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Volume 593: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2015

Hon. Members will be aware of the Government’s ambition to create a new garden city at Ebbsfleet and of our intention to establish an urban development corporation to drive forward its development and delivery. I would like to take this opportunity to update hon. Members on the progress we have made.

This country has faced a shortfall in housing for many years, with young people and families struggling to find the homes they want and need, particularly in the south-east. We are committed to increasing their chances, and our programmes to accelerate house building are already seeing results. Our £1.5 billion large sites programme is expected to unlock 100,000 homes by the end of this month, and a further 200,000 homes could be unlocked as we take the programme forward. This is in addition to the plans in place to create housing zones on brownfield sites across the country.

Last year, we published our prospectus for locally led garden cities, and we are now working closely to support the development of a new garden town at Bicester, with a capacity to deliver up to 13,000 new homes. Our approach is locally led. We invite local areas to come forward, without any top-down, centrally imposed requirements. This approach will help make new garden cities acceptable locally—and, as such, to make them a reality.

With close transport links and large areas of brownfield land, the Ebbsfleet area has huge potential as a place to deliver a substantial number of new homes. It has long been identified—in fact, as far back as the last Government’s sustainable communities plan—as an ideal location for major development. Despite these ambitions, progress has been slow, and Ebbsfleet remains largely undeveloped. Our plans for Ebbsfleet aim to change that and to drive forward this historic development opportunity.

In last year’s Budget, the Government announced plans to create a new locally led garden city at Ebbsfleet, Kent, capable of providing up to 15,000 new homes predominantly on brownfield land or former quarries. The Government are seeking not only to increase the pace of development, but to create high-quality development. We want to build homes that are supported by local employment opportunities, green space and the necessary infrastructure, so that Ebbsfleet becomes a place where people want to live, work and raise their families.

To help realise this vision, the Government have announced that up to £200 million of infrastructure funding will be made available to support delivery. We also announced that a new statutory body—an urban development corporation—would be formed to bring real focus on driving forward delivery. Since then, we have been working closely with each of the three local authorities and other partners on the preparatory work to establish the urban development corporation and to set the scene for the future garden city. I put on record the fact that I welcome the cross-party support that the Opposition have given to these proposals.

I am pleased to report that house building is already under way in some parts of the proposed garden city. Last October, I opened the first phase of housing being led by Ward Homes at Castle Hill. Just today, Land Securities exchanged contracts with Persimmon Homes for the next phase of 170 homes at Castle Hill. Much remains to be done to increase the rate of development at Ebbsfleet, but this is welcome progress none the less.

In August last year, we consulted on the proposal to set up an urban development corporation. We set out the powers that we propose the corporation should have, including compulsory purchase powers, the transfer of the planning management powers that are currently exercised by the local authorities and, of course, the ability to invest money to secure the regeneration of the area.

In our consultation, we asked for views on the area in which the urban development corporation would operate, on the planning powers it would be granted, and on the composition of the board. The consultation was supported by an active engagement campaign, and the results demonstrated overall support for the proposal to create a development corporation for Ebbsfleet. In December last year, we published our response to the consultation, which confirmed our intention to continue with the proposal to establish a development corporation at Ebbsfleet.

Although supportive, the consultation did highlight some areas of concern, such as the impact of development on existing infrastructure. These issues were not unanticipated, and we announced in the autumn statement that there would be a review of the transport provision for the Ebbsfleet area. The Government also announced in the autumn statement the provision of the first £100 million to fund infrastructure and land remediation to kick-start development—obviously subject to due diligence. We are working closely with local partners to understand the scale of the infrastructure required and how best to accelerate delivery.

We want to ensure that, on establishment, the urban development corporation has in place the tools necessary to enable it to hit the ground running. It is crucial that the urban development corporation is able to pick up the reins from the local authorities and deliver its objectives seamlessly, without causing any unnecessary uncertainty among local communities and local businesses.

In August last year, we appointed Michael Cassidy as the chairman designate. He was the chairman of the City of London property investment board, and has extensive experience in a range of roles across the business and industry sectors. Since his appointment, he has actively engaged with local partners and the major landowners to develop a shared understanding of the work required to drive forward development.

More recently, we launched the recruitment process for a permanent chief executive. However, as this post will take some months to fill, we are appointing key interim personnel to maintain momentum and continuity. These interim posts will, in the meantime, continue to drive forward not only the set-up of the urban development corporation, but progress on the work to develop a shared strategy for the garden city.

