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It is good to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), although I spend far too much time in his constituency as both a shareholder and season ticket holder of Charlton Athletic. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) is no longer in the Chamber, as I was brought up in Leigh-on-Sea and attended West Leigh primary school and Westcliff high school. As a boy, I did the Boxing day run along the pier many times. I know how important the pier is in the culture of Southend, so I hope that we
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can do as much as possible to support its rebuilding, even though it is for the third time. All our piers are wonderful, but Southend's is especially wonderful.
Bob Spink : As the hon. Gentleman is from Leigh, he will know what a beautiful community it is and how much it depends on the biodiversity and beauty of the Thames alongside which it sits. Is he concerned about the massive dredging of the Thames, which is part of the Thames port development, but which will completely destroy the biodiversity of the area, and probably the fishing industry on which Leigh also relies?
Derek Wyatt: I was not aware of any of that. I was a sea scout in Old Leigh so I know the sailing waters pretty well at both Canvey and Shoeburyness. I shall look into the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but I am sure that the Minister will be better able to respond to them.
I have a lot for which to thank the Thames Gateway. Since 1945, my constituency has had only three significant infrastructure awards. The first was a new road, the A249, in 1996. The second was the Sittingbourne Memorial hospital in 1996. The then Conservative Government opened the hospital but could not afford to open the wardsan extraordinary decision. The third thing was a bridge. A brand new bridge was built 32 years ago, yet within six months the dock at Sheerness was closed. The only reason for the bridge was that there was a naval dockyard at Swale, which forms part of Sheppey, and Sheerness would have been the first port of call in an attack on the Thames and the fleet would have been scuppered behind the Isle of Sheppey. We then had a bridge that we did not want. Since 1997, we have had almost £200 million-worth of infrastructure, largely on the Isle of Sheppey, which is one of the poorest areas in Britain. So, I have a hell of a lot to thank the Minister and the Department for.
The new bridge is still being completed but it will soon be open. On Monday, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, and I went to the top of it. It is phenomenal; it is the fastest built bridge so far in Britain and is going up in the space of 18 months. It is more than a mile and a half long and it is a sensational piece of civil engineering. I pay tribute to Carillion and the other engineers who have built it. We hardly ever give thanks to our civil engineers, yet we have the legacy of Telford, Stevenson, Brunel and others who have made modern civil engineering what it is today. The bridge will change the way in which the island works: for the first time, it will be permanently connected to the mainland. That will change the sociology, culture and community of the Isle of Sheppey.
There is one other piece of infrastructure which I know the ODPM is looking at: the Rushenden link roadthe last piece of infrastructure that I would ever ask of the Government. It is a £25 million scheme. I think that we will get the money, although I know that the decision will be made in the next six weeks. I ask the Department to look favourably on the poorest part of my constituency. If Rushenden and Queensborough could be rescued, the area would for the first time be a plus on the Chancellor's balance sheet. The scheme would give us not just more housing but a brand new business park, a new school and a new shopping centre, and revitalise the poorest area on my patch.
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In 2002, we had a new hospital, and on Monday last week the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that it would spend £2.6 million on our coastal erosion, because one of our villages is moving slowly into the sea. We need help at the bottom and at the top. Fortunately, after campaigning, we have won that money.
Nearly £40 million is going into Sittingbourne, a small paper town where the paper is no longer so importantwe used to have 10 mills, but now we have three. We used to have 20 or 30 brickworks, but now we have three or four. As it is an old Saxon town, it is caught in the middle. We are building a northern distributor road around Sittingbourne, which is the last piece of infrastructure that the town will need. We may still need a bypass for Newington, but I shall stop there, because the Government have listened and have been generous to my community.
I want to pose a couple of difficult questions. First, a delivery agency, Swale Forward, which is run by Kent county council, is based in Swale borough council's offices inside the Thames Gateway. That is a muddle. I would rather have Swale Forward as part of the Thames Gateway project, and not as a KCC project. If we are to deliver on some of the larger infrastructure projects, will the Minister consider moving Swale Forward into the Thames Gateway decision-making process?
