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Rushden Lakes and Skew Bridge (Planning)

Volume 582: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2014

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

First, I would like to thank Mr Speaker for granting me tonight’s Adjournment debate on the Rushden Lakes and Skew bridge planning application. This is the most important issue that has affected my constituency in the nine years that I have had the great privilege and honour of representing the people of Wellingborough and Rushden.

I am also delighted that we have on the Treasury Bench the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is of course the Minister for planning. My hon. Friend is rightly regarded as one of the most radical and innovative thinkers on the Government Benches, and while I do not always agree with him, more times than not I do. He is certainly prepared to make people think and to challenge the status quo. What is more remarkable is that he has been able to continue to do this while he has been a Government Minister. I also want to thank Eliza Richardson and Harriet Pentland for their help with the preparation of this speech.

Tonight’s Adjournment debate is unusual: it is not one of those debates that slams the Government for not doing something, claims that they are not listening, or demands that they spend more taxpayers’ money. It is a joyous occasion: a celebration of localism working. It is a celebration of a Conservative-led campaign that has succeeded; and it is a celebration of part of my constituency being transformed.

Rushden Lakes and Skew bridge was a major planning application in the east Northamptonshire part of my constituency. The site lies to the west of Rushden, within the River Nene valley, with the river and gravel pit lakes as its northern boundary and the A45 as its southern boundary. The size and nature of the application meant that it was called in by the Department for Communities and Local Government. That resulted in a public inquiry, which was held on 25 to 28 June, 2 to 5 July and 9 to 12 July 2013. The planning inspector reported on 14 November 2013.

The hybrid planning application comprised a full application for the erection of a home and garden centre, retail units, drive-through restaurant, gatehouse, lakeside visitors centre, restaurants, boathouse, together with proposals for access and an entire outline application for the erection of a hotel, crèche and leisure club with some matters reserved; plus the removal of a ski slope and associated levelling, landscaping, habitat management and servicing proposals together with the provision of car and cycle parking and a bus stop.

I am pleased to say that at 9.30 on Thursday 12 June, the Secretary of State approved the application. That is tremendous news for my constituents. Rushden Lakes will benefit not only Wellingborough and Rushden but the whole of Northamptonshire.

The delivery of Rushden Lakes is clear evidence that our long-term economic plan is working not only for the country, but for Wellingborough and Rushden. It shows that a Conservative Government, a Conservative MP, a first-class Conservative candidate in Corby and east Northamptonshire and local councillors and Conservative activists all working together have delivered a massive investment in east Northamptonshire.

I do not intend to give way in this debate because of the amount of issues that I want to cover tonight.

Contrast that with 13 years of Labour when we did not see any investment in east Northamptonshire; we just saw public services shut down. This development will bring 2,000 permanent new jobs to the area alongside fantastic new retail, tourist and leisure facilities, including a leisure club and a hotel as well as many retail units.

There are also plans for: a wildlife and recreational area with facilities for bird watching, cycling and boating; waterfront restaurants; a hotel and crèche; a lakeside visitors centre; and a home and garden centre.

It is fantastic to see the potential of a previously unused, brownfield site that has sadly fallen into disrepair finally being unlocked and developed for locals and tourists to enjoy. Not only will they have a fantastic range of shops on their doorsteps, but they will be able to make the most of the River Nene and the wildlife that the area has to offer.

Too often, Rushden has been overlooked for investment. That was particularly true during the 13 years of the previous Labour Government. This development marks a new beginning for Rushden and the surrounding area. Rushden Lakes will serve to bolster further the local economy’s already growing employment rate. Official figures show that unemployment has fallen dramatically in north Northamptonshire over the past 12 months. In Kettering, unemployment fell last month from 2,269 to 1,590—a drop of 679 or 30%.

In Corby, unemployment is 1,868 compared with 2,754 a year ago—a fall of approximately a third—which means that 886 families now have a breadwinner.

I am not giving way tonight.

In Wellingborough, the figures are even better. There are 1,904 people unemployed compared with 3,003 a year ago, which means that 1,099 people have gained work, with a drop in unemployment of well over a third. The three constituencies of Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough will benefit even more from the 2,000 jobs that will be created by Rushden Lakes. The Prime Minister’s long-term economic plan is clearly working in our community.

