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To report progress and ask leave to sit again.— [Mr. Khan. ]

Committee report progress; to sit again tomorrow.

DELEGATED LEGISLATION

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),


Financial Services and Markets

Question agreed to.

EUROPEAN DOCUMENTS

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9)(European Standing Committees),


Financial Management

Question agreed to.

PETITION

Misuse of Fireworks (Essex)

10.46 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I should like to present an important petition, organised by Faye Guyat, that addresses the issue of the nuisance and real harm caused to people and animals by the antisocial and selfish use of fireworks. Although a sound private Member’s Bill on the subject became law in 2003, improvements can still be made, and there are still real problems in our community. I congratulate and thank every person who signed the petition. It states:

[P000115]


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Eco-Town (Harborough)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Khan.]

10.48 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate. He knows that I have been attempting to get Ministers to account to the House—and, through me, to my constituents—for an utterly unexplained piece of Government policy. He must have been driven mad by my persistence. I do not wish to draw Mr. Speaker into the issue of the merits of my arguments, or any of those that may emerge this evening from the mouth of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), but he has come to the aid of a constituency Member who has a grievance to express on behalf of his constituents, and thus has enabled the House to perform one of its proper constitutional functions. I thank him for that, as I am sure does my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), whose constituents are as affected by the issue as mine, as a result of boundary changes. I am also grateful to the Minister for being here to respond to the debate, and to his colleague, the new Minister for Housing, who has agreed to meet my hon. Friend and me very soon.

Tonight is the first occasion on which the question of the rightness or wrongness of the Government’s eco-town proposals has been exposed to anything resembling a public debate. There is somewhere in the Government’s digestive system a list of 57 eco-town sites which, we are told, will by some process not yet made known to us be reduced to 10. The specific subject of tonight’s debate, the Co-op’s proposal to build a so-called eco-town the size of Hinckley or a town twice the size of Market Harborough within Harborough district and for it to be one of the 10 chosen sites, has never been debated in Parliament or in the chambers of Leicestershire county council, Harborough district council, Leicester city council, Oadby and Wigston borough council, the East Midlands regional assembly or the East Midlands Development Agency.

That of itself is extraordinary, as the Prime Minister’s eco-town policy, which was announced late last year, has the potential to do a lot of good, although it also has the potential to do a lot of harm. If this is such a good idea, as the Government must believe it is, why have they discouraged discussion on the public stage and confined outside input to meetings such as the one held last Friday in Market Harborough, attended only by officers of Harborough district council and civil servants from the Department for Communities and Local Government?

At that meeting a civil servant from the DCLG grandly opined that there is no over-supply of housing in Leicestershire, and added that there is still demand to be met. Is that the opinion of someone who has been to my constituency before, or is it the imperial prejudice of some Whitehall mandarin who thinks he knows best? He sounds like a man from the 19th century Colonial Office who spends his waking hours drawing lines across maps of far-away places.


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Before I am accused of advancing nothing more than a nimby argument, it is worth asking whether that person, who presumably advises the Minister, has ever taken the trouble to see for himself the land in question and how it relates to its hinterland, urban and rural, or taken into account the fact that 80,000 new dwellings are already in the plans under the regional plan for Leicester and Leicestershire in the next 18 years, which will mean 7,000 new dwellings for Harborough alone. If the proposal goes through, we will have to withstand and absorb an additional 15,000 to 20,000 new houses, which will mean a new town of perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 inhabitants.

Arrogantly to treat Leicestershire as though it were no more than a geographical expression is to fail utterly to understand why the proposal is so flawed and why it will cause a lot more harm than good. Each district within the county is different from the next; each has a different relationship to the city in the middle of the county and to its district and county neighbours. Harborough is the biggest district in terms of area, but it is one of the least well served in terms of public infrastructure and infrastructure funding, particularly with regard to public transport and road systems. Outside its farming economy, it is a prosperous area, with high levels of skilled labour, home ownership, employment and car ownership—the last a necessity for business and leisure purposes. The unemployment rate in my constituency, within both Harborough district and the borough of Oadby and Wigston, is under 1 per cent. The same low rate applies to my hon. Friend’s constituency, Rutland and Melton. I would not be surprised if the rate in the villages that will be swamped by the proposal is even lower.

The detail of the proposal and the process by which it will be resolved, however, be it for or against, is a total mystery to me as the MP for Harborough, to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, to the county councillors for the eco-town site, Dr. Kevin Feltham and Mr. Simon Galton, as well as to affected Harborough district councillors and to councillors from neighbouring authorities whose constituents will be affected by the eco-town.

