County Durham Plan
Westminster Hall Debate
County Durham Plan
Tuesday 3rd March
I congratulate my hon. Friend Phil Wilson on securing the debate, which is timely given the importance of the county plan. I am delighted to stand together with my fellow County Durham MPs. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, virtually everybody—the business community, local authorities and community groups—seems to agree that the inspector’s decision is completely out of step and out of kilter. It seems rather bizarre to suggest that the County Durham plan, which we all feel is bold and ambitious in its expectations for the development of the region, is somehow overly ambitious. When my hon. Friend made his opening remarks, I thought about the comments of Michael Gove, who accused east Durham schools of lacking the ambition to produce people who would drive forward the regeneration of that part of the county. Here we have an ambitious plan that is completely achievable and realisable, but the inspector is apparently putting the brakes on it.
I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments. I cannot anticipate precisely what she will say, but if her position is that the inspectorate is independent and Ministers cannot interfere in that process, there is a precedent for doing so. I represent a coalfield area in the east of County Durham, to the east of my hon. Friend Roberta Blackman-Woods and next door to my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield. The coalfield regeneration plan supported the idea of bringing new investment and employment into the coalfields, particularly in east Durham, but the inspector ruled against a retail development, which was the first phase of the Dalton Park development. The then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, overturned the inspector’s decision. Again, he had tremendous support from the local authorities, from the community and from the business community. There is a precedent for overturning a decision of the planning inspector, and I hope that the Minister will think seriously about it.
I fully understand and share the concerns of the business community, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has mentioned, after the inspector deemed the plan too ambitious in its aim to build more than 30,000 new homes and create 30,000 new jobs by 2030. As has been mentioned, the Chancellor visited our region just last week, and referred several times to his long-term economic plan and his ambition to create a northern economic powerhouse. That makes for good rhetoric, but it does not offer much in the way of practical support.
Although the Chancellor promised investment for transport links and skills, and said that he would back manufacturing and exports, it is worth noting that spending on transport infrastructure in the north-east is the lowest in the county at £223 a person, compared with £5,426 a person in London. For every £1 that is spent in the north-east, London receives £24.33. I know that London is the capital city, and that it has Crossrail and a huge population, but that disparity is huge. We need some practical support. Yes, we need ambitious plans put forward by the county council, but we need a Government who will correct some of the anomalies that exist. We do not need the inspector to reinforce and worsen the north-south divide. Revising down the plans for more jobs and homes—the estimates are empirically based—will not help to rebalance the economy.
My local authority, Durham county council, has transcended the rhetoric from the Government and the Chancellor. It has put forward ambitious plans for jobs and economic growth in the county, and it is wrong that the Planning Inspectorate should block those plans. We have suffered tremendously. I tried to calculate the number of jobs lost in my constituency over the last few years. They have been lost not just in the public sector, but at some quite large employers, including the Reckitt Benckiser factory in Peterlee, which I hope will reopen, and which used to employ 500 people; the Fin engineering company in Seaham; Cumbrian Foods; and Yearley, the refrigeration and transport company.
A number of substantial employers have gone, but we are seeking to diversify the economic base of Easington, in the east of the county, and indeed of the whole county. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield referred to Hitachi locating in his area and to the positive spin-offs and benefits in the supply chain. I hope some of the engineering factories in my constituency—particularly in Peterlee—will benefit from that additional activity.
The Government have an opportunity to prove they are committed to creating a northern powerhouse, and that that is more than just idle rhetoric. I hope the Minister can give a real commitment to work with north-east MPs, and that we have common cause on this. I am not terribly familiar with her constituency, but we have been through the trauma of industrial closures, and thousands of jobs have been lost in Easington, and we have not had special measures, enterprise zones or a Minister for the area to argue for more investment. It is beholden on the Government to get behind the efforts we are making to generate economic activity and jobs and to improve the county’s collective well-being. Indeed, local businesses are rising to the challenge, raising their ambitions and expectations for the north-east economy.
I cannot accept the planning inspector’s assessment. If he is saying that our county should be less ambitious, that we should aim to create fewer jobs and that the north-east needs less investment in infrastructure that is certainly not the case. The Government cannot allow the Planning Inspectorate to undermine the entire county plan and to stifle the ambition of people in the north-east to bring new investment, businesses, jobs and training opportunities to our region.
The north-east has a number of leading international businesses. The Government often cite Nissan, and Newcastle airport is another tremendous business that generates huge economic activity and benefit for the region. Shortly, we will also have Hitachi. In my constituency, we have world-class companies such as Caterpillar, NSK and GT Group. Between them, they employ more than 2,000 people, and they have huge export orders and huge potential. We need to do everything we can to encourage them and to grow our own companies.
