications. I welcome the Government’s recent grant of extra funding to the service, and hope that, when the Government advance their flawed eco-towns programme, they will ensure that as many residents as possible are advised of the help and support that Planning Aid can provide in resisting applications. It is important that there should be an independent source of high-quality, professional advice to local residents, who can all too easily be bamboozled by the complexity of the planning service.
If the Government really believe in the importance of local democracy, and if they believe that the best decisions are those that are taken locally by people who know what they are talking about, will they listen to parish and town councils, and local councillors. If we want sustainable communities to be built properly, sufficient space and time is needed to put the local development plans in place.
I shall act on your kind instructions, Mr. Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on managing to get the debate. I am in a position similar to his, because I represent the fastest-growing area in Scotland. I want to deal with planning applications in particular in relation to the factoring companies that now prevail in many developments in the United Kingdom.
In the past, councils adopted the so-called common land, but that does not happen now. Now companies are involved, such as Greenbelt Group, which is a land management company that is causing major problems to constituents of mine, and throughout the United Kingdom. As hon. Members will be aware, as part of the planning process developers are obliged to provide open spaces around new estates. They must show that long-term arrangements have been put in place to care for those areas. However, a new trend is emerging in which councils, developers and builders—particularly at the planning stage—are awarding companies such as Greenbelt lifelong access to the land. Land is being handed over to those companies, and it is very difficult for my constituents to get rid of them.
Some of the major developers in Britain, such as Bryant Homes, Glendale and Persimmon, are now transferring ownership of open spaces, and the sole responsibility for maintaining them, to companies such as Greenbelt. Greenbelt gets the exclusive right, for all time, to charge home owners whatever it wants, regardless of the service that it provides. That happens at the planning stage. The big problem is that that is set out at about the third to last paragraph in the title deeds of someone’s house, and it is not being pointed out by lawyers or local authorities.
Regardless of the inadequate service that the companies provide, it is very difficult to get rid of them. For example, Greenbelt consistently failed to carry out maintenance work to the standards specified in the title deeds. It is an extremely difficult company to deal with, to the extent that it reported me to Mr. Speaker last year for raising it in this place. There are many problems with health and safety issues and its duty to maintain play parks, which it does not do, with the result that many children have been injured. If people do not pay Greenbelt because they are receiving inadequate service, it quickly takes them to court. Because they are living on credit, they receive letters telling them that they will be blacklisted or taken to court.
Developers also charge for a variety of services, as I have heard in a case involving a company called Ross and Liddell. When a car was abandoned on a new estate, Ross and Liddell phoned the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to find out about it. The cost of that telephone—
Order. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Gentleman resume his seat? This is a debate about consultation on large-scale housing developments. I am not sure that talking about an abandoned car or individual cases is in order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep his remarks in line with the subject of the debate.
A crucial part of the planning process is which factoring company is involved. I am just pointing out the behaviour of some companies. Home owners become tied to them for life as a result of the planning process and cannot get rid of them. I am just giving examples of how bad service is. When one company found an abandoned car, it cost £2.50 to phone the DVLA, but the company charged all the house owners—
Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. This debate is not about the whole planning process; it is about a specific part of the planning process, namely local consultation on large-scale housing developments. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep in order.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), who was making a powerful point relating to large-scale developments. It is something that I was not aware of, and I am glad that he has brought it to the House’s attention. I congratulate my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing yet another debate important to north Northamptonshire, and on explaining so eloquently in half an hour the problem that we face. I welcome the Minister, who is highly respected and is known to be a caring Minister.
One of the problems with consultation is that it is just not being done in north Northamptonshire—at least, not by the Government. I run a tracking survey called “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden”, which goes out continuously to different parts of the constituency so that we can gauge public opinion in snapshots, as well as tracking changes in opinion over time. Two years ago, overdevelopment was not an issue. It is now among the top three. There are eight different protest groups protesting against individual developments that will form part of the 52,000 new homes that must be built in Wellingborough. What those groups object to individually refers in total to a lack of infrastructure.
In one development, 1,000 homes are to be built on a brownfield site. Most people would say, “Well, that’s a great idea. Let’s build the homes on a brownfield site. It won’t take up any green belt, as it’s an urban area.” The problem is that no infrastructure increase will accompany that development. The road leading to it is already far too busy. There are some airy-fairy plans to build a relief road some time in the future, but there are no concrete plans—pardon the pun. What we want is concrete first. We want new roads. I understand entirely where the Government are coming from. They recognise that there is a housing problem, and their solution is to get large areas and to tell the rotten Tory councils to get off their backsides and build some homes. I understand that the Government want the homes, but they are forgetting about the infrastructure.