Rushden Lakes is a development that has overwhelming local support, and it is one of the biggest issues on the doorstep in my constituency. It is a key part of the joint listening campaign that I run in Wellingborough and Rushden, along with Tom Pursglove, the Conservative party’s superb parliamentary candidate for Corby and east Northants. The philosophy behind that campaign is quite simple. Instead of politicians telling local people what they should care about and what they should think, the reverse is the case. I in Wellingborough and Rushden and Tom in Corby and east Northants, spend a great deal—

I am not giving way. I will tell the hon. Gentleman this: he should be at Kettering hospital getting the splinters taken out of his backside for sitting on the fence for so long over this matter.

Order. Hon. Members must be careful to temper the language that they use about each other. If the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) does not wish to give way, that is his choice. However frustrated the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) might feel, we must abide by the rules of the House. I hope that we can temper the heat in the Chamber at the moment.

I apologise entirely, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am so annoyed by the appalling point of order yesterday for which I expect an apology.

I in Wellingborough and Rushden and Tom in Corby and east Northants spend a great deal of our time knocking on doors, attending meetings and sending out surveys to find out what local people are thinking about and concerned about. Once we have established which issues concern people in our community, we then campaign on them. Rushden Lakes was clearly a project that had overwhelming support, and it became a major part of our joint listening campaign. As long ago as the autumn of 2012, it has featured heavily in the campaign. In the Corby parliamentary by-election, with our excellent candidate Christine Emmett supporting the campaign and Tom Pursglove co-ordinating the day-to-day running of the project, Skew Bridge and Rushden Lakes became a major issue.

It is laughable that, Labour-controlled Corby council having opposed the development, Labour is now trying to take credit for a Conservative project, devised by a Conservative council, supported by a Conservative MP, campaigned for by a Conservative parliamentary candidate, and approved by a Conservative-led Government—to put it bluntly, Labour had absolutely nothing to do with the success of Rushden Lakes—and all that in spite of Labour trying to block investment and growth in the area.

The Labour leader of Corby council, Councillor Tom Beattie, has long been opposed to the development that my area so badly needs. Amazingly, on hearing the announcement, he described the news as “disappointing”, going on to say that he was

“disappointed for the traders and disappointed for the people who live in Corby”.

It is extraordinary for local Labour politicians to want to deprive the people of north Northamptonshire of much needed local investment and facilities. Extraordinary, yes; surprising, no. Sadly, this reaction is typical of Labour’s ingrained anti-business and anti-growth attitude. Thank goodness common sense and localism have prevailed.

I have campaigned locally and in Parliament to give Rushden Lakes the green light. On 29 November 2012, I delivered a petition to Parliament in support of the development, with the best part of 1,000 signatures. I have never known such a popular planning proposal in my nine years of representing Wellingborough and Rushden. In fact, the Library of the House of Commons told me that this was the second most popular planning application. In other words, when there is a planning application, most people write in to oppose it; in the case of Rushden Lakes, vast numbers of people wrote in to support it.

I have asked many written and oral parliamentary questions on this issue to the Prime Minister, the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Minister with responsibility for employment, as well as writing to the Planning Inspectorate. In addition, I spoke at the planning inquiry.

The fight to get Rushden Lakes under way would not have been possible without the unwavering support of all the local campaigners. There are some notable individuals who deserve a special mention for all that they have done to get the planning proposals through. There are so many to mention that I will undoubtedly miss out some key players, but they will know who they are and the excellent work that they have done. We had a most remarkable response to the campaign.

I start by thanking Councillors David and Barbara Jenney. David as my association chairman and Barbara through her personal efforts have been a great source of advice and help. I also thank Councillors Gill and Andy Mercer, who are the backbone of all the hard-working Conservative campaigning activity in Rushden, Councillor Steven North, leader of East Northamptonshire council, who had the foresight and drive to push Rushden Lakes through the local planning phase and Councillor Paul Bell, leader of Wellingborough council, for his foresight in realising that this development would be of great benefit to Wellingborough as well as Rushden.

