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8 May 2007 : Column 58WH—continued

We intend to continue to deliver sustained improvements to the transport infrastructure. We announced in July 2005 that each English region would be given indicative regional funding allocations for transport, housing and economic development in each
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year up to 2015-16. That covered major transport schemes costing more than £5 million promoted by local authorities and by the Highways Agency on trunk routes of regional importance and funded by specific grants from the Department. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that and talked briefly about the distribution of funding. Before we introduced the funding formula through which we decided how much money will go to each region, we consulted all the regions about what they thought was the most appropriate way to distribute the money. We accepted that advice, and the money is basically distributed per capita around the country.

The process has given us an opportunity to see how the interrelated areas of transport, housing and economic development could be better aligned. Each region’s schemes were assessed by the respective regional development agency, regional assembly, local authority partners and other key interests against regional, sub-regional and local transport policy criteria, as well as value for money and deliverability criteria. In that way, a realistic, prioritised and affordable programme was developed to meet those objectives.

The regions devoted considerable care and effort to developing their advice and to securing a consensus on what needs to be done to improve the transport infrastructure. In January 2006, each region submitted advice to the Government setting out those transport projects that it considered should be given priority for funding in each year up to 2015-16. We announced our response in July last year. It included formal approval for various transport schemes in each region, as well as a list of further schemes that the Government expect to fund over the 10 years. Largely, we accepted the advice from the regions. In the case of one or two areas, we went back to the region, made comments and asked for comments back before we confirmed the advice. In the north-west, we accepted the advice that we received following clarification from that region.

The advice has identified the further schemes that the Government expect to fund over the next 10 years. For example, the regions recommended a further 39 local road schemes that could be delivered over the next 10 years to 2015-16, subject to a satisfactory business case being submitted and all necessary statutory approvals being secured. We also accepted the advice to slip a number of schemes to later start dates, as well as not to prioritise a number of other schemes that were already in the programme. In responding to the regions, we also explained that we expected to seek further formal advice on transport priorities within the next two years.

Both points are important. On the advice of the regions and of local people, we were prepared to slip back schemes that were moving forward and had been put into the programme by ministerial diktat. We have acknowledged, too—my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire made this point—that we need to ask the regions to go back and have another think within two years of the original advice to see whether they feel they have made any mistakes and whether any schemes they have suggested for later in the period could be
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brought forward. The Ormskirk bypass is clearly one such scheme, so the region might want to reconsider it.

The regional funding allocation process has been generally recognised, and the hon. Member for Southport has acknowledged that it is an improvement on ministerial diktat. However, I recognise that it is far from perfect. That is why we carried out a consultation seeking views on how it could be improved for the next round. That consultation ended on 31 October 2006 and the Department is now considering the responses received, a number of which shared the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about how the process affected schemes of predominantly local importance that were not identified as regional priorities.

We are also considering options for taking forward the wider regional funding allocations exercise as part of the sub-national review of economic development and regeneration, which will report to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury ahead of the comprehensive spending review for 2007. For the first round of the regional prioritisation exercise, it was the responsibility of the regions themselves to determine their own methodologies for prioritising schemes within the overall framework set out in the guidance issued in July 2005. It was therefore open to regions to decide whether they wished to set aside some funding for smaller, locally important schemes. That is one issue that we will consider before seeking further formal regional advice in the future.

Rosie Cooper: When will we be given some indication of when we will know about the priorities that my hon. Friend mentioned? In the previous round, the big city regions grabbed the funding and had their paws on the major part of it. Sub-regional priorities were way down the list. The Ormskirk bypass, for example, was in the third quartile. Everyone acknowledges that the process is subjective and that the project ought to have been much higher up the list. If my hon. Friend is saying that there will be a cut-off or an amount of money set aside, when will we be given an indication of when that might happen?

