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Westminster Hall

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 22 April 2008

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 22 April 2008

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Metals Recycling Industry

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

“As a society, we are consuming natural resources at an unsustainable rate. If every country consumed natural resources at the rate the UK does, we would need three planets to live on…Our aim must be to reduce waste by making products with fewer natural resources. We must break the link between economic growth and waste growth. Most products should be re-used or their materials recycled. Energy should be recovered from other wastes where possible. For a small amount of residual material, landfill will be necessary.”

Those are very wise words. Unfortunately, they are not mine: they are from the opening paragraphs of the 2007 waste strategy, and they are right. The object of a waste strategy, in a world of depleting natural resources and given the urgent need to reduce energy use and carbon emissions, is to prevent waste from arising wherever possible—in other words, we must stop waste materials entering the waste stream. If we cannot do that, the next best thing is to ensure that they can be reused with as little energy expenditure as possible, thereby stopping the entry into the system of virgin materials that might have been produced at great energy cost with the consequence of the further depletion of natural resources.

Much of what we have called “waste” for a very long time is in reality nothing like it: it could, with relatively little processing, reappear in the resource chain as a raw material, ready to be used for whatever is needed. Projects such as the national industrial symbiosis programme, in which companies match what they consider to be their waste with another company’s raw material requirements, have shown just how much value can be added. The Environment Agency has taken considerable steps down the road of recognising the importance of conveying a resource in the wrong place to one in the right place with the development of its waste protocols project.

Through the operation of protocols setting out how materials are to be stewarded and processed, we can prevent many materials from being categorised and treated as waste, and can make the transition from end of use for one purpose to the beginning of use for another purpose, without costly and deleterious processes intervening. Metal is one material that fits that description almost exactly. By recovering and reprocessing ferrous and non-ferrous metals, we can supply pretty much all that we need for remaking metal products, and we can do so over and over again with no real deterioration in the quality of the recovered material. That means that the energy that we use in the process—and hence carbon emissions—is hugely reduced in comparison with that resulting from the use of virgin material. For example, about 75 per cent. less energy is used in making something out of recycled steel than in making the same thing out of virgin materials.

In fact, the metals recycling industry has been doing that successfully for many years—long before anyone thought better of taking away in trucks most so-called waste and dumping it unsorted in big holes in the ground. That is partly because metals have always had value, and so offer advantages as a replacement source material, given the relatively clean and short processes involved in recovering and reusing them. Indeed, metals offcuts from stamping or milling processes require no processing at all.

The age-old image of metal recycling as a dodgy industry full of back-street breakers yards receiving furtive visitors armed with lengths of illicit copper pipe and wire arose because people stole metals in the past. Indeed, recent reports of people cutting up railway side cables at great danger to themselves to steal the copper simply update that long tradition. People have always stolen metals because they are valuable, so stealing and fencing them offers a reward that plastic bottles or composting materials has never provided. However, that old image is just that—an old image. Today, metal recycling is an efficient and, generally speaking, well-rewarded business, with large recycling companies investing substantial sums in reliable and effective stewardship of the collection and recycling process.

In fact, a range of companies—some are very large, many others are smaller family-owned concerns—maintain a high standard of recovery and reuse. Indeed, the metals recycling industry has risen superbly to the challenge of the European Union end-of-life vehicles directive and recycles 2 million cars a year—more than any other EU country. About 95 per cent. of metal recycling is undertaken by companies that belong to the British Metals Recycling Association—an excellent body which, among other things, underlines the professionalism and integrity of the modern metals recycling industry.

That is all good news. Problems remain with some small yards on the periphery of the business evading regulation, and of course there is the continuing problem of stolen metals, not least from regulated yards themselves. Apart from that, should we not just let companies get on with it, and rejoice in their relative success? The continuation of an effective and efficient metals recycling sector is vital to the achievement of waste targets, and increasingly to the effective decoupling of energy use from industrial production, but lurking dangers may prevent it from working as well as it should. To my mind, the chief danger arises from the fact that the metals recycling industry is still classed essentially as a waste industry, despite the overwhelming evidence that, with the right processes, and the existence of responsible companies to operate them—and those companies are responsible—protocols could be established that would class industry as a resource provider, with all that that entails.

There are no protocols, however, and metals do not feature on the list of materials for which the Environment Agency is beavering away to provide protocols. Not even metal shavings and offcuts escape that classification, with all the issues that are then involved—quite rightly for much waste—in the operation of the EU waste framework directive, including handling restrictions, processing precautions and the certification processes that accompany waste on its way to landfill, hazardous waste tips or inert disposal. Hardly any metals go along this route, and yet they are classified as if they do.

That is a continuing problem for the handling of recycled metals, and it causes difficulties, given that one of the unsung achievements of the metals recycling is that it ranks as one of the more important of Britain’s export industries. Recycled metal is not just shipped out and dumped, but goes as a high-quality raw material to markets all over the world. In fact, of the 15 million tonnes of metals recovered each year, some 60 per cent. is exported, most of it to countries outside Europe. Indeed, if that export trade were unsustainable, or no longer possible, the UK would simply have to dump recycled metals in landfill, because every year, we have a surplus of recovered metals over and above that which could be used in the UK’s steel and metal foundries. That material is high quality, partly because that is what the companies purchasing it require, but in UK terms, it is regarded as exported waste.

Stringent EU regulations are in place—again, in general, rightly so—to ensure that waste is not dumped in receiving countries and that the EU does not simply pass on its waste disposal and hazardous waste management problems to countries less able or willing to ask questions about its origin and safety. The European trans-frontier shipment of waste regulations state that waste may be shipped to countries outside the OECD only if the country concerned agrees explicitly to accept it. If a country has not notified the EU of its conditions for acceptance—120 countries have not done so—extensive pre-notification requirements on shipments must be fulfilled and considerable details on the receiving company must be logged. Arguably, a declaration of otherwise commercially-confidential material is required.

It is perhaps not surprising that under such circumstances, British exports of clean metal resources should be rejected in favour of sourcing from other countries in which specified quality recycled metals are not classified as waste. If metal were not so classified and there was an industry onus on quality and, perhaps, export protocol, none of those difficulties would arise. However, we continue to classify metal as a waste, and at the heart of the problem is the fact that the European Court of Justice says that it is a waste. That was confirmed in a case relating to the EU packaging directive, which is widely regarded across Europe as setting an inappropriate precedent, but it will take a new waste framework directive to change matters. The revised EU waste framework directive has now completed its Second Reading in the European Parliament, and it will allow metals to be reclassified, but that will only happen after the small print is finalised. The “comitology” process, in which the Commission decides on the small print, is reasonably swift. On the other hand, co-decision, which is joint action between the Commission and the EU Parliament to decide on the small print, will take far longer—perhaps four years or so. It is important that the UK Government press for the early adoption of the revised waste framework in the first instance.

Would the hon. Gentleman prefer the comitology process to discuss the fine print to be held behind closed doors, where there is no possibility of the involvement of Ministers or MEPs, or would he prefer the matter to be decided by co-decision, so that it is completely transparent and we can see exactly how the details are discussed? He did not say which procedure he preferred.

The hon. Lady intervened just before I reached the sentence in my speaking notes that clarifies what I mean by choice, but she makes an important point. On the one hand, it is important that the small print of directives is clarified in as public a way as possible. On the other hand, in this particular instance, the principles are fairly clear. The changes in the framework directive start to give a clear idea of what recycling is and, more importantly, of when waste is not waste: the point at which waste becomes a renewable resource. I am not sure that a further process of co-decision making on the directive would add a great deal. However, it would take away, over a considerable period of time, the ability of the UK Government, and of the industry, to make the necessary changes to greatly advance the passage of metal from a recyclable form into a new resource. On balance, therefore, I would prefer the directive to be decided by comitology, because the difference in time scale is enormous. The gain arising from the implementation of a new waste framework directive is so considerable that it is worth going down that particular path. However, that is not to take away from the hon. Lady’s point about the need to ensure that the directive is framed in a transparent and coherent way, and should be scrutinised and examined properly.

Having said that, the UK Government could act even more swiftly on the vexed category of waste offcuts. It is as plain as a pikestaff that offcuts are not waste and do not need to be treated as such, as there is no danger to anyone from their not being treated as waste. They can literally just be gathered up and reused roughly in the way that one uses the pastry left from making mince pies to make more mince pies. I make mince pies and am familiar with the process.

In anticipation of the passage of the revised directive, the EU Commission has produced a draft report on an end-of-waste scrap metal case study. I will not say what the communication clearly states because I think that the phrases “clearly states” and “Commission communications” are not always natural bedfellows. Hon. Members will have to take it from me that it suggests that if excess material from a primary production process can be used directly in a further primary production process it can be considered as falling outside the definition of waste and is in effect a by-product. The UK should take up forthwith what is effectively an open invitation safely to reclassify shavings and offcuts in advance of a decision on the new framework, and I hope that the UK Government will be able to do so.

I have mentioned the efficiency of the metals recycling industry in coping with the challenge of the European end-of-life vehicles directive. Hon. Members will recall the time when local authorities scraped burnt-out vehicles from the tarmac of community car parks in which they were dumped. The introduction of the directive and the reception of end-of-life vehicles for comprehensive treatment by metal recycling plants have largely changed that situation. I have visited several large recycling yards and seen just how comprehensive that treatment is. The task is to receive the vehicle and separate it out safely into all its constituent parts; and recycling companies have invested substantially in the technology to do so successfully. Consequently, the UK has been able to reach the current ELV target of 85 per cent. recovery, including 80 per cent. recycling and re-use.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on calling this debate. I know that he has talked about Europe, but one of the problems in this country is ensuring that there are sufficient sites for vehicle capture and recycling. Will he go on to talk about the planning system because the main site in my constituency, which is currently leased, is subject to the continual pressure of not knowing whether it will be able to stay there? If we lose that site, we will have to recycle cars through Gloucester, and that will not be environmentally friendly.

My hon. Friend tempts me to go on at length about the planning system, which I was not intending to do. However, he is absolutely right. If we look at what we, as a country, will need over the next decade to achieve a substantial changeover from the vast majority of waste going into landfill to the vast majority not going into landfill, we will need a variety of resources of so-called MRFs—materials recycling facilities—and of car reception end-recycling facilities. Those facilities either exist at the moment and are under threat, or do not exist and need to be brought about by the effective use of the planning regulations. They will be needed to shift the enormous body of material away from landfill and into other forms of waste processing. The problem is that, in many instances, the planning process will impede the development of those sites rather than enabling them to be achieved on a planned basis.

My hon. Friend tempts me to set this issue into perspective. In the south-east, we need to find and develop effectively one MRF every fortnight between now and 2015. That does not look likely to happen. There is a real issue over the whole question of planning and the siting of such facilities and an underlying issue of waste. It is up to the politicians, among other people, to emphasise that if we drive our car into a part-exchange garage and get a new car, it is not the end of our car. It is the same as putting our waste outside our front door and expecting someone to deal with it regardless of the consequences. Emphasising that point should be a watchword of domestic waste disposal.

We all have a responsibility to recognise that our communities should be involved in the processing and recycling of waste. Saying that we want the efficient distribution, collection and disposal of waste, while also saying that we, collectively, are not prepared to provide the necessary sites and arrangements to make that happen is a dereliction of our understanding of the whole process.

Before my hon. Friend tempted me down the planning route, I was talking about the processing and disposal of 2 million vehicles a year. However, the targets are set to move upwards over the next few years to the challenging target of 95 per cent. recovery, with 85 per cent. recycling and reuse, by 2015. The challenge is not so much in finding the vehicles to make the recovery target, but in ensuring that the vehicle components that are to be recycled or reused can be successfully retrieved, separated and put to good use.

Currently, 75 per cent. of a vehicle’s volume is its metal, pretty much all of which can be recycled and reused. The main issues with recycling vehicles are cleaning the metal, separating its ferrous and non-ferrous elements so that they are ready for smelting, and effectively retrieving the remaining components. Separating rubber, plastic, textiles, glass and some wood components to meet the higher targets will require not only additional investment but a substantial role for metal recycling yards beyond dealing with metal in its own right. Some of that additional material is recycled, and that is reflected in the overall figures, but much of it is placed into piles and sent to landfill. There does not exist, it seems, a systematic strategy to cope with that residue.

In the absence of effective post-shredder sorting, there is no real alternative to landfill, except, perhaps, the energy-from-waste route, where metal recycling and other forms of recycling meet. Can provisions for co-firing and the development of a more effective, banded renewables obligation certificate market for energy from waste, in tandem with combined heat and power, start to take up the slack? If it cannot, it is hard to see how the UK can move from its present, impressive international position on vehicle recycling to the level anticipated for 2015. It is important to address this issue early; we should harness different strands of the recycling industry and government with a task force, perhaps similar to the recent biomass task force, to resolve the issues of moving post-shredder non-metal vehicle residues out of landfill and into the recycling system.