In Wellingborough, we have an extraordinary situation. The last time that the Labour party controlled the county council, it knocked down the secondary school. We have lost our secondary school, we do not have a hospital, we lost six post offices during the first round of closures and we have just lost another five. The A45 is a huge problem at the moment, especially the interchanges in my constituency. The Chowns Mill roundabout is always clogged up, but there is nothing in the regional programme—even in the 15-year programme—to say that anything will be done about it. The council, the county council and the Highways Agency all say that it needs to be improved. Thousands of homes are coming, but it seems that local people are not being consulted and cannot influence decisions in any way. It is causing real hardship in many parts of my constituency. Schools are overcrowded, people cannot get a GP and it is impossible to find an NHS dentist. People are saying to me, “If local councillors can’t decide this, what is the point of voting in local elections? What is the point of supporting political parties if decisions are dictated from Whitehall?”
The biggest problem at the moment is the Redwell north development. Wellingborough is a well-established market town, Rushden is a town in itself and there are a lot of villages between them on the way to Kettering—Little Harrowden, Great Harrowden and Isham—with clear countryside in between. The local plan agreed by the political parties in Wellingborough says that that is open space and not for housing, but a developer has taken options on all the land around that area. If that developer puts in a planning application and the councillors are bold enough to turn it down, they know that it will be overturned on appeal. That is destroying local democracy.
Last Friday I met the chief executive of Wellingborough council, who is concerned about the development process. She is concerned that Wellingborough’s rail services have been cut, as have Kettering’s, and she asked me to arrange a meeting with East Midlands Trains. I have spoken with Wellingborough Homes, which is responsible for the development of social housing and has concerns. The leader of Wellingborough council, not knowing about this debate, rang me to request a meeting to discuss development policies.
This argument may be regarded in some quarters as academic. The Government have decided. They will push through the homes, and tough luck to the people of Wellingborough. That is wrong and unfair, and there should be proper consultation, but my point is that it is more serious than that. Two or three weeks ago, we held a local council by-election in Redwell. The Conservatives won by a country mile. That is nothing new; we always win by a country mile. The problem was which party finished second. It was not the traditional party—Labour, which ruled Wellingborough and controlled the council for a considerable number of years—but the British National party. It was the first time that the BNP had stood in Wellingborough, and it scored more than 15 per cent. of the votes, pushing Labour into third place.
The BNP did not come into the area screaming racist chants; it put a reasoned case about the overdevelopment and concentrated on that. People said, “It’s no good voting Labour or Tory. They’re not listening. They’re not going to do anything about it. They’ve been in power all this time, and all these houses are coming.” That is what I want to convey to the Minister. If proper consultation is not held and the views of local people are not taken into account, extreme parties will come in, which is something that I do not think any of us want.
In the dying days of any Government, Ministers think that they need to introduce initiatives to keep the media at bay. Before the right hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) trucked off to the Treasury to explain how the Government are raiding money from one group of poor people to fund another, she came up with what she thought was a whizz-bang idea for eco-towns. She thought that eco-towns had everything—they were green and gave the impression that the Government were building more affordable housing on brownfield sites.
The difficulty is that eco-town programmes have absolutely no public participation. I have with me the 2008-11 regional housing strategy for the south-east in which there is absolutely no mention of any eco-town. That strategy was developed by the Government office for the south-east, the Housing Corporation, South East England Development Agency, English Partnerships and every local authority in the south-east. How in God’s name is anyone meant to plan anything and involve local people in a bottom-up planning system, if suddenly the Government come along and say, “Hey guys, we’re going to impose on you a number of so-called eco-towns”?
Eco-towns are just that—towns. The one proposed in my constituency, Weston Otmoor, will be larger than Bicester, which is already one of the fastest growing towns in the UK. If it is built, the Weston Otmoor eco-town will be home to 25,000 people, growing eventually to 35,000, with 10 schools—two secondary and eight primary—and 15,500 properties. Apart from the fact that such a development might well undermine the vitality and viability of a town such as Bicester, it seems bizarre that it is to be imposed by Ministers with no local consultation or involvement. Effectively, developers bought options on land, produced pretty maps and said to the Department for Communities and Local Government, “Give us a run on this.”
In fact, the only brownfield land on that site consists of a former RAF airstrip still used for adventure training and parachute jumps by the RAF. The developers have not even secured it, and some 25 per cent. of the site is green-belt land. It straddles a main road, over which developers have proposed to build something like the Ponte Vecchio—they say—with shops that will go over the A34. It is absolutely crazy that the Government are threatening to develop a whole new town largely on green-belt land, and on very little brownfield land, undermining the viability of one of the fastest growing towns in the UK—Bicester. Unsurprisingly, organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the local naturalist trust are aghast. The CPRE estimates that the development, if it goes ahead, will lead to at least 7,500 extra car movements a day on the A34 and M40.
