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Thurrock Development Corporation (Area and Constitution) Order 2003

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd July be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order was approved by the other place on 15th October. If approved today, it will establish an urban development area coterminous with Thurrock council's administrative boundary and an urban development corporation to regenerate it.

The Sustainable Communities Plan identified the crucial role that the Thames Gateway will play in regenerating existing communities, accommodating new homes and providing new jobs. On 30th July, the Deputy Prime Minister announced five priority areas in the Thames Gateway; Thurrock is one of those areas. We are now putting in place the appropriate delivery mechanisms to ensure co-ordinated and timely progress.

As I have said, the urban development corporation boundary will be coterminous with the borough boundary. This would provide the UDC with the flexibility to consider development opportunities across the borough, to create new settlements and to improve the sustainability of existing communities. It would also enable the UDC to undertake a detailed appraisal of current land use within the borough and to develop strategic proposals for regeneration, housing and economic development.

Within the proposal, housing, commercial and industrial growth would be focused predominantly, but not exclusively, on brownfield land south of the A13. The UDC would operate in line with the development principles established within Thurrock council's local plan as this relates to the protection of the green belt.

It is the Government's intention to place an order to give the Thurrock UDC powers to determine large-scale and strategic planning applications. Such a transfer would not change the nature of those powers, nor would it lessen the transparency of the planning process. The UDC would be subject to the same obligations as any other planning authority.

Responses to the consultation on the Thurrock UDC were received from individuals, the voluntary sector, the private sector, local authorities, non-governmental organisations and government agencies. Around half of all respondents, including Thurrock

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council, explicitly expressed support for the proposals. No respondents stated an opposition to the principle of establishing an urban development corporation in Thurrock. I therefore commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd July be approved. [25th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Rooker.)

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I can see that the Minister has taken to heart the recommendation that 10 minutes should be allotted to this order. Perhaps I may slow the procedure down for a moment. As the Minister said, this matter was raised in the Sustainable Communities Plan. The Thames Gateway has been identified as a part of that plan, and Thurrock is an important element.

It has been clear for a number of years that this part of southern England requires attention and therefore there is no objection to the principle of what is being proposed. As always, however, any concerns there may be lie in the practical application of what is to be done. That has raised a few questions which I should like to put to the Minister.

The boundaries of the UDC are to be the boundaries of Thurrock council. As the Minister mentioned, those include a substantial tranche of green belt land. While the consultation paper makes it clear that it is the Government's intention to work within Thurrock's UDC as far as protection of the green belt is concerned, it also makes it clear that not all development will be on brownfield sites, and that housing, commercial and industrial growth would be focused predominantly, but not exclusively—those are the words used in the consultation paper—on brownfield land.

Again, in the words of the consultation paper, there should be regeneration of undeveloped green belt land and the green belt should be used as a key driver for the regeneration of the borough's less attractive and under-utilised green open spaces. These words do not inspire confidence that there will be proper observance of the green belt. My first question to the Minister is this: what constraints will be laid to prevent encroachment on to green belt land?

The Minister also pointed out that the urban development corporation is expected to have planning powers. Will those planning powers include powers of compulsory purchase? If so, will they fall within the confines of the forthcoming Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, or under the previous legislation?

The consultation paper refers to the urban development corporation having "strategic planning powers". The Minister has made it clear that these powers will be for large-scale developments only, so can we assume that the local authority will remain responsible for all other planning applications within its area? Where the UDC has planning powers, will it be required to consult in the normal way, not only with local representatives but also with those who might be affected by any planning decision—for example, local

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people living nearby within sight of or surrounding a proposed development? Will the UDC's planning decisions be made in public? Will these be for both outline and full applications?

The local Essex Council for the Protection of Rural England has sent me its response to the document. It is anxious that the UDC should be required to produce a strategic framework and master plans for regeneration; acquire, assemble and prepare previously developed urban land and buildings on brownfield sites; promote specific regeneration opportunities on individual sites; ensure that any development is of the highest standard and quality; and regularly monitor and publicly report on performance and progress. Will these requirements be laid down within the terms of what the UDC is required to do?

The membership of the UDC, it is said, is to have a strong local representation. Who is expected to fulfil that role and from what organisations? Will they include representatives from heritage and preservation societies such as the CPRE, which has briefed me on this issue? Will the Government lay down the structure of the representation, particularly in view of their assertion that they do not believe that any one interest group should have a majority on the board of the UDC?

Finally, the UDC is required to ensure that matters of the environment, air quality, adequacy of water supplies and infrastructure are taken into account and that employment is generated. But no mention is made of a requirement to ensure that there are adequate schools, hospitals and leisure facilities in an area where it is proposed that more than 17,000 new dwellings should be provided. What is the position in regard to those issues?

8.10 p.m.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I concur with many of the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. Can the Minister explain how the consultation process will operate with local people if planning powers are taken over by the urban development corporation? Many local people are concerned about that issue, although I accept that within the local area most people are in favour of the corporation going ahead.

How will the infrastructure be dealt with by the urban development corporation? As I understand it, the population of the area is approximately 170,000 people. They have no local hospital with an accident and emergency facility and they are concerned that the infrastructure should not be lost in the development. People recognise that housing is needed in the area but they are concerned that the necessary facilities will not be provided.

