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Marston Vale Eco-town

Volume 487: debated on Wednesday 28 January 2009

I am delighted to have secured this debate and to be under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson.

The debate concerns the eco-town proposed for my constituency and I am sure that the Minister will concede that we have discussed it on a number of occasions. He may want to comment on yesterday’s High Court ruling in his reply. I would be interested in his opinion about how that ruling will affect the proposed development in Marston Vale.

Because we have only 30 minutes for this debate, I will ask the Minister a number of direct questions so that he can spend most of the time giving us information. My constituents know my opinion, and he will be aware of all the well-rehearsed arguments against the eco-town, but I would like to raise some direct points with him.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, there are infrastructure plans to have trains running between Bedford and London every three minutes by 2015 or 2020. Is that part of a national Government strategy to develop infrastructure so that Mid-Bedfordshire can be developed accordingly? If there is such a strategy, he will know that there are now plans to extend the eco-town even further. The East of England Development Agency has produced a proposal for 120,000 homes that will encompass Ampthill, Flitwick and Westoning and extend to Harlington, to the border of the M1. Will the eco-town be a key piece in that jigsaw? Did the Government propose it in the location that they did so that expansion can take place and urban sprawl can develop from Milton Keynes down to the borders of the M1?

If that is the intention, surely it would be preferable to bring on board the opinions of local people. The Minister might say that there has been a consultation process. He knows—as I know, because I was present at the consultation process—that outside the caravans, the consultation produced an overwhelming no from the people of Mid-Bedfordshire. I was present at a protest outside the consultation caravan. I was at a torchlit procession outside one of the consultations. The people of Mid-Bedfordshire said a resounding no to the eco-town. Does the Minister see the eco-town as a key piece in the developmental jigsaw puzzle of Mid-Bedfordshire? After that is in place, will the sprawl continue from Milton Keynes down to the M1?

How eco will the eco-town be? Again, the argument is well rehearsed. The Minister knows that by 2016, all new homes will have to exceed the code 6 criteria, yet the proposed eco-town must meet only codes 3 to 4. By the time the eco-town is built, it will already have been exceeded in eco criteria and credibility by new homes. How does he feel that sits with local people, who know that future homes will not even carry the eco banner but will have greater environmental credibility?

The case for the eco-town is that it will meet housing needs in Bedford and the surrounding urban areas. If that is the case, there are brownfield sites in Bedford that are screaming out for redevelopment. No employers are moving in, building on those brownfields and bringing employment into the area, although in fact we have little unemployment. Bedford desperately needs inward investment from developers and section 106 agreements.

The people of Bedford need additional housing, but they want it to be near hospitals, doctors, schools and what employment there is. They do not want to live in Marston Vale. I know that the Minister is not from Bedfordshire, but I assure him that Bedford has a unique cultural identity. People from Bedford belong in Bedford, and they do not see the vale that is being developed as the answer to their housing needs. It is not what they want: they want homes to be built in Bedford.

I agree that there is some development in Bedford, but it is all too easy for developers to take over thousands of acres of what green fields there are, and to ignore urban areas such as Bedford and Luton that desperately need inward investment. The Campaign to Protect Rural England estimates that 1 million homes could be built on brownfield sites across the UK. Why do the Government not look at the housing needs of people in Luton and Bedford, and do something about investing in those towns so that they can be developed to meet the needs of local people more accurately? The solution of building an eco-town and building houses across the countryside in Bedfordshire, from Milton Keynes, is not the answer that anyone in Bedfordshire wants.

I have spoken to the Minister about Aspley Guise, a chocolate-box village in my constituency that will be swamped. The way of life and the environment of almost 2,000 people will be decimated by the eco-town. Most people in Bedfordshire have moved there from other areas. I am from Liverpool, and I meet people in Bedfordshire every day from Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and London—many people have moved there from urban areas.

Bedfordshire has been a growing county for some considerable time. People move there for a reason: they have chosen not to live the urban life, but to take their families to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly location. They want a different way of life for their families, and they have moved from areas such as Milton Keynes, and from towns and cities. They have used their life savings, moved their families and bought their homes; they have changed their entire lifestyle to move to Bedfordshire. People who have made that choice see it being taken away from them, and destroyed by the huge amount of development coming into Bedfordshire.