I can never persuade Ministers to visit my constituency, which I really do not understand—it must have something to do with my aftershave. However, I would welcome a visit from the Minister to the site of the proposed eco-town. He would observe the congested A34 where it meets the slow-moving M40, and its nearest junctions—9 and 10—which are already a nightmare, as a result of traffic from the south coast and Southampton travelling towards Oxford. It takes a dogleg down the M40 and up towards Northampton. Those two junctions are congested, and begging meetings with Transport Ministers have been held to discuss proposals to enhance them. The idea of putting a whole new town in the midst of that traffic congestion defies belief.
The Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust is tearing its hair out in despair, because it is concerned that
“the scheme would result in the loss of one of its most important nationally-designated wildlife sites, threatening an ancient woodland site, a nature reserve and numerous protected and priority species.
For the proposed site includes Woodsides Meadow Nature Reserve, and other meadows owned and managed by BBOWT. The grassland habitats found at this site are extremely rare, supporting important species including orchids, snipe and curlew.”
The BBOWT said:
“We just don’t understand how development that would result in damage to a nationally important, protected habitat can be called an ‘eco-town’.
It makes a mockery of the term ‘sustainable’ development.”
It takes some skill to propose a massive new site on primarily greenfield land and sites of special scientific interest with the only brownfield land being a grass-covered runway, used by the RAF for parachute drops, that the developers have not even secured.
The involvement of local people in the proposal is absolutely zero, but that is the world in which we live. I hope that, in the dying days of this Government, Ministers will stop thinking up ideas and concentrate on sorting out the mess of last year’s Budget and the 10p rate, and back away from ideas about imposing 42 day’s detention on us. Successive Governments have developed a planning system that is not perfect, but which is at least plan-led and under which local people have the opportunity to make contributions at different stages, leading to local development plans and regional spatial strategies. In these eco-town proposals, Ministers are threatening to overthrow, undermine and destroy all of that. Why on earth should any local authority or councillor make any contribution to the development of things such as the regional spatial strategy when Ministers who just want a headline dream up eco-towns?
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) who made a passionate speech on behalf of his constituents. As ever, I am sure that he will be proved right. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on raising this incredibly important debate, which affects our broad region a great deal. It is the key issue on which I have been campaigning for the past few years.
For us at least, the situation began in 2004 when the then Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), announced that the Government intended to expand Milton Keynes over the following few years by some 70,000 houses—up to 370,000 by 2031. Ever since, I have campaigned for “I before E”—infrastructure before expansion, which I am sure that the Minister will assure me will come to Milton Keynes. We had a consultation of sorts in Milton Keynes, between July and September 2006, but just 1,600 replies were received. Ubiqus, which produced a report on the consultation, said:
“Most general comments on the consultation were from respondents who questioned whether their input would make any difference, and criticised the involvement of the unelected Milton Keynes Partnership. Others said that people who lived in MK and not ‘so-called experts’ should determine growth.”
In the short time available to me, I want to make some quick points. If the Minister takes nothing else away from this debate, he must understand that the Opposition wants a bottom-up approach, not a top-down one. Certainly in Milton Keynes, in 2004, there was a belief that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East was rather like a world war one general with a very small map and big hands saying, “I want houses there, there and there”, without any genuine feeling about the impact on local communities. That is further demonstrated by the fact that English Partnerships, which is charged with delivering those houses, and Milton Keynes Partnerships, our local delivery agent, have become the planning authority for the eastern and western flanks. While Milton Keynes council maintains control of central Milton Keynes, the planning authority for the new expansion areas in the east and west of the city is an unelected, unaccountable quango that is responsible only to central Government, and not to the local people. Does the Minister understand why people feel so strongly about the decision being taken out of their hands and imposed from above?
The density in Milton Keynes is increasing rapidly. New developments such as Oakgrove are far denser than previous developments in the city. When it was first developed some 40 years ago, Milton Keynes was flagged up as great city to which to move because it had vast areas of open space. Housing density was not high. People were encouraged to move out of London and into Milton Keynes. However, that is changing as housing densities continue to increase. People feel very strongly that their city motto of “By knowledge, design and understanding” will be lost, because they are no longer in charge of their destiny. Central Government are dictating how local people should lead their lives.