One aspect of end-of-life vehicle disposal is of concern, and touches on the underlying theme of metal theft: ELV certificates of destruction. The certificate system is not effective because it allows considerable numbers of vehicles to go missing in the system, and not just literally into hedges. It under-records the vehicles that have been properly disposed of, and therefore under-reports the UK’s performance on vehicle recycling. Having destruction certificates that travel more effectively with the relevant vehicles, so that vehicles do not slip through the system, would be an important part of the drive to meet the higher 2015 targets.

I started by quoting, with approval, some paragraphs from the beginning of the 2007 waste strategy. If one looks at the list of actions at the end of that document—there are 94 of them—one sees that the words in the opening paragraphs are not really reflected in those actions, at least as far as metals are concerned. Indeed, only one action mentions metals, and that is a partial sentence devoted to aluminium. I do not particularly criticise the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for that apparent omission. It is a testimony to the success of the metals recycling industry and its genuine achievement in dealing effectively with metal wastes—rapidly and efficiently turning them into quality raw materials—that the waste strategy largely considers they can be left alone to get on with the job. However, as I have demonstrated today, there are challenges and impediments to continuing that effective job and to achieving even greater, more effective performance.

It is a mistake to assume that metal recycling is the same as generic waste recycling and involves simply dealing with metal. The danger of applying regulation to metal recycling that applies rightly to other waste streams but is inappropriate to metals is that it becomes an impediment to be overcome, rather than a device that shapes our approach to good waste management. Recent discussions about the review of exemptions for metal recycling sites underline this issue. Changes in storage limits, such as the reduction in exempted storage from 50,000 tonnes to 16,000 tonnes, and reductions in inspection seem to reflect general assumptions about waste and not the specific issues of metal recycling, and they may result in a regime of storage and inspections. Those changes might produce additional regulation with no clear environmental benefit, while introducing an inspection regime that encourages the less compliant, smaller fringe sites that can be a problem to fly in the face of the standards that are common among most of the industry.

The metal recycling industry needs a little regulation and a little encouragement to perform outstandingly over the next decade. We will need that kind of performance across the waste industry in the next decade to meet challenging environmental targets and to bring about a rapid reduction in the disposal of waste to landfill. The metals recycling industry can and will play a strong part in that process. I hope that it will receive the necessary support, through legislation, regulation and inspection, to enable it to do so.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Chope. Metal is the most recyclable of materials. High-quality metal can be made from recovered metals and used time and again. In the UK, metal recycling is a well established, £4 billion to £5 billion industry. Recovering 15 million tonnes a year, it is the UK’s biggest recycling industry. As we process far more metal than domestic manufacturers need, we are one of the world’s largest exporters of recovered metals. In short, metal recycling is a UK success story, but I suspect that because the industry tends to be scattered across the country and is not concentrated in individual constituencies, it goes unrecognised.

The industry faces several challenges, and I shall raise five issues of concern—fairly briskly, I hope. First, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) made clear, there is the problem—resulting, rather bizarrely, from a European Court judgment on the EU packaging directive—that recovered metal is classified as waste under European law. That approach means that the industry has been subjected to an increasing burden of waste regulation, which applies even when metal has been fully separated and prepared as secondary raw material. The need for redefinition has become urgent with the introduction of the new 2007 regulations on trans-frontier shipment of waste, because they are creating trade barriers, shipment delays and advantages for non-European competitors. It is somewhat bizarre to provide opportunities for non-EU states. Given the UK’s leading position in export trade, the situation is particularly damaging to UK metal recycling.

The revised EU waste framework directive, which is currently having its Second Reading in the European Parliament, creates an opportunity for long-term change. The directive will enable reconsideration of the point at which certain materials cease to be waste. Reclassification is urgently needed, and the European Commission has carried out a metals case study in anticipation that metals will be one of the first materials to be considered. However, I understand that there are attempts, to do with steel interests in Italy, to make last-minute amendments to the draft waste framework directive. The amendments threaten to introduce new administrative hurdles, and could prevent the “end of waste” outcome. An interesting point for the House to consider is how better to interact with the European Parliament, because our only locus in this issue is for us to lobby or make submissions to the Minister, who has a locus through membership of the Council of Ministers. However, there is no forum in which we get alongside Members of the European Parliament and say to our colleagues there that this issue is of significance to the UK and to UK industry.

Reclassification is urgent. I therefore hope that the Government will seek to impress that upon other members of the Council of Ministers, and will press colleagues at the European Parliament to agree the directive swiftly to ensure that the mechanism for determining the end of waste is comitology. My Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who is a former Member of the European Parliament, will be able to explain lucidly and clearly to the House the distinction between comitology and co-decision. However, the basic fact is that co-decision would simply take several years longer. If comitology can be the mechanism for determining end of waste, it would just be speedier.

Materials deemed to have reached “end of waste” under this procedure are also deemed to be “recycled” for the purpose of meeting the directives for end-of-life vehicles, the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, and the directives relating to packaging and batteries. We also need to ensure that a simple definition of “recycling”, as proposed by the Council of Ministers, is maintained.

Secondly, trade in recovered metals takes place in a well-established global commodity market, which often relies on a chain of brokers and traders between source and reprocessor. Prices may be several thousand pounds per tonne. The value of the material means that there is little doubt that the metal will, at the end of the chain, be melted into equally high-value new metals, using established reprocessing methods. Furthermore, the UK is a world leader in this market.

However, because recycled metals are classified as “waste”, the industry is subject to the European trans-frontier shipment of waste regulations. These regulations were revised in July 2007 to address growing concerns about the dumping of problem wastes, but today we are discussing not such wastes but recycled metals of high value. These waste regulations now require that commercially confidential information be publicly stated and that advance certification be obtained from overseas recipients to confirm that reprocessing will be “broadly equivalent” to EU standards. So material can only be shipped to countries outside the OECD where the Government of the country in question has confirmed that it will accept this “waste”. In addition, Europe has imposed additional pre-notification requirements on shipments to the 120 non-OECD countries that have sent no reply.

Applying these controls to metal shipments provides no additional environmental benefit. The new waste regulations are designed for problem wastes such as complex products where materials are not yet separated, or materials for which there is no clear market. However, recycled metal does not get fly-tipped or dumped. Indeed, high market values mean that theft is by far the greatest risk.

The new waste regulations are therefore wholly inappropriate to recycled metals, but such metals get caught up in them because they are currently classified as “waste”. The metal recycling trade will suffer if these barriers are not lifted. The situation is very straightforward: recovered metals should be reclassified as non-waste, which would remove recycled metals from these regulations entirely, and we should also seek revision to the EC annex VII form in order to remove the requirement to state commercially confidential information about suppliers and customers. Of course, if one is dealing with complex waste, one can see that there is a need to discover where it has come from and where it is going to, so that it does not end up being dumped in a hole in a developing country. However, in the case of metals of high value, all that we are doing in giving our commercial competitors information about the value of the waste, who the customers are and where it is going is giving them a commercial advantage. That is crazy.

Generally, we should ensure a light touch in implementation of the regulations to minimize the costs, delays and administrative burdens that fall on metal recyclers, particularly in relation to obtaining “evidence” of overseas reprocessing.

Thirdly, as with every other matter, regulation should be proportionate. Metal recycling is very different from the waste sector. The UK has been recycling for generations; it sells a valuable product all over the world in an established market, and the industry has a mature structure. However, a one-size-fits-all approach designed for the waste sector means that the average metal recycling company must comply with some 15 different sets of environmental regulations, as well as the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. Each set has its own procedures, costs and paperwork, which obviously amounts to a substantial red tape burden, particularly for small businesses. That degree of regulation is neither proportionate nor risk-based.

I submit that we need a more proportionate approach to regulation that takes into account the needs of the industry as well as the environmental needs. There should be a full review of regulation affecting metal recyclers—involving the industry, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and the regulators—that considers the needs of both industry and the environment. There should be some risk-based training requirements, and sites with waste management licences must demonstrate that their managers are competent. Nearly three quarters of metal recyclers now do so by deemed competence—in other words, by showing proven experience or by completing a simple assessment process.

The environmental permitting programme will introduce new certificates of technical competence for licensed sites, and these certificates must be designed to meet metal recycling needs, not the needs of the waste industry, with adequate time allowed for their introduction. As the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said at the start of this debate, industrial off-cuts need to be recognised as by-products and not as waste. In short, the Government collectively must try to ensure that this industry is not regulated out of competitive existence.

Fourthly, illegal operators must be got rid of. I suspect that one reason why this industry does not have the public recognition that it deserves, given its turnover and value, is that there is still something of the Steptoe image about it—the image of the scrap metal yard. In reality, most scrap metal yards are run very efficiently. They are, of course, subject to statutory controls, they must be licensed by the local authority and there is specific legislation relating to them. However, there are illegal operators out there and they need to be stamped out, because freeloaders operating outside the regulated system threaten to undermine those within the industry who are behaving responsibly. Tackling those freeloaders requires adequate resources to be provided to aid regulators in closing down illegal operators and in imposing appropriate fines. There needs to be a joined-up certificate of destruction system for end-of-life vehicles, so that the vehicle’s last registered owner must obtain a certificate of destruction when it is scrapped. An incentive for, or penalty on, the last owner, together with a robust Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency monitoring system, would make that happen, driving out illegal end-of-life vehicle operators completely.

In addition, there should be a requirement for a waste carriers licence disc to be displayed in trade vehicle windscreens, to ensure that they can be properly identified on sites. There must also be recognition that more regulation in itself will not necessarily solve metal thefts. Legitimate operators are not the problem; it is those who are acting illegally.

Finally, as well as driving out freeloaders, the Government need to get together with the industry to examine how the UK can improve its recycling performance. If the UK is to meet its future recycling targets under the end-of-life vehicles directive and other directives, there needs to be more joined-up thinking involving the recycling industry. That is a challenge, because this issue straddles a number of Government Departments. A recycling taskforce therefore seems sensible—a partnership between Government and the recycling industry to plan for achieving future EU product recovery targets and landfill reduction. That taskforce must take into account all the relevant factors, such as post-shredder technology developments, landfill targets, landfill tax, research and development assistance, and generating industrial energy from waste capacity. What we are talking about here is a raft of new European directives, not just on recycling metals but on developing advanced separation techniques and new solutions for residual wastes.

We need to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of such developments, and that recycling continues to be a success story. That will require everyone working together, but the Government taking a lead. There are issues that we need to consider seriously if the industry is to continue to make a considerable amount of money, to contribute to a positive UK balance of payments, and to export large amounts of recovered metals overseas. There are issues that the Government need to address.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), who introduced the debate. His commitment to the environment and to waste issues is well known. Indeed, he made such a comprehensive contribution at the beginning of the debate that it is difficult to know what to add to it.

Certainly, the way in which this country, the European Union and, indeed, the whole planet deal with waste will be fundamental to the lives of future generations, their access to materials and the quality of life that they enjoy, because so much about dealing with waste affects the climate and climate change. It is encouraging that, as far as waste is concerned, the economic and environmental drivers are now coming together. It is not only good environmental practice to deal properly with waste but good economics. It is good for the profitability of individual companies and, indeed, the work force as a whole.

The principles of reducing, reusing and recycling apply to metals as well as to other commodities. Reducing the use of materials or using them more smartly is as important as the increase in the prices of metals and other commodities such as timber and chemicals. Because everybody wants to make good use of materials, there is, in fact, less waste.

Reuse is important as well. I spoke to a local haulage contractor who told me that most of the people who maintain his vehicles are eastern Europeans. They have come over with really good skills, but, in a way, their skills are slightly different from ours: instead of taking a component out of a vehicle and simply replacing it with a new one, they attempt to mend or repair the component and put it back. Perhaps we have lost that skill because we have been relatively affluent and have been able to take components off the shelf instead of reusing old ones. The word “mend” has gone out of fashion, but it may have to be revisited in the future.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as much as we want to encourage the Chinese economic revolution, the amount of metal waste that we still send to China is somewhat shocking? If we had an industry that recycled and reused, we might be able to keep down the cost of metal in this country.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which I shall probably come to a little later.

How ever much we reduce and make more efficient our manufacturing processes, and how ever much we reuse, there will always be some material to be recycled. The British scrap metal industry has proved to be a leader in the European Union and the world in dealing with waste.

It is not surprising that metal has a prominent part in recycling, as it has always been a valuable commodity. Some recycling streams have not been quite as profitable in the past, mainly because the natural resources from which the commodities are derived have been cheap. It has cost less to produce commodities from virgin materials than to recycle materials that have already been produced. But metals have always been a valuable commodity, and therefore there has always been a trade in recycling them.

