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Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I am delighted to be able to make a small contribution to the debate on the Gracious Speech today, when we are discussing the environment and transport, and particularly to follow the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), with whom I serve on the Environmental Audit Committee. I associate myself with her remarks about road traffic accidents and the many, often silent, victims of death and injury on our roads.
Although I would normally choose to major on the environment in such debates because it is a cause that is very close to my heart, I particularly want to focus on transport today. Before doing so, I wish to say that I was disappointed that there was not more of substance in the Gracious Speech that we could get our teeth into and that would in real terms and with obvious action match the Government's rhetoric on the environment.
Sadly, when the Government came to office seven years ago, they pledged to make great progress in the environmental field. They began wellit would be churlish not to admit that they made some significant reformsbut they seem to have petered out as the years have gone by and the environment has consistently slipped down their list of priorities. It is welcome that the Prime Minister should talk about trying to make progress on climate change next year, but the Government's record to date on matching their rhetoric with deeds if very poor indeed, so I hope that the Gracious Speech is not an indicator of the relatively empty words that we have normally come to expect when the Prime Minister makes those great pronouncements.
We do not normally associate the Gracious Speech with jokes or humour, but whoever inserted the words
into a Gracious Speech that comes just four days after the Government used the Parliament Acts to enact a Bill that will sound the death knell of fox hunting throughout England and Wales truly had a deep sense of irony.
I particularly want to turn my mind to transport in the next few minutes, especially to three key issues that very strongly affect my constituency: the SRA's proposed cuts in the rail service to London from Bexhill; the impending announcement of the Government's decision on whether or not to fund the Bexhill link road, which will link the A259 to the A21; and the Government's continuing vacillation and delay on the improvements to the A21 between Flimwell and Robertsbridge.
First, on the SRA's proposals, it was with great shock just a few weeks ago that my constituents learned, along with me, that the SRAthe Government's rail supremowas planning to end a direct train service to London, as part of the Brighton main line reorganisation. The associated document contains several proposed benefits to Brighton and the close vicinity, but as a disbenefit in the executive summary, it proposes that the direct link to London should be axed, so that my constituents would have to change platforms at Eastbourne or Polegate in futuresomething that is of profound concern to the business community, local residents, tourists and visitors.
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My constituency of Bexhill has one of the highest age profiles of any area in the country. I think that we have the highest number of over-80s in the country and the second oldest population in a constituency along the south coast. My constituents are dependent on the train serviceI am sorry that nobody on the Government Front Bench is listening to thisto get to Gatwick or to London. The prospect of having to change platforms is profoundly worrying to them.
Bexhill is a major town of 45,000 people and it is 60 miles from London. Not to have a direct train service to the capital city seems preposterous in this day and age when we should be looking to increase the use of trains and to encourage people off the roads. To cut the service and to propose that it should become a local link along the south coast is absolutely ridiculous.
The proposal also flies totally in the face of all the regeneration proposals on which I have been working on a cross-party basis with the Labour Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) and with Labour-controlled Hastings borough council. I refer to the Hastings and Bexhill taskforce proposals to regenerate the area. Critical to that have been the proposals[Interruption.] Through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I ask those on the Government Front Bench to keep their voices down? They are clearly not interested in a word that I have to say and are not listening. I would be grateful if I could at least make myself heard. I am afraid that it is only the usual discourtesy that we have come to expect from the so-called Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality.
As I was saying, it is a great travesty that the proposal from the SRA is even being considered. Some good work has been done on a cross-party basis to regenerate Hastings and Bexhill, an area that is in dire need of regeneration. The regeneration project was born out of the Government's decision just after this Parliament was convened not to go ahead with the Hastings bypass. I am a strong supporter of the regeneration proposals, but the proposition that we should now lose a direct rail link is absolutely bizarre. I hope very much that the Minister responsible for transport will use all his good offices to intervene with the SRA to argue against that.
Norman Baker: May I suggest two alternative propositions that the hon. Gentleman might support? The first is the reinstatement of the link between Polegate and Pevensey, which would speed up journey times along the south coast and could be achieved at little cost. The second is direct train services on a regular basis from Ashford through to Brighton and beyond.
Gregory Barker: I certainly agree that opening up the link between Polegate and Pevensey would be extremely welcome. The Ashford proposal sounds interesting, although it is not one that I see heavily promoted locally. It certainly is an interesting and constructive idea, and we are in the market for them.
My area also awaits the decision from the Department for Transport on the proposal for the A259 link road. I am not instinctively a road builder; I do not believe that we need lots more roads. The new proposal is a much smaller lighter-touch proposition
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than the old Bexhill and Hastings bypass. It is a smaller road that avoids all the sites of special scientific interest and the areas of outstanding natural beauty that the previous road did not. It has been designed with much greater sensitivity to environmental concerns.
