[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to debate this important issue under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.
At the outset, I want to inform the Minister of the two main questions I want to ask this afternoon so she has plenty of time to think about her response. First, the planning inspector’s interim report into the County Durham plan states that one of the council’s options is to suspend further deliberation of the plan for up to six months so the fundamental issues in the report can be resolved in a positive and constructive manner. Will the Minister work with Durham county council to find a solution? It is in the Government’s interest to do so, because if a resolution cannot be found, the Treasury’s plans for economic growth in the region and in County Durham will be undermined.
Secondly, last Friday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he wants 50,000 jobs to be created in the north-east of England by 2020. The North East local enterprise partnership envisages the creation of 100,000 jobs in the north-east by 2024-25. The County Durham plan lays down a firm foundation for the creation of 30,000 jobs in the county by 2030, so if the plan were followed 10,000 additional jobs could be created by 2020, which is 20% of the Chancellor’s target. The planning inspector said that the figure of 30,000 is unachievable, but where does that leave the job growth plans of the Government and the LEP, which are based on the same formula? Durham county council’s plans—wrongly, in my view—have been called into question.
The interim report supports the plan’s population and job growth projections, about which I will say a few things. The inspector endorses the council’s population projections, but questions the assumptions of the forecast. There is a difference between a projection and a forecast. A population projection establishes a baseline position for population growth and assumes that past trends will be carried forward into the future. A population forecast points to an alternative future based on a series of policy changes. The County Durham plan offers a series of policy changes. Durham county council’s population forecast was based on achieving economic success through two measures: first, increasing participation within the economy and achieving an employment rate of 73% in County Durham; and, secondly, increasing the size of the economy by 30,000 jobs in County Durham, 23,000 of which will be located in the county and 7,000 of which will be held by people who live in the county but cross the border to work elsewhere in the region.
The inspector endorsed the county council’s approach to the population projection in his interim report. He accepted the council’s methodology for developing population projections in paragraphs 29 and 30, and he accepted the council’s projection in paragraph 31, noting the trend-based outcome. Here, the inspector accepted the council’s projection and methodology as a basis for developing objectively assessed need for housing. He supported only the population modelling undertaken by Durham county council and rejected other approaches. In paragraph 43, he states:
“I have considered the alternative models and approaches to calculating OAN”—
objectively assessed need—
“put forward by other parties. These produce either significantly lower or higher estimates which I consider to be less robust than the work undertaken by the Council. For example, the FDGB’s”—
the Friends of Durham Green Belt—
“proposals do not use a recognised methodology whilst the house builders use unrealistic data inputs and assumptions.”
The inspector questioned the plan’s economic aspirations and concluded that there will be a low population in the county. He ultimately disagreed with Durham county council’s economic aspirations, which is why he proposed a lower number of houses.
My hon. Friend is talking about the growth of the economy in County Durham, which is very important. On a point related to the lack of extra housing, the existing population is getting older and less economically active, so it will not only have less economic impact on Durham but will require more services from the health service and local government.
I agree. My hon. Friend anticipates my next point, which is about job growth in the area. It is about not only attaining a 73% activity rate among people of working age, because if that continues and there is no jobs growth, the local economy will ultimately stagnate.
The inspector accepts the council’s methodology for developing population projections. The council wants to increase the participation rate in the economy, achieve an employment rate of 73% in County Durham by 2030 and create an additional 30,000 jobs. However, the inspector has come out against that. He predicted a lower rate of economic growth and the creation of only 18,000 jobs by 2030. However, Experian, which has done a lot of work on this issue for the county council, predicted the creation of something like 22,900 jobs, so the county council’s figure of 23,000 additional jobs is in line with that prediction. There is independent evidence to suggest that the county council is going in the right direction.
The one thing that the report misses out completely is Newton Aycliffe business park, which is now the biggest business park in the north-east of England and employs 8,000 or 9,000 people. There is no mention of it in the interim report. Hitachi is going to build a factory there, which will create 730 additional jobs. The county council has allocated something like 130 acres there for the anticipated job growth. The developers expect thousands of jobs to come to the business park, because Hitachi is acting as a catalyst and attracting manufacturers in other industries to the area. However, Newton Aycliffe was completely missed out of the interim report, which I find bizarre in the extreme.
What is Durham county council’s ambition? The County Durham plan is ambitious, inspirational and optimistic. It is full of confidence not only in the county council but in the people of County Durham. The history of Durham shows that the network of settlements in County Durham exists today because of the industrial revolution and the coal industry. We now need to diversify industry to sustain those local communities. That is why the county council wants an additional 31,000 houses to be built by 2030. It wants to set aside 399 acres of employment land and a further 41.5 acres of specific-use employment land. It wants a spatial strategy that seeks to fulfil the ambition of a thriving Durham city. Economic success will be delivered through the creation of jobs.
Let me give some background about why this issue is so fundamental to the people of County Durham and to industry in the area. Following the local government review several years ago, Durham county council made improving the economy its top priority. The local government review was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring together all partners to adopt an economic strategy to reverse Durham’s economic decline. The county has suffered from a decline in traditional industries, and the resulting increase in unemployment and lower skilled jobs has caused our brightest and best to move away to find economic prosperity elsewhere. To address that problem, the unitary council and its partners made the economy their top priority from day one. The council’s overarching priority is to improve the economic performance of County Durham. Through the County Durham partnership and the sustainable community strategy, it has recognised that better opportunities for employment mean better health and more choice in housing. To achieve that, it has recognised that a significant step change will be required. In the absence of economic investment, the size of the county’s working-age population will decline over the next 20 years, which is not in line with either the County Durham plan or the north-east’s aspirations. The focus on a thriving economy is not at the expense of other matters; indeed, developing a thriving economy will address many of the social issues present in the county.
County Durham’s pre-recession employment rate had been rising and was very close to the national average. Since the recession, the rate has been below the regional and national averages, although it has recovered significantly in recent months. To continue to close the employment rate gap and improve the county’s economic performance, the plan takes an approach that seeks to deal with the shrinking working-age population while trying to balance the needs of the economy and businesses in the county and wider region.
