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4.37 pm

Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans): I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) and the citizens of Wolverhampton on their city status. I say that as the Member representing St. Albans, which has had city status for several hundred years, so I know the feeling that that status gives.

Two weeks ago, I met all the St. Albans secondary school head teachers. They are very concerned about the problem of recruitment and retention of teachers. Each head teacher detailed unfilled vacancies that had little chance of being filled. Advertising and re-advertising elicited, at most, one application and often none at all. That process is expensive and time-consuming, and leaves school managers with an almost intractable problem.

In the past, there have been shortages in certain subjects, typically the sciences. Now, there are shortages across the board. In one school, a parent is providing the tuition so that the school does not have to send a class home. The use of supply teachers is in the same sorry state, with a complete shortage in all specialities. Three reasons are given for that. The first, and most important, is the exceptionally high cost of housing. The second is the low morale and low self-esteem of the profession; the third, the sheer volume of paperwork that now forms part of teaching.

The provision of key worker housing must be pursued with some vigour by the Government and by local authorities. Chris Holmes of Shelter said recently that if we did not address that problem, we should affect the very economic success and stability of our country, particularly in the south-east. Each local authority district plan must enshrine a target and plan for implementing the provision of a substantial amount of key worker housing. In addition, funding must be set aside by local authorities and the Housing Corporation for the provision of such housing. Only through positive action shall we begin to address the problem.

I mentioned the morale and self-esteem of teachers earlier. I salute all of them. They work exceedingly hard, are dedicated professionals and are responsible for

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inspiring and educating our most precious possession: our children. My friend and colleague, Christine Hood, the regional secretary of the National Union of Teachers, tells me repeatedly of teachers who just want to teach. They feel undervalued and blamed for all the problems that are connected with children.

I want to pay tribute to Bob Hawkes, the head teacher of Verulam school in St. Albans, who retires today after 35 years as a teacher, the last 12 of which he spent in his present post. He has a well-deserved high reputation and students who were taught by him were fortunate indeed. His retirement marks a sad loss to education in Hertfordshire.

On transport, 17,000 of my constituents travel by Thameslink into the city each day. Travel has been exceptionally difficult since the Hatfield disaster. Overcrowding on our trains, which is usually quite bad at peak times, has been made worse by travellers from Hatfield and Stevenage using the service. I use it regularly and travelled in today by train, and I am pleased to report that the service was almost back to normal. I regularly meet train operators to ensure that the levels of reliability, service and safety are as high as possible.

Travel by bus within St. Albans is hampered by the narrow streets of our old city and by selfish parking. We are also disadvantaged in Hertfordshire by not quite qualifying for a substantial rural bus subsidy, and we have no large towns to support a large city bus service. In addition, we do not qualify for the new market town subsidy because the population of our towns is too large to qualify. Our economic success means that people need to be able to travel across Hertfordshire, as well as north to south. Many Hertfordshire residents would use public transport were it better provided. One local operator, Sovereign buses, has made a huge investment in a new fleet of kneeling buses, which are more easily accessed, comfortable and fuel efficient. We need more such investment.

St. Albans took the lead in the virtual bus, which originated in my constituency and was launched in St. Albans by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) when she was Transport Minister. That model of good practice is now being used in many other places.

St. Albans has the lowest unemployment in the United Kingdom. We welcome the extra spending on pensions, health and education, in particular the money that has gone straight to schools. St. Albans prospers well under the new Labour Government.

4.42 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard), who is warm-hearted and sincere in speaking on behalf of his constituents.

One local issue is of fundamental importance in my constituency--the proposal by Associated British Ports to build a huge container port at Dibden bay, on Southampton water, which is on the edge of the New Forest. The distribution of population in my constituency is unusual. The area is largely taken up by the heavily protected forest region. More than 80 per cent. of my constituents are compressed into the long line of villages from Calshot and Fawley in the south, along the Waterside, to the town of Totton in the north. Planning

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restrictions in the forest mean that housebuilding is overwhelmingly confined to Totton and the Waterside corridor. As so many of my constituents live in that narrowly restricted area, the impact on their lives of the closure of strategic gaps between the villages, and of extra burdens placed on road and rail links, is disproportionately heavy.

When I became acquainted with the Dibden bay proposals in 1995, it seemed obvious that the adverse effects that they would have on people who live in Totton and along the Waterside would decisively outweigh any possible advantage. Therefore, it was also obvious that those people who proposed to build the huge container port would have to produce an overriding national economic case if the development was to have a chance of proceeding.

ABP briefed me at least three times in 1996 and 1997. The nub of its argument was that each of the small number of major container companies will use only one port of entry into the United Kingdom and that, unless Dibden bay were built to expand Southampton's container capacity on the other side of Southampton water, not only would Southampton fail to obtain the extra business, but it would lose its existing business to competing ports. On the face of it, that seemed to be a strong argument in ABP's favour.

However, more than a year ago, the picture was dramatically transformed. The prospect arose that the redundant oil refinery site--a brownfield site--at Shell Haven in Essex might become a new container port on a scale substantially larger than Dibden bay. That prospect was welcomed, with appropriate provisos about local concerns, by the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), who, by a fortunate coincidence, happens to be in her place at this very moment.