Of course, any road building involves an environmental price to pay, but there is also an environmental benefit from the building of the road, which all my constituents are aware of even if they do not agree with it. This road, if constructed to the north of Bexhill, will allow the release of land, which is in a strategically important place behind the town, for the construction of about 1,500 new homes that would otherwise be pushed into the rural areas of my constituency in the AONB in the high weald.
The proposal would also allow for the construction of a commercial business park that would provide valuable space to create new jobs for local people. That space is not simply available elsewhere in the greater Hastings area. Without that commercial space, the very good work of the regeneration partnership will be in vain. There simply will not be the physical possibility of creating new businesses to provide sufficient jobs to attack the social problems in the Hastings and Bexhill area.
We desperately need that road to improve transport facilities and air quality. People in Bexhill who live on the A259 have had substandard air quality, with high levels of pollution, for the past nine years, when it has been below the national minimum requirements. There are strong environmental benefits from building that small section of road and efficiently linking the A259 to the A21.
Finally, please can we have a decision on the Government's proposals for the A21 between Flimwell and Robertsbridge? The consultation began in 2003. The decision was supposed to be announced on four occasions, but it has always been deferred. The last time was in the summer, when we were promised an announcement in the autumn. We are now nearly into December.
The reality is that the Government's indecision and vacillation, which are important to the people who live along the road, means that dozens, if not hundreds, of families are living with severe planning blight. They cannot get on with their lives. They need to move, but they cannot make plans because whole villages are blighted by their lack of decision. Either way, there is huge impatience in that rural community for them to get on and make a decision. We need the A21 decision now. We need the A259 link road. We certainly do not need our direct rail link with London severed.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): We have had a wide-ranging debate on the themes of environment, transport, and local and devolved government. I commend all hon. Members who participated in itI think that the number of contributions made by hon. Members on either side of the House matched, which shows the interest in the subject.
I commend my colleagues for their commitment to raising environmental issues. The hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), who missed the opening
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speeches, will be pleased to hear that there was a consensus on welcoming the road safety Bill. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) asked the Government a good question about their expectations in terms of the environment at the forthcoming EU and G8 summits. We also want that answered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) commendably put in requests for his constituents. However, he made one observation from a sedentary position. He did not recognise the rose-tinted description given by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) of the excellence of the train services that serve his constituency. So we had a balanced view of that, with one Member expressing satisfaction and the other expressing his dissatisfaction with that service, which is good thing.
We always greatly respect what the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) says on transport. She has great experience and wisdom on the subject. We take seriously the candour with which she said that there are problems at every level of transport. No politician would dispute that those problems are not easy to solve. What I particularly liked about her contribution, which was echoed in the excellent contribution by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer), was that she stressed the importance of tackling some serious omissions.
Both hon. Members identified the lack of anything forthcoming on ports and the difficulty of deep-berthing facilities. The demise of manufacturing in the United States has led to a huge increase in the importation of manufactured goods, causing the balance of funding problems that it faces. There is the capacity for things to go the same way here and to aggravate things in this country, and they are right to raise the issue of ports.
I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman). It is 40 years since he first fought a by-election, which is remarkable, yet the youthful spirit with which he engaged in a forward-looking view on our need to do something about climate change for the benefit of not only our generation, but most importantly, future generations, is commendable. He also talked about housing, and I pray in aid his name when I say that we had hoped for an affordable housing Bill, but unless it is under "other measures" it does not appear to be forthcoming. The Government are ducking their responsibility for tackling the affordability crisis in housing, and my hon. Friend was right to point out that omission.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) ranged more widely than the subjects for debate today, as hon. Members are entitled to do. I am not my party's official spokesman on Europe, the subject that he evoked, but he made an important point to which I want to respond. He commended the Prime Minister for moving this country closer to the heart of Europe, but I would love to be able to put this question back to him: has the Prime Minister moved Europe any closer to the heart of this nation? It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman is not here to answer that question.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) did an important cost-benefit analysis of wind energy: on the one hand, the environmental impact of wind turbines and on the other, the energy gain that they could bring. It is important at this point to record
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the problem posed by wind energy. My hon. Friend also spoke about our democratic deficit, and I support his view that we would like to see a positive outcome from the present talks about an agreement in Northern Ireland. He pointed also to the problem posed by the outcome of the regional referendum in the north-east, about which I shall have more to say later. I can tell my hon. Friend that I received today a letter from the Deputy Prime Minister about future referendums, simply saying that there would be no more at this time. I think that the people of Tewkesbury and Truro, to whom my hon. Friend referred, need to look out.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) spoke of a guided bus system that is strongly opposed by local people. I underline to the Government the extent to which they have so often dictated to local people plans and decisions that they do not want. I shall come on to say more about accountability.
We have had a wide-ranging discussion, but what links those themes is the whole architecture of decision making to which the Government are doing terrible damage, and this Gracious Speech is no exception. It does not contain a Bill that is specifically about local government, but its role comes up in several other Bills. Obviously those have not yet been published, so it is hard to be sure, but the School Transport Bill, the disability discrimination Bill, the animal welfare Bill, the new integrated crime agency and the drugs Bill, definitely the safer, cleaner neighbourhoods Bill and possibly the family law Bill will all clearly have an impact on local government.
