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There are Saints living here, and some keep Ascension Island and the Falklands going. Why are the Falklands and St. Helena treated so differently by Her Majesty’s Government? It is time that the airfield was built. Yesterday’s shameful act must quickly be rescinded. The Government should get on with the contract. The builders are ready to go in. They should be able to get on and do the job now.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) has instigated a timely debate on the important matter of air access to St. Helena.

I use my remarks today to present a wider perspective on the issues that have been raised and to elaborate a little on the statement that the Government made yesterday on how we wish to proceed. Although I have not had the experience of visiting the island myself, my immersion in the subject over recent months makes me feel almost as if I had been there. Because of the interest shown in the project, and expressed on both sides of the House, I feel rather as Napoleon must have at one time—that there is no getting away from St. Helena.

I want to reassure my hon. Friend that, at root, there is no difference between us on a long-term commitment to St. Helena. However, in facing the challenges before us today, the Government must be responsible and take stock if circumstances change to the extent that they have. That is what we are doing. That is why we announced the consultation exercise yesterday; we want to ensure that all views will have been heard when we come to decide on the way forward. I shall speak on that in more detail in a moment.

Hon. Members will be aware that on 8 December last year we announced that there would be a pause in negotiations over the St. Helena airport contract. We decided that it was necessary in the light of the changed economic climate, which has been changing for the worse for many months but which intensified quite dramatically in the autumn. The Government had a responsibility to take a step back and to review whether it was right to proceed with the project in such circumstances.

I hope that all hon. Members will agree that present circumstances present a very different setting from those of 2007, when the project was tendered for, and even more different from when the initial announcement was made in 2005. We have a responsibility to be absolutely sure that levels of expenditure that the project could incur remain appropriate. I met the Governor of St. Helena on his recent visit to the United Kingdom to explain how matters stand and to hear his views. I have also met Impregilo, the bidding company, to explain our position. I am, of course, aware of its decision to maintain the validity of its bid until the end of April. It is for the company to judge its response in the light of yesterday’s announcement, which presents a longer timeline before a final decision is made.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said recently, the present economic conditions are unlike any that we have seen for generations. The medium and
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long-term consequences are uncertain at present. However, those conditions significantly affect the Government’s ability to achieve all their international development objectives. Therefore, the reality is that we must revisit the choices before us, although we recognise the special place that our overseas territories have in our aid programme.

At this point, I should correct my hon. Friend—the overseas territories do not have first call on DFID’s funds per se, but first call for reasonable development needs. It must be seen in that wider context. Inevitably, part of the consideration is what is reasonable in the present circumstances. Other overseas territories are also experiencing difficulties in the current climate, and we must recognise those new pressures too when coming to a decision.

The impact of the crisis is being felt in the developing world already. Aid and private finance flows are already falling, remittances are dropping and demand for trade exports is slowing. It is estimated that by December 2010 about 90 million more people will be living on less than $1.25 a day, because of the financial crisis. Progress towards delivering the millennium development goals will slow significantly, and there is already evidence from Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan suggesting that the poor are taking their children out of school to save money.

Developing countries are being hit, and in different ways. The volume of our aid has been adversely affected by the sharp depreciation of sterling against most other currencies. Our UK aid pound is not going as far as it used to. Export markets are reducing and the level of world trade is falling for the first time in 25 years. Remittances sent by individuals back to developing countries are expected to fall by up to 6 per cent. this year alone. Capital flows to emerging economies are predicted to fall by 80 per cent. in 2009, compared with 2007 levels. The prospects, therefore, for millions of people in developing countries are changing rapidly for the worse.

Bob Russell: Will the Minister please accept that those living on St. Helena are British?

Mr. Foster: That was made very clear at the outset, when I explained the position of the overseas territories, of which St. Helena is one.

The changes that I have described are already resulting in new demands on DFID’s budget. Countries need more help to adjust to these impacts, to produce contingency plans and to ramp up social protection systems. In Ethiopia, DFID has given £15 million for social protection to help to sustain the livelihoods of 7 million people.

Meg Munn: I entirely understand the Minister’s concern about people in the developing world, with which I am sure that not one hon. Member here disagrees. However, the point that I and other hon. Members are making is that the cost of maintaining the current situation will be greater than that of building an airport. Our aim is to save money and to ensure that it is available for development elsewhere, not to pay more.

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the potential for the airport to deliver the self-sufficiency outlined in the 2005 Atkins report. In the
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current climate, pausing and reviewing the situation makes good fiscal management. We are not turning our back on the people of St. Helena.

The future is very uncertain. We know neither the length and depth of the recession, nor its impact on developing countries, so it is incredibly important that DFID remains flexible and resilient, and able to move resources around and to adapt to shocks. It is also important to appreciate that the projected cost of the airport is of a level that makes it a significant factor in the consideration of our priorities.

