That the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 82) (HC111) on 200102 Special Grants in connection with pilot Local Public Service Agreements, which was laid before this House on 2nd July, be approved.
Helen Jackson: I wish to present to the House a petition from 62,000 members of the community in south Yorkshire who oppose the possible closure of the heart transplant unit in Sheffield's Northern General hospital.
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): I think that the whole House recognises that Southend is the finest seaside resort in the country. Any hon. Member who saw the exhibition that we held in the Upper Waiting Room before the general election will have been truly impressed by the quality of the different facilities that Southend has to offer. It is a remarkable seaside resort. How could anyone not enjoy Rossi's glorious ice cream, a trip to the end of the longest pier in the world or the magnificent plants and shrubs that adorn the cliffs at the side of the Thames estuary?
We recently had a magnificent air show, which attracted people from all over the country. I am very proud of the town of Southend, but, like so many seaside resorts, it faces a number of challenges. It is recognised, for instance, that holidays in this country are not as popular as they used to be. Air fares are much cheaper than they used to be, and our weather can be rather unpredictable, so it is clear that Southend and other resorts have lost much of the domestic business that they used to enjoy.
For those and other reasons, Southend has found that it has had to reposition itself in the market. The House will know that, for two or three years, I urged the Government to support our bid for funding from the European Union, and the Government gave that support. I welcome the new Minister to her post, and I know that she will want to do her best to support my constituents in Southend, West.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is present, as is the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who takes a great interest in these matters. When we first tried to secure European funding some considerable time ago, we had meetings with Ministers at which it was well understood that five wards in Southend would be supported. Two of the wards to benefit were in my constituency, and the other three were in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor).
I shall not bore the House with details of what went on, but without any warning I suddenly discovered that the two wards in my constituency would not receive any support because we had initially applied for funding under the fisheries strand. I was not involved in the process whereby that bid collapsed. All of a sudden, we found out that we qualified only under the urban strand. All five wards that qualified turned out to be those in the constituency of my hon. Friend. That was a huge disappointment to my constituents and to me.
We had a debate in Westminster Hall about the bid. The then Minister, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), was gallant and recognised that the matter could have been handled differently. That said, I felt that as we qualified under the urban strand, one of the wards in my constituencyWestboroughcertainly would have met the criteria: but there we are, it was done and dusted. I hope that everything that I intend to put before the Minister will persuade her that the fishermen and women who were disappointed by what happened can take some encouragement from what we may be able to secure for them.
The council has a good working relationship with regional organisations and the east of England objective 2 partnership. A number of projects in Southend are being developed with access to EU funding. Southend has recently been awarded £5.4 million of EU objective 2 funding, about which we are truly delighted. It will go towards a major £17 million project, to be known as Southend seafront high street and pier enhancement. Again, none of the wards falls in the constituency that I represent, but there is no doubt that the development will have a great impact on the whole of Southend and will attract more businesses and visitors to the town.
The local authority welcomes the project and the financial support from Europe. We thank the Government for their backing, but in the midst of all this good news the fishing community is experiencing difficulties in obtaining financial support for a project that has great potential for innovation and diversity within the industry.
I pay a warm tribute to two council officers, Philomena Kettlewell and Vivian Byczynski. They have worked hard to try to secure EU funding for the project, but it is a private project led by Mr. Michael King and Mr. Paul Gilson, who have done a splendid job in developing it. It is a remarkable scheme that everyone praises.
The fishing grounds of the Thames estuary are under considerable pressure as a result of various EU restrictions, as Essex Members know. The number of fishermen has declined, and the retail price of fish has increased, to the disadvantage of the consumer. Fish farming and, more recently, genetically modified fish, have affected consumer confidence in the product. The programme would increase the number of harvestable fish in the area and the opportunity for fishermen to make a living in a manner that does not involve GM fish or fish farming. The project will also enable complementary industries such as marine engineering and transport to prosper. Scientific research associated with the project has educational and tourist potential and will enhance the image of the town, not that it needs too much of that, but I admit that I am biased.
Dover sole, as most Essex Members know, is the most important fish caught in the Thames estuary. It is a high-value item, but stocks have decreased despite conservation measures. That species will form the thrust of the initial project. Adult fish caught in the wild in spawning conditions will be retained on board fishing vessels in special holding tanks and transferred ashore to fertilisation tanks on the same day. Once fertilised, the larvae will be grown in tankshalf will grow to 5 cm long and half to 10 cmand then returned to the sea. They will be separately identified to compare survival of the different-sized released juveniles.
Following the success of the Dover sole scheme and in order to utilise the facility throughout the year, the project leaders believe that the same procedure could be used with turbot and lobster. Lobsters, I am advised, have the advantage of not straying far, so they can be harvested locally. As major growth would take place in the sea, the image associated with fish farming would be avoided. They will be "wild fish".
The hatcheries in Dingle and Padstow are both adjacent to, and reliant on, aquariums. The equipment and expertise needed to operate an efficient aquarium are similar to those for a hatchery, so co-location is desirable. At present, the idea is that the Southend Sea Life centre, which has substantial advantages for the scheme, would be used as a main base, but a number of other possibilities are being explored.
I hope that the Minister recognises that this project is very important for employment. Fishing has steadily declined in recent yearswe are down to about 60 fishermen working in the area. The project would protect these jobs and we believe that there would be an increase in such employment. Members of the Kent and Essex sea fisheries committee support it, as do others. Research is also crucial.
Some might say that Mike King, the chairman of the project, has been using intemperate language about his disappointment. That is unfair, but he is somewhat frustrated about how the scheme has been handled. The committee first met in February 2000; the scheme was prepared for objective 2 funding, only to be told nine months later that fishing was excluded. The committee checked with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when the latest funding became known. It was advised that it was okay, only to be told later that it was excluded because it was aquaculture. We do not have the time to go into detail in this short debate, and I will send the information to the Minister's office, but advice from Brussels seems to contradict that. I am not criticising civil servants or others; I am simply asking the Minister to ensure that we receive the correct information.
Mike King believes that there are two issues. He believes that the scheme would be widely supported and that it is unable to proceed after 18 months owing to bureaucracy. He has found getting a straight answer about whether the scheme is viable to be a frustrating exercise. I shall not name names, but he is adamant that we were given the wrong information about the scheme at the start.
From the local authority perspective, I pay tribute to Councillor David Garston and his vice-chairman, Mrs. Anna Whaite, who have done a magnificent job. They have asked me to draw to the Minister's attention a number of points in conclusion.
We ask the Minister and her officialsI know that she will have to talk to those in other Departmentsto see whether there is a way to help the fishermen through the difficulties from which their industry is suffering at the moment. Why are the funding restrictions such that the project faces so many obstacles, even though everyone seems to agree its merit and potential? I would like Government advice on how barriers can be broken down so that the most up to date and appropriate advice can be given to fishermen to support their initiative. I ask the Minister to assure the fishermen of Southend that every effort will be made to find a solution before the next bidding round, which I am advised will start in