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19 Dec 2006 : Column 1319

Sadly, the relief and joy that we felt was short-lived. I wrote to contractors asking them to accept the unanimous decision of Gateshead council, to reflect on the massive public outcry backed by the various bodies I have mentioned and not to pursue their application. But there is coal in them thar hills, and the contractors want to get their hands on it. More worryingly, local campaigners are convinced that Skons Park is nothing less than the thin end of a very thick wedge—a wedge that would see the exploitation of the land in the valley and open-cast pits popping up the length and breadth of one of the most important green areas in the north of England.

The Derwent valley is one of the green lungs of an area that has at one end the foothills of the north Pennines and at the other the A1 western bypass, the biggest shopping mall in Europe and the whole Tyneside conurbation. It is a genuinely green lung, feeding our region in a way that all the promises from the contractors of successful reclamation will never achieve. We are convinced that if the planning inspectorate in its wisdom overturns Gateshead’s decisions, and if the Secretary of State accepts that position, our valley will become a Klondike for open-cast coal operators.

I believe that if the inspectorate and/or the Secretary of State applied in full the principles of sustainable development as laid out in minerals planning guidance note 3 regarding national land use policy considerations, they could not overturn Gateshead’s decision. From the so-called evidence put forward so far by the contractors, I do not see that they can show, as the document states, that their proposal is environmentally sound or that it can ever be made so. Likewise, hardly anyone in the local community believes that the proposals would in any way outweigh the detrimental impacts inherent in the scheme.

Further, we have as yet seen no acknowledgement from the contractors of the very existence of a site of special scientific interest, let alone any details of how they would intend to meet their obligations in regard to the SSSI at Leap Mill burn. However, this is the main lesson of my steep learning curve in trying to make sense of planning policy in this country: any organisation can make an application to exploit a piece of land which would have a drastic impact on the environment, on the rapidly developing tourist industry, on an intricate web of interlinking wildlife areas and on one of the great historical treasures of our nation, and it can do so without putting forward real evidence to deal with the genuine concerns expressed by local people and organisations committed to the region.

Companies go through the initial stages of the process, and I cannot for the life of me begin to understand why we allow them to make such serious applications without having full and detailed evidence to back up their claims at the local council level. The fact that companies effectively view the application process at council level as little more than an inconvenience that has to be put up with before they give the real story at a national level is an insult to local people, a massive burden on already overstretched public sector workers and a massive waste of public money.

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Let me be clear: if contractors cannot produce high-quality evidence at a local level, they should not be allowed to proceed further. If it is good enough for the inspectorate, it should be good enough for the council and local people. The situation also means that any persons or organisations wanting to resist the application are playing catch-up in their attempts to find and challenge the applicant’s evidence.

I use as an example the submission of a case put forward by the National Trust. As the National Trust states:

That is a very strong remit. I firmly believe that no organisation or contractor should hold back facts or evidence or be slow in coming forward to give information in relation to any planning application that may impact on National Trust property, but the following quotations about the Gibside estate and the hassle that the National Trust experiences in meeting its commitments show that, sadly, that is not the case.

The National Trust says:

the contractors

On noise, the trust had to report that

and it said:

That was the position as of the date on which the National Trust had to make its statement of case.
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Surely that is not on—the system is supposed to be an open, democratic, accountable way to make serious decisions about the future of our country. There should not be any last-minute gamesmanship, in which contractors pull rabbits out of the hat, and evidence should not be produced so late in the process that there is no time to evaluate it properly.

To reiterate, if in relation to the evidence supporting the claim the application is not strong enough at the initial stage, the application should not go further.We will continue to campaign against the proposal, because it is the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is the wrong thing because it will havea detrimental impact on people who live in the surrounding area. It will produce much heavier traffic on already overburdened roads, and it will lead to disruption to people’s daily lives. It is in the wrong place, because it is very close to one of our glorious historical treasures. The place has undergone a transformation, and it currently has record numbers of both visitors and employees. The company has so far failed to give evidence that assures the National Trust that its land and property will be safe, especially from flooding, vibration and noise.

