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New Town in Essex

Volume 659: debated on Thursday 2 May 2019

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

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am particularly fortunate that you are in the Chair as I make the case for a new town in Essex, because you are a fellow Essex Member. Given the strains and stresses with the need for housing, I know we share the same ambition that we want to do our bit in Essex. Irrespective of exactly where we want to do this—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will come on to this in his brief response—garden towns are a splendid idea, and I know that Epping Forest and Southend West stand united in doing our bit on housing.

My hon. Friend the Minister is probably puzzled by what has triggered all this, but some months ago I was asked to chair a meeting of Essex MPs with leaders and chief executives of their local authorities. There was a pretty broad agenda, but at the heart of it all was the issue of housing. I absolutely applaud what the Government are doing with North Essex Garden Communities and the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission, which wants a minimum of 1 million homes, which are needed to support economic growth in the Thames estuary, by 2050. That equates to 31,000 per year. There has also been an excellent paper from Policy Exchange, “Tomorrow’s Places: A plan for building a generation of new millennial towns on the edge of London”.

It occurred to me that, as all parliamentarians know, whenever there is a decision to build something in or near their area, there will be a group of people who are not too keen on it. The area that I represent, Southend West, is an oblong alongside the Thames estuary, and there is literally nowhere to build—we cannot build on the parks we have—so I thought it was wrong for me to suggest precisely where in Essex such new building could take place. Then I suddenly thought that I am the first and last Member of Parliament for the constituency of Basildon, which was the largest and most successful new town in the country. In those heady days of 1983, I represented Basildon and Jerry Hayes represented Harlow.

A number of my colleagues wanted to be in the Chamber for the debate, but obviously other things are happening in our country at the moment. In particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) wanted to be able to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that Harlow is an extraordinary place of aspiration, opportunity, achievement and community. Many people come to Harlow from the edges of town to make their lives better, to have good-quality housing and to be surrounded by green spaces. Our right hon. Friend believes, rightly, that it is

“a place of achievement because we invented fibre optic communications and are a renowned sculpture town”—

I am beginning to think he, too, is bidding for his town to be a city—

“and we will soon be the home of Public Health England making us the public health-science capital of the world. Our new Enterprise Zone and Advanced Manufacturing Centre will provide education, skills and training to our young people so that they can climb the Ladder of Opportunity.”

Our right hon. Friend believes that Harlow has brilliant schools and a wonderful hospital, but any further help the Government can give it as it prospers and develops would be greatly appreciated.

When I say that I am the first and last Member of Parliament for Basildon, it is true. Much has been written and much has been said about the issue, but perhaps I could describe the semantics of who has represented Basildon as the devil at work. I want the House to know that when I was elected in extraordinary circumstances in 1983, I had five local colleagues: Sir Bernard Braine, Sir Edward Gardner, Sir Richard Body, Sir Bob McCrindle and Harvey Proctor. After the 1979 election, the Boundary Commission decided that the new town should stand alone, with the eight wards of Fryerns Central, Fryerns East, Langdon Hills, Lee Chapel North, Nethermayne, Pitsea East, Pitsea West and Vange. I and my family lived in Nethermayne. We had all represented the new town, but as part of a much larger area. When I won the seat in 1983, it was against an extraordinary background, because every single district and county councillor was Labour and the key officers, who were supposed to be impartial, were also Labour. It was me against an army of people trying to do me down, as it seemed at the time.

I want to say to my hon. Friend the Minister, looking at housing in Essex, that my experience of the new town, through the development corporation and the Commission for the New Towns, was absolutely first class. I and the then Member for Harlow had the same chairman, Dame Elizabeth Coker—sadly, she has now died—who was absolutely wonderful, and a brilliant chief executive called Douglas Galloway. As we know, if such projects are going to be successful, they need strong leadership.

Since 1997, the Boundary Commission has intervened again, but the media did not seem to understand that and a few people pretended that the constituency was still Basildon. Well, it was not: as it is now, it is partly Basildon and Billericay and partly South Basildon and East Thurrock, and since then two representatives have always represented the town. It looks, unless the Boundary Commission changes its mind, that I will be the first and last Member of Parliament for Basildon.

