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5.1 pm

John Cryer (Hornchurch): Thank you for calling me in this Adjournment debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have heard speeches about airport development, including those of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who has fought a long campaign with my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) against the proposed runway at Heathrow. As a member of the Campaign group, I assure the hon. Gentleman that at every meeting—on a quiet night we may have as few as 200 or 300 members of the parliamentary Labour party—we always have a rousing rendition of "Jerusalem" followed by the blood sacrifice of a bourgeois deviationist or two, or perhaps a captain of industry or a banker. That is a joke, in case some of my hon. Friends are getting worried.

The first issue that I want to raise is a bit more prosaic than that. There are quite a few landfill sites in my constituency, and most of the operators are responsible and have due regard to the local community. However, a company called Ahern, which operates a site at Ayletts farm in Rainham, is completely irresponsible and has no consideration for the local community. For many months, gases that give rise to smells have drifted across Rainham and the houses in the southern part of my constituency. That has affected the local populace. Attempts by the Environment Agency to control Ahern and to get it to take appropriate action, such as the installation of a burner, have come to nothing. Ahern is

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happy to make mountains of cash out of the taxpayer, but it treats the local community with utter contempt. All the attempts by the public sector to get the company to realise its responsibilities have so far come to nothing.

I have written to the Minister for the Environment. A solution for the future, which may help my constituents, would be the establishment of a community forum on a statutory basis, so that companies such as Ahern would have to meet members of the local community, the local authority, the Environment Agency and other groups. That may enable at least an examination of the records of some of the firms involved.

I emphasise that the vast majority of landfill operators are perfectly responsible and conduct themselves properly—especially Cleanaway, which is the biggest operator in my constituency. However, a few smaller firms behave irresponsibly.

I also want to raise the issue of Sure Start schemes, which have been successful in many areas, including in my own borough. However, there is a problem, not with the schemes, but with the criteria on the basis of which they are run. They are ward based, and if it is a mixed ward and the deprivation indices are too high because there are well-off areas alongside poverty-stricken areas, Sure Start funding cannot be accessed for those areas.

An attempt was made to obtain Sure Start funds for the Mardyke estate in my constituency. Unfortunately, because the ward contained better-off areas, we could not get those funds. The local primary care trust said, in a recent report on the estate,

That demonstrates that the criteria are too broad. If they were based on neighbourhoods rather than wards, my constituents on the estate would benefit. That is not, however, a criticism of Sure Start, which has proved very successful in much of the country.

The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) mentioned the raw deal given to the London borough of Havering, which we both represent, by central Government for a long time. There is some truth in what he said, but the borough recently received £3 million from Transport for London. I hope that the money will be spent wisely, because that is not always the case with our Tory council. For instance, it spent half a million pounds on raising councillors' allowances, while simultaneously jacking up the council tax by 17 per cent. That went down like a lead balloon. It spent a further half a million pounds on getting rid of the former chief executive, while the council tax rocketed. Those are just two examples. People are deeply unhappy when they see money frittered away on pet projects while the council jacks up the tax and moans about the raw deal that it gets from central Government.

Part of my constituency is in the Thames gateway region. In the next few years, more housing is to be built on the London riverside section, which covers my constituency and principally, on the north side of the Thames, those of my hon. Friends the Members for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) and for Thurrock (Andrew

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Mackinlay). One of the first tranches of new housing will be at Dovers Corner, a former industrial estate. It is not in good condition: there are all sorts of environmental problems. The developer wants high-level, high-density housing, but that would not be in keeping with the surrounding area, because it would be on the edge of what is still to some extent a village. It is still has a village centre, Rainham.

I want to see more housing in my constituency and in my borough. Since the right to buy was introduced in 1979, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of council homes have been got rid of and have not been replaced by more council homes, or by housing association or housing trust properties. We need more public housing to give hope to the people who come to my advice surgeries—and, no doubt, those of many other Members—and say, "Our home is overcrowded. We want a house rather than a flat, or a flat with two bedrooms rather than one." There is not much help for them now, at least in my constituency.

What we do not want is a repeat of the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s, when tower blocks were built in my constituency and others. If we had our time again, we would not do that; but there is the potential for a similar mistake if high-density housing schemes are allowed to proceed in east London. There must also be proper provision of doctors' surgeries and other facilities.