Finally, it is the wrong time, because the north-east is redefining its natural areas, as that is the key to developing its economy for the future. After centuries of putting up with the negative impacts of coal exploitation, both human and environmental, we have turned things around, and we are attracting young people and modern businesses to the area. At long last, we are developing a sustainable tourist industry. For example, in my constituency, red kites have been reintroduced after an absence of 160 years. That is a concrete commitment to preserving our heritage, and we are using our heritage to develop our future. We do not need to destroy our land and way of life for a capful of coal. The project would produce less than 500,000 tonnes of coal in three years.

Mr. Hoyle: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and the sympathy of the House is with him on the issue, because everything in the system is geared for people who wish to rape the countryside—that is what we are talking about—and it works at the expense of the people who live there. Does he agree that there oughtto be a better balance, so that local people and organisations are listened to, and does he agree that the power of appeal should be taken away from people who only want to make money from the application?

Mr. Anderson: I certainly agree. As a result of the process, I have learned that, month after month, the contractors got away with not having the information. They could have done the necessary work beforehand; they should have the information when they come before the inspectorate, and when they come before the council. That way, local people could make decisions with all the information before them.

As I say, the project would produce 500,000 tonnes of coal in three years, which is a pittance when we consider collieries in the USA, which now produce1 million tonnes of coal a month. People will accuse me of nimbyism, and I plead guilty. Our backyard led the world in the industrial revolution, and we are plagued with the scars of sand quarries, steel mills, landfill sites
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and pit heaps, dating as far back as Elizabethan times. We want to move forward, and the development of the biggest shopping centre in Europe, the opening of world-class concert venues and art galleries, the siting of the icon that is the angel of the north and the planting and expansion of the Great North forest are a testament to our new way forward.

I fervently hope that the inspectorate will see the sense in our case, and will not give in. We will lobbythe Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government if the inspectorate does not rule against the decision, and we hope that she shows the same grit as her predecessor in the 1970s, when he overruled the inspectorate’s decision on the application that was the first foray by coal speculators in the Derwent valley. I hope that we can expose the charade that is being acted out in the name of planning in this country. Local people have to live with the outcome of the decisions, and applicants should be forced by law, if necessary, to produce real evidence at the local stage of the process.

3.25 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): May I start by wishing you a happy Christmas, and season’s greetings, Madam Deputy Speaker? I should like to put on record a brief Christmas reflection on recent events, particularly those affecting our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Let me say at the start that I am not an expert on international relations or the middle east, and I am not gifted with any special insight into foreign affairs. The issue of our relationship with the Saudis has followed me, not vice versa.

I first became aware of the problematic character of that relationship when I was contacted by a constituent who had been blinded in a terrorist outrage in Saudi Arabia, and was then charged with blowing himself up. Although released, he asked me to intercede on behalf of other Britons similarly charged, at a time when Saudi Arabia was frankly in denial about the extent of al-Qaeda activity in that country. I believed that Britons were wrongly charged and were forced to confess to crimes such as causing explosions, which were committed by others, probably terrorists. The Britons were convenient and unfortunate fall-guys.

However, the moment that I began to ask questions, I was seen by officials at the Foreign Office—the hon. and learned Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), now the Solicitor-General, went out of his way to see me—and they warned me off pursuing the matter. However, I did pursue it, as did other hon. Members and the press. We are critical of the press from time to time, but in connection with this affair they did precisely the right thing. The Government refused to criticise the Saudis, and the relatives of those concerned remained unhappy with the performance of the Government. After further bombings, it became manifest that al-Qaeda was indeed alive, organised, and well-equipped in the kingdom. By then, the British prisoners were no longer a cover, and were instead an embarrassment. A delegation of MPs went to the Saudi Arabian embassy, and met Turki al-Faisal. I left the meeting with a positive impression of the depth of Arab pride and civilisation. The prisoners, thankfully, were released as an act of clemency. No view was formed on their guilt or otherwise, or on whether the charges against them had been wrongly placed.

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The Foreign Office tried to mute criticism, but when a former British prisoner, Ron Jones, tried to take action through the British courts, the Foreign Office intervened against him and for the Saudis. The case yo-yoed its way up to the House of Lords, and on the day when the verdict was delivered, I watched, together with Saudi observers, as British justice was delivered. Ron Jones lost his case, unfortunately—his case was that he had been tortured in the kingdom while wrongfully arrested—but the verdict was probably right on the point of law.

