Housing and Infrastructure

Westminster Hall

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on the way he introduced this important debate, and on the passionate plea that he made for his constituents. Similarly, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made a passionate plea for his constituents and helpfully demonstrated how different the questions of house building and infrastructure are in different parts of the country. In the time remaining to me, I would like to make a similar plea on behalf of my constituents in Worcestershire, which I believe also has broader national policy implications.
I was interested particularly in my hon. Friend’s final remarks about the broader quality of life issues that are at stake. When people hear the word “infrastructure”, they often think just about roads and possibly railways, but infrastructure is actually so much more than that, as he rightly said in the concluding part of his speech.
Three aspects of infrastructure most worry me when considering the prospects that face my constituents as a result of significant increases in housing. Rail networks are the element of public transport that can play a real part in relieving some of the pressures in my county. If we had decent co-ordination between cars and rail, decent car parks at railway stations and, by the way, a decent rail line to London—that is another matter—we could see a big shift to public transport. The problem too often is that one cannot leave one’s car at a railway station.
The hospital service in my constituency is at breaking point. I now fully admit that I was wrong to support the construction of the Worcester Royal infirmary at its current size—it is too small to serve the existing population of the county. An additional significant population coming from whatever process—I shall come to one specific issue later—will stretch that hospital beyond its capacity to serve my constituents.
Another issue that is crucial but does not get much attention is how we deal with refuse and waste. That system, too, is under huge pressure and strain in my constituency, and additional house building will put it in a serious situation.
Of course, roads, public transport and bus services are important. Schools are also important, but as there is some decline in Worcestershire school populations at present, schools may be able to cope with the increased development. Getting energy to the new houses is important, as are water and sewerage, and, as my hon. Friend rightly said, the emergency services. Leisure services and open spaces are part of a community’s infrastructure, too. We must not lose our open spaces by cramming houses into existing urban areas. I particularly draw attention to flood defences and flood protection work, which is part of the infrastructure in my constituency, and which new house building in the wrong location threatens.
The problem is that we are trying to work out what we need to do while steering a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of two different and conflicting parts of Government planning policy. Perhaps I should call them, in the spirit of the season—a happy Christmas to you, Mr. Martlew—the ugly sisters of planning policy: the regional spatial strategy revision and the joint core strategy. I congratulate the Worcester News, my local paper, on its attempt to make those two arcane subjects comprehensible to the people who live in south Worcestershire. They are difficult subjects, and people find it difficult to wrestle with them, but they have huge implications for house building and infrastructure in my constituency and also in Worcester city and Malvern Hills.
The problem is that the timetable for the joint core strategy, which is how the local districts decide how they will provide housing and the infrastructure to support it, is out of sync with that of the regional spatial strategy revision. The RSSR second-phase numbers have been agreed. They are high—higher than I would like—but we can probably just about cope with them. The problem is that Worcester city is full and my constituents have to take a large proportion of the houses that are actually Worcester city houses.
My concern is that the Government, when it comes to the examination in public, will actually increase the numbers. At present, the joint core strategy is being consulted on locally and effectively by the three district councils. They have come together in a joint strategy, which is really good and helps to get a picture across south Worcestershire, but they do not know the final housing numbers for which they will actually have to cater. The questions are being asked the wrong way around. The joint core strategy should be decided a year later when we know what the housing situation is.
However, it is even worse than that. Phase 3 of the regional spatial strategy has only just begun. It looks at some important issues for my constituents: rural services; Gypsy and Traveller sites; culture; environment, including flood risk, air quality, renewable energy and green belt; and minerals. We are conducting our joint core strategy before we even know what the regional assembly will say about those things, never mind what the Government will agree to. It seems a bizarre way in which to run something.
I entirely agree that we need more houses in south Worcestershire. I am not someone who says that we cannot build them. Clearly, the existing population is ageing, household formation rates are increasing and we need some more new houses. However, I have doubts about the levels. I think that the Government have over-predicted on immigration. They have taken three years of very high immigration levels and projected them into the future. They should have projected the last 20 years, and then we would have seen a lower demand for new house building, but that is a separate debate. I agree, though, that we need more houses and more affordable houses, which my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech. There is a serious problem with affordable housing in my constituency. I am not one who says that we should not have houses, but I think that we are probably being asked to provide too many at present, and the Government risk asking us to provide many more. We must ensure that a good number of those houses are genuinely affordable and not built by developers to meet a market need that they perceive for themselves, rather than the market failure that affordable housing should address.
