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West Midlands RSS

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 23 April 2008

I wish you a happy St. George’s day, Mr. Gale. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate on such an appropriate day, as I want to speak up for middle England. I hope to slay a dragon or two, although without St. George’s help.

Phase 2 of the west midlands regional spatial strategy revision—a phrase guaranteed to set the pulse racing—is important. It is about a lot more than housing. Indeed, to be fair to the Minister—I am pleased to see him in his place—some elements of it are welcome. For example, the Worcestershire wildlife trust of which I am a proud member welcomes the clear statements on climate change, sustainable communities and community developments, but—and it is a big but—the issues of greatest concern are the level of new housing building that the Government seem determined to impose on the west midlands and the delay in the final revised regional spatial strategy and, crucially, the local core strategies that that unwelcome intervention has led to.

On 7 January, 18 months of hard work by the regional assembly and local authorities was suddenly torn up in one of the most undemocratic and unwarranted interventions in local affairs by a Minister that I can recall. A letter to the regional assembly from Baroness Andrews, one of the Minister’s colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government, told us that all our efforts had been wasted and that, under her instructions, we must go back to the drawing board. It is no wonder that people are cynical about politics.

The regional assembly’s consultation on the preferred options in phase 2 of the RSS revision was due to end four weeks ago, on 28 March; the Government’s first intervention recommended extending that date to 23 May, to enable consultees to consider the extra evidence that the Government would produce. The assembly pointed out that it would need to take account of the purdah for the local elections, so it suggested an extension to 30 June, and the Government agreed.

However, the Government office for the west midlands took months to appoint expensive London-based consultants to find the new “evidence”—and I put that word in inverted commas. It took until early October. The consultation has therefore been extended to 8 December. The examination in public of the final phase 2 document will therefore not take place until the spring of 2009. Incidentally, as a result, the consultation period is four weeks short of Cabinet Office guidelines, and all that comes on top of the fact that unelected academics in the national housing and planning advice unit are providing an undemocratic input to Ministers on demand and price levels.

Meanwhile, poor old locally accountable district councils such as those in my area—Wychavon, Worcester City and Malvern Hills—are trying to progress their own joint plans. However, they can only guess what the RSS housing numbers will be. In due course, Ministers will doubtless attack those councils for failing to deliver the goods on time, but the blame for the delay rests fairly and squarely on those self-same Ministers. Strangely, the delay means that it may not now be possible to complete the RSS revision process before the regional assembly itself is abolished. What a fine mess the Government have got us into.

I wish to make five key points, and I shall have three questions for the Minister at the end. First, we all accept the need for more housing. That is not in dispute. People are living longer; the divorce rate is a sad driver of increased household formation rates; and there is a lack of affordable housing, both rented and owned. However, that does not mean that we should throw houses up without properly considering their long-term impact and, indeed, without establishing whether the current housing shortage is irreversible and permanent.

The Government are relying on new household projections that dramatically increase estimates of housing need over the next 20 years. The big dispute is whether the current rate of immigration will continue. I think that it will not, as we are already seeing net migration back to the countries of eastern Europe. The Government are projecting forward historically unprecedented levels of immigration, and that is a serious error.

The Government also argue that house building levels need to be high to reduce the price of housing so that it is more affordable. They want to reduce house prices. However, people are now seeing house prices fall, and they can tell the Government that that policy objective has been achieved without a single new house being built. High prices were mainly, but not exclusively, the result of the irresponsible lending practices of banks and mortgage companies. Too much money was the main cause, and the Government have put that right, albeit unintentionally. I therefore challenge the Government’s figures. They are too high.

Secondly, the West Midlands regional assembly has already proposed a high number of new dwellings—difficult but manageable if we get the rest of the policy environment right. In its submission to the Government in December 2007, it proposed that 365,600 extra dwellings should be provided in the west midlands by 2026. That is 25 per cent. higher than recent building rates, and 50 per cent. higher than the rate planned under the existing strategy.

I am inclined to agree with the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which believes that a figure of about 285,000 would be a more reasonable response to the present situation. The regional assembly’s numbers may be higher than many would like, but at least the assembly has gone through a democratic and systematic process to arrive at a preferred option for growth.

