|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
16 Nov 2010 : Column 230WHcontinued
"support the revitalisation and promotion of the cultural, religious and linguistic heritage of the Maronites,".
Ian Lavery: Does the Minister agree that not only do we have a moral obligation to support a solution in Cyprus on a one-state basis, but we have a legal obligation based on the treaty of guarantee and the memorandums that we have signed with Cyprus? Does that differ from what he has just said?
Mr Lidington: No, it does not. The hon. Gentleman draws me on to comments that I was about to make.
Far be it from me to criticise a distinguished elder statesman such as the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), but I am happy to make it clear that the Government's position is to support a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with political equality for a united Cyprus. We do not support partition. As the hon. Member for Wansbeck has said, as one of the guarantor powers, we are bound by treaty not only to resist but to prohibit any step that would lead either to the partition of Cyprus or to its unification with any other country. The new British Government remain in support of that position on the present and future status of Cyprus.
Mr Meale: Does the Minister agree that there would be a great danger if Britain's policy moved away from the one that he has expressed? If we break the treaty signed in the '60s that gave independence to Cyprus, it would break all other parts of the treaty. That could affect the British bases on the island.
Mr Lidington: As a general principle, if one signs and ratifies a treaty, one should stick by its obligations. That is what we intend to do.
Important British interests are at stake in the search for a settlement in Cyprus. The amount of human misery in Cyprus, whichever community we are talking about, would in itself justify making the search for a settlement a political priority; but there are also hard-headed British national interests at stake. Although a peaceful and lasting settlement in Cyprus would not, as others have said, remove all obstacles to Turkish accession to the European Union, it would remove one of the most significant blocks to that process. I believe and the Government believe that Turkish membership of the European Union is in the interests not just of the UK, but of Europe as a whole. A settlement would also make possible the effective co-operation between NATO and the European Union that has been impossible for so many years, because of the stand-off between Turkey and Cyprus over the events of 1974 and what has happened since.
I hope that both sides in the negotiations and especially at the forthcoming meeting in New York can continue to show both flexibility and leadership. The leaders have the full support of the international community and they need to grasp the opportunity to find a solution before that window closes.
One of the concerns expressed widely within Cyprus is that Cyprus is not considered important enough internationally for a solution to be found. In reflection of that, would it not be sensible for the British
Government to make greater use of the European Union to try to bring parties together and to pressure all the parties to negotiate, and would it not be much more sensible if the three guarantor powers, of which we are one, met to try to co-ordinate the putting of pressure on the two parties at the negotiations in New York?
Mr Lidington: I would not rule out a meeting of the guarantor powers at some stage, if that would be helpful. The hon. Gentleman reminds me that in his speech he called for vigorous diplomacy on the part of the British Government. I do not dissent from what he said, except that I would add two words of caution. First, by virtue of our history and status as a guarantor power and our possession of the sovereign base areas, we of course have a particular interest in Cyprus and the search for a settlement there; but sometimes, precisely because of our history, we are not necessarily the most welcome source of advice, particularly public advice. Sometimes it is better if others-in this case, the United Nations envoy, Mr Downer-take the lead. It is very important that the negotiations are seen to be, in the end, in the ownership of the Cypriots themselves, because unless there is buy-in from both communities in Cyprus, a settlement will not endure.
Secondly, although the search for a settlement in Cyprus is seen by the Government as an important political priority, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that in the conduct of foreign affairs, just as in the conduct of domestic politics sometimes, it is best to talk candidly to friends, allies and partners behind closed doors, rather than through a megaphone. We have to suit the technique to the occasion.
Mr Burrowes: May I press the Minister further on the details of the relationship with Turkey? The hand of friendship has gone out from the Prime Minister to Turkey. Will the Minister be able to draw attention to the role that we play in terms of pressing the case for Cyprus?
Mr Lidington: I will come to that very point in a moment. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of it. Before I do so, I want to deal with a point that the hon. Member for Caerphilly raised by saying that the coalition Government have maintained the offer made by the previous Labour Government to cede nearly half the sovereign base area territories in the event of an agreed, negotiated solution in Cyprus.
I shall now respond to what my hon. Friend just said. We welcome the support that Turkey has given the settlement process. Prime Minister Erdogan has publicly stated his full support for the Cyprus settlement process on a number of occasions, including in March this year, when he confirmed-this is an important point-Turkey's acceptance of the UN principles under which the process takes place. We regularly discuss all aspects of the Cyprus issue with Turkey. As my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green said in an intervention, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did so publicly as well as privately when he visited Turkey earlier this year. Most recently, we raised the subject of Cyprus
during President Gül's visit to London last week, and I did so with Turkish Ministers when I attended the Bosphorus conference in Istanbul in October.
Turkey has an important role to play in encouraging the Turkish Cypriots to grasp the opportunity of a settlement and to ensure that the negotiations succeed. A settlement will deliver economic benefits to Turkish Cypriots and end their sense of isolation once and for all, which is a key Turkish objective. A settlement in Cyprus will, we believe, be of great benefit to Turkey as a whole and her ambition eventually to join the European Union.
A number of hon. Members talked about particular aspects of the tragedy that has afflicted Cyprus for more than 30 years. Some referred to the damage done to cultural sites and places of worship. There is no doubt that that damage took place, particularly during 1974 and in the immediate aftermath. I have made note of the points that were made particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North about the alleged desecration of cemeteries and church graveyards. I will take advice on how we might raise that issue.
Jim Sheridan: For the record, I point out that I have passed on the photographs that were taken recently at the Morphou rally, which demonstrate the clear indignation caused by the vandalism that has taken place.
Mr Lidington: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is important, as a means of helping to build community reconciliation, that we support confidence-building measures at local level and take account of the reality of the grief still experienced by many individuals and families. Action in respect of the proper treatment of cultural and religious sites and co-operation in the search for missing persons are matters that the British Government take very seriously indeed. We have given particular support to the work of the European Union's Committee on Missing Persons and we donate to its annual budget. As hon. Members know, the CMP has so far found just under 700 sets of human remains, both Greek and Turkish Cypriot.[Official Report, 23 November 2010, Vol. 519, c. 2MC.]
