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I am extremely pleased that the Government have accepted the principle of ensuring greater equality between councillors who are members of the executive and those who are members of scrutiny committees. It is a pity that they did not accept that earlier, but I am delighted that they have done so.
Ms Beverley Hughes: I intended to start by replying to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), but as the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has already noted, nothing that he said related to the amendments, so I find myself at something of a loss. The hon. Member for Hexham spent a lot of time talking about allowances for councillors, not about the payment of pensions, which was the subject of the amendments. No one would support the award of unjustified salaries and allowances to councillors, but neither do we support the rubbishing of all councillors in which the hon. Gentleman engaged. That is equally reprehensible. The assertion that councillors do not merit a reasonable allowance for the time and work that they put in is a cheap, populist jibe that diminishes the excellent work that the vast majority of councillors do.
The hon. Member for Hexham should have talked about his amendments. I am surprised that the official Opposition continue to oppose outright the payment of pensions to members of the executive. The principle that
By providing that the basic or special responsibility allowances paid to members of the executive of an authority may be pensionable, we are acknowledging that the amount of time spent by some members on council duties is significant. With executive arrangements, we expect that this may increase further, and that some councillors, particularly those in the executive, may become more or less full time. It is right that we recognise that such councillors may lose out on pension rights where they do not also have paid and pensionable employment. If we are to attract the right people and a wider range of people into local government, it is important that we make such provisions. Having said that, we need to think long and hard about which councillors should be entitled to pensionable allowances, as I shall make clear in a short while. In the sense that we must not undermine the voluntary principle of public service to which the hon. Member for Hexham alluded, I agree with him.
It may prove to be the case that some councillors' roles are so demanding that we should make provision in regulations to give them access to an occupational pension such as the local government pension scheme. If that is the case, we will need to have the powers to do so. Clause 94 provides those powers. I see that an amendment has been tabled by the Opposition Front-Bench team to remove the provisions in the Bill that deal with independent panels. That one really foxed me. The Opposition may have a view about whether councillors should receive pensions, but to be opposed to making an independent panel the mechanism for making recommendations to a council is difficult to understand.
In contrast to the amendments tabled by the official Opposition, the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bath have a great deal of common ground with the Government amendments. For the record, amendments Nos. 46 and 47 were first tabled by the hon. Members for Bath and for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) and now appear as Government amendments, and of course we will accept them--just in case the hon. Gentlemen were in any doubt. Amendments Nos. 49 and 51 have the same purpose as Government amendments Nos. 187 and 189, but we do not feel that they do all that is needed, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept the Government amendments and not press his own. We also intend to accept amendments Nos. 48, 50 and 52 in the name of the hon. Member for Bath, so we will not move amendment No. 191. The other amendment to which the hon. Gentleman referred has not been selected.
As I made clear in Committee, we believe that it is right that everyone, including councillors, should have access to an adequate occupational or personal pension to supplement the basic state pension. All councillors will be able to benefit from stakeholder pensions, which are specifically designed to provide access to supplementary pension provision. I hope that, for most councillors, council work will not be their principal occupation, and these councillors will receive levels of allowances that are more in line with the intended target group for stakeholder pensions; but, with the advent of executive arrangements,
I have said that I intend to accept amendments Nos. 48, 50 and 52 to ensure that the enabling powers in clause 94 are as flexible as possible, in order that we can respond as we and the councils gain experience and circumstances change, following implementation of all the elements of the modernisation agenda in the Bill. However, in accepting the amendments, I should like to make a few things absolutely clear and place them on the record.
First, I consider it unlikely that the amendments will prove necessary in the long run because I think that all principal councils will ultimately be operating executive arrangements. The only way in which a principal council could find itself in a situation where it is not operating executive arrangements is if it is operating the alternatives following a referendum defeat, and we have already made it clear that we believe that to be unlikely.
Secondly, we believe that the new councillor role was created by the executive arrangements, which may mean that some councillor roles are such that they should receive pensionable remuneration. Thirdly, I believe that I have already made it clear that pensionable remuneration may not prove to be the best option for any member's roles, but the best case is likely to be for members of the executive. I must tell the hon. Member for Bath that I find it difficult to envisage any roles in arrangements of a non-executive style that might demand pensionable remuneration.
