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The funding package for the project, which should secure the improved ferry scheme for the next 25 years, therefore comprises £36 million of the Department for Transport's regional transport fund; £11 million from the European regional development fund, because Cornwall, being the poorest region in the UK, is a
convergence region, and £10 million of loan capital from Cornwall council. So my final question to the Minister today is, because this project will now inevitably spill over beyond the current financial year and, I am sure, beyond the general election, before a full approval case can be presented to him and his Department, what advice or assistance can he offer to help us ensure that both the hard-won funds and the work that has been going on during the last six years to bring this project forward will not be lost and that the project will proceed? I also ask the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) what happens to projects that do not reach full business case approval before a general election. I will be interested to hear in their winding-up speeches what reassurance they can offer.
I do not expect from any of the three hon. Members copper-bottomed guarantees to my constituents on the Isles of Scilly or in Penzance that the funds will be in place, but it is important to give some indication on that. I am interested in their comments, bearing in mind that the project has now gone through so many stages of preparation. It is the eleventh hour for a final decision; I will return to the reasons why we are in such a parlous situation. I would find it helpful if all three hon. Members, especially the Minister, addressed the matter. The Minister may also wish to offer other advice or recommendations that might help ensure that the project is brought to fruition in the current difficult circumstances.
It might be worth while to outline a few points by way of background. The project originated in some campaigning in which I was involved when I was first elected and a debate that I secured, oddly enough, eight years ago in this very Chamber and more or less at this time, on 8 January 2002. It was a 90-minute debate entitled "Rural and Island Transport" in which I compared the subsidy provided to the Isles of Scilly-zero-to that offered pre and post-devolution to the isles of Scotland. Parity with the Scottish islands was the primary basis on which I argued that the Government should consider seriously the need for improvements and investment in the future of the Isles of Scilly ferry link.
The plans for the ferry link emanate from that, as well as from concerns expressed by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company that its turnover provided insufficient capacity for investment in the kind of vessel and the harbour infrastructure needed to bring the service up to both the safety standards expected by the Government and the standard of comfort relative to services elsewhere in Europe expected by the travelling public.
The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company vessel Scillonian III was purpose-built in 1997-I hope that the Minister is listening-with the support of the Labour Government in the form of a £1 million loan to assist with purchase and construction. Perhaps former Prime Minister Harold Wilson's connection with the Isles of Scilly had something to do with it. I am sure that he would not have been pulling strings at the time, but it would have assisted negotiations. Because of the extremely rough and inclement sea conditions at this time of year, the service runs seven months a year, from March to November, crossing the 42 nautical miles between Penzance and St. Mary's in the Isles of Scilly. A freight vessel, the Gry Maritha, also runs three times a week throughout the year and is an essential lifeline to the Isles of Scilly.
The progress of the project has been good since 2003. I took a delegation to see the then Minister and Member for Plymouth, Devonport, David Jamieson. One thing led to another, and we negotiated and secured a project, which put the funding in place and encouraged local authorities to establish what they described as a route partnership between local councils and the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns substantial amounts of land and property in Cornwall and especially on the Isles of Scilly. In the early days, a proposal was made to include within the route partnership a bid to purchase a new helicopter for British International Helicopters, which provides a lifeline air service to the Isles of Scilly in addition to the fixed-wing aircraft that runs mainly from Land's End to St. Mary's. However, that element of the project evaporated over time and the partnership returned to the issue of the vessel.
A great deal of progress has been made, particularly in recent years. The proposed design of the vessel has been agreed and competitive tenders have been made. Some are very good, particularly in the current market, and would provide the island service with a lot of boat for little money, so I am sure that the partnership will be keen to proceed with them and not lose them. However, the competitive tenders expire at the end of the month, when the partnership must either seek an extension or run the whole process again. Equally, regarding the two remaining companies operating the service through the process, the tender exercise has been completed and the tenders will expire mid-February.
Permissions have been granted at both the harbour revision and planning stages for St. Mary's harbour on the Isles of Scilly, and the harbour revision order for Penzance has proceeded, although a judicial review challenge is pending, so I do not imagine that the Minister will want to comment on that. The crucial issue is that the listed building consent planning application for Penzance has not proceeded, having failed on 14 December.
A great deal of progress has been made over time, but the question is how the project has foundered on what are known in Penzance as the Battery rocks, which stand to the south of Penzance harbour. Difficult decisions have been made, and after much scoping and a working consultants' report, the narrowing of options regarding the vessel types and port infrastructure has proceeded with little contention, although a lot of the process was bound to be contentious. It was important that the route partnership and its membership listened and were prepared to compromise when they found themselves in difficulty.