Mr Love: Will the Minister give way?
Mr Lidington: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not, because I am getting very near the end of my time.
I welcome the commitment of the Cypriot leaders from both communities to the current negotiations. Their meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this Thursday is a positive step, but there is a great deal of further work to do to maintain the momentum and to ensure that the important opportunity to achieve a strong and lasting peace is not lost. These are different from previous negotiations. It is now in the hands of the leaders themselves to reach agreement. I agree that there can be no arbitration or tight deadlines, but a purely open-ended process will not benefit the Cypriots themselves. I urge all parties to engage positively and flexibly in negotiations and to grasp the opportunity to secure the benefits that all communities in Cyprus so richly deserve.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate on Yorkshire Water and the problem of leakages in the region and in my constituency in particular.
Sometimes, an individual case illuminates the landscape of powerful organisations that, although they may genuinely believe themselves to be working in a responsible, correct and legal manner, do not realise that by a sequence of events and decisions, they end up treating an ordinary-I do not much like that word-citizen of our nation unfairly. This is the story of a little man confronting a giant, powerful conglomerate that is trampling over his rights.
Mr George Georgiou is a British citizen of Cypriot origin who lives in Foljambe road, a modest road in my constituency. He came to Rotherham in 2007 to buy a little fish and chip shop at the bottom of that road, which produces as good a cod and chips as one can get in Rotherham, a town that is widely acknowledged to have the best fish and chip shops in Yorkshire.
There was flooding in other parts of the constituency in 2007. Early in 2008, Yorkshire Water carried out some mains work at the top of Mr. Georgiou's road. Ever since, he has experienced flooding in his basement. He lives at the foot of the road, which is about 200 or 300 yards long. When the water goes downhill from any mains, it ends up in his basement.
To set the scene, Yorkshire Water is the monopoly utility supplier of water in the region. It wields its monopoly power from a product that falls for free from the sky. It makes handsome profits; last year it made £116 million. It operates in a closed market with no competition, and it pays its top executives well. Its chairman, Kevin Whiteman, to whom I shall return, was paid a little short of £500,000 last year. Despite the profits and the pay of its bosses, Yorkshire Water has the worst performance on leakage of any water company in Britain. Ofwat last week condemned the firm for losing 295 million litres a day through leakages last year. Some of that 295 million litres has flooded the basement of my constituent's home.
For nearly three years, Mr Georgiou has, with my help, asked Yorkshire Water to accept its responsibilities. That giant monopoly has treated a man who is struggling to keep his head above water-almost literally-and his business alive with nothing short of contempt. Following the classic behaviour of the bully, the more that Mr Georgiou has protested, the more the bullying has increased.
Mr Georgiou has had to install a pump in the basement of his house and shop, as if it were a ship of Nelson's time that needed continuous pumping to keep it dry. He hardly dares to leave his home for the fear that the water may rise and cause an electrical short. It is surreal to go into a modest home at the foot of a road in Rotherham and find, beneath a ground-floor fish and chip shop, the steady ingress of water, with a pump working away and buckets present day and night.
Like all water companies, Yorkshire Water has a statutory duty to repair and prevent leaks. Instead of so doing, it has come up with excuse after excuse to
explain why the water in Mr Georgiou's home is nothing to do with it. I have here a huge file of letters, which make up a kind of comedy. Yorkshire Water explains that the land around Mr Georgiou's house is damp. Well, it is damp in the winter when it rains and dry in the summer when it does not rain. The correspondence then states that it is drains water and that other homes have been affected. That shows a tenuous connection with truth, given that neighbours and previous inhabitants of 69 Foljambe road confirm that it is as dry as any other home, save for when the rain becomes so torrential that all Rotherham is damp for days afterwards.
I will not burden the Chamber by reading out the whole correspondence, but I will quote from Yorkshire Water's own assessment:
"Some of the cellar water examples are in the range expected of mains water".
It then quotes from the Yorkshire Water excuse book, as written by its Czech consultant, one Mr Kafka:
"because it is possible to propose other explanations of certain sample results does not mean that these other explanations are true."
I have tried to work my head around that statement, of which the former US Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Rumsfeld, might have been proud. In plain English, Yorkshire Water was saying that anything that it says is true and anything that one of its clients says, even on the basis of independent advice, can be ignored.
Mr Georgiou is a determined and reasonable man. From his e-mails, it is clear that he is not the cross constituent whom all hon. Members know only too well. He has sought advice from and sent samples to outside experts and assessors. They have all come back and said that they think it is mains water from Yorkshire Water. At his own expense, Mr Georgiou has had his basement and the land around it dug up in search of the water leak. Yorkshire Water insists that he is responsible for the leak because it has nothing to do with water at the foot of Foljambe road.
In a letter dated 6 October 2008, Mr Trevor Craddy of Yorkshire Water complains about Mr Georgiou having hired a private plumber, at his own expense, to dig up the land to find where the water was coming from:
"One would have expected that the private plumber having been unable to find a leak would have stopped digging at that point."
To stop digging is advice that Yorkshire Water might well have taken. For a small amount of money in relation to the firm's profits and salary levels, it could have tanked the cellar and helped Mr Georgiou to focus on his fish and chips, rather than making him into a Rotherham David taking on the Goliath of this unaccountable, rich monopoly.
The environmental health department of Rotherham metropolitan borough council has investigated the leak and has shown that the water does not come from its pipes. All I have sought to do is to help my constituent, in a classic example of what an MP does at the constituency level. I have no axe to grind against Yorkshire Water; it is a good company in many ways, save for the wretched problem of endless leaks. I have secured this debate to ask the Minister to examine why it is that there is no effective mechanism to hold to account such powerful, rich monopolies. They have a licence to make money and pay pharaonic executive salaries, beyond public
control or accountability. Ofwat appears to be powerless -we have written to it. Rotherham council is powerless. The Consumer Council for Water is helpless.