I thank Jon McCarthy, the project lead at LXB, and Gary Wilburn, the architect and branding specialist of Rushden Lakes; the leader of Rushden town council, Councillor Sarah Peacock, for putting the town council’s support firmly behind the project; and Colin Burnett, expert retail planner at LXB. Special thanks are due to the chief executive of East Northamptonshire council, David Oliver, who put so much hard work into the project, much of it behind the scenes, over and above what he had to do. I thank Gavin Stollar, for helping project manage; Councillor Robin Underwood for his tenacity and unswerving support; Councillors David and Wendy Brackenbury for their huge practical and moral support; Peter Atchinson as chairman of Corby and East Northamptonshire Conservative Association, for throwing the association’s weight behind the project; and Helen Howell and Peter Wathan, for all their support in East Northants.

There are so many unsung heroes, but let me pick out a few—John and Sheila Vickers and Bill and Molly Clifton for delivering so many leaflets; Pam and George Whiting for all their efforts in Higham Ferrers; Councillor Jack Spriggs for all his enthusiasm and help; and Helen Harrison for being such an important part of the listening campaign. Particular thanks go to Councillor Richard Lewis for his unswerving determination to achieve Rushden Lakes and for his continuous pressure to see the project delivered, Councillor Rob Gough, Brian Skittral and Ollie Lewis, indispensable members of the listening team, and John Campbell, chief executive of Wellingborough council, for their help and support. I thank Christine Emmett, the former Conservative candidate for Corby for all her help.

The list goes on and includes the Northamptonshire Telegraph for its campaigning in achieving Rushden Lakes, showing what an excellent local paper can do on behalf of its community, the Northamptonshire Herald and Post, BBC Radio Northampton, BBC Look East and ITV Anglia for their support and coverage of Rushden Lakes.

Special thanks go to Helen Danzig and the Yes to Rushden Lakes campaign team, whose efforts and support were an essential part of this victory. That is a non-party political organisation with the sole aim of delivering this fantastic development to the people of Northamptonshire. Their tireless efforts have paid off and I know they are thrilled with the decision for Rushden Lakes to go ahead.

However, I want to single out one person in particular for his hard work, enthusiasm and dedication in delivering the listening campaign. I refer, of course, to Councillor Tom Pursglove, a Wellingborough councillor who, with me, headed the joint listening campaign. He campaigned tirelessly on this issue, as he has done on so many others. Tom is a prolific campaigner and he is now the Conservative candidate for Corby and East Northants. The people of Corby and East Northants could not wish for a better candidate. He has shown that he listened, campaigned and delivered on Rushden Lakes.

Finally, I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for giving permission for this development. I know that it was a long, hard, well thought out decision, and all the legal ramifications were taken into account. I know that off his own bat he looked at the site personally. The development will transform Rushden and the surrounding areas and I look forward to welcoming my right hon. Friend back to my constituency once this fantastic project is completed.

But I am not complacent. Now is the time to look to the future. The joint core strategy review for north Northamptonshire was held up until the Rushden Lakes decision was made. Now that Rushden Lakes has been approved, this review can go ahead. The importance of this for Rushden is that Rushden and the surrounding towns do not have a local plan. The most recent local plan was drawn up in 1996. However, we could not even start the plan until Rushden Lakes had been decided, because our local plan had to be compatible with the joint core strategy, which was held up.

Now that Rushden Lakes has been decided, we can get on with projects such as Rushden East, which is a plan to build at least 2,000 homes, and employment land for at least as many jobs, on the land east of Rushden. There are yet no formal plans as such, but the work on including it in the local plan has already started, a project board has been set up and Conservative-run East Northamptonshire council has already employed professionals to do some basic land studies.

Now that Rushden Lakes has been given the green light, Rushden East can proceed. It will first have to go into the new local plan, but then it can go ahead. Rushden Lakes is therefore the key to unlocking development that had been stalled until the decision was made. Now that it has been decided, we can get on with building more homes, as the Government need us to do in order to grow the economy and solve the housing shortage. It is now more essential than ever that the dualling of the A45 and the improvements to the Chowns Mill roundabout go ahead and that the infrastructure to support the development gets underway as soon as possible.