The proposal is for 120,000 homes across Bedfordshire, with 15,000 in the core eco-town development, and there are now proposals to extend the eco-town. That is a massive increase by anyone’s analysis. My entire constituency contains 77,000 constituents, so it will be a massive increase, but where are those people going to work? Are they to work in London? Are there 200,000 jobs in London screaming out for people to do them? Many people say that we are not in a recession at the moment, but are re-evaluating how the country operates economically, how we live our lives, and the viability of our nation’s economy. Given that it probably is a re-evaluation, I should like to know where those jobs will be. We are making people redundant on a daily basis, with 3 million people forecast to be unemployed by the end of next year.

If 120,000 homes are built in the middle of my constituency, where are those people going to work, because there is no employment? Once Center Parcs is built in Mid-Bedfordshire, we will have no unemployment there. We have minimal unemployment at the moment, at 1.1 per cent., the majority of which is in Flitwick, and that will be mopped up and taken care of by the development of Center Parcs. I have backed, approved of and fought for that development all the way, against a number of people in my constituency. It was not a vote winner for me, but I knew it was right, and I backed it for several reasons that I shall not go into now, one of which was that by supporting Center Parcs, we would be doing our bit to reach our economic growth target and to mop up what unemployment we had in the constituency.

I should like the Minister to respond to the issue of housing needs in Bedford. Why can they not be taken care of in Bedford, as people want, and in Luton? Why do they have to be accommodated in the middle of Mid-Bedfordshire?

I have already outlined the fact that the development will destroy the way of life for 2,000 people, but I must point out that the eco-town development alone will be bigger than my constituency’s two main towns, Ampthill and Flitwick. It will be larger than both the main conurbations in my constituency. I am not sure whether the Minister can appreciate the eco-town’s impact on local people, or how angry they are. They feel very angry indeed that the equivalent of almost a new town will land on them—out of the sky—from Westminster. The Minister may reply, “Well, it’ll have to go through the normal planning process.” He nods; I anticipated that would be his comment. However, it is difficult for the local planning process to deny an application for an eco-town if it meets the planning guidance and criteria set down by the Government. If the town were being granted on the basis of whether it was wanted by local people, it would not happen.

The Minister is aware that many other factors will come into play. He is excellent in his role. I constantly praise him and he knows that I think that he is an excellent Minister, so perhaps he could give my constituents some advice: how can they use the planning process to guarantee that the development will not happen? Perhaps he can give us some tips and advice; we would take them most gratefully.

There is another issue that I should like the Minister to address, because I have a particular interest in food security. We are entering difficult times—we have been for some time, as the Minister will also be aware—and the security and independence of energy and food are important issues that we, as a nation, should address. Some 90 per cent. of the land on which the eco-town will be built currently produces food. Bedfordshire has a history of being England’s market garden. At 4 am and 5 am in my constituency, lorries and vans trundle on to the M1, taking their wares to various markets in London. We are good agricultural producers, too: in my constituency, there are busy farmers who work very hard. By taking away all that acreage, which currently produces food, we will reduce our capability to be independent—as producers of our own food. Once that agricultural land is wiped out, we will not get it back, and if we enter stormy waters in the future and need our land to produce food, it will be too late, because it will be full of empty houses that people do not want to live in.

The Minister is aware that many housing associations currently inherit homes from developers who cannot sell them. They are taking over—granted, by purchasing them—homes that developers have built for the market but cannot sell, so where is the sense in the eco-town proposal? I hope that the Minister will extend the boundaries of his reply beyond the eco-town to take in the bigger picture of its expansion—the bigger picture from Milton Keynes down to the M1 and those 120,000 homes, because they will not arrive without the eco-town development. It is the key piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and I believe that is why the Government have proposed it.

The Minister must take on board the fact that the Government have not been completely transparent and open about the issue. He is aware that when his predecessor arrived in my constituency, my office was telephoned at 4.55 pm on a Friday evening to be told that she would arrive on the Monday morning to take a meeting. Fortunately, I work my staff hard, they were still in the office and they took the telephone call, unlike most staff, as the Minister knows, who are gone by then on a Friday afternoon. We therefore knew that the then Minister would be arriving, and we were able to ensure that when she did, she had a welcoming committee, so that she knew local people’s feelings. That took some doing over a weekend.

That is not consultation; that is not transparency; that is not being open and engaging with people, or even engaging with Parliament, about what the Minister does. Let us have a little bit more openness. Will the Minister please provide us with some advice and tips on what my residents can do to make sure that the eco-town does not go through the planning process, and will he please answer the question about Bedford and Luton’s housing needs and the impact of the infrastructure proposal for trains between Bedford and London every three minutes? I will sit down now because I would like the Minister to answer all my questions comprehensively.