On 17 November 2008, Mr David Freeman of the Consumer Council for Water in Yorkshire wrote:
"We do not feel able to tell Mr Georgiou that we are satisfied that the problem is not mains water".
That double negative flatly contradicts the constant line from Yorkshire Water that the water that is constantly going into Mr Georgiou's home, that is making his life a misery and that is stopping him from developing his small business, has nothing to do with it. The Consumer Council for Water, like Ofwat, has no power to compel Yorkshire Water to behave responsibly.
I have tried to work with the company. I have had several conversations with Kevin Whiteman, who was Yorkshire Water's chief executive officer and is now its chairman. In summer 2009, he agreed to make a joint visit to Mr Georgiou's home, but that never happened. In what I thought was a reasonable way forward, he agreed to arbitration. I recommended that warmly to Mr Georgiou. Naturally, Mr Georgiou wanted his team of experts to discuss the matter with Yorkshire Water's experts. One does not go into an arbitration by oneself to face a giant company that has a battery of scientists, technicians, lawyers and public relations people. Mr Georgiou and I said to Mr Whiteman that we would go to arbitration. We laid out the issues that we thought needed to be discussed, presented our papers and notified him of our team of expert witnesses.
Suddenly, however, Yorkshire Water and Mr Whiteman withdrew their offer of arbitration. I cannot, in my 16 years as an MP, remember such an example of bad faith and breach of trust by the CEO of a powerful monopoly. He offered arbitration, but the moment it was clear that arbitration would not deliver the result he wanted, he withdrew it. To withdraw that offer of arbitration, made to me and which I persuaded Mr Georgiou to accept, shows an indifference to fair play and to a basic level of respect for a British citizen who has nowhere else to go if he wants his water delivered-Yorkshire Water is, of course, a monopoly supplier.
That is why I have sought this Adjournment debate. I want to send a message to Yorkshire Water, on behalf of all the residents of Yorkshire, that the loss of 295 million litres a day from its pipes is not acceptable. The company and industry were privatised more than two decades ago. At the time, we were told that the companies had to take over from municipal water works engineers, who were just paid ordinary salaries, and that a shareholding structure with a board of directors and non-executive directors, and paying the chief executive and the chairman loads of money, would improve things. Yet here we are, 20 years later, and the leakage rate is as bad as ever, which is a huge waste of a precious resource when we are worrying about water shortages across the world and, frankly, not the best of tributes to the notion that privatisation of a monopoly public utility is the magic solution to making companies really efficient.
I sought an Adjournment debate with reluctance. I had obtained one some months ago, but withdrew it, because I still wanted Yorkshire Water and Mr Georgiou
to come together and find a deal. I could not believe that the thousands of pounds of investigations, documents, technicians, lawyers and staff hours spent saying no to this man could possibly be justified. For probably a 10th of the collective money spent by Yorkshire Water in denying him his rights, it could have tanked the cellar and made good the problem.
All right hon. and hon. Members deal daily with difficult cases and we make our representations as best we can. However, I have never come across such a shocking example of the mistreatment of an individual without any resources or private wealth. The entire bureaucracy of Yorkshire Water has been deployed against Mr Georgiou. All he wants is for the firm to accept its clear responsibility and duty so he can carry on his business without manning the pumps in his cellar all the time.
I do not have time to read out all the letters and reports cranked out by Yorkshire Water as it spent thousands of pounds and hour upon hour of its employees' time in order to crush Mr Georgiou. Instead of producing his fish and chips, he has had to engage in this lonely battle for justice. The latest twist to the tale is a county court civil case-again, Yorkshire Water would rather spend a fortune on lawyers than simply accept its responsibility.
I finish, frankly, in despair. The Minister is a decent man and, as a constituency MP, he can probably tell other dire stories of how powerful, unaccountable monopolies trample over the rights of citizens. He has no executive powers, as a Minister, to compel Yorkshire Water to do anything. I do not know if the new Government's ideas of localism or the big society can alter the balance of power between the citizen and the monopoly or quasi-monopoly companies, which have so much power without responsibility in our land.
I regret having to bring the matter to the attention of the House-I do not want a war of words with Yorkshire Water-but my duty to my constituent is clear. I hope that Mr Georgiou can feel at least that his Parliament and MP can be voices against what I believe is a great wrong done to him. I am grateful to have had the privilege of securing this Adjournment debate today.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) on securing the debate. Without commenting on his specific case, I also congratulate him on fulfilling the House's fine tradition of right hon. and hon. Members standing up for their constituents when they feel they have been wronged. It might have been a tad easier to give the right hon. Gentleman a fuller response had I known he would raise that specific case, but I will do my best to talk about it. In my early remarks, I will set that case in context.
The control of leakage from water company distribution networks is a vital component in maintaining an adequate supply-demand balance in the supply of water. The failure of some water companies consistently to meet leakage targets undermines efforts to convince customers to adopt water-efficient behaviours. It is clear from the views expressed in the current water White Paper online
survey that leakage is an issue held in high importance by the public, not just in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency but across the country.
The failure of some companies to meet annual leakage targets reflects badly on the generally good performance on leakage-that is why I would take slight issue with the right hon. Gentleman. He said that we are where we were 20 years ago, but there has been considerable improvement. It is not my job to defend or to be the voice of any water companies. If anything, my job is to ensure that a fair deal is being achieved by the consumer. However, we want to be accurate in dealing with leakage-it is not where we would like it to be, but we are moving in the right direction, and a number of different factors are involved. I will talk about some of those factors in a moment.
The latest figures show that leakage has reduced by more than a third since its peak in 1994-95-a reduction of 1,837 megalitres per day, equivalent to the daily needs of more than 12 million domestic customers. Between now and 2015, the target leakage in England and Wales is due to fall by a further 97 megalitres per day.
