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Housing Development (Swindon)

Volume 512: debated on Monday 21 June 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

This is a great opportunity to address the House this evening on a subject that at first blush may seem of only local importance, but which is of wider importance not only regionally but nationally. I am grateful to hon. Members for staying to listen to my remarks. In particular, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who made her maiden speech this evening. She has been a redoubtable campaigner on this important issue—the quality and scale of housing development in her area and nationally. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) faces the same challenges as we face in Swindon.

To the west, Swindon is bordered by the constituency of North Wiltshire. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) shares a deep concern about what is happening to his rural hinterland. To the east, the Wantage constituency is represented by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). He, too, has become increasingly concerned about the potential effects of uncontrolled and unsustainable development.

The issue is not only for academics and planners. For the ordinary residents of my town, it is becoming the most important issue in their lives. Swindon has doubtless benefited greatly from expansion and growth in recent decades. Many would agree that its economic success was underpinned by that growth. However, it has now reached the stage where it is difficult to discern which comes first, rather like the chicken and the egg—is it housing development that engineers growth, or is it the wider economy? I am clearly of the view that it is economics and the country’s economic situation that fuels the growth of towns such as Swindon, and that housing development, important though it is, is not the engine of economic growth.

We in Swindon are increasingly in danger of moving from a system of predicting growth and then providing houses, to one of providing houses and hoping, like Mr. Micawber, for something to turn up. Until the election and the welcome change brought about by the new coalition Government, we in Swindon were facing an extra allocation of 37,000 new homes in only 16 years, 2026 being the target date. We already have thousands of new homes being developed both to the north and to the south of the town, and many of those who live there do not work in Swindon.

The question that many local people are rightly asking me and others is, “Who is going to live in all these new homes?” Another question they rightly ask is, “Where is the infrastructure going to come from? Who is going to pay for that?” The pressure on road infrastructure, drainage and existing services could become so unbearable that Swindon risks being strangled by inappropriate expansion. Even allowing for the recent recession, housing development locally has proceeded at a breathtaking pace. Although we are nowhere near the heady heights of the middle of the past decade, when more than 2,000 homes a year were being completed, average house completions locally have reached 1,100 to 1,200 a year for the past 15 years or so.

I have mentioned ongoing development, but we face the spectre of more and unsustainable development in several forms. To the east of the A419, the eastern development area has been developed by the local authority in response to the unsustainable housing target imposed upon it by the regional spatial strategy—12,000 homes in an area that is too small. It represents too high a density and the sort of urban extension that, rather like the layers of an onion, creates more problems for existing infrastructure and residents. To the immediate west of my constituency in north Wiltshire, we face thousands more homes being earmarked on land areas immediately adjoining west Swindon. The problem there is compounded by not only the lack of infrastructure, but the fact that any planning gain, in the form of section 106 moneys, will be retained by another local authority. In other words, Swindon will have to take all the pain while having none of the gain. That is yet another urban extension to the west.

Is that a spatial strategy? Of course it is not. There is no regard whatever for the need for rural buffers, and no understanding of the importance of the words “sustainable development”. If we are to translate those laudable sentiments into something real, we must acknowledge that it is time for a different approach.

I thoroughly welcome the Government’s commitment to the withdrawal of the RSS and housing targets, but we are now walking—this is my principal worry and the main reason for tonight’s debate—into a potential planning vacuum. Like politics and nature, planning abhors a vacuum, and already we see developers making planning applications locally: 800 homes to the immediate west of Swindon, on the Ridgeway Farm area; and 950 homes just to the east, on the much-loved Coate country park. These applications are being made for a reason: planners believe that into the vacuum something must fall, and that something is the existing housing figures and the existing evidence that was presented to the inquiry in public in 2006.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I do not represent Swindon or Wiltshire, but this is an issue in other parts of the country. He talks in particular about the vacuum that exists. Although in my constituency we are grateful that the regional spatial strategy has gone, we are unsure as to where the local development framework is heading. We have the reverse situation, with small communities being deemed unsustainable when we know that they are sustainable.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Into the vacuum that is being created by the current change will fall, to my great concern, applications that will seek to take advantage of current evidence. We need quick action from local authorities to change their approach. But as well as scrapping the RSS and housing targets, we need to get rid of the system of five-year land supply. At a stroke, that system continues to cause problems for local authorities when allowing them genuine autonomy in making planning decisions. My worry is that that system will be used by applicants and developers to force local authorities into having to grant wholly unsuitable applications. It would be tragic if, despite the coalition’s excellent work in freeing up councils to make local decisions, they were left still hoist by that petard. Local planning with financial incentives for allowing development, and incentives for working with neighbouring councils to deliver growth figures for the Swindon travel-to-work area, represent the best way forward for a sustainable Swindon that works well for all its residents and businesses.