I want to return briefly to “I before E”, or infrastructure before expansion. I am sure that when the Minister replies, he will assure us that all the infrastructure that we need will be delivered. However, I want to give two examples to show how we are failing. This year, we have a £65 million deficit in the basic needs allocation for our new schools. To match new housing levels, we have to build or extend 12 new primary or secondary schools. However, the deficit means that we may not be able to build many of those new schools, so can the Minister suggest where all the children from the new housing will go to school? We have put in an application for the safety valve mechanism to get some of the money back, and we should have heard three weeks ago whether or not we would get some £15 million back. Surprise, surprise, it appears that the decision, or the announcement of this money, will be delayed until after 1 May. I have no idea why that should be—perhaps the Minister can enlighten me. He will be aware that in Milton Keynes, we pay the Milton Keynes tariff, which is known locally as the roof tax. Some £18,500 for each property will be delivered—not directly, but indirectly—back to the community to build infrastructure, but I must tell the Minister that that represents only 10 or 15 per cent. of what we need.
When I spoke to John Lewis, the new chief executive of the Milton Keynes Partnership, he told me that 50 per cent of his budget for infrastructure is a direct grant from central Government and that 50 per cent. comes from the Milton Keynes tariff. The problem is that because of the economic downturn, we are not building the expected number of houses. There has not been a major land deal in the area for more than seven months. When it comes to infrastructure, the one thing that is probably saving us is the fact that we are failing to deliver the quantity of houses that the Government want. We have therefore had to reduce our projected income from the Milton Keynes tariff, because we are not building the houses and will not receive any money. That 50 per cent. of budget that John Lewis expected to use to build new multi-storey car parks around the city has had to be downsized, and all the projects are being moved to the right. Although the Minister promised us that infrastructure would be delivered, that will not happen because of the failure to deliver the money from the Milton Keynes tariff as a result of the economic downturn.
I have one final question for the Minister. Given that his Government have constantly promised the people of Milton Keynes that the infrastructure will be in place before the houses are built, and given that it is clear that the money will not be delivered to the extent that he was hoping from the Milton Keynes tariff, how exactly will he replace that money to ensure that we secure the infrastructure that he promised?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this important debate. It has given us the opportunity to hear about a number of local circumstances. In particular, we can look at the underlying trends and problems that are faced by hon. Members in their constituencies and, of course, by the people who are living in the areas that are directly affected by housing development.
The hon. Gentleman has been consistent in raising such issues over a great period of time. In preparation for today’s debate, I have looked at some of his parliamentary questions. It is clear that this is a matter of great concern to him. Whenever an issue impacts on an hon. Member’s postbag in such a big way, it is quite easy to see how it can dictate their workload.
The hon. Gentleman set out the impact of large-scale housing developments, and such developments are huge in his part of the country. At the risk of testing your patience, Mr. Chope, some of the issues that he talked about are also reflected in some of the smaller developments around the country. The great strength of the planning system should be about genuine involvement and consultation. When people share in the future vision for their community, we can achieve social cohesion. We can raise the aspirations of local people and encourage them to participate in their community in all sorts of ways. They can feel confident that their voice matters and that their opinions count. They can also see that development is not always a bad thing.
New housing can offer opportunities for other family members who may have been struggling to find places in which to live. It can offer a good message about inward investment; companies might want to come to the area to invest and to contribute. As regards infrastructure, there are projects that may have been on a wish list for a local area for many years, and if development is carried out successfully and in a way that is in accordance with the wishes of local people, it presents an opportunity to deliver some long-cherished aspirations for infrastructure.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the concept of a referendum in areas in which large-scale housing developments are being proposed, and I am referring to the creation of whole new towns and communities. That is an interesting point. The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who is no longer in his place, was right to point out the potential problems with that. It enfranchises the people who are already in a more fortunate position, and potentially disfranchises those who are not able to participate in that debate.
Surely on the argument about the referendum, it would be up to the Government, or whoever is proposing the houses, to put the infrastructure plans on the table to encourage people to vote for the proposal. I may have a lot more houses in Wellingborough if I knew that I was going to get the district hospital that we so richly deserve. It is not just one-sided, is it?
The hon. Gentleman is right. This measure could prove to be a useful tool in the hands of the local community to exert pressure on those who have it within their gift or their power to influence those questions. The other problem is the simplistic nature of the “yes or no” vote. I will expand on that point as other hon. Members have done. Consultation and involvement of the local community is crucial. I am cautious about the concept of a yes/no option as opposed to more open-ended questions about the future of a local community. However, I share common ground with the hon. Members for Kettering and for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on the issue of a bottom-up approach. I have referred to that in many debates. I have benefited from seeing the parish plan process in my constituency, which is planning at a very local level. That then feeds into the local development framework process. Some councils do that very well and are very good at involving their local community. It is about raising aspirations and saying that development can be beneficial if done sensitively, correctly and with a view to achieving a sustainable community for the future. Development can deliver housing for people who move to an area and those in the area who are in need of housing, as well as helping to meet the hopes and wishes of people already in the community.