I am increasingly coming to the view that this Government want to bypass local government because they do not trust it to do their bidding. I fear, for example, that the clean neighbourhoods and environment Bill will be another example of Labour heaping yet more burdens on local government without the commitment to fund them properly. That is why we would oppose any new stealth rubbish tax. Already the council tax has been loaded with so many unfunded burdens that people are taking to the streets to protest about the unfairness of it all.
We see the same pattern repeating itself whereby the Government embrace one new European environmental directive after another without thinking through the consequences for local government. That is one reason why they are having to introduce a Bill for cleaner neighbourhoods; it is because of the need to clear up the consequences of the other directives. No other European country is having a sweep-up operation. Thanks to forward thinking, they have the capacity to recycle as required under the directives.
The end-of-life vehicles directive puts the onus on the last user of an old vehicle to pay for it to be scrapped, with the result that the number of abandoned cars has risen by nearly 40 per cent. since the directive's introduction. The waste electrical and electronic equipment directive is likely to exacerbate the problem of old kitchen appliances littering the countryside. The impact of the directives has coincided with shrinkage in the number of landfill sites that are licensed to accept hazardous waste, and it can only be a matter of time before something very hazardous is dumped in the countryside as a result of the deterrence of the sheer distance to the nearest licensed tip. Who gets to clear all
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this up and who pays? The answer is the council and the council tax payer. It is no wonder that 78 per cent. of people polled by MORI blamed central Government for the rise in their council tax.
The electorate are savvy; voters understand when it is worth going to the polls and when it is not. The undermining of local government by a centralist, dictatorial Labour Government has resulted in much lower turnouts at local elections than at general elections, which has not been helped by other parties campaigning on national or international issues at what ought to be elections on who runs the council. The Government seem to have forgotten that what makes us electable is our willingness to be accountable. We have jobs from which we can be removed without recourse to tribunals and warnings if voters do not like what they are getting. That is what democracy is all about, but now the Government are actively undermining that democratic link.
A notable absence from the Gracious Speech is the regional assemblies Bill. The drubbing that the Government received from the region thought to be most in favour of regional government has stilled the infant in the cradle. We are left with an incoherent mess of unelected regional bodies, which have no prospect of ever receiving a democratic mandate. Accountability has been lost, or, as Sir Jeremy Beecham, Labour leader of the Local Government Association, put it:
"we have regional government conducted in piecemeal fashion by civil servants, quangos and next steps agencies with minimal accountability to the regions they serve."
The Deputy Prime Minister's refusal to give up on the regional agenda gives away the secret desire to bypass local government. The failure of this Government to trust local government gives the lie to the fake devolution that they were attempting to set up with the regional assembly in the north-east. The fact is that the Deputy Prime Minister tried and failed to prise powers away from his colleagues here in Westminster, with the result that the assembly could not put one more nurse, teacher or policeman into service. Instead, powers on planning and housing were stripped from local government in exactly the opposite of devolution. The truth is that this Government see local government only as mere "agents of central Government", as the Secretary of State for Education and Skills so unfortunately put it.
I hope that, as the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality sits here about to defend his Government's devolutionary record, he will have cause to reflect long and hard on whether his colleagues are centralists or decentralists at heart. If in doubt, perhaps he need look no further than the Secretary of State for Health stepping in to grab the reins when the chips were down over the actions of a hospital in Wales at the weekend.
For further evidence of the half-hearted approach to decentralisation, we have the Welsh transport Bill, which has been gutted by the White Paper proposal to abolish the Strategic Rail Authority. The Government are now using the White Paper as an excuse not to answer several questions on the Bill; they are saying that a memorandum of understanding between the Assembly and the Department for Transport will
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answer them. What a fudge! That means that Whitehall Departments still call the shotsthere is a Welsh transport Bill only if Whitehall says so.
The Government have dismissed concerns about the power of the Assembly over English rail policies affecting Wales adversely as a point to be addressed in the memorandum. They also passed to the memorandum the governing relationship over franchise functions in Wales. The memo looks set to be longer than the Bill. Memo to Government: less talk, more action.
I begin to wonder whether the Government understand what accountability really means. They have got it wrong with many measures in the Gracious Speech. For example, the Railways Bill would give the Mayor of London and the London assembly more power over our railways. That is fine for the electors of London, who have the means to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the service, but what about the commuters from the home counties and places such as Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds?
The cynic in me says that that suits the Government fine. We see that demonstrated in abuse of the council tax, the pursuit of regionalisation, the establishment of the quangocracy that is the Labour establishment, and summed up in that irritating little phrase with which hon. Members are so familiarthat no data are held centrally. When it all goes wrong and people are let down, their criticisms are met with a nonchalant shrug and the line, "Not me, guv."
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