Based on advice from the academics at the national housing unit, it seems that the Government are now pressing for between 408,000 and 460,000 new dwellings to be provided in that period. To achieve the assembly’s proposed RSS figure for the region, the housing figures for the major urban areas—Stoke, the black country, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry—have rightly been increased, although there may be practical difficulties in achieving some of those figures without building on green belt land or causing excessive urban intensification.

The five growth points in the existing strategy—Hereford, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Telford and Worcester—have been extended to 10 with the addition of Burton upon Trent, Nuneaton and Bedworth, Redditch, Stafford, and Warwick and Leamington. Between them, those 10 “settlements of significant development” would account for 30 per cent. of the region’s housing growth. Potentially, there are also two eco-towns in the west midlands, of which more later. All that will inevitably require a significant release of greenfield land, which will undermine the current “brownfield first” approach.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He mentioned Redditch. Through him I would like to point out to the Minister that Bromsgrove is happy to have more housing—and happy to have some affordable housing. The problem at the moment is that Redditch’s housing will be dumped on our green belt borders. If we can put that housing where we want it, we will be happy to comply with what the Minister seeks.

My hon. Friend usefully illustrates the importance of listening to local people rather than imposing solutions from the centre.

I was about to say that green belt land will inevitably be lost, with no proposal to compensate for the loss, contrary to the Prime Minister’s assurances to the House. The existing strategy assumes that if builders are given the option of cheaper greenfield land they will still continue to support urban regeneration house building—and if so, that they will build the quality of housing needed in urban areas and not build up-market in the shires, as I fear, and down-market in the cities. We can live with high growth if the major metropolitan areas in the west midlands play their part and plan for their proportion of that growth. Urban renaissance was a cornerstone of the original 2004 RSS, and it should remain so.

Worcester is identified as one of the growth points; the RSS preferred options document proposes that no fewer than 24,500 extra dwellings should be provided in south Worcestershire—in the Worcester City, Malvern Hills and Wychavon—over the next 20 years. The Government want to increase that number substantially. The problem is that Worcester City is virtually full; we believe that it can accommodate about 3,200 houses, so the other 21,000 will spill out into the two surrounding districts.

That is causing consternation in those communities, who see no way of accommodating that phenomenal level of growth without major damage being caused to the environment and the character of the area. There are concerns about flooding and the loss of agricultural land and areas of high landscape quality, increased pressure on an already overloaded transport system and the overdevelopment of villages within commuting distance of Worcester and towns such as Great Malvern, Evesham and Pershore.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this short debate. Does he agree that the so-called consultants appointed by the Government represent a top-down dictatorship? Not only will there be a massive overspill in south Worcestershire, clogging up the green spaces between villages, but the Government requirement that the consultants consider areas of high market demand such as Solihull, Litchfield and Tamworth will mean that the additional 40,000 or so houses will be built in the least sustainable areas rather than in areas where the infrastructure would be able to accommodate them, such as Birmingham and the black country.

I had to hoped to secure an hour-and a-half debate on this subject, and the interest of my colleagues is shown by the fact that they have come to a half-hour debate. I suspect that I will intrude slightly on the Minister’s time for responding, for which I apologise, but it is important to allow those voices to be heard. I agree with the hon. Lady and I am slightly concerned to hear the Minister was laughing when my colleagues made their points. That suggests that the Government have made up their minds and pre-judged the process, which is worrying because I genuinely believe that they are making a mistake. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) said, we will embrace more housing. We know how best to do that—the Government do not.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful and important speech and I agree with every word that he has said. Has he had any indication from the Government that they are prepared to put their hands in their pockets in any way to support the infrastructure that will clearly be needed?

I am about to turn to infrastructure, and my hon. Friend makes a crucial point. I shall not labour the point that I was going to make about flooding, but I remind the Minister that 10 per cent. of Worcestershire is at risk of flooding. We had huge floods last year, to which, to be fair, the Government responded very well. We had a huge amount of flooding, and any additional building, even outside the flood plain, which must at all costs be avoided, will increase flood risk in the rest of the county, which is a real worry.