Let me add to the background of this extraordinary state of affairs. The Co-operative Wholesale Society or CWS, through its many tentacles—I am not being legally precise—is not just the owner and manager of shops, funeral services and a bank, or just the supporter of Labour MPs, but a large agricultural landowner. In addition to farmland elsewhere in the United Kingdom, it owns through one of its divisions just under 5,000 acres of farmland, the Stoughton estate, between the A6 Market Harborough to Leicester road and the A47 Uppingham to Leicester road. This farming estate lies about 5 to 8 miles south and east of the city of Leicester. It is classic Leicestershire farmland, partly arable, partly grazing, and it lies on some of the most attractive rolling acres of Leicestershire. It sits within about eight or nine parishes, some encompassing quite big communities such as the villages of Great Glen, Thurnby and Bushy, which are now in reality one village, and Houghton on the Hill, each with populations of between 1,000 and 3,000, as well as some much smaller villages such as Little Stretton, which has a population of about 10, Great Stretton, Burton Overy, Gaulby, Frisby and Stoughton, whose populations vary between the high tens to the mid-hundreds.


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When I became the MP for Harborough in 1992 the Co-op ran an 800 to 1,000 dairy cow milking unit on the estate. It has since closed because the economics of dairy farming no longer allowed it. Of course, the economics of farming across the board in mixed-farming areas such as mine have become increasingly difficult in the past decade or so; it is not surprising that enterprising farmers look for opportunities to maximise the return on their capital from outside farming. Development is an obvious solution, and the Co-op cannot be accused of avoiding the obvious.

When I succeeded Sir John Farr in the early 1990s, he had been, and I soon became, engaged with our constituents from across the seat, but particularly those in the part of the constituency that I am talking about, in beating off a proposal from the Co-op to build a new town on the very same farming estate. In those days, of course, it was not called an eco-town—the phrase had not been invented—but the proposal was accompanied by some attractive brochures with colour pictures of birds, bees and other flora and fauna.

We were bombarded with public relations material from the Co-op and with political pressure from the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who wanted the proposal to come up with an outer-Leicester ring road across the Co-op’s land to relieve traffic congestion in his constituency. He had a perfectly legitimate interest in making the case for the outer ring road to help his constituents, and the Co-op wanted, entirely legitimately, to maximise the return on its money that was tied up in the land. Farming houses is more lucrative than farming crops or cattle.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I strongly support what the hon. and learned Gentleman is saying. He feels that his constituents have not been consulted; as one whose constituency neighbours his, I can say that my constituents have not been consulted about the issue either.

Mr. Garnier: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I do not think that I speak out of turn in saying that the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) takes a similar view on behalf of his constituents. Furthermore, Leicester city council is extremely concerned about the proposal.

In the early 1990s, we were successful in getting the Co-op to withdraw its proposal. It took a lot of effort and time, but eventually it backed off. I was not surprised when I learned towards the end of last year that the Co-op had decided to have another go, this time using the prefix “eco” to give the application added appeal. I attended a briefing given by the Co-op in Market Harborough for Harborough district councillors and me. This time we were shown not a brochure, but a PowerPoint slide show. Much emphasis was put on the carbon-neutral aspects of the project and how it would create 12,000 new jobs. The Co-op did not say, but we knew, that it has a parallel application for what is called a SUE, or sustainable urban extension, for 5,000 houses, pushing out from Oadby in my constituency on to the same land. It is covering all its bases.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. and learned Gentleman is making a powerful case. Does he agree that the anonymous officials pushing
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such projects ought to be named so that they can be made accountable? I am thinking of the project in Kingston on Soar in the constituency of Rushcliffe; that has a huge impact on Leicestershire, particularly on the village of Kegworth. The issue is not restricted to just one party; the Conservative-controlled county council is imposing a so-called sustainable urban extension on the town of Coalville in my constituency.

Mr. Garnier: I am perfectly happy for there to be greater publicity about that issue, but it is the Minister and the Government, through the House of Commons, who should be accountable. I cannot see civil servants; I can see the Minister, who is here to speak for his Government.

I fear that the Co-op must have been somewhat taken aback by the universally unenthusiastic response that it received, not least because its explanation to us was wholly devoid of detail. Its representatives said that they could not tell us too much because of the need to maintain commercial confidentiality. From the little that we could discover, however, it seemed that the project would have a devastating effect on my constituency. However, it seemed likely that those representing the area would have no say or very little say in the decision-making process.