Dr. Ladyman: That is not quite what I am saying. The consultation that we have been doing in recent months and are now analysing was about how the regional funding allocation process works. Our understanding in the Department for Transport was that people out in the regions understood that they could decide such matters for themselves. If they wanted to top-slice some money for local schemes, they could have done that before making their prioritisation. The feedback that I have been receiving is that some regions did not realise that they could do that, so they put all the money into one big pot and prioritised it from there. That perhaps led—I am not saying that this is definitely the case, but it is arguable and hon. Members have argued it today—to the big city regions dominating the taking of that money out of the pot so that there was not enough left for smaller schemes.

I hope that we will indicate some time this year how we believe the regional funding allocation process could be worked better. Perhaps it will simply be a case of us explaining that we are happy for the regions to make decisions for themselves before they do their
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prioritisation, and maybe we will give clearer guidance on the best way they can do that. It will then be for the regions to go away and produce new advice, which I expect from them next year.

Some regions have not stopped the process and have taken the view that they want it to be continuous. They continue to discuss their priorities and progress on the schemes that they have advised us to follow, and they write to us from time to time telling us what is happening and how their minds are changing. Other regions have taken the view that they were asked to do it last year and will be asked to do the review next year, and that there is nothing in between, so they have not continued to meet and discuss the matters. At the moment that is entirely a matter for the regions to decide for themselves, and if my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire thinks that it would be good for the regions to have interim meetings in the run-up to the next decision point and the next set of advice that we are to receive, she is free to suggest through her county council, the regional assembly or the regional development agency that people should get together again and chat about how things are going to ensure that they understand her priorities for the Ormskirk bypass.

We accepted the advice of the north-west region that the Ormskirk bypass should not be a priority for funding in the period up to 2016, and I understand that that was disappointing to the hon. Member for Southport and my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire. I emphasise that that does not prevent Lancashire county council and other supporters of the scheme from making the case either for funding to be made available from the regional funding allocation in the longer term or for the scheme’s inclusion in the region’s priorities at an earlier date should that become possible, which could happen in three ways.

The first is that we may give out some more money. I am not sure whether that will be the case, because we are already working to tight spending guidelines, but who knows? Future Governments might make more money available. The second way in which it could be done sooner is if there is slippage in other schemes and the region decides that it is the best one to bring forward. The third is if the hon. Member for Southport and my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire win the argument in the region that their scheme is more important than one of the others, so that it is give priority. I encourage them to make such a case.

Dr. Pugh: The Minister is being constructive and helpful, and he is giving us some hints as to how we can make progress. However, there is a fundamental problem. To win the argument we have to consider objective criteria, and one that will come up every time is whether a scheme is of pan-regional economic significance. Every local scheme will fail that test again and again unless there is an exception that raises the limit for local schemes—in other words, an excepted
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small schemes fund within the regional transport allocation—or it becomes easier to achieve small schemes through the local transport plans. One of those things needs to happen, because at the moment we are between a rock and a hard place.

Dr. Ladyman: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point but the key thing to recognise is that, as he identified, local transport plan schemes have a £5 million threshold. People have interpreted that threshold as being absolute. It is absolute in the sense that the regional funding allocation process will not normally be interested in schemes of less than £5 million. However, it does not prevent a local authority from going ahead with schemes of more than £5 million from its own resources, if it will pay the bills itself either from the integrated transport block or through developer contributions to subsidise a regeneration scheme. That is nobody’s business but the local authority’s, and there will be no appraisal of such a project by central Government. If the local authority thinks that it represents value for money, fine—it can go ahead and do it.

If a local authority wants to make a case that money from the regional funding allocation should be set aside by the region for local schemes, it can do so before the next round of prioritisation. If that is agreed to, as seems to be happening in some regions, that could be a separate source of funding for such schemes.

Rosie Cooper: My hon. Friend has given us three options. The first was this Government or the next giving more money. The second was essentially that we need to get some money set aside. I assure him that we are putting a great deal of pressure on the regional people and making a strong argument that our scheme definitely needs doing. On the third option, which involves the county council, by going ahead with the planning, setting aside time for a public inquiry and doing all the impact studies we are doing everything in our power to ensure that the scheme happens for the benefit of our constituents. I promise my hon. Friend that I am optimistic and will not give up until that Ormskirk bypass is there.