Those were 15 glorious years. Our family was raised there—all the children were born at the local hospital—and our children were educated there. We had very happy times, although we did have some unpleasant incidents when, for whatever reason, the opposition attacked my family about the way I educated my children. They did not go to private schools; they just wanted a Catholic education in a single-sex school, but forces went to work against that. In one of the most extraordinary events, at one election—in those days, only four Conservative MPs were anti-fox hunting, of whom I was one—leaflets were distributed by the opposition saying that I was pro-fox hunting, even though somebody from the League Against Cruel Sports was involved. Fortunately, however, my wonderful agent—I think it was the late Barbara Allen—threatened litigation, and a substantial amount of money went to charity. Some very unpleasant things happened, but most of it was really very positive in every sense of the word.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the development corporation and the Commission for the New Towns put in all the infrastructure that was needed. We had the roads, the schools and the industrial sites for businesses. Every single week, I was opening a new factory, a new plant or a new business. Royalty came to Basildon. In fact, although it had nothing at all to do with me, Basildon-mania took hold of the country. We had visits from Sir John Major and Baroness Thatcher. Everyone wanted to visit Basildon and see what was happening with this economic miracle.

I would say to my hon. Friend the Minister that there were certainly two miracles during my time that I was very proud of. The first was St Luke’s Hospice. It started with a penny from Trudy Cox, and the hospice now supports a very wide community. That was a miracle for human beings—it was opened by Princess Diana and the Duchess of Norfolk—and then we had a miracle for animals when we opened the horse, pony and donkey sanctuary. There is an Act of Parliament—I assume it is still there—that I promoted to stop such animals being cruelly tethered.

Wonderful things happen in Basildon. When I started, we had one police station, and by the time I left in 1997, we had three. Not one person was murdered in the 15 years that I was there. There were no school closures: we stopped them happening. There was a crazy suggestion that the A&E should close and move to Orsett, as should the maternity unit, but we stopped it. In those days, one could stop things more easily than today—a silver birch forest was to be razed to the ground, but we stopped that from happening. Sadly, after 1997, there were school closures, the hospital went into special measures after a time, and the silver birch forest was razed to the ground. It was very unfortunate indeed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and I were invited to attend the 70th anniversary of the founding of Basildon. It was not exactly a trip down memory lane—many of the people I knew had gone or moved on—but he and I sat there and listened to what was said. It was not quite as we remembered, but my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) are doing a splendid job in jointly representing the town.

I come now to the crux of my speech. We all accept that we need more housing. When I got off at Fenchurch Street and went to Tower Hill, I saw people sleeping on the pavements. That is not acceptable. I remember when Mother Teresa came to the House. When she met Baroness Thatcher, she said, “What are these people doing?” It has always happened, and of course many of them have mental health problems and it is a real struggle to house them, but there is a housing shortage. The Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission has estimated that a minimum of 1 million new homes will be needed by 2050 to match population rises and to support economic growth throughout the region. As I have said, that is the equivalent of 31,000 homes a year, which is certainly an ambitious target.

At one time in Basildon we had 40,000 homes in public ownership, which is a huge number. Under the right to buy, which I supported, many were sold, but it was found that 10,000 were affected by clay heave and no one could get insurance for those properties, so we persuaded the then Housing Minister, now Lord Patten, to repurchase 10,000 properties. One can imagine what that meant for local residents.

Every builder had a go at designing an estate in Basildon. One estate was known as “Alcatraz”—they were not all totally successful—but by and large people valued the home they had been given. It was the east end displaced. That is where I come from. Many of my relatives moved there from London, and some still live there. They were thrilled to get their first house. Some might say, “Oh, but they weren’t very attractive,” and all the rest of it, but people had a home, a place to educate their children, a shopping centre and good transport. As far as I am concerned, the new towns were very successful.

If new towns are delivered in the right way, they not only offer affordable homes to many, but become new communities that people want to be part of. They create jobs, infrastructure links and new opportunities. When planned holistically, a new town can address our housing crisis while protecting existing communities from sprawl and the overbearing impact on local services and infrastructure.

It cannot be beyond our wit today to replicate those successes in another part of Essex. I have been here so long that it is an awful long time since I have heard anything original said: people talk enthusiastically, but it has all been said and done before—it is just reinventing the wheel and coming full circle. We do not need terribly clever people to tell us we already have two success stories in Harlow and Basildon. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, however, that while we do not have space in Southend West, there is space in other parts of Essex.