The process that we are in the middle of has involved raising people’s hopes and telling them that their voice matters and that their opinions will be taken account of, but, as hon. Members have outlined, something external has then been imposed on that process. There are several problems with that, such as the issue that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) referred to regarding the local by-election and the parties with different agendas that might try to exploit the situation. It is possible that people will reject the political system out of hand and not bother to vote; they may not want to participate in society by trying to put their views across because they become cynical about doing so. All that means that the planning process as a whole gets a bad name and planning becomes a dirty word. If planning becomes a byword for developers doing what they want, people will not see such processes as an opportunity to move forward and to deliver things for their communities.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) raised the issue of eco-towns, of which there might be one in my region of Cornwall. The announcement about eco-towns, when the term was first shared with us, might, as he said, have been made to distract attention from other things that were going on. There is a nice ring to the name, and a utopian vision of what an eco-town might be. I do not say that that vision cannot be delivered, but if it is to be achieved, it has to be genuinely sustainable. Eco-towns should have the very high standards that the Government are, I hope, advocating. Those standards must not be watered down when the towns are built. They must also be sustainable in terms of the impact that they have on existing communities in their areas. I remain to be convinced that that will be the case, and I think that all hon. Members will watch the process closely to see how it develops. So far, it has been sketchy on consultation and involving local communities. I am sure that that will lead to a backlash that washes over any benefits that might arise.
The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes talked about his “I before E” campaign. That is a useful catchphrase, and I am sure that other hon. Members who are campaigning on similar issues will have taken note, and that it might appear elsewhere around the country. I am keen that the issue of infrastructure is tackled. Clearly, the Government are attempting to do that through proposals such as the community infrastructure levy; we shall see what emerges in that regard as the Planning Bill continues its progress through Parliament and the other place. The consultation on that is ongoing. It is a good idea, but there are concerns that people are not yet sure what it will mean, how it will work or how it will interact with section 106.
We are dealing with big questions about the future of communities around the country, who will be watching closely to see how the Government respond to the problems and issues that they are raising. With that in mind, I shall bring my remarks to a close, so that the Minister has the maximum time to respond to the queries that have been raised.
Finally, I reiterate that we could have a planning process that delivers the affordable housing and market housing that this country needs in a way that takes local communities with developers. The result should be a strengthening of the hand of local communities and not of developers. With the way that Government policy is going, all the signs so far do not reinforce the idea that that will be the result.
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate on this timely and vital issue. He has raised this and related issues on several occasions, and I pay tribute to his diligence and dedication as a constituency Member of Parliament, not least in his capacity as a borough councillor in Kettering. I pay tribute also to all my hon. Friends who have spoken for the eloquent way in which they have put their cases.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering has previously raised several related issues, including housing development in December last year, transport infrastructure in July 2006 and overdevelopment in October 2005. He is, if nothing else, extremely consistent on this matter.
Since 1998, the Labour Government have paid lip service to having proper consultation on large-scale housing developments. As has been made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), they originally rejected the simplistic predict-and-provide approach, but the reality is that local people, elected councillors and local planning authorities have continued to be overruled by planning inspectors and the Secretary of State. We have heard that 13,100 new dwellings are being forced on the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering over the next 13 years, and that there will be 52,000 new homes across the four districts and boroughs of north Northamptonshire in the same period. Those plans arise from the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area plan that dates from 2003.
[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]
Looking back to 2003-04, the Campaign to Protect Rural England was already commenting in that period about the efficacy of the consultation process. It said that formal scrutiny of the plan was limited and that consultation was severely lacking. Even before the public examination ended, in 2004, the Government had announced that a committee with planning powers that were separate to those of the local planning authority would be set up to deliver growth in Milton Keynes. They had also moved to establish an urban regeneration company to take planning powers from local authorities in west Northamptonshire and begun recruiting board members. They had also already established an inter-regional board, chaired by Lord Rooker, whose declared main function was “to support growth”, and the board had already met before the consultation process had ended. It is a key issue that the Government have gone ahead with the plans without properly soliciting the views of local people.
As a result of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, the top-down culture of centralised housing and density targets has been entrenched and formalised. Sections 9 and 10 of the Act allow the Secretary of State to direct that changes be made to the regional spatial strategy, notwithstanding significant consultation that has already taken place locally. County plans have been abolished and local plans under section 21 of the Act are subject to the direct control of the Secretary of State. Furthermore, since July 2007, and the publication of the “Review of sub-national economic development and regeneration”, regional assemblies—which at least had a vestige of legitimacy, although they are an imperfect form of democracy—are to be abolished and regional development agencies are to take over as the regional planning bodies, with no local democratic accountability. The consultation document that was published last month contains little, if any, detail about regional spatial planning.