Mr. Kemp: Will the consultation bear in mind that the huge figure quoted in headlines would not be paid up front, but could be tranched over a number of years? It is important that the consultation considers that and other economic factors. For example, it will cost £10 million to fit RMS St. Helena with two new engines. Furthermore, it would be helpful if the Minister could indicate when we can expect a response from the consultation.

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I would hope that those listening will take on board his comments about what factors should be considered in the consultation. I shall come shortly to the time scale that we envisage, when I talk about the consultation in a little more detail.

I cannot go into detail about the tender estimates—it would be wrong to do so—but Members need to appreciate that we are contemplating a figure well above the one reported in the media recently of £100 million. Since we began, in 2005, the estimated cost of the project has grown more than threefold, which makes it a more finely balanced choice—even more so in the current conditions.

Anne Snelgrove: Has the Minister or his Department made an estimate of how much it will cost, over the next one, two, three, four or five years, to keep RMS St. Helena going?

Mr. Foster: Absolutely. A feasibility study was carried out in 2005, and the maintenance of RMS St. Helena formed part of those considerations. I hope that that is borne out in the responses to the consultation exercise.

The consultation was announced yesterday. We will publish a consultation document by early next month,
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and much of the detail in which I imagine Members are interested will be set out there—I cannot go into the details too fully today. It will provide more information about the factors that we have to consider in reaching a decision, in particular the impact that the present economic difficulties have on the Department’s resources, and including the special position of the overseas territories. We are likely to indicate some options on access where views are particularly sought, including an airport and one or more ship options. We will also make it clear that it will be open to respondents to submit views on any relevant aspect of the access issue. It will be open to any interested party to respond, and we will ensure that a visit to the island is part of the exercise, which we will run in line with the Government’s code of conduct for holding public consultations.

People will ask, “What will this tell us that we do not already know?” I cannot prejudge the outcome of the consultation or what it might produce. However, we want to ensure that, before taking the final decision on the project, we are satisfied that we have all the information and views relevant to our decision, and that everyone with an interest in the matter is also satisfied that they have been able to put their perspective to us.

Bob Russell: We have had consultations before. What is new about this consultation? Does the Minister not accept that the failure to provide an airfield means that the island’s economy will continue to decline, whereas an airfield would enable the island to be economically viable?

Mr. Foster: The economic conditions have changed. The whole world is grappling with that at the moment. It is only prudent to reflect on that change before coming to a final decision on the St. Helena airport contract.

In conclusion, I recognise that those who have followed the fortunes of this project will be frustrated with the current situation, but these are exceptional times. The challenges we face are also exceptional, and no one is immune from them. Although St. Helena is remote, its people are well aware of the gravity of the challenges being experienced by the UK and all other Governments around the world. I hope that there is a strong participation in the consultation. It is important to hear a representative view from the island and, of course, from islanders elsewhere, especially those living in the UK.

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Car Park Charging (Richmond Park)

12.59 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I look forward to giving my speech under your august chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara, and I would like to thank the Minister in advance for the time that she will take to respond to the concerns that I raise on behalf of my constituents.

Let me run through the background to today’s debate. Currently, there is no charge for parking a car in Richmond park. The park is next door to my constituency and used by thousands of my constituents, and by probably hundreds of thousands of Londoners and others who live outside London. For my local residents—and for me, as somebody who lives locally—it is a fantastic community facility enjoyed by many thousands of people. Many people live in Putney and Roehampton because of their proximity to wonderful parks such as Richmond park and also to Wimbledon common. When the Royal Parks Agency launched its consultation, which includes the proposals to introduce car park charging in Richmond park, many of my constituents contacted me because they were concerned about how such proposals would affect their ability to continue enjoying the park.

Let me now outline what is in the consultation document and what is being consulted on at the moment. The proposals include a car park charge of £1 an hour up to a maximum of £3 for a stay of three hours or more, and a six-hour limit on cars staying in the park or in a car park. I tabled some parliamentary questions to find out how much revenue such proposals would raise—in other words, how much people would have to fork out over the year. It was difficult to get any concrete answers from the Minister. I will table more parliamentary questions to try to get a better idea of how much the proposals might cost local residents who use the park most. I estimate that the figure could be about £500,000 of car park charging revenue.

Let us look at the basic charge referred to in the consultation document—£2 for a two-hour stay. If somebody walked their dog in the park every other day, they would have to pay a cost of £400 annually for using the park. For many of my constituents, that is unaffordable.

Aside from the fact that one of the Royal Parks Agency’s objectives is to increase income—it said that it achieved that last year—the reason why such a proposal has been made is to encourage people to get out of their cars. Everybody supports such an aim. In fact, many of my constituents cycle to the park. None the less, we have to ask ourselves whether transport options and alternatives are available for local people.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): My hon. Friend started off by saying that not only the residents of Richmond and of my constituency have made representations on the matter, and her point about access to the park is extremely important. There is a perception that the ability to enjoy the park of people from a slightly wider area will be stifled while local people, who may be walking from a much closer area, will not be affected. The park is an amenity for people from a much wider area than the immediate locality.