I have only one question for the Minister: how can we speed up the planning process for such popular developments? Let me explain the issue to him as I see it. The Rushden Lakes scheme was hugely popular. It had the approval of all the local councils and the overwhelming majority of local people. It was on a brownfield site. It meant investment and new jobs. It was delayed for quite a long time because it had to go through the planning process. It seems to me that all that happened over the past year or so is that we made a lot of wealthy barristers and solicitors even more wealthy. When we look at the inspector’s report, we see how firmly it comes down in favour of the development.

I just wonder, in relation to future projects, whether taxpayers’ money could be saved. Would it be possible to change the law so that developments that enjoy such overwhelming support can in future be subject to a local referendum? If 75% or more of local people voted for them, they could then proceed and we would not need to waste any taxpayers’ money. I hope that that idea will feature in some of the Minister’s radical thinking that I referred to at the start of the debate.

The main message that we can take away from tonight’s debate is that we listened, we campaigned and we delivered.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) not only on securing a debate on this issue, which I know is of overwhelming importance to him, his constituents and residents in the broader region, but on his unrelenting campaign, as a Member of Parliament quite properly representing his constituents, in favour of a development that he felt would benefit them dramatically. I congratulate him, along with the many other campaigners who worked so tirelessly, on securing the result he sought. The Secretary of State and I certainly received a great many letters and other representations from people who were in favour of the scheme.

My hon. Friend will understand why I cannot comment on the particular decision. Although the decision has been issued, it is open to legal challenge for a period, and I do not want to prejudice it in any way. However, I will make some broader comments about similar applications, and respond to the ideas that he raised at the end of his speech.

It is good of the Minister to give way, and he knows that this scheme is very important for my constituency. Will he confirm that he has received letters of support from me and, indeed, joint letters signed by me and the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)? Will he confirm that, on page 150 of the report, the hon. Gentleman is quoted as praising my strong support and as saying that

“members of the Conservative and Labour party are united in support of this proposal”?

All of us with an interest in east Northamptonshire back this application locally, and I hope that we can get it going as soon as possible. I of course welcome the decision.

I am happy to acknowledge that I have received a letter from the hon. Gentleman supporting the scheme. Obviously, the scheme was not universally supported, otherwise it would not have been called in, but I am certainly happy to make that acknowledgment.

I will move on to the broader issues. It is a very happy debate for me when, on behalf of the Secretary of State, I am congratulated on the granting of a major application. It is a welcome but unfamiliar position to be in.

The application was given so much support partly because it is on a brownfield site, as my hon. Friend said. It is very important for everybody in this country to make absolutely the maximum use of our already developed land, so that we can minimise the amount of undeveloped land that needs to be developed. As with brownfield sites across the country—unless they are of very high quality environmentally—putting such a site to new use is an absolutely key priority for this Government.

I have another general point on my hon. Friend’s suggestions on how such decisions could be made more quickly. I hope that he welcomes this Government’s introduction of neighbourhood planning, which for the first time gives people who are not professional planners or elected local councillors the ability to draw up a plan for their neighbourhood. The key point about a neighbourhood plan is that it becomes an adopted plan with statutory force after it has won approval in a referendum.

We have introduced the concept of referendums into the planning process, but it might prove to be a little too radical even for me to use a referendum as the way to decide a particular planning application. The simple reason is that planning decisions are quasi-judicial, as my hon. Friend will know very well. It is very important that quasi-judicial decisions are determined not just by the balance of popular opinion, although that is very important, but by the need to comply with all laws, regulations and policies and to take into account all material considerations. It might be difficult to show that a decision arrived at in a popular vote had taken into account all material considerations, and I am worried that it might make legal challenges more likely.

I am very keen to see a greater use of neighbourhood planning. I hope that the areas that my hon. Friend talked about, which I understand have held back from planning partly because of this application, will look at the possibility of neighbourhood planning to supplement the work being undertaken on the local plan.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to remind the House of the announcements that were made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Mansion House speech about our determination to make it easier and quicker for more brownfield sites to be brought forward for development. The Government’s proposal is to encourage, incentivise and help local authorities to introduce local development orders on as many brownfield sites as they possibly can, so that an applicant or developer who is willing to build housing on a brownfield site, according to the terms of the local development order, can simply get on and do so, without going through a complex new planning process. That is a big departure and I believe that it will have the support of the whole House, because we all want to see the best possible use made of brownfield sites. I am confident that that is what we will see at Rushden Lakes.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.