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The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice):
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) on, as he says, his third Adjournment debate, the first to which I have had the pleasure of responding. I know that he feels strongly about the issue. I think he is aware that the matter falls within the remit of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is responsible for marine issues, but unfortunately cannot be here today. I preface my remarks by saying that if, as I strongly suspect, I do not entirely allay all the concerns
of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary would be happy to meet him and go through them in more detail.
On the issue of biodiversity, I was astonished when reading the brief by the scale and significance of the salt flats to which my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West referred so clearly. Lymington harbour is part of a complex of estuaries in the Solent which supports a diverse coastal ecology. Large parts of the area, as he has said, are designated under a number of directives because of the habitats and species there.
By way of background, for which my hon. Friend will understand the need, the sites designated under the habitats and birds directive enjoy a degree of protection commensurate with their biodiversity importance. Any plans or projects, as he rightly said, proposed in the area are subject to an initial screening to decide whether the plan or project may have a significant effect on the site. Unless a significant effect can be conclusively ruled out, the plan or project needs to be subject to a full assessment via a legal procedure set out in those regulations. That is known, as my hon. Friend said, as an "appropriate assessment" and responsibility for undertaking it rests with the "competent authority", the identity of which is clearly one of his concerns. It is the body proposing to undertake, or give consent to, the plan or project. The purpose of the assessment is to ascertain whether the plan or project is likely to have an adverse impact on the integrity of a protected site. That assessment includes a detailed study of impacts and mitigation measures, and an assessment of alternatives. In carrying out an assessment, the competent authority is required to "have regard to" the advice of the appropriate statutory nature conservation body, which in this case is Natural England.
Having said that legal bit, I should say that I fully understand my hon. Friend's concerns about Wightlink's decision a year ago to introduce larger ferries on the route. I could argue with him about some of the issues to which he referred, although I would be arguing from almost the same position of lack of understanding to which he referred in other contexts. The Department is not aware of having lost two cases, as I think he suggested. There have been two cases in court, one was the judicial review, to which he referred, and the other was an application for an injunction to stop the ferries that was refused. We could debate the rights and wrongs of the issue, but they were fully aired at the hearing in December, which culminated in the judgment handed down in February that is now a matter of public record. I strongly endorse the point made at the outset of his remarks about the importance of the ferry and the commercial need for it in his local economy and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner). Ferries are crucial for both.
We now need to concentrate on the measures being taken to ensure that the protected sites suffer no adverse impacts from the new ferries so that the service can continue as intended. I do not want to open a debate into all the issues covered by the judicial review hearing, but two key points emerged from the judgment. First, the introduction of the type of larger ferry in question was, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West said, a plan or project under the terms of the habitats directive, and, secondly, the judgment confirmed that Wightlink is the competent authority responsible
for assessing the impact of the ferries. Although DEFRA has a role to oversee the implementation of the directive in the UK, the court agreed that it would not be appropriate for the Department to assume the role of competent authority, which I think is what my hon. Friend was suggesting, nor did the court suggest that the fact that Wightlink is a private company disqualifies it from discharging its duties as a statutory harbour authority.
Some of the faults that my hon. Friend described, and his desired final outcome, are issues that Wightlink itself, as the competent authority, should take into account, particularly the consideration of alternatives. I fully understand his desire for those alternatives to be considered. Since the judgment, Wightlink and Natural England have worked very closely to assess the potential impacts of the new ferries and to consider what mitigation works would be needed to avoid any adverse impacts. Both parties have invested considerable time and money in that process and used their own expert consultants. That assessment includes mapping evidence to assess changes to the navigational channel, consideration of sediment movement and a review of other influences on the navigation channel. The work also considered propulsion and ship wash modelling, and other likely effects from the increased size of the new ferries.
My hon. Friend referred to the damage that he believes has already been done by the ferries. My understanding is that the studies into the loss of the salt flats and salt marshes go back much longer; apparently, the Keyhaven marshes experienced a 50% loss between 1971 and 2001, and the Lymington marshes experienced a 63% loss between 1946 and 2001. No study to date has been conclusive on the cause of the loss. I fully understand my hon. Friend's concern at those losses. Having grown up in a similar area on the east coast, I fully understand the importance of the salt marshes, but we need to have a sense of perspective and not necessarily to blame everything on what has happened recently.
My hon. Friend had a little tease about the meaning of the word "ha", and I think he understands that it is, as he implied, a hectare. Natural England has quantified the predicted habitat loss and deterioration caused by the ferries and requiring mitigation as 1.6 hectares of inter-tidal habitat per decade. My hon. Friend suggested that the organisation had come to a decision before the assessment, and we can argue about the precise detail, but it is important that we start with a marker as to where we need to be on mitigation.