We have made progress, too, on the process to recruit, through open competition, the remainder of the urban development corporation’s board members. Some 90 applications were received and interviews are under way. These will be in addition to the local authority representatives from Dartford, Gravesham and Kent who, as we have already made clear, will have a seat on the board.

The urban development corporation will develop a shared vision and master-plan for the locally led garden city that reflects the views of the local people. Much can be done in the meantime to set in place the foundations for this work, and to provide a platform from which the urban development corporation can work. We are progressing with the production of a development framework for the area. This will provide critical baseline data and act as the starting-point for the design of the future Ebbsfleet garden city.

In parallel, we are preparing the procurement process for a full master plan, which can then be taken forward by the urban development corporation. We want the design of the garden city to be as collaborative as possible. We will therefore use this preparatory work to make sure that future master planning is carried out in a way that encourages the full participation of the local communities and local businesses.

We recognise that there is likely to be a transition period between the establishment of the urban development corporation and the point at which it will be fully resourced to operate as the local planning authority. We are therefore working closely with the local authorities to agree and put in place a service level agreement, which will enable the local authorities to administer the planning service for the urban development corporation for a transitional period to ensure a smooth handover and to develop a partnership to deliver a locally led garden city. We are pushing forward with the final key stages of the physical set-up of the urban development corporation, putting in place the accommodation and technical facilities needed to ensure that the UDC is fully resourced and equipped to undertake its objectives.

Hon. Members will be aware that the Government tabled in the other place an amendment to the Deregulation Bill to change the parliamentary approval procedure from affirmative to negative for the establishment of urban development areas and urban development corporations. This amendment was accepted, and is now part of the Deregulation Bill. I should like to place on record my thanks to the hon. Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and the shadow Secretary of State for their participation in discussions about how to proceed on this matter. I know that they share my wish to see this proposal make progress. The Government intend, subject to parliamentary approval, to lay a negative statutory instrument immediately following Royal Assent to establish the urban development corporation. A separate order to grant the corporation planning functions, making it the local planning authority responsible for the development of the area, will be laid at the same time.

I trust that that update will reassure Members of the Government’s commitment to creating a locally led garden city at Ebbsfleet that will be fit for the 21st century.

I thank the Minister for his statement, and for giving me advance sight of it. As he said, there is cross-party support for the development at Ebbsfleet, and Labour Members support it strongly. I agree with him that Ebbsfleet has huge potential to deliver a substantial number of homes and an outstanding new community.

Having been to Ebbsfleet, I have seen with my own eyes not just the opportunities that it offers but its terrain, which presents significant challenges. We want to see a new generation of garden cities and new towns, and we believe that Ebbsfleet could make an important contribution to such a programme. That is why, as the Minister said, we have sought to work with the Government constructively and on a cross-party basis to deliver the UDC. As the Minister also said, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) participated actively in the discussions with the Government, and is strongly committed to the delivery of a new generation of garden cities. She has spoken about the subject eloquently, in the House and elsewhere.

We naturally welcome the forming of an urban development corporation to drive this development forward, but we are concerned about the use of UDCs to deliver a full programme of garden cities. As the Minister knows, they are not set up to deliver garden city principles, which is why we pressed for the inclusion of a sunset clause. I am pleased that agreement was reached on that.

Although I welcome the Government’s initiative in establishing the UDC over the past five years, it would be remiss of me not to mention the number of mixed messages that we have received in regard to both Ebbsfleet and garden cities more broadly. In 2011 the then Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), spoke of rebooting garden cities, and in 2012 the Prime Minister announced that he would publish a consultation on garden cities by the end of the year. Six months later, the Deputy Prime Minister said that some lively debate was taking place within the Government, but promised incentives that would deliver projects that were “big and bold”. In December 2012, the Government announced that Ebbsfleet would be the site for a large-scale development of 20,000 new homes.

Subsequently, however, rather than seeing the “big and bold” projects that had been promised, we saw reports in the newspapers that the Prime Minister was suppressing a document and had gone cold on the idea. Later that year, the Housing Minister said that he was not aware of a report that was supposed to have been published, but the Deputy Prime Minister said that there was a prospectus, and that the Government should be honest about their intentions. The Secretary of State then contradicted his own Housing Minister, saying that his Department had told him that there was a report, but not a report from the Department for Communities and Local Government. We were a little bemused by all that. However, a prospectus for garden cities was finally published, and in last year’s Budget statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that there would be a new garden city at Ebbsfleet containing 15,000 homes—5,000 fewer than had been promised in 2012.