I also think that development regulations should be tightened. Local people were shown plans for a branch of B&Q at Roneo Corner, on the boundary between my constituency and Romford. The plans were approved, but when the building was finished it turned out that they had been changed. Local people then found that local authority planning officers had given permission for certain changes to be made. Those changes went down very badly with the people who live in the area; there is no way that they would have approved them had they known what was happening. Of course, they were faced with a fait accompli. The development had been built, and little could be done to reverse it. It is set in concrete and cement, and in brick and mortar.

I want the regulations to be tightened, so that certain guarantees have to be provided in respect of, for example, the size of a general practitioner's surgery, access to schools and the size and height of housing. That way, developers cannot make changes after getting outline planning permission and go ahead with such building.

One or two Members—particularly the hon. Member for Romford, who is my constituency neighbour—have mentioned the European constitution. I happen to be an opponent of the European constitution. I am also the chairman of Labour For A Referendum, which takes the view that profound constitutional changes, whether introduced through the European Union or through any other body, have to be put to the people. There has to be a plebiscite on such profound changes.

I have the uneasy feeling that if the Conservatives were not in opposition, they would put through any idea that happened to emerge from Brussels, because that is their record when in government. While pretending to wrap themselves in the Union flag, they agree to anything that Brussels lays before them. In the beginning, in 1972, they took us into the then Common

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Market without consulting the people in way whatsoever; it took a Labour Government to give us a referendum on membership. In 1986, they gave us the Single European Act—the single biggest reduction in democratic accountability and power that any British Government in living memory have undertaken. Then they gave us the Maastricht treaty—another massive abrogation of sovereignty and power—which was duly followed by the growth and stability pact.

So I do not take too seriously the argument advanced by Conservative Members—with a few honourable exceptions—whereby they are paint themselves in the colours of the critics of the European Union and argue that they would act completely different and would give the EU a hard time. I tend to think that, if ever they did return to government, they would have a complete change of heart, as they always do.

It just remains for me to wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Members of the House and its staff a happy Christmas.

5.12 pm

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): Many excellent speeches have been made this afternoon, so I hope that mine will not prove an anticlimax. I particularly enjoyed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), who spoke eloquently in defence of his constituency, and against the juggernaut—if I may mix my metaphors—of the stupendous increase in aviation. Our policy in that regard seems to be not predict and provide, but promote and provide.

I also welcomed the contribution of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who was the first to mention the developing world. That is a particularly important issue to raise in a Christmas Adjournment debate. Christmas is many things, but these days it seems to be more about conspicuous consumption than anything else. It is in that context that I shall talk about sustainable development, which has become the catchphrase of the new millennium. "Sustainable development" are the new buzz words that define all that Government and policy seek to achieve. I want to look at what those words mean in practice, and in doing so I must also explain what those words ought to mean.

Twenty years ago, the United Nations established the World Commission on Environment and Development. In 1987, it published a report known as the Brundtland report, after the commission's chairman, Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report defines sustainable development as

The report was by no means perfect—far from it—and nor was its definition, but we should contrast that definition with what the Government now use as their axiom of sustainable development: a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come. That sounds much the same as the previous definition, but there is a key difference: the word "need" has been substituted for the word "quality". Those are two entirely different things, and the change allows for a much looser, and, in my view, diminished approach to

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the concept of sustainable development. There is a world of difference between providing what people need, and improving everybody's quality of life.

We now have a concept of sustainable development that draws no distinction between the unsustainable quality of life of a tiny proportion of the world's population, and the life of the great majority of that population. To put it another way, as Mahatma Ghandi said when asked if India should have the same standard of living as Britain:

However, we march on regardless of that obvious painful truth. It is easy to see why. Nobody wants to say that we cannot carry on as we are, because if they did, they would soon be out of a job. So now we talk not about the poor majority of the world who have unmet basic needs, but about a more amorphous promise that everyone's quality of life must be improved—a promise that does not distinguish between the likes of Bill Gates and an Indian peasant, or between Rupert Murdoch and a Chinese sweatshop worker. Our new all-inclusive, wealthy-friendly policy of sustainable development admits of no exceptions.

How unfair and inequitable that is. It reflects current thinking that it is people like Gates and Murdoch who will be the saviours of sustainable development, because as the major business drivers of globalisation, they have in their hands the formula that will drive up global trade and save poor benighted countries from self-destruction. Many of those countries had first to contend with colonialisation, but that early history of globalisation is often neglected. Then they had to contend with the cold war, when many poor countries were used as pawns in spheres of influence. That is the period when many were pressed to acquire unsustainable levels of debt. Finally, they have become the beneficiaries of the post-modernist Washington consensus way of thinking, which dresses up our concerns with softer tones and kind words. Now the poor of the world are to be patronised by our business culture.

