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20 Nov 2006 : Column 341

The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom is a charitable company as well as a leading professional body for 1,200 marine scientists. It also conducts research, consultancy work and short-course teaching, which is classed as charitable trading. I visited the association and the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science when I shadowed a Royal Society scientist, Richard Kirby, a couple of years ago. I looked at the work he was doing through the foundation, which runs the continuous plankton recorder survey. That internationally renowned longitudinal survey of plankton levels in the north Atlantic and North sea, originally designed to predict where fish might be located, was started more than 70 years ago in 1931. Recently, the global warming agenda has driven the continued need for the survey as the incidence of warm-water plankton can be used as a proxy for climate change. Plankton are the basis of the food chain and the survey has shown how fish stocks have moved further north as a result of the effects of climate change on the oceans. Plymouth has one of the biggest and fastest growing fish markets in Europe and the fisheries in the English channel are very important to it. There has been much talk in recent years about the exhaustion of fish stocks, but in fact they have moved with the plankton, which are at the bottom of their food chain.

The Plymouth Marine Laboratory is the second largest dedicated marine institute in the UK after the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton. The PML was formed in the 1970s and was formerly under the ownership of the Natural Environment Research Council. It was privatised in 2002 and is a registered charity that includes Plymouth Marine Applications Ltd. When I first knew the laboratory it was considering the problems caused by carbon sequestration in the oceans, but it is now considering innovative approaches to marine solutions to climate change.

Just last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I visited the laboratory and saw a project in which algae is grown in culture and processed and developed to capture carbon. It will be used with the new Langage gas-fired power station that is being built. The process also produces materials that can be used in sunscreens and skin care products and added to biofuels. That is a virtuous circle that shows that the science of the oceans, which has been little explored, could be very valuable. I am told by the scientists that there are as many as 60 million microbes—equivalent to the population of the United Kingdom—in a third of a glass of water. They have been little explored, but it is thought that they can make a huge contribution to solving some of the problems we face.

Although I am disappointed that there was no marine Bill in the Queen’s Speech, I will take a keen interest in much of the climate change Bill. I hope that, following its successful passage we will see a marine Bill, in draft if not in its final form.

We have had much debate about target setting, and I am sure that there will be more. We should not get into a battle on the issue, because our constituents take climate change seriously and want solutions, not arguments. I signed the recent early-day motion on target setting, but—as I told those constituents who
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urged me to sign it—I have some reservations about how far annual targets will get us. However, I agree that we need some form of measurement. We need a deep debate about that to come up with the right answers so that we are not tied down by an unhelpful bureaucracy; we need one that helps us in the process towards the ends we all want to achieve.

A related point is the role of the carbon committee. At the weekend, some commentators suggested that the committee should be made independent, like the Bank of England. We could draw on that experience to some extent, but we should also look at the role played by the Low Pay Commission in helping us to bring the minimum wage on stream, without all the repercussions that the Opposition warned about, such as the high level of unemployment that did not happen. That comparison is relevant when we consider some of the controversial matters about which we shall have to encourage our constituents to come on board. They are certainly controversial in my constituency. Road congestion and charging is one such matter. The draft Bill will take us a bit further forward, but we shall need to encourage people out of their cars and on to public transport. Other Members have referred to aviation and so on.

As chair of the all-party group on water, I want to touch on that subject in the closing moments of my speech. Water management and efficiency are, as others have said, closely related to climate change. The first two weeks of November saw only 10 per cent. of normal rainfall, although we may have made up for that over the weekend. There is a need for short and long-term planning and innovative approaches to help mediate between industry, the regulator, consumers and environmental interests, as well as to address the challenges of flood and drought, which many people think have their roots in climate change.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Does the hon. Lady accept that another way in which climate change relates to water resource management is that a great deal of energy is expended cleaning and pumping drinking water that is then largely flushed down the toilet? That is how we manage water use in most of our houses at present.

Linda Gilroy: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Such issues need to be assessed by the carbon committee, as I suggested earlier, to see whether there needs to be some change in direction.

In dealing with water management and some of the issues arising from the need to curb emissions from domestic energy use, we must take account of the pressures that higher bills put on low-income households, which is a particular problem in the far south-west of England where our water bills are £100 more than the average. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) pointed out earlier, it is much easier for those of us on higher incomes, but others are spending as much as a quarter or even a third of their income on high water bills and the recently increased energy bills. We need to have regard to that.

Some of the costs have arisen due to pollution clean-up in the past, but I hope that it will be possible to find some way of helping low-income water users,
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for whom there is currently no relief in the social security system and little effective help. There are regulations covering vulnerable persons, but they help only a small number of people.

I commend the measures outlined in the Queen’s Speech to improve our environment at local, regional and national level. They set out a programme, especially in the climate change Bill, which will enable our Government to maintain their international reputation for leading the world on these matters.