Given the scale of the housing crisis and the evident cross-party support for garden cities, I should like to know what is behind the Government’s stops and starts on the Ebbsfleet initiative and on garden cities more generally. I should also like to know where the additional 5,000 new homes have gone. That seems to be something of a mystery.

I welcomed what the Minister said about infrastructure. The Government said last year that, once established, the Ebbsfleet UDC would be expected to identify sources of additional funding, further to the funding for basic infrastructure that had already been announced. Will the Minister tell us how much additional funding he and his Department think might be necessary to get the Ebbsfleet project moving, and whether its source in either the private or the public sector has been identified?

The garden city movement, which was founded by Ebenezer Howard, has a long and proud history of promoting and providing outstanding places for people to live in. Although I support what the Minister has said today, I am anxious for the founding principles of the movement to be respected, albeit in a modern setting. Perhaps the Minister will explain why he did not mention affordable housing, and why his predecessor told my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham in a written parliamentary answer that

“The Government do not impose a particular level of affordable housing for housing schemes.”—[Official Report, 9 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 239W.]

Can the Minister reassure us that the master plan will include a commitment to a significant proportion of affordable homes? If it does not, I fear that there will not be much garden to the garden city. The Government’s garden city prospectus invited communities to come up with proposals, or “big and bold” projects, as the Deputy Prime Minister called them. Will the Minister tell us how many bids have been submitted so far?

Let me end by echoing what the Minister said about securing the Ebbsfleet development. This is a long-term project that presents significant challenges but also has huge potential, and, as such, it requires a long-term approach from Members in all parts of the House. On that basis, I welcome the fact that we have reached cross-party agreement.

I thank the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) for expressing what could broadly be described as cross-party support. She did, however, ask a couple of questions, and mentioned the pace at which the garden city programme had proceeded. She was absolutely right to refer to the terrain at Ebbsfleet. I think that anyone who watches our exchanges, or reads the Hansard report, and wonders why it has taken so long for us to reach this point needs to be aware of a couple of facts. I shall explain in a moment how the programme has been structured in the past, but there is no doubt that the terrain is an important element. Ebbsfleet is an astonishing place to visit: a map simply does not do justice to its contours and topography.

At one point, the hon. Lady asked how much garden there would be in a garden city. We want to deliver something of which we can all be proud. We need to have a vision of the way in which not just community housing but real communities should be built. That means ensuring that there is the right mix of residential, retail, commercial and open space for people to enjoy, so that they can get to know their neighbours and be part of a strong community. The community must be at the forefront of this project.

We opted for an urban development corporation in this case—with Opposition support—because three local authorities and various landowners were involved. In fact, the Government have a small landholding interest. That makes the position very complex.

The hon. Lady said that it had taken several years for us to make progress. As she knows, we have been dealing with a legislative process over the past few months, since last year’s Budget statement. I found her comments slightly ironic. Let me politely suggest that she might like to stand up and name some of the eco-towns that have not been built since they were announced by the last Government.

We are now able to deliver on the garden city principles, at Ebbsfleet, at Bicester—which I visited again just last week—and in other areas because ours is not a top-down approach. We are not making decisions from on high; local authorities are coming to us and saying that they want to develop on the basis of those principles. It takes time for authorities to get organised and prepare to submit their proposals to the Government, but I think that that is right. The longevity of delivery that the hon. Lady rightly mentioned enables long-term plans to be developed properly, and to be locally designed, locally supported and locally proposed.

The hon. Lady referred to funding more generally, and to affordable housing. I repeat that ours is not a top-down approach. Once the urban development corporation has been set up, it will become the planning authority, and levels of affordable housing and section 106 agreements are a matter for planning authorities. On the basis of localism, we let the local authorities deal with such matters, and I trust them to do so. Some agreements are already in place, and are delivering substantial infrastructure and section 106 agreements for the area.

In terms of the total cost of development at Ebbsfleet, developing a prioritised infrastructure list will be one of the first tasks the development corporation will be taking forward. In advance of it even being established, we have been working with partners to identify the key items of infrastructure needed to support development. We do not yet have a total cost for the infrastructure because there will be many items that partners would want us to consider and include, and the development corporation needs to be the body that looks carefully both at what infrastructure is needed to support the garden city development and who should pay for it. Of course, much of the infrastructure building work will be paid for by developers, not by the Government or the development corporation directly. That is where the section 106 agreements that are already in place, and those that are developed for the major developments with outline planning consent, will take us forward.