However, the massive benefits of decades of western-style development are nowhere better illustrated than they are in the United States, as opposed to the shanty towns of Mumbai or Sao Paulo. As The New York Review of Books says,

Even by the inadequate standards of current economic policy, inequality is spreading in the developed world. For all the efforts of the past 20 years, and for all the rhetoric of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation et al, inequality has worsened, not improved. The way in which developing countries are expected to ape our style of living has made matters worse, because, as Gandhi suggested, it is bound to.

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I am thankful to say that new ways of thinking are emerging, and are even being considered in the mainstream. Kyoto was an example of that, no matter how diluted its outcomes were designed to be. Clearly, international resistance to this sense of global responsibility is still very strong, and no one would argue that Kyoto, even if it were ratified by all the main greenhouse gas producers, would have a huge impact on the acceleration of global warming. What Kyoto did achieve, however, was a sense of shared responsibility—the first real benchmark for the principle that public goods should have a value in the global economic system. Public goods not only cover those areas such as health and education, which governments in civilised societies should deliver, but include biodiversity, the air we breathe, the sustainable management of natural resources and protection of the oceans, among others. It is easy to see how we value the former, as we can put a price on a hip replacement or the building of a new school, but until recently nobody gave much thought to the cost of resource depletion or environmental damage.

Indeed, an environmental bad could easily be seen as an economic good if, for example, a big clean-up of pollution leads to economic growth. The sinking of an oil tanker off the coast of Spain or Alaska may knock a hole in the local economy, but if that leads to economic activity during the clean-up and afterwards, the extra spending will probably exceed the original economic loss for fisheries or tourism, so leading to economic growth. Such thinking is clearly absurd, but will continue for as long as economics are divorced from the environment. The only way it seems to me that the dichotomy can be reconciled is to ensure that the application of the theory of economic growth is forced fully to internalise all the costs involved in creating so-called economic wealth in the first place. If this were to happen, we would see some strange reversals in the fortunes of countries—those previously known as developed would be heavily in debt, while those mainly in the south would have great surpluses.

At the moment we simply take it for granted that we can obtain commodities from the south very cheaply even if, as in the example of coffee, the prices in the shops do not reflect that. But western consumers will still benefit in one way or another from the southern coffee-growing countries' hidden subsidy, through the distribution of dividends, higher pensions or better paid jobs. If we had to pay the real price for oil, through the costs of the enormous environmental damage its extraction causes, or the costs of the wars, pollution and corruption it causes, we might be a bit more anxious to change to the alternatives.

Given my recent criticisms of China's unreconstructed dash for growth, I am pleased to see that its attitudes are changing. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has apparently said that development must be sustainable, and there are plans to draw up a green index that would be created by subtracting values given to resource depletion from the standard measure of economic growth. If China perfects that system, it will probably be the first country to do so. For China, the need to achieve a more sustainable form of development is pressing, as its exponential growth has already brought some very immediate problems, as in the case of

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one Chinese city which is having to curb the building of skyscrapers, because of the instability of ground conditions brought on by a shrinking water table, or the incredible news that another city is banning cyclists from some roads because they are getting too congested with cars.

We might permit ourselves some wry amusement at that turn of events, but it is happening here by default. Fewer people walk or cycle to school, and more are travelling by car. Perhaps our congested roads are seen as dangerous too, so the solution is to put more cars on to the roads. Of course, the responsibility to tackle that always lies with someone else. We think, "If only other people would change their ways first," or, "If only the Government would do something about it." That I am afraid is our attitude, and I have some sympathy with it because I know that such attitudes are deeply ingrained in our culture, and that has been made worse in the last 20 years by the attacks made on society on behalf of capital, which in that example has far more to gain by selling cars than it has by encouraging children to walk to school.

The insatiable global demand for our style of living can hardly be denied to others by us unless we change our ways. So it is our responsibility to take tough decisions to lead the way out of this impasse. It inevitably means that we must reassess what we mean by wealth. But if we stick to the idea that sustainable development refers to some open-ended commitment to quality of life rather than to our needs, we will find it difficult to gain a more comprehensive concept of wealth and change the way we measure it. I hope that the Treasury will consider developing its own green index, along the lines of the Chinese proposal, as a starting point for recalculating economic growth. If that happens, we will truly be putting the environment at the heart of government.

I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, your family, all hon. Members and all the staff of the House a happy and sustainable Christmas.

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