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My hon. Friend has discussed a link that is important not only for the people who live on the Isles of Scilly, of whom there are approximately 2,000, but for the wider
community that he represents. That link is, of course, also important to the many thousands of people who visit the area because it is a tourist hot spot. Indeed, the people of the Isles of Scilly would be the first to acknowledge, as would my hon. Friend, how important the tourism industry is to them.
My hon. Friend set out the case for a new Isles of Scilly ferry service comprehensively and in his usual quiet and rational manner. In doing so, he made a simple and heartfelt plea on behalf of the people he represents, and I think we would all agree that that deserves a positive response from the Minister. It is a measure of the man that, despite all the difficulties and challenges of the issue, which he has chronicled in detail, and the controversy and the various threats of intimidation, which most of us will have heard with great concern, he has stood steadfast and continued his campaign for the much-needed ferry link between St. Mary's and Penzance.
The ferry link, as I have said, is an issue of extreme concern not only to the 2,000-odd people who live there, but to the wider community. It is about links between the isles and the mainland. Public transport-indeed, transport links generally-is just as important, some would say more so, in the remote parts of the UK as in any other part. We must try to find a way to ensure that the project proceeds, despite the setback of Cornwall council's planning committee's failure to back the plans. My hon. Friend warned that that might happen, and today he simply seeks ministerial support to extend the funding deadline so that all workable options can be explored.
The message is straightforward. Will the Minister throw the scheme a lifeline, so that those across the spectrum who want the project to succeed-my hon. Friend made great play of the fact that it is not a partisan or party political issue-can work together to seek a viable solution? Surely, the Government who are elected after the general election, of whatever political hue, will not abandon their commitment to those who live on the Scillies. I am prepared to say on behalf of my party that, despite the setbacks that were well chronicled in my hon. Friend's contribution, we believe a new Isles of Scilly ferry link is not only desirable but essential, and public funding is a key component of that.
I think we would all agree that my hon. Friend made the case today comprehensively, in great detail and in a calm, rational and bipartisan manner, and it deserves that kind of response. I, too, look forward to what the Minister might be able to say by way of extending a lifeline and some hope to the people who live on the Isles of Scilly and the wider community that the ferry link will go ahead and will not fall merely as the result of a funding deadline that, despite the best efforts of so many, will not be met. That is the key question that should occupy Members in the debate today.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. It is clear how committed he is to his constituents and how much work he has put into the issue, although I am a little puzzled by his stance, to which I shall return in a moment.
I do not know the beautiful Isles of Scilly at all, but I get second-hand reports of them that are full of praise from a family member who holidays there regularly. The ferries to the isles from Penzance are pivotal to tourism not only for the Scillies, but for Penzance, where they play a significant role in the local economy, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged. I am impressed by the project to regenerate Penzance harbour and the impact it could have on improving transport links for the town as well as for the isles. Derek Thomas, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for St. Ives, has told me that it is essential that the sea link from Penzance to the Isles of Scilly is improved, both for handling freight and for improving the passenger experience, through a new ferry service.
I understand that three options were examined, of which two are still on the table. Option A, the main option that the hon. Member for St. Ives discussed, falls within the £44 million budget originally allocated, including the substantial grants from central Government. It would comprise freight and terminal facilities on reclaimed land at Penzance harbour and a pier extension with rock armour protection for the pier. Cornwall county council was minded to accept that option. It had already applied, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, for a harbour revision order, which involved significant changes to the grade II-listed harbour sea wall, and crucially, English Heritage accepted that. Sadly, English Heritage seems to have changed its tune and objected to option A because of concerns about the preservation of aspects of Penzance harbour, whose antiquity I fully recognise.
Cornwall county council's strategic planning committee was forced to reject that proposal because it was told that it would not get past English Heritage. Nevertheless, Councillor Alec Robertson, the leader of the council, has told me that he continues to believe that that is a viable option and is working with English Heritage to resolve its concerns-I think that the Minister is nodding.
Option B was dropped because it would have involved hugely increased operating costs and destroyed several local jobs. The only remaining option is option C, which proposes that the freight depot should be relocated to the village of Longrock and that the old Trinity House museum at Penzance should be converted into a passenger terminal. It does not include plans to extend the pier or provide it with rock armour protection. Both options include a new combined passenger freight vessel, which would operate at similar speeds to the existing Scillonian-I will not repeat the points that the hon. Member for St. Ives made about that.