Ebbsfleet in my Dartford constituency is home to some very ambitious housing projects. The full potential of the area will not be realised without proper investment and commitment to the infrastructure, not just of the garden city but the surrounding area. The Minister mentioned that the Chancellor announced £200 million of investment at the last Budget. Will the Minister give my constituents a guarantee that the Government are still committed to that and that local people will have an input into how that money will be spent? It appears that the Opposition want another 5,000 homes in the garden city. Does the Minister agree that we do not judge a good housing project on the number of homes we are able to cram into a particular area?

My hon. Friend has been a strong proponent not just of Ebbsfleet more generally but, as I saw on a couple of visits with him to his area, of making sure that this development is done in a way that is conducive to, works with and delivers for, the local community, recognising not just the community we want to build, but the communities and local authorities that are already in the area within the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) and for Dartford (Gareth Johnson). My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has also worked closely with the local authorities who have their own affordable housing policies, which will be what govern the development of that area. Both of those authorities are clearly looking to secure a level of 30% of affordable housing, and I can assure my hon. Friend that today’s statement does not change what was said at the Budget last year or the finances announced in the autumn statement—I know that he has worked hard on that with his local residents and authorities. It stays in place, as was. What we are doing today is giving an update, in particular on the development and the incorporation of that corporation.

In welcoming the statement as the MP for Letchworth garden city, the world’s first, may I wish Ebbsfleet well? Does the Minister agree that the principles of garden cities—mixed tenure, a scheme of building that maintains garden city features over time, the features themselves, with allotments, space, commons, an agricultural area nearby, and separation of areas between residential, employment land and retail—can be applied not just to larger communities of 15,000 or 20,000, but to smaller communities too? In Hertfordshire we are looking at—the MPs are anyway—possibly pushing North Herts district council to go for a garden city or town that might be smaller than 10,000. Does the Minister agree that almost any size of community can be planned on garden city lines?

My hon. and learned Friend makes a very good point. One point I have made at various recent events is that we must make sure as we move forward that we build good-quality design, not just lots and lots of housing estates. There are two reasons for that. If we want people to be more accepting of development, not only have we got to make sure that people are involved in that through local plans and neighbourhood planning, but the development they see in their area must be of good quality. That requires good-quality design not just of the properties but the overall master plan. My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that having even small areas developed where, when possible and appropriate, there is a good mix of retail, commercial and residential, with good open space and good community areas, bringing people together, does not just deliver good-quality homes for people to live in and good-quality places for people to raise their families, but also builds good, strong, long-lasting communities, and that is something I wholeheartedly support.

Ebbsfleet is blessed in that there is already a Bishop of Ebbsfleet, which must be the first time that the bishop has come before the city, rather than a city creating a bishop. I want to raise two points. We will not need an urban development corporation for Bicester. All the land for it lies within the area of Cherwell district council, and we are determined to make a success of it, and to make a garden town for the 21st century of which the country can be proud. What we will need, however, is the Ministry of Defence to surrender every square foot of MOD land that it does not need as speedily as possible. As evidence that Cherwell district council is determined to get on with this as speedily as possible, as my hon. Friend the Minister will know but the House may not know, Cherwell had acquired land to build 1,900 self-build homes. This is an incredibly popular project. Local development orders are now in place. Queues of people are coming, wanting to acquire these plots for self-build homes. May I suggest that this project, witnessed by the Prime Minister yesterday, could be rolled out to other parts of the country, because there is clearly a large appetite among the public for building their own homes, as we have seen in Bicester?

My right hon. Friend has been a loud and strong proponent of the fantastic work being done in Bicester and of development on those garden city principles, and he is absolutely right. I visited Bicester last year and I visited again last week to see the excellent work done in just a few months, and the progress made to deliver the development in a good, strong, community-built way. He is right that this shows it does not have to be just one type of tenure. We can also develop the custom and self-build opportunities, which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and I have agreed on in the House—there is cross-party agreement—in the last few months.

I would say, however, that we do not do well enough in this country in sharing best practice. I advise people across local government who are looking at developments and how to develop to look at what is happening in places like Bicester and to talk to those involved. They are strong proponents, they are happy to talk to people, and they have done some excellent work that they can share with others about how good-quality development can help build strong communities of which we can all be proud.