The proposed scheme for Penzance was exhibited on 30 September 2008. Until then, because the decisions to be taken were all local, I, like any other Member of Parliament, kept out of them. The more contentious they were, the more likely I was to keep out of them, also like any other Member of Parliament, but what concerned me after the exhibition was the nature of some of the objections to the proposals and the vociferousness and widespread concern about how the project was proceeding. Although I did not wish to offer a view on any of the planning merits of the proposal, I was concerned about the process, particularly the consultation with the local community and English Heritage's recommendation that, for the project to proceed,
the route partnership should seriously investigate alternatives. I was worried that that simply was not happening.
I called for constructive dialogue and for calm and rational consideration of the route partnership's favoured proposal and the alternatives. As a result, rather than proceeding with the planning application in October 2008, the route partnership delayed and reconsidered. It held a further public engagement exhibition in Penzance in January 2009 and proceeded with the planning application in February. It was clear to me that there would be serious difficulties, given the extent and nature of the objections. Fearing that the project was about to be scuppered, I called on the partners to come together to take a genuine look at the alternatives. I am pleased to say that the officers agreed to such constructive discussions and that they began in April last year.
At the same time, English Heritage wrote to Cornwall county council-that was before it was changed to a single unitary authority, which I voted against. English Heritage's letter of 21 April followed other letters expressing its deep concern about the proposal and outlining the significance of the location for the proposed freight terminal. It was to be built in the part of the harbour with the most historical significance. In particular, a south-facing wall where five centuries of harbour development were visible was to be covered in concrete, and that was the fundamental reason why English Heritage urged the council to consider alternatives. The letter asked that
"consideration be given to locating the passenger and freight terminus in an alternative location, less harmful to the historic environment."
On 12 June, during negotiations in which I was encouraging the council to look at the alternatives, the planning application was eventually withdrawn and an options study agreed to. I convened meetings to ensure that that was pursued. Halcrow, the consultancy that had been engaged previously, was appointed to undertake the work. The Penzance Harbour Revision Order 2009 was finally passed on 27 August. Halcrow's options appraisal report, which came out at the end of August, confirmed that although the preferred option of building on Battery rocks would be the most expensive in capital costs, it had the lowest forecast operational costs.
That was a crucial turning point in the process because the route partnership had the opportunity to review its approach. Leaving aside the merits of the options and the report, my assessment was that the route partnership's favoured option was the least politically deliverable. I use that expression deliberately because my assessment was concerned not with economics, but with policy. I was concerned that the proposal simply would not get through because of the strong opposition to which I have referred. English Heritage, a statutory consultee, was saying that there should be more commitment to considering the alternatives. There was a threat and a likelihood of judicial review or legal challenge if the favoured option was decided on because a number of process issues were not satisfactory.
As all Members of Parliament know, when providing political leadership, one has to take the rough with the smooth. There was a lot of rough coming my way at
that time, but I do not mind that. We needed a considered, calm and rational debate on the proposals, but sadly we had a response that fanned-or poured paraffin on-the flames of the concerns and opposition in Penzance. Cornwall council's portfolio holder made injudicious comments and the Council of the Isles of Scilly felt it could tell Penzance what it should do with its harbour-not a clever move. That tipped the project into almost certain political undeliverability in September.
I called seven public meetings: six on the Isles of Scilly and one in Penzance. They were well attended and the people were extremely passionate. The majority of those who spoke on the Isles of Scilly were passionately opposed to the line I was taking, to my warnings and to my preferred option, even though that is not a material consideration because I have no say in the matter, as the Minister knows. However, I answered the question of which option I preferred, rather than avoiding it.
The Council of the Isles of Scilly proposed a motion that tried to draw the Minister into the merits of the planning decisions that were to be taken by Cornwall council, rather than communicating its concerns to the council. It also made some inaccurate and disparaging remarks about me, but I will leave that aside. I was provoked to write to the Minister to apologise that he had been troubled by questions that should not have been directed at him. I expressed concern that the actions of the Council of the Isles of Scilly risked derailing the project and about whether the council was representing the views of the islanders.
As a result of the motion, I received my largest postbag ever of personal support from the islanders. Sadly, I cannot give names to the comments because of the fear of reprisals and intimidation on the islands, but I will give a flavour of what was written. On 16 October, the day after the council's decision, one person wrote:
"I personally do not think the residents of the Isles of Scilly should 'tell Penzance residents what they should do in their area/community'."
"the word so many people are forgetting is PARTNERSHIP. Not a dictatorship, which as an observer, appears to be the stance from the Council of Isles of Scilly. As MP for the Isles of Scilly, please could you ask for an enquiry as to why the Route Partnership failed to engage with the Penzance residents and how this 11th hour mess could have been avoided?"
"Unfortunately there is a climate of intimidation and few wish to speak out...I wish you strength and patience. Do not allow our council to bully or intimidate you. We rely on you to remain our voice of reason."