The targets are for 30,000 jobs and a 73% employment rate among people of working age. We also need to identify how many houses we need and how many acres of land need to be set aside for industry. Creating more and better jobs within the north-east economy is at the heart of the agenda for the North East combined authority and the North East local enterprise partnership, as well as for wider partners and investors, and—we believe—in line with the Government’s aspirations as laid out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Friday last week.
The inspector rejects the challenge presented by an ageing population and the associated implications for the prosperity of the county and the north-east. Addressing the job creation target is fundamental in the light of the projected reduction in the working-age population. The inspector’s report acknowledges that County Durham’s growth aspirations accord with regional economic aspirations. However, the inspector suggests that we are not working collaboratively to deliver these targets, which conflicts with the stated aim of the strategic plans in the area and the North East LEP, and the duty to co-operate, which is the Government’s recognised tool for cross-boundary discussions.
The inspector suggests, although without evidence, that the majority of the neighbouring authorities in the north-east are seeking similar aspirations to meet their objectively assessed needs, rather than seeking economic growth as suggested. We can draw out the inspector’s view of the county’s future from the assumptions outlined and observations made. Although none of those elements was articulated during the examination, the inspector’s vision becomes clear from a detailed reading of his report.
First, the inspector casts doubts on the shared economic ambitions of the local authorities within the North East LEP area, as agreed by the Government and outlined in the strategic economic plan. That is why it is fundamental for the Government to address this issue.
Secondly, the inspector’s vision for County Durham seeks to limit the county’s role within the wider regional economy. As someone from County Durham, I find that very hard to accept. He seeks to underplay Durham city’s established role and status within the wider region, in my view, and the council is clear that Durham residents will contribute towards the economic prosperity in the region. Durham residents will bring skills to our neighbours, working as part of a successful regional economy.
I turn to the economic impact of the alternative vision. In the absence of economic investment, the size of the county’s working-age population will decline over the next 20 years. The council’s approach seeks to deal with a shrinking working-age population, while trying to balance the needs of the economy and businesses in the county. The two measures of employment rate and labour force target work in tandem to support economic prosperity in Durham. In the context of an ageing population, an increase to a 73% participation rate would not in itself support economic growth in the economy. A participation rate of 73% as a single measure of success could be achieved in a stagnating or declining economy, as the size of the working-age population declines.
Although the inspector rejects the council’s approach, in his report, he goes some way towards setting out his own alternative economic vision. The inspector acknowledges that a 73% employment rate is within the realms of possibility but takes issue with the labour force target of 30,000 jobs. The preferred scenario that the inspector has come up with implies that only 18,500 jobs would be created over the plan period in County Durham. That is clearly not in line with the ambitions of either County Durham or the north-east and is contrary to most recent trends. The independent Experian forecast identifies that 22,900 jobs could be created in the county.
The inspector’s vision runs contrary to the region’s ambitions for growth. The labour force target is an established target for County Durham and addresses growth not only in the county, but in the wider region, recognising County Durham’s role in the wider economy, which is complementary to the role of other regional centres. For example, 40% of people who work at Nissan in Sunderland live in County Durham. The scenario suggested by the inspector implies only that some 18,000 jobs will be created, but the independent Experian forecast showed that 23,000 jobs can be created.
The report has implications for my constituency. For example, there would be a reduction in housing allocation in the village of Sedgefield. I know that there are issues there. There have been applications to increase the number of houses by 2,000. There is talk at the moment of housing developments of between 300 and 470 dwellings. Although at the moment, the County Durham plan seems to have been rejected by the planning inspector, it just leaves the door open for speculators to come along and start talking about developments in Sedgefield village that are not suitable. We could go back to a position in which developers who have thought of applications to increase the size of the village by 2,000 houses over a given time could come back in the absence of a strategic housing policy for the whole of the county.
The other issue is employment. The report neglects to mention the region’s biggest business park, which has been the generator and motivator for jobs. It also does not say very much about NETpark—the North East Technology Park—which is a science and innovation park that has recently received grants from the Government and the local growth fund. It has great potential, and I have seen the science park develop over the past 10 years. It now employs between 300 and 400 people and is based on a model in Durham-Raleigh, North Carolina. The business park there was set up in the 1950s and now employs tens of thousands of people. I am not suggesting that NETPark will get as big as that, but the model proves that that acts as a catalyst to attract high-value jobs.
I am listening intently to and strongly agree with what my hon. Friend is saying about NETPark and Newton Aycliffe. Does he agree that the possibilities are really significant, because they are right next-door to Durham university and not far from Newcastle university, which are both excellent in the scientific and engineering fields?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It seems to me that the planning inspector is not taking into consideration the aspirations and ambition of the county and the potential for the county to go ahead and create high-value, strategic jobs that are important, not just to the economy of County Durham and for the region, but to the country. Last year, it was announced that the region’s first university technology college will be opened next year in Newton Aycliffe. We also want to see more apprentices for the area. For example, South West Durham Training in my constituency is doing very well. It is working closely with Hitachi to achieve greater numbers of apprentices.
None of this has been taken into consideration by the inspector, and I fundamentally believe that the reason why he has downgraded the economic forecasts for the number of jobs is ultimately that, if fewer houses are needed, there is less need to use the green belt. If there is any way that we can change the situation in relation to building on the green belt, then fine—perhaps we can talk about that in that six-month period—but from what I am being told, less than 4% of the green belt would be utilised for house building over the next 15 years. If the plan is to achieve the number of jobs that we require, that compromise is well worth considering.
Before I wind up, I want to give some quotes from business people up and down the north-east of England who support the County Durham plan. James Ramsbotham, the chief executive of the North East chamber of commerce, recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about this issue. He said:
“By creating an ambitious plan and vision for the future, Durham county council has made a clear statement that it is open for business; a statement that we fully support.
The inspector’s report, by ridiculing these ambitions, seeks to condemn the north-east to a future of low growth and aspiration. This flies in the face of the Government’s desire to stimulate growth in the north and to create a more sustainable, balanced economy. It also holds little regard for the current successes of County Durham businesses, many of which are world leaders in their sectors and are making considerable investments for the future.”