On infrastructure, new homes and towns cannot exist in a vacuum. People living in them commute to work, travel to leisure facilities and hospitals and visit families and friends. The Government do not seem to understand that. Growth points such as Worcester City are already under huge pressure, and planned growth on the scale that is proposed requires serious forethought by policy makers, and money, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) said. We are currently going through the process of closing down 2,500 post offices, but we do not yet know which ones will close or where the new houses will be, so it is the wrong time to slash infrastructure that may be needed to support new houses.

Infrastructure will not happen by magic, as a consequence of planning; rather, it must be put in communities in advance to ensure that the interests of the existing residents are also served. Local communities would have much more faith in the what the Government are doing if there were funding mechanisms that worked for infrastructure in all its forms, including hospitals, water and sewerage, leisure facilities, energy supplies and, above all, transport.

Railways are particularly important to me. The complete redoubling of the Cotswold line is crucial if we are to have a significant increase in housing in south Worcestershire. I am meeting Network Rail officials later today to challenge them on why they are proposing to redouble only one of the three sections; that will not be enough to cope with the housing that the regional assembly wants, never mind the Government.

Rail links to the north of the county and to Birmingham are at or beyond capacity. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove knows that the expansion of Bromsgrove station to enable longer trains to run from my constituency to Birmingham is important. Commuters already face hugely unsatisfactory services; any further house building will strain them to breaking point, which will mean that people take to the roads to commute to their jobs and clog up an already overloaded network. More people on the roads means more cars in traffic jams and more carbon dioxide emissions: that is the environmental reality of the Government’s plans.

I mentioned Baroness Andrews’s intervention in my opening remarks. When the assembly formally submitted the RSS in January, it had been subject to considerable debate and consultation, including with local authorities, businesses and other so-called stakeholders. However, the Government have now intervened in the democratic process to impose their own research. Instead of housing numbers being driven by the strategy, they are driving the strategy. That is an important observation for planners. How a bunch of London-based experts—so-called experts—with a few months to do the work can come up with a better answer than the local councils working through the regional assembly, I do not know. What message does that send to voters? How can anyone have faith in the consultation processes that is being so blatantly and openly manipulated in the Government’s favour, when we should have a democratically deduced solution to the problems that we all acknowledge that we face?

There is no time to discuss the serious issues that that raises for regional government more broadly, particularly the abolition of the regional assembly and the rolling together of the planning functions into the regional development agency.

Simon Jenkins has described eco-towns in a brilliant article in The Guardian on 4 April as

“the greatest try-on in the long and dazzling history of property speculation”.

Two eco-towns are on the shortlist for the west midlands: one for Staffordshire and one on the Worcestershire-Warwickshire border. Originally, my constituency was faced with two such monstrosities—at least we are down to one. By the way, how nice it would be if the Department for Communities and Local Government actually knew where the eco-town in Warwickshire is actually planned for; it is not only in Warwickshire, but in Worcestershire; it does not only involve Stratford-on-Avon district council because one third of it is in Wychavon district council. How nice it would be if the Government’s consultation document showed that they know the geography of the west midlands as that would give us greater confidence as we consider these important questions.

We cannot have parallel planning processes for deciding how the region should expand. If we treat eco-towns through the normal channels, we would consult on the need for accommodating growth by new settlements along with all other mechanisms, including urban extensions, growth in market towns, sub-regional growth points and so on, but the Government simply want to impose eco-towns on us. Cynically, the Government think that putting the word “eco” in front of something makes it unassailable. However, there is little evidence to suggest such places are going to be environmentally friendly. All the evidence points to them becoming the sink estates of the future, or, to borrow a phrase from the Local Government Association, “eco-slums”.

The crucial question for the Minister—we have not been able to pin the Government down on this point because they have evaded it time and again—is, if the proposed eco-towns go ahead, will they contribute to the RSS housing figures? In a speech at Earl’s Court on 27 February, the Minister for Housing said:

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

However, she has not reiterated or expanded on that point, and I believe that they will simply be added to whatever the number the Government come up with. Technically, they will be part of the target, but they will actually be additional to it.

The fundamental problem with eco-towns such as the one proposed for my constituency, is that when you dump 15,000 people in relatively inaccessible towns, miles from established settlements, they will simply get in their cars and drive, which is not environmentally sustainable. The impact of a new town on the surrounding villages, and on Stratford-on-Avon in particular, will be enormously damaging. The happily named local campaign group, BARD—the Minister will recognise the reference on Shakespeare’s birthday—which stands for Better Accessible Responsible Development, found, and adorns its website with, this quote from Titus Andronicus:

“O, why should nature build so foul a den,

Unless the gods delight in tragedies”.

