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11.10 am

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West): A recent article in The Observer described my home town of Wolverhampton as one of the country's greenest and cleanest cities. An analysis of the Government's statistics on nitrogen dioxide air pollution has shown that my constituents can breathe cleaner air than the residents of Mayfair, Kensington and Knightsbridge, as well as many other towns and cities in this country.

The newspaper did get one thing wrong; Wolverhampton is not a city--yet. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, the council is bidding for city status, but he can rest assured that I am not asking him to leap to the Dispatch Box to say that Wolverhampton is to be granted city status--although we hope that that takes place.

I wish to refer to the importance of urban forestry and the threat that it faces. Wolverhampton's air quality is due to a variety of factors, one of which is the large number of mature street trees in the town. We have more than 13,000 trees lining the main highways--we have more trees by our highways than in our major parks--most of which were planted at the turn of the century.

The importance of mature trees in our towns and cities goes beyond their aesthetic beauty. We now know that they filter air pollution, counter the impact of rain storms and reduce the risk of flooding, increase biodiversity and aid economic regeneration. However, we know that they must be looked after and carefully managed. Currently, the responsibility lies with local authorities. The experience of conscientious local authorities, such as Wolverhampton council, has shown that that task can no longer be left to them; there is a role for central Government.

The greatest threat to mature street trees is open-cut trenching by utility and cabling companies. Any Member of Parliament whose constituency has experienced extensive large-scale cabling knows the damage that that can cause to trees. Open-cut trenching--particularly by machinery--can damage tree roots, and leaves trees susceptible to drought, pollution, pest disease and instability. As it can take up to five years for a 100-year-old broad-leaf tree to die, the consequences of open-cut trenching are not immediately obvious. Wolverhampton council has calculated that open-cut trenching is responsible for 75 per cent. of the loss of mature street trees.

Utility companies are aware of the problem. In April 1995, the national joint utilities group introduced guidelines for working near mature street trees. However, the guidelines are voluntary. They do not carry the same obligations on utility companies that tree preservation orders place on individuals.

Some utility companies take their responsibilities seriously; others do not. The practice of paying contractors what is effectively a piece rate on the length of run that is excavated encourages careless open-cut trenching, which does the most damage to tree roots. Reducing the number of inspections on contractors' workings means that there is less effective monitoring. The number of times a highway is opened up by utilities increases the chances of damage.

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One of my constituents is Professor Chris Baines, a well-known environmentalist. He lives in one ofmy constituency's most beautiful roads, which is characterised by its 100-year-old broad-leaf trees. He told me that, last year, the entire length of the road was opened up five times by different utility companies, all by open-cut trenching. Frankly, it will be a miracle if those trees are still there in 10 years' time.

There is one utility company known to me that takes its responsibilities seriously. Last year, Midlands Electricity--noticing that I had tabled questions on the subject--invited me to its headquarters in the black country to see the development that it had made in trenchless technology.

Midlands Electricity now has a policy of avoiding open-cut trenching whenever possible--partly to reduce the disruption to traffic and pedestrians and partly to reduce damage to the environment and those wonderful trees. It has developed something called computer-assisted three-dimensional digital mapping, assisted by pneumatic moles and directional drills. Time prevents me from going into the technical details.

The important point is that the result is that Midlands Electricity does most of its work using trenchless technology. The company has found that open-cut trenching is more expensive. By using trenchless technology, it has reduced the cost of cabling by 46 per cent. Not only is the policy environmentally friendly, it is cost-effective. If Midlands Electricity can do that, why cannot other utility companies?

I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to pass on the message to Government colleagues that there is a need for a national strategy from the Government. Leaving it up to local authorities will not work, and relying on tree planting will not solve the problem either. Utility companies need to be encouraged by various means--the carrot as well as the stick--to make greater use of trenchless technology.

We need more effective tree preservation guidelines for street trees. People with a tree preservation order on a mature tree on their property know exactly what can happen if they do not look after the tree. I would like the same tough guidelines to apply to street trees. I am reluctant to use the phrase "joined-up government"--it seems to cause mirth--but that is what is needed. The responsibility lies with various Departments; the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Department of Trade and Industry and, possibly, the Treasury. They must work closer together, and with practitioners and experts such as the national urban forestry unit, whose headquarters is in Wolverhampton.

It is easy to take our mature street trees for granted. We often do not notice them until they are gone. I would argue that urban forestry is not an optional extra, but a necessity. If my constituents are to continue to enjoy breathing good-quality air, we must ensure that these mature street trees are safe for generations to come.

11.18 am

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): I urge that the House should not adjourn until further consideration is given to the crisis in the defence medical services. As we hear of the tragedy in and around Kosovo, we become aware that nothing could be more useful to our armed forces than to

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have access to first-class medical facilities. Unfortunately, those are not readily available now. It is widely accepted by the Government that the defence medical services are in crisis.