Therefore, although I believe that we should ensure that the enabling powers in the clause are wide enough to enable us to respond to the multiplicity of potential situations and arrangements that could arise following enactment of the Bill, I do not necessarily accept that we shall need to use all of that flexibility.
In summary, I shall repeat what we are proposing in relation to the various amendments. To ensure that the powers in the clause are wide enough to allow us to be flexible, and to enable us to react flexibly to the results of the consultation that we shall engage in on pensionable remuneration, we shall accept amendments Nos. 46, 47, 48, 50 and 52. I shall move those and Government amendments Nos. 187, 188 and 189 in the appropriate place and I shall not move amendment No. 191. However, I must oppose amendments Nos. 49 and 51 because they are technically flawed and, in my view, the amendments that we have tabled will achieve the intended effect. I most certainly oppose Opposition amendments Nos. 30 to 33 and 217, and I hope that the hon. Member for Hexham will withdraw amendment No. 30 and not press the others.
'"executive" and "local authority" have'
'which are operating executive arrangements'.
'which are operating executive arrangements'.
Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): I am privileged to represent my Norfolk constituency. It is a good place to live and it is also particularly attractive to visitors; it has much to offer them. Much of the area that is the subject of this debate is important in residential and tourism terms, with its mixture of holiday parks and permanent properties as well as expanses of open land. However, it is also of international environmental importance, falling, as it does, within the Wash site of special scientific interest and a designated special protected area now formally recognised under the European habitats directive.
Currently, sea defences are mixed in character and include concrete walls and shingle embankments. In many parts, the beach itself is also an important feature of the defence. The need for effective sea defences in this part of Norfolk is well documented--the danger of flooding is writ large in the minds of my constituents. In 1978, flooding caused considerable disruption and damage to property, but in 1953 the position was tragically worse and 65 people died as a result of sea flooding.
Much has been done in west Norfolk since then, but I shall seek to persuade the Government that more needs to be done and, indeed, is overdue. In 1997, the Environment Agency, which has much delegated responsibility for these issues, published proposals for a "Hunstanton and Heacham Sea Defence Strategy". Its report pointed out that the residual life of some existing defences would be unacceptably low in the absence of recycling and maintenance. It concluded that current standards are too low, with existing practices and beach management insufficient.
The new strategy that the agency proposed involved a mixture of hard defences, beach nourishment and beach management. The strategy was in line with the shoreline management plans for both the Wash and north Norfolk. The estimated cost was some £10 million over five years. Locally, the plans enjoy wide support, and they will defend about £50 million worth of assets.
Following completion of the proposed strategy, the Government introduced a new points system on a pilot basis with the laudable object of providing a more rational basis for comparing competing schemes. The west Norfolk proposals were caught by the changes and remain the subject of heated debate. It is for the Environment Agency to carry out the required assessments under the points system. It is charged with ensuring value for money and sound engineering work. It is, however, for the Government to make final decisions. I understand that the Environment Agency will soon finalise its recommendations for our scheme.
There are, however, a number of important issues that I fear could be lost in the detail of the points scheme as explained to me. The most important of my concerns is over the proper assessment of the value to their owners and the community of the 3,500 essentially static caravans, mobile homes and park homes--call them what we will--that would be protected by the proposed scheme.
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is the Minister responsible for fisheries and the countryside, came to west Norfolk where he met and listened carefully to representations from some of those most directly involved. They included Terry Evans, the chairman of the Heacham beach bungalow owners association, and Richard Searle, whose family has provided family holidays in my part of Norfolk for many years and who also speaks at a national level for those in the park home industry.
Following my hon. Friend's visit and at his suggestion, I have met further with appropriate representatives of the Environment Agency. They were thorough in explaining the technical detail and I am grateful to them. However, happily, I do not need to dwell too much on the detail tonight, for my conclusion is that this is a case where the engineers and officials can advise, but the buck must rest very firmly indeed with Ministers. As explained to me, the technical argument is not conclusive. Politics not science will determine the outcome.
