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Every right hon. and hon. Member knows that the Travel Office and the Fees Office know exactly how many journeys we make. I can only assume that the Secretary of State is somewhat regal, but in the London Standard on Thursday, there is a full list of the rail journeys taken by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles. I invite the Minister to give us a list of how many times the Secretary of State has used the train in connection with his ministerial duties.

There must be greater investment in public transport, including trams and light railways. After nine years of Labour Government, in real terms, the cost of travel by public transport has gone up, and travel by motor car has gone down. I congratulate the Government on the introduction of free travel for those aged 60 and above. It is a measure that I make use of, and as my 60th birthday was the day before the free service started, I did so quickly. Why is there no similar provision for schoolchildren? Some 20 per cent. of morning and tea-time traffic is school-related. We need to encourage more mums and dads not to drive their children to school, but to use public transport, walk or cycle. I invite the Minister to work out whether the free provision of yellow school buses would not only reduce traffic congestion, but, in the long run, be cheaper and better for the environment. We need to consider flexitime working and staggered hours, as well as the need for the school run itself.

The Government should make it a requirement that all new public buildings should have a built-in energy-saving design and use energy-efficient materials. Energy-producing devices should also be provided—solar panels are an obvious example—and grey water should be gathered and stored for use in flushing toilets. I wish to praise a new building nearing completion in my constituency. At Colchester sixth-form college, grey water provision and solar panels have been installed as part of the design. By contrast, another new public building in my constituency is energy wasteful. A £16 million contemporary visual arts facility has an energy-wasteful design, as it lacks grey water provision and solar panels, even though it has one of the largest roofs to be found on any building being built in Essex.

Our debate provides an ideal opportunity to ask the Minister whether joined-up government exists on the issue of building on flood plains. In the same week that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made a statement on climate change in the House, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government gave permission on appeal for 120 dwellings to be built on a flood meadow near Cowdray avenue in Colchester, just yards from the river Colne. That land is not zoned for residential development, and there was unanimous opposition from the borough council and local residents. The planning inquiry
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system is a farce—I described the decision as “stark staring bonkers”—because it is known that the meadow floods. The Environment Agency has altered the flood plain designation for the river Colne as it passes through Colchester, but the only thing to be said in favour of the development is the fact that anyone who moves there need not fear a hosepipe ban.

A week or two ago, I discovered that I live within feet of that flood plain. I live in an established house 400 to 500 yd from the river. It is opposite a former council highways depot, and it is built on higher land than the area where the Government have just granted planning consent. There are serious financial implications for new buildings on that land because the Environment Agency has designated it a flood plain. There is therefore a ridiculous situation, because a brownfield site on higher land and further away from the river than the other site is subject to constraints imposed by the Environment Agency designation. Within yards of that river, however, planning consent has been granted for 120 dwellings on a flood meadow.

I shall draw that lack of consistency to the attention of the Association of British Insurers, the Law Society and the Building Societies Association so that individuals who are minded to purchase or rent a house there can be advised by those professional bodies or people for whom they provide an umbrella service of the lunacy of allowing so many houses to be built on a flood meadow. Conversely, we need more affordable social housing—I still call it council housing. The demand for such housing is greater today than at any time in the past 50 years, as we have had 20 to 25 years of housing policies from successive Governments that have been detrimental to council housing. I commend to the House early-day motion 136, on the subject of funding for decent council housing, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and states that

The motion

It refers to the need to

It is worth observing that since 1997, new Labour has built 3,500 council houses, but in the equivalent period, the Thatcher Government built 350,000 council houses.

Anne Snelgrove: The hon. Gentleman is talking exclusively about council houses, ignoring affordable housing schemes such as shared ownership and housing action trusts. As someone who grew up in a council house on a big council estate, and who lived in such a house until I was 25, I can assure him that council housing is not the be-all and end-all. Local authorities need to have an input in affordable housing in their area, but people were stigmatised if they grew up on a council estate. The different ways that the Government—

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Lady has made her point.

Bob Russell: I was merely drawing the House’s attention to the decision by the Labour conference, but it is interesting that the hon. Lady does not support that motion. It is fair to say that other housing provision has been made, but it is inadequate.

I should like to move on to a serious subject which, however, some people find amusing. Green burials and tree planting have the twin effect of reducing the number of cremations, which require considerable energy use and pollute the atmosphere. The UK is the least tree-covered country in Europe, so we would achieve the simultaneous goals of planting more trees and reducing pollution. As we all know, trees provide a special means of helping to reduce the effects of pollution. Tackling climate change is a global challenge, but it is also a local one. The Archbishop of York, in his vigil for peace in August, said that individual drops of water cannot turn a water wheel, but that millions of drops can. The actions of many can therefore succeed. The same principle applies to climate change—every individual can contribute so that, collectively, we can tackle the consequences of the wasteful 20th century.

