It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting this matter for debate. It is of intense importance to my constituents in Boorley Green and Botley, whose homes will be blighted if their pleasant rural setting is developed as a new town. The planning process has let them down badly.
There are two groups of issues. The first relates to the substantive issue of whether it is right to build 6,000 new homes in a new town in the strategic development area north and north-east of Botley and Hedge End. The second group of issues concerns the way in which the decision, now incorporated in the south-east plan, was taken. It is my contention that the consultation process was so fundamentally flawed that Ministers must start again.
Let me deal with the substance first. Neither I nor my constituents are nimbys, motivated by the feeling that new homes should be “not in my back yard”. In Eastleigh we have had intensive debates over the years about where new housing should go, based on an acceptance that later marriage, earlier divorce and longer lives add up to more local housing need. The borough adamantly opposed a previous plan proposed by Conservative-controlled Hampshire county council for a new town on Allington lane, which would have destroyed the distinctiveness of the surrounding communities in West End, Hedge End, Fair Oak, Horton Heath, Bishopstoke and Eastleigh.
Even though that new town was never built, Eastleigh has met high targets for housing on brownfield land such as the Pirelli and Causton sites. We have a local track record of taking tough decisions to ensure that we have the housing that local people need, but not by destroying the communities that we love. We have maintained the strategic gaps between our settlements and prevented a sprawling Solent city from merging the villages into one long urban area from Totton in the west to Waterlooville in the east. Ministers should give us credit for meeting targets and therefore give us the benefit of the doubt when we oppose this similar new town.
In particular, local residents are greatly concerned about the impact on their area and its environment, including an increased likelihood of flooding, loss of countryside and prime agricultural land, traffic, road infrastructure, sewerage infrastructure, water supply, school and health provision, jobs and emergency service provision. I should mention at this point the opposition of the local parish and town council and Eastleigh borough council. They objected in 2005 when the draft plan came forward and have kept on objecting. I have written to object on numerous occasions. Local residents signed a petition, which I handed in to the House last autumn, and the Botley parish action group has been set up to oppose the plans.
Just as importantly, my constituents feel aggrieved because they have not been properly consulted about a plan that will have enormous and far-reaching effects on their lives. If a neighbour wanted to add a house extension, they would have to apply to Eastleigh borough council for planning permission. Each neighbour would receive individually addressed letters alerting them to the plan and asking for comments. However, it seems that in England’s green and pleasant land, people can build an entire new town without telling the villagers most affected.
When I wrote with my objections, I received from the Ministers merely an indirect reply that consultation had taken place. That is not the point; the point is whether the consultation was good and thorough enough. Was it good enough? I believe the consultation to be at variance with the legal requirements and as such to be an obstacle to the adoption of the south-east plan. I believe that if there were a judicial review of the decision-making process, a judge would rule that the process was so flawed that it should begin again. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will consider that option now and I would like his response to that proposal. Will he reconsider the south-east plan at least as far as it affects the proposal for an SDA north and north-east of Botley and Hedge End?
In many cases, constituents received no notice whatever, as even a general outline of the proposals was not delivered to them. That is in stark contrast to the legal requirements set out for adoption of the plan. Let me start with the requirements, which are stated in planning policy statement 11 on regional spatial strategies, published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2004. Paragraph 2.17 states:
“It is essential that the public is able to be involved throughout the RSS revision process and this should include broad public consultation rather than relying on targeted consultation with particular groups.”
Paragraph 2.18 makes it clear that the “pre-submission consultation statement” required under regulation 13 must “not restrict itself” to how consultation has been carried out but must go further and summarise how the regional planning body
“has engaged stakeholders and the wider public in the preparation of the revision on a basis of active participation. It is essential that this pre-submission participation is not viewed as a one-off and fixed period of consultation on an early draft of the revision. Rather, it is a more continuous process of proactive involvement as explained above.”
The RPB is required under section 4 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to seek the advice of bodies with strategic planning expertise when preparing, keeping under review and monitoring the implementation of a revision of the RSS. Those bodies are defined in section 4(4) of the Act as a county council, metropolitan district council, national park authority or a district council for an area for which there is no county council.