Sir John Hall said:
“It’s very, very, very, very, very, very important because it’s not just about the County Durham plan, it’s about the regeneration of the north-east and the County Durham plan is part of that. And here’s a council…when they spoke to a lot of us in the private sector when they were putting the plan together we said to them you’ve got to think outside the box now, you’ve got to take a lead, you’ve got to use the words enterprise and initiative. And this is what they’ve done and they’ve produced a plan which will put cranes on the skyline, which will bring money in from all these developments into all of the cultural side of the life in County Durham and they’ve been penalised for it. And we can’t let that happen. It’s too important for the region for Durham county council and the north-east. And in the business sector we support their efforts a hell of a lot, but…we’ve actually got to support them to get what we need: a rethink on this plan, but it’s very, very necessary, as I said, not just for Durham but for the north-east.”
He went on:
“We in the private sector will to work together to support the County Durham plan and its initiative”.
John Elliott of Ebac, a business in my constituency, said:
“The County Durham plan’s a good plan. We’ve got to be ambitious, we’ve got to move forward. County Durham’s always moved forward, we’ve got to keep doing it.”
Rory Gibson of Handelsbanken said:
“There’s a democratic decision here for me and it needs to be followed through. There’s absolutely excellent reasons why this plan has been put forward. It involves the council, it involves private sector, it’s the right thing for us to be doing, it’s looking forward, it’s thinking outside of the box and I think we need to give all our support to it.”
Harry Banks of the Banks Group, another well established County Durham firm, said:
“We see the role of the local authorities and Government to lay the platform for businesses to thrive and produce jobs and create employment. We felt that this plan was going a long way towards…that.”
Richard Bradley of Dyer Engineering said:
“Operating our business, we’ve had a business on that site for something like 37 years and we wouldn’t contemplate doing business anywhere else. We’re perfectly located to reach all of the UK and we have a fantastic, skilled workforce which…is in danger because of lack of investment, maybe even lack of a plan over the last 20, 30 years, which is why of course we’re behind the plan because we have to attract people, businesses into the region to ensure that we have the skills available for the next 50, 100, 200 years.”
Barbara Johnson of the Morritt said:
“for my business it’s going to bring people into the county and not just tourism, because the hotel is not just tourism; it’s very much based on business. And we’ve built a business up that is very interesting for the kind of people that this plan is going to encourage to come into the county”.
Geoff Hunton of Merchant Developments, which helped to attract Hitachi to Newton Aycliffe, said:
“We’ve been involved in Newton Aycliffe and the Hitachi project and we see it as working towards the future and Durham have been very supportive but also they’ve been very ambitious to look to the future and that’s the right way to move.”
Simon Henig, the leader of the county council, said of the inspector’s decision in The Journal on 27 February:
“He tells us that basically our jobs target should be lower. I still cannot see, looking at the plan, his justification for doing that. He just seemed to have plucked a sentence out of the air. Just one sentence on which the rest then turns because, obviously, if you have less jobs you don’t need so many houses or roads and so on. Effectively we have one inspector coming up from the south…saying ‘sorry, Durham, sorry north-east, I’m not going to allow you to have that target for jobs.’”
“we are not talking about the next year or two. This is about the next 15 years and this is a very important document.”
Let us put that into context. At the same time that the inspector’s decision was made on the County Durham plan, the Chancellor and the Mayor of London made a statement on the future of London and what they wanted to see for the capital city. We all want to see a successful capital city, but it is interesting to note that, the day after the council received the decision, a six-point plan for London was announced that referenced no evidence or consultation. There is no suggestion that it comes with the support of business, residents or, indeed, developers, but it certainly does not lack ambition in terms of jobs and homes or the infrastructure required to get them.
That plan includes the ambition: to outpace New York’s growth; to create more than half a million extra jobs in London by 2020 by backing businesses; and to solve London’s acute housing problems, the No. 1 challenge facing the city, by building more than 400,000 new homes. The list goes on, which is fantastic. Why can we not have some of that for County Durham? We had to go through the strictures of the planning system, but that announcement did not require that.
I want to see a world-class capital city, but I also want to see a world-class region in the north-east of England. For too long, the people of the north-east suffered high levels of unemployment and deprivation. Some of those problems continue today and ultimately only the people of the north-east can solve them, with help from elsewhere.
Perhaps in the past, the people of County Durham have been cowed by the problems we faced. Now, the Labour-controlled council shows that we have the aspiration, ambition and confidence to move on from those days. We just want others to have the confidence in us; that is all we are asking for.
We are up for the job; we just want the tools to finish what we have started. That is why I call on the inspector’s final report to acknowledge that ambition, not to downplay the economic potential of County Durham, and let the plan go ahead. I ask the Minister to answer the two fundamental questions I asked at the beginning of my speech. We want the tools to do the job, because we believe in County Durham and we want to see it be a success.
I thank my colleagues for coming together to get this debate, which is so important to County Durham and my constituency. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.
The speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) was incredibly good and detailed. I do not intend to give a speech anything like his; I will speak briefly about the impact on my constituency. I am really disappointed by the inspector’s interim report, given that, as we have heard in great detail, the County Durham plan has the support of businesses and many communities in the north-east. The concerns that I would like the Minister to address are twofold.
First, the inspector appears to have listened and acted on the concerns of those opposed to the plan, but paid little or no cognisance to those living in the county who were content with it. Therefore, he has made recommendations that appear to address the concerns of the objectors, to some extent at the expense of others in the county. Those people now affected have no further voice in the process.
Secondly, the inspector has failed to work closely with the county at all stages to improve the plan, as I was assured he would. I met the Minister with responsibility for planning, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), and his team last year to discuss the County Durham plan, and in particular those areas of it that will impact on my constituency. I was accompanied by a planner from County Durham, and I was particularly keen to understand what weighting would be given to the plan at what stages. The meeting was helpful in that regard.
At that meeting, the Minister and his team agreed that the plan was one of the biggest plans that the Department for Communities and Local Government would have to consider, that Durham is one of the biggest unitary authorities in the country, and that the plan was comprehensive, covering areas such as economic, social and spatial development. We therefore knew that the plan was not only one of the biggest plans the Department would need to look at, but extensive in its remit. There was also recognition that it would need considerable revision as it went through the process. I came away from the meeting feeling quite confident that there was willingness to work with the county planners to ensure that, at every stage, concerns were addressed and amendments were made to avoid what has happened recently.