Essex is a wonderful county. Some people say that Kent is God’s own county, but I happen to think that Essex is God’s own county. It is vibrant and extremely well led, and it is entirely understandable that people would want to move there. I know that the Minister is going to tell me about three projects he has in hand, but, whatever the political situation at the moment, the Government should grasp the nettle and do it. Let us build on the successes we already have. One could not find anyone more enthusiastic than me, I am, the first and last MP for Basildon, for a new town in Essex.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on securing this important debate on new towns in Essex. He is a particularly effective campaigner for his constituency and very persuasive and passionate in championing those he represents. We are fortunate also to have you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you are also an exemplary representative for that particularly beautiful part of the world, blessed or otherwise from the heavens—in my view, the whole country is so blessed.

As my hon. Friend and many others have highlighted in the House, we have not built enough homes over the last few decades, and we certainly do not build them quickly enough. It is our intention to fix that. As he rightly highlighted, there is much we can learn from the post-war new town programme about the importance of place-making, jobs and skills, infrastructure and the need for the long-term stewardship of place. The design of many of those new towns is often criticised—as he said, it was hit and miss—but it was largely successful, though challenges arose from the rapid development and centralised planning that underpinned them.

New towns were also hugely successful in providing homes and thriving communities for lots of people. Over 2.5 million people now live in a new town, including in lovely Basildon and Harlow. As my hon. Friend recommended, we want to learn those lessons from the past but apply them in a modem context. That is why we believe well-planned, well-designed and locally led garden communities should play a vital role in helping to meet this country’s housing need well into the future by providing a stable pipeline of homes.

This is not just about getting the numbers up; it is about building places that people are happy to call home and that have the potential to become vibrant, thriving communities where people can live and work for generations to come, as my hon. Friend pointed out. We are currently supporting 23 locally led garden communities across the country, from Cornwall to Cumbria, including North Essex Garden Communities, an ambitious proposal for three communities across north Essex with the potential to deliver up to 43,000 new homes.

In March, we announced a further five garden towns, including one in Essex. They include Easton Park garden community, North Uttlesford garden community and West of Braintree garden community. It is an opportunity to deliver up to 18,500 homes. We will make further announcements on more successful places in due course. Each place in the current programme is unique, but the expectations on quality and innovation are high. The council-owned Graven Hill site in Bicester garden town is providing the biggest opportunity for self and custom built homes in the country. Didcot garden town is promoting the innovative use of technology and partnership working between the public and private sector, to underpin a quality agenda.

Garden towns and villages are a key part of the solution to our housing crisis, and we want them to have every lever at their disposal. Last summer, building on the success of post-war new towns, we passed regulations that enabled the establishment of new town development corporations, to be overseen not by the Secretary of State as was previously the case, but by the local authorities that cover the area designated for the new town. Where there are complex delivery and co-ordination challenges, we consider that new town development corporations may be the right vehicle for driving forward high-quality new communities at scale. With a statutory objective to secure the laying out and development of the new town, and with their own suite of powers, those corporations should have the focus and heft to get things done.

Our Housing White Paper “Fixing our broken housing market” was published in February 2017 and committed the Government to allowing locally led new town development corporations to be set up. Section 16 of the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 enabled that to happen, and regulations passed in July last year brought those new powers into force—that was one of my first acts as Housing Minister. Some functions, such as the confirmation of compulsory purchase orders, remain with the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State will continue to lay any regulations that designate new towns, or that establish and dissolve new town development corporations. Those regulations do not change the powers of new town development corporations; they simply localise their oversight.

The regulations provide the mechanism to set up a locally led new town development corporation, but they do not enable the Government to do so simply at the behest of a local authority or group of local authorities. If—as we hope and expect—local authorities consider that a locally led new town development corporation is the right vehicle, we will need to undertake a public consultation. Only if we consider that designating a particular new town would be expedient and in the national interest will we lay the relevant statutory instrument. Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise each proposal for the designation of a new town, and a statutory instrument designating a new town must be debated in both Houses.

I emphasise that locally led new towns must be just that—locally led—and it will be for those local authorities interested in setting up such a body to make the case to the Government for why that would be expedient and in the national interest. That is a complicated way of saying that local and national bodies need to work together to produce the sort of communities that my hon. Friend refers to. We firmly believe that the success of those communities in future will be founded on local acceptability and control.

