Queen's Speech Debate: Local Government and Environment, Food

Charles Walker raises his constituents' concerns about population growth and the building of more homes without the provision of new infrastructure.

4.17 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. At the outset, there was some marvellous political knockabout between the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). It was a contest between a heavyweight and a lightweight. I say that meaning no disrespect to the Secretary of State, but there was clearly a size difference between them. I greatly enjoyed that knockabout and the exchange of insults across the Chamber concerning the idea that many Members were nimbys. The truth is that when it comes to representing our constituencies we are all nimbys, because we are elected and paid to represent their concerns in this Chamber. Many of us—almost all of us, I think—live in our constituencies, so many of their concerns are also our concerns. I therefore make no apology for being a nimby, and I do not think that any of my colleagues should make any apology for being nimbys either, because that is what we are here to be.

I wish to talk about concerns about house building. I represent a constituency north of London and just in the south of Hertfordshire, called Broxbourne. We have done our bit. Over the past few years, we have built 5,000 new homes. They needed to be built, and I am sure that we will build a few more homes in the coming years. However, there is concern in my constituency—and, I think, in others in the east and south-east—about sharing that burden. Why is it that when we talk about population growth most of it seems to be in those areas?

My constituents come to me to express their concerns, and they are confused. They say, “Charles, every morning we get up at 5.30; we have to get up that early because if we get to the station after 6.15 we can’t get a seat on the train. We get on crowded trains—if we can even get on the train at all, as sometimes there’s no room and it leaves without us. If we do manage to get on the train, when we reach one of the interchanges at the borders of London and we get off to board a tube train, those trains, too, are absolutely heaving.” They are concerned. They do not know how the current infrastructure will cope with the forecast increase in population and the growth in new homes. Of course they cannot use the roads, because those are blocked from 6 o’clock in the morning; the M25 is gridlocked from about 6.30. So it is nimbyism in a sense, but it is also legitimate for people living in areas that are going to take the bulk of the new home-building to raise their concerns about infrastructure and to have them answered.

It is also very important that, in building new homes, we create communities and do not just build dormitories for London. Too much of what was built in my constituency could, I am afraid, be classed as a dormitory. There is very little mixed provision, with many small one-bedroomed or one and a half-bedroomed flats. People return to those flats in the evening from work and leave for work in the morning—there is very little engagement with the local community. Most of them, I am afraid, shop at the local supermarket, which does very little for the community shops. We need more mixed provision. We should build new homes that accommodate all groupings and all sizes of families—from homes for people living individually to proper family homes with three or four bedrooms, so that we can have mixed communities.

The great sadness of Broxbourne is that while we were building all these new flats, many of which are buy-to-let—although I recognise that buy-to-let provides homes for people—we were closing down primary schools. So although we were building more homes and increasing the population of my constituency, at the same time we were closing much-loved primary schools. My constituents would be a lot more relaxed about new house building if we could show them the benefits of it—for example, new youngsters coming to their schools.

In talking about mixed provision, we should also bring the issue of density into the discussion. Before moving to the sunlit uplands of Broxbourne to be its MP, I spent my professional career living in London. I lived in two wonderful Victorian terraced houses—one in Battersea and then one in Balham; I migrated to Balham to have my children. Those houses were clearly built to last—and yes, I lived in mixed communities. In both the places in London in which I lived, I had housing association houses and flats either side of me, and they were inhabited by wonderful people whom I became great friends with, so I have nothing against mixed communities, which I think are good and socially cohesive.

However, when we build new homes, can we please draw from the past and look at how the Victorians and Georgians did it? Such homes are still hugely desirable. In the 1960s, many terraced houses in Battersea were pulled down to make way for new high-rise council blocks. Although desirable, those council blocks are not now as desirable as the terraced houses that were left. A three-bedroomed terraced Victorian home, for example, can sell for upwards of £600,000. So before knocking down Victorian homes in the north of England, the Government should think carefully and consider whether it would make more sense to invest in those homes to ensure that they last another 100 or 200 years.

I now turn to social housing. People are willing to accept more houses in their communities if they are for their young people. In Broxbourne, people with local links—youngsters who were born and educated in the community, and who work and have family there—are given additional points toward getting a housing association house. That is a good thing. Strong communities need to be inter-generational. At a time when more and more women are entering the workplace and having to balance their family duties with their work duties, it is important to have that network of support—aunts and uncles, brothers, grannies and granddads. So we should have mixed provision to support inter-generational communities, and ensure that in building social housing, local people know that they will be first in the queue for those houses.

I urge us to consider the environment. The Environment Agency, which has no particular political axe to grind, has told me that the east of England is running short of water and that there is simply no more available. We know that, because when we drive around Hertfordshire we see many rivers at a fraction of their original flow, and some that have run dry. When we are talking about saving the planet from global warming, it is incumbent on politicians in this place not only to think globally, but to act locally to preserve our environment, particularly our riverine environment.

Finally, let us consider the green belt. It does not belong to anyone in this Chamber; we are purely custodians of it for future generations. I urge the Government to think carefully, as I am sure they will, before building on the green belt. I say that with the best will in the world. Once green belt land has been built on, it can never be got back. Broxbourne is lucky to have green belt land. Perhaps I take it for granted, but I know that many London families come from Harrow, Enfield and other boroughs to enjoy it at weekends. They walk their dogs and enjoy the wonderful picnic places that our green belt provides.

That is the sum total of my contribution. I have spoken for three minutes less than my full allotment, and I hope that the time can be used wisely by other colleagues in this place.

4.26 pm

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CHARLES' OTHER INTERVENTIONS IN THE SAME DEBATE

Mr. Walker: I thank the right hon. Lady for being so generous.

Many houses are being built in and around my constituency of Broxbourne. At present, my constituents face packed trains, packed tubes, packed roads, packed hospitals and no water. It is easy to talk about building houses, but where will the infrastructure come from? Where is the Government’s vision for infrastructure?

Hazel Blears: As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not just about vision; it is about being prepared to put in the resources. We are putting £1.9 billion into infrastructure, with £300 million for the community infrastructure fund. We shall be introducing the planning charge. This Government have proper plans to make a difference, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support new house building otherwise he will have a job explaining to his constituents why he is letting down first-time buyers who need housing.

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