If we do not know how many houses the Government are going to ask us to build in Worcestershire, I do not see how can we plan or fund the infrastructure in an intelligent way. Here, I bring in the pantomime villain of the piece to go with my earlier metaphor of the ugly sisters. On top of the regional spatial strategy plan numbers and the uncertainty of the south Worcestershire joint core strategy, the Government are considering plans to build two eco-towns in my constituency. One is entirely in my constituency, on the old RAF airfield at Throckmorton, and the other is two thirds in Warwickshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), and one third in my constituency.
The trouble is that we know nothing about what those plans involve. We can only guess how many houses are being proposed by the developers. We do not know the criteria that the Government will use to assess whether those towns should go ahead. We know and understand that they will have their own local infrastructure, but they will also put huge demands on the wider infrastructure of south Worcestershire, particularly on the things that worry me—the railways, the hospitals, the waste disposal systems and the rest. I am worried that the Government are saying that those eco-towns will be in addition to regional spatial strategy plan numbers. They may be playing a very clever game. Although we have the West Midlands regional assembly’s preferred numbers, I bet that the Government will up those numbers miraculously next year to meet whatever number of eco-town houses they are trying to impose on my constituency. Technically, the numbers will be within the regional spatial strategy plan, but the Government will have been shuttling around and doing some very clever arithmetic to justify their numbers.
Initially, when the eco-towns were proposed, my constituents did not seem too concerned—after all, everything that is eco is good. If the word “eco” is put in front of anything, it makes it acceptable. One councillor spoke to me about the Government’s proposal for the eco-town at Throckmorton, where the Government have previously tried to build an asylum seekers centre, which was rejected, and where they have dumped large numbers of diseased cattle—they probably were not diseased—from the foot and mouth disease epidemic. I do not know what the Government have got in for Throckmorton, but there we are; never mind. The ambition was to ensure that half of the houses were affordable, which sounds great. We would have an eco-town with affordable houses. One could not possibly oppose such a magnificent combination. It would be like being against apple pie or against Christmas.
However, if that town is to be a genuine eco-town, to be sustainable, and not to put a burden on the wider infrastructure of south Worcestershire, and if half the houses are to be affordable, then half the jobs provided locally must be affordable, too. I do not think that planners can get right that magic equation in which all the people who live in the new Throckmorton super eco-town will also work in the same town. No, they will get in their cars and drive, putting a huge strain on the infrastructure and damaging the environment. We do not know what criteria the Government are using to assess the eco-towns. We do not know how big they are going to be. We know nothing about them. Freedom of information requests have failed and parliamentary questions have produced very little. We have three district councils that are trying to plan their joint core strategy and their infrastructure, without knowing what the regional spatial strategy numbers will be or how many eco-towns they will have imposed on them. It is absolutely ludicrous.
The district councils should not commit to the location of any of the housing that they need to find under the regional spatial strategy plan until they know what those eco-towns are and how the infrastructure is going to be funded and planned. I am not saying that the Government necessarily have to find all the money for the infrastructure. The Milton Keynes model—the roof tax for providing private sector developer money for infrastructure—is a good one. I am not saying that we necessarily need to use public money. But we must know the precise mechanisms that will be in place to deliver the money that we need to fund the infrastructure for these new houses.
If we get that wrong, it is not just the people in the new houses who will suffer, it is the people in the houses that are already there who will suffer. It is their quality of life that is at stake, too. Getting to London from my constituency is already a nightmare. The roads are at breaking point and the railway cannot cope. Fifteen years ago, that journey was an acceptable part of my life, and now it is one of the most unpleasant features of my existence. Putting in massive new numbers of houses on that infrastructure will compound the problem and make existing residents’ lives miserable, as well as failing to provide a proper quality of life for the people who will live in those new houses.
It is this failure to understand the impact on current residents that I want to drive home. I say to the Government, please be more open with us now about the eco-towns and tell us how big they will be. Will they have 5,000 houses or 20,000? That is the range of possible numbers. Please tell us what assessment will be made of the impact of the infrastructure on the area and on other towns around it. If a new eco-town is built at Throckmorton, what impact will it have on the very attractive Georgian market town of Pershore, which is only a couple of miles away? How can the Government decide that it is right to go ahead with that eco-town when they do not understand the dynamic of south Worcestershire and the possible impact on the town of Pershore, which lies outside my constituency in that of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer)? Therefore, big questions about those eco-towns must be resolved.
I also ask the Government to tell us in precise detail how the infrastructure that we need is going to be funded. If we have not got that detail, we cannot plan with any confidence. One of our key jobs as constituency MPs—my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale did this very well in their opening remarks—is to defend the interests of our constituents. The Government are tying our hands behind our backs as we seek to do that. I hope that the Minister will shed some light on the issue when he comes to wind up this debate a little later.

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