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of delivering not just homes but the infrastructure to support them, and we wholeheartedly agree. That is why we have more than doubled the housing infrastructure fund, dedicating an additional £2.7 billion of funding, and bringing the total fund to £5.5 billion. We have given final approval to 94 marginal viability funding projects that will help to unlock a potential 104,000 new homes, bringing forward a pipeline of homes at pace and scale, and helping to solve the problems facing local communities today. That includes more than £11 million of funding to unlock up to 1,500 homes in Colchester and Chelmsford—not far from the area represented by my hon. Friend.

Following expressions of interest to the forward funding stream of the housing infrastructure fund, we have worked with Essex County Council to develop its bids. We have so far announced seven successful forward funding projects, totalling £1.2 billion of grant funding for infrastructure that will unlock up to 68,000 homes across the country.

As my hon. Friend said, housing and infrastructure are only part of the puzzle, and nowhere is that truer than in the Thames estuary, which encompasses the area from lovely Southend to Canary Wharf, as well as north Kent. Comparable in scale to the midlands engine, the northern powerhouse and Oxford-Cambridge arc, the Thames estuary has tremendous potential to power growth for the benefit of local communities, including those represented by my hon. Friend in Southend, and throughout our country.

In the autumn Budget 2016, we asked the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission to come up with an ambitious vision and delivery plan for north Kent, south Essex and east London. In June last year, the commission, which was led originally by Lord Heseltine and concluded by Sir John Armitt, announced its vision for the estuary. In March this year, the Secretary of State welcomed the commission’s vision and backed its ambitious plans to create 1.3 million new jobs and generate an extra £190 billion for the local economy.

In the context of achieving that economic growth, we want more homes in the estuary, and the Government have announced further commitments to support the delivery of the commission’s vision for inclusive and well- balanced growth. Those commitments include £1 million to support a new Thames estuary growth board; launching a strategic communications campaign to promote the estuary as a great place to live, work and do business; funding for the creation of masterplans and feasibility studies on key sites in the estuary’s creative production corridor; exploring the potential for two locally led development corporations; and bringing together relevant authorities to collaborate on the Thames Estuary 2100 plan, to ensure that growth is sustainable and resilient.

Moreover, a Cabinet-level ministerial champion will be appointed to act as an advocate and critical friend for the region within the Government—it is not as if the area needs any additional advocacy, but this will be at ministerial level. Our response marks this Government’s commitment to the estuary, and we have a long-standing commitment to local growth in that area of the country. Indeed, the Government have invested a total of £590 million through growth deal funding since 2014 in the South East local enterprise partnership, which covers the constituency of Southend West. Some £22 million has been spent on 29 skills capital projects, designed to equip the resident workforce with the right skills to meet emerging employment opportunities. By 2021, that investment will deliver 15,000 additional qualifications and over 7,300 apprenticeship places.

In fact, within or close to the Southend West area, the South East local enterprise partnership’s investments include funding to develop the Southend and Rochford Growth Hub; help to develop the area around the Victoria Avenue gateway to Southend; and a package of transport projects comprising capacity enhancements to the A127, as well as a Thames Gateway South Essex local sustainable transport programme—snappily named. They also cover £6.4 million to improve broadband infrastructure in Essex, and a Southend and Rochford joint area action plan towards a new business park adjacent to Southend Airport.

I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the tireless work, on top of all that activity and investment, that my hon. Friend is doing on his long-standing campaign to turn Southend into a city, a campaign of legendary status now in this House. Although we are debating new towns, we should reflect that the Government are very much committed to supporting existing towns across England to harness their unique strengths to grow and prosper. That is why we have established a stronger towns fund, from which £37 million will be going to the south-east area. The funding will enable town deals across England, and the money will be used to deliver locally led projects creating new jobs, providing further training and boosting local growth.

In conclusion, we have covered a lot of ground in this short debate. I once again thank my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to do so, and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for supervising a debate about the area you represent so royally. We want to ensure that everybody who wants a home of their own can have access to one at a reasonable price in a place they want to live. Well planned, well designed, locally led garden communities have a crucial role in helping us to fix our broken housing market by providing the long-term pipeline of homes this country badly needs. But this must be about more than just numbers. We need to learn the lessons from the past—as my hon. Friend quite rightly pointed out—and make sure that we build places that people are happy to call home; places that can support vibrant, thriving communities where people can live and work for generations to come, and that may in the future be candidates to be conservation areas, as I hope Basildon will, in time, become.

House adjourned.