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My party and I welcome the proposals. It is important that there is transparency in all we do and in how we use taxpayers money. That is particularly so when family members are involved and are paid from
the staffing allowance, which at the end of the day is taxpayers money. However, I wish to put on record my tribute to the enormous hard work done by family members for hon. Members. I do not employ any family members as part of my staff but I have seen many others who do.
It is important to remember that the job of a Members personal assistantif he or she is a spousedoes not end at 5 oclock; it is not a nine-to-five job. When the Member goes home, so does the spouse, but also so does the personal assistant. The work continues to be done at home, including at weekends. It is important to recognise the work done by spouses.
I also wish to put it on the record that the Leader of the Opposition has already instructed his Front-Bench team that any family members that they employ should be registered, and we welcome the fact that the Standards and Privileges Committee has followed that line. The House will be aware that the Leader of the Opposition has also said that, from 1 April, his Front-Bench team must itemise their spending in terms of the different allowances.
That this House approves the Seventh Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 436) on Employment of family members through the Staffing Allowance; and endorses the changes proposed by the Committee in the purpose and form of the Register of Members Interests.
Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): I begin by thanking Mr. Speaker for selecting this debate on an issue that has caused a great deal of interest and controversy in my constituency. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for being here to respond to the debate. I understand that the debate is allowed to continue until 6.30 pm, but I can assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Under-Secretary that I shall not keep the House here until then.
It is important that I set out some of the background to this important issue. I wish to put on record some of the important statisticsparticularly economic onesthat pertain to the borough of Boston and to south-east Lincolnshire. The borough of Boston covers approximately 36,000 hectares, or 139 sq miles. Most of the area is rural, comprising rich, agricultural fenland. Boston is a sub-regional centre.
The borough of Boston has a population of 53,700, half of whom live in Boston. The population of Lincolnshire and of the Boston and Skegness constituency have increased significantly over the past decade. There has also been a significant increase in the migrant population, who often work in agriculture and horticulture.
The town of Boston is the focus for retail and business activity and the delivery of public sector services for this region of Lincolnshire. It has a commercial catchment population of between 80,000 and 100,000.
There is only one port in the east midlands, and it is in Boston. Regular sailings go to Germany, Holland and Scandinavia, and the port offers a significant range of facilities for container, bulk and sideport services 24 hours a day. The port of Boston handles 750 vessels per annum, which generates significant haulageI shall return to that point.
There are also significant industrial activities, based around the Riverside industrial estate and other smaller industrial estates. Major companies are located in and around Boston, including Del Monte, Finnforest and Norprint, as are a significant number of pack houses, whose sole job is to pack agricultural produce for delivery to all the main supermarkets around the UK 364 days a year.
It is also important that the House understands the breakdown of the work force in the Boston area. The total work force is approximately 34,000, 29 per cent. of whom are employed in distribution services, 27 per cent. in public services and public administrationapproximately 2,000 of them are employed at the main hospital in my constituency, Pilgrim hospital15 per cent. in manufacturing and 11 per cent. in agriculture, which is one of the highest proportions of agricultural employment in the UK.
As well as being a significant employer, agriculture and tangential businesses clearly create a significant amount of traffic, and not just the obvious vehiclestractors looking after the farms, and ploughing-in the crops and removing them when ready. Consumers now demand fresh produce from supermarkets 364 days of the year. Lincolnshire produces 20 per cent. of the
countrys output, resulting in lorries carrying loads to deliver produce to supermarkets. To secure a contract with a supermarket, a farmer or pack house owner must be able to supply produce to it 364 days a year. Given our climate, we cannot grow the produce 364 days a year, so much of it must be imported from elsewhere in Europeand further afieldand particularly from Spain and Poland, from where it is delivered by road to the pack houses in my constituency and packed before being delivered to the main supermarket chains, all of which generates significant amounts of traffic. There are important wider implications, too: climate change, energy security and the demand for food have combined to make agriculture a strategically important industry.
It is not just the important economic activity in Boston that generates traffic. Boston is also a gateway to the east Lincolnshire coast. Tourism in Lincolnshire is dominated by the coastal resorts of Skegness and Ingoldmells, both of which are in my constituency. There are 3.4 million staying visitors on the east Lincolnshire coast and 13 million day visitors per annum. I acknowledge that not all of them pass through Boston, but a significant number of them do. The east midlands tourism strategy has the ambition and vision that by 2010 tourism will play a significantly greater role in the prosperity of the east midlands, which inevitably will increase traffic flows.