It has been said that metal recycling probably contributes about £6 billion to our national economy, and that 60 per cent. of the metal is exported. However, the global price of scrap metal has risen and is expected to rise further. Lead is now thought to be worth between £700 and £1,000 a tonne, compared with £400 a tonne previously. The price of copper has risen by about 500 per cent. since 2001 and is now between £2,500 and £3,000 a tonne, compared with about £1,000 a tonne a few years ago.

Of course, there is more to consider than just the value of the metal itself. The cost of extracting and quarrying the ore and then refining the metal must also be considered. Part of that cost is the use of energy. For instance, the cost of producing 1 tonne of aluminium is about 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide. We can see that not only is the cost per tonne of producing aluminium affected but carbon emissions and, possibly, global warming are also affected.

Of the 15 million tonnes of metal that are recycled in Britain, just over 8 million come from cars, fridges and other such equipment. The new EU regulations have boosted the industry and now 3 million cars are recycled each year. The target is that 85 per cent. must be recycled. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test touched on the problem of dealing with materials in cars other than metals—rubber, fabric, glass and possibly wood—and whether an incentive could be given to use some of them for co-firing in combined heat and power processes.

British cars are more likely to be recycled because they are right-hand drive and, therefore, not easily exported to eastern European countries. On the continent, many cars are sent east for a time of retirement in other countries as they come towards the end of their life.

There is some concern that the certificate of destruction required by the end-of-life vehicles regulations is sometimes circumvented so that some cars are not properly recycled but are sidelined, so to speak, and that only the most readily available materials are recycled while the other materials are dumped or sent to landfill. Mention has been made in the European Parliament of regulations under the revised waste framework directive, which proposes a mechanism to reclassify non-waste recycled materials. It would significantly drive down the industry’s regulatory burden. There has been a discussion about comitology, or co-decision making. We desperately need to take that forward quickly if the industry is to get the benefit of being able to deal with such material in the most efficient and effective way.

Quite clearly, a lot of the offcuts are definitely not waste: they are almost virgin material and should not be described as waste. Much of the waste material has been treated within the recycling industry in this country to make it perfectly safe to transport. There are regulations to prevent the illegal dumping of waste in third countries and to protect those countries from being exploited. We understand the need for regulation, but there must be an ability to discriminate between waste and an important raw material.

Hon. Members have mentioned that, because of the increased value of waste metal, theft has developed, too. The Government have addressed some aspects of that issue. A productive surgery in a little village called Cwmdu in my constituency was slightly enlivened when the message came through that there had been a theft in the village and somebody had run off with some scrap metal that was being turned into a sculpture by a local artist. The village rallied round and we apprehended the person who had attempted to steal material. So it was a productive surgery in the end. But people out there are looking to take advantage of the fact that the price of scrap metal has increased.

As I look around the countryside—I have a very rural constituency—I notice a great improvement in its appearance, because a lot of the machines that used to be left where they had died are now being brought back into the recycling stream. Genuine people out there are looking for such opportunities and they are to be encouraged. However, there is an illegal aspect to this and although regulation is needed to ensure that theft and other illegal activities are not encouraged, it must be risk-based regulation bearing down on the people who are paying less attention to its legal niceties. People running proper, legitimate businesses should not be subject to legislation that inhibits their efficiency and effectiveness.

This has been a good debate. It has drawn out a number of issues. This is a most effective industry, both in terms of the economy and the environment, but the Government could do a number of things to ensure that it can operate more effectively. The recycling of certain materials does not operate to the same extent in this country as it does in others. Norway recycles 93 per cent. of its aluminium and Switzerland and Finland recycle 88 per cent., while in the United Kingdom the figure is just 48 per cent. What can the Government do to encourage increased recycling, particularly of non-ferrous metals that are valuable in terms of commodity prices but take a huge amount of energy to produce from the virgin state? What are they doing to ensure that the criminal justice system bears down on metal thefts? What are they doing to ensure that travellers on railway lines are not put at risk and churches and other community buildings do not suffer when their roofs are stripped of lead, leading to costs for the insurance industry and, always, costs to the community? Is there any way in which the UK can bring its recycling levels up to some of those in the European Union? Will the Minister strengthen the end-of-life vehicles directive and the certificate of destruction to ensure that the loopholes are closed and that as many of our vehicles as possible are recycled?

This is a successful industry, but I feel that the Government can and should do more to encourage it, lighten the regulation where they can and bear down on those who want to make a cheap buck and do not go through the proper processes.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Chope; it is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), not just on securing the debate but on his continued interest in all environmental matters, and I pay tribute to his expertise.

This has been an interesting debate. It finally puts paid to the spectre of “Steptoe and Son” and shady business, which once came to mind as we looked on the industry with affection. It is interesting to see that the turnover of the top three companies is £3.8 billion, £1.1 billion and £175 million respectively, so they are by no means the poor relations of the recycling industry.

The Conservative party is heavily committed to the concept of zero waste. I commend our quality of life report, which runs to 550 pages and is available on the Conservative party website. With recycling in mind, and wishing to save paper, I shall resist the urge of copying the report to all hon. Members assembled in the Chamber, but I commend it to them. Conservatives are committed to the concept of zero waste and recognise that we have need a new mindset, moving away from the least-cost compliance to a recognition of the fact that metals are a valuable resource, as hon. Members, led by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, have made clear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, that resource is a big earner for UK Ltd and a big employer, too. We are looking at policies dealing not just with landfill bans on metal, but with packaging reduction regulations and incentives for returning cans and bottles. That works successfully in Scandinavia: it gives people a vested interest in the issue, and we should explore it.

During the recent recess, while canvassing in the market town of Boroughbridge, I visited the little village of Milby Island, which is regularly flooded; although the flood defences have been improved in the rest of Boroughbridge, that is the one area that still floods. There is, regrettably, in the strategic overview for waste disposal at county level, a possible site for industrial waste disposal in this village, which would seem the least appropriate place to site it anywhere in the county because of the problem of road access and because it is prone to flooding. Obviously, all the villagers at Milby and all the residents of Boroughbridge are opposed to such a site. However, when I asked whether there were any other issues that concerned them, they said that they would like more recycling, particularly of plastics, including plastic bottles. I said, “You do not wish to see an industrial recycling plant in your own market town, but you would like to see a plastic bottle recycling plant in some other little village in the Vale of York or elsewhere in north Yorkshire.”

Perhaps there is a way forward that would cause less grief. Inevitably, recycling sites tend to be based in the little villages of North Yorkshire. Such a situation raises many planning issues not faced by other European countries, which have a much bigger landmass. The Minister and all hon. Members are apprised of this challenge. In respect of the concept of zero waste, we are wedded to the concept of revising our thinking on powerful consumer culture. For example, people expect a new mobile phone every year, so recycling should start in the home. I visited the local tip at Rufforth when an application was being considered to extend it, and I know that glass from household waste and wood from building materials such as wood frames are two of the most difficult products to recycle. However, in the present market, metal should be easier to recycle.

I want to throw two challenges down for the Minister. First, in reply to a parliamentary question she stated:

“Each tonne of aluminium recycled, saves 11 tonnes of CO2—[Official Report, 18 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 259.]

The arguments for recycling metals are compelling, and we are all aware of the high price of not doing so. Japan is growing increasingly prosperous, and is increasingly hungry for metal, which fuels illegal activity and theft. My first challenge for the Minister concerns EU regulations on the transhipment of waste, to which hon. Members have referred. When the regulations were going through, why did her Government not oppose those transhipments? Her predecessor, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), replied to questions about the details of the measures, particularly the commercial confidentiality of some of the information on the form. What we have learnt today flags up one of the greatest difficulties with regulations, and I submit that this debate would have carried more weight and produced more action if it had taken place in the European Parliament.

If the Government had opposed the regulations or sought to revise them, I submit that we would not be in the present position. I challenge the Minister to explain why the Government did not oppose the regulations when they were being considered. From what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test so eloquently and passionately argued, that is at the root of our difficulties. I also submit that the debate has flagged up a general problem with the scrutiny of EU regulations in Parliament. We can vote only for or against them, and I plead with the Minister and, perhaps more appropriately, the Leader of the House, to enable us to amend regulations as they go through the House. It is not sufficient merely to vote for or against them.

On comitology as opposed to co-decision, I am afraid that I am a bit of an anorak, or a macintosh, because not only did I spend 10 years serving as a Member of the European Parliament, I worked for the Conservatives in the European Parliament, and prior to that I practised European law in a very humble capacity. My understanding of comitology is that it is left to national officials and experts, who are well meaning and well qualified, to meet behind closed doors and agree to regulations on which Members of Parliament and MEPs, who are the real experts, do not have the right to be consulted. They may impose—I say this sincerely to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test—additional burdens on industry, particularly UK industry, of which we are not aware until the decision has been made. We should not rush through the regulations, because they may end up like the transhipment regulations to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Would it not be better to have a co-decision procedure, which is transparent, with an element of parliamentary democracy at two levels? Ministers appear before European Committees and perhaps the European Scrutiny Committee, and we could improve the scrutiny and the remit with which we task Ministers to negotiate at co-decision level before they negotiate at the Council of Ministers. We also have our own Members of the European Parliament to whom we can speak, and whom I am sure the industry will lobby before going into battle. It is not necessarily in the best interests of the UK industry to agree to comitology just for speed. I do not know many hon. Members who want the measure to go through by comitology: Conservative Members would be appalled if that happened, when we could have co-decision.

I entirely support the urgent need for a redefinition of waste, and I want to challenge the Minister further. Hon. Members who have spoken are at one in wanting that redefinition, but that will not happen unless member states support us. Will the Minister tell us which member states will support us? Without that support, there is not a prayer of the measure going through, even with the greatest will in the world—and we want to give UK industry experts the greatest support—because, from what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said and from the tone of the debate it strikes me that everything is conspiring against us. Extra regulations are required covering export to non-OECD countries such as China. We are the major exporter and beneficiary, but where will support come from if we want the redefinition to proceed sooner rather than later?

We need a definition of waste that is less restrictive or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said, more proportionate. Fully recovered metals must be recognised as a secondary raw material, not waste, if we are to build on, and not just maintain, the world market export position that we enjoy. I hope that after today’s debate we will all contact our colleagues in the European Parliament to ensure that all the parties in that institution are singing from the same hymn sheet. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what progress has been made in the negotiating procedures.

I support entirely what has been said about the burden of regulation: the one-size-fits-all approach to generic waste sites and regulators does not necessarily fit in with the market. We must provide greater clarity, and we must remove the confusion and the administrative burden and costs on the industry. We must ensure that illegal operators are rooted out, and that legitimate operators are allowed to develop this lucrative and legitimate trade. Metal recyclers should have a full review of the effect of the regulations on the industry, leading to streamlined regulation. The new environmental permitting programme and the DEFRA exemption review threaten to add to the regulatory burden, so perhaps the Minister would put our minds at rest on that. The Government have demonstrated—I say this somewhat reluctantly—a lack of a joined-up approach in the Department, as well as in other Departments. The Minister is on record as saying that there could be huge savings in CO2 emissions and natural resources through increased metal recycling, with gains for British business and, as a result of lower emissions, reduced pollution. There is no co-ordinated UK strategy to promote the industry, but is the Minister minded to produce one?

In conclusion, I invite the Minister to tell the Committee why the Government did not oppose the regulations when they were being considered. What is the status of the current negotiations, and, if we are to succeed, which member states will support us? On the points that have been made about where metal and other recycling plants will go in future, is she mindful of their impact on the countryside? Such plants are a blot on residential and completely green landscapes, and can have an impact on house prices and on the general quality of life. On my canvassing excursions during the recess, great concern was expressed about where industrial waste and recycling plants are to be located. I am not going to mention it publicly, but I am negotiating on that matter and have a site in mind in the Vale of York that is more appropriate than the sites that have been given as examples. On that point, I urge the Minister to put our minds at rest, and reassure us that she and her Government will do everything in their power to support a hardworking, lucrative industry.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) on obtaining this debate and on the way in which he presented his case. I also congratulate other hon. Members on their contributions. As they have said, this has been an extremely useful debate that has left me with many points to which I must reply.

I share my hon. Friend’s view that the benefits of metal recycling are considerable. Such materials can be used time and again, and in doing so we use our natural resources wisely and avoid using the energy involved in extracting raw materials. The industry is vital to our achieving our EU targets on packaging, on end-of-life vehicles, on batteries and on electrical and electronic equipment.