I assume that the RPB sought the advice of the relevant authority in the case of Botley and Boorley Green—Hampshire county council—and that is why HCC appears to have been charged with overseeing what consultation there was. Was there any formal arrangement between the RPB and HCC to handle the consultation, and which body bears the responsibility for what failed to happen?
I now turn to the facts of the inadequate consultation. The “South Hampshire Sub-regional Strategy, Background Document 3, Statement of Consultation”, published in December 2005 by the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire—PUSH—of which HCC is the only relevant section 4(4) member, gives both the procedure followed and the results of the consultation on the SDA. Paragraph 2.2 states:
“The Options for the three sub-areas of Hampshire—North Hampshire, South Hampshire, and Central Hampshire & New Forest—were set in a single document called ‘Where Shall We Live?’…This was targeted at stakeholders. In addition a special edition of the County Council’s residents magazine ‘Hampshire Now’…exclusively dealing with this topic, was distributed to homes across the County Council’s area.”
That edition of Hampshire Now was partly distributed with free newspapers and failed to reach the homes of many residents, including those living in the area most affected by the proposal, namely Boorley Green and Botley. Should the Minister require this, I can arrange to deposit with him affidavits from residents in the most affected area, who will be surrounded by new estates if the proposal goes ahead. They are prepared to testify that they never received that document. Indeed, the minutes of Eastleigh borough council—a participant in PUSH but not a section 4(4) council under the Act—state for the full council meeting of 2 October 2008:
“There is significant evidence that many residents in the rural part of the borough”—
the part most affected—
“failed to receive regional assembly and county council consultation material”
during the formative stages of the South East plan
“ahead of the Examination in Public”.
It is also important to note that, even if a local resident received the edition of Hampshire Now, they would have had a very general reference, so that a specific response about the siting of the SDA would have been impossible. That was admitted in a letter dated 25 November 2008 from Hampshire county council—the relevant section 4(4) council—to a member of the local action group, which states:
“The county council would agree that sufficient detail and information should be provided in any consultation, but this has to be subject to information availability. At the time of the 2005 consultation, the SDA proposal had not been developed by PUSH”—
which includes Portsmouth, Southampton and Hampshire, the three section 4(4) councils in the area—
“in any greater detail than being ‘to the north/north east of Hedge End’ so it was not possible to be more specific than this in the consultation documents”.
The reason why I am pressing the Minister so hard to review those plans is precisely that I fear that the Conservatives, despite what they say locally, are not to be trusted on this matter. After all, Hampshire county council is Conservative controlled, but it also owns much of the land on which the SDA would be built. The Conservative county group has merely said that it has “no plans” to sell the land for the SDA, not that it will not sell the land. It could stop the plan in its tracks, but it has not.
Moreover, it is a matter of public record that the Conservative party has received substantial political contributions from house-building companies that have been active in Hampshire, as well as from their owners. For example, Conservative-controlled Hampshire county council now proposes to build a gravel pit on Hamble airfield, near the SDA. It has the support of the owners, Persimmon Homes, presumably because Persimmon knows that that will make it far easier eventually to get permission for new houses on the site. Duncan H. Davidson of Persimmon has given £32,000 to the Conservative party, and the company has given a further £10,000, according to public information on the Electoral Commission website. There is a similar pattern with Barratts—Lawrence A. Barratt has donated to the Conservative party—and with Berkeley Homes, whose founder, Mr. Tony Pidgley, is a substantial Conservative party donor.
I am not saying that there is anything so simple or corrupt as a deal—cash for planning permissions—in any of these cases. I am merely stating that it is hardly likely that the leading movers and shakers in Britain’s greenfield housing industry would all donate to the Conservative party if they thought that it would block their proposals. As Mr. Davidson of Persimmon has been quoted as saying in The Daily Telegraph, the Conservative party represents
“the best prospect for our industry and our company”.
My constituents in Botley and Boorley Green had better be warned, and that gives added urgency to the need to review the plan now.
In sum, the consultation on the south-east plan was clearly not—at least in so far as it affected my constituents—issued under the relevant Act, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, as required under planning policy statement 11. The flawed consultation process, which involved a failure to contact those with a legitimate interest in the decisions and a failure to set out the proposals in enough detail for people to be able to make meaningful comment, must lead us to scrap the conclusions and start again. Will the Minister give my constituents that commitment today?