At this stage, it is useful to remember that fixing leaks can be costly-that is no excuse for it not happening, but it can be costly. Customers have told Ofwat, the independent regulator, that they do not want to see large rises in bills to reduce leakage, and, clearly, the serious disruption caused by digging up streets must be considered.
Companies are now reaching a level of leakage at which the extra costs associated with repairing leaks-in terms of manpower, materials, fuel, carbon emissions and so on-are equal to the costs of producing the water that is leaking. That is not to say that we should not redouble our efforts-of course we should-but we should see them in the full balance of what we are seeking for a modernised water company through the current review process.
The water companies report their leakage performance annually to Ofwat. When Ofwat assesses a company's performance against leakage targets, any decisive external events are taken into account. The prolonged cold winter we experienced last winter presented a challenge to the water companies in managing an increase in burst mains and in minimising interruptions to consumers. The coldest winter for more than 30 years had different impacts on networks across England and Wales. All companies reported high numbers of burst pipes over that period because of ground movement caused by freezes and thaws-I am not saying that that is in any way related to the particular case referred to by the right hon. Gentleman. In addition, snow cover for longer than normal made it more difficult for the companies to find and repair their leaking pipes.
Ofwat's primary consideration when deciding what action to take against a company that fails its leakage targets is whether the target failure affects customers' security of supply. Does the increased leakage mean a higher risk of restrictions on customers' use of water? A leakage target failure would be considered much more serious were it to jeopardise water supplies to customers. Ofwat's policy for assessing leakage failures takes account of a company's performance over a three-year period, and it does not automatically take regulatory action after a single year's failure.
A range of options is available to Ofwat. The right hon. Gentleman said that it was powerless-I will come on to talk about his specific case-but Ofwat can act against a water company that is failing on leakages. For example, in 2006 Ofwat used its powers to secure an undertaking from Thames Water in response to a failure to meet leakage targets. Since then, Thames Water has reduced leakage by more than 190 megalitres a day. It achieved that by spending approximately £150 million of shareholders' money, not by putting the cost on its bills. That is one tool that can be used to bear down on the problem.
During last winter's cold weather, Yorkshire Water experienced an increased number of burst mains, and the same happened across the country. This is the first time the company has failed a leakage target since targets became mandatory in 1998-99. Since 1995, when the company received significant negative media coverage after the drought of that year, it has renewed more than 2,800 km of water mains. The right hon. Gentleman made some grudging, but nevertheless generous comments about the company's performance on some issues, grinding his teeth as he did about pay issues, and I completely understand. As I say, however, I am here not to be the voice of the water companies or the regulator, but to make sure that the consumer gets the best deal.
On the circumstances of the case the right hon. Gentleman described, I must be extremely careful, because I understand-he may differ-that it is now the subject of legal proceedings. I will therefore have to be extremely guarded in the words that I use, and he will be able to correct me if the information I have is wrong.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, his constituent, Mr Georgiou, has experienced long-term, chronic ingress of water into his cellar-that is not disputed. He made a complaint to Yorkshire Water, which was not resolved to his satisfaction. The Consumer Council for Water became involved and supported Mr Georgiou in the processing of his complaint.
I will not reiterate the details of the case because the right hon. Gentleman has laid them before us, but I will answer some of his specific points. He said that the consumer council was unable to force Yorkshire Water to act, and he is absolutely right that it does not have the power to force a water company to take action. Nor is it in a position to determine liability in such cases. However, it does have powers to obtain any information required to ensure that customers' complaints have been handled appropriately. My understanding is that it supported Mr Georgiou in getting the information that he required. A review of how the consumer council handled the case is being carried out by the regional chair, who will look carefully at these issues.
The right hon. Gentleman has a further opportunity to raise this matter through the parliamentary ombudsman on behalf of his constituent. He says that Ofwat has no specific powers to resolve this complaint, and he is right that it does not have the power to resolve complaints about liability in such cases. It appears the case has reached the point where it is the subject of legal proceedings. I would very much like to be able to say more, but I am informed that that could prejudice those proceedings.
The Minister is being extraordinarily fair and decent about this case. Nothing would give Mr Georgiou and me greater pleasure than not to have
to proceed to a county court case, but to settle this matter modestly, cleanly and quickly now. As a result of this debate, I hope that Yorkshire Water might take that on board.
Richard Benyon: That is a very reasonable comment.
I started by saying that the House offers hon. Members the ability to stand up for people who feel, rightly or wrongly-this may be their perception or the reality-that they have been done down by a large company, bureaucracy or organisation, and it is entirely right that hon. Members have that ability.
On the exact rights and wrongs of this case, I have the right hon. Gentleman's word, which I entirely endorse as correct. However, when such matters are dealt with in legal proceedings, other factors are sometimes brought in, and it would be entirely wrong for me to pass comment at this stage. None the less, the right hon. Gentleman's comments are on the record. His persistence on behalf of his constituent is not only on the record of the House, but visible to those of us in the Chamber in the form of the file sitting on the desk in front of him. I assure him that if I can assist further without prejudicing legal proceedings in any way, I will, of course, be happy to talk to him.
Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I want to pay tribute at the start of this debate to Councillor Willie Richardson, who represented Romney Marsh and Dungeness at Kent county council and Shepway district council. He was a great advocate of Dungeness and a supporter of nuclear power there. Sadly, Willie died last week, and his funeral will be held tomorrow in Lydd. He would have taken a great interest in today's debate.
Dungeness nuclear power station has been an important part of the economy of my constituency for a number of years. The A station was given the go-ahead by the Minister for Power in 1959. In the deliberations before that decision, careful consideration was given to not only the need for new sources of energy to supply the national grid, but the unique environment of Dungeness.
Dungeness is a peninsula made largely of flint shingle that has built up over the centuries. It is one of the largest peninsulas of its kind in the world and the largest in Europe. It is right that it receives protection and special designation, as it has for many years, but it is also a working community, and people rely on the jobs that come from that community and, increasingly, from the nuclear power station.