I am not opposed to organic growth and expansion, but I am opposed to command and control time frames and targets that make a mockery of sustainable development. We should let councils get on with the job. Let us forget about 2026 and 37,000 new homes. Let us trust local authorities to earmark areas for sustainable development with the consent and involvement of local residents in order to create a Swindon that works. I look to the new Government for their strong support for that new approach to planning and housing development not only in Swindon, but nationally—one that rewards sustainable development and encourages developers to build wisely and well.

Mr Speaker, earlier I notified you that I wished my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) to contribute to this debate, bearing in mind his obvious interest and concern, so I shall now resume my seat.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this Adjournment debate, which is extremely important for our town. It is a real credit to my colleague that he has secured this debate so early in the parliamentary cycle, and I thank also the Minister, who visited Swindon within days of the new Government being formed.

I wish to highlight two issues. In my maiden speech I touched on the first problem, which is associated with high-density developments. They produce a lack of open space for activities involving jumpers for goalposts and, in particular, young children’s sporting activities. That in turn leads to increased levels of childhood obesity and, potentially, to antisocial behaviour, because their endless enthusiasm is not burned off. I have further concerns about shrinking gardens, which have fallen in size by about one third since the 1960s, and we also have problems with a lack of parking provision. Residents are creative and will find their own parking spaces, including on pavements and roundabouts, which creates a real nightmare, particularly on school runs, as mothers have to push their prams and pushchairs on to the main road. That is very dangerous, and emergency vehicles often cannot gain access to certain roads.

The second problem is unadopted roads. Developers, as they sell houses on the new roads, make every effort with maintenance, but during the delay between the last house being sold and the area being adopted maintenance levels all too often fall away. It often takes far too long for areas to be adopted, and there is seemingly no incentive for developers to complete their task quickly. Despite the glossy sales brochures that they put out promising all sorts of glorious infrastructure, it either arrives late or not at all. On that issue, I would push for stronger powers to create a bond scheme, into which developers would have to pay in advance of a development. If they did not keep to pre-agreed levels of maintenance, the local authority could carry out the work and deduct the cost of it from the bond. That would encourage developers to secure the area’s adoption quicker, because they would then be able to reclaim their bond. Let us not forget that, while the area is unadopted, local residents still pay council tax.

However, I welcome the Government’s announcements on the ability to create lower-density developments. During my 10 years as a councillor I found the previous situation very frustrating, in that I could protest if a development were not high enough in density, but not if it were not low enough. I also support the powers to defend gardens through our anti-garden-grabbing policies. We are moving in the right direction, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon and I will be strong advocates of those two development prongs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing this debate, which is excellent and timely, given all the changes in housing and planning, and given what is going on in Swindon. I am tempted to say that he has done such a great job, there is almost nothing that requires a response. He has simply nailed the subject in a manner that has eluded the packed Labour Benches. [Laughter.] Despite having professed great interest in housing over the years, Labour Members have let themselves down this evening by failing to turn up at all.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) mentioned, I went to Swindon the other week, and I found a place that is keen to build more homes. It has made a name for itself by building not just a few, but tens of thousands of new homes, developing new communities and putting in infrastructure. It has seen some of the key advantages of sustainable development, but now it has a problem. The previous Government insisted that there could almost never be enough homes in Swindon and that the only way to convince locals, who had already produced so much additional housing, to build more, was to introduce top-down targets. They thought that the way to do that was to divide the targets up, through the regional spatial strategy, into a figure.

That was simply unsustainable from the point of view of infrastructure or of bringing in the right kind of vibrancy or sustainability to Swindon and the surrounding area—“Greater Swindon” we might call it. When we were in opposition it seemed to us that no matter how much we explained that to Ministers in the previous Government, they could not understand how or why the harder we push down from above and the more we try to impose housing targets, the fewer homes get built.

It is a question of human nature. If we tell someone to do something, give them no choice and exclude them from the decision-making process, they are much more likely to object to the overall plan. By contrast, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon so clearly identified in an eloquent and purposeful speech, we should give people the option, the tools and the benefits of development. We have a proposal to provide on an ongoing basis six years’ worth of council tax for every single new home that is built, and 125% match funding when it is an affordable home. That means that we are saying to local people, “When you build homes, you will get not only the additional housing and a bit of the inconvenience that that might bring, but new infrastructure and facilities and a sense of ownership, because you will decide whether the homes are built or not.”

I should like to address a number of specific questions that have been raised; they were well made and absolutely to the point, and they helped to explain the coalition Government’s policy in these areas. There is the question of the five-year land target. In the previous Administration’s view, unless local authorities planned for five, or even 15, years’ worth of land availability for housing, land simply would not become available. That is because they simply did not trust people.

By contrast, we have said that, with the abolition of regional spatial strategies, we will ensure that the incentive scheme is all that is required to guarantee that local authorities will want to look a reasonable distance in advance to decide whether they need to make land available. That can be done according to local objectives, with local plans in mind and without reference to regional spatial strategies imposed on the area by national Government.

I confirm to my hon. Friend that, although we will not impose five-year plans, we freely expect that many councils will want to adopt them. They may want to look ahead, mainly for reasons of their own financial and sustainable development, to see whether they want to pinpoint land because they will know that a large chunk of their funding will be down to their decision about how much development they want in their area. I confirm to my hon. Friend that the decision will be a local one.