Local councillors, residents and other key stakeholders know that consultation is a sham in Brown’s Britain. How can it be otherwise? Even parking spaces are heavily prescribed by Whitehall under planning policy guidance note 14. Let me provide an example of the ludicrous and prescriptive nature of housing targets, and I shall restrict my comments to north Northamptonshire. Despite the area being forced to accommodate an enormous number of new dwellings, it is only now, in 2008, that the north Northamptonshire strategic housing land availability study—that is quite a mouthful—is pushing ahead with identifying 40 key sites for development in the area, but without considering the problem of the A43 link road, south-east of Corby and north-west of Kettering.
In a written answer to a parliamentary question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering on 29 November last year, the Minister failed to give any reassurances that the capacity of the vital A14 trunk road had been considered when allocating huge housing targets in north Northamptonshire. That is despite several promises from the Department and a visit from the former Transport Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman).
Let me focus on planning policy statement 12 in relation to consultation. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has made a very important point and it bears repetition:
“The lack of encouragement to local authorities who wish to draw up development control policies is of serious concern and could undermine the ability of local planning authorities to effectively manage development, particularly in areas where development pressures and environmental challenges are greatest.”
It is no wonder that civic leaders and other key people in Northamptonshire feel marginalised and excluded by the Government’s relentless drive for inappropriate and damaging house building targets. I quote Councillor James Hakewill, leader of Kettering borough council, who said last year:
“Development in the county should not just be a homes-led agenda to relieve pressures in the south-east, but a genuine infrastructure approach which could deliver benefits to our existing residents, businesses and visitors.”
I would like to go back to the point that the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) made about an “asymmetric” consultation. What he fails to recognise is that, at the end of a process, the commensurate result is that, without proper infrastructure, the quality of life is reduced for all people, both existing residents and residents who are new to a particular area.
Top-down targets are creating unsustainable and unsuitable developments. I refer to the sage words of the Minister, when he spoke in a Westminster Hall debate before Christmas and said:
“My big fear is that in 20 years we shall have built homes that people do not want to live in, and will be putting more public money into them. They will not be sustainable and we shall have to think of regeneration areas for homes built between 2010 and 2015. That will not be good enough. The people of this country deserve better”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 18 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 210WH.]
I could not have put it better myself, after 11 years of a Labour Government.
A Conservative Government will empower local communities to build more homes by incentivising local communities. We will engage local residents more fully and restore authority and autonomy to local planning authorities, elected by local voters. People want to be consulted on the number of homes in their communities, not on the colour of the paint on the lamp posts. We do not want lip service and a Conservative Government will deliver proper consultation. We will scrap flawed density targets, which force the construction of flats and apartments at the expense of family homes. While I am at it, I will point out that the whole population and housing targets are flawed; the Barker report is flawed, and the statistics driven by the Office for National Statistics on population are completely flawed and inaccurate. The Conservatives will revisit those social and demographic data, which have driven the push for unpopular and centralised housing targets.
This Government have failed, even by their own limited terms, to honour their pledges on house building, and the answer is not even bigger and bolder targets. It is time to scrap those central targets and the predict-and-provide policy, and give power back to people and communities in Northamptonshire and across our country.
May I just say, Mr. Wilshire, what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship? I, too, would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this important debate. Like the debate that he secured in December on infrastructure, it has been incredibly well attended, particularly by Opposition Members.
I think that everybody in the country and certainly all hon. Members recognise that housing is a key priority for the Government. We simply have not built enough homes for something like 35 years. Pressures and imbalances between the supply and demand for housing resulting from increased longevity and changes in the way we live, including our increasing tendency to live on our own, perhaps as a result of marital break-up or other factors, mean that we need to build more homes to address that imbalance. That is why in our housing Green Paper of last year—“Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable”—we made it clear that we must go further to meet the housing needs and aspirations of this and future generations.
I am afraid that I am quite greedy on this issue and I do not want to have an either/or situation. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) referred to my remarks in a previous debate, and that was the point that I was making then. I think that the construction of poor-quality housing would mean that we would have to look at this issue again, with the additional investment of public money, in 20 or 30 years’ time. One of the things that I am particularly keen on doing is promoting the importance of good design and planning. We really need to raise our game in terms of the design of houses in this country.
Going off on a tangent somewhat, if you will allow me, Mr. Wilshire, I would also suggest that, under planning policy statement 3, local authorities have the ability to reject housing applications on the grounds of poor design and quality, and I think that perhaps they should do so a lot more. I want to see more homes built in this country to address the needs of our country, but I also want them to be incredibly well built and well maintained, because therein lies the importance of sustainability. I would like the first decade of the 21st century to be recognised as a great era for architecture and good design, so that we have sustainability in the long term with regards to housing.