7.44 pm

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): The primary sensitivity about the proposed Greater London assembly Bill relates to planning powers and their abstraction from local boroughs. Experience in the days of the Greater London council left boroughs feeling that their ability to initiate developments locally was restricted by the need to pay cognisance to what the GLC was doing. There is a fear that we shall go through the same process under the GLA.

I recognise that the Government, in their consultation on the GLA legislation, have emphasised that only a small number of the most strategically important planning decisions will come to the Mayor. They will not expect him to intervene in terms of giving positive approval—another change that is proposed—other than in those strategically important decisions and the applications considered will be only those submitted on a sub-regional basis. However, the acceptance in the consultation of the current low threshold of intervention on measurements of floor space, height and the number of houses in an application suggests that local authorities will have to deal with the Mayor at that low level of intervention.

I know that the Mayor and his extremely professional planning officers take the view that they are better placed to intervene in the consideration of planning applications and to maximise the section 106 value from major applications. Indeed, some local authorities in London may not be as strong as others. I have a criticism of my local authority—Croydon—which is far too closely bound to particular developers in respect of key applications. There must, however, be an expectation that local knowledge means that local authorities are best placed to drive forward such applications.

The Mayor of London has recognised that there are also issues in respect of the fact that only one person acts as a planning authority. He realises the importance of an open approach and a public process so that he can be given advice and be lobbied by people who may have concerns about an application. I very much hope to hear that the Government will give consideration to the inclusion of such openness in the legislation that comes before us at a later stage, because one Mayor’s promise may not necessarily be delivered by another.

I am also concerned that in the proposed legislation it will be down to the boroughs to provide members of the public with information about anything in a planning application to which the Mayor will give consideration. That strikes me as a remote process. In the consultation, it was suggested that the Mayor
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should be able to call in every application for a tram stop, which seems to be a tactical consideration to allow him to pursue his desire for the west London tram scheme against the significant opposition to that proposal.

In times past, I enjoyed acting as chairman of the budget committee of the London assembly and I remain concerned about the impact of the requirement for a two-thirds majority to stop the Mayor’s budget in the totality of its demands on London taxpayers. The two-thirds requirement has to be secured twice at each annual budget. Although that quixotic target was secured once, bringing together Greens, former UK Independence party members, Conservatives and Liberals in an unusual rainbow coalition, it has not been possible to sustain on a continued basis. Unfortunately, that has led to the assembly being a busted flush. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) said earlier that the assembly was little more than a talking shop. Certainly, the assembly has been left in a much weaker position in attempting to express its views on scrutiny issues, because such a high hurdle is set on its key power.

There are, of course, many problems with a local taxation system that, in London, raises a sum equivalent to only 8 per cent. of the authority’s total spending. The gearing of 12 and a half times creates a certain remoteness, which is even greater than that seen elsewhere in local government, given the link between taxation and local accountability. I had hoped that the legislation would consider the appropriateness of the two-thirds target.

I am also very interested in the way in which the GLA and the assembly have delivered over the past six years and in the ability of highly professional officers in the finance department to advise the Mayor and the assembly in running the budget process. I am certainly very supportive of Tony Travers’s idea that the assembly should have a separate budget office. Something similar is in place in New York, and such a system should be in place in London. Indeed, greater powers are given to other assemblies within a strong mayoral structure in New York, Barcelona and Berlin, where they have powers to legislate and to control budgets.

I recognise that the prospective legislation will include confirmation hearings for key mayoral appointments in the assembly, but I regard that as limited consolation to the assembly. Certainly, it would be attractive, in line with local government practice, for the assembly to be able to produce a forward plan of decisions taken by the Mayor, so that those decisions could be called in.

I also welcome the proposal to bring a great deal of the learning and skills process within London’s governance, but I am concerned that, with the creation of a separate London skills and employment board

again, I quote from the Government’s consultation documents—the experience of those key business leaders will be as disappointing as that of those of us who have served on the sub-regional learning and skills councils in London. Perhaps that conflict is recognised in the Government’s proposal that there should be an early review of the relationship between LSCs and a
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skills and employment board. I have also served on the board of the London Development Agency, and there may also be a conflict between the family of LSCs or regional development agencies and the accountability to London’s governance.

There is no proposal to change the role of London’s elected assembly members in influencing the Metropolitan police authority. There has been a very real lack of accountability to London’s elected representatives. The Mayor has always been able to say that such matters relate to the general governance and running of administration of the Met. Only if the Mayor decides to become the chairman of the MPA, perhaps under the new provision, will there be any accountability.

The final process that is lacking from the proposed legislation relates to what will happen with European funding. Although European funding was consulted on, it does not seem to appear in the prospective legislation.

Colleagues have referred to the Government office for London. After the changes in London’s governance, it will be very interesting to find out whether GOL or the GLA will end up with the larger budget. Until now, GOL has continued to dominate.

Turning to the proposed local government legislation, despite all the desire for localism, the reality is that the proposals to centralise the funding that local government has secured through section 106 agreements by introducing a planning supplement tax represents nationalising yet another process in which councils have been involved.