Secondly, will the Minister have a word with Network Rail, which is one of the most obstructive organisations that I have come across? We have an offer of a brand new £70 million shopping centre, which we badly need, but Network Rail wants £5 million for the work involved. The developer is prepared to match some of the money. The money would go into central coffers, whereas the developer would like to rebuild Sittingbourne railway station. Anyone who knows that station will acknowledge that it needs to be rebuilt. The principle seems wrong. The money should go not to the Exchequer but to making good the railway. The same could be said of part of the bridge and the system connected with the Rushenden link road. Once again, Network Rail has not exactly been helpful. Is the Minister prepared to host a meeting between Network Rail, Swale Forward, Hammersons, the developers, and me so that we can bang some heads together?
While I am thankful, I am also slightly apprehensive about developments in the summer in relation to primary care trusts. We have had two new hospitals, one in 1996 and one in 2002, but this week closures were announced of one ward in one hospital and one ward in another because of a £12 million overdraft. We have the smallest PCT in Kent. It was formed only three years ago, and it seems to me that we have a cultural problem with managing change, initiatives and innovation in the health service. The nation as a whole does not seem able to handle or grasp strategy and leadership in the health service, and I am nervous and apprehensive about what will happen now. Last year, I campaigned for an increase in health funding for my area, and I got 15 per cent., the second largest in the country. It is useless to think that we can improve cancer and heart services in my community if we are managing a £12.2 million debt at the same time. In that context, it seems that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.
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I am happy, however, that with the left hand the infrastructure of my constituency has been upgraded for the 21st century, and thrilled that, as far as the right hand is concerned, the people of Sittingbourne and Sheppey will benefit from a potential £40 million investment in secondary education on the island. People say that there is not joined-up government, but we have it. Over the past eight years, we have proposed these changes, the Government have listened carefully in every department, and they have done the left hand and come back to finish the right hand.
The last thing to be done is to sort out the secondary education system on the Isle of Sheppey. The bridge will not only physically join Sheppey to the mainland but will provide the 21st century society that we want.
As for concerns about the Thames Gateway, I would first mention the governance issue. Are we brave enough to give it a regional development agency? Can we give it an RDA? What stops us wanting to give it an RDA? Not having one stops us saying that the Thames Gateway will be the third biggest economic area in the British Isles. If we had an RDA, we could start to ask questions such as, "What is world-class?" We do not have a world-class university in the Thames Gateway or world-class software or training companies. We can say that we have good Thames Gateway facilities, but we are now in competition with India and China. An RDA would provide leadership and enable us to work out much stronger strategies in association with local politicians. It is not that we do not have that, but we lack the RDA nomenclature, which is important.
It is now critical that we move the agenda not just to infrastructure, which we have all discussed, but to ask what is world-class about the region. If it is not world-class, what is the point of doing all these things? We must raise people's expectations and aspirations, and make them understand that they are no longer in competition with Germany and Japan but, as I said, the new leaders in China and India.
On housing, my area has such a shortage that I might be the only MP who welcomes housing development. Our community has different needs, with more than 35,000 people over 60, many of whom find living in two and three-bedroomed accommodation difficult. As they grow old, they wish to move to bungalows. However, one cannot find builders who want to build bungalows or modern ground-floor apartments for old people. Would the Minister consider an exciting housing scheme, such as the one that I saw on Vancouver island? In that scheme, 60-year-olds who had use of their limbs and could feed themselves moved to the third floor; as they got slightly older they went to the second floor where there was home help; and when they needed day care they moved to the ground floor. The 200 or 300 people involved did not move outside that community, which is critical. There is no thinking about how to help and plan for our old people, of whom we will have more and more.
I still cannot find out what an infrastructure audit is. I have raised that issue in a ten-minute Bill, and it has been raised in a private Member's Bill. Over the next 10 years, some 8,000 houses are due to be built in my constituency. I am happy to bat for the Government on this, but I cannot find out from Kent county council, the South East England Development Agency or from anyone else what 8,000 houses mean in terms of a
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primary school, a doctor, a nurse, a fireman, a policeman or whatever. For every 1,000 houses, do we need two policemen, six nurses, one doctor and four teachers? I do not know, but this is the 21st century and it is about time that someone did some modelling to show that so many houses equals so much need on the public sector side. If that is available in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, please could I have a copy? I would love to be able to fight the Department, in the nicest sense, to ensure that I have the right infrastructure to accompany the 8,000 houses that are due to be built in my constituency over the next 10 years.
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