The story of the success of Dungeness as a community involves the management and effective support of a brittle habitat and environment, with nature and man working successfully in partnership. Many would say that the arrival of nuclear power at Dungeness in the 1960s and 1970s has done a lot to underpin the important environmental work that has been done there. Indeed, some of the habitats, plants and wildlife that now exist at Dungeness would probably not be there were it not for the human intervention required to support and sustain the nuclear industry at Dungeness.
During the Government's consultation on new nuclear sites, as part of the national policy statement on energy, there were considerable representations from my constituents, Shepway council and Kent county council about the economic importance of nuclear power at Dungeness. Approximately one in 10 jobs in Romney Marsh is linked, directly or indirectly, to the power station. It is estimated that Dungeness B station, the one that is currently in operation producing energy, puts about £20 million a year into the local economy. Without that continued investment and the continued presence of nuclear power it is hard to see how we could make up the shortfall. It is primarily for that reason that there has continued to be considerable support from the community for nuclear power at Dungeness, and for a C station-a new generation of nuclear power to replace Dungeness B when it stops production in the late 20-teens or in the 2020s. It is an important part of the local economy and we do not think we could live without it.
I believe that Dungeness could also play an important part in meeting the country's energy needs. The Minister and his colleagues have spoken before about the need to keep the lights on and said that to do that we need new sources of energy production. The national policy statement on energy and the search for new nuclear sites is at the heart of that decision-making process. If we are not to be reliant on imported energy, whether gas from Russia
or-particularly pertinent in my constituency-nuclear power from just across the sea in France, we need new sources of energy production. We believe that Dungeness is potentially an important new site for nuclear power and new energy.
These opening remarks set the context of the issue and its importance for my constituency. The matter has so far been considered by the Government through their consultations on the national policy statement. I do not want to go over old ground, but shall focus instead on some of the results in the recent report and update on the consultation, which the Government published last month. I was very disappointed, as were my constituents, that Dungeness was not included in the list of preferred sites in the national policy statement. It was on the previous Government's original longlist of 11 sites, but last year that was reduced to 10, with Dungeness being removed. The list has now been reduced to eight approved sites, with three sites not approved within the national policy statement for the building of new nuclear sites to be completed by 2025.
I acknowledge that the Government's report says many positive things about Dungeness. In particular it highlights the fact that Dungeness remains in many ways a credible site for deployment by 2025, and my constituents take considerable heart from that. However, the issue with the power station has been the objections, primarily from Natural England, that allowing a new power station to be built at Dungeness would be in contravention of the designations of the site, particularly those that were brought in through the EU habitats directive. There is legal protection for the site. I want to examine some of the issues relating to that protection, in response to the Government's consultation.
First, the Government said in their consultation-I am quoting the site report for Dungeness:
"Given the nature of the issues at Dungeness, it may be easier to ascertain that there will not be adverse effects on the integrity of the SAC at the detailed project level of an application for development consent."
The Government talk at some length in the site report for Dungeness about the fact that, even if the site is not included in the national policy statement, a developer and energy company could come forward with proposals that could go to the planning commission and ultimately to the Secretary of State for approval. Unfortunately there is a barrier to that process even being started, or to reaching the Government's recommendation that perhaps, at that more detailed planning stage, it is possible to ascertain whether there can be mitigation of the loss of habitats and sites at Dungeness that will come from building a new power station. However, unless the site is included in the national policy statement, no energy company will be prepared to take such a risk, given the uncertainty about the detailed cost and the great expense involved in taking a nuclear power station proposal into the planning system, if it is not even clear in the Government's national policy statement that they consider it to be a site that could be delivered.
Following the Government's guidance in their own site report for Dungeness, could some consideration be given to including Dungeness in the national policy statement, while continuing to cite the Government's reservations about loss of habitats, and stating that those would need to be considered and resolved at the planning stage, before the Secretary of State could give
approval? If the Government were prepared to make that concession, an energy company might consider the site seriously and think about how a proposal could be taken forward, and the objections overcome.
Many people in my constituency would like Natural England's objections to be examined more thoroughly. They relate primarily to designations protecting the rare vegetation on the shingle at Dungeness. It is a particularly important site and areas of the land would be lost. However, a new nuclear power station would directly affect only about 1% of the land of the entire special protection area and special area of conservation at Dungeness, so some of us would question whether it is true that a new power station would damage the integrity of the whole site. In relation to the European regulation, that is what should be considered-not necessarily the direct loss of one piece of land, but whether the integrity of the whole site there would be compromised.
Anyone who visits Dungeness A and B stations and looks carefully at the site can see the area of land that was laid out and prepared in advance, in the belief that a C station would come at some future point. It is very clear where the station would go. That land was, largely, disturbed when Dungeness B station was built. It has been protected and fenced in for 30 years or so since that time, and in that time the shingle has reverted to the appearance and the kind of habitat that was there before the station was built. It is believed that some of the plant life and vegetation has returned to the shingle, and that some of the insect life that existed at Dungeness before the B station was built has also returned.
I think that the return of the habitat should be carefully studied, to see whether the vegetated shingle at Dungeness is somewhat more robust than has been believed. Residents of Dungeness and Willie Richardson, when I saw him two weeks ago, have made the point that those who have lived in the community all their lives know that new vegetation springs up. Perhaps it is not such a delicate flower, but a slightly more robust species, albeit that the environment is one where many would find it hard to imagine plant life could grow. It grows and it returns, and that should be considered. The vegetated shingle at Dungeness may seem like a small point, but the jobs of thousands of people in my constituency and in East Sussex hang in the balance because of the interpretation of the regulations affecting the site. That creates a restriction on our ability to build a new station there.
The Government can also set aside consideration of the European regulations on habitats if they believe that there is an overriding national interest that allows them to do so. Indeed, for a number of the eight sites with which the Government are proceeding, they have made exactly that case and said that the national interest is such that development should be allowed. We would like that to happen at Dungeness as well.