I very much welcome the approach that is being taken towards encouraging more mayors. A directly elected mayoral system has worked satisfactorily in London, even though we may not agree with the Mayor whom we have in place. However, proposals to allow councils to vote in favour of creating a mayoral system is unlikely to deliver much more—after all, councillors will not vote themselves out of office and put themselves through another election process.

What would be more interesting to hear from the Government is whether a lower hurdle than the very high one that has been set to date will be set so that the public can prompt referendums. The proposals for a four-year mandate for council leaders will continue to underline the idea of the indirect election of mayoral posts. That will essentially turn many councils into electoral colleges for local government.

The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) gave a very incisive analysis of how many councillors go through a very long selection and election process to find themselves with what is essentially no more than a role in post hoc scrutiny of the decisions that have been taken by a small executive.

I should like to make two final points. I am concerned about the idea that we should encourage the creation of parish councils in London. It is well over 120 years since we had parish councils in London. It is fair to say that Government-inspired ideas for neighbourhood and strategic partnerships in local government have worked well, but the prospect of having a third tier of local government in London
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strikes me as excessive. It is sufficient to continue to develop the neighbourhood partnership model, without putting in place that additional tier.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would perhaps have expected something in the Queen’s Speech on the Government office for London, which, of course, spends more money in London than the Mayor does.

Mr. Pelling: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. GOL’s expenditure is more than £16 billion and the GLA’s current spend is £10.5 billion. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister in replying to the debate whether GOL will still spend more money than the GLA. That does not seem appropriate when we are supposedly seeing more discretion sent down to the London authority.

My final point is that there seems to have been a lot of celebration in the House about the fact that the number of targets set for local government will be significantly reduced, but in reality even 200 different targets for local authorities, which we expect to have their own discretion and to take their own initiative, is still far too high a figure to allow us to believe that the Government believe in localism and the effectiveness of local government.

7.59 pm

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): It will not surprise the House to know that I believe that this is an excellent Queen’s Speech which demonstrates that the Government are still, as the phrase goes, running on gas—even if we are introducing measures to cut gas consumption. I was delighted that the Queen’s Speech referred to a local government Bill and a climate change Bill, which, along with all the other excellent measures, will help to continue the transformation of my constituents’ lives.

I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) say—I am paraphrasing—that climate change is not just happening up there for the people up there, but that it has to happen and is happening down here, so measures to control it are essential. In that spirit, I want to congratulate a number of people and organisations in my constituency.

First, I congratulate the Swindon climate change network, which has done some excellent work with local politicians, including myself and local councillors, drawing our attention to the absolute necessity to get climate change on the agenda locally and nationally. It has had a marked effect on my understanding of the issue, so much so that I will question the Secretary of State very carefully about his opposition to targets. I hope that he will reflect further on the merit of framing tight targets.

My local newspaper, the Swindon Advertiser, has conducted a “time for change” campaign and is leading the way, not just following local public opinion. It is helping to ensure that local people understand that climate change is about what they do and the measures that they can take in their homes and in their lives every day. It has also shown that the practices of our local businesses can make a difference.

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I would also like to mention npower, based at Windmill Hill in west Swindon in my constituency, which wants to bring a windmill back to Windmill Hill. The best of luck to those at npower; I hope that they succeed, because the windmill that they want to bring back will power up to 1,000 homes with renewable electricity—an excellent idea.

Martin Horwood: I join the hon. Lady in applauding many local campaigners who have lobbied hon. Members for the targets about which she spoke, but does she also acknowledge the leadership of Friends of the Earth and its “big ask” campaign in demanding annual targets?

Anne Snelgrove: Yes, I do, as Friends of the Earth forms part of the Swindon climate change network: it is already included in my umbrella.

I was particularly pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that the local government Bill will give people more control over their own neighbourhoods. Measures such as antisocial behaviour orders have been introduced to help, but people still feel disempowered. I hope that the Bill will give control back to them. I do not like attending meetings at which I hear, as I did last Friday, pensioners say how worried they are about going out at night because they live on the route home from some of our local clubs. The behaviour and activities of some young people who come home early in the morning is quite atrocious.

Housing is another important issue that has been mentioned this afternoon. Swindon also faces the prospect of the building of many extra houses without the correct infrastructure in place and without the necessary further measures on top of the Government’s 40 per cent. increase to make housing greener. I fear that we will not be environmentally friendly enough in Swindon and I do not want to see that happen. I want thoroughly green measures to be implemented under our legislation.

I shall talk about local government measures from my experience as a local councillor and of my local authority, Swindon borough council. To illustrate some of the issues, I shall refer to the example of the Lower Shaw farm, which the council unfortunately wants to close, possibly to sell it off for extra housing. Together with other pressure groups, I am fighting that decision.

The Labour Government have invested heavily to bring about improvements in local public services. The next stage is to guarantee national standards while supporting local communities to take a lead on decisions that affect them. By 2007-08, the total Labour Government grant to local authorities will have increased by 39 per cent. since 1997.

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