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I am sure you will keep me in order during the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on securing it.

The hon. Lady mentioned in her excellent contribution the fact that it is only a matter of weeks since we were discussing Aspley Guise and, following her strong promotion of the area, I have since had a look at the village’s website. I have to agree that it seems an extraordinarily beautiful village. However, it is slightly longer since I have had the opportunity to speak on the matter of eco-towns, so I am grateful to her for securing such a timely and relevant debate.

There has been a great deal of activity in relation to the Government’s programme for eco-towns, not least in the past 24 hours. In responding to the hon. Lady, I would like to do two things: first, provide some context to the programme and, secondly, focus on her specific concerns about the proposed eco-town development at Marston Vale, as well as the wider concept of housing in her area and Bedfordshire as a whole.

The hon. Lady will be aware that, as in the immediate post-war era, housing needs are increasing. That has made it necessary to explore options such as new communities and new ways of living in relation to a green and low-carbon economy. Eco-towns give us an interesting, even unique, opportunity to tackle two of the greatest challenges that this country faces: the pressing need to provide housing—particularly affordable housing—and the need to try to tackle and mitigate the effects of climate change.

In the current economic climate, that is, of course, more challenging, but I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees that everybody deserves a decent home at an affordable price. That is our aim.

Throughout consideration of the eco-towns proposal, I have been blunt and said that it is not a magic wand or the sole answer to our questions about housing delivery. However, again, I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that eco-towns could be exemplars of new ways of living, working and playing in a low-carbon economy and society. They can make an important contribution to the development of new technologies and practices, and we want to encourage that as much as possible.

The nature of the programme means that it is a long-term policy, with a phased approach. The aim is for the first phase of a number of exemplar projects to start in the next couple of years, building on the successes that have occurred in relation to it as a means of moving forward to achieve the 2016 zero-carbon homes target that the hon. Lady mentioned.

The hon. Lady mentioned the judicial review. Before I move on to her specific concerns, I am sure that the House would like an update on that, particularly in relation to the judge’s summary judgment. I am pleased to report that the judge recognised that the Government have acted properly throughout and has dismissed the review on all grounds. That supports the ongoing nature of our consultation. I shall quote from yesterday’s summing up by the judge. In paragraph 13, he states that Better Accessible Responsible Development, the group opposed to the Middle Quinton eco-town proposal,

“submitted that in truth the Eco-towns process was an attempt to outflank the planning system. In my view what is envisaged is a proposed Eco-towns Planning Policy Statement (‘the EPPS’), which will include a list of locations that the Government considers meets its criteria. This seeks to deploy planning law so as to require decision-makers to have regard to the EPPS.”

He goes on to state the following key point:

“In so doing the government is using, rather than outflanking, the planning system. This process would not necessarily compel the grant of planning permission for a location on the list.”

The hon. Lady will want to reflect on that final sentence, which will naturally be of interest to her.

The underlying theme of the hon. Lady’s contribution, having spoken to her about this matter before, seems to be a supposed lack of consultation. Her concern is that the public have not been consulted. I disagree fundamentally with that assessment of the process. She will be aware that, on 4 November, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing announced in the House a second round of consultation on eco-towns based on the draft planning policy statement on eco-towns. That was accompanied by a sustainability appraisal being carried out on both the policy and the 12 shortlisted eco-town locations, including Marston Vale. If I have time, I shall quote from the appraisal for Marston Vale, because it is very important to put a balanced view.

As part of the second-stage consultation, we have been running a number of activities to encourage the giving of the public’s views. The hon. Lady will be aware of the road shows and stakeholder events in venues close to the sites of potential eco-towns, including Marston Vale, as well as online questionnaires and feedback forums. The road shows were designed to help to provide information to people locally and went beyond required consultation practices. They enabled us to hear from hundreds of local people, both for and against eco-towns. They were never intended to be about the detail of individual schemes for proposed locations, but directed people to information and encouraged them to have their say.

I shall move on to the proposals for Marston Vale and the hon. Lady’s concerns. As she is aware, Marston Vale is identified as a priority area for regeneration in the sub-regional strategy, and work on the longer-term growth points towards Marston Vale as the preferred direction for long-term growth. That is acknowledged by local authorities. The proposal for an eco-town at Marston Vale plans to provide about 15,000 homes, with jobs, community infrastructure and open space, which will offer the opportunity for the regeneration being sought. That could have many benefits beyond the building of more homes.