The industry is a significant export earner, and about 60 per cent. of the metals it handles are exported. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) made a case for more recycling at home and less export. May I say to him that a balance needs to be struck on that issue? It is not necessarily absolutely right to recycle everything at home, and if emerging economies can reuse our material, they do not then use raw materials and huge amounts of energy. A balance needs to be struck, and it is useful for the most developed countries to make materials they have used available to those who wish to recycle to benefit their emerging economies.

My hon. Friend and others by implication have paid tribute to the British Metals Recycling Association, and I recognised some of its memorandum when it was quoted by hon. Members today. Metal recycling makes an important contribution to the economy and I add my tributes to the work being done. As hon. Members have said, 2 million cars, 5 billion food and drink cans, 3.5 million white goods and some 8 million automotive batteries have been recycled. Therefore, an extraordinary amount of metal recycling is taking place.

Aluminium is a case in point. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) referred to something that I have said before on the subject—indeed, the topic of aluminium is an extraordinary story. If recycled, aluminium takes just 5 per cent. of the energy that would be needed to produce primary aluminium. As the hon. Lady said, that is equivalent to saving 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every tonne of aluminium produced. Recycling aluminium also reduces the use of chemicals, eliminates the need for 5 tonnes of bauxite ore to be mined and prevents the generation of nearly 2 tonnes of red mud as a by-product.

The benefits of recycling are substantial and global recovery is impressive. It is said that 70 per cent. of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today, but there are challenges. For example, it is difficult to capture—we are failing to do so at the moment—most of the aluminium used in drink cans in this country because they are consumed and disposed of away from home. I am determined to do better on dealing with such metal packaging, and I have asked officials to meet stakeholders tomorrow to explore ways in which we can increase the amount of aluminium recovered and recycled from that source.

Led by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test, hon. Members raised a number of issues relating to how environmental regulation affects the metals recycling industry. He referred to the European Court judgment by which we are all bound. Possibly the most significant issue relates to the question of when waste stops being waste. The revised waste framework directive, to which a number of hon. Members referred, addresses that question. The common position agreed by the Council proposes the development of end-of-waste specifications and criteria. That position identifies scrap metal as one of the categories of waste for which such criteria should be developed.

My hon. Friend felt that we were not active in the field of protocols, but we have led the way in developing end-of-life criteria and we have been working with the BMRA on that. The aim of the proposal is to facilitate the use of waste that has undergone recovery, while continuing to maintain high levels of environmental protection. The common position provides that waste that ceases to be waste under that procedure would also stop being waste for the purpose of the recovery and recycling targets in other EU waste legislation. Of course, that would make it easier for the industry to demonstrate that its targets were being met.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned waste shipments regulations. Of course, while metals remain as waste, they are bound to fall under those regulations, but the UK has taken steps to try to ensure that there is positive entry to the non-OECD countries where that is an issue. Despite initial problems, those markets are pretty much secured in China and India. None the less, these issues must be explored and we are continuing to work as hard as we can on that.

The hon. Member for Vale of York asked which member states supported us. I am afraid that I am not in a position to respond to that today. If I can obtain more information about that, I will happily write to her. As she will know from her long experience in the European Parliament, these matters are complicated: deals have to be done and it is not always obvious until the last moment how much support can be organised. I reassure all hon. Members and the industry itself of our commitment to this issue. We recognise the importance of metals and that those used for proper recycling purposes are an incredibly valuable resource. Obviously, we want to ensure that that is enshrined in law.

I would be grateful if the hon. Lady wrote to me on this issue. Will she respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) about the time scale and whether the matter will be resolved by comitology or co-decision? Will she also explain why the Government did not vote against the European trans-shipment directives? Doing so would have made life a lot easier for her, too.

I am not in a position to say why we did not vote against those directives. Obviously, at the time I was not the Minister involved, but I will see whether there is anything useful that I can tell the hon. Lady. What really matters is that we try to overcome any existing problems. There have been problems but we have made great efforts to deal with them, and as I said, the important markets of China and India have been secured.

The hon. Lady has anticipated my comments on how we should proceed in changing the legislation. She will know that the industry is concerned that EU procedures should not delay agreement on end-of-waste criteria, and we very much agree. As she anticipated, I must be frank and say that there is some way to go before the revised directive can be adopted. The European Parliament’s environment committee recently voted to adopt 81 amendments to the common position. The Second Reading in Parliament has not occurred and is scheduled to take place in June.

This is a difficult issue, and the question is whether it should be resolved by comitology or co-decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test and the hon. Member for Banbury both favour comitology, but the hon. Member for Vale of York disagrees. I have to tell her that although we all appreciate the importance of transparency, there has to be some trade-off. In this case, we are concerned to make more progress, and we believe that that is what the industry is demanding of us. The Government therefore believe that comitology is the way forward.

My hon. Friend asked about off cuts of metal, which is an important question. It is obvious to all that off cuts that are not polluted in any way remain the original resource, so we clearly ought not to classify them as waste. I can give my hon. Friend some good news. The Environment Agency will shortly publish guidance on when clean off cuts can be reused without regulatory control. I am sure that that is what he wants; it is obviously common sense to do so.

My hon. Friend went on to praise the end-of-life vehicles directive, the success of which we all very much appreciate. My constituency used to be littered with abandoned vehicles. They were removed by the local authority, which did the job efficiently and effectively but at great cost to the council tax payer. However, it is a success story, because much of that blight has now been removed from our streets. The majority of materials in such vehicles are metal. As my hon. Friend said—we all agree—they are successfully being recycled.

Over the next few years we face challenging EU targets on recovery and recycling. The target to reuse, recover or recycle 95 per cent. of the materials used in a car by 2015 is demanding by any standards. The metals recycling industry is vital to meeting those demands. However, only approximately 75 per cent. of a car is estimated to be made of metal. The question raised by a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, is how to recycle the remaining materials. One option suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test concerned energy from waste. We expect there to be an increase in the provision of energy from waste facilities; for example, by 2020 energy recovery is expected to account for about 25 per cent. of municipal waste.

A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Banbury, asked whether we would support a recycling taskforce. I shall need time to consider the matter further. The question was asked also by the British Metals Recycling Association. The local provision of recycling and recovery facilities must be decided locally, and the hon. Member for Vale of York illustrated why. Nationally, a long-standing consultation group on end-of-life vehicles, including the BMRA, meets regularly.

This year, a new advisory body was established on waste electrical and electronic equipment. There is also a waste strategy stakeholder forum. The House will see that a plethora of bodies is involved in recycling those materials that concern us today. We believe that together, those groups will provide the long-term strategic approach needed to enable us to achieve our targets. However, I would be happy to meet the BMRA to discuss the matter further.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the Environment Agency, which has specific responsibility in this area, is under significant pressure because of the wider remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? Is it not right that we should ensure that the agency is properly capable of meeting the tasks that will increasingly become its responsibility?

Absolutely. I have regular meetings with the Environment Agency. I assure my hon. Friend that if there are matters that the agency wishes to raise with me, they will be given proper attention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) intervened on the issue of planning earlier in our debate. DEFRA and the Department for Communities and Local Government are jointly consulting on ways to make the interface between planning and permitting more effective. Indeed, a protocol for planning authorities and the Environment Agency is under preparation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test questioned the capacity of treatment facilities. There are 1,500 authorised treatment facilities in the United Kingdom, 1,250 of which deal with passenger cars and light vans—the subject of the ELV directive. All have been permitted by the Environment Agency, and we believe that capacity is more than adequate.

A number of hon. Members asked about the certificate of destruction. One reason why the certificate is being taken up only slowly is the existence of an alternative means of informing the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency that a vehicle has been scrapped—the tick box on the vehicle registration document that the owner may complete. The DVLA is carrying out an impact assessment on removing that alternative means of deregistration. Hon. Members can be sure that we are looking carefully at the certificate of destruction; we are working with the DVLA to promote awareness and to improve its operation.

The hon. Members for Banbury and for Vale of York spoke about the environmental permitting regulations. We believe that the changes will benefit both industry and regulators, including a wide range of businesses, but particularly smaller enterprises. Officials estimate that the reduced administrative burden on industry and regulators will lead to savings of about £76 million over 10 years. We do not endeavour to “regulate things out of existence”. On the contrary, we want to encourage businesses and industry, but in certain quarters there are still illegal operations, rogue operators and much antisocial behaviour. For example, 150 end-of-life vehicle sites in the west midlands are being investigated by the Environment Agency; illegal activities were found to be taking place at 73 sites, so enforcement action is necessary. We need a balance in the regulations.

Several hon. Members raised the question of theft. Only a few weeks ago, an Association of Chief Police Officers conference recommended a national taskforce to address the increasing problem of metals theft. It is hoped that such a taskforce will go ahead, but that relies on the provision of £2 million of private finance.

This has been an excellent debate. I have already undertaken to write to hon. Members on some matters, but if anyone is seeking information on any other issues, I will be happy to write to them. Our recycling industry is very important and the metals are of great value. The Government very much applaud the activities of the industry and welcome further developments, and I express our intention to continue to work constructively with the industry.

Housing Developments (Consultation)

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.

Order. There is tremendous interest in the debate, and I hope that hon. Members will keep their remarks sufficiently brief to enable me to call everyone who wants to speak.

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.

Piece Hall, Halifax

I am delighted to have secured this debate on such an important building and such an important aspect of my Halifax constituency.

The historic Piece Hall market and building has been at the heart of Halifax town centre for decades. This architectural jewel in the Halifax crown is a testament to the commercial success of the woollen industry of west Yorkshire and Lancashire. This grade 1 Georgian building is the only remaining intact cloth hall in west Yorkshire, and it is a rare complete survival of this type of building in Europe. I do not exaggerate when I say that if this building were in Venice or Vienna, Rome or Rhodes, tourists would flock to visit it. Alas, it is not, but I am glad about that, because we are proud to have the building in Halifax, with the economic, social and industrial benefits that it has brought to the town in the past 100 years and beyond.

Time does not stand still. Since the war, as the years have gone by, the role of the Piece hall has become less clear. Everyone recognises the building’s importance: they know that, with a bit of initiative and industry, the building could come alive once again and be at the heart of regeneration proposals for Halifax town centre. However, that will not happen overnight. I have pushed for this debate to get on the record the building’s importance to the town centre. I urge the Minister to visit it and see for himself the splendour of the surroundings. I urge the Government to contribute to the investment in this building, not only to ensure its survival as a reminder of our great industrial past, but to help us look to the future with pride as a new use is found for it in the 21st century.

We are at a crossroads. A few years ago, the council commissioned a building condition survey for the Piece hall, and its report identified the fact that investment in excess of £1 million was needed. More than £400,000 of council funding has been invested in the infrastructure, but much more needs to be done. Halifax people do not just want improvements to the building; they want change, character and charisma added to it. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge and comment on the council's ideas for the Piece hall, which I will set out in a minute. I hope that he will outline whether those ideas could go further, and will explain how similar buildings around the country have survived and flourished after renewal took place.

In addition to the investment that I have mentioned, there has also been some partnership work with Yorkshire Forward, whose recent report highlighted the fact that the Piece hall was the focus of economic and cultural regeneration in the town, and came up with a number of ideas and investment initiatives that could be tied together as an overall regeneration package. Cinemas, bowling alleys, hotels and other leisure and commercial facilities have all been identified as parts of that package. However, all too often, grand plans and big visions fail to be realised. One of the key schemes in Halifax—Broad street—has fallen through time and again over the past 10 years. Perhaps the Minister will offer the council some advice so that it can ensure that artists’ impressions are followed through and goals are achieved. The council’s proposal for an overall regeneration focus is sound enough, but a recognised use for the Piece hall is still missing from the jigsaw puzzle. Does the Minister believe that such old buildings have a future within regeneration initiatives?

As important as economic considerations is the cultural importance of the Piece hall building and the pre-industrial society and social history that it represents. For example, the Piece Hall yard is the largest public space in Halifax town centre, and has been used for more than a century for civic functions and public events. There is no doubt that local people, visitors and tourists cherish this wonderful building, but do they cherish what it offers apart from its being a superb memento of Halifax’s past? I want the building to be visited by people because of what it is now, and not only because of what it once was. There are too many ideas at the moment, but not enough action. It seems that the Piece hall is part of the wider regeneration plans of Halifax, but not the focus of those plans, and I want to change that.

What can be done, and what should be done? That is a broad question. The Government’s commitment to the cultural heritage of our times means that they should have a keen interest in what is going on for the future. Perhaps the Minister will outline in his reply what plans and ideas the Government have for historic buildings such as the Piece hall.