The argument has been made that eight other sites can be developed first and that therefore Dungeness should wait. That seems incredible to us. If there is a good case for building the station, why should we wait for other sites to be built before we carry on and build it? Why not say that to proceed with nine sites would be entirely consistent with our view of our energy need? The Dungeness site could be developed before some of the other eight that the Government are considering. If
they are prepared to say that there are national interest grounds for allowing the other sites to be developed, why not do the same with Dungeness?
Other countries have been in the same position and allowed national interest to take precedence over the environmental provisions, because they have thought it was the right thing for them. One example in a report submitted to the Government was Baden-Baden airport, where the German Government said that the site needed to be developed. The Government, in considering that, have said that there were not necessarily alternative sites, and that was only one airport site in one location; but no one would pretend that Baden-Baden airport is the lynchpin of the German aviation system or its primary hub airport. The German Government made a discretionary decision to allow that airport to go ahead, and we are asking the British Government to consider a similar case for Dungeness power station.
I have also investigated whether there is a good case for the national grid to have a feed-in point from a new nuclear power station at Dungeness. It is unique among all the nuclear sites that the Government have been considering in being south-east of London and in an area of high energy demand. The new power station would easily supply enough electricity to power the entirety of Kent, and more. There is an imbalance in the energy system. We need more energy coming in from the south. I contacted National Grid to ask its opinion and was told that the charges for connections to the grid are substantially lower in the south-east and on the south coast than in other energy-generating areas such as Scotland-particularly the north of Scotland. In a letter to me, the company said:
"It is more favourable for prospective new generation connecting to our network to locate in the lower cost charging zones, including the South and South East, thereby minimising transmission investment requirements."
Do the Government not consider it part of the national interest that, in these difficult times, a good economic case can be made for locating a new power station closer to the area of greatest energy demand, particularly one that can be delivered relatively quickly?
The debate on whether Dungeness power station goes forward is based not on whether the local people are for it or against it. They are overwhelmingly in favour. Indeed, in general remarks made earlier in the year about where new stations should go, the Secretary of State said that consideration should be given to whether they can be built alongside existing nuclear sites and whether there is strong local support. Dungeness meets both criteria. It is not that Dungeness should not go forward simply because the Government believe that it is not a credible site or that it could not be delivered before 2025. It is and could be, and that was clearly stated in the Government's site report. It is not that Dungeness should not go forward because the country does not need new energy capacity. We do, and the Government noted in the site report that the question is whether environmental decisions mean that Dungeness could not be delivered now, not that it could never be delivered.
We return to the environmental and habitat regulations. For many of my constituents, that brings up important questions of how our laws work and the way in which
those laws control how we are governed. The regulations were brought into British law as an EU directive. When they were introduced, there was no debate and no local consultation on what they might mean. No one realised that it would effectively result in a block veto on a new power station at Dungeness. It is now years since we went through the process, however, and that is where we are.
I cannot believe that the Government truly knew of the extent of the regulations. Why would Dungeness have been included in the consultation longlist of the original 11 sites if the Government believed that it could never be deployed? That poses considerable questions about the way in which we are governed. The regulations, interpreted by the Government's advisers, can ignore the views of local people, local councils, Members of Parliament, and perhaps even the private views of Ministers and others in the House. Instead, the regulations take precedence even when no one wants them.
We are left having to fight for something that I believe should be relatively straightforward. However, it is a fight that I am determined to pursue on behalf of my constituents, as many of their livelihoods depend on a new nuclear power station at Dungeness.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this debate. He is a great champion of Dungeness and, indeed, of the whole Romney Marsh area, which is in his constituency. I know that this debate is only the latest of his efforts to fight for his constituents, and I have no doubt that he will continue. My constituency of Bexhill and Battle is adjacent to Romney Marsh, so I know a little of the area. Indeed, I have ridden over it a number of times. It is a spectacular and wonderful part of the country. It is very special.
The debate is important, and my hon. Friend has raised some serious questions. I shall endeavour to respond to them. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who usually deals with nuclear energy matters, is unable to be here, so I speak for him today.
Damian Collins: Speaking of our hon. Friend, I should make it clear that he has offered to meet me separately. I shall be happy to take him up on that offer.
Gregory Barker: There are a number of points of detail that could probably be best advanced in a meeting rather than in debate, and I know that my colleague will be keen to pursue them.
I start by setting out the context for the coalition's energy policy. The United Kingdom needs a robust mix of all types of clean energy assets-including, as my hon. Friend made clear, new nuclear power stations. We need such a policy in order to achieve the twin goals of energy security and dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, we wish to decarbonise the whole energy sector by the mid-2030s. As a result, we will need nuclear power.
Nuclear power is a proven low-carbon technology, and it is anticipated that it will play an increasingly important role as we diversify and decarbonise our
sources of electricity. Failure to decarbonise and diversify could result in the UK becoming locked into a system of high-carbon generation, which would make it difficult and expensive to meet our 2050 emissions targets.
The nuclear power station at Dungeness has been generating low-carbon electricity for decades, for which we are extremely grateful. We have seen decades of service from the communities at Dungeness, Romney Marsh and the wider area, sometimes from the same families. I understand their concern about the loss of active generating capacity there and their strong interest in seeing a new build. That is perfectly understandable.
My hon. Friend suggests that we should think of the impact on the local economy. As he knows, we assessed sites against criteria that were consulted upon publicly. However, the criteria themselves do not directly cover the economic impact. That does not mean that economic factors are not important, and the accompanying appraisal of sustainability considered the impact of new nuclear power stations on surrounding areas. It noted that employment in the Shepway district council area is lower than the national average, and that a new nuclear power station at Dungeness would bring economic benefits to the area. Unfortunately, Dungeness failed one of the discretionary criteria, and we believe that there are better alternative sites.
