Previous Section Index Home Page

7 Jan 2010 : Column 268

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): The Under-Secretary made an important announcement earlier in respect of residents of park homes. When can he provide more detail on that, and will he consider using one of the parks in my constituency as one of the pilot projects, because we have more than 1,000 park homes in Christchurch?

Mr. Kidney: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. This issue has been under consideration for some time, so we are close to being able to give the detail he wants. I note his interest in his constituency being one of the pilot areas, and I shall take that on board as a representation.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): What support and encouragement are the Government giving to sub-aquatic marine energy generation-I am thinking of the plant off Northern Ireland, and we also had a United Kingdom plant off the coast of Portugal? This is the way forward for the future. What support is being given to it?

Mr. Kidney: Our country has the best testing facilities in the world: we have the New and Renewable Energy Centre-NaREC-as well as a facility in the Orkneys and the forthcoming wave hub in Cornwall. The specific technology to which my hon. Friend refers is either in place at, or being built at, the Orkneys facility, with some further testing and accreditation, and it is hoped that it will be the first applicant for assistance from the marine renewables deployment fund.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Amid the general failure at Copenhagen, there was at least positive discussion about mechanisms to reduce deforestation. Is the Secretary of State content that, among the mechanisms envisaged, there is sufficient protection for the rights of forest peoples, who are probably the best guardians of the rain forest? Could not the British Government set a very important precedent and make a valuable contribution to this process by ratifying International Labour Organisation convention 169 on the rights of tribal peoples, as other European countries have done?

Edward Miliband: Okay, I shall endeavour to look up ILO convention 169. The hon. Gentleman's general point about the importance of protecting the rights of forest people as we tackle deforestation is very important. One of the areas in which more progress was made at Copenhagen was the so-called RED-reducing emissions from deforestation-negotiations. Some important commitments were made by developed countries, and we need to move that forward.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): This House needs to be concerned about fuel poverty. Can the Secretary of State say how much the average electricity user is paying because of the subsidy relating to this Government's climate change policies being included in their bills?

Edward Miliband: From memory, I think we have said that by 2020 the climate change policies will add about 8 per cent. as a whole to energy bills. I say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that there is no high-carbon, low-cost future out there, because the truth is that if we want to
7 Jan 2010 : Column 269
have secure energy, we also need low-carbon energy-renewable and nuclear energy. So, yes, there are upward pressures on energy bills, and that makes life difficult for people, including those in fuel poverty, but it is right that we go down the low-carbon energy route. However, it is also right that we take measures to protect the most vulnerable.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Has the Secretary of State read "Sustainable Energy-without the hot air", the widely acclaimed and freely available book by Professor David MacKay? Is he aware of the following statement within that book:

Does that not behove us to consider very carefully the viability of onshore wind power?

Edward Miliband: Our chief scientist is a very distinguished person and his book has been by my bedside for some time. I have certainly read parts of it, although I cannot promise that I have read it from cover to cover. It is a good and illuminating read.

On the hon. Gentleman's question about wind power, I am clear that offshore and onshore wind power are part of our energy mix, alongside nuclear power and carbon capture and storage clean coal. All those things are necessary to provide us with secure and low-carbon energy.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Will the Government press the United Nations to undertake an assessment of
7 Jan 2010 : Column 270
the extra carbon emissions caused by the failed Copenhagen summit, not least in terms of the number of flights from places throughout the world and all those gas-guzzling limousines that had their engines idling while they waited to pick up distinguished delegates?

Edward Miliband: I do not think that that would be a good use of United Nations or, indeed, taxpayers' money, and I dread to think what doing the UN conference by video conference would have produced. The serious answer to the hon. Lady's question is that progress was made during the past year, partly as a result of the Copenhagen deadline, and we need to build on that in the years ahead.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Kettering has a very successful wind farm, which has planning permission to expand by two thirds, but there are proposals for six further wind farms in my constituency. What mechanism can the Secretary of State give far-sighted local authorities so that they can zone areas for wind farm development while protecting other parts of the countryside?

Edward Miliband: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. One of the things we are doing is a mapping exercise across the country to see which are the most appropriate areas for wind farms; that will help local authorities. I applaud local authorities that embrace renewable energy-those that say no to it everywhere are doing the wrong thing-but of course, local authorities need to be able to take decisions about the most appropriate places for wind energy facilities, and indeed they do.