May I tell my hon. Friends the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) and the Minister that in west Yorkshire we have lots of interesting places that people can visit, in both the natural and the built environment? Unfortunately, however, not many people visit them, because the cruise liners and tourist boards concentrate on areas such as York to the detriment of other towns. I often feel that York is strangled by a surfeit of visitors. Why not spread those visitors into areas such as Halifax, with Piece Hall yard, and Keighley, with Keighley and Worth Valley railway, the Brontë Parsonage museum and the wonderful East Riddlesden hall, which is owned by the National Trust. The natural environment in this area, especially spreading over to the Calder valley—the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty)—and Hebden Bridge, is wonderful. I wish that the cruise liners and tourist boards would be a bit more imaginative and start taking people to, and encouraging them to go to, to areas like ours.

My hon. Friend is right. We have a wealth of listed buildings in Halifax, Calderdale and in west Yorkshire generally that are not recognised often enough and we do not get the tourist numbers that we need to achieve. That is why I want to highlight these issues today.

I should like the Piece hall to become the heart of everything that is culturally vibrant in Halifax. The shop units could become continental cafés, different styles of restaurant could open at night, and top bands could perform in the beautiful surroundings. Annual arts festivals could be held. Our local man, Barry Rutter, could perform Shakespeare with a Yorkshire accent in the Piece hall. Such ideas have been thought about locally for many years, but too often they are left gathering dust in town hall cupboards or do not get past the artist’s impression stage. Only last week, a council meeting was held, and, once again, any ideas for the Piece hall were delayed till later this year and perhaps even until next year. It is just not good enough.

Last autumn, the council again announced a number of grand ideas based in and around the Piece hall. It seems as though it is a location around which to build a vision. That is a start, but it is another false dawn? I want that vision for a regenerated Halifax beginning in the Piece hall and moving outwards from there. The council seems to be moving in the right direction, yet at a recent town hall meeting councillors were still being asked what their ideas were for the future use of the Piece hall. Things should long since have moved on from that stage. Sometimes it seems that no one can make the final decision.

I have a newspaper cutting from the Halifax Evening Courier from 2003, explaining that plans were in place to transform the Piece hall into a major international centre, with a university faculty and apartments for town centre living, taking Halifax into the 21st century, but nothing has happened. Lack of funding, both locally and nationally, has often been a problem, as has the failure to chase available funding. Lack of marketing of the Piece hall is also an issue, although many dedicated people have tried hard to market it. I would not be surprised to hear that a Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had never visited the Piece hall, and it is time to put that right in the coming weeks and months. One Halifax Evening Courier reader said five years ago:

“To me this is a totally wasted building. There is so much you could do with the Piece Hall. If this was a place like York or Stratford-on-Avon there would be events on at the Piece Hall 52 weeks of the year. It’s a lovely building and a disgrace that we don’t use it enough at the moment.”

A threefold approach is needed. The council should identify the future use of the Piece hall, and propose how it could be developed as a jewel in Halifax town centre’s crown through the century. At the moment, too many ideas and plans are like sandcastles facing the incoming tide. There have been enough false dawns, and it is time to stop consulting and drawing up plans. We must find a vision, stick to it and deliver. To help to make that happen, the Government must be aware of the hall’s importance as a cultural entity. Are Government funds available to tap into? What similar buildings around the country have been successfully redeveloped and a new use found for them with a new vision, while recognising the historic value of the building? The scheme must fit into overall regeneration of Halifax town centre. Too many plans do not tie together. Will the Minister urge the council to move its regeneration plans for the Piece hall to the forefront? The jewel in Halifax’s crown is one of the finest buildings in the north of England. I have been delighted this afternoon to place on record the Piece hall’s importance to Halifax town centre. If that helps to kick-start a new dawn for the hall, I shall be delighted. It is time to stop talking, and to start doing.

I am genuinely pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) has secured this debate. I am a lover of history and architecture, so responding to such a debate thrills me. I am so pleased that she was able to secure it.

One of the jewels, if not the central jewel, in Halifax’s crown is the Piece hall. The building is impressive in its own right, as is the key role that it should and does play in the economic life and heart of the town. My hon. Friend mentioned its history, and I have looked into that as a lover of history. It was opened in 1779 as a place where handloom weavers could sell their cloth. As we all know, tragically, that trade has declined over the centuries and there has been a change in the textile industry. However, it remains a place for trading, with changes to utilise the space for retail outlets, and the external space being used for markets.

Our predecessors had the foresight to recognise the Piece hall as an ancient monument way back in 1928, although it was more than 40 years before work was started to restore the building. I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the pace of regeneration work. I understand that there was some success with major refurbishment of the hall in the 1970s and the development of the adjoining industrial museum, which gave the building a new lease of life. However, as we all know, in our part of the world in the 1970s and 1980s there were challenging economic conditions, and the creation of new retail developments had a negative impact on the building’s role.

It is encouraging that the building’s importance has not been forgotten. Since 2004, the council has committed to further investment in the building. I understand that it is proposed to allocate specifically to the Piece hall £600,000 of the original Heritage Lottery Fund townscape heritage initiative award of £1.4 million for the redevelopment of the Piece hall and the King Cross street areas. However and as my hon. Friend alluded to, the timescale for that development has been revised as part of that wider scheme, and we must refocus. I appreciate her role in bringing the matter to my attention. As a result of the development lagging behind, the Piece hall works could not be completed with the original townscape heritage initiative scheme, and the award has been reduced to £100,000 for emergency works only. We must redress that.

The Piece hall is playing a role as a key driver for other regeneration projects in the area. There is a wide and varied range of regeneration projects in the town centre, which is using the Piece hall as a focal point. I mentioned the council’s commitment in 2004. In partnership with the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, it commissioned a strategic development framework for Halifax. The report highlighted the Piece hall and the wider architectural legacy of the townscape as a key priority for the economic and cultural regeneration of the town. Ideas from that strategic development framework for regeneration of the Piece hall have progressed, and the main conclusion is that the solution should be based not only on the Piece hall, important though that is, but on its relationship and interaction with the surrounding land and property, and its wider relationship with the urban fabric and infrastructure of Halifax. That is eminently sensible.

We are not starting from a completely flat base. Halifax benefited from a £7.8 million award under the EU urban II initiative back in December 2001. That has been used to lever additional funds into the town with a total funding package of £25 million. Some of that funding has supported new businesses setting up in the Piece hall, and £350,000 from the single regeneration budget capital has been put toward the upgrade and repair of the town hall.

More generally, the funding has been used to develop a team of town centre ambassadors to establish a business crime reduction partnership. Both initiatives are helping to enhance and regenerate the area. New businesses have also benefited, with improvements to business premises being funded and grants given to business start-ups from the council and Yorkshire Forward. However, I take on board fully the point about the importance of the Piece hall. It is incredibly important.

My hon. Friend asked me about other areas throughout the country that have used a key architectural focal point as a means of facilitating economic regeneration. I can think of a number in my own patch and elsewhere. The NewcastleGateshead initiative has been tremendously successful in bringing former industrial buildings back into use, and the Baltic mill has been turned into a fantastic arts centre. It has been a major driver of regeneration in Newcastle and Gateshead.

My wife went to university in Leeds, so I know the Corn Exchange incredibly well. It has been redeveloped from a former industrial marketplace and now has a 21st-century use. Popping over the Pennines, Elevate is the pathfinder for the east Lancashire area. I visited Elevate at the back end of last year. It is housed in a former textile mill that used to employ 29,000 people in its heyday. Sadly, it no longer employs 29,000, but it has been regenerated and provides high-spec business space for organisations such as Elevate, which has also brought forward development in respect of retail, culture and fabrics. I like the idea that in the 18th and 19th centuries, the building was used to produce cotton that was exported all over the world, and that it is now involved in using culture and fashion to export high-value-added goods. There is a real 21st-century purpose to that building. Given the central focus of the Piece hall and the adjoining public realm area, I suspect that something similarly ambitious and vital could be done there.

I do not live quite in Keighley, but in Shipley and it has just occurred to me—I should have thought of it before—that it is adjacent to Saltaire, which is a world heritage site. It is presumably deemed to be so by UNESCO and I am wondering whether Piece hall yard, which is so similar to St. Mark’s square in Venice, could be classed as a world heritage site, for example, to elevate its position. Presumably that would also bring in money. I am not sure whether that could be done; perhaps my hon. Friend can enlighten us.

I am not familiar with the criteria that UNESCO uses to designate world heritage sites, but I understand that the Piece hall is a grade I listed building. From the images that I have seen it has a wow factor, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said at the start of her remarks, if it was in Rome or Florence, it would be in every tourist book. We need to push such sites because we have some real gems in the north of England that are a legacy of our industrial past and a sign of the industrial wealth that we used to create. We need to bring such sites back into use, so that we can have exciting, innovative and prosperous use from them in the 21st century. The Piece hall already has quality design, and it could help to provide the anchor for further regeneration of Halifax and the wider area.

I am keen to be involved with the Piece hall and would love to visit Halifax. I am already committed to visiting my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) and the wider Bradford area, so I could combine the two in one day. I would love to have a look around and to talk to local authority and other partner agencies such as Yorkshire Forward, in order to establish what can be done for such a fantastic building, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax rightly said, is so attractive and central to Halifax. We need to ensure that it is brought back into use faster to help promote economic development and prosperity further.

Regeneration is not merely confined to the town centre, although that is important. The council has recently granted planning permission for Broad street, which is a major mixed-use development on the periphery of the town centre. From my hon. Friend’s contribution, I understand her frustration with the development of Broad street and I sympathise with the strong message that she is advancing. I understand that the scheme includes a cinema for the town and associated leisure and commercial uses, including a new hotel. Halifax train station, through which I have passed, will also benefit. I take on board the point about ensuring that when people arrive in Halifax, they are provided with an attractive environment—that is very important.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has referred to Halifax railway station. As he mentioned, we find that people often pass through Halifax because we do not promote it enough. Much work needs to be done to the railway station. For a town of the size and stature of Halifax, the railway station is simply not good enough. I am glad that he has put on the record that people pass Halifax by. We need people to stop there, and doing something with the Piece hall would help with that.

I am pleased to say that work is ongoing. It is important to have a sense of arrival and people are attracted to visiting York, Leeds and other places because of the idea of arriving at a well-maintained, ambitious building. I am pleased that major refurbishment and regeneration works are taking place at Halifax train station. I understand that from March 2009, the historic station canopy will be strengthened, which is important, and the footbridge will be refurbished. There will also be redecoration works. Further improvements to the station are being proposed by the Halifax train station stakeholder group, which will take advantage of the national station improvement programme to lever in further funds for the regeneration of the station as a whole. As a strong, passionate advocate for her town, I know that my hon. Friend will play a key part in that process.

Clearly, there are a number of facets to the regeneration of Halifax and the wider area. The new regeneration framework has been employed to support the Piece hall regeneration and to provide a basis for reconnecting the town with the train station and other areas that have perhaps become too fragmented during the past 20 or 30 years. A co-ordinated, holistic approach will take account of the gems in Halifax, such as the Piece hall, the surrounding public realm and the train station. If we can link those up together and provide an attractive environment, the regeneration and the prosperity of Halifax will fly.

On the back of that, the council is commissioning a master plan for Halifax town centre that will capitalise on and improve the physical links between the regeneration projects I have highlighted today. The plan will also make proposals for the future regeneration of the town that will be assessed for commercial viability and heritage impact as part of the process. A key objective for the master plan is to provide a new commercially viable future for the Piece hall. I was pleased to hear that Calderdale’s draft local area agreement was submitted on time and that the proposed indicators have been accepted by central Government. The LAA notes the need for regeneration and actively promotes the use of cultural assets to achieve that. It also mentions the importance of the Piece hall.

The LAA is an important step forward. That vision, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend, is vital, and she is a great leader of it for Halifax. The vision encompasses other vital cultural strands, including a new university centre partnership between Calderdale college, Leeds Metropolitan university and the council. My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of higher education to provide a skills base for Halifax, and the partnership will work on the future provision of a university centre to be located in Halifax town centre. That is linked to the regeneration of the Piece hall and the surrounding area. My hon. Friend and I have an image in our minds of the fantastic potential of providing a skills quota regarding the Piece hall. In addition, the council is in close collaboration with voluntary and community organisations, particularly the Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, to cement its future as an integral element of the Piece hall quarter. That mix of cultural, educational and commercial provides a powerful option for achieving the ambitions for the Piece hall that we all share.

This has been a fascinating debate. To reiterate the point I made earlier, I am pleased that my hon. Friend secured time to raise the issue of the role of the Piece hall in the regeneration of Halifax town centre, the wider area and, frankly, the north of England as a whole—the issue is that important. As I said at the outset, I share strongly her view that the regeneration of the Piece hall should be the driver for the regeneration vision of the whole town. I understand that the council is committed to the development of the town and is working closely with the regional development agency—Yorkshire Forward—to realise some of those ambitions. Obviously, there is a long way to go and where possible I and my Department want to help support the work that is taking place to develop the economy of Halifax and the wider Calderdale district.

