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Mr. Arbuthnot : My right hon. Friend has always made the case for the improvement at Hindhead with great passion and effect, but does she agree that this short-sighted decision, sneaked out in the annexe to a press release without any warning to her or me since or at the time, will affect the whole economy of the south of England, not just her constituency? My constituents in Grayshott, which is nearby, raised £50,000 to get the road scheme right, and they are now kicked in the teeth.
One of the additional dilemmas is that the planning blight that has been upon the local community for a long time will indeed extend. Rat-running is destroying the local, beautiful villages. It is not only a question of environmental damage, pollution and dangerI hope that the issue will be relevant in the forthcoming elections in the marginal seats in Portsmouth. The area is the economic gateway to Portsmouth and the south coast, and I was pleased with the co-operation that I received from Portsmouth Members of Parliament when one of the first steps that the Government took on their arrival in office was to take the tunnel out of the programme. With huge effort, we managed to reinstate it.
A very serious matter, which I hope that the Minister will consider, is that a constituency such as mine has not had a single visit from a Cabinet Minister in all the years
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since the Government came to power. There is a profound difference in the way that this Government regard holding office from the way in which my colleagues viewed the role. We felt that we were Ministers of the Crown, that we had a national responsibility and that we should be as even-handed as possible in visits to constituencies and in the way that we discharged our duties.
This Government have been systematically politically partisan in the most deplorable way. Early in their tenure, I heard a Government Whip explain that ministerial visits were used as a way to reward good Back Benchers for docile behaviour. In my judgment, ministerial visits should be used so that Ministers can be seen to be looking, learning and understanding some of the most serious problems that lie within their responsibilities. It was only when I challenged the then Minister, Lord Macdonald, and said what so affronted me about the Labour Government was their contempt for any constituency that was neither marginal nor relevant to their own interests, that he finally visited the A3 at Hindhead and we began to make very slow progress.
It is extraordinary for the Minister, in the light of the seriousness of the problem, to have been nowhere near the A3 at Hindhead. The manner and handling of the announcement are characteristic. Ministers should regard themselves as Ministers of the Crown, not simply Ministers who are seeking party political advantage within the Labour party. I hope that in reporting to his colleague, the Deputy Leader of the House will outline the seriousness with which the issue is regarded. I hope that he will urge his colleague to reply to the endless parliamentary questions.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support me, as a Back Bencher, in insisting that all the relevant papers are made public on the advice that was given about the A3 at Hindhead. The project team that has been working on the matter over many years is in no doubt about its importance and the economic, road and environmental significance. I also hope that he will do all in his power to recognise that there is very strong feeling not only about the matter at hand but, most profoundly and seriously, about the way that this and so many other issues have been handled.
I would like to wish the Minister and others a very happy Christmas and I would like, as I drift towards the exit ramp of my retirement, to do so with benign good will, but I have been so enraged on those four matters over the past four weeks that only if the hon. Gentleman says that he will do his best to reverse the decisions or to ensure a more favourable or sympathetic handling will I wish him and others a benign and happy Christmas.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I now know from the previous speech why Cabinet Ministers do not visit my constituency, and why not a single Cabinet Minister visited it during the 10 years when I was an MP under a Conservative Government.
Since becoming an MP in 1987, I have raised in the House on a number of occasions matters of serious environmental and industrial concern to my constituency, one of which involved Avenue cokeworks at Wingerworth, which suffered considerably from
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pollution that affected the local community. Cancer clusters were discovered in the area and the problems had an impact on the work force. The coke ovens had seen better days and a wide range of by-products were produced on the 240-acre site, including benzene, toluene, ethanol benzene, xylene and volatile organic compounds, which created problems in the area. For instance, if the banks of the River Rother, which runs through the site, were prodded with a stick, tar, oil and gunge would come out. The impact on the local community and on those who worked there was obviously very serious.
I pressed the then Conservative Government for considerable investment to help to clean up those operations and for modernisation. I realised from other developments in my constituency that investment often helps to increase production and enables workers to enjoy better standards. Needless to say, the funding was not forthcoming. In 1992, the works were closed, with the loss of some 300 jobs.
Planning permission was granted to open-cast the site and to bury the contaminated soil and the remains of the buildings in a huge hole. That met considerable local opposition from the parishes and environmental groups and, in 1997, I took representatives of those bodies to Leicester to meet English Partnerships. A liaison committee was established and I have chaired it ever since. I think that I was considered acceptable for the role because it was thought that I could hold the two sides togetherthose responsible for the activity and those who had campaigned against various developments, even though I had more sympathy for the latter.
The first development was that the open-cast and landfill plan that had been drawn up was dropped. Plans were then made in a rather cavalier fashion to blow up the chimneys, which contained dangerous dioxins, but that was stopped. Instead, the chimneys and most of the rest of the site were replaced brick by brick as we waited for its later development. It was then proposed to transport the contaminated soil and slurry off the site and to deposit it elsewhere. Its removal and transportation through the community presented obvious dangers, so that plan was also dropped.
Recently, the Deputy Prime Minister made a most welcome statement, saying that new remedial technology is to be used to decontaminate and burn off the offending elements in the soil and that the land will be reclaimed. Jobs, housing, sports facilities, a nature reserve and a clean river with wetlands are to be provided under the East Midlands Development Agency and £104 million will be made available for those developments.
The problem is that the solution to one problem might highlight other problems. Among the problems that I have raised in the past is the health of the work force. There is pressure on the Department of Health to monitor the incidence of chest disease in those who worked on the coke ovens and the problems faced by those who worked with the chemicals derived from the extraction of coke from coal. The general impact on the community in the area also needs to be monitored carefully.
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The neighbouring area of Grassmoor is notorious as the birthplace of Paul Burrell, but it faces serious problems that need to be tackled. They include the problems at the Grassmoor lagoons, which were established with waste being piped across from the Avenue cokeworks and Grassmoor colliery. That led to serious contamination, which became apparent in 1992 when the firm closed and the issue of the contamination of the Avenue site came to the fore. However, the problem at Grassmoor is not being tackled through the assistance being made available for the Avenue cokeworks, because ownership was split between East Midlands Development Agency and Derbyshire county council.
The Grassmoor lagoons are in the Grassmoor country park, which is available for recreational use and is visited by children. However, the lagoons cause terrible pollution, and Derbyshire county council needs funding to tackle the problem.
The principle of the polluter pays is reasonable and, in this case, responsibility lay with the National Coal Boardlater to become British Coalalthough it has now passed to the Department of Trade and Industry. We are close to a resolution of the problem. The DTI is funding a study to update the remediation strategy for the lagoons and, subject to the outcome of the study, is ready to honour British Coal's liability. That point was repeated to me in a letter that I received today from the DTI.
I have raised the issue in the debate because I would like to know what the decision day will be. An equivalent statement is needed to the welcome one that we had from the Deputy Prime Minister in connection with the Avenue site. The matter is of persistent concern to the local communitythe local parish council, district and county councillors, the local Labour party, which continues to raise the matter, and constituents who live in the area. The unacceptable smells and odours must be dealt with. Before a general election is announced for 5 MayI will not be standing againI hope that we will have a statement that is equivalent to the marvellous statement on the Avenue cokeworks. I hope that things will be put right at Grassmoor as well as at Wingerworth.
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