We also need to recognise the need for local and regional circumstances to be taken into account. In particular, we should have regard to the Government's policies for tourism and the need to encourage economic regeneration in rural areas such as mine. The Government have firmly identified tourism as a growth industry of particular importance in the rural economy, which is suffering from the major problems of agriculture. Will the Government not then acknowledge that the estimated £157 million contribution from tourism is a vital part of the west Norfolk economy?
However, 60 per cent. of all holiday accommodation is in caravans, mobile homes and park homes, and 90 per cent, of them are located in the coastal areas that are under threat. Ministers must not allow the current formula considerably to underestimate the costs of moving or replacing such accommodation and to ignore the huge negative impact that its loss would cause the local economy.
I understand the theoretical point that the accountants have made--after all, I was trained as a theoretical physicist. In a more perfect world, such erudite points would suffice, but what of the real world in which people have to make practical decisions? What do the Government expect owners of those properties to do? Richard Searle tells me that it would cost him more than £16 million to relocate his park, which contains only 15 per cent. of the pitches affected. That means that the bill for full relocation is estimated at £90 million.
How can owners square such practicalities with a theory that assumes a seamless move, without planning complications, to bare agricultural land valued without planning consent? When should owners abandon their current sites? If Richard Searle waits until a flood warning is given, it will be too late to protect his property. The alternative is effectively to abandon his business. Richard Searle's summary of the situation is forthright. He says:
I have also had strong representations from private owners of properties in the threatened areas, including those of the association of bungalow owners at Heacham. Interestingly, their chairman, Mr. Terry Evans, lives in Cambridgeshire. Many properties are second homes or are let. Mr. Evans and those whom he represents are, of course, anxious to see their property protected, but they have particularly emphasised the real danger of loss of life with continued delay in the implementation of the proposed scheme. They make a good point.
During the periods of highest risk of flooding, there are nowadays increasing numbers of tourists in residence because the holiday season has become extended as more people take short breaks. There could easily be 10,000 people to be evacuated if there were a serious threat. I have been advised that proper evacuation would require about four hours' warning.
The threat is of high winds from the worst direction when tides are high. However, the tides in the area are notorious for coming in much more quickly than they go out, and the tide would still be out when warnings would be most effective. It would be only two hours later, as the tide came in, that it would become clear, with the onset of damage to defences, whether fears were well founded--and of course that might be too late.
There is then a dilemma for those responsible for flood warnings. If they wait too long, there will be much more damage and possible loss of life. But if they are perceived to cry wolf regularly, the final outcome could easily be even worse. Formulae do not give weight to such local factors; Ministers must.
From my briefing with officers of the Environment Agency, I understand that our scheme now sits on the threshold of the required points total of 22 out of a maximum of 30. However, I was sorry to hear that additional advice at the end of last year further changed the details in the way that costs and benefits are analysed, and raised the hurdle to be jumped by the scheme. Work was still proceeding when I spoke with the agency, but it was clear that that issue, too, could be make or break by autumn.
More positively, I was reminded that exceptions are considered when important environmental habitats are involved, which is an interesting contrast to the rule-bound approach which I have heard to date when pressing the interests of my constituents as people. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can offer some assurance of balance in the final outcome.
I suggest that the time is fast approaching when Ministers will need to make decisions. With my own scientific and engineering background, I do not seek to undermine the usefulness of developing point-scoring systems. I am a former chairman of Norfolk education committee and I oversaw the introduction of just such a scheme in assigning capital funds for schools. However, formulae should inform political argument, not determine outcomes, and should provide guidance, not shelter for politicians.
Property and livelihoods are at stake in my constituency, and I ask the Government to add a dash of practicality to the theory. An important sector of the local economy in west Norfolk could be devastated and, of course, there must be overriding concern for the risk that getting it wrong poses to human life. My constituents' views are strongly held and I share them. We want a green light for the scheme.
I am pleased to note that, despite the lateness of the hour and her just-in-time arrival, my right hon. Friend the Minister has listened carefully to what I have had to say. Tonight, I know that I cannot realistically expect the decision that my constituents seek, but will she assure them that their case will be properly and carefully considered and that the points that I have made on their behalf will be appropriately weighted? Will she also assure them that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will give those points appropriate priority in his bid for Treasury funding in the spending review and in the allocation of Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food budgets?