I am sure that the 18th-century weavers would still recognise the fabric of the Piece hall, but we need to ensure that the vision that my hon. Friend mentioned is realised during the next few years, so that it has a fantastic, prosperous, world-class use for the 21st century. As an architectural gem, that is what the Piece hall deserves, and Halifax and my hon. Friend deserve that, as well.

Order. Before I move on, perhaps I could mention that next time we have a debate on Halifax, a street plan of the town centre would help the Chair keep up with what is being discussed.

Wind Turbines

It is a pleasure, Mr. Wilshire, to be in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship.

The debate comes against the background of the Energy Bill and the proposed reforms of the Government’s renewables obligation. The question of offshore and inshore wind turbines is obviously controversial at the local level because, not least in my constituency, there is a suspicion that the Government are using the Planning Bill to take responsibility for planning away from local communities; indeed, if a project is deemed to be of national significance, it may be possible to fast-track it. Many people in Norfolk suspect that the subsidy system for developers gives them a financial incentive to appeal time and again against local planning decisions and the planning inspectorate, in opposition to the expressed views of local communities. I shall return to that central theme a little later.

The challenge is that the Government are committed to renewable targets that will be challenging if not difficult to achieve within the time frame, and they will be fined under European Union renewable energy targets if they fail to achieve them. None the less, I understand the constraints under which the Government are working. I do not oppose renewable supplies. We need a range of options—any reasonable person would accept that—and there are strong environmental and financial arguments for renewables, especially for wind turbines, both offshore and onshore. I am not against them in principle. The problem with onshore wind farms is that the race to establish targets is becoming increasingly biased against local considerations. It is that problem that I wish to address today.

In Norfolk, we have offshore and inshore wind turbines. Local opinion has been divided over the matter. In some areas, wind turbines have been broadly welcomed, and been built. In other areas, communities have been divided down the middle; it has been a most acrimonious debate. In some cases, including the one that I shall use as an illustration today, there has been almost total opposition.

My hon. Friend speaks of communities being divided. He will probably be aware that the community is bitterly divided over proposals in Marshland St. James. Tragically, one of the proposers, a farmer, committed suicide; another farmer’s diesel tank was slashed; and one of the main opponents, a local borough councillor, suffered an arson attack on some of his outbuildings. The community is completely divided. Does my hon. Friend agree that small onshore clusters are hugely uneconomical and that, whenever possible, they should be placed offshore where they can achieve critical mass?

I know that expert opinion is divided, but what my hon. Friend told us is also the opinion in my constituency, where similar developments are proposed. Indeed, in the case of the proposed development at Guestwick, the leaders of the local community told me that if the amount of power to be produced provided electricity for the neighbouring towns of Dereham, Fakenham and Aylsham, they would find it rather difficult to oppose it. However, research shows that it would produce only a limited amount.

I represent today a specific group of constituents who have been opposing the siting of six large wind turbines since 2004. They are convinced that an unintended consequence of what is effectively a Government subsidy is that, despite the development having been turned down by local planners, the developers have twice gone to appeal. They lost both times but now, four years later, they are seeking a judicial review—and if that is successful yet another planning inquiry. What is the cost to local democracy?

I shall briefly explain what has happened with that application. I suspect that similar examples can be found elsewhere in Norfolk and in other parts of the United Kingdom. Government subsidies are effectively being used by developers to achieve what is known locally as the Tesco factor: if one has enough money and one keeps coming back, one will eventually overwhelm the planning inspectorate—and even persuade local people, who have to use their own money to appeal, that it is not worth the fight.

In 2004, the developers Enertrag sought to gain planning permission to erect six wind turbines 120 m high in the open countryside at Guestwick in my constituency, about four miles north of where I live in the market town of Reepham. I do not have a vested interest, as I would not be able to see or hear the turbines, but I know the area only too well. It is within sight of the large village of Foulsham. The plan was opposed by an overwhelming majority of residents, and the application was turned down in 2005 on the recommendation of local planning officers and Norfolk county council, supported by Broadland district council’s planning committee.

The Minister will be aware that local planning authorities think very hard indeed before rejecting planning applications because they risk not only having the decision overturned on appeal but having costs awarded against them if their decision is considered to be unreasonable. In my experience, they tend to go over such applications in great detail. They are only too well aware that there may be strong local opinion, but if they feel that their decision is likely to be challenged legally, they will normally allow the development to go ahead.

That was not so at Guestwick. The decision was appealed by the developers, and a public inquiry was held in 2006. Having heard detailed evidence from the developers and the district and parish councils, the planning inspectorate inspector ruled that the appeal should be dismissed because of the impact that the turbines would have on the landscape and the listed buildings in the area. The inspector’s ruling was rejected by the developers, who appealed to the High Court to have the decision overturned. To the surprise of the local community, the Treasury solicitor decided not to contest the application. The decision of the inspector was set aside, and a second public inquiry was scheduled.

That inquiry was held in June 2007, under the auspices of yet another senior inspector. The developer’s arguments were again rejected, and the appeal was dismissed for a second time. The grounds for that decision were virtually the same as those cited in 2006. The developers are now seeking a judicial review. If they win, they will seek a third planning inquiry. If it is unsuccessful, they are prepared to resubmit their scheme.

In today’s Eastern Daily Press, Mr. David Linley, the project manager for Enertrag, said:

“We are going to go ahead. At the end of the day, logic has to rule. We think it is a good site”

So logic has to rule, but not the spirit of the law or the views of the local community. That logic is based on the Government’s renewable energy targets, the proposed changes to planning and the fact that, under a subsidy system, developers can keep returning until they have worn down the inspectors and the local community.

I do not suggest that the Minister or his predecessors had that in mind when drawing up the present system, but that is the consequence and it is affecting my constituents and those of my parliamentary neighbours in Norfolk and elsewhere. My constituents are disillusioned, angry and out of pocket. Local residents have had to fund their own legal representation.

I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend had to say about Enertrag. It is trying to do something similar in my constituency, and when I criticised it at a public meeting for failing to turn up, it threatened to sue me for representing the views of local residents. Does not my hon. Friend agree that one of the most offensive aspects of this, apart from the arrogance of saying , “We are going ahead”, is not simply that local residents have to fund their campaigns but that, through taxes and subsidies, they are funding the potential despoliation of their landscape?

Not only does my hon. Friend have constituency experience of this; he is also a senior member of that most powerful of parliamentary Committees, the Public Accounts Committee, and he knows only too well the financial and regulatory aspects. The point that he raises fits in nicely with the thrust of my argument. He is right. I am talking about one village and a small hamlet, but the people themselves raised £15,000 for the first inquiry, and the second inquiry cost them £20,000. If it goes to a third inquiry, it will probably cost them £25,000. As he pointed out, it is costing them twice over—first, through the money that they had to raise and secondly through the indirect costs. Through taxation and through their electricity bills, they are effectively funding the developers, as well as having to fund their legal representation. That is wrong and unfair.

I bring this issue to Parliament to ask whether the Government recognise that, through their renewable strategy and what I believe are subsidies for developers, they are allowing the developers to bulldoze through applications for wind turbines against the wishes of local planners and local communities. That is undemocratic and unfair. If local communities faced the prospect of those sites producing a massive amount of power locally, they would find their arguments undercut. How are the Government going to address that imbalance, which is down to the law of unintended consequences? Will they consider establishing a legal fund to enable local communities to gain access to legal representation? Taxpayers already fund the developers, so they could also fund local communities. Let us have a level legal playing field. People in Norfolk recognise that something is unfair and undemocratic about the matter.

The Minister can expect more widespread opposition to centrally imposed targets. We want a proper renewables strategy and to bring local communities along with us on that, but the way in which developers currently go about it—perfectly legally—is producing widespread resistance and cynicism. I do not want my constituents to face one, two or three more appeals by a developer, which will cost them tens of thousands of pounds, for what they suspect will be a renewables wind farm that will not produce a significant contribution to the national grid.

I understand that both the Minister and Mr. Simpson are willing for me to call Mr. Fraser, which I shall on the basis that he wrote to me to indicate that he would speak for only one minute.

I have spoken to the Minister about my concerns. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on introducing this debate. The issue is extremely important to people throughout Norfolk and, I dare say, the country as a whole. It needs to be addressed with great sensitivity to local communities.

Many of my constituents feel that they get a raw deal from the Government’s green agenda simply because they live in rural areas. More often than not, large-scale onshore wind turbines are built in rural areas. There are 10 in South-West Norfolk, and proposals for at least 27 more are in the pipeline, which would affect my constituents considerably. It is not surprising that local people are anxious that a precedent has been set and that western Norfolk could be forced to take more than its fair share. People there put up with the noise, shadow flickers and other visual impacts of wind turbines, but they do not benefit from lower energy bills, as my hon. Friend articulated.

Mains gas is not universally supplied in the area, and people who pay massively more for using oil and electricity believe that they are being penalised. Does the Minister agree that the Government need to make the benefits of renewable energy alternatives such as wind turbines more tangible directly to those who are forced to live with their effects, particularly because huge Government subsidies already make them very profitable? Currently, there is little or no local benefit of having wind turbines virtually in one’s back garden, as in Norfolk. Will the Minister address that issue?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. I should explain to hon. Members that my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy is out of the country today on ministerial business, but I shall endeavour to answer the points that have been raised.

I welcome the debate because the issue is crucial and important not only in Norfolk but, as hon. Members have said, more widely throughout the country. I suspect that it will become more important as time goes on. Today’s debate gives us the opportunity to discuss subsidies, planning and support, and to set the record straight on some common misunderstandings of how the system operates.

The Government are committed to meeting targets for renewable energy. They probably have broad support among the population and the importance of the issue is widely recognised. Meeting those aims means getting good quality applications through the planning system and looking at how to improve the system in the longer term. The proposals in the Planning Bill, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk referred, will play an absolutely vital role.

I should like to set out in more detail how the planning system deals with such applications. Currently, applications for onshore projects that generate fewer than 50 MW of electricity are decided by the local planning authority using its powers under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Any proposed onshore development for the generation of more than 50 MW is decided on by the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Whoever makes the decision must take account of a series of considerations including landscape, visual impact, habitation and so on. Projects that do not meet the planning requirements are refused consent. There is not an automatic presumption that projects will go forward; in fact, around a third of such planning applications are turned down. Even when development has been agreed, local opinion is often reflected in conditions or mitigating factors that must be taken into account.

Local authorities have improved the speed at which they handle applications, and three quarters now meet the performance objectives. However, the Government wish to tackle parts of the planning process without removing the important voice of the local community, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The Planning Bill, which the House is considering, will make changes. As part of that package, the Government envisage a national policy statement on renewables. We are used to statements that give guidance to planning authorities in planning policy as a whole. The Government will introduce statements that establish the case for infrastructure development and integrate environmental, social and economic objectives. The Bill will also establish an independent infrastructure planning commission to take decisions on nationally significant infrastructure projects for energy, including proposals for large-scale renewable projects that will produce more than 50 MW. The commission will take that role from the Secretary of State.

The national planning statements will provide the policy framework for the infrastructure planning commission’s decisions, and smaller-scale renewables will benefit from planning reforms. The clarity on national need and impacts will be set out in the proposed national policy statements, but it will also be helpful for decisions that are taken under the 1990 Act. We recognise that change is necessary to ensure that we get the system right as we go forward.

There is new guidance in the climate change policy planning statement, which contains a requirement on local authorities to consider renewables applications favourably, and not simply to use an argument that states that a project could be located elsewhere.

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation, but is he aware that the 50 MW ceiling or threshold encourages a lot of applicants to go for that capacity automatically so as to take it away from the local authority planning process? Does he agree that that is a flaw in the current system?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point, but I shall address the matter. I should stress that proposals for projects that will produce more than 50 MW does not remove the local authority role entirely from the process at all. The planning system is about ensuring not only that appropriate and acceptable development comes about, but that the public’s voice can be heard. We need to ensure that applications are properly decided and controlled.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk raised the issue of the subsidy and support that is available to people who participate in the process. In fact, extra funds are being directed to individuals and communities so that they can use the planning system and have a voice in their local area, but not to developers. On 25 March, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced that planning aid funding will be doubled to £3.2 million this year. That will enable more people to benefit from free independent advice so that they can comment on proposals and make representations at inquiries. Planning aid funding can help people to understand and use the planning system, participate in preparing plans, prepare comments on planning applications and represent themselves at public inquiries. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right that subsidy is available, but it is actually available to members of the public to help them take part in the process.

To continue on the theme of the incentives in the system, I want to deal now with the renewables obligation, which is a major part of the Government’s policy platform on this issue.