When drawing up the plan, the county had a number of major challenges, the main one being jobs—it is always about jobs in the north-east—and the second being the reducing working-age population in the county. I believe, as my colleagues do, that the county is right to be ambitious, optimistic and aspirational about economic development, and that the inspector has got it wrong. We have heard extensively about the details of that, so I will not concentrate on it.
I want to concentrate on the impact of the report on my constituency. The strong recommendation to withdraw the plan would have the biggest impact on my constituency, because to do so would remove the five-year supply of housing land defined by the council. That would leave housing development open to being assessed via the national planning policy framework and saved policies. The result will be a free-for-all on planning applications and a catastrophe for communities such as mine.
I will illustrate that by reference to two areas: Lanchester village and Consett town centre. The inspector has largely dismissed plans for building in and around Durham city but, seemingly out of the blue, he has recommended house building in a number of villages across the county, one of which is Lanchester. In doing so, he appears to have ignored all the evidence about flooding, increased traffic and the impact on services. Lanchester has a history of flooding, and it has had four one-in-100-year floods since 2002, but that does not appear to have been considered at all. I declare an interest because I live in Lanchester village. However, I live at the other end of the village, so none of this would have an impact on me personally.
The situation is worse than my hon. Friend describes. In the north of the county, the inspector has completely ignored the housing allocation and referred to places in my constituency such as Sacriston, Stanley and Great Lumley, but he has failed to identify any potential sites. The county council has already looked at those places in its consideration of supply for the next five years, and the sites do not exist. Where does my hon. Friend think the inspector envisages that the houses will go?
I do not think that the inspector has given any consideration to that at all. He has simply picked those villages out of the blue without looking at any of the evidence; at least, that is how it appears to me. The inspector has recommended the adoption of the Project Genesis master plan in Consett, which would create new out-of-town retail developments that are not within walking distance of the town centre. To date, all retail-based planning has been close to the town centre. It is far from perfect, but, overall, it has worked. The inspector’s recommendation appears to be in contravention of all previous and current planning. It would damage Consett town centre, and it would result in unsustainable urban sprawl. Worst of all, the people of Consett have been given no opportunity to challenge any of the plans.
I and my communities want to see the County Durham plan back on course as soon as possible, and I ask the Minister to use whatever influence she has to address the concerns that have been raised and to get the plan back on track. The inspector appears to have made recommendations outside the plan in communities outside Durham city without considering the evidence and without giving those communities the opportunity to have their say. I do not want to comment on the merits, or otherwise, of the objections made to the original plan by those living in and around Durham city. Their views should be, and have been, heard, but so should the views of people living in other communities. I understand that this is how the process works, in a sense. People object to the plan, and if they stay silent or they are content, they have no role in the process. In this case, however, the inspector has simply named villages, and the people who live there find that they will be severely disadvantaged but they have no opportunity for redress.
I went to a public meeting in Lanchester village on Sunday, which was attended by 150 people, who could all be bothered to turn out at 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. That showed the depth of their concern that an unsustainable planning application, which was, in their view, adequately addressed by the County Durham plan, puts them and their village at much greater risk of flooding and unsustainable traffic and puts their schools and community facilities at risk. Those people have no say in the process. Why should the views of people in places such as Lanchester, Consett, Crook, Wolsingham, Stanley and Sacriston count for less than those of other people who live in the county?
I hope that the Minister can use her influence to ensure that the plan is put back on track as soon as possible and that the inspector, or whoever takes the matter forward, works closely with all communities in County Durham, as I was promised that they would.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing the debate, which is timely given the importance of the county plan. I am delighted to stand together with my fellow County Durham MPs. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, virtually everybody—the business community, local authorities and community groups—seems to agree that the inspector’s decision is completely out of step and out of kilter. It seems rather bizarre to suggest that the County Durham plan, which we all feel is bold and ambitious in its expectations for the development of the region, is somehow overly ambitious. When my hon. Friend made his opening remarks, I thought about the comments of the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who accused east Durham schools of lacking the ambition to produce people who would drive forward the regeneration of that part of the county. Here we have an ambitious plan that is completely achievable and realisable, but the inspector is apparently putting the brakes on it.
I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments. I cannot anticipate precisely what she will say, but if her position is that the inspectorate is independent and Ministers cannot interfere in that process, there is a precedent for doing so. I represent a coalfield area in the east of County Durham, to the east of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and next door to my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield. The coalfield regeneration plan supported the idea of bringing new investment and employment into the coalfields, particularly in east Durham, but the inspector ruled against a retail development, which was the first phase of the Dalton Park development. The then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, overturned the inspector’s decision. Again, he had tremendous support from the local authorities, from the community and from the business community. There is a precedent for overturning a decision of the planning inspector, and I hope that the Minister will think seriously about it.
I fully understand and share the concerns of the business community, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has mentioned, after the inspector deemed the plan too ambitious in its aim to build more than 30,000 new homes and create 30,000 new jobs by 2030. As has been mentioned, the Chancellor visited our region just last week, and referred several times to his long-term economic plan and his ambition to create a northern economic powerhouse. That makes for good rhetoric, but it does not offer much in the way of practical support.
Although the Chancellor promised investment for transport links and skills, and said that he would back manufacturing and exports, it is worth noting that spending on transport infrastructure in the north-east is the lowest in the county at £223 a person, compared with £5,426 a person in London. For every £1 that is spent in the north-east, London receives £24.33. I know that London is the capital city, and that it has Crossrail and a huge population, but that disparity is huge. We need some practical support. Yes, we need ambitious plans put forward by the county council, but we need a Government who will correct some of the anomalies that exist. We do not need the inspector to reinforce and worsen the north-south divide. Revising down the plans for more jobs and homes—the estimates are empirically based—will not help to rebalance the economy.
My local authority, Durham county council, has transcended the rhetoric from the Government and the Chancellor. It has put forward ambitious plans for jobs and economic growth in the county, and it is wrong that the Planning Inspectorate should block those plans. We have suffered tremendously. I tried to calculate the number of jobs lost in my constituency over the last few years. They have been lost not just in the public sector, but at some quite large employers, including the Reckitt Benckiser factory in Peterlee, which I hope will reopen, and which used to employ 500 people; the Fin engineering company in Seaham; Cumbrian Foods; and Yearley, the refrigeration and transport company.