As ever, Mr. Jones, it is an absolute pleasure to serve under you. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) on securing the debate on an issue that is important to him and to a number of his constituents and others living in the area. Having listened to his remarks at the end of his speech, I would be extremely concerned if conflicts of interest over political donations had not been managed appropriately. I know that he is not suggesting that that is the case, but that he does not know.
Let me start by providing some background to the proposals for a strategic development area centred around the north and north-east of Hedge End. The Hedge End SDA is a long-standing commitment, which was born out of workshops hosted by PUSH, of which Eastleigh borough council is a member, to discuss the sub-regional aspects of the draft south-east plan. Those discussions led to proposals for the SDAs at Hedge End and Fareham, and the proposals were provided to the South East England regional assembly, under the banner of PUSH, for inclusion in the draft regional spatial strategy.
Let me take this opportunity to address the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the process that was followed to finalise the south-east plan and, in particular, about how the views of local representatives and local residents were sought and considered. The original draft was prepared by the South East England regional assembly. It was then submitted to the Government office for testing and final approval. From the outset, the draft plan included proposals for an SDA at Hedge End.
When work began on the plan in 2003, it was subject to extensive consultation. Between April and May 2004, more than 1,000 stakeholders took part in workshops, which helped to shape the consultation draft of the plan. Following the launch of the public consultation in January 2005, more than 6,000 print and electronic copies of the plan were distributed. More than 14,000 copies of the plan executive summary were requested, and further workshops were held to encourage responses from hard-to-reach groups. Assembly members attended almost 100 public and stakeholder meetings on the plan. In addition, a number of public opinion surveys were carried out on behalf of the assembly, gathering views on key plan policies from a representative sample of the region’s population.
By the time the consultation closed in April 2005, more than 2,500 written responses had been received from stakeholders and the public. A questionnaire on key plan policies was distributed to 3.2 million households and organisations, including local authorities and town and parish councils. The questionnaire attracted a further 61,746 responses.
All that consultation predated the examination in public. The proposals for an SDA at Hedge End were discussed at that examination, and PUSH submitted a statement for the examination panel to consider, setting out the justification for the SDA. The examination panel supported the principle of the SDA at Hedge End, noting that its selection had been challenged by a number of participants, but concluding that it was, on balance, a sound choice.
Following the examination, the Secretary of State published her proposed changes to the draft plan in July 2008. At the time, everyone who responded to earlier rounds of consultation was sent notification that the documents were available and was given details on how copies could be obtained.
I am grateful to the Minister for that. Nobody contests the fact that there was substantial consultation throughout the south-east on the south-east plan. The real issue is whether there was consultation with those in the area— particularly in Boorley Green and Botley—who would be most affected. I have given the Minister very clear evidence that the consultation did not reach those people. On that basis, does he agree that the process should start again?
I can certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that there were distribution difficulties. He talked about Hampshire Now and said that many of those on whose behalf he has articulated the arguments complained that they had not received a copy of the paper. I accept that there were distribution difficulties with it, but it was made available in public libraries, citizens advice bureaux, museums, GPs’ surgeries, petrol stations and local shops. One would have hoped that that would mitigate some of the difficulties with the distribution.
Surely the key point is that if someone proposed an extension to their house, individual addressed letters from the planning authority would, under existing planning law, alert those affected by what was going on. Here, we have an example of a far more significant potential development, which would completely surround a peaceful rural haven, but there was no consultation. As the Minister has admitted, there were major problems. It is simply not good enough to say that paperwork was available in a local public library, because we know that that is not good enough when it comes, for example, to individual planning applications. We do not just put them in the public library. We go out of our way to alert the individuals who will be affected.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, but the way in which individual planning applications are dealt with is a separate issue from the way in which we dealt with the case in question. Despite the distribution difficulties that I have outlined, the handling of the matter is viewed as, on balance, adequate. However, for a number of people it will not have been adequate, and that is why we are having this debate.