The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) took me off on a tangent, so let me return to my main topic, which is housing need. We need something like 240,000 additional homes a year to address the imbalance between demand and supply and the resulting affordability pressures, to which I referred earlier. The Green Paper sets out proposals to deliver a total of 2 million new homes by 2016 and a total of 3 million new homes by 2020. I want to stress the central theme of my contribution today and make it clear from the outset that, as a Government, we do not want to impose housing on anyone. I do not think that such an imposition would be in anybody’s interest. With the greatest of respect to the quality of the debate today, I would like to refer to what I thought was the most important intervention today, by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes. I am paraphrasing somewhat, but he said that sustainability is dependent on “buy-in” from the local people. I could not agree more; I absolutely agree with that. It is incredibly important that to have housing development with a full buy-in from local people. If we do not have that, any development is unsustainable. The views of the local community are incredibly important and they need to be a key part of the whole planning process.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he does so with his usual courtesy. In the light of the comments that he has just made, can he give me an undertaking that, if Oxford county council, Cherwell district council and the local community all come down against the proposed “eco-town” of Weston Otmoor, it will not go ahead?
In his contribution to the debate, the hon. Gentleman made an important point about eco-towns. He was trying to hint strongly—passionately, if I may say so—that we have somehow dictated that eco-towns would be built without any public consultation and without any due regard for the planning framework and process at all. If he will allow me, I come on to discuss how eco-towns fit into the whole planning process, because it is a very important issue.
If I may return to what I was saying before the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, each authority must publish a statement of community involvement, or SCI, setting out how and when they intend to consult local communities. I understand that the north Northamptonshire joint planning unit area SCI encourages applicants for significant applications—generally speaking, developments of 100 or more dwellings, or developments of more than three hectares for residential development—to try to resolve issues prior to the submission of the application. The SCI also encourages applicants to submit a so-called “statement of engagement” covering their pre-submission community engagement and the way in which their proposals have changed as a result of that public consultation.
I also understand that public examination of the core strategy for the north Northamptonshire area recently ended, which is something that the hon. Member for Kettering mentioned. I hope that he shares my sense of encouragement at this major step forward in joint working: I speak as the proud chair of the Milton Keynes-south midlands inter-regional group, which is an impressive collaboration between four district councils and a county council that aims to rise to the challenge of housing growth that we need to address. I understand that the inspector’s report is due within the next few weeks.
I thank the Minister for his typically amiable and courteous decision to give way. Will he consider answering the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), who said that developers are using the existing planning system to circumvent Government policy, disregarding the consultation policy that has been set down by land-banking and using the system of appeals to win approval for planning applications that may not be in the long-term interests of the local area?
I am a passionate supporter of the plan-led approach, because I think that any sporadic introduction of development is in nobody’s interest. I understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Peterborough and by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), but a robust local authority, working in conjunction with a local plan, is absolutely essential to ensure that that type of development does not go ahead. I would also say that pre-application discussion is vital to securing good partnerships between developers, local authorities and other key players to ensure that we get the housing growth that we need and also the infrastructure that that housing growth requires.
The Government may hope that that is happening, but the reality of the situation is that it is not. Planning applications are submitted, and councils feel that they are under pressure to approve them because of all the guidance. The odds are that their decisions will be overturned on appeal if they do not approve them. One third of appeals are upheld, and the number is increasing. The Government may hope that that does not happen, but it does.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but I reiterate my earlier point about the importance of a plan-led approach and pre-application discussions to ensure co-operation. I do not want a stand-off between local authorities and developers, as that is not in anyone’s interest. I want a good, mutually beneficial relationship between developers and local authorities. At the same time, local authorities must be robust in saying what is required for their area, including quality of design. It is important to ensure that there is a good—literally, constructive—relationship so that we get the homes and infrastructure that we need.
Pre-application negotiations can be constructive, but, inevitably, the developer and local authority have different objectives. Would the Minister not concede that inflated target numbers strengthen the developer’s hand? In any negotiation, a green light has, in effect, been given to the developer to try to press the local authority to weaken any commitment to provide, for example, a high number of affordable houses or other community benefits as part of the scheme. In fact, the targets give all the cards to the developer, not to the community through its local authority.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s essential premise. We have not given a green light to developers or given them the upper hand. As I said, with PPS3 and other things, local authorities are in the driving seat. Perhaps they need to use such tools a bit more than they do at present. Given that this debate is about public consultation on large-scale housing developments, I certainly think that the local authority has a key role to play.