The key is obviously planning. In the coming decades, we will need a substantial amount of new, local carbon-energy infrastructure, but it must be built in the right places. To help in this, the Government want a planning system for major infrastructure that is rapid and predictable, but still accountable. We announced our intention to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission and to move its expertise into a new major infrastructure planning unit, which will be part of the Planning Inspectorate. Consents for major infrastructure projects will be decided by Ministers, who are accountable to Parliament, and based on recommendations from MIPU. That will ensure that decisions are made by those who are democratically elected.
Planning decisions should be taken within a clear policy framework to make them as transparent as possible. The energy national policy statements, ratified by Parliament, will be a blueprint for decision making on applications for development consent for the relevant types of infrastructure. National policy statements will set out Government policy, so that the matter does not need to be reopened for each application, which is what led to delays in the past. National policy statements should also help applicants by giving greater clarity about matters that will be taken into account in making a decision. Our energy national policy statements are currently being consulted on, with the consultation ending on 24 January 2011. The national policy statements will also be scrutinised by Parliament: as set out in the coalition agreement, they will be put before Parliament for ratification.
The nuclear national policy statement identifies sites that the Government consider potentially suitable for the deployment of a new nuclear power station by the end of 2025. That will reduce speculation about where new nuclear power stations may go, and it will allow public engagement and national debate at an early stage in the process. Eight sites are listed. They have been assessed using a process and criteria that were consulted upon in 2008. The assessment was informed through an
appraisal of sustainability and a habitats regulations assessment. It was also informed through the input of specialists, such as the regulators and the public and energy companies. After careful consideration, the nominated site at Dungeness, along with sites at Braystones and Kirksanton in Cumbria, were found not to be suitable.
I really do understand the concerns that have been raised by my hon. Friend about our not listing Dungeness. Responses to the consultation on the draft nuclear NPS illustrated the strength of feeling about the importance of Dungeness to local people and, in particular, to the local economy. However, after careful consideration of all the responses, including those from the local authority and EDF Energy, the conclusion has not changed.
None the less, I will preface my explanation with a reminder that we are currently consulting on a revised draft of the nuclear NPS and we will, of course, consider any new evidence that we receive. If my hon. Friend is able to bring forward new compelling evidence and can marshal that evidence, we would be receptive to it and he should certainly discuss that point when he meets my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden. However, the bottom line is that, to date, we have not seen any evidence that is sufficient to take us in a different direction.
Let me say why we have decided, on balance, that Dungeness should be excluded. Dungeness actually passed all but one of the assessment criteria, so I understand that the local community will have a heightened sense of disappointment, given that Dungeness came quite close to being listed. However, Dungeness did not pass the criterion on internationally designated sites of ecological importance. I also have to say that we have concerns about whether the site could be protected from flooding and coastal erosion.
Damian Collins: The Minister makes an important point about flood risk. However, it is true to say that the nuclear site at Dungeness will have to be protected to support the decommissioning of the A and B stations, and the life and decommissioning of the C station will probably take place within that period.
Gregory Barker: That is a perfectly valid point. Nevertheless, there are concerns about the potential defence of the site, particularly given the advent of climate change and the sea-level rises that are due along that whole stretch of coastline.
However, the criterion on which the site failed really centred on the effects on ecological sites that are designated at the highest European level for their ecological importance. As my hon. Friend said, the assessment was carried out in line with the requirements of the habitats directive, which protects such sites.
Dungeness failed because we do not believe that a new nuclear power station could be built there without causing adverse impacts on the integrity of the Dungeness special area of conservation or that adverse impacts could be avoided or even substantially mitigated. Dungeness is the only nominated site that overlaps with a European designated site to such an extent that the avoidance of adverse effects is not possible. Furthermore, it is not considered that mitigation of the effects of direct land take is possible.
My hon. Friend raised the entirely legitimate point that there would actually be a very small amount of encroachment by any new site at Dungeness, and he asked if a smaller site would be acceptable. However, the fact of the matter is that changes on a small amount of land take do not necessarily have an equally small environmental impact. There are other important factors to consider, such as the sensitivity of the receiving environment. The assessment of Dungeness identifies the SAC as a most sensitive area. Natural England's advice is that even a small area of land take may be deemed to have an adverse effect and that there are no minimum extents defined for whether an adverse effect would occur.
Our conclusion is that, even if a small "footprint" were taken, an adverse effect could not be ruled out, mitigation of any such effect would not be possible, and it would be very difficult to compensate for any such effect, due to the lack of a proven or accepted methodology for providing compensation, a lack of areas that are suitable or sufficient in size for habitat creation, the active role that coastal processes play in maintaining the shingle habitats and the time that it takes shingle vegetation communities to establish themselves successfully.
Damian Collins: In the site report that the Government produced for Dungeness, there is a helpful page of summary of the concerns regarding the D6 criteria. The report notes that some concerns exist:
"due to lack of alternative shingle habitat in the area".
As my hon. Friend the Minister will probably know, because he knows this particular part of the country, there is an awful lot of shingle there and I think that that is an argument that people have difficulty with.
Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend makes his point very clearly.
The Dungeness SAC is considered to be the most important shingle site in Europe and in fact it is one of the largest shingle expanses in the world. England has a significant proportion of the European total of vegetated shingle and the largest example of a shingle beach in England is at Dungeness, which is approximately 1,600 hectares in size and made up of ice age flint deposits. The pattern of shingle ridges at this site has built up over 5,000 years.
The buried and exposed shingle ridges at Dungeness are exceptional for the succession of unique shingle habitats that they support, as they demonstrate the evolution of such habitats. There are small depression features in the shingle structure at Dungeness, known as open pits, which are thought to be unique in the UK. The shingle also supports fen and open water communities and a large and viable population of great crested newts, which form part of the SAC designation. The site is considered to be one of the best areas in the UK and one of the most diverse and extensive examples of stable vegetated shingle in Europe.
