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28 Jan 2009 : Column 90WH—continued

When will he publish a response to that recommendation? Will he undertake a review? I am not saying that he should make a spending commitment; I just want to hear his answer to the Committee’s recommendation.

My next question touches on a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon). The Met has agreed—we have heard some warm words—to recruit in different ways. For example, it has placed advertisements in Scotland and Northern Ireland to reduce the need to poach from forces in the south of England. As my hon. Friend pointed out, however, advertisements are still up in Newbury station. Such activity is clearly undesirable from Thames Valley’s point of view.

We need an answer to the suggestion in that excellent report by the Home Affairs Committee that the Metropolitan police agree to a protocol with surrounding areas to seek to limit transfers. Will the Minister tell us what representations he has made to the Metropolitan police to make that protocol a reality? Many Opposition Members have raised that point during this excellent debate.

My final question touches on an excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) about the wider police grant settlement and how it will affect Thames Valley police. We do not have the time to go into the arcane and interesting details of ceilings and floors, but it would be extremely useful if the Minister—he is a helpful Minister—could give us some indication of the general police grant settlement. I know that it will be announced quite soon, but could he give us an early indication of how his latest thinking on the operation of ceilings and floors will help Thames Valley—that point is separate from the south-east allowance. On that note of honest inquiry, I hope that he will avoid party politics and give us some interesting answers to our interesting questions.

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10.48 am

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. On behalf of all of us, I congratulate Sir Paul Stephenson on his appointment as Metropolitan Police Commissioner. I am sure that all of us wish him well in his new role, and I am sure that he will do an excellent job. I wish him well, personally and professionally.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on securing this excellent and interesting debate. I might not have time to make my remarks in full, but I shall attempt to address some of the comments and questions raised by hon. Members. First, however, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) apologised to me for having to leave the debate before the end, but said that she would read our remarks afterward. It is worth putting that on the record as well.

I say to the hon. Member for Banbury and other hon. Members that I know that this is a very real issue. I know that the matter has been discussed for a considerable period of time, and that there have been a large number of meetings about it. Although such discussions and negotiations are ongoing on the Police Negotiating Board, I recognise the concerns of the Thames Valley force and other south-east forces about the loss of officers to the Metropolitan Police Service. I understand that this is about not just the number of officers—I will try to refer to that issue later if I have time—but the type and experience of officers and the work force mix. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) is particularly concerned about probationers. Others have raised concerns about firearms officers and so on. Therefore, the issue is real. All I can say to reassure hon. Members is that I intend to do all that I can to ensure that we get an early resolution of the matter.

Hon. Members have been kind enough to say that I try to be helpful. There does not seem to be much point in having a debate such as this unless one tries to be helpful. As the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) said, there is a time for party politics and a time for making things happen. I will try to push this matter forward. My hon. Friend made a very pertinent point when he said that we can have Adjournment debates and meetings and we can send letters, but sometimes we have to find a way to resolve the problem. That is not easy because we need to negotiate different positions. Different people take a different point of view. We must find a way to move forward.

I say to the hon. Member for Banbury and other hon. Members that I will use my office—I am not being pompous here—to bring about a resolution to this particular issue.

Martin Salter: I thank the Minister for being so incredibly helpful. Will he confirm that he will continue to pursue the issue of the uplift in the south-east allowance, which is the nub of this debate?

Mr. Coaker: I categorically reassure my hon. Friend that I will do that.

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Mr. Rob Wilson: In an earlier intervention, the Minister seemed to suggest that the money is already in Thames Valley’s budget to uplift the south-east allowance. That is news both to me and to some of my colleagues, and it has not been in any of our briefings from the chief constable. Will the Minister explain how Thames Valley police is spending that money, which is apparently already in its budget?

Mr. Coaker: I was responding to what the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was saying to his hon. Friends. I said that this was a spending commitment. The Association of Chief Police Officers advised me that there could be an uplift to the south-east allowances without any additional central funding, and that the overall figure for the eight forces amounts to some £6 million.

Mr. Vaizey: Given the confusion, perhaps the Minister could clarify what flexibility individual forces have to increase their allowances. Is the allowance set by the Government or are the individual constabularies able to increase their allowance?

Mr. Coaker: That is subject to the PNB coming to an agreement on how such allowances should be paid. That is the point that I am making. Such matters are negotiated conditions between the PNB’s various bodies. The board generally works like an established piece of machinery, but it comprises different points of view. The key point is that it is a negotiating board. Between us all, we need to ensure that we negotiate a settlement that is fair to the Metropolitan Police Service and to the south-east forces. I have tried to put some facts on the table that will help to inform the debate about how we can take the matter forward.