Some people are a little surprised that the whole of Thurrock district was included given that a high proportion of it is green belt and this is an urban development corporation. Can the Minister comment on that issue?

The consultation documents refer to the regeneration of previously underdeveloped green belt. They state that this could be utilised as a key driver for the regeneration

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of the less attractive, under-utilised green open spaces. People are confused about precisely what that means. I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten us on that issue and the other points I have raised.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baronesses and I shall do my best to answer their questions.

On the issue of compulsory purchase, I presume that the urban development corporation will have the same compulsory purchase powers as other development corporations have had in the past. The legislation vehicle is exactly the same. As with all compulsory purchase authorities—that is, local authorities—there will be changes under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, but that Bill will not become an Act for some months to come. I cannot be certain when the new powers for compulsory purchase will come in but they will affect all relevant authorities at the time Royal Assent is given and the Act comes into being.

The normal rules will apply. There has been no attempt to short-cut the rules. All other planning applications in Thurrock—for house extensions and so on—will be a matter for the local planning authority, which is the local council.

As part of the overall sustainable community plan for the Thames Gateway, Thurrock Borough Council looked at the situation, as did other authorities, and said, "We would like a UDC operation in our area". It was not a question of imposition. The normal rules will apply for treating planning applications by the urban development corporation. It will be required to consult in the normal way a local authority would, using powers of public consultation and written notices, with nothing behind closed doors in the sense of circumventing the normal planning rules. It is not our intention to do that.

I realise that the green belt is a sensitive issue. I was at a meeting in the east Midlands today on the sustainable communities plan and was questioned by a member of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. It is an organisation that I support—I have no intention of ripping up rural England. But I have to repeat that the green belt has a purpose. It is not to do with areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks. They are quite separate. The green belt is around the urban fringe to stop towns joining up. It therefore tends to be a much less environmentally pretty amenity than areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks. That is not an excuse for building on green belt land—its purpose is to stop towns joining up and urban sprawl.

We have said repeatedly, as part of the plan for the Thames Gateway, that it is highly likely that more statutory green belt land will be made through the years to stop the new settlements and communities becoming a 40-mile mini-city, because that is not our intention. Our intention is to put the green belt and countryside into the gateway.

To give a fuller answer, I will put the paragraph I have in front of me on the record, because I do not want there to be any misunderstanding. While there is

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likely to be some re-examination of the green belt, the urban development corporation will maintain the purpose and integrity of the green belt. The focus of any development within the green belt will be on existing settlements, where in some cases there is a need to achieve a critical mass that will help create more balanced, rounded and sustainable communities. By including Thurrock's green belt within the urban development corporation's operational boundary, the UDC will also be in a better position to protect and conserve the countryside and enhance its civic function as the borough's green lung. I hope that makes it absolutely clear that it is very restrictive, narrow and specific but it made sense, looking at it in the round, to use the UDC boundary as the borough boundary rather than leaving a part out of it.

On representation, we have made it clear there will be no overall majority of any group in particular. I cannot give details; we have appointed the chairman designate. If this House approves the order, the UDC comes into force tomorrow. The other House has already approved it. It will be useful to have the chairman in place for appointing the rest; it will be done by normal Nolan rules for everybody concerned.

The proposals have been welcomed by Thurrock council. It recognises that the delivery of regeneration and development in the borough relies on a powerful, focused delivery mechanism. The UDC will, in any case, work closely with the council and Thurrock's local strategic partnership. Four of the 13 seats on the UDC board will be filled by elected council members, but no one section or group will have a majority on the board. It will take time and obviously the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. We are not planning that many UDCs—we have already highlighted one in the Northamptonshire area and another one in the London area. Some delivery mechanisms will be led by English Partnerships while others, as in Ashford, will be led by the local authority.

On infrastructure, I can only state what has been repeatedly said. There will be no sustainable growth or sustainable communities unless the infrastructure—by which I mean the social, economic and transport infrastructure—is dealt with. Therefore, education, health and transport mechanisms need to be part and parcel of the whole of the development, otherwise the private sector will not invest, because most of the investment will come from the private sector, people will not move there and it will not be sustainable. The whole genesis of the sustainable communities plan published last February depends on that, and we are determined to bring that about by the way in which we are operating in the department and driving forward the communities plan.

This is a cross-government plan, not an ODPM plan. It is led by a Cabinet Committee and teams of civil servants across Whitehall so that we can get other departments bending into the mechanism of the communities plan in their own planning. They need to know we are trying to take this forward in as co-ordinated a way as possible, otherwise we will not fulfil the aim of the plan and the department, which is to

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create sustainable communities. We are desperately trying to indicate that we have learnt the lessons of the past.

Only last week, along with Keith Hill, the Minister for London and for the gateway, former members of urban development corporations—which are non-existent, obviously, as they have all been wound up—shared with us their various experiences of starting them up, running them and even winding them down. We want the best possible experience to hand for carrying out this operation. If the infrastructure is not put in place, we will have failed; without the infrastructure, we will not get the growth and it will not be sustainable. We stand to be tested and judged by that commitment.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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