A number of substantial employers have gone, but we are seeking to diversify the economic base of Easington, in the east of the county, and indeed of the whole county. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield referred to Hitachi locating in his area and to the positive spin-offs and benefits in the supply chain. I hope some of the engineering factories in my constituency—particularly in Peterlee—will benefit from that additional activity.
The Government have an opportunity to prove they are committed to creating a northern powerhouse, and that that is more than just idle rhetoric. I hope the Minister can give a real commitment to work with north-east MPs, and that we have common cause on this. I am not terribly familiar with her constituency, but we have been through the trauma of industrial closures, and thousands of jobs have been lost in Easington, and we have not had special measures, enterprise zones or a Minister for the area to argue for more investment. The Government is beholden to get behind the efforts we are making to generate economic activity and jobs and to improve the county’s collective well-being. Indeed, local businesses are rising to the challenge, raising their ambitions and expectations for the north-east economy.
I cannot accept the planning inspector’s assessment. If he is saying that our county should be less ambitious, that we should aim to create fewer jobs and that the north-east needs less investment in infrastructure, that is certainly not the case. The Government cannot allow the Planning Inspectorate to undermine the entire county plan and to stifle the ambition of people in the north-east to bring new investment, businesses, jobs and training opportunities to our region.
The north-east has a number of leading international businesses. The Government often cite Nissan, and Newcastle airport is another tremendous business that generates huge economic activity and benefit for the region. Shortly, we will also have Hitachi. In my constituency, we have world-class companies such as Caterpillar, NSK and GT Group. Between them, they employ more than 2,000 people, and they have huge export orders and huge potential. We need to do everything we can to encourage them and to grow our own companies.
We also need, however, to attract new businesses. Part of the plan is to have a centre of creative excellence in the north-east—a film studio or a Hollywood of the north. However, that requires a commitment from the public and private sectors. An area is set aside, and it requires some housing development if the scheme is to go ahead. Potentially, it could create 2,000 jobs and training places. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) suggested, we could use all the synergies in our area—not just the tremendous location, with a terrific vista over the County Durham coast, but the skills base at our universities at Teesside, Durham and Sunderland, and the skills at our colleges—to get that enterprise going. We therefore have enormous potential, and I have complete confidence in the people I represent and in the commitment of businesses.
East Durham used to be a centre of not just coal mining, but the textile industry. A large number of factories were located in Peterlee and Seaham. Sadly, much of that business has gone offshore, but we have seen a bit of a revival with an embryonic business called AMA, which I met and helped to encourage. It has now expanded and won a major contract with Tesco, and we hope we can use some of our skills and potential to develop that still further and create more jobs.
We also have innovative training providers, such as Infinite Learning and Development and its welding academy. That is important, because we have Caterpillar and GT Group, and we need to give local people skills to address the shortage of highly trained welders in the region. Infinite Learning and Development was one of three finalists nominated at the national Semta apprentice awards, where it was in illustrious company, competing alongside the likes of Toyota UK, Tata Steel and Swansea university for the training partner of the year award. For a small training provider, that is some achievement and some recognition of its commitment.
I should also mention the East Durham Employability Trust, an employment charity in my constituency that helps those not in education, employment or training to secure sustainable employment through its Destination Employment programme. It has had tremendous results, with 94% of those completing the programme moving into employment. That is a terrific outcome.
We have tourist potential. With the right investment, we can create jobs. We can have the most magnificent coastline anywhere in the country, but if people cannot get to it, we cannot really develop its tourist potential, in terms of day visits or longer stays. We have one of the best-kept secrets in the country in the east Durham heritage coast—I know it is referred to as the County Durham heritage coast, but I like to call it the east Durham heritage coast, because that is where it is. We also have the coastal footpath and the newly announced nature reserve on the former Easington colliery site. Those tremendous assets are safeguarding and protecting our natural environment, as well as promoting tourism—it is possible to do both.
Last week, having been involved in the issue for some time, I was pleased to hear the owners of the Dalton Park development announce that work on a £45 million expansion is due to begin in May. That will create 600 retail jobs, with an estimated 400 jobs during the construction phase. That is welcome news. The first phase was in 1999-2000, when the initial planning consent was given. That is a welcome investment in jobs in the local economy. It will provide new amenities for the community, including a cinema, restaurants, a supermarket, a petrol station, a hotel and a family-friendly pub.
We are, however, looking to the Government and the Planning Inspectorate to work with the local community, the local authority and businesses to promote every sector of our economy in east Durham. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield said we were trying to diversify our economic base. We need some practical assistance to do that, whether in manufacturing, light or heavy engineering, retail, the service sector or tourism. I do not want the planning inspector to talk the north-east down. I certainly do not want him talking Easington or east Durham down; and I do not want him to hold us back from transforming our communities. I will not go through the long list of business organisations that condemn the Planning Inspectorate for its decision. However, I share their concern that in rejecting the county plan, in not listening to the concerns of local businesses and elected representatives, and in rejecting the advice of the local authority, the inspectorate has itself shown a lack of ambition for the north-east.
Among the comments that have been made, one that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield did not mention was from Jonathan Walker, of the North East chamber of commerce:
“We work alongside our public sector partners and encourage local authorities to be bold, ambitious and pro-growth in their budgets and local plans. We are shocked by what the inspector had to say and feel his recommendations not only stifle the ambitions of Durham, but, by implication, the North East as a whole.”
I do not want to underestimate the scale of the task. We certainly face challenges in county Durham—and more, perhaps, in Easington than anywhere else in the county. We need support to tackle that. The Government’s reduction of the local authority’s budget by more than a quarter of a billion pounds was certainly not helpful. We need more Government support, particularly with infrastructure, on which we get a poor deal. For example, the proposed railway station in Horden in my constituency is still in the pipeline—in the planning stage. It would be a considerable boost to tourism, employment and the mobility of labour, but instead the Government continue to focus on faster rail services, while in east Durham we need greater connectivity to existing lines. We have had a welcome announcement that Pacer trains are finally to be removed from the network.
County Durham should have our praise for its ambitious plans, and should not be chastised by the Planning Inspectorate. I urge the Minister to give the matter further consideration, look at the views of the business community and local representatives, and help us to get the Planning Inspectorate on board, so that we can move together for a better, more prosperous future for east Durham, county Durham and the north-east.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.