An eco-town proposal for Marston Vale would draw on existing delivery expertise and make good use of former industrial sites. As well as adding to existing settlements and enhancing their eco-credentials, it would help people to live more sustainably by providing access to a variety of infrastructure. The green infrastructure proposed for this eco-town will build on the excellent work by the Marston Vale Trust in this area. There is also potential to deliver sections of the Bedford and Milton Keynes waterway park, which is identified in the east of England plan as a strategically significant green infrastructure project.

There are also proposals for green rapid public transport routes through Marston Vale helping to connect local communities with Bedford and Milton Keynes. Marston Vale, and all the shortlisted locations, has the potential to deliver vital affordable housing for tens of thousands of young people and families. The hon. Lady will agree that their needs cannot be ignored. Those proposals will also help us to respond to the challenges of climate change.

I have mentioned the sustainability appraisal for Marston Vale. Like the majority of the other locations, it has been classed in group B—locations that might be suitable subject to meeting specific planning and design objectives. We are at one of the earliest stages in the process and issues remain to be worked through, at Marston Vale and elsewhere, and the sustainability appraisal identifies those. I shall be blunt with the hon. Lady: the appraisal identifies a number of weaknesses that we would want to see addressed before moving to the next stages.

According to the appraisal, the weaknesses of the Marston Vale location are that

“the proportion of previously developed land is not known as some of the land may have been restored and is not therefore strictly previously developed land”,

and that

“there are features of historic interest within the site that potentially require investment and conservation”.

The third point, about which the hon. Lady spoke strongly, concerns food security. Another key weakness of the location is that

“there may be a loss of productive arable land”.

The appraisal discusses other weaknesses of the proposal, including the presence of priority habitats and species, and water supply status.

Ninety per cent. of the proposed land is arable. The Minister said that the development would make use of previous industrial sites. There are industrial sites there, and that land needs to be taken care of, but 90 per cent. of the proposal deals with greenfield or arable land.

I understand that a sizeable proportion of the proposal is about regenerating former brick pits, but I agree with the hon. Lady’s analysis that food security and the provision of good arable land are important. The sustainability appraisal says strongly that that is a key weakness of the proposal. I am not saying that it is not an issue that needs consideration—of course it is—but I am trying to be as balanced and forthright as possible.

To be balanced, the proposal has a number of strengths, including the potential to generate ecological gain, proximity to Marston Vale community forest for leisure and recreational pursuits, and proximity to railway stations, as the hon. Lady mentioned, for important transport infrastructure.

To work through the proposals, a more detailed assessment is under way covering the scheme’s financial viability, the transport infrastructure requirements and its deliverability. Alongside the sustainability appraisal and feedback from the road shows, the work will help us to make decisions on the final list of locations with the potential to become eco-towns.

I cannot stress enough that we are still at a relatively early stage in the process. A lot of work is being done and a lot of strengths and weaknesses are being identified in Marston Vale and other proposed eco-towns. Further work to ensure that all the proposed locations meet the criteria must be undertaken. The final version of the planning policy statement will be delivered later this year. We have also been working with local authorities and promoters to develop and understand the proposals further, including the proposal for Marston Vale. I hope that that will continue as the eco-towns programme goes forward.

The hon. Lady described the eco-towns vividly as having landed out of the sky from Westminster. I fundamentally disagree. There are concerns in her local community, and others, that the Government have somehow imposed the eco-towns on communities, that there has been some sort of done deal in a smoke-filled room and that eco-towns will go ahead regardless of local people’s feeling. That is categorically not the case. After the announcement of the list of potential locations for eco-towns, individual schemes will need to submit planning applications. They will be for local authorities to determine through the local planning process, which will provide a vital opportunity for further consultation.

The PPS reinforces the Government’s commitment to the plan-led system, as was mentioned by the judge in his summary judgment yesterday. We have undertaken what we believe to be a full and comprehensive consultation at this relatively early stage on the potential eco-towns and the standards that they must meet, which involve very high criteria for environmental sustainability. We also acknowledge that we need to undertake further work.

There is still time for people to feed in their views. That is my tip to the hon. Lady, who asked for advice. Our second consultation on the shortlist of locations and the proposed standards remains open, and I urge people in her constituency and others to contribute. After we have identified a final shortlist of potential locations, developers will need to go through the local planning process. As I have said, that will give people a third opportunity to have their say, but whatever the outcome with Marston Vale, I think she will agree that we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture that she mentioned.

Eco-towns provide an opportunity for hard-working families to have much-needed affordable housing—great, innovative, sustainable places to live—in her area and in others.

Sitting suspended.