If a consensus is not reached on one of the options, and option A is clearly the favoured one, the historical links could be under threat as there is a danger that Falmouth could re-emerge as an option. For all the reasons the hon. Gentleman set out, that would be extremely unsatisfactory.
According to the Office for National Statistics, about 100 jobs in Penzance and on the Isles of Scilly are within water-based transport. I understand that the recent Mott MacDonald analysis conducted on behalf of Cornwall country council showed that 31 of those jobs relate to the passenger and freight ferries operating from the harbour.
Visitors generate revenue for local shops, restaurants, bars and taxi firms, and the council estimates that approximately 190 jobs in Penzance are dependent,
directly or indirectly, on business links with Scilly. Although average earnings in the south-west hotel and restaurant sector are extremely low-£11,500 a year-those jobs inject a combined £2.2 million into the local economy, so Penzance's economy would be affected as well as that of the Isles of Scilly.
It is also important to stress the impact that suspending freight services would have on Penzance. Some 12,000 tonnes of freight are delivered to the Isles of Scilly each year, 95 per cent. of which goes through Penzance, so the loss of freight services to the Isles of Scilly could kill off Penzance's harbour.
Option C, which I have mentioned, would have several practical difficulties. It would delay the project further, which in turn would lead to the need to repeat vessel tenders that will have gone out of date, and another delay in the harbour works to suit the seasonable need of marine works. In a letter to the hon. Member for St. Ives, the Minister who was then responsible for shipping made it clear that the Government would withdraw funding if the agreed time scales were not met-I hope that the Minister will come back to that point in his speech. The delay involved in option C would further increase the costs by £5 million anyway, so that option looks less attractive.
Unsurprisingly, both Derek Thomas and Cornwall county council have told me that they have concluded that option A offers the best solution. Operationally, it is simpler and easier to manage with activity on only one site. Option A would maximise harbour regeneration opportunities, and allow enhancement of the south pier, reclamation and rock armour protection along the full length of the listed harbour, thereby reducing storm damage to it. Investment in the Penzance south pier would reduce future maintenance costs on the grade II-listed pier via the rock armour protection to the seaward face, but all that depends on persuading English Heritage to change its mind.
Andrew George: I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's points about the significant importance of the link between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly for jobs and economic benefits to Penzance, but I am not sure that he has been well briefed on the impact of pursuing option A versus that of pursuing option C. The £5 million figure that he cited would be for anticipated additional costs should the project be delayed, whether it be option A that causes the delay or a failure to pursue option C at an earlier stage, which would also result in delay.
Mr. Brazier: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, but option C includes inherent further delays. I mentioned a couple of them, including the requirement to retender for the vessels. There is a further point: Cornwall council has estimated that option C would involve an additional cost of up to £150,000 a year for the freight facility, so there is a substantial extra operating cost.
I should say something further about the hon. Gentleman's handling of the matter. I make it clear that I fully understand his commitment, but when any constituency MP is faced with competing desires among elements of their constituency, with some people in favour of one thing and some in favour of another, they of course hold consultation meetings, and the outcomes of those meetings tend to depend, to some extent, on the part of the constituency in which they are held.
However, at the end of the day, attacks on the process, even if there have been flaws in the it-I am not in a position to comment on that-are no substitute for coming to the view that a particular outcome is needed.
As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman believes that the project is needed, and needed soon, which really means that option A is needed. He accuses the Council of the Isles of Scilly of intimidation, but I must say that I do not recognise that. One does not normally identify the Isles of Scilly as an area of huge intimidation-that is not the picture painted by my family member who frequently holidays there.
"not a constructive way forward for the project at this late stage in proceedings".
I know that the county council also raised several points about that. He must accept the logic of his own conclusion. There will be some elements in Penzance that will be sorry to see the changes involved in the process, but, if something is to happen in a reasonably timely fashion and without a lot of extra costs, option A is the realistic option on the table. To will the end but not the means is not consistent.
The hon. Gentleman rightly asked-if I were a constituency MP in his position, I would have done the same-for a view from each of the Front-Bench spokesmen as to whether the project will be funded. He did not get an answer from his party's Front-Bench spokesman-
Mark Hunter: Yes. With great respect to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), he was, in fact, out of the room, or had at least popped to the back-I was facing Mr. Olner in the Chair. I clearly gave my party's view on the matter, so I hope that he will withdraw his comment. The record will show what I said, and there is no doubt about it.
Mr. Brazier: I apologise. I was out for a moment to answer a message on my mobile phone, so I withdraw the point. I listened to the hon. Gentleman's peroration, and I had assumed that he would have included his answer in his summary, in which he made several fair points but did not give a firm commitment to providing the money. If he did so earlier while I was out of the room for a moment, I apologise and withdraw my comment.