I urge the Minister to change his policy now and avoid the tragedy.

I have three key questions. First, why are the Government being so dictatorial on both RSS numbers and eco-towns, and why will they not trust local people who are committing to historically high levels of housing provision as it is in their rejected proposals? Secondly, how confident are the Government about their household projection predictions and, specifically, their migration forecasts? Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster said, what guarantees will we get on infrastructure provision?

The final lunacy is that all those new houses will be built only if the private sector wants to build them, but we do not live in Stalin’s Soviet Union where factories could be instructed to produce so many thousands of tractors. Private house builders will want to build houses that they can sell in areas where they can sell them. Given the state of the property market and the great pressures on the construction sector, coupled with an emerging skills shortage as the Polish plumbers go home, my guess is that they will not in any case want to build in the west midlands. If against my expectations the houses are built, they will not be sustainable because the infrastructure would not be there to support them. The Government use fine words to cover their foul deeds. They are trying to ram down the throats of local people plans for houses that are neither deliverable nor sustainable.

I think that I need to pause to take breath for a moment. That was a catalytic, quick, and at times acidic, but always passionate, performance by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff). He asked a lot of questions and I shall tackle as many of them as I can. I congratulate him on securing the debate, and the hon. Members for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on their participation.

I have been asked many questions. Unfortunately, I often find that when we have these debates with Opposition Members, when it comes to housing, we tend to hear warm words around the periphery. They say, “Yes, we like the principle and we would quite like more housing, but—” Many questions are asked, but precious few solutions are offered by Opposition Members.

I shall come to that point.

The hon. Gentleman has made clear how important the regional spatial strategy is to him and his constituents in Mid-Worcestershire. He said at the outset that his particular concerns related to the RSS phase 2 revision, which I shall call the draft RSS from now on to make things simpler, and the proposals for a possible eco-town—he described accurately where the one proposed for Middle Quinton will be.

The Government need to take urgent action to address growing housing demand and the serious issue of housing affordability. In the hon. Gentleman’s region, the housing gap is between 1,400 to 4,000 houses a year, and there is a particular issue with affordability. The housing Green Paper announced an ambitious new national target of achieving 240,000 additional dwellings a year, delivering 2 million new homes by 2016 and 3 million by 2020. I appreciate that Opposition Members have many questions, but I think that they are in favour of that principle on the whole, although some are more in favour of it than others.

Every region will need to make its contribution to achieving the national target, and most will undertake mini-revisions to their RSSs to help them do so. The draft RSS for the west midlands is at a stage where there is an opportunity and an imperative to address the need to meet the growing demand for housing and avoid the need for a further mini-review later.

Before proceeding, however, I must highlight the fact that I am somewhat constrained in what I can say about the draft RSS. The propriety guidance outlines that Ministers should not enter into discussions with the regional planning body or other interested parties on changes that might be made to a draft revision to a regional spatial strategy once it has been submitted for examination.

The hon. Gentleman is nodding, and I know that he is aware of that. Those arrangements are to ensure that the process is fair and transparent, and representations to the Secretary of State must be channelled through the proper statutory process.

We are concerned that the draft RSS, as submitted by the regional assembly in December 2007, falls short of making provision for the number of homes anticipated in the 2004-based household projections. It does not make provision for the lower end of the initial housing supply range, which was suggested in the national housing and planning advice unit’s response to the housing Green Paper to address affordability issues.

As has been mentioned, my noble Friend Baroness Andrews expressed concerns that the spatial strategy might unnecessarily be constraining longer-term development, which would impact on the affordability of housing in the region. To address the issue, she asked the Government office for the west midlands to commission further work to look at the options—it is important to remember that these are only options—for delivering higher housing numbers before the examination in public. Evidence will be submitted to the panel to consider. Proposals will not be imposed, as has been suggested in the debate.

I am pleased to say that the Government office has now appointed consultants to look at the evidence and identify options for locating additional housing growth. That additional evidence will support the Government office’s submissions to the examination in public.