5.58 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I wish to address the climate change, local government and draft transport Bills. As the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, they are indeed connected, as they link what we do about climate change and sustainability with the need to widen co-ordinated activity across government.

I am delighted that the Queen’s Speech includes a climate change Bill, but I hope that in our debate on the measure we will not restrict ourselves to a sterile discussion of the best targets. Targets do not exist in their own right, as we can see from the discussions that preceded the announcement of the Bill. The original early-day motion was signed by several hon. Members and was linked to a private Member’s Bill introduced in the Session before last by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). Over the past year campaigning for a climate change Bill focused on a different Bill promoted by the World Wildlife Fund. The Conservative party subsequently produced yet another Bill, and a further Bill just before the Queen’s Speech. The substantial campaigning that has taken place reflects the changed view of the urgent need for measures to tackle climate change. There is a wide consensus that the House needs to consider how serious climate change is, what we need to do about it, how little time we have to do all that is necessary to stabilise our climate, and the Government’s responsibility in that respect.

In the light of the various Bills that have been suggested, the idea of a series of annual climate change targets can be seen as a largely rhetorical device. I congratulate Friends of the Earth, WWF and other campaigning non-governmental organisations which have taken the argument forward, but I hope that when we study the detail of the climate change Bill this Session, we remember that we must concentrate not just on targets, but on the mechanisms whereby those
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targets can be achieved. That should be the essential element of any climate change Bill this Session.

We discussed a climate change Bill in the context of the Stern review, which recently reminded us that we have perhaps 15 years—that is probably in the parliamentary lifetime of most serving Members—to put in place mechanisms, which will be largely Government driven, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in our atmosphere to a level that allows us to have a sustainable low carbon economy by 2050. The aim of driving down carbon emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050 as the statutory centrepiece of the Bill is both important and welcome.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend mentions a period of 15 years. Does he agree that the sector of the economy and of society that is likely to increase its carbon emissions most rapidly in that period is the aviation industry? Is he hopeful that in addition to the provisions of the climate change Bill, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer in May or June next year will at least and at last tackle the tax-free zone which is aviation by means of fuel taxes and other taxes that it currently escapes?

Dr. Whitehead: With that important point my hon. Friend anticipates, possibly by reading over my shoulder, some of my remarks. Mechanisms are central to what we do over the coming years. That underlines the sterility of the debate about whether we should have annual targets or three-year or five-year targets. We need interim targets to show the effect of the mechanisms that we put in place and, if necessary, to correct them.

Introducing and institutionalising mechanisms such as carbon trading and other devices including green taxes, regulation and various other forms of trading, are the key to how and whether a climate change Bill will have the desired effect. That is where the courage of the Government will be revealed. They must, for example, impose on those caps and trading mechanisms devices that are powerful enough to ensure that carbon levels are reduced. Targets therefore follow mechanisms and do not precede them.

The Government have already introduced a number of mechanisms which have begun to point us in the right direction—the carbon levy, the landfill tax, the beginnings of the UK carbon trading system and the push that the Government are undertaking towards Europe-wide carbon trading, the renewable transport fuel obligation, and the energy review and possible role of microgeneration. The Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006—a private Member’s Bill in which I was involved to some extent last year—will introduce some of those changes.

It is important that the mechanisms which we put in place go far further to meet the challenges that the Stern review has set us and that we will have to meet to achieve a sustainable low carbon economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) observed, we must bring aviation, including business flights, into a system of carbon trading to ensure that it is a sustainable mode of transport. One of the devices that I see as a means of regulating aviation in future is a cap on who may fly where, possibly by means of a tradable air miles
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allocation. People would have an individual air miles allocation and if they did not use it, they could trade their allocation with others. Among other mechanisms, those are the sort of bold changes that we will have to make.

James Duddridge: I broadly support the outcome that the hon. Gentleman seeks to achieve, but is there not a danger that we will end up with a multiplicity of trading mechanisms, such as air miles or carbon allowances, at an individual level?

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman is right that that danger exists, but capping and trading are devices that require enormous boldness from Government and great care in getting the trading mechanism and the price for carbon right. Various versions of such trading are possible. For example, there are at present versions of trading in landfill allowances, and packaging regulations are a form of trading. Sector by sector, the various versions enable capping and trading to work well. The overall principle must be that the amount of carbon emitted is inexorably drawn down by the capping and trading mechanism.

Mr. Willis: There is a huge consensus around the House on much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that there cannot be trading without capping—the two go hand in hand? What is his opinion about going wider? The problem is not just in the UK or in Europe. A worldwide scheme is needed. What hope does he hold out for dealing with the problem on that scale?

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As far as capping and trading are concerned, the UK can do certain things—an example would be landfill capping and trading—but aviation and most other major causes of carbon dioxide emissions are certainly examples of where the trading needs to take place on a wider basis than just within this country. Phase two of the EU emissions trading scheme will be crucial for getting those mechanisms right, as will be phase three. There are also signs that some states in the USA wish to sign up to these carbon trading mechanisms. I would hope that such mechanisms can be established world wide, but they must certainly be established on a Europe-wide level. Perhaps the European Commission could set the allocations for each country during phase three of the ETS, rather than our having the self-certification of allocations that occurred during phase one.