Before I do so, I just want to say, in respect of the hon. Gentleman’s area and the different pre-application discussions, that the north Northamptonshire statement of community involvement suggests a range of techniques that could be used. They vary according to whether a proposal accords with the development plan, but they could be used in his local area to secure that sort of partnership.
The development on Cranford road, Burton Latimer, which I mentioned earlier, completely undermines the Minister’s case. He may be well intentioned and think that the planning system is working as he intends, but the reality on the ground in places such as Kettering is that it is not. In effect, decisions by Government inspectors undermine the local development framework that the Department set in place.
I still maintain that it is vital that we have a plan-led system that includes public involvement and consultation in its key principles. To reiterate what I said earlier, it is not in anybody’s interest for houses to be plonked somewhere without due regard to the area, the views of local people and the infrastructure on which they will rely. I strongly believe that.
Equally, I believe that we must be mature and sensible about this. I have reiterated time and again in debates such as this that there is an imbalance between housing supply and demand. People need and deserve good homes in an attractive environment. I would ask the hon. Member for Kettering and others, where will people live? Where will our children and grandchildren live? What about the graduate from Kettering who wants to move back to the area in which he or she grew up? How will they secure an affordable house? What about the young mother with children who may not be able to afford a home but needs social housing in Kettering? How will people get on the housing ladder? Those are the challenges that we face.
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, whom I very much respect and for whom I have a great deal of admiration, the idea that we should build only in Scotland and the north is somewhat naive and, I must say, patronising. There is housing pressure in every area of this country, and we need to address that by building more homes.
The point about Burton Latimer is that the local borough council identified 17 potential sites for housing development, some of which would have been in the development framework once completed, but, against all the wishes of Burton Latimer residents, the Government inspector scuttled the council’s plans and allowed the developer to go ahead with a plonked application in a site that nobody wanted.
The hon. Gentleman is aware that I do not comment on individual schemes because of the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial responsibilities, but I hope that we can reach consensus in the House and elsewhere. I understand people’s concerns, but, ultimately, we have to ask where our children, grandchildren, grandmothers and grandfathers will live if we do not address the challenge of building the homes that are needed now, in the 21st century.
The Minister’s argument would carry more weight were he to refer, for instance, to the population statistics and projections but also, if we are talking about the whole country, to the frankly disastrous housing renewal programme. The National Audit Office found that large-scale demolition of perfectly good houses is taking place in the north of England, Yorkshire and the north-west. At the same time, unsuitable development is taking place in the east and south-east of England. That is the wider context, but the Minister seems to be unable to face up to it.
Absolutely not. I would love to have a debate on housing market renewal in the north and the midlands, because that is something for which I have ministerial responsibility. I contend that we need a significant, long-term investment programme, largely to rectify the challenges caused by the Conservatives’ decimation of the economic base in those areas in the 1980s. [Interruption.] This is an important point in this debate, which is about public consultation on large-scale housing developments. Let us stop spreading the myth that most of the buildings in inner cities in the north are being knocked down, as that is not what is happening. The ratio of new build and refurbishment to demolition is in the region of 4:1 in housing market renewal areas. As a result of public consultation, we are refurbishing and building more houses. The idea that someone is dictating from a desk in Whitehall how the centre of Liverpool or Salford should look is simply a myth, and I expect better of the hon. Member for Peterborough than that he should peddle it.
Infrastructure has been mentioned, and we had an interesting debate about the issue in December. As I have said before, housing and infrastructure investment must go hand in hand. The Homes and Communities Agency that will be created under the Housing and Regeneration Bill has as a central focus investment in infrastructure in order to regenerate communities in England, as that is very important. There has been real progress to date in the area represented by the hon. Member for Kettering. North Northamptonshire was awarded the third highest allocation of all growth area locations, with an indicative award of nearly £20 million for the next three years. In addition, there a £200 million community infrastructure fund for growth areas, new growth points and eco-towns over the next three years, and Northamptonshire benefited from more than £21 million in the first round of CIF funding. The deadline for expressions of interest in the community infrastructure fund was yesterday, and bids have been received from Northamptonshire county council for three schemes in Kettering, including the A43 Corby link road dualling, which the hon. Member for Peterborough mentioned in his concluding remarks.
It is wrong to say that we are not thinking about infrastructure. The idea that we need to have housing and infrastructure investment together is exactly the right approach. Also, it is a myth that we do not want public consultation on housing growth: in fact, that is a vital and essential part of the community empowerment plan that we wish to introduce. In the time available to me, I am not able to respond to the point that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made about eco-towns. Needless to say, this is the first stage of the process, and it will be completely part of the planning process. However, I will write to him and respond to the points that he made. In conclusion, this is an important issue. We need to address housing needs and we need public consultation, but the debate must be sensible so that we have the homes that we need and deserve in this country.