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Justine Greening: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There are issues for people who live locally. One of the knock-on effects about which my constituents in Roehampton are concerned is that many people will try to avoid the charges by parking outside the park.

We are concerned that places such as Putney and Roehampton do not have the transport alternatives for people to get to the park, so they have to get in their car. I am delighted that the Royal Parks Agency has agreed to two pedestrian entrances from Roehampton. One will be from the Alton estate, which will be a fantastic facility for local people and everyone is pleased about it. However, it is not there yet, so people from Roehampton have to get in their cars or find a bus, although there is not much bus access from Roehampton to the park.

The second gate will be the Chohole gate. Again, people are delighted that that will be there, but it is not there yet. We may have to wait yet another one, two or even three years before those gates are in place. Therefore, at the moment, people find it hard to walk to the park from my local area.

The other key point is that public transport and bus alternatives to get to the park from places such as Putney and Roehampton are not good. Moreover, there are no buses in the park. If someone wanted to get from the perimeter of the park—say from Roehampton gate—to the heart of the park, which has a lot of facilities, they would have a good 15 to 20-minute walk. There is no bus that feeds people from Roehampton gate into the centre of the park.

I recognise that the consultation document has some exemptions, including the one for blue badge holders, but many people are elderly, less mobile and less able to use public transport, even if it is there. They need their car to get around and may not be eligible for a blue badge. I am sure that we all have constituents who write to us for a blue badge but do not get it. I am concerned about the impact of car park charges on those people. Even if we get good public transport, which we do not yet have, such people will still find it hard to use it.

Let me ask the Minister about the impact assessment that was pulled together to go alongside the consultation document. I then want to come on to the broader impact on my constituents if this proposal goes through. I cannot understand why some of the figures in the impact assessment are there. For example, the impact assessment has a one-off transition cost of £2.9 million, which it says will include investing in car parks, including pay and display machines and signage, yet the average annual cost is zero.

The impact assessment says:

That has to be wrong. In fact, when I had an earlier meeting with the Royal Parks Agency, which I was pleased to get, it said that it probably was not correct. If it is correct, it is the ultimate double whammy. The taxpayer has to pay for a scheme to improve the car parks, which most people think is a good thing, but that scheme will do nothing other than pay for a load of parking wardens to patrol and enforce parking charges that people are not interested in or able to pay. That would seem to be the ultimate self-defeating approach.

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Will the Minister take a clear look at the impact assessment and check whether the annual costs and benefits are correct? At the moment, the scheme has an average annual benefit of zero, which surely cannot be right.

Stephen Hammond: Before my hon. Friend leaves the consultation, I wonder whether she is concerned about its legality. The consultation is potentially open to judicial review. I raise that because there was a proposal to put parking charges on a road across Wimbledon common. There was an absolute onus—as it was cited in a legal precedent, which I have failed to bring with me today—on the people undertaking the consultation to ensure that the consultation was not just of local people, but of a representative sample of wider users. The whole point about the loci of consultation is extremely important. If this consultation has gone only to local residents in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in Richmond, it will certainly be open to contest. I hope the Minister will address that issue.

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend raises another excellent point. In fact, the consultation document has not been distributed at all to residents of my constituency. Information has been communicated through the Royal Parks Agency website and by contacting local Members of Parliament such as me, although my hon. Friend was not on the contact list, and other stakeholders.

It has been left to me, for example, to leaflet my local area to let residents know what is happening. When I was out leafleting in Roehampton a couple of weekends ago, I bumped into a local resident and explained what we were doing. She was unaware of the proposals under consultation. Is it right to do a consultation when the people who will be most affected by the car parking charges have not been contacted personally by the Royal Parks Agency? The communication process has been left to other people and local authorities. That does not seem to be a good way to ensure a broad-based response to a consultation.

I am concerned about two impacts. First, people will be affected—in particular, a lot of my constituents—because there is no good public transport to the park from Roehampton and Putney and because we do not have as many pedestrian entrances as other sides of the park. The plans will be unaffordable for frequent users. Ironically, the people who care most about the park will be the ones who have to pay the most for it. Dog walkers will be particularly hard hit, as will low-income families. At a time when families might be looking for free and affordable leisure options, they will find that the one option right on their doorstep, which we should be reaching out to encourage them to use, has suddenly become unaffordable.

The proposals will discourage families from using the park. Many families, especially young families, simply cannot all get on bikes and cycle there. I am sure that the Minister understands that travelling by car is often something that people do not want to do but must do to enjoy a family outing together. As I have said, the proposals will also hit the elderly and less mobile, many of whom do not qualify for a blue badge, but are not as fully mobile as the rest of us, who can simply get on a bike and cycle there.

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