I thank the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds for his remarks about how we conduct debates such as this. I know that the Home Secretary will be meeting the new commissioner very soon to discuss the protocol between the Metropolitan Police Service and the south-east forces. Hon. Members have raised a number of issues—I do not have time to go through all of them—which are a matter for the commissioner and the south-east forces.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) referred to the police funding formula. Obviously, such an issue is subject to review. Let me say that there are winners and losers with respect to the way in which the police grant is allocated, and we will discuss the matter next week. Although a number of forces will benefit if we take away the floor—including my own force in Nottinghamshire—a reasonable number will lose significant sums of money. If we are to change the formula, we must find a way of ensuring that we keep stability within the police forces, and that we do not undermine that stability. Fairness with stability has to be a key principle. It may mean that we have to bring about change, but we must consider what we are doing. The matter is subject to review and to large numbers of people making all sorts of points, and we will consider all of them.

I have mentioned the protocol. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West have talked about the importance of neighbourhood policing. May I say to the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) that
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all crime is important? He raised the point about rural crime. It would be easy to make sarcastic remarks about some of his points about animal theft and so on, but such matters are very serious in rural area. He was right to say that there is not a distinction between rural and urban crime. Crime is the enemy for all of us, and we need to address that. He also raised the issue of the funding formula, and he has now heard my remarks.

The hon. Member for Newbury said that we needed not just warm words but real action. As I have said, I will try to ensure that that happens. The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) strayed from the debate slightly, and I will resist the temptation to return to the political banter that we had at the start. We are trying to reduce bureaucracy, and the hon. Gentleman will know that we have taken away all of the individual targets and replaced them with the single force-wide confidence target.

May I say to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington that a plan is being put together for the Olympics? Additional money will be made available. There have been discussions between the Home Office and Thames Valley police. Earlier this week, the Home Office’s director of Olympic safety and security visited the Eton Dorney site to talk to the police about some of the issues.

As for the Mayor, he has no role in relation to the PNB, but the Metropolitan Police Authority is part of the Association of Police Authorities’ representation on the PNB.

With regard to Taser training, the roll out of Tasers has been widely welcomed as a good thing. The training costs will be a matter for individual forces. Clearly, the number of Tasers that a force has is not dictated centrally. It is a matter for individual chief constables, with their authorities, to determine what they should have.

In conclusion, this is a very important issue and the debate will help me in trying to take forward all of the matters. I am grateful to Opposition Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East for contributing to the debate. As we have all said, Thames Valley police has been given an additional 417 police officers and increased money. It has seen crime falling and has an excellent chief constable. Although there is the issue of retention, I am sure that we should all want to finish by saying that Thames Valley is an excellent police force, doing an excellent job, and we commend it for the work that it is doing.

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Marston Vale Eco-town

11 am

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this debate and to be under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson.

The debate concerns the eco-town proposed for my constituency and I am sure that the Minister will concede that we have discussed it on a number of occasions. He may want to comment on yesterday’s High Court ruling in his reply. I would be interested in his opinion about how that ruling will affect the proposed development in Marston Vale.

Because we have only 30 minutes for this debate, I will ask the Minister a number of direct questions so that he can spend most of the time giving us information. My constituents know my opinion, and he will be aware of all the well-rehearsed arguments against the eco-town, but I would like to raise some direct points with him.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, there are infrastructure plans to have trains running between Bedford and London every three minutes by 2015 or 2020. Is that part of a national Government strategy to develop infrastructure so that Mid-Bedfordshire can be developed accordingly? If there is such a strategy, he will know that there are now plans to extend the eco-town even further. The East of England Development Agency has produced a proposal for 120,000 homes that will encompass Ampthill, Flitwick and Westoning and extend to Harlington, to the border of the M1. Will the eco-town be a key piece in that jigsaw? Did the Government propose it in the location that they did so that expansion can take place and urban sprawl can develop from Milton Keynes down to the borders of the M1?

If that is the intention, surely it would be preferable to bring on board the opinions of local people. The Minister might say that there has been a consultation process. He knows—as I know, because I was present at the consultation process—that outside the caravans, the consultation produced an overwhelming no from the people of Mid-Bedfordshire. I was present at a protest outside the consultation caravan. I was at a torchlit procession outside one of the consultations. The people of Mid-Bedfordshire said a resounding no to the eco-town. Does the Minister see the eco-town as a key piece in the developmental jigsaw puzzle of Mid-Bedfordshire? After that is in place, will the sprawl continue from Milton Keynes down to the M1?

How eco will the eco-town be? Again, the argument is well rehearsed. The Minister knows that by 2016, all new homes will have to exceed the code 6 criteria, yet the proposed eco-town must meet only codes 3 to 4. By the time the eco-town is built, it will already have been exceeded in eco criteria and credibility by new homes. How does he feel that sits with local people, who know that future homes will not even carry the eco banner but will have greater environmental credibility?

The case for the eco-town is that it will meet housing needs in Bedford and the surrounding urban areas. If that is the case, there are brownfield sites in Bedford that are screaming out for redevelopment. No employers are moving in, building on those brownfields and bringing employment into the area, although in fact we have little unemployment. Bedford desperately needs inward investment from developers and section 106 agreements.