County Durham is a beautiful county and a great place to live, but it is not a delicate flower, to be protected in a glass case. Its history is one of economic development and change, going back to the early Normans who built Durham cathedral, and including the expansion of coal mining, and steel making at Consett, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Another example is the development, at Barnard Castle in Bishop Auckland, of the Bowes museum under the inspirational leadership of John Bowes. I wonder what would have happened if Harold Stephens had been around at those times in history. Would he have told the Normans that they were being too ambitious in building a beautiful cathedral that would stand for 1,000 years? Would he have told John Bowes that his idea of a French chateau in the Durham countryside, to celebrate his fantastic collection of art, would impinge on the green belt and be too ambitious for a county such as Durham?
The leader of the council, Simon Henig, summed things up well last week when he said that we do not want to live in a museum. I am proud of my constituency, which includes the fantastic Beamish open-air museum—but I do not want to live in the museum. It is important to remind us of our past, but we cannot live in the past. County Durham has never lived in its past; it has always moved forward. The county council’s ambitious economic plan is part of that tradition of trying to drive industry forward and making sure that the county grows. One of the most ambitious projects in county Durham’s recent history was the development of the new towns at Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe. It was a bold vision at the time, but we now acknowledge the foresight of those who brought it about. I see the county council’s current plan in that context.
I do not think that we could have achieved such a plan before the county’s unitary status. A unique aspect of County Durham as a unitary county is the way it has got everyone together behind its ambitious plan—not just the business community but people in politics, and communities. That could never have worked at the time of the district councils, because the two tiers would have fought one another. That is something unique about the plan.
Is the plan too ambitious? I do not think it is. It fits quite well with what is proposed in Tyne and Wear, and Teesside. We have had a little bit of a problem in County Durham in the past few years, in that Teesside and Tyneside have been seen as the region’s powerhouses. I am not for a minute under the illusion that we will emulate those regional powerhouses, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) said, we can make a huge contribution to the growth of the economy of the north-east as a whole. To say that County Durham should be a rural backwater for those conurbations is not the way forward. It would not be good for the people who live there, and it would create generational problems. There was a huge problem in the 1980s—and earlier, in my part of the Durham coalfield, in the 1960s—when coal mining left. The economic reason for some communities went away overnight. We cannot recreate such industries in communities as they were then; but County Durham has put forward a plan on which it should be congratulated. It would at least try to develop industries and attract businesses, not necessarily directly to those same locations, but within striking distance—in the A1 corridor, for example.
As to the ambitions of County Durham, if someone had said five years ago that through the hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield it would attract Hitachi to invest as it has in Newton Aycliffe, most people would have wondered whether it was possible, but it happened, and that was down to the drive of my hon. Friend, the county council and local businesses.
I agree. It has a can-do attitude—and that is what is behind the plan. To say that it is too ambitious is wrong. We cannot let our constituents down and think we can go along somehow, just tinkering at the edges, with time passing us by. There are communities in my constituency, as I have said, whose economic life blood went years ago. We need to provide them with industry, jobs and opportunities, within striking distance. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) is right; things have changed. Instead of heavy industry there will be tourism, high tech and educational opportunities. The work atmosphere is very different from what it was, but the plan was at least going to deliver those things.
I want to mention two things that directly affect my constituency. One is the inspector’s removal from the plan of the development of housing at Lambton park. Lambton park is a result of County Durham’s history. It was built with wealth and proceeds from the coal mining industries, but it has been shut away for the past few years and has not really been accessible. The plan would provide executive housing on the site, but it would also open the parkland to public access. Cleverly, the development of executive housing, which is needed in County Durham, would be linked to providing affordable housing in the town of Chester-le-Street, but the inspector put a line through that and took it out completely. That creates a housing supply problem in Chester-le-Street, because with one fell swoop it knocked out 740 housing units from the 1,230 proposed for the Chester-le-Street area, which were identified in the strategic housing land availability assessment. That proposal was taken out, so we already have a shortfall. From my constituency surgeries I know the demand for affordable housing in Chester-le-Street. It also misses the point that the estate, which has sat idle for many generations, could be brought back into economic use, and not just for housing. There were also proposals to build offices and other developments in the area, but those proposals were taken out.
The other issue is the failure to agree the extension to the Drum industrial estate. I have two major industrial estates in my constituency: Drum and Stella Gill. The Drum industrial estate is important because it is located near the A1. To be fair, the county council has improved access to the A1, which has made the industrial estate more attractive to business. The extension would have allowed for growth, but it has been taken out. The Stella Gill industrial estate has been designated as the place where we need growth—it is the only industrial estate in the north of the county to be designated. Stella Gill is a small industrial estate that is not accessible to the A1, and it is not attractive to business. The decision will basically stifle job creation in my constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) mentioned the inspector’s arrogant attitude to housing allocation. I accept that there are people in the city of Durham who want to preserve the city the way they see it, and therefore they cannot have any housing at all, but the inspector basically said, “Well, if we are going to provide this housing, we can provide it elsewhere.” The inspector took no account whatever in his report of the strategic housing land availability assessment, because sites are not available in my constituency to take up that slack. If we do not agree the plan, there will be speculative development, as my hon. Friend said. People reacted in triumph last week, saying that they had saved the green belt, but they have done far from that. Without a plan in place, they have actually opened up parts of County Durham to speculation.
This is an ambitious plan, and it is a plan that is right for County Durham not only today, but for the future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield said, the plan links into our wider ambitions for our region. County Durham cannot be kept out of those plans; it is an important part of the region. If we are to say to our constituents that we are doing our best to ensure that not only work but good quality housing is available locally, this plan must be implemented. Is there anything the Minister can do to get this moving? The report has been a slap in the face for County Durham as a whole and for the county council. I give credit to the county council—some people have not given the county council credit over the past few days—for its leadership on this issue, but we need the plan to proceed. We cannot stall the plan for several years to come, because there would otherwise be speculation and missed opportunities. There are businesses and housing developers out there that should come to my constituency and other parts of County Durham, but they will not come without the plan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this debate, which puts me in the odd position of responding for the Opposition on a subject of direct relevance to my constituency. I will do my best to tread a careful path between those two roles.