Wightlink and Natural England have had detailed discussions about mitigation works that Wightlink could undertake to ensure that the operation of the ferries has no adverse impact on the protected sites and can thus continue without breaching the Government's obligations under the directive. A programme of work has been proposed that involves taking material acquired from the regular dredging of the local moorings and depositing it in an area of deteriorating and eroding salt marsh. That would prolong the life of the salt marsh and mudflat habitat and offset the possible increase in the erosion of the mudflat attributed to the ferries. That work will of course be undertaken and funded by
Wightlink, and it will require the consent of other regulators. I understand that Wightlink intends to start the work next spring.
Let me address my hon. Friend's point about whether the proposals comply with the habitats directive. I am satisfied that it is acceptable to take into account proposed mitigation works when coming to a conclusion about whether a plan or project would have an adverse impact on the integrity of a protected site. I am also satisfied that works intended to avoid an adverse impact should be regarded as mitigation rather than compensation. I understand that Wightlink and Natural England have taken counsel's opinion on the issue.
Clearly, this is a complex area. Like my hon. Friend, I do not pretend to be an expert on it, but we need to look at what we can do to counter the risks. First, the ferries are being monitored. As he said, the Lymington harbour commissioners undertake regular bathymetric surveys, which will pick up any long-term erosion. Wightlink has also placed graduated stakes at various points to work out whether there is any evidence of ferry thrusters affecting the mudflats. So far, there is no evidence to suggest that the impacts will be different from those already predicted. However, we are clearly in an unknown area, and the science suggests that any erosion will be gradual and cumulative, so it may take several years to build a firm picture. That is why the monitoring is designed to give early warnings, which will enable us to move quickly if we need to.
That brings me to my last point, which relates to my hon. Friend's question about what happens if Wightlink and Natural England have got things wrong. Ultimately, the most important safeguard is the Secretary of State's power to control the operation of the ferries. If, at any stage, Natural England provides advice that there is evidence to suggest that the operation of the ferries is likely to damage the site, the Secretary of State has the power under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 to make a special nature conservation order and to serve a notice on Wightlink requiring it to stop any operation specified in the notice. I must repeat that Natural England predicts that the impact of the ferries is most likely to be gradual and cumulative. On that basis, it has advised that provided that Wightlink successfully delivers mitigation works starting next spring, it will avoid any adverse effect on the integrity of the protected sites. As things stand, therefore, we have no clear scientific basis on which to support a decision to stop or suspend the ferry operation at the moment.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject, because the debate opened my eyes to an issue with which I was not familiar. Clearly, our main priority is to comply with our obligations under the habitats directive and to protect these important habitats, and that is what we want to achieve. If we can do so while catering for the commercial needs to which my hon. Friend referred, that will satisfy us all. If he wishes to pursue the matter, he can talk to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury. If all else fails, the Government ultimately have the power to stop the ferries, but I imagine that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West and I would like to think that we can work things out without having to do that.
Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Sheridan, for giving me an opportunity to say a few words. I wish to make a few comments and raise a few questions about the future of the Building Schools for the Future programme in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham. To begin with, I shall refer to a couple of recent statements emanating from the new coalition Government which imply that different positions on the future of the programme are being developed in the Department for Education.
"I know that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to see that in making the £6 billion in-year reductions-many warnings were given about what that would mean-we have protected the schools budget, and ensured that schools and Sure Start are protected. In terms of building schools for the future, let me be clear: our plans-and our passion, when it comes to education-are to ensure that new schools are provided so that we have real excellence, in the secondary sector in particular. That is what it is about. Building schools for the future is exactly what our plans involve."-[Official Report, 2 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 430.]
Given that response, I was slightly unnerved to come across some recent press coverage which implies that a slightly different approach is being developed in a different part of the Government. I refer the Minister to a report in Building magazine of 4 June headlined "Government to halt BSF projects within weeks". The article states:
"The government could announce a formal halt to the £55bn school building programme within weeks, amid growing pressure from contractors for clarity over the future of the scheme. It is understood that the Department for Education is likely to make an announcement alongside or before the Budget on 22 June in response to uncertainty about the status of projects under the Building Schools for the Future initiative...officials are preparing to put all schemes that have not reached preferred bidder stage on hold...These include about £2bn of projects approved by the previous government as far back as last July...It is understood that all projects that have received financial close and virtually all those at preferred bidder stage will progress as planned, although sources have warned there may be 'some grey areas'."
Since the report in Building and the Prime Minister's welcome words a couple of weeks ago, the Department seems to have gone quiet on the subject. The only trace of formal comment I could find was a 10 June press release from the Department which was headlined "Department for Education statement on BSF". It stated:
"The Department for Education has not taken any decisions on the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. The Department is reviewing BSF to ensure that when we build schools for the future, we do so in a more cost-effective and efficient fashion. Any future rollout decisions will be announced in due course."