I am interested in the Minister’s comment that the Department for Communities and Local Government has established a fund, which is to be welcomed, but what happens in cases such as that of my constituents, who have already had to go to law twice? First, I suspect that there will be a problem about whether they meet the criteria laid down by the Secretary of State. Secondly, I suspect that if they get a financial contribution once, they will not get one a second time. I am not nit-picking, because this is a hard case in which such issues have already arisen. What advice can he give my constituents?

The hon. Gentleman will understand it if I do not get drawn into a discussion about a specific application in his constituency, and there are good planning and legal reasons why I should not do so. On the general point, however, developers must also bear the costs and incentives in mind. If they appeal, that is not a costless exercise, and they might incur significant costs. In fact, if the case goes to judicial review, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech, the court will decide whether there are arguments to be heard. If the developer loses, the defendant can, in some circumstances, claim costs from them. That must be borne in mind.

I want, however, to deal with the renewables obligation, because it is important to explain it. The Government do not pay a subsidy to onshore wind farm developers at any stage in the delivery of the project, but all eligible generators of renewable electricity can benefit from the renewables obligation. The renewables obligation is administered by the regulator, Ofgem, and places an obligation on licensed electricity suppliers to source a specific and increasing proportion of their sales from renewable sources. Ofgem issues renewables obligation certificates—ROCs—to generators for every megawatt-hour of eligible renewable generation. That means that developers receive support only once the project is up and running.

It might help to illustrate what has happened so far if I give some of the facts and figures from last year. Up to that point, approximately 750 MW of renewable energy capacity were operating in the country and about 375 MW had been rejected by local planning authorities, which translates into about 50 plans being approved and roughly 25 not going forward. The reasons for their not going forward often included environmental considerations, as well as visual impact, aviation issues and noise concerns.

The renewables obligation therefore operates on the same level playing field as any other proposed development and does not negate the need for proper planning decisions. For example, it took more than 500 days on average for applications for onshore wind farms to be decided, although in some cases, it can take considerably less time. I quote those figures to stress to hon. Members that although the Government have a serious and deep commitment to their renewables targets, we are not setting aside planning considerations or the proper voice of their constituents and others around the country in judging applications. The planning framework facilitates renewable energy, but also safeguards landscape and nature conservation.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said that offshore wind might be a preferable option, and there is subsidy and support for it. The truth, however, is that we need both offshore and onshore development, and we should not be forced into a choice between them. Offshore developments will tend to be more expensive to establish, although they will benefit from higher wind speeds and fewer obstacles, which will make up for some of the cost. However, we will need both onshore and offshore applications going forward.

I am grateful to the Minister for referring to the point that I made. In Norfolk, we have about 500 offshore turbines under construction or subject to planning permission, which will create serious critical mass, with Centrica building the biggest offshore wind farm in Europe. My point was very simple: putting small clusters of eight, nine or 10 turbines onshore does untold environmental damage, for very little gain, whereas offshore turbines can allow us to achieve critical mass and make a gain.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman’s point about the comparative value of such projects is somewhat subjective. As I said, there are advantages to offshore projects, but we will need both offshore and onshore projects going forward.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the question of whether the local authority voice was removed when it came to applications for wind farms of more than 50 MW. In fact, local authorities can trigger an independent public inquiry into applications for wind farms over that size if they object to the proposed development.

Could the Minister address the important point I raised about local communities enjoying a local benefit as a result of wind turbines being sited near where they live? Despite everything that he has said, he has not addressed that.

The whole country will benefit from our meeting our renewables obligations and the whole country is committed to our getting the right energy mix going forward.

To return to the subject raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, local communities look to the system to provide reassurance that the use of their space is being properly considered. Confidence in the system is essential to pave the way for future, high-quality development. That is what the planning changes that we are making to the current regime are designed to achieve. It is important to get the balance right. As a country, we have a major commitment on this issue and we have a major obligation to ensure that the voices of our constituents are heard. That will be our aim going forward.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government are here for the next debate. I trust, Minister, that you had a good, but brief lunch after you escaped. Welcome back.

Plymouth Growth Plans

I am very proud of Plymouth and the progress that it has made over the past 11 years. Like many MPs, I have spent the past two weeks meeting constituents and hearing their stories, as well as meeting those involved in public, private and community organisations in my city.

I have spent a lot of time walking around my constituency, and what a difference a decade has made. In North Hill, we have our first medical school for 30 years, and a dental school is going up in Brickfields. The wall in Devonport has come down, and there is a new heart to that town within the city. The city centre has an award-winning business improvement district. There is an award-winning east end renewal project, too, which includes new business, community and health centres. The Mount Gould local care centre has been established, and the university has grown in numbers and reputation. However, it is a question not just of buildings and jobs, but of people. Lives have been transformed, and many more people are passing their GCSEs, taking apprenticeships and going into further and higher education. Far fewer people are waiting in pain for treatment for one, one and a half or even two years.

All that has not come about by chance, but because of the choice that people made 12 years ago to elect a Labour Government, who have created economic stability and reordered the priorities that affect not only buildings but people and their life chances.

Those priorities made many more Plymouth children, women and families count; they made communities that were among the poorest in England, including the poorest ward in England on the 1995 index of local conditions, count. It is not surprising, given the starting point, that there is still a great deal to do, but with the cranes, the can-do attitude and the buzz that has infected life in Plymouth, there is no going back.

Plymouth is the 15th largest city in the country, the second largest city in the south-west and the largest city on the south coast. We welcome the Government’s recognition of the importance of cities in driving national and regional economies, and we accept that Plymouth is not punching its weight. It is still true that we have lower incomes and less available skill in the work force than we could and should have. The disparity between the far south-west and the rest of the region is far greater than the differences between our region and other regions. Gross value added in the south-west is 93 per cent. of the UK average, but in Devon, it is only 82 per cent., and in Cornwall, 69 per cent. of the south-west average, so Plymouth has a major role to play in lifting the whole sub-region, including the neighbouring county of Cornwall, which is a European funding convergence area. Our urban population base does not give us the critical mass to support the range and quality of facilities found in other major urban areas.

For all those reasons, the city is planning an increase in population from just under 250,000 to 300,000 or more by 2026. That means that about 30,000 new homes have to be built in that period, 30 per cent. of which must be affordable—that is more than 4,000 by 2016—and at least 80 per cent. of which must be on brownfield sites. We have a plan for the built environment by world renowned town planner David Mackay, and our local development framework won a Royal Town Planning Institute prize. The economic aspects of the urban renaissance are being carried forward by our new city development company, which will build on the concept developed in the city growth strategy; some seed corn money from the Department for Trade and Industry made us look at our strengths in the knowledge and creative sectors, health and marine science and technologies, and established and growing industries in digital media. We have the biggest digital media cluster outside the M25, one of only four art and design colleges in the country, and the world-class TR2 facilities for sets, costumes and rehearsal, where rehearsal for major London theatres takes place.

Our city is already a centre of world-class expertise in marine science and technology. Marine sector development will remain the core of our economic strategy. The south yard at Devonport, which is to be released from the naval base estate, offers enormous potential to support the realisation of that growth sector, which is essential to our city’s aspirations to provide an additional 42,500 jobs over the same time scale as the growth about which I spoke earlier. That knowledge and creativity base is complemented by well-established partnerships. Plymouth 2020, the local strategic partnership, has progressed from poor performance and become a national exemplar of how to drive rapid improvement. I am pleased to tell the Minister that my concerns about Plymouth’s potential not being properly recognised at regional level, which I raised when I spoke about the plans in the House three years ago, have been replaced by confidence that it is now well understood.

Plymouth’s importance is recognised in the draft regional spatial strategy, and it has been given greater emphasis in the panel’s report. The regional economic strategy and “The Way Ahead”—the region’s response to the sustainable communities plan—identify the city’s potential for accelerated housing and economic growth. The Government have designated Plymouth as a new growth point, within which the city is developing a delivery infrastructure that will enable us fully to maximise the opportunities presented by the sub-national review. We are, however, under no illusions. Delivery is, and will be, challenging. We shall effectively create the equivalent of a small new town over the next 20 years, and at the same time turn round an economy that has underperformed for decades, to the extent that it has needed European aid.

Plymouth has a robust and innovative delivery framework, by way of statutory and non-statutory plans. The local development framework, as I have mentioned, is further advanced than that of any other urban area. The core strategy and four area action plans have already been formally adopted. The LDF is fully aligned with neighbouring authorities’ plans. Our local transport plan is constructed around the Government’s shared transport priorities. A new local economic strategy, prepared with economic and community partners in the local strategic partnership, provides a shared focus for action by a range of public and private stakeholders. We have a world-class skills strategy, through the LSP, which will be implemented by the city’s new skills and employment board.

The new city development company—it is, I believe, the first entirely new company of its sort, with support from the city council, the South West of England Regional Development Agency and English Partnerships—will give new focus and priority to realising potential in the area of enterprise growth, property development and investment, innovation and technology development. House-building rates are now higher than at any time since the mid-1970s, and are at the level that we need to meet our housing growth targets. The relationship with local and national house builders, with respect to speed and quality of decisions, has improved beyond all recognition. There are challenging targets to meet in the social and affordable housing sectors: as the Minister knows I am preparing a report on that, which I look forward to presenting, so I shall keep my wish list on housing for a future occasion. I have quite a long list of other things with which the Minister can help. Government decisions in policy areas that may not appear to have a direct connection with the growth of the city can have a significant positive or negative effect on our ambitions.

The implications of the recent naval base review go well beyond the immediate defence cost and operational considerations. It is important that that is seen as a whole-Government issue, with respect to both the cost to other areas of government and the delivery of wider priorities. The three-base outcome to the naval base review safeguards Devonport, but the Department for Communities and Local Government should continue to take an interest in the issue if we are to ensure that there is a cross-Government overview of the continuing changes in naval base activity and dockyard-related issues arising from the defence industrial strategy.

The drive for cost efficiencies in the naval base can bring win-win opportunities to the city and the naval base if managed properly. The likely need for the base to divest itself of all but essential land holdings could provide significant development sites. The naval base commander, working with the city council and the South West of England Regional Development Agency, is currently developing proposals, under Project Roundel, for identifying and releasing such surplus sites. The business case to be submitted to the Ministry of Defence requires subsequent Treasury approval, and must adopt the same principles that were used for the London-based Project MoDEL. That is essential if we are to secure the viability of the naval base. We have already approached the Treasury, and the Chief Secretary has undertaken to visit the city, but the Minister and his Department must make sure that the project receives the urgent consideration that it deserves, so that it can realise its potential for us all—city, sub-region and Government.

The outcome of the reviews will have an effect beyond the Ministry of Defence, and there will be a significant impact on the city and its communities. It is a whole-Government issue. There is a need for continued engagement by the Minister and his Department, as happened during the naval base review itself, in relation to the socio-economic impact of changes, including the important issue of base porting of ships, and to ensure that there is value for money for UK plc as well as the Department for Communities and Local Government. That is the only way of producing the optimum outcome for the Government and the city. The consequence of not taking such action is that DCLG will have to pick up the tab further down the line.

On the jobs issue, it is in DCLG’s interest, given our shared goal of a successful Plymouth growth strategy, for the Minister to ensure that Plymouth receives full and proper consideration in relation to the relocation of Government offices, and work out of London and the south-east. I refer specifically to the natural choice of Plymouth as the site of the marine management organisation to be set up under the draft Marine Bill that has just been published. Establishing that organisation in Plymouth could lead to a number of wins. For the organisation itself, Plymouth offers a location that, as I have described, has worldwide marine credentials, particularly in coastal marine science, which would provide it with access to unsurpassed research expertise and a supply of skilled graduates. It would help the city to consolidate its role as a marine centre of excellence. It would be a valuable anchor for the building of our marine partnership and science park—potentially, but not necessarily, on a shared site—and would bring high-value jobs. With a decision on the future of the naval base, and the dockyard under Babcock’s ownership, we should be able at least to stabilise employment in those important activities.

Marine science is a growth sector for UK plc as well as for Plymouth. We have 450 scientists and 1,600 students in marine and environmental sciences studying at the university, and can build on, and draw on, a strong skills base. I have raised the subject in meetings with colleagues at the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The MOD is aware of the potential of the south yard as a possible site. It would be ideal if it were released in time, so I urge the Minister to ensure cross-Government working on the matter.

Maintaining the council’s capacity to deliver and that of its partners involves a significant risk not just to physical regeneration and economic growth but to the wider inclusion agenda that sits alongside them. The commitment of the newly established city development company and the partners working with it are key to enhancing our capacity for economic growth and job creation. Continuing to pursue excellent services with our partners and improving service delivery on skills, health, education, crime, housing and environmental outcomes, particularly in the city’s most deprived communities, are also key. Everything that can strengthen those twin pillars is vital to our ability to grow and regenerate the city.