My hon. Friend did an excellent job of highlighting the key issues for him and our colleagues in the inspector’s report on the County Durham plan. He did an excellent job of highlighting the need for a strong vision for County Durham and the need for ambitious targets for economic growth and new housing units. He spoke about the undesirability of reducing housing numbers in his constituency, and he pointed out that much more needs to be done to build on the Durham-Raleigh model of economic development, and I concur with him on that aspiration.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) spoke passionately about the impact on her constituency, particularly the areas of Consett and Lanchester, if the plan were to be withdrawn. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) made valid points about the need to improve infrastructure spending in the north-east and the need to have more than just plans in order to rebalance our economy. He also pointed out the need to support the diversification of our economic base. He strongly pointed out the need for investment in the centre for creative excellence, the idea for which has been around for some time and needs to be supported as soon as possible. He did such a good job of extolling the benefits of his constituency of Easington that I thought I must holiday there. He certainly highlighted Easington as a place on the up that we should all look at closely.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) highlighted the need to do as much as we can to promote economic development in the region and to see County Durham play an important part in ensuring that we get more jobs not only in County Durham but in the region as a whole. He pointed out the strength of investing in a concept, as Hitachi has, and our need for many more such developments.
As the Minister will realise, every Opposition Member has spoken about the importance of putting a plan in place as quickly as possible. Our view is that the council should take the inspector’s comments on board and seek to rectify the evidence base and other requirements as quickly as possible. I know from talking to people in the city of Durham who objected to the existing plan that they would welcome the opportunity to work with the council to get a plan in place. There are three areas where they want to see some movement.
First, they would like the council to adopt an acceptable economic development strategy. The key issues for me were set out clearly in paragraph 15 of the inspector’s report. On economic development, he wants the council to put more effort into a knowledge-based economy, with knowledge transfer not only from Durham university but from other universities in the region, so that we diversify our economic base. That is also reflected in the land use aspect of the County Durham plan. For example, we need to have start-up units close to the university, as well as more widely dispersed throughout the county. What can be done to support the county to adopt such an economic strategy? At the public inquiry I spoke at length about the need to have such a strategy in place. I was also pleased that the inspector picked up on our need for investment in the Leamside line. Again, I hope that the Minister will talk to her parliamentary colleagues about that.
The second issue that I wish to highlight is the need for a strong policy on how the city can develop student accommodation, particularly purpose-built student accommodation. Again, the Minister will know from paragraphs 102 to 104 of the inspector’s report that the policy proposed by the council is simply not fit for purpose, and that the council will have to go back and do a better job. Any support that her officials or others can give the council to ensure that a proper policy is put in place quickly would be welcomed not only by me but by my constituents and others.
Thirdly, people are keen to work with the council to get sites for additional housing in and around the city that meet the requirements of the national planning policy framework and the guidance on green belts. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham that I do not think people want Durham city to be preserved in aspic; they want it to develop in a way that builds on its amazing heritage, including a wonderful world heritage site. We need appropriate development.
The Minister will know that the inspector has given the county three options: to continue the examination on the basis of the current evidence, to suspend the examination or to withdraw the plan. I think that we all want to encourage the county to choose suspension and to go away, work on the issues that need work and issue a revised plan within six months that will be acceptable to everyone in the county. Again, what pressure can she put on the council to achieve that aim? If the plan is withdrawn, I am also interested to know what weight she thinks can be given to it, if any, and to its supporting policies.
Lastly, what does the Minister think about the wisdom of pursuing an approach geared so heavily towards development on the green belt, given what is stated in the NPPF and the recent guidance issued by her Department, which sets a high bar for securing development on the green belt?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for securing this debate, which has afforded all of us the opportunity to discuss the issues in detail and his colleagues an opportunity to get their views firmly on record in response to the inspector’s report.
At the heart of this Government’s programme has been an unprecedented amount of support to enable growth across the country. To name but a few of our initiatives, we have established 24 enterprise zones, two of them in the north-east, agreed 39 local enterprise partnerships and supported an ambitious range of projects through growth deals, from which the north-east has secured just shy of £300 million.
It is worth pausing and reflecting on the second issue raised by the hon. Member for Sedgefield. Government would not invest such sums of public money in a process that is largely competitive unless we had confidence in those local plans; the ideas are generated locally, but they are tested. The private sector certainly would not invest the sums that it is investing if it did not have confidence in and share the ambitions for Durham and the north-east that have been articulated in this debate.
To answer the hon. Gentleman’s second point, I think that the ambition is right. It is good to see ambition, and we certainly think that the job numbers articulated by the Chancellor and mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, as well as the £4.5 billion of investment that we think will be levered into the area, are realistic sums. The question is how, and that is obviously what the detail of the plan considers.
We are fully committed to supporting growth, and I think we all agree that we want widely supported and appropriate plans in place that enable sustainable development. Plans play a central role in involving communities in determining what development is appropriate and where. We have supported authorities across the country in putting robust local plans in place.
The Minister mentioned £4.5 billion in investment. Can we make it clear that £2.7 billion of that is for the intercity express programme? The trains will be built at Newton Aycliffe, but that £2.7 billion is for maintaining the trains as well as building depots in Doncaster, Swansea, Bristol and London, and it is being made available over 27.5 years. Not all that investment is actually destined for the north-east of England.
I was referring to the inward investment that would come into the area. The point that I was making is that the private sector would not be investing in Durham and the north-east unless it had confidence that local businesses and the local community could deliver. It is important to put it on record that we have confidence in the local ideas being put forward.
This is an important point of principle. We have supported local plans and made that a focus. Nearly four times as many councils have now adopted plans than at the start of this Parliament, and more than 1,300 communities are doing excellent work bringing forward neighbourhood plans, 26 of which are in County Durham. It is an important point of principle that those plans should come from the communities, which know their local patch best.
I empathise with the situation that Durham county council is in. It has put considerable effort into producing a plan. I want to make it clear that although the inspector has some concerns, what he has set out are interim findings. It is important to note that he says that
“for the avoidance of doubt, this not does not set out a final view”,
The inspector has offered the council different options for how to proceed. They include the opportunity for the council to undertake further work to support their approach.
I must add a caveat to my response: given my ministerial role, I must limit how specific my comments are on certain aspects of the plan as it remains at examination, but I do not think that that will prevent me from answering any of the questions that hon. Members have posed. The argument is that the County Durham plan would enable strong economic growth, significant housing and infrastructure, and represents an approach that has broad local support. In headline terms, those are perspectives fully endorsed by the Government’s planning policy.