We will ensure that this additional process is as transparent as possible and we propose that the consultants engage with regional stakeholders, including local authorities, the development industry, infrastructure providers and environmental bodies, through seminars during the preparation of further evidence.

I hope that what the Minister has just said will give Bromsgrove a chance to put its case. At the moment, much of the housing growth will take place in Redditch, which cannot take all that housing. Growth will therefore have to move into neighbouring areas, including Bromsgrove’s green belt, which is where the overlap is. On the basis of what the Minister has just said, can my council make representations to put that housing somewhere in Bromsgrove that it approves of? For example, some of it could go in the village of Alvechurch, which has a big space where a school used to be. That would be ideal for the proposed housing and it would be three miles from the border of Redditch.

It is important to get across the fact that RSSs are emerging strategies that take on board the views of, and work with, local authorities. We must never get into a position where we just assume that an RSS is saying, in black and white, “This must happen here,” or, “This must happen there.” As hon. Members will be aware, there is still a planning process, which involves appeals, inspectors, inquiries and all the rest.

We hope that the West Midlands regional assembly will agree to extend the consultation on the draft RSS to give regional stakeholders the opportunity to take the evidence into account. That will assist the examination panel in its consideration of the draft RSS. That revision work should not be seen as an alternative to the RSS, because it is not, but it will provide evidence to inform the Government’s response to the draft RSS. The implications of the draft RSS will be considered at the examination in public to address the issues of housing need in the area to which the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire rightly alluded.

I am aware that that approach might not be universally popular. However, we have an opportunity to consider options for accommodating additional housing growth as part of the review of the RSS. It is better to look at the issues at this stage in the process, before the examination, so that different views about the options can be properly tested and debated in public at examination.

I turn now to the consideration of infrastructure, which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned. I recognise that the delivery of housing growth must be supported by appropriate infrastructure and that transport, which he also mentioned, is a key component of that. We need to ensure that growth is focused on sustainable transport solutions and we are working with key regional partners to identify the impact of growth on the transport system. In fact, part of the review will involve detailed work on infrastructure, including transport.

In preparing the draft RSS, the regional assembly worked with partners to consider the implications of the infrastructure necessary to support the proposed growth options. That included provisions for transport in the regional transport strategy, which is an integrated part of the draft RSS. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that phasing is also important. Local authorities need to consider all these issues as RSSs emerge.

A key element of the further evidence to which I referred will be the consideration that is given to the implications of the options for higher housing numbers for transport, including local transport strategies and investment in infrastructure. That will be in addition to the issues identified and considered in the draft RSS.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned eco-towns, and I will try to do the issue some justice in the moments that remain. Eco-towns will contribute to meeting our national aim of delivering 240,000 homes a year by 2016. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing made an announcement on the 15 short-listed locations for eco-towns on 3 April, and two of those are in the west midlands. One, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is at Middle Quinton, where the proposed scheme sets out plans for at least 6,000 zero-carbon homes on previously developed land. There will be substantial employment opportunities, affordable housing and community infrastructure, accompanied by high-quality public transport links.

We have asked the consultants undertaking the study into housing options to consider the contribution that potential eco-towns and new growth points could make to delivering additional growth in the region. It is therefore likely that any additional numbers resulting from an eco-town will be incorporated into the figures in the emerging RSS. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.

We expect eco-towns to contribute significantly to meeting national aims for additional housing and we want to assure local authorities that include an eco-town in their future housing plans that it will count towards future housing targets, which, in most places, are likely to be more stretching. I hope that that is pretty transparent.

I can also assure hon. Members that the development of eco-towns does not mean that there will be new housing on the green belt. We are consulting on the shortlisted locations for eco-towns. This is only the first stage, and bidders who have cleared the first hurdle will face considerably tougher tests if they want to become eco-towns and will need to improve proposals still further.

It is not appropriate for me to comment on the merits of particular eco-towns, but I can reassure hon. Members that shortlisted locations will face further challenges, including public consultation and a detailed sustainability appraisal, which will assess the merits and challenges in each case. A decision on the final list of locations with the potential to be an eco-town, as well as a draft, and subsequently a final, eco-towns policy statement, will be published later this year.

I appreciate that we are running short of time. I was peppered with quite a lot of questions and I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman to give him further information.

Sitting suspended.