Therefore, today I search for a bit of clarity on the status of the programme, with specific reference to the situation in east London. This is a vital issue for all residents, parents and political representatives in the council and here in Parliament.
Before last month's elections, Barking and Dagenham was due to receive some £275 million of capital investment in secondary schools through the BSF programme. The programme included £250 million for school buildings and £25 million for information and communications technology investment. The BSF programme will enable the council to modernise all its secondary schools, including Trinity special school, and to build a new secondary school that will include special school provision in Barking Riverside, which is a major regeneration site in east London. The programme includes the modernisation of all the ICT provision in schools, and two schools-Dagenham Park Church of England school and Sydney Russell school-are sample schools for the procurement process.
The outline business case was approved by Partnerships for Schools in July 2009. Since that date, the council has been involved in the procurement of a local education partnership-LEP-to build schools and provide facilities, and a managed ICT service provider partner, to provide a managed ICT service for the schools.
Contracts were advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union in August 2009, which named the London borough of Havering and Thurrock council in Essex as contracting authorities, as well as ourselves in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham. That means that both those bodies can use our LEP when formed should they choose to do so, although they will fund their own developments. If they use the LEP, as shareholders in the LEP we would reap a shareholder return.
Let me mention a few specific points. On 8 June, the borough cabinet approved a recommendation for the ICT selected bidder. Yesterday, the cabinet approved the LEP selected bidder. Notwithstanding the fact that we do not yet know the Government's position on the future of the BSF programme, and assuming that we are able to continue the process, we would expect to achieve financial close in late summer or early autumn-a matter of weeks away.
Given the press coverage that I alluded to earlier, we must assume from those reports that the £55 billion national BSF programme is under threat from the new coalition Government, as part of their public sector cost-cutting drive. If the Government decide to scrap the programme in the next few weeks-as has been rumoured-that will have a huge impact on Barking and Dagenham. Critically, if BSF is cancelled or significantly delayed, from 2012 there will be a significant and growing shortfall in school places in our borough.
Council projections suggest that the borough will need an additional 2,250 secondary school places by 2015, rising to 2,875 places by 2017. Perhaps the Minister is aware that this part of London has been subject to extraordinary demographic change over the last few years, much of it off the radar of the state because it has occurred since the 2001 census. Those changes should not be underestimated in terms of the sheer velocity of movement into the borough.
Local councillors are also worried that, in addition to BSF funding, the primary school capital programme could be hit by Government spending cuts in the near future. The number of primary school places needed is estimated to rise to 11,595 by 2017. Over the past few years, the rate of increase in births in the borough has led to a significant rise in the demand for school places.
For example, in 2000-01 there were 2,380 births in the borough. By 2007-08 that number had risen by over 50% to 3,541. In addition to the extra pressure on school places due to the higher birth rate, the borough remains a significant area of economic regeneration. It has the lowest-cost housing market in Greater London, which has acted as a magnet for young families moving into the borough over the past few years. The housing represents good value and is attractive to young families, which in turn places additional pressures on our school places and buildings, and on the physical infrastructure across the borough.
The current coalition Government place great store in their new politics, in greater transparency in public policy making, and in ensuring that they give the public a major say in where the cuts should be made. I am sure that I speak for many parents in Barking and Dagenham by saying that one area where we do not want to see cuts is in money that is desperately needed to modernise our school buildings to make them fit for the 21st century.
If BSF funding is cut for the borough's schools it will have huge implications, not only for our schools but for the regeneration agenda, which I touched on briefly. If we do not receive BSF investment, the knock-on lack of school places will have a big impact on housing development across London and at the heart of the Thames gateway. Without investment in our schools, we will not be able to meet demand. We will have a shortfall in school places which, in turn, will make the borough a less attractive place for young families to move to.
Last week, the council leadership wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to seek assurances on BSF funding. The council now intends to step up the campaign at local level to save funding for the borough's schools by organising an online local residents petition to the Prime Minister. It is also urging local people to write to the Prime Minister, calling on his Government not to abandon BSF investment. I can fully understand both initiatives. The stakes, for BSF and local education provision, are high.
The possibility of major cuts to the BSF programme must be seen alongside other cuts at local government level. Following announcements in the past two weeks by the Chancellor and the Department for Communities and Local Government about the Government's economic savings plan, local councils across the country are being required to find an extra £1.165 billion in savings, amounting to 20% of the Government's £6.2 billion in cuts to public expenditure this year.
That means that the borough of Barking and Dagenham will have to find additional savings of between £4 million and £5.8 million in the next year, on top of savings of approximately £14 million this year to offset some of the losses, especially in the operation of the housing revenue account, which have put great pressure on the authority's budgetary process.
The precise amount of the cuts will not be known until the new Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition reveals its full emergency Budget next week, but there are already worries that housing money and Government cash normally reserved for local authorities in charge of areas with significant deprivation will be cut.
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