A year on, I joined the Public Accounts Committee and was approached by a journalist inquiring about the National Audit Office report on the al-Yamamah deal. I was puzzled by its non-publication and its immunity from scrutiny, and I raised the issue of its publication—its unique non-publication. There then followed a confidential meeting of the PAC attended by some eminent people whom I am not allowed to name. It was made clear, first, that only a vote of the full House could end the report’s secret status; secondly, that no living MP has or can have access to it currently; and thirdly, that only the author of it may now read it. Completely blocked out, one waited none the less for the Serious Fraud Office investigation to conclude. That might have brought some matters to light, except that it has not and it will not.

There is only one conclusion that can be fairly drawn: what the Saudi Government do not like, we generally do not do. There is only one rational explanation for that: we fear the loss of their trade, or of their strategic support, or both. At this point, people divide into two camps. There are the pragmatists, some of whom are present. They argue in a utilitarian fashion that the harm caused to trade on balance outweighs compromises that we make over human rights, judicial process, transparency and ethical trading. Then there are the absolutists, and some of them are present as well. They condemn any such compromise as wrong in principle and disastrous in the long term. The pragmatists are accused of being unprincipled, and the absolutists are accused of being unworldly and holier than thou.

I have to accept that both are serious moral positions. Neither side takes the view that the world of international relations should simply be left to moral anarchy, or that pure realpolitik should prevail. But whether one is a pragmatist or an absolutist, one must be consistent. What worries me about the Government’s current position is that it is not that. One cannot drop principles to serve one’s understanding of the national interest, and then object when other regimes do precisely the same.

That was the point ably made in the Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and on Monday in a well-thought-out article in The Guardian by its economics editor. That approach does not work. It harms the pursuit of good governance world wide; it gives succour to the Mugabes and the Burmas about whom we constantly complain and gives credibility to their offensive rhetoric; and, like the illegal invasion of Iraq, it renders hostile propaganda plausible and thereby weakens us.

Just as in an individual’s life there may be no conflict between the path of virtue and the road to happiness, there may be no ultimate conflict between the national
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interest and true internationalism. After all, it is the countries that are dominated by the rule of law with which, by and large, we wish to do business. Sadly, and perhaps briefly, the pursuits of international virtue and national interest have diverged a little lately. Perhaps we should accept that we have too narrow a concept ofthe former, and possibly an insensitivity to cultural circumstances elsewhere. Perhaps we have too narrow a concept of national interest. However, just as our predecessors in this place made the risky idea of democracy plausible, workable and sought after, we should try, with all the attendant risks and hazards, to make true internationalism similarly attractive.

3.32 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and also the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), whose speech showed the passion with which he represents his constituency. I, too, could speak with passion for mine, but I shall focus on one challenge among many facing my constituency in the London borough of Hillingdon—the task of caring for and funding asylum seekers who have recently arrived in the UK.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is right. We must think long and hard about that, especially at this time of year. I know the subject is of interest to many hon. Members, but it particularly interests us in Hillingdon because of the strategic location of Heathrow within the borough. Having spoken to the officers of the London borough of Hillingdon, I know that they do not resent in any way the responsibility that we have to look after those people. The local authority provides crucial support services for some extremely vulnerable people, some of whom are fleeing persecution and others who have been forced to travel to the UK for illegal purposes.

Our particular problem with Heathrow relates to the unaccompanied children coming in, whose care involves schooling, accommodation and disability support. The children arriving in Hillingdon have suffered traumatic experiences. Many have travelled to Britain to become involved in drug trafficking, prostitution, domestic service and so on. Hillingdon social services receives dozens of calls each week from the airport authorities, asking them to come and collect unaccompanied children from the airport. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the local authority and its staff, who are doing tremendous work in caring for these vulnerable people.

The Government’s new mantra for children is “Every Child Matters”, and I applaud those sentiments. However, it is time to remind Ministers that that includes asylum-seeking children in Hillingdon. It has become apparent that despite providing those vital services, Hillingdon council receives inadequate funding support from central Government. That is placing a huge financial burden on us. The council is effectively being punished for implementing the Government’s own policies on asylum. As I said, I know that this is common to many areas, but Hillingdon’s situation is unique because no other local authority has a comparable gateway, particularly for the children.

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