The clauses that will provide enabling powers for those further mechanisms will form an important part of the new Bill. I hope that some of those enabling powers will encourage energy companies to become energy service companies, so that they are able to sell us as little energy as possible and to make their living by sharing the proceeds of energy saving, rather than by selling us as much energy as possible. If the Bill achieves the establishment of those enabling devices, it will be a very good Bill indeed.

The idea that we should examine the sustainability of Government decisions across the board sheds light on a number of the other Bills in the Queen’s Speech, especially the local government Bill. Will local
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government be given far greater discretion to take action on climate change, guided by what it recognises as local concerns? Although these are global issues, most of the action that needs to be taken will take place at local level. I disagree with the hon. Member for Meriden and, I assume, the rest of the Conservative Front-Bench team, in their characterisation of variable charging for waste as a policy that would penalise certain households. Perhaps, rather than being called “variable charging for waste”, it should be called “variable reward for recycling”, because that is how it should be characterised. The idea that local authorities should have the discretion to introduce such devices to push down the levels of waste in a sustainable way is an important one. Similarly, in relation to planning and building regulations, local procurement and a number of other devices are important proposals.

The strengthening of local leadership under the proposed local government legislation in order to implement such measures, as well as devolving certain powers further and reducing targets so that local authorities have greater discretion to use their powers and budgets on a more widespread basis, will be important in relation to the front-line responsibility for sustainability that local government is increasingly taking on itself.

The draft road transport Bill will enable local transport authorities to get a much better grip on how sustainable transport can work in their areas. That will be an important cynosure of how the Government intend to join up their approach to climate change and sustainability. If local transport authorities cannot plan how their bus services are to work better, how public transport is to replace private transport wherever possible, and how those networks are to function, they will not have the important weapon in their armoury that they will need to move the process of sustainability forward.

On the planning front, we must bear in mind one caveat, however. I return to my first thoughts on what the Stern report told us about the time that we have in which to introduce mechanisms that will have an impact on climate change. If we introduce those mechanisms, their effect will not be seen in terms of a regular annual decrease. We shall see an iterative decrease as various mechanisms come into play, and we shall perhaps increase the downward trajectory of our carbon dioxide emissions over the years. Bearing in mind that we have to take this action within a certain time, we should ask ourselves whether it is a good idea to remove all the planning co-ordination at regional and national level relating to important devices such as waste management and energy strategies, and mechanisms that allow us to manage our energy and waste in a different way. Should we simply remove all planning co-ordination from those devices? My feeling is that, if we do, we shall throw away much of our ability to ensure that those changes can be made in the given time.

I am reminded of a small recent episode in which a borough council refused planning permission for a landing station for the London Array. That has resulted in the holding up of a project that is almost universally recognised as an important part of the
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alternative renewable energy strategy. If we can get this balance right, we shall have done ourselves a favour as far as sustainability is concerned. If we get it wrong, however, we shall have put our case back by years. This Queen’s Speech, and the mechanisms outlined in it, should be about ensuring that our progress is sustainable, joined up and in favour of combating climate change.

6.17 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): One immutable rule of UK governance is that local government reorganisation and restructuring are always expensive—often very expensive. Few outside the House might realise that fully 2.5 per cent. of every VAT bill levied is what we might call the poll tax or community charge memorial fund. The rise in VAT in 1991 from 15 to 17.5 per cent. was introduced to dampen the effects of the change in local government finance that took place at that time.

The transition costs associated with the Government’s new local government Bill will almost certainly exceed the £121 per person mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), which has been calculated in the Cambridge university study. However, I welcome in principle the streamlining of the performance and inspection regime, especially the much loathed best value and comprehensive performance assessments, although experience suggests that the implementation of these changes will be less than straightforward.

I hope that you will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I focus most of my comments on the capital, as I am a London Member. The Greater London authority Bill purports to transfer significant powers from central Government to the Mayor and the Greater London assembly. As there are two serving assemblymen sitting on the Benches behind me, I should assure the House that I intend no criticism of the Members for Bexley and Bromley and for Croydon and Sutton in that other place. However, this proposed transfer of power raises the question of why we have a Government office for London in the first place. The duplication involved is quite breathtaking, and reflects the suspicion that the Labour Government have had of the present mayoral incumbent since 2000.

Since the establishment of the Mayor and the assembly in that year, spending on the Government office for London has doubled, and the number of its employees in 2005—the last year in which a parliamentary question on this matter was tabled and answered—was higher than before the new tier of London government came into play. Yet from the moment of his election, Mayor Livingstone began what has now been a six-and-a-half-year spending splurge, with countless advisers and policy and research officers producing endless reports, few of which concern areas of policy for which he has anything other than tangential responsibility.

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