7 Jan 2010 : Column 271

Salt Reserves

11.32 am

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the country's salt reserves and any implications this may have on local government's ability to maintain the road network.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): During this period of exceptionally prolonged severe weather, staff across the transport industries and national and local highways authorities are working extremely hard to minimise the disruption caused. The Highways Agency has its fleet of 500 salt spreaders and snow ploughs out in force and has been successful in keeping the vast majority of the major road network running, helping to prevent the formation of ice and build-up of snow.

Following the severe weather in February 2009, the UKRLG-the UK Roads Liaison Group-recommended good practice of having at least six days of heavy salting capacity in the winter period, alongside a package of wider recommendations to improve resilience. The UKRLG noted that the Highways Agency was already holding a minimum of six days' continuous heavy salting capacity in winter periods. The Highways Agency entered this winter period with 13 days' capacity, and we regard this as the right response following last year's events.

For the local road network, it is the responsibility of local authorities to decide how to respond to the UKRLG recommendations. We have kept in close contact with local authorities across the country to check how they are dealing with their own local road networks. Local authorities have told us that they increased their salt stocks at the start of the winter season compared with last year. The Local Government Association estimates that the equivalent of about 600,000 miles of road have been gritted by council gritting teams in the past 14 days, using about 38,500 tonnes of salt.

The Department for Transport and devolved Administrations have been regularly monitoring salt supplies and stock levels across the country with the help of their agencies, local authorities and the companies that supply salt. Alongside this, mutual aid arrangements between local authorities and the Highways Agency can help to relieve areas that are experiencing particularly tight stocks of salt. The Government and the devolved Administrations have also decided that owing to the exceptional weather affecting the country, they should work in partnership to advise salt suppliers on priorities for deliveries. The LGA will assist with that process. A group started the national prioritisation work this week. That will help to ensure that stocks of salt are supplied to where they are most needed.

We will continue to do everything possible to keep disruption to a minimum during this period of exceptionally prolonged severe weather.

Mrs. Spelman: Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr. Speaker. It is so topical that I think people would quite rightly have expected the Government to have made a statement on the subject by now, but we are grateful for this opportunity.

7 Jan 2010 : Column 272

Councils reviewed their own contingency plans in the light of their very bad experience of the snow as recently as February last year, and sent the report I have here, "Weathering the Storm", to the Minister's Department in August. Why, then, did it take until 15 December for Ministers to respond to that vital report? Does the Minister accept that with only 48 hours to go before the first predicted heavy snowfall in the south-east, councils' ability to implement the recommendations in full was compromised?

Does the Minister consider that the advice that he received to increase the stockholding capacity of six days' worth of salt supplies is adequate, given the prospect of at least another week of sub-zero temperatures, or will he revise the guidance to take account of the figure that he gave in his first response, which was more like 13 days' worth? If so, how soon will he change that guidance and when can councils expect to receive it? Does he accept that if the report's recommendations had been accepted earlier than 15 December, it might have been possible to avoid the gridlock of lorries around the salt mine in Cheshire that are trying to collect salt on behalf of councils? As the Minister will know, in February of last year one of the learning experiences came from the difficulty to do with the flexibility of drivers' hours. At what point did the Government act on the recommendation to provide for flexibility in drivers' hours?

Finally, do the Government intend to revise any of the guidance they have given to councils? If so, when can councils expect to receive this and will a copy of the revised guidance be placed in the Library of the House of Commons so that Members from all parties, whose constituents are experiencing considerable difficulty, might be able to see those changes?

I am sure that all Members would like to pay tribute to the work being done by their councils to try to keep essential roads open. They are working around the clock to keep Britain moving.

Mr. Khan: I pay tribute to all those who are ensuring that this country does not grind to a halt, whether they work for councils, for airports, for the rail sector or for the emergency services. They are doing a tremendous job to keep our country moving.

The hon. Lady has asked a number of questions, which I shall try to answer in turn. If there is anything that I do not deal with, I am sure it will be taken up by other colleagues. I can also write to her or speak to her afterwards if I do not take up all her points in my short response.

The hon. Lady is right to refer to the report made by the UKRLG in July. It was open to local authorities to follow the report's recommendations in July, rather than to wait for us to endorse it in December. She will be aware that many local authorities lived through the bad weather last February and March. I was surprised that she suggested that central Government should prescribe to local government and tell it what to do. Some might say that one of the reasons she is pointing the finger at central Government is that many of these local authorities are Conservative-run. Many constituents will want to ask questions about how their councils have performed in this difficult time.