"how appalled I am by the recent actions from the Council of the Isles of Scilly, and I express all my sympathy to you when you face such unjustified, unfair, and misinformed fire"
"Many people, with a great deal of ability, within these Islands feel they are excluded from entering into debate on major issues that affect their community due to conflicting interests and the fear of persecution by what has become over the last few years an all-powerful local authority, led under the mantra of 'divide and rule.'"
"I was extremely sorry to learn about the way you have been treated by the Isles of Scilly Council"-
I mention those letters simply because they show the concern that decisions were not necessarily being taken on behalf of the community as a whole. As I mentioned, on 14 December, of course, Cornwall council's strategic planning committee recommended the rejection-it cannot ultimately make a decision-of the planning application for the critical element of Penzance harbour.
There is no satisfaction in going through an "I told you so" routine when such an important project has been seriously jeopardised by what can be described only as wanton obstinacy. There is tremendous concern about the future of this important link, and although I do not think the link itself is in jeopardy, the project certainly is. Clearly, in such circumstances, there is no shortage of accusations flying around.
"We are continuing to work with English Heritage to remove its objections to certain aspects of the scheme."
"we are seriously looking at Falmouth as an alternative."
Such a proposal would extend the ferry time by at least another hour and a half, would probably jeopardise the link completely and is therefore is not a serious option-in fact, I do not expect the Minister to comment on that.
Many people are concerned about what has happened, and a number of criticisms have been made about the political nature of the decisions taken. There has been particular confusion about the kind of planning application that should have been made at Cornwall council's level, and concern about the lack of proper consultation, the misjudgement that I have mentioned, and the perceived bias of some of the planning documents.
I mentioned a number of public meetings. More than 500 people turned up to the one in Penzance on a rainy Friday night-indeed, I believe that we had to turn people away because the hall did not have the capacity to take them. Some 500 people voted against the council's proposal and three voted in favour. I tried to urge the route partnership to play a part in that meeting, but it refused to engage with the public at that level. That is obviously an issue of deep concern.
The two ships themselves-the Scillonian and the Gry Maritha-obviously provide a vital link to the Isles of Scilly. The Minister's Department-through the Maritime and Coastguard Agency-is clearly responsible for giving the ships their certificates of sea worthiness. I believe that once the freight ship itself completes this year's five-year survey, it will be seaworthy until 2015. Scillonian has a five-year cycle of surveys, which should at least mean that it is available until 2014. The sustainability of the link for the next few years is, I think, assured, unless the Minister has anything further to say about that.
Although I passionately favour devolution and would like Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly to be given a great deal more power, as the Minister might know, I would like central Government to come in and offer support at this stage. I am keen to work with the Minister to achieve that. We need a quick review of the project and
a quick exploration of the alternatives to the conundrum that Penzance faces. There are workable alternatives and the consultant's report certainly shows that.
Perhaps the Minister will comment on the question of the extension to the deadline for the full approval submission. Such an extension is bound to happen, because I cannot see how the full approval submission can be given to his Department in the next four to six weeks. The matter will not therefore proceed before the end of this financial year. For that to happen, the Minister needs to indicate his discretion and intervene. I appreciate that legal consequences constrain what he can say, especially in the light of the judicial review of the harbour revision order for Penzance. However, leaving aside that order, there are substantial issues on which the Minister can comment in the context of the situation that we face.
The portfolio holder for Cornwall council, Councillor Graeme Hicks-I do not think that I have mentioned his name already-said in the Western Morning News on 17 November that the prime concern of the route partnership has not been to reduce capital costs, which will largely be covered by grant funding, which is vital to the islands' communities, but to decrease running costs, which will not be covered by such funding. The Minister might wish to reflect on the use of capital funding to reduce the revenue consequences of such a project. Whatever package is ultimately put in place to secure this vital link, my constituents on the Isles of Scilly are keen to ensure that the islands are not saddled with unacceptably high freight costs. The funding package needs to be managed in a way that ensures the economic viability and affordability of the scheme, whatever infrastructure configuration is put in place. That should remain uppermost in the minds of those who seek a settlement of the issue.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise such a parochial issue. Obviously, I understand the limitations in place, but I look forward to hearing whether the Front-Bench spokespeople can express some kind of recognition of the difficulties or a commitment to dealing with them. I know that other projects around the UK will experience such difficulties, because there is a risk of slippage beyond the financial year and the general election.
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing a debate on what is clearly a significant issue for the people he has the privilege of representing in Parliament.
Having listened to my hon. Friend's contribution in great detail, I frankly do not have much more to add to the debate. He has covered almost all the relevant details of the subject in his usual calm and rational way, and he has spoken passionately and knowledgeably on the issue-indeed, he has a track record of doing so since he was first elected to the House in 1997.
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