I want to say a few words about the hard work, of which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, that has been done in south Hampshire to set up the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire and, in particular, to publish the south Hampshire agreement, which is a multi-area agreement on behalf of, and with input from, the 11 local authorities that make up PUSH. In addition to the agreement of those authorities, the MAA has the agreement of Transport for South Hampshire, which is the delivery agent for sub-regional transport plans, policies and programmes, along with other regional partners including Jobcentre Plus, the learning and skills council, Business Link and the development agency.
Multi-area agreements are a mechanism that makes possible a new way of working at national and local levels, with the fundamental aim of driving economic development. The south Hampshire agreement will support the delivery of the partnership’s ambitious programme by strengthening partnership working between local partners, departments and agencies. With such agreements, PUSH and its key partners will achieve more rapid and certain progress in delivery on the ground, particularly in relation to skills, employment, housing supply and regional economic performance.
The Homes and Communities Agency has recently announced an investment commitment of more than £75 million in the south Hampshire sub-region. By working with the partnership, the HCA has been able to ensure that the funding will bring the greatest benefits to the area. That level of investment will act as a driver for the local economy and will provide the opportunity for hundreds of jobs in the construction industry. The Government have also committed to spending in the region of £300 million of investment for housing in the PUSH area to 2011, of which £169 million has been allocated specifically for affordable housing. The need for affordable housing has been established by studies throughout the past 12 years, most recently by the strategic housing market assessment carried out on behalf of all the districts in the PUSH sub-region, which noted that 4,520 households were accepted as being in housing need in Eastleigh in 2005. The figure had risen to 5,604 by December 2008, representing 11 per cent. of all households in the borough.
I entirely accept what the Minister says about the need for extra housing. Of course he knows, because I cited the evidence, that the borough has a good track record. The problem at the moment is that much of the private sector housing that would unlock that social housing is not being completed, because of the housing recession. That has nothing to do with the planning process. Therefore it is not relevant to the key issue of whether the consultation process was in line with the legal requirements. Does the Minister accept that the consultation process was, as I have outlined, not in line with the legal requirements?
The simple answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that on balance we do not accept that the consultation was illegitimate. I have said that there were difficulties in distribution but that, because of other measures that were taken, it was deemed adequate. He will be well aware that the cost of entry-level homes in his constituency is nine and half times the district’s lower quartile earnings figure. I know that he wants to focus on the consultation, but it is critical that I should focus on housing needs. It is difficult to disaggregate one little part from the larger plan, as he would like me to. It may help if I tell him that the consultation on the south-east plan was undertaken in accordance with the advice in planning policy statement 11.
The SDA is a long-established element in the sub-regional approach of the PUSH authorities to delivering their agreed target of 80,000 homes by 2026, and 6,000 of those are proposed at the Hedge End SDA. The core authorities’ own reporting shows more than 30,000 households currently in housing need. The hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about aspects of the proposed SDA, and particularly the pressure that such development might put on local infrastructure. I am sure that he would agree that the funding already committed to transport schemes in the PUSH area will help to alleviate some of the pressures on the road network. There have been capacity improvements to the M27 between junctions 3 to 4 and 11 to 12 within the last year, and since the Solent travelcard scheme was introduced in 2004, there has been an increase of 250,000 journeys undertaken by public transport. Those are just two examples of the work being undertaken.
The pressures on infrastructure are not limited to transport, and in publishing the south-east plan the Government have set the strategic planning context for decision makers in the south-east of England for the period to 2026. Perhaps I should also point out that there might be opportunities in the development of the local development framework to raise some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised and to shape development in the areas about which he is concerned. The plan also contains policies that focus on sustainable growth to provide the development that is needed, while ensuring the protection of the environment, such as the requirement for local authorities to carry out strategic flood risk assessments and to avoid a net loss of, or actively to seek a gain in, biodiversity. I know that he is concerned about those issues. The Planning Act 2008 introduced a community infrastructure levy which will allow local authorities to raise considerable funds for infrastructure in their areas. The Government consider that to be critical for the future delivery of infrastructure projects.
The proposed SDA at Hedge End represents a targeted approach to development that is a good thing for the economic development and sustainability of the south Hampshire sub-region and south-east England as a whole. I know that the hon. Gentleman may not be fully content with my response, but I am sure that his constituents can be fully content that they have a powerful advocate in their Member of Parliament.