Dr. Ladyman: I never had any thought that my hon. Friend would give up on the Ormskirk bypass. I am sure that her constituents have no thought of that either. She and the hon. Member for Southport are doing absolutely the right thing—making the case locally either for money to be set aside by the region to be prioritised by the local authority or for the scheme to be given greater priority by the region. If they work together on that, they will hopefully succeed in making their case. The hon. Member for Southport pointed out that some schemes are more—

Derek Conway (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister mid-flow, but time has expired on him. We now have to move on to the next debate.

8 May 2007 : Column 63WH

Ironbridge Gorge

1.30 pm

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Conway. I am sure that you, as a former Member for the constituency of Shrewsbury and Atcham, will be keen to hear what is happening in Ironbridge. As they say, once a Salopian, always a Salopian.

I want to take this opportunity to raise the issue of land stability at the Ironbridge Gorge world heritage site. As you know, Mr. Conway, Ironbridge gorge, which is in my constituency, is one of the UK’s world heritage sites. It is numbered among the most important heritage sites around the world. The area’s connections with the birth of the industrial revolution through the work of innovators such as Abraham Darby I and the Darby family is well documented. The area still contains many of the buildings, structures and artefacts from that period, including the iron bridge itself, which is a symbol of the industrial revolution that is recognised around the world, and which is one of the icons of England. I am proud to represent the area.

The bridge was built in 1779 and opened in 1781. Richard Hayman and Wendy Horton say in their book, “Ironbridge History and Guide”, that the bridge was eulogised in the Houses of Parliament. I would not want to stray from that tradition some 300 years later. The bridge is absolutely fabulous, and it attracts an enormous number of tourists to the gorge every year. It was built by Abraham Darby III. His grandfather, Abraham Darby I, stands as one of the giants of British innovation. The environment of Ironbridge gorge inspired generations of innovators such as William Reynolds, William Ferriday and my favourite, Iron-Mad John Wilkinson, who is reputed to have had himself buried in an iron coffin—not something that I would particularly recommend. I love the phrase, “iron-mad”. It is tremendous.

There has been a tradition of iron smelting in the gorge since 1709, when Abraham Darby I smelted iron with coke for the first time, thereby inspiring the industrial revolution. The tradition continues today: Aga cookers are manufactured in Telford—indeed, they are manufactured a few hundred yards from the place where Abraham Darby I first smelted iron with coke. We are proud to have Aga-Rayburn in our area.

The Ironbridge Gorge world heritage site is the focus of a thriving tourism industry in Telford and Wrekin. Each year, 2.5 million visitors come to the area. They spend more than £100 million in the local economy, which helps to support more than 3,000 jobs. The Ironbridge gorge has a thriving living and working community. It is home to more than 4,000 people and is a much sought after place in which to live.

World heritage status clearly brings great benefits to an area. It attracts visitors and promotes economic growth, and it can endow the area with a sense of historic significance, which, in turn, stimulates civic pride among people in the local community. However, it also brings responsibilities. This nation and our local communities are entrusted with the care and protection on behalf of the wider world community of the 27 world heritage sites within our borders. That is something that we committed ourselves to when, in
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1984, the Government ratified the UNESCO 1972 convention on the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage. The state signed up to protecting world heritage sites via its commitments to UNESCO. I shall return to that issue in a few moments.

The problem in the Ironbridge gorge is that the world heritage site is under serious threat. Flooding and land instability act on the natural features of the River Severn and the gorge’s geology, which were the very reasons for the area’s emergence as the birthplace of industry in the early 18th century, and threaten the long-term future of the site. There has been significant investment in respect of the flooding problem by the Environment Agency in recent years, and the new pallet barrier, which is used on the Ironbridge wharfage when flooding occurs, has been extremely successful. However, there is an ongoing problem with land instability, which is the real focus of this debate.