"Defence Cost Studies 15"--which was implemented from 1994--proposed to focus the defence medical services in one single centre of tri-service excellence, which would have been the Royal hospital, Haslar, in my constituency. It was intended that the hospital should be built up from 200 beds to 330 or 375. In fact, following management difficulties, that did not happen.

We now have a service in crisis. Most of our armed forces have been cut by 30 per cent., but the defence medical services have been cut by about 40 per cent. We now have about half the number of doctors that we need, and about three quarters of the nurses. Many facilities and faculties are on the edge of collapse. There is a need for 11 surgical posts, of which seven are overseas. There are not enough surgeons to man those posts. These facts come from a Ministry of Defence booklet, "Defence Medical Services--A Strategy for the Future", where the crisis is widely accepted.

The Government's solution is--would you believe?--to close the only tri-service hospital, Haslar, although it is widely recognised in the defence medical services that removing the current centre of medical excellence and building another elsewhere will exacerbate the crisis. As I have told senior officials, if Haslar is closed, it will take 20 years to rebuild defence medical services. If that rather extreme analysis is questioned, let me point out that such services are consultant based, and that it takes 20 years to train a consultant in all the skills required in the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force. We cannot man defence medical services with migrant Australian doctors and pull them in when they are needed; we need people who are trained in war skills as well as medical skills.

There is some rationale in the Government's plan. They have said, for instance, that a district general hospital needs a catchment of 500,000 people, and that there are not that many people in the Gosport and Portsmouth area. It must, however, be possible for an arrangement to be reached between the national health service and the Ministry of Defence, whereby Haslar could specialise in fields in which it was already supreme, such as surgery, ear, nose and throat, burns, gastroenterology and dermatology, and doctors, nurses and other staff could be trained in other specialties in other hospitals in the south Hampshire area.

It has been said on the Government's behalf that MOD hospital units provide the training that doctors, nurses and other paramedics need. Although such units are widely praised in the Government, I can say--following extensive consultation with those in the defence medical services--that the units at Derriford, Frimley and Peterborough are not working well from a personnel point of view. They may provide the medical services that are needed, as well as providing medical training, but they do not provide the way of life sought by those who join the armed forces. People are leaving the defence medical services in droves because they are not given the back-up that they need.

As might be expected, this is an issue of deep concern in my constituency. We are having the time of our lives demonstrating its local importance. I called for a rally and march, which took place on 24 January. We thought that

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a few thousand people might attend; in fact, 22,000 marched to save Haslar. At the suggestion of a local councillor--a Labour councillor, it must be said--we manned the local park. We wrote "Save Haslar" in letters 11 metres high and 6 metres wide, and about 1,500 people formed a long line stretching to the hospital, which was indicated by an arrow. All that took place at 6.45 pm. Following a loudspeaker announcement, we held up torches and wrote "Save Haslar" in lights; that appeared live on television. Last Wednesday, we took a petition to No. 10 Downing street, and on the same day I presented a petition in the House. Each petition was signed by 50,000 people or more. We have demonstrated just how much local people care.

The Government have said that they will consult widely on the closure of Haslar and the future of defence medical services. I was able to present in the House a petition bearing the corporate seals of Gosport, Fareham and Havant borough councils, Portsmouth city council and Hampshire county council, all of which had pleaded for Haslar to be kept open to maintain proper provision for both civilians and defence medical services. Surely, if consultation means anything, that should be enough to show how strongly people feel. More than 100,000 people are treated at Haslar annually, of whom some 80 per cent. are civilians, and the hospital deals with more than 20,000 accident and emergency cases.

One question must surely force the Government to maintain Haslar. Anyone involved in politics will remember the war of Jennifer's ear, which involved the delaying of a little girl's ear operation at the time of the last general election. The Labour party, which was then in opposition, blamed the callous, uncaring Conservative Government for not providing funds to enable the operation to take place earlier. Let me make a different point. There is no doubt that, if the accident and emergency unit at Haslar is closed, lives will be lost between the Gosport peninsular and the nearest other accident and emergency hospital. What message will the Government send to the bereaved when those lives are lost?

I put that point graphically because it is a real point, which is of public concern. It should also be of political concern, and I therefore urge the House not to adjourn until the Government have undertaken to consult genuinely, and to allow a delegation from south Hampshire to speak to senior Ministers. Such a delegation should plead with the Secretaries of State for Defence and for Health to allow Haslar to remain--not just because it is a centre of local excellence for the civilian population, but because we in south Hampshire care deeply about defence forces, of which defence medical services form an integral part.

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