We also need, however, to attract new businesses. Part of the plan is to have a centre of creative excellence in the north-east—a film studio or a Hollywood of the north. However, that requires a commitment from the public and private sectors. An area is set aside, and it requires some housing development if the scheme is to go ahead. Potentially, it could create 2,000 jobs and training places. As my hon. Friend Helen Goodman suggested, we could use all the synergies in our area—not just the tremendous location, with a terrific vista over the County Durham coast, but the skills base at our universities at Teesside, Durham and Sunderland, and the skills at our colleges—to get that enterprise going. We therefore have enormous potential, and I have complete confidence in the people I represent and in the commitment of businesses.
East Durham used to be a centre of not just coal mining, but the textile industry. A large number of factories were located in Peterlee and Seaham. Sadly, much of that business has gone offshore, but we have seen a bit of a revival with an embryonic business called AMA, which I met and helped to encourage. It has now expanded and won a major contract with Tesco, and we hope we can use some of our skills and potential to develop that still further and create more jobs.
We also have innovative training providers, such as Infinite Learning and Development and its Welding Academy. That is important, because we have Caterpillar and GT Group, and we need to give local people skills to address the shortage of highly trained welders in the region. Infinite Learning and Development was one of three finalists nominated at the national Semta apprentice awards, where it was in illustrious company, competing alongside the likes of Toyota UK, Tata Steel and Swansea university for the training partner of the year award. For a small training provider, that is some achievement and some recognition of its commitment.
I should also mention the East Durham Employability Trust, an employment charity in my constituency that helps those not in education, employment or training to secure sustainable employment through its Destination Employment programme. It has had tremendous results, with 94% of those completing the programme moving into employment. That is a terrific outcome.
We have tourist potential. With the right investment, we can create jobs. We can have the most magnificent coastline anywhere in the country, but if people cannot get to it, we cannot really develop its tourist potential, in terms of day visits or longer stays. We have one of the best-kept secrets in the country in the east Durham heritage coast—I know it is referred to as the County Durham heritage coast, but I like to call it the east Durham heritage coast, because that is where it is. We also have the coastal footpath and the newly announced nature reserve on the former Easington colliery site. Those tremendous assets are safeguarding and protecting our natural environment, as well as promoting tourism—it is possible to do both.
Last week, having been involved in the issue for some time, I was pleased to hear the owners of the Dalton Park development announce that work on a £45 million expansion is due to begin in May. That will create 600 retail jobs, with an estimated 400 jobs during the construction phase. That is welcome news. The first phase was in 1999-2000, when the initial planning consent was given. That is a welcome investment in jobs in the local economy. It will provide new amenities for the community, including a cinema, restaurants, a supermarket, a petrol station, a hotel and a family-friendly pub.
We are, however, looking to the Government and the Planning Inspectorate to work with the local community, the local authority and businesses to promote every sector of our economy in east Durham. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield said we were trying to diversify our economic base. We need some practical assistance to do that, whether in manufacturing, light or heavy engineering, retail, the service sector or tourism. I do not want the planning inspector to talk the north-east down. I certainly do not want him talking Easington or east Durham down; and I do not want him to hold us back from transforming our communities. I will not go through the long list of business organisations that condemn the Planning Inspectorate for its decision. However, I share their concern that in rejecting the county plan, in not listening to the concerns of local businesses and elected representatives, and in rejecting the advice of the local authority, the inspectorate has itself shown a lack of ambition for the north-east.
Among the comments that have been made, one that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield did not mention was from Jonathan Walker, of the North East chamber of commerce:
“We work alongside our public sector partners and encourage local authorities to be bold, ambitious and pro-growth in their budgets and local plans. We are shocked by what the inspector had to say and feel his recommendations not only stifle the ambitions of Durham, but, by implication, the North East as a whole.”
I do not want to underestimate the scale of the task. We certainly face challenges in county Durham—and more, perhaps, in Easington than anywhere else in the county. We need support to tackle that. The Government’s reduction of the local authority’s budget by more than a quarter of a billion pounds was certainly not helpful. We need more Government support, particularly with infrastructure, on which we get a poor deal. For example, the proposed railway station in Horden in my constituency is still in the pipeline—in the planning stage. It would be a considerable boost to tourism, employment and the mobility of labour, but instead the Government continue to focus on faster rail services, while in east Durham we need greater connectivity to existing lines. We have had a welcome announcement that Pacer trains are finally to be removed from the network.
County Durham should have our praise for its ambitious plans, and should not be chastised by the Planning Inspectorate. I urge the Minister to give the matter further consideration, look at the views of the business community and local representatives, and help us to get the Planning Inspectorate on board, so that we can move together for a better, more prosperous future for east Durham, county Durham and the north-east.