Thursday 16th September 2021

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Eddie Hughes Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (Eddie Hughes)
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We all appreciate that a reshuffle has been going on, although it seems to have been paused for the moment. I strongly suspect that the Prime Minister has tuned in to this debate; if so, and if he has a gap to fill in his ministerial appointments, I think he will have been compelled by the passion and enthusiasm shown by my hon. Friend, who already has experience as a Whip and a Minister. Should he have an opportunity to return her to government, it would be a very smooth transition. The only problem is that if the Prime Minister is watching this speech, he will see my hon. Friend’s brilliant oratory followed by my mundane contribution, which might mean that I get dropped off the list. So I hope he is quite busy and caught only the first half of this debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate and raising issues that she feels passionately about—she certainly conveyed that passion. I shall address those issues in the context of the wider regeneration effort that she, Medway Council and local communities continue to pursue and to which this Government and previous Administrations have given considerable support.

First, I acknowledge the role of all Medway towns in our national heritage and economy. As my hon. Friend described, the strengths of the transportation and storage industries in this part of the Thames estuary are a real asset, as are, indeed, many of the impressive local businesses that have made their home in the Medway towns. I understand the important role that the waterways play in the Chatham economy past, present and future, from Chatham’s proud shipbuilding history to its modern-day aspirations to support the Government’s net zero ambitions. I am sure that links to the river will continue to be a huge part of Chatham’s future.

As my hon. Friend highlighted, the future of Chatham docks is currently uncertain. The docks are part of the urban waterfront, surrounded by residential, commercial and academic assets, including the Medway campus of the University of Kent. I understand the desire to protect the existing businesses and industry currently at the docks but, ultimately, it is not for central Government to comment on their immediate future. We have, though, been encouraged by the significant regeneration and change over the 30 years since the closure of the naval dockyard. I know that my hon. Friend contributed to the thinking of the Thames estuary growth commission, which reported in 2018 and to which the Government responded positively.

Chatham continues to suffer from high levels of deprivation, making it one of the most challenged parts of the Thames estuary. It consistently performs worse than the national average in key social indicators such as child poverty and financial prosperity, although we recognise the progress that has been made in recent and challenging times. My hon. Friend set out some of the exciting things that are going on in the area. The Government have continued to support efforts to regenerate the area, committing more than £50 million to projects in the area via the South East local enterprise partnership.

Aside from around £28 million committed to local transport improvements, significant investments include more than £8 million for the new Medway innovation park at Rochester airport—at the opening of which I understand my hon. Friend presided as guest of honour. The Getting Building fund that we announced last year is supporting two projects in Medway, with just under £2 million for the Britton Farm learning, skills and employment hub and £2.3 million for digitally connecting rural Kent and Medway. Each of those projects will help adults into new employment opportunities, with a focus on new and emerging digital skills.

Additionally, we are investing £9.5 million in Chatham town centre through the future high streets fund. We have already set out some of the key elements of our levelling-up strategy, including the community renewal fund and the levelling-up fund, and I am not surprised to hear that Medway has bid into both. As those bids are currently being considered, I am afraid that I cannot dwell on them too much. Nevertheless, I am pleased that there is such enthusiasm, which speaks to the desire and appetite to continue to strive to do more to revitalise Medway, especially as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.

I recognise the concern about the future of Chatham docks. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend is aware, I cannot discuss the details of individual plans because of the quasi-judicial role of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in the planning system. Nor can I comment on individual sites.

Medway’s last local plan was adopted in 2003, and I reiterate today that having an effective up-to-date plan in place is essential to identifying development needed in an area, deciding where it should go and dealing with planning applications. The local plan will set out the vision for Medway and a framework for addressing housing needs and other economic, social and environmental priorities. It is a key tool for encouraging and directing investment in the local area, helping to secure the housing and jobs that our communities need.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Eddie Hughes Portrait Eddie Hughes
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The national planning policy framework is clear that strategic policies should set out an overall strategy for the pattern, scale and design and quality of places. They should also make sufficient provision for a variety of considerations, to include housing—including affordable housing—employment, retail, leisure and other commercial development, as well as infrastructure, community facilities and a number of other considerations.

The Government are clear that councils and their communities are best placed to take decisions on local planning matters, providing certainty for communities, businesses and developers. The preparation of local plans involves ongoing engagement and consultation with local communities, businesses and other interested parties. There will be further opportunities to make representations on the local plan in a consultation prior to its submission for examination. I encourage my hon. Friend and her constituents to take every opportunity to shape the local plan for their area—that feels like an invite that I do not need to make. I think she will be very firmly involved in that.

My hon. Friend has raised concerns about the number of new homes that can be delivered across Medway. Our manifesto commits us to a target of 300,000 homes being built a year by the mid-2020s, and delivery of at least 1 million more homes, of all tenures, over this Parliament. That is why, in the national planning policy framework, we introduced a standard method for assessing local housing need to enable all communities to have a clear, transparent understanding of the minimum number of homes that they need.

However, local housing need is not a housing target. It is a standard method of measuring housing need in an area that is used by councils as a guide when they develop their local plans. Councils decide their own housing target once they have taken account of local constraints, such as green belt, that prevent it from allocating enough sites to meet need. Nor does the method dictate where homes should go. It is up to councils to decide what sort of homes can be built and where they should be located in their area. Indeed, councils can only adopt a plan that is sound. It must conform with national policy, be supported by evidence and take the views of local people into account. Each plan is subject to a public examination in front of an independent inspector, who plays an important role in examining plans impartially to ensure that they are legally compliant and sound.

Our changes last year to the standard method enable us to plan for approximately 300,000 houses a year while prioritising brownfield sites and urban areas, where homes are often least affordable. This Government strongly encourage the re-use of suitable brownfield land, especially for development to meet housing need and to regenerate our high streets and town centres. Indeed that is why the Government have made significant investment of £400 million through the brownfield housing fund and £75 million through the brownfield land release fund to unlock brownfield land across the country.

However, brownfield sites vary greatly, and local authorities are best placed to assess the suitability of each for development. It is true that paragraph 123 of the national planning policy framework sets out that where an area is

“currently developed but not allocated for a specific purpose in plans”

then local planning authorities should take a “positive approach to applications” where this would

“help meet identified development needs”.

However, it goes on to say that this should only happen

“provided this would not undermine key economic sectors or sites or the vitality and viability of town centres, and would be compatible with other policies in this Framework.”

Our policy is clear. We support brownfield regeneration to meet needs for different land uses, but this must also support a strong economy and local prosperity. I acknowledge the commitment of my hon. Friend in her efforts to deliver the best possible future for the people of Chatham, and will continue to reflect on the points that she has raised during the debate.

Question put and agreed to.