The national planning policy framework is clear that authorities should plan proactively to meet businesses’ development needs and base their plans on a clear understanding of those needs. Our policy sets out that authorities should plan to meet objectively assessed development needs and provide appropriate infrastructure as far as is consistent with the policies in the framework as a whole. The Government have made it clear that we accord great importance to the green belt, whose fundamental characteristics are openness and permanence, and that green belt boundaries should be revised only in exceptional circumstances through the local plan process.
Our policy is clear that local plans should as far as possible reflect a collective vision and set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area. The Government’s commitment to sustainable development, green belt protection and community involvement in planning is not in dispute. I reassure hon. Members who have raised concerns, as the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) did, that the absence of a plan will open the floodgates. Perhaps it would be helpful if I wrote to hon. Members in detail outlining some things that I think will give them comfort. There are clearly material considerations that need to be taken into account, even in the absence of a local plan.
I have mentioned the green belt and neighbourhood planning. A neighbourhood plan, of course, does not have to be ratified to have legal weight in the planning process. There is the “town centre first” policy—an issue that the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) raised—and “infrastructure first”, which the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned. Perhaps it would be useful if I wrote to hon. Members to outline matters in detail; that may give hon. Members’ constituents some comfort.
I turn to the issues that the inspector raised. It is true that the plan would enable growth, but the inspector is not convinced, on the basis of the current evidence, that the level of growth proposed would be achievable, and that it would not adversely affect the council’s other city-centre strategies and the world heritage site status of Durham. The inspector is also of the view that more could be done to show how growth in Durham would interact positively or negatively with the growth being proposed by other north-east authorities. In summary, the inspector explains that, at present,
“the failure to fully assess the social, economic and environmental implications of lower growth options…is a serious omission”.
Let me be clear: that does not mean that the inspector has suggested that Durham should be less ambitious in its plan; it means that Durham needs to show clearly why the approach it proposes is the most appropriate strategy.
The plan clearly seeks to enable more housing than past trends would indicate, but the inspector has indicated that there are shortcomings in the methodology for establishing housing needs; for example, there is the question of whether the predicted in-migration levels are realistic.
In relation to housing provision, the inspector’s view is that the plan could do more to take into account the contribution that could be made to housing delivery by reusing brownfield land, potentially for around 2,000 homes; I hope that addresses the issue that the hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned. Based on these assumptions about housing growth, the plan allocates some 4,000 homes in the green belt. On this point, the inspector is clear that
“The process and evidence relating to the proposed amendments to the Green Belt boundary are flawed, particularly in relation to the release of sites to accommodate some 4,000 unnecessary dwellings...A full review of non-Green Belt sources of supply should be undertaken.”
The plan further advocates two relief roads in the green belt, but the inspector also has concerns about their justification and impact. Although planning inevitably involves difficult decisions that will not please everyone, the inspector points to significant concerns raised by a broad section of the public in relation to the proposed strategy.
The shortcomings identified in the current version of the plan may yet be resolvable at examination, as the inspector’s report sets out. I understand that the council is due to meet the inspectorate in March to discuss options for how to proceed, and I am pleased that the inspectorate is engaging openly with the local authority.
I can reassure hon. Members who have spoken today that the Planning Inspectorate is as pragmatic as possible when it comes to examining local plans. However, this is the crux of the matter: the inspector would not have arrived at his interim findings if there were not significant grounds for concern.
In summary, hon. Members who have spoken today have expressed their support for a plan that the inspector considers is not currently supported by robust evidence. In the absence of such evidence, the plan advocates a strategy that is potentially unrealistic or possibly detrimental to Durham, its sustainable development and in particular its green belt.
I take exception to the Minister saying that, because what has been put forward is an ambitious plan. She seems to be saying that on the one hand we need economic growth for the north-east, but on the other the plan is not achievable. The problem is treating County Durham as a small market county; it is a large county. If housing is not put in my area, it will be put somewhere else, which means my area will suffer as part of this plan.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am simply stating the concerns that the inspectorate has raised. Clearly, I hope that we have a local plan in place for his area sooner rather than later. However, that plan needs to be based on good evidence if it is to be successful. I hope that, if the dialogue with the inspectorate is successful, the plan that emerges at the end of the process will be stronger for it.
The objective of trying to generate 30,000 jobs between now and 2030 is in line with what the Chancellor said on Friday about generating 50,000 jobs between now and 2020. If the figures for the county over 15 years are out of kilter, so are the Chancellor’s figures. That is why the Government need to look at this matter closely; it affects not only the growth patterns for the county, but those for the whole of the north-east, as laid out by the Chancellor.
I will come on to answer the first point that the hon. Gentleman raised. In answer to his second point, there is no doubt that the ambition is the right one. The figures, both on jobs and the inward investment that we expect, are absolutely right. The issue at stake is how that growth in jobs and investment is achieved. I have just given one example. Based on current evidence, the inspectorate feels deeply that building on the green belt is not justified, and that the plan would benefit from a piece of work that examines the reuse of brownfield sites. We do not want to slow down progress; we want to keep up momentum on this issue. I am pleased that the inspectorate is due to meet the council.
Let me turn to the first point the hon. Gentleman raised, which was about Government assistance. I will write to hon. Members in detail about planning policy, which may give them some comfort. I will also follow up on the issue that he raised about the Hitachi business park and the science innovation park; I will certainly seek to get him some answers on that issue and will write to him about it. We have already been of assistance in setting up the meeting that is due to take place in March. We will assist in any way we can, not only in my Department but across Government.
There is one other area that is worth exploring. When I looked at the local plan that is being proposed, and mapped it to the plans and priorities of the local enterprise partnership, I saw that there is perhaps a job of work to do that would strengthen the position that the hon. Gentleman is setting out. I am one of a number of Ministers who could help to facilitate that work, which may yield further evidence to support the plan as currently set out. Of course, the Chancellor has also offered his assistance and offered to work with local stakeholders.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first point, therefore, we are ready to assist in any way we can. Clearly, the area will benefit from having a strong, robust, evidence-based local plan, and I hope that we will see one before too long.