As I am sure the Minister is aware, the primary road network providing access to the east Lincolnshire coast is not good. The A16 from the north and the A52 from the south are two-way single-carriageway routes. In addition, there are almost 30,000 caravans or mobile homes in a tightly drawn zone of coastal hinterland: the largest single collection of mobile homes in Europe. Those mobile homes and caravans contribute to the local visitor economy and meet a clear demand for relatively inexpensive holiday accommodation. The highly popular attractions of Fantasy Island and Butlins in Skegness, which accommodate 12,000 people a week, generate significant traffic flows.
Vehicle movement is stimulated not only by visitors to the east Lincolnshire coast and the economic activity around Boston, but by normal people living normal lives. South-east Lincolnshire is a very rural area, where people have no choice but to use their cars and other motor vehicles. Public transport is extremely limited. In addition to the towns of Boston and Skegness, my constituency alone contains 73 villages. Many people who live in those villages work in the centre of Boston. People have no choice but to use their cars to get to work, to collect children from school, to go to the supermarket and to go about the other business of their daily lives.
All those factors combine to create regular, persistent and significant congestion, not only within Boston, but along the roads leading into it. The Minister will be aware of the impacts of congestion, which include the negative impacts on the town centre as people choose to shop and conduct their business elsewhere. People who live on one side of Boston go to Spalding to do their shopping and people who live on the eastern side of Boston go to Skegness to do theirs, which has had a detrimental impact on business in the centre of Boston.
New businesses that might come to Boston are refusing to locate as a direct result of the appalling traffic. Even more worryingly, some historic Boston-located businesses are saying privately to me that unless something improves, and because of the additional time and cost in getting their produce and goods to market, they will have no choice but to relocate. The situation causes obvious problems for the emergency services, and constant congestion also leads to high carbon footprints and very poor air quality. In short, the prosperity of the area is being damaged and undermined by the poor road infrastructure.
People may ask whether, as the constituency Member of Parliament, I am alone in feeling passionately about this issue. The answer is definitely no, and there is strong evidence to support that: the petition that I have presented to this House and a petition presented to Downing street earlier today, both of which contained 11,000 signatures from the people of the borough of Boston, and the significant success of the Boston Bypass Independent party in the recent local elections in the borough of Boston, in which it swept all the traditional political parties out of power by winning 27 out of a possible 32 seats and becoming the ruling group. Most of those representatives are here in the Public Gallery to listen to the Ministers response, and they are extremely welcome, as are the other members of the Boston by-pass pressure group. A significant and dedicated group has also worked very hard for a number of years to try to raise this issue and find solutions to this significant problem.
I know that the Minister is extremely diligent, so I am sure that he will have been briefed very thoroughly. I hope that he will therefore be aware that the Lincolnshire structural plan states that Boston
must encourage the diversification of the economy... by supporting the development of Boston as a retail, heritage tourism, business and service centre for south-east Lincolnshire
to invest in the Port.
Those aims are also recognised within both the regional spatial strategy and the regional economic strategy for the east midlands. The local area masterplan for Boston, which sets out the future vision for economic development in Boston, concludes that the existing transport infrastructure is the main barrier preventing Boston from developing into a more vibrant urban centre.
In recognition of the importance of the role of transport in supporting economic initiatives at local and regional level, the county council and Boston borough council commissioned a transport study for Boston, covering all modes of transport. The study clearly recognises the need for investment in transport infrastructure to support the continued growth of Boston, with particular emphasis on housing, economic growth and tourism.
I acknowledge that there has been some progress through short-term measures. There has been collective agreement from disparate sources to put £10 million into improved short-term road infrastructure. Turning off the traffic lights at one roundabout in Boston has enabled better flowa decision that has been universally applauded. New bus routes will go through
the centre of town. They are not necessarily universally popular or applauded, but we shall see whether they make a significant difference.
The transport strategy aimed to do four things: to reduce car use for journeys that are wholly within Boston; to improve public transport access and provision; to improve cycling and pedestrian management in the town centre; and to encourage walking and cycling where possible. Those extremely laudable aims could, if combined, make a contribution and a short-term difference. However, in a big rural county such as Lincolnshire, people have no choice but to use their cars and other motor vehicles.
That needs to be put in the context of the projected vehicle number increases. The Department for Transports figures state that by 2025 across the UKnot just in Lincolnshirethere will be an expected increase in kilometre journeys of 31 per cent. and in congestion of 28 per cent. It is not sufficient to say that short-term measures are a medium or long-term solutionthey are not, particularly when they are coupled with the continued population growth in Boston, which has occurred for a variety of reasons, including the relatively low-cost housing and a significant influx of migrant labour working in agriculture and horticulture.
I have come to the conclusion, along with many representatives of local people who are here today and watching in Boston, that the only solution is what is euphemistically called a distributor road around Boston. That would provide quicker access to and egress from Boston as well as a quicker route for people who want to travel to the east Lincolnshire coast and back to Boston.