7 Jan 2010 : Column 273

The six days' worth of supply is a recommendation of good practice. Some might decide to hold salt to cover much longer periods. We have examples of some local authorities that have salt for up to 69 days, so they have clearly not merely followed the good practice but decided that they should stock more. Indeed, we have stocked 13 days' worth with the Highways Agency. I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is suggesting that I, as someone with no expertise, should give advice on this issue, or that we should rely on experts to give advice. The UKRLG is made up of experts and they advised that the best practice was to stockpile six days' worth of salt.

The hon. Lady also talked about what local authorities and the Government should have been doing. We are responsible for ensuring that the Highways Agency has motorways and trunk roads cleared and running smoothly-and, in broad terms, it has been doing that. It is for local authorities to ensure that local roads run smoothly. I have spoken to the LGA this week, and the Prime Minister spoke to it this morning. We are doing all we can to keep the country moving.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I thank the Minister for his detailed answer, and I pay tribute to the hard work that has been undertaken by many employees of local councils and other bodies to try to keep our transport networks running effectively.

Does the Minister think it sensible for us to rely on just one mine in Cheshire for 90 per cent. of our salt supplies, and will he consider whether we need to diversify further to ensure that we have guaranteed supplies for future events? Was it not unwise, last February, to recommend that councils hold only six days' supply, given the current indication that there will be 10 days of extreme weather conditions, and will he consider revising that advice?

Is not one consequence of the current shortage of grit in many parts of the country that many side roads are not being treated in many areas? That leaves many elderly and vulnerable people effectively trapped in their homes, and is of great concern to them. Is not another consequence that pavements are not gritted at all in some areas? As far as I can tell, not a single pavement has been gritted by my Conservative council in East Sussex-not even those around doctors' surgeries, bus stops, supermarkets or anything else. A consequence of that, now and in December, has been that people have had to negotiate sheets of ice to purchase basic commodities and to do their normal work.

Finally, will the Minister make an assessment of the cost to business and the health service of the failure of some councils to keep essential transport systems working? I am conscious that in my local primary care trust area, and in the acute trust in Brighton, which has done very well, about 1,500 people have been through the system with injuries such as broken wrists that might not have occurred had pavements been properly gritted. As a public policy point, we ought to assess the cost to the health service of the failure of some councils to use grit properly.

Mr. Khan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his sensible points and the questions that he has raised. Let me deal with each of them, starting with salt supplies. As he is aware, there are two main salt suppliers in this country, and the supply is governed by where salt can be mined
7 Jan 2010 : Column 274
or excavated. I am not sure whether he is suggesting that I should nationalise the industry or start procuring or producing salt. I can tell him that the Prime Minister has spoken to the chief executives of both those companies this morning to impress on them the importance of trying to excavate as much salt as possible and to get it out from the factories. The Highways Agency has procured salt from Spain and from companies in the USA, and some local authorities have been innovative in procuring it. There is a problem with salt storage. Some local authorities have problems with salt barns and with the amount of salt they can store for a long period of time, and so are governed by lack of storage space rather than not being sufficiently geared up to get as much salt as they can.

On the hon. Gentleman's points about what has happened in his local communities, I must tell him that it is for local authorities and locally elected councils, which know their communities best, to decide where salt and grit should be laid down. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) suggested that perhaps we in Whitehall should have a map and decide which roads should be gritted. If there are problems in some areas, it is important that councillors make sure that the right parts of their communities are gritted. Clearly, there is a problem with the amount of grit available in relation to the extreme weather that we are having, and so priority assessments will need to be made. Those areas of the community that are a priority will need to be gritted.

The hon. Gentleman's final point is important. The cost to us of bad weather, not only in financial terms, to business, but in human terms, with operations being cancelled and school hours being lost by children, is immense. However, the weather is, on all objective assessments, the worst that we have had for almost 30 years, and so a sense of perspective is required.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): Is it not the case that a small number of politicians are sitting in their warm offices e-mailing press releases to create despondency, when many tens of thousands of public sector workers are out there keeping the country moving? Should we not be praising those workers, rather than moaning?

Mr. Khan: I thank my hon. Friend who, as ever, makes a really important point. The number of public servants out there shovelling away at grit to make sure that our pavements are clear and our roads gritted is immense. He will be pleased to know that the Prime Minister got in touch with the Highways Agency this morning to put on record his personal thanks for the hard work done by its staff in making sure that our country does not grind to a halt.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): The UK's largest rock salt mine is at Winsford in my constituency. The Minister has notably failed to praise the work force there-

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): He did.

Next Section Index Home Page