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The people of Bedford need additional housing, but they want it to be near hospitals, doctors, schools and what employment there is. They do not want to live in Marston Vale. I know that the Minister is not from Bedfordshire, but I assure him that Bedford has a unique cultural identity. People from Bedford belong in Bedford, and they do not see the vale that is being developed as the answer to their housing needs. It is not what they want: they want homes to be built in Bedford.

I agree that there is some development in Bedford, but it is all too easy for developers to take over thousands of acres of what green fields there are, and to ignore urban areas such as Bedford and Luton that desperately need inward investment. The Campaign to Protect Rural England estimates that 1 million homes could be built on brownfield sites across the UK. Why do the Government not look at the housing needs of people in Luton and Bedford, and do something about investing in those towns so that they can be developed to meet the needs of local people more accurately? The solution of building an eco-town and building houses across the countryside in Bedfordshire, from Milton Keynes, is not the answer that anyone in Bedfordshire wants.

I have spoken to the Minister about Aspley Guise, a chocolate-box village in my constituency that will be swamped. The way of life and the environment of almost 2,000 people will be decimated by the eco-town. Most people in Bedfordshire have moved there from other areas. I am from Liverpool, and I meet people in Bedfordshire every day from Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and London—many people have moved there from urban areas.

Bedfordshire has been a growing county for some considerable time. People move there for a reason: they have chosen not to live the urban life, but to take their families to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly location. They want a different way of life for their families, and they have moved from areas such as Milton Keynes, and from towns and cities. They have used their life savings, moved their families and bought their homes; they have changed their entire lifestyle to move to Bedfordshire. People who have made that choice see it being taken away from them, and destroyed by the huge amount of development coming into Bedfordshire.

The proposal is for 120,000 homes across Bedfordshire, with 15,000 in the core eco-town development, and there are now proposals to extend the eco-town. That is a massive increase by anyone’s analysis. My entire constituency contains 77,000 constituents, so it will be a massive increase, but where are those people going to work? Are they to work in London? Are there 200,000 jobs in London screaming out for people to do them? Many people say that we are not in a recession at the moment, but are re-evaluating how the country operates economically, how we live our lives, and the viability of our nation’s economy. Given that it probably is a re-evaluation, I should like to know where those jobs will be. We are making people redundant on a daily basis, with 3 million people forecast to be unemployed by the end of next year.

If 120,000 homes are built in the middle of my constituency, where are those people going to work, because there is no employment? Once Center Parcs is built in Mid-Bedfordshire, we will have no unemployment there. We have minimal unemployment at the moment,
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at 1.1 per cent., the majority of which is in Flitwick, and that will be mopped up and taken care of by the development of Center Parcs. I have backed, approved of and fought for that development all the way, against a number of people in my constituency. It was not a vote winner for me, but I knew it was right, and I backed it for several reasons that I shall not go into now, one of which was that by supporting Center Parcs, we would be doing our bit to reach our economic growth target and to mop up what unemployment we had in the constituency.

I should like the Minister to respond to the issue of housing needs in Bedford. Why can they not be taken care of in Bedford, as people want, and in Luton? Why do they have to be accommodated in the middle of Mid-Bedfordshire?

I have already outlined the fact that the development will destroy the way of life for 2,000 people, but I must point out that the eco-town development alone will be bigger than my constituency’s two main towns, Ampthill and Flitwick. It will be larger than both the main conurbations in my constituency. I am not sure whether the Minister can appreciate the eco-town’s impact on local people, or how angry they are. They feel very angry indeed that the equivalent of almost a new town will land on them—out of the sky—from Westminster. The Minister may reply, “Well, it’ll have to go through the normal planning process.” He nods; I anticipated that would be his comment. However, it is difficult for the local planning process to deny an application for an eco-town if it meets the planning guidance and criteria set down by the Government. If the town were being granted on the basis of whether it was wanted by local people, it would not happen.

The Minister is aware that many other factors will come into play. He is excellent in his role. I constantly praise him and he knows that I think that he is an excellent Minister, so perhaps he could give my constituents some advice: how can they use the planning process to guarantee that the development will not happen? Perhaps he can give us some tips and advice; we would take them most gratefully.

There is another issue that I should like the Minister to address, because I have a particular interest in food security. We are entering difficult times—we have been for some time, as the Minister will also be aware—and the security and independence of energy and food are important issues that we, as a nation, should address. Some 90 per cent. of the land on which the eco-town will be built currently produces food. Bedfordshire has a history of being England’s market garden. At 4 am and 5 am in my constituency, lorries and vans trundle on to the M1, taking their wares to various markets in London. We are good agricultural producers, too: in my constituency, there are busy farmers who work very hard. By taking away all that acreage, which currently produces food, we will reduce our capability to be independent—as producers of our own food. Once that agricultural land is wiped out, we will not get it back, and if we enter stormy waters in the future and need our land to produce food, it will be too late, because it will be full of empty houses that people do not want to live in.

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