My hon. Friend made a great contribution and raised a number of key issues. As Swindon has got bigger and its population has grown, density has become an issue. As he rightly identified, gardens have got smaller, properties have got smaller, and garden grabbing has become all too common. We simply have to put a stop to the situation. Indeed, we will put a stop to the situation. We have already announced that garden grabbing is to end, and that gardens will, properly, be described as greenfield, which they so obviously are, not brownfield, as the previous Government insisted that they should be described. Instead, people should be allowed to identify, on a local basis, the density of housing that is right for their community. Those in Swindon, who are admirably pro-sustainable development, will no doubt come to a perfectly balanced and justifiable decision about how dense housing should be in future.

It is worth touching on what my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon said about the lack of infrastructure that too often accompanies developments. Where a planning authority is going to give the go-ahead to new housing, it will be able to make a simple calculation. It will take the amount of council tax that will be collected from the band of house that is to be built on that site by a developer and multiply that by six, and then it will know precisely how much money there will be over that period of years to invest in infrastructure, local facilities and services. So the guesswork is gone. No more will we have the randomness of the housing planning delivery grant, doled out by Ministers from this Dispatch Box in random circumstances for the past few years without anybody having a clue as to how on earth that was accountable to the actual level of delivery in the area. Instead, the incentive scheme will link this directly with the aspiration in the area to build more homes. No longer will we have growth point funding, with its random delivery based on the whim of the latest Minister—and Housing Ministers tended to come and go very quickly under the previous Government—in wanting to deliver more money to their chosen project or pet area. Instead, funding is guaranteed and locked into the housing incentive.

I was very attracted to a new idea put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon in relation to what happens when a new estate is developed. Like him, I have a lot of new housing in my constituency, and I am afraid that the issue of adoption rears its ugly head. One finds time after time that, although these developments have been finished for five, six or seven years, the basic services are not available. For example, there is no way of ensuring that police can come and police the roads because the roads have not been properly adopted. Dealing with issues such as speeding, antisocial behaviour and repairs to vital services is often a huge struggle for local residents. I was interested by my hon. Friend’s idea of a bond scheme of some type. I will take that away and have a further think about how it could be implemented.

It would be wrong not to mention the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) about housing in a rural context. I think that to the west of Swindon, on the Wiltshire border, there is a proposal for 3,000 properties on a rural site and therefore connected to this debate. Our plan is to introduce local housing trusts, which means trusting local people to decide whether they want to grant themselves planning permission in order to build properties in that location. So if people want to save their local school, which might be struggling with only a half form entry, save a post office, or keep a convenience store in the village, all those things not only become possible but are in the hands of local people in that more rural setting. My hon. Friend made a very valuable contribution.

The issue of the 3,000 homes immediately to the west of my constituency is all about the urban extension nightmare versus the local vision that my right hon. Friend has been elucidating. Instead of a rural buffer with a sustainable rural settlement, we are facing yet another extension of Swindon into open countryside, with all the problems that that will engender.

I certainly recognise the problems that my hon. Friend describes, and the interesting thing is that I just do not think it needs to be like that. It is a matter of fact that other countries have already discovered the value of what we are now implementing. In future, under our incentive scheme, local authorities will not push development away across the border. In fact, they will want to welcome it into their areas. Why? Because there will be six years’ worth of council tax incentive there for them if they accept it on their side of the fence. Already in places such as Sweden and Germany, areas vie to allow people to build homes, and under our scheme that can happen here in our country, too.

Where homes are on the boundary of two different authorities, is it not right that there should be an agreement between those authorities? Should they not come to some sort of settlement? We will ensure that there is a duty to co-operate. In other words, one authority—Swindon or Wiltshire in this case—could not simply build all its homes along its boundaries. Instead the authorities would have to co-operate with each other, and we will ensure that the local plans to achieve that are signed off.

I happen to know that Swindon’s local development framework is now out for consultation and therefore quite close to being filed. The previous system of local development frameworks was so incredibly complex that very few local authorities in the country—just 16%—ever got around to filing them, despite the fact that they have been around and worked on for the past four years. The one in Swindon is close, and it will now be for Swindon borough council to decide whether it wishes to go back and have another look at it before filing it, and what it wants to do with the housing demands placed on it under the regional spatial strategy. In doing so, it will want to examine its budgets and give proper consideration to the next five, 10 or 20 years, or whatever time it thinks appropriate for the needs of its community, not some random date of 2026 prescribed in a regional spatial strategy. It will be able to ask itself, “Is this appropriate or not, and how much development needs to be done to ensure that we have the budgetary means to sustain our area?”

In other words, for the first time there will be a properly joined-up system that not only puts local people back in control of their housing but provides proper incentives to ensure that in future, rather than people in any area being told where, when and how to build homes, and how many to build, local people and localism will dictate the shape of future communities.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.