Yes, I accept that at the moment Harborough is only one of 57 applicant sites, and we may not end up in the shortlist of 10. However, neither I nor anyone else whose interests will be adversely affected by the proposal has any idea of how we can influence the decision. The Co-op’s development manager and public affairs director have given a further, separate briefing to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton here in the House of Commons. In part they told me about, and in part they pleaded with me to appreciate, the benefits of their scheme. However, they would again not give me any details for fear of losing such commercial confidence as there was in their plans. I was not convinced by that or any other of their arguments, although I told them that they had a perfect right to advance such arguments.

No matter how pure the Co-op’s motives, I am speaking in a democratic and information vacuum, and all the indications do not allow for much optimism. It will not do lazily to advance a case for this development on the basis, “We need more housing, so why not have it here?” All development should be eco-friendly and should occur where it is right and needed, not just because a 5,000-acre plot is available. Just because there is a private flying club operating from an airstrip near Stoughton, it does not make this a brownfield site. Clearly, the Government will be attracted by convenience—think how much easier it is to deal with only one landowner as opposed to several. In this case, the Co-op owns 99 per cent. of the development site, with English Partnerships, an arm of Government, owning just a few hundred acres, but it is a willing partner.

I am not suggesting that there is an improper relationship between the Co-op and the Labour party, but it is undeniable that the links between the Government party and the Co-op, generally, are old and deep. The Secretary of State, the Minister for Housing, and the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Hartlepool, all represent northern constituencies in regions where the Co-op has been a strong presence. They will be comfortable with each
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other, and although there is, I repeat, no suggestion of impropriety, there may be a natural sense of familiarity between an organisation that has its headquarters in Manchester and northern Members of Parliament. No matter how unfair or inaccurate that may be, it has created a perception of bias among the residents of Harborough district, whose enjoyment of their own properties and way of life will be irreversibly and undeniably damaged by this proposal. They also represent areas entirely different from Harborough. Employment levels in their areas are not as good as those in my area or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, average incomes are not as high as in my area, and owner-occupation and the availability of good quality housing may not be as prevalent as in Harborough or in Rutland and Melton. I can therefore understand the surprised reaction of the former Minister for Housing, now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when I suggested to her in DCLG questions before Christmas that this massive development was not wanted or needed in Harborough.

What are the most obvious consequences of letting this proposal go forward? The lack of existing transport infrastructure and the limited amount of strategic thinking about new roads in the Co-op’s briefings is an area of particular concern to me and to the county’s planners. The massive congestion that would result from linking the A47 to the A6 without further improvements would bring the whole area to a standstill at peak times. These problems would not happen overnight, but over a period while more and more homes are completed, with a slow creep towards gridlock as millions of tonnes of concrete and other building materials were brought on-site. Leicestershire county and Leicester city councils are looking for someone to fund a southern bypass from the A6 to the Ml, a route that is to the south and to the west of the Co-op site and which will become imperative if this new town arrives, but the Co-op has shown no enthusiasm to accept the implications of its development beyond the limits of its own land. Furthermore, it would face negotiating with multiple landowners, and construction would be expensive and take some time. Other potential eco-town sites are alongside motorways and astride train lines. The Stoughton estate is far away from either, and the concept of reopening a station near Great Glen is most unlikely to be seen as a priority by Network Rail or East Midlands Trains when they are trying to construct East Midlands Airport Parkway station in Nottinghamshire, which has so far taken some 20 years to get close to reality.

The Co-op’s own sustainability report, published in April 2007 in preparation for its SUE bid, admits:

or, for that matter, an eco-town. The Co-op is relying on people living and working locally, and therefore walking, cycling or using the limited public transport, which is expected to be beefed up as numbers grow. That is frankly fanciful unless the new town is going to be a gated community with restrictions on the residents preventing them from travelling outside its perimeter. Despite Co-op hopes on the subject, a large percentage of the inhabitants of the new town would be commuters to London. That amount of additional commuters trying to get on to the A6 at peak times would mean that Kibworth will need a dual carriageway bypass, the
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road from Kibworth to Market Harborough will need upgrading to dual carriageway, and the Market Harborough bypass will need dualling. How much of that will be funded by the Co-op development?

To begin with, as the first new residents arrive, their children will no doubt be educated in Oadby. Oadby’s schools are already full and taking children from both the county and city. The pressures on all local authority budgets—already among the lowest funded by Government—will intensify as they try to cope with the additional workload of another major town before it is fully occupied and there is a full council tax income stream. New roads create new journeys. Eco-town residents will want to make their own decisions about where to work, what cars to have and what journeys to make. It is reckless to destroy rural Harborough on the back of a few aspirations on a PowerPoint slide.

I wrote to the Secretary of State on 20 December. She did not reply, so I tabled a written question. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), replied on 17 January—although the answer did not arrive until 22 January. He said that the eco-town programme would be subject to the statutory planning process,


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