The council has made tough decisions to bring about greater financial stability while addressing major improvement challenges in areas such as child care, planning, transport, waste and recycling. By May last year, it had become the fastest improving council in the country, whereas it used to be a failing council travelling in the wrong direction. Some Government policies have major financial implications for all local authorities, particularly new growth authorities, and anything that breaches the principle of no new burdens is a drain on capacity. I am sure that the Minister is familiar with a range of claims relating to waste management, concessionary fares and infrastructure that arise when there are more people and more houses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) has arranged a meeting with the Minister for Local Government. We want to discuss with him the need to set up a regular reporting system to ensure that Plymouth, which is growing at a rate of 2,000 a year, is given every consideration where cross-departmental issues are concerned. Funding for such issues needs to recognise the pressure on authorities with faster and greater housing growth to deliver Government targets. Infrastructure funding, especially through the regional funding allocation, should be aligned with the delivery of regional growth priorities. Enhanced new growth point funding, the continuation of funds beyond 2007-08 and the relocation and establishment of Government offices can make a difference to the strength of our base for delivering that ambitious agenda, and deliver it we must.

This time last year, under Labour control, we were the fastest improving local council in the country. That was no mean feat, as we had taken over a failing authority from the Conservatives just three years before. This time last year, we had earned all the award-winning projects that I mentioned. It is little wonder that this time last year, more people voted for Labour councillors than in previous years, but despite our boldness of vision, excellence in performance and positive direction of travel, some people who came out to vote did not support us. They supported a populist manifesto involving a pool in the north of the city and car parking, and they opposed the new sports centre that we championed. In power, those people have realised the sports centre’s importance—it is called the Life centre—but the way in which they are developing it raises major questions about its viability, as the genuine cross-party working needed to realise its full potential is not taking place. Sadly, there will be no affordable housing in the development that will pay for part of the centre. The fact that those people are falling at one of the very first hurdles on such an important issue is a matter of concern.

I understand that people will be able to buy tea and buns at the centre, but not sports gear and swimming trunks. Where else in the country could one find that happening? It is all to meet a dogma that there should be no commercial activity on the site. There will be no swimming pool in the north of the city, as the council leader recently confirmed that there is no provision for that promise in the capital budget for the next five years. Those councillors have broken one of the promises on which they campaigned. Council tax is going up, but children’s services, development and community services are being cut. This year, Plymouth will experience one of its three highest increases in local council tax since becoming a unitary authority, and all three of those increases have occurred under Tory control.

Plymouth’s is no ordinary story, and ours is no ordinary city. Every day of my life for the past 11 years, I have woken up determined to support the Government who have brought us the hard-won economic stability that has underwritten our growth and development. The Government have realised a vision of urban renaissance that has brought people back to our cities and made them good places to live again. While going from door to door in Plymouth last week, I saw people in inner-city wards whose lives had been, and are being, transformed. There is so much more to do. It reminded me, if I needed reminding, how important our task is.

We should take no lessons from the Tories, who left Plymouth with a legacy of deep-seated poverty that blighted people’s lives, about tackling poverty or creating fairness. We certainly should not take any lessons from them about economic competence. Increasingly, people in Plymouth have a sense of drift stemming from a lack of clear, strong political leadership in the council. Like me, they hope that the drive and ambition of social and economic partners will see us through. As always, I stand ready and willing to work with anyone who has Plymouth’s interests at heart.

Our ambitions have produced an exciting agenda. I hope that the Minister will draw some inspiration from what I have said about Plymouth’s story over the past 11 years, and is willing, too, to engage with our agenda. The sort of renaissance occurring in Plymouth is also occurring in our urban areas, and it is based on an unprecedented period of growth and economic stability.

Mr. Wilshire, it is a pleasure to see you again so soon. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on securing this important Adjournment debate on Plymouth and its challenging growth agenda, and I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) in her place. Both my hon. Friends are recognised in the House and elsewhere for their strong representation of Plymouth and their hard work to advance fairness, prosperity and ambition in their city. I do not wish to embarrass my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton, but one of their strengths is the ability to put aside party political differences and work with other groups to make things work for Plymouth. That is often not the case in the House and elsewhere. I admire her passion for Plymouth and her willingness to see the city work. I heard what she said about being willing to work with anyone who has Plymouth’s interests at heart. That is an admirable stance.

I have enjoyed today’s debate. I agree that Plymouth has a rich and fascinating history based largely on its seafaring tradition, but from what I have heard today and from my consideration of the matter, I think that the city can look confidently into a bright future for the 21st century, with ongoing investment and commitment from this Labour Government. Plymouth has major opportunities and a new vision, and is undergoing an urban renaissance involving substantial growth in housing and employment. It aims to deliver accelerated growth in line with the Government’s sustainable communities plan and to reassert itself as a confident regional centre and leading European waterfront city.

One of the themes of the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton was the importance of getting the framework right. The topic might not be particularly sexy, but governance arrangements are key to ensuring that Plymouth’s ambition can be realised. I welcome the vision commissioned by the private sector-led Plymouth 2020 partnership, developed by the group led by Barcelona-based architect David Mackay and launched in November 2003.

The vision for Plymouth proposes a revitalised city with a higher density of activities and a better urban fabric. It proposes a larger city, as my hon. Friend mentioned, aiming for a population of between 300,000 and 350,000 people—the current population is 250,000—to achieve critical mass as a substantial urban centre with a bigger and better range of higher-order activities. The Government welcome the fact that the city council has adopted the vision as the basis for future development plans and strategies and the development of the city’s design panel. The challenge is to support Plymouth in providing the foundations on which that growth can be achieved.

As part of our support for an environment in which to take the vision forward, the Government recognise the city’s achievement as a planning authority in making good progress with the new style of planning policy documents and local development frameworks that will take the city to 2021. In replacing its local plan, Plymouth is using its LDF to progress the Mackay vision and give spatial effect to its city strategy. We applaud Plymouth for becoming the first urban authority in England to adopt a new-style core strategy, in April 2007, setting out the city’s overall planning framework and vision. By 2021, that framework will provide at least 17,250 extra houses, including at least 3,300 affordable units, and 40 hectares of new employment land between 2006 and 2016, with a further 22 hectares by 2021.

Plymouth has also adopted three area action plans for Devonport, Millbay and North Plymstock, focusing on housing delivery and regeneration, and converting the strategic content of that core strategy into a set of site-specific development proposals. In making that vision a reality, the Government welcome the work carried out, in 2006, by the South West of England Regional Development Agency, English Partnerships, the Government office for the south-west and the city council, which agreed to create a public-private partnership in order to grip the opportunity afforded by the city’s growth agenda and economic strategy.

As my hon. Friend hinted, in the past 12 months, great progress has been made: a company has been formed, the chairman, chief executive and board members of which have been recruited. The development company was launched locally in early March 2008, and internationally in the second week of March, and has brought together a strong team to take the city forward. With that experienced board, I think that the company is well placed to take the vision forward, supported as it is by a launch funding framework of £750,000 a year for three years from the city council’s new growth point funds, which are provided by my Department, the regional development agency and English Partnerships.

Clear and regular reporting form part of a good and effective governance structure, and I take on board fully what my hon. Friend said about regular reporting systems. She made an important point and I shall consider what role my Department can play in that.

Will the Minister also consider ensuring that the three Members of Parliament representing Plymouth constituencies are involved in that regular reporting system?

I pledge to do that. I also suggest that the Minister for the South West would be interested in the matter as well, and I hope to include him in that role.

Plymouth is one of eight locations in the south-west awarded Government new growth point status in November 2006. That initiative was launched in December 2005 as part of our response to Kate Barker’s review of housing supply and after the Government invited local authorities to submit sustainable growth proposals. The initiative is intended to be a long-term and sustainable partnership for growth between Plymouth city council and the Government designed to support the sustainable delivery of homes, jobs and relevant infrastructure.

Quite rightly, Plymouth was identified in the draft regional spatial strategy as a strategically significant city. That strategy and the new growth point bid propose that Plymouth deliver up to 1,500 homes per annum from 2002 to 2026—a total of 24,500 homes—which would represent a 35 per cent. increase on the existing level as set out in current planning guidance. The growth strategy that we have supported focuses on a number of regeneration areas and brownfield sites, which I have mentioned already, with a proposal for a new community at Sherford, on the eastern edge of the city.

As part of the new growth point pilot fund, in 2007-08, my Department awarded £960,000 to Plymouth for projects supporting the city’s new growth point proposals. Some £710,000 of that grant was committed to preparation costs of transport modelling and the eastern corridor major scheme bid. The balance of £250,000 was provided as contribution to the start-up costs of the Plymouth city development company.

Last year, the Government invited existing new growth points to submit delivery plans, including proposals for additional funding for medium-term projects from 2008-09 to 2010-11. Plymouth’s delivery submission, drawn up in consultation with South Hams district council, was awarded £780,000 of revenue funding and £8.89 million of capital funding—a total of £9.67 million for the three-year period. Plymouth has outlined that the revenue support will be allocated to the preparation of the major scheme transport submission, the urban fringe development plan document, the eastern corridor programme management and to enhancing capacity. The capital provision will be allocated to enhancements in the eastern and northern corridor, junction improvements to the A38, waste infrastructure projects, and city centre, public realm and green space improvements.

Naturally, such growth requires a strong economic base. I recognise my hon. Friend’s point about Plymouth being a centre of world-class expertise in marine and science technology. She made a strong and passionate case about the city’s opportunities through the establishment of the marine management organisation, as outlined in part 1 of the draft Marine Bill, which was published earlier this month. She will be aware that the proposal is to establish a new headquarters for the agency with a series of local offices, and that the location of the headquarters has not yet been determined. I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will undertake consultancy work to draw up the criteria upon which to assess location options for the headquarters. I also understand that she is meeting the Minister for the South East soon. I wish her well with her discussions. As a former parliamentary private secretary to the then Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), when she was in charge of dentistry, I recall my hon. Friend’s lobbying requirements and techniques with regards to a new dental school, so I know that she will do a first-class job.

I shall address a key theme in my hon. Friend’s contribution—the implications of the naval base review for Devonport. I was impressed by her contribution in last month’s Adjournment debate on that matter. She will be aware that, following the naval base review, Her Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport is looking to reconfigure operational activity to the core of the base and to release a number of parcels of land for civilian use. I reiterate what the Minister for the Armed Forces said in reply to her debate: recent suggestions that the Government are planning to close the naval base at Devonport are without foundation, but from this reconfiguration of land, income from the disposal of such sites could generate funds to support the regeneration of south yard.

South yard comprises 100 acres, and although there is a continuing need for naval use of the quay frontage, the body of the site is considered to be suited to the creation of a marine technology business park. When redeveloped, that could generate income for the retained base operations as well as provide space for complementary businesses. We recognise that the local vision is to have a cluster of leading marine businesses and research and innovation to support the naval base, which could be a key driver for the city’s economy.

I understand that partners estimate that about 3,000 high-value jobs could be created at south yard and that, as such, the naval base is part of Project Roundel. It is in discussion with partners including the RDA and Plymouth council about how a joint venture could be structured to achieve that marine technology site. I also understand that the RDA and the local authority are working with, and supporting, the naval base with technical studies and master planning style assessments to demonstrate the viability of such a technology park and how it could be integrated into the wider regeneration role. My Department will pledge to work with partners, wherever possible, to improve the long-term future of the land and to enhance economic growth.

My hon. Friend asked that I and my Department take an interest in ensuring a cross-government overview of the ongoing changes in naval base activity. That is an operational responsibility for the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy, but I pledge to do what she asks, because I agree that it will have wide implications for economic development, growth and housing need. I mentioned earlier that the Minister for the South West will, I think, play a key role as well.

My hon. Friend is correct in identifying the role of neighbourhood regeneration and the community in support of city growth, in which I think that there have been real developments in Plymouth that need to go further. I am keen to see that happen. She mentioned the east end partnership and community village which in March 2008 won a national regeneration award at the Local Government Chronicle award ceremony. Again, that reiterates that the east end partnership is a sign of the success of Plymouth in achieving growth through local community engagement.

My hon. Friend’s contribution was spot on. Plymouth is turning a corner and providing real foundations for growth. However, I would go further and say that my two hon. Friends here are providing the leadership in shaping that ambition. It is refreshing to hear for an area a positivity, ambition and aspiration that we do not always hear in debates. Plymouth has a strong local vision supported regionally in the regional spatial strategy and as one of the Government’s new growth points. We all recognise that hard work remains to be done, but we are coming from a very positive base led by my two hon. Friends. However, the creation of one of Europe’s leading waterfront cities is a vision very much worth realising.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.