Angela Smith (Basildon): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in alerting me to the fact that he would be mentioning my constituency and me. I put it to him that, although many in my constituency warmly welcome the proposed development at Shell Haven, which would create up to 10,000 jobs, there are significant and genuine environmental, traffic and social concerns. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that those should be taken into account.

Dr. Lewis: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. It has been a pleasure working with her in past months to try to resolve these matters to the mutual benefit of both our sets of constituents. However, the balance tips overwhelmingly in favour of the development taking place in her constituency, provided appropriate ameliorating measures can be taken to safeguard people living nearby. I am sure that she accepts that, in my constituency, there would be huge effects that could not possibly be ameliorated in any circumstances.

When the Shell Haven proposals were first mooted, I was astonished by the way in which ABP in Southampton derided the practicability of building a container port at Shell Haven and then tried to claim that, even if it were built, it would make no difference to the overriding national economic case in favour of Dibden bay. It became clear to me that ABP was wholly bent on pushing through the scheme, irrespective of the existence of more suitable alternatives. Later, I shall mention one

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possible motivation for the company's rigidly blinkered approach. When Shell Haven was first mooted, ABP objected on the grounds that the traffic outflow would be too heavy for the M25 to cope with, and that excessive dredging would also be involved. Such claims sounded strange coming from a company that tried to tell my constituents that the mere A326 could cope with massive container traffic and that Dibden bay would be capable of receiving the new generations of large container ships that it would face during its years of operation.

Shell Haven will be larger than Dibden bay, and it is possible that it will come into service sooner than Dibden bay. In addition, I have been assured authoritatively that Shell Haven by itself will be able to absorb all the projected additional container traffic for the south-east for the next 15 to 20 years. So confident of that is the Port of London authority that it anticipates Shell Haven opening on a staggered basis, a few berths at a time, as and when the extra capacity becomes needed over the next two decades. That fact alone must be sufficient to destroy the argument that Dibden bay must be inflicted on the residents of Totton and the Waterside in the national economic interest because of the lack of any viable alternative.

The story does not end there. We now know that there are to be substantial expansions in container capacity at no fewer than three additional sites: Harwich, Felixstowe and Tilbury. In addition, further development at Thamesport remains a possibility. None of those options involves the destruction of a natural habitat, the overwhelming of inadequate A-roads, or the bisecting of towns and villages such as Totton and Marchwood by endless convoys of lorries and railway wagons, all of which would be inevitable were Dibden bay to come on stream. Yet, according to ABP, all that extra capacity makes no difference to its case that the Dibden bay development is essential. One wonders how gigantic the extra capacity being created by ports around the south-east and east of England would have to be before ABP allowed such expansion to have any effect on its fixation with developing Dibden bay--now that the company's rubbishing of Shell Haven as a container port has itself been discredited.

ABP claims that it is not planning to transfer its existing smaller container operation on the other side of Southampton water to Dibden bay in order to sell off the existing container port location for vastly profitable property development, as has happened to other parts of Southampton port in the past. It claims that that could easily be prevented by the Secretary of State. However, how could the Secretary of State--or anyone else--possibly know what the directors of ABP will do in 10 years' time if Dibden bay is up and running? Nothing would prevent the existing Southampton container port from being closed down and the land being used to make fortunes for those running ABP.

That explanation alone supplies logic to ABP's position. If the real objective is to free up expensive land in Southampton to make a financial killing, that would explain why the opening of Shell Haven and all the other new container facilities would, in the words of ABP, "make no difference" to the need for Dibden bay. Indeed, the existence of new container ports elsewhere would make it easier to argue in 10 years' time that the old Southampton container port had to be closed and developed precisely because there was not enough trade to keep it busy, as well as the new Dibden bay terminal.

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It is preposterous to say that there is an overriding national economic requirement to build on the unsuitable site at Dibden bay regardless of the fact that other sites are to be constructed or expanded. I believe that ABP would continue to argue for the development of Dibden bay even if 50 new ports were being built or expanded. Its determination to develop Dibden bay has little, if anything, to do with a genuine need to meet future increases in necessary container capacity.

There are no proposals from ABP currently to turn the pitifully inadequate A326 even into a dual carriageway, although it used to say that it would do that. Perhaps that is being held back as a great concession to be made to the community in due course. I have always taken the view that nothing less than a prefabricated tunnel under Southampton water would do, connecting any container port to Southampton's major road and rail links. Even then, the light pollution, never-ending noise, unsightly container stacks and cranes at the edge of the New Forest and environmental destruction would add up to a vision of hell for the thousands of people unfortunate enough to live nearby.

A few years ago, before Shell Haven and the other facilities came on to the scene, and before it was apparent that there were alternatives, it might have been arguable to inflict all this suffering on our communities in the constituency of New Forest, East. There is now no case for it. I urge the deputy Leader of the House to convey that message in the strongest possible terms to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, because he will have the final say.

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