Given the current state of the public finances, it is impossible for a spokesman for a party that might well be in office in a few months' time-I do not anticipate anything from the election, but there is a reasonable prospect that my party may be in office-to make an absolute commitment on public spending. However, there are two points that I can make.
First, it seems wholly unreasonable to say that a deadline a few weeks away must be a hard and fast
condition for receiving the money. Clearly, that is ridiculous. Secondly, I hope that, when considering this matter, English Heritage will not allow itself to become simply a spanner in the works. I have the greatest admiration for the work that it does to protect important heritage, including a great deal in my constituency. However, given that it has already conceded much important ground in respect of the harbour revision order, I very much hope that it will not simply become a spanner in the works should it prove possible, as I very much hope that it will, for this extremely worthy project to go ahead.
Andrew George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Of course, I entirely understand that there is a general election coming and that therefore he probably could not resist commenting on my handling of the situation-I leave that to others to judge. However, on English Heritage and its role, as I have said, it has already made it clear that it wants to offer a constructive role in seeking a workable alternative, and it has professional, capable officers who are prepared to come and work with others to find a way through. That is willing the means, as well as trying to achieve the ends.
Mr. Brazier: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the options are narrowing. We are now down to two options. The second one would be more expensive in capital terms partly, as he said, because of delays, some of which are inevitable. It would certainly also be more expensive in current terms, and this at a time when money is critically tight.
I very much hope that attention can be focused on option A, which the county council believes is the best option. I hope that any Government, whatever their political complexion, will look at it with some enthusiasm, because it is important for the local area, and I very much hope that it will be possible to fund it so that it can go forward in a timely fashion.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): I offer best wishes for 2010, Mr. Atkinson. Let us hope that we have a constructive year. If Mr. Olner had still been here, I might have said "successful", but I will not say that. Seasons greetings to you and to hon. Members in this Chamber.
At the outset, I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate on a fundamentally important issue. It is important not only to those on the Isles of Scilly for reasons of social inclusion, education, economic prosperity and tourism. As the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) said, it is also fundamentally important to Penzance and the wider region for attracting people, jobs, business and trade to the region. It is important to all the good people who work and operate in the area.
The Isles of Scilly came to my attention as a young lad in short trousers when that great former right hon. Member for Huyton holidayed there. What a marvellous leader he was. Having put that on the record, I should say that I recognise the importance of that area.
If hon. Members could see my in-tray and that of the officials in the Department for Transport, they would see that the hon. Member for St. Ives has certainly been working hard, seeking a way forward on this important issue. I recognise that he has held seven public meetings and so on, and all that has happened. However, I am interested in the fact that he now wishes the Government in Whitehall, many hundreds of miles away from his constituency, to start imposing processes on democratically elected bodies. I say that genuinely, because I am not going to comment on quotes such as the one about whether the decisions were being taken on behalf of residents overall. All local authorities, whether the council of the Isles of Scilly or Cornwall council, need to take part in these processes, as part of the day-to-day process that goes on.
I give this commitment at the outset: we support the need for there to be a viable passenger and freight service, which is important for all the reasons that I have just outlined, but I cannot dictate-I would be highly surprised if any Liberal Democrat Member suggested that I should dictate-what should be the final outcome. The hon. Member for St. Ives quoted someone saying something about this needing to be a partnership not a dictatorship, and that is exactly where the solution must be found. I will answer the hon. Gentleman's questions, which he set out clearly at the beginning, as I go through.
Andrew George: I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to the other issues. I want to reassure him, in case he misunderstood, about the nature of the question that I was fundamentally asking. I am not asking him or his Department, or anyone in the Government, to come in and impose a solution in circumstances where a solution needs to be the product of decisions taken by the democratically accountable bodies representing the communities that are served by the service. However, I seek reassurance that his Department will assist-and that requires some executive decisions. Certainly, a decision on the extension of the funding can be taken only by his Department, not by local authorities.
Paul Clark: I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I recognise that. Let me reassure hon. Members again that we are doing all that we can. My ministerial colleague, the Minister of State for Transport, said in a letter written in December that
"officials are working very closely and positively with Cornwall Council on this scheme with the most recent meeting held"
in the middle of November. We continue to do that because we want to find a solution. This is an emotive issue that goes beyond the normal sort of transport debate to the heart of creating and nurturing flourishing communities.
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