In geological terms, the gorge is fairly new at just 13,000 years old. It cuts into rocks that are in excess of 280 million years old, and is still forming by the process of landslides. The natural valley formation process has been accentuated by past mining activity and the weight of development, and by tipped waste materials that were placed on the hillsides and river banks during the great explosion of industrial expansion in the 18th century. That particularly relates to coal mine tipping and tipping associated with iron production but also tipping associated with clay, pottery and tile production. Waste material was dumped directly outside manufacturing environments, often on the banks of the Severn.

The process of land instability is also accentuated by heavy rainfall and flooding, which I have already mentioned. They are occurring more frequently because of climate change, and that problem is likely to grow in coming years.

What have we been doing in recent years to tackle the issue and deal with it? Over the past five years, significant advances have been made in our understanding of the causes, extent and impact of the land instability. The principal local authority, Telford and Wrekin council, has been working with world-renowned consultants to quantify the extent of the problem and the risks that it presents to the historic environment and human life.

In 2001, the world heritage site management plan highlighted the need for action to address land instability in the gorge. Since then, the council has accessed European, national, regional and local funds to undertake a range of investigations and works, including a site-wide land instability study in 2003, which was followed in 2005 by more detailed ground investigation and ground behaviour studies of the areas that we think are at greatest risk. Stabilisation of Jiggers bank, one of the main approach roads to the world heritage site, took place in 2002. Phase one of the stabilisation of The Lloyds, which is a major route through the site, is ongoing. An emergency plan and residents’ land instability information packs were produced in 2004 and 2005, and ongoing ground monitoring is taking place to measure the speed, amount and direction of ground movement in the gorge.

Within the past month, the situation has deteriorated significantly, which is why I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue today. Further landslide activity is happening at The Lloyds and on the opposite
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side of the river at Lloyds Head. The latter serves as the access road to a major museum site and to homes and businesses. However, because of distortion and fissuring of the highway, and the risk to life and property posed by slippage, the council has been forced to close sections of the road, which has resulted in a detour for local and tourist traffic.

To date, some £7.3 million has been spent on investigative and stabilisation work in the gorge. Throughout the past five years, the local authority has worked closely with local and regional partners, including, for example, the Government office for the west midlands, which has assisted in sourcing funds for the works undertaken to date. However, the scale of funding now required to provide a comprehensive and long-term solution to land instability in the gorge requires a national response.

So, what further action is required? As I have mentioned, consultants have identified the areas of highest risk that require priority action, which include, The Lloyds, where stabilisation work has commenced, and Lloyds Head, which I mentioned a few moments ago and which is the location of the recent slippage and road closure. In addition, other works have been identified as necessary to protect the long-term future of this world heritage site. I am aware that the leader of Telford and Wrekin council, Keith Austin, wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister on 3 May and outlined the on-going concerns of the council about the situation. He told the Minister that the Government office had visited the gorge on 5 April, inspected the situation and listened to the technical assessment undertaken by the council. It was interesting that the chief executive of the council told me that when the Government office officials went into the gorge, they had to be moved back from the river bank at one point because a crack emerged as they were talking. That is how serious the problem is around The Lloyds and Lloyds Head area. I am sure that the Minister will respond to the leader of the council’s comments in a few moments.

Our current basic knowledge of the scale of the problem indicates that a further £86 million is required to address areas of known high risk, including an investigation into the built-up areas of Ironbridge. At this stage, it is unclear what an investigation will reveal, but, on the basis of current knowledge, significant further expenditure is inevitable, which is likely to take the total cost to more than £100 million.

The priority areas of instability that require urgent funding of approximately £30 million are: Jackfield, which requires stabilisation of the only road access to a community of homes and businesses and where there is an important tourist site—the Jackfield museum; Lloyds Head, which requires stabilisation and re-opening as it is an important route through the world heritage site; and central Ironbridge, which requires completion of ground investigation. Central Ironbridge is the largest urban area within the world heritage site and its stability is dependent upon numerous retaining walls, including, most importantly, the wharfage retaining wall, which sits alongside the river. In addition, The Lloyds requires further work and the completion of phase 2 of the stabilisation works to protect a key route though the world heritage site.

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