Boston borough council and Lincolnshire county council recognise that they must work together through the local development framework and the Boston transport strategy as well as the local transport plan. Those matters are progressing. A distributor road would aim to remove as much traffic that starts or finishes in Boston as possible. It would thereby maximise the number of opportunities that Boston traffic would have to access the distributor road as an alternative to travelling through the town centre along John Adams way.
As a major part of funding the distributor road, those involved would seek to maximise private sector contributions. That is a significant issue that I want the Minister to engage with, if not today then in the future. I will talk about that in more detail later. We need significantly to improve air quality, including in the air quality management area. Those environmental benefits would have knock-on impacts that would contribute to the improved use of public space in the town centre.
The result, in my view, would be that the town centre would become a more attractive location for residents, businesses and visitors, thereby sustaining its role as a sub-regional centre. The strategy will also act as a catalyst for development opportunities through the town. We will have to integrate a distributor road with new development as the way to redistribute traffic and meet the needs for new development.
As with all such things, there is a further complication. Lincolnshire is at risk of flooding, particularly because of climate change and rising sea levels. The 1953 flood on the east Lincolnshire coast killed 43 people, although
Boston has not flooded significantly in living memory. The latest Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs guidance, of December 2006, suggests that from now until the turn of the next century defences along the Lincolnshire coast must allow for a sea level rise of almost 0.95 m, with the annual rate of increase rising from 4 mm a year now to 15 mm a year after 2085.
Some 88 per cent. of land in the fens is cultivated, and the fertile soils account for about half of all grade 1 land in the country, which is the most productive farmland in England. In the borough of Boston, virtually all the agricultural land is grade 1 or grade 2. A successful and sustainable future for the fens is therefore vital to the country, if only for food security. It is imperative that there is sufficient funding to enable authorities to take appropriate action to minimise risk and the impact of future events.
A continued programme of investment in flood defence measures is vital to mitigate the risk of flooding due to the effects of climate change. It would be completely unacceptable for that high-quality agricultural land, which makes such a significant contribution to UK food supplies and to the people who work in that part of Lincolnshire, to be allowed to disappear under the sea. It is inconceivable.
The Environment Agency has played a significant role in its input into the east midlands regional spatial strategy, which recommends that until a coastal study is completed on the role and the future of the Lincolnshire coastal authorities, properly to understand the climate change and flood risk issues, development restraint should be shown. What does that mean? It means that planning for natural growth and associated infrastructure improvement is to be halted, and that proper planning for economic growth and the necessary road infrastructure improvements cannot be undertaken. There is a paradox here: on one hand, the Environment Agency is restricting development and economic and infrastructure enhancement, but on the other it is simultaneously funding the construction of a Boston flood barrage, thereby ensuring Bostons security for the future. It cannot have it both ways.
In the Boston area, which does not have a history of flooding, there needs to be an approach that allows appropriate, sensible growth. Due to the excellent work of the internal drainage boards in and around Boston, the sophisticated pumping systems and the significant and excellent local expertise, it is one of the least likely areas in the country to flood. Of course, all bodies need to work together, and environmental adaptation strategies need to be put in place, but we cannot allow Boston to be frozen in time and wither on the vine.
If the Secretary of State were to accept the recommendations of the panel on the east midlands regional spatial strategy, that would seriously undermine the progress that can be made on establishing a local development framework that will deliver a distributor road. Essentially, all development in the short to medium term would be confined to sites that already have the benefit of planning permission and to brownfield sites in built-up areas. I understand that, even now, the Environment Agency is stopping planning permission for modest residential sites within the curtilage of the built-up part of the borough of Boston, so that there may be no further development.
One could well ask why this is so important. It is vital because a significant proportion of the funding for such a road would have to come from developers contributions. If there is no development, there will be no contributions and therefore no significant and necessary improvements to Bostons road infrastructure. The stated aim is to use the development framework so that as Boston grows the distributor road is constructed. The people of Boston require central Government buy-in, however, and they will require capital funding to commence the process.
I have three final points. The first is to suggest that the DFT must engage with DEFRA, because there may well be a solution that can provide and improve the road infrastructure and provide necessary flood defences to the borough of Boston. The second is that I want to ensure that the Minister understands the strength of feeling that exists in Boston. I hope that he will agree to receive a delegation from the borough so that we can explain in more detail what needs to be done to improve the road infrastructure and therefore the life and work of everybody in Boston.
My final point is that the Department for Transport should engage with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and therefore with the Environment Agency, to ensure that the latter does not hinder the necessary economic growth, and therefore residential development, that will be required to fund the much needed road infrastructure improvement in Boston.
In conclusion, I wish to re-emphasise the vital role that improving the road infrastructure will have to play if Boston is to continue to thrive as a sub-regional centre of Lincolnshire. Without the improvements in the road infrastructure, there is a real danger that Boston will just wither on the vine.
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