Under the regulations that protect such sites, plans for development that are likely to have significant effects, such as the nuclear NPS, can be adopted only where the relevant authority, which in this case is the Secretary of State, is satisfied that there will be no adverse effects on the integrity of the protected site. As I have said, following consideration of responses received during the consultation, to date we remain of the view that a new nuclear power station cannot be built at Dungeness without having an adverse effect on the integrity of the Dungeness SAC.
Where such adverse effects cannot be ruled out, a site can be included in the NPS only if there are no alternative solutions; if there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest, which is a test that must be made under the habitats directive, and if effective compensation can be made. Our assessment has found that at the eight sites on the revised draft nuclear NPS there is potential for adverse effects on the integrity of Natura 2000 sites to be avoided or mitigated. Therefore, those eight sites are alternatives to Dungeness that meet the requirements of the habitats directive, as they better respect the integrity of Natura 2000 sites. I therefore have to say that, given the particular adverse effects in relation to Dungeness and the availability of the other eight sites to contribute towards meeting the need for nuclear-generating stations, the Government do not consider that listing Dungeness is justified. The assessment has also found that it would be difficult to compensate for adverse effects, such as direct habitat loss.
I know that that will come as a disappointment to my hon. Friend, but I also know that he will continue with his campaign. I assure him that, although I have given him our clear and stated view today, we remain open to new evidence.
Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Turner.
Back in 2007, I was one of the sponsors of the Sustainable Communities Bill, which was so ably steered through its various stages by the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who is now a Parliamentary Secretary in the Cabinet Office. I know that he would agree that the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 is rightfully the legitimate offspring of more than 120 national organisations, which came together under the umbrella of Local Works.
Pressure for the Act came out of the experience of people up and down this country who had watched their communities decline over the years and who recognised what that meant for their quality of life. At the heart of the problem was the loss of key local services. There was the closure of a fifth of the post office network in just a decade, and the loss of a quarter of our local grocery stores; also, a fifth of local bank branches went over that same time frame. More than 30,000 community retailers were painted out of the picture.
However, that process was not just about the high street or the village store, but about the quality of our public spaces and the run-down of community halls, community centres and children's playgrounds. In addition, it was about recognising that losing community resources is not only bad for the local environment but impacts on the bigger picture, as it forces people to travel further and further from home to gain access to what used to be on their doorsteps. At the same time, Local Works and its contingent parts observed our country's increasing disengagement with politics, while also picking up the message that people are prepared to re-engage and get involved if they believe they can make a difference by doing so.
The philosophy behind the drive for what became the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 is simple. First, community decline is a national and ongoing problem, and it will clearly worsen if nothing is done. Secondly, in most instances, the best efforts of local citizens and communities will not be enough to reverse the trend, so Government must help. However, communities are the experts on local problems and the solutions to them, so Government actions must be directed by communities and not central diktat. What was needed was a mechanism by which local people could drive Government action to reverse community decline and promote local sustainability. The Act was and is the vehicle for doing so.
I have said that the Act is the baby of the Local Works coalition. So it is, and I congratulate the coalition, but we should remember that the gestation period was very long and that a succession of hon. Members volunteered to act as midwife along the way. Essentially the same legislation was promoted by Julia Goldsworthy, by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), now Minister of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and by the much-missed David Drew, then MP for Stroud. That demonstrates the cross-party nature of support for the legislation, just as early-day motion signatures and attendance at
the Second Reading debate in 2007 demonstrated the strength and depth of that support in all parties.
One thing that united MPs with the organisations and communities so actively campaigning on the issue was the determination that the Act should not be just another consultation exercise. Of course consultation has a valuable place in our political development, but to reverse community decline, we needed something that delivered rather more. The Act sets in law for the first time a bottom-up process in which central Government have a duty to co-operate and reach agreement with the designated selector, the Local Government Association, on which proposals for Government action made by communities and councils will be implemented.
What has happened since the passing of the Act? In October 2008, the previous Government launched the first invitation of proposals. Local Works responded by holding more public meetings across the country, and organisations, communities and individuals lobbied their councils to resolve to use the Act. Some 100 local authorities responded, and in partnership with their communities they drew up 300 proposals for Government action and submitted them to the Local Government Association by the end of July 2009.
The scope and breadth of the proposals is eye-opening. They included measures to protect local post offices, shops, pubs and other suppliers; to increase the sale and production of local food; to protect local public services; to promote local renewable energy, microgeneration, energy efficiency and recycling; and to increase democratic participation. The wide-ranging nature of the proposals showed how enthusiastic communities had become about various aspects of the sustainability agenda.
The Local Government Association shortlisted 199 of the proposals and submitted them to the Government in January this year. Of those 199, Local Works identified 30 that it described as a vision for local sustainability, arguing that it is vital that the Government agree those proposals to protect and create truly sustainable communities. Many of the proposals involve no extra financial burden to the Treasury, as they simply devolve power, give councils new powers or change existing rules. So far, so good.
In preparing for this debate, I read the Hansard report of the Third Reading debate on the Sustainable Communities Bill. It is noteworthy that Members from all parties regarded the Bill as important legislation, especially for a private Member's Bill. It is also noteworthy how many of them-including Ministers in the current coalition Government-looked forward to seeing the Act's impact. There was a sense of urgency in the Chamber on that day.
The situation in which we find ourselves is therefore astonishing and extremely disappointing. To date, no negotiations have been reported between Government and the Local Government Association, as required by the Act, to reach agreement on the shortlisted proposals. Delaying doing good is always a cause for concern, but I believe that in this case there is an additional danger. Many people have spent time and energy getting involved in identifying how the Act can deliver for communities throughout the country. The feedback I have seen shows that some of those people are becoming extremely disillusioned, and disillusionment is often followed by disengagement.
To demonstrate that point, I shall quote from a few councillors and organisations worried by what they see as unnecessary delay. Councillor Anne Ward of South Hams district council said:
"It's a disgrace that there's been no movement on this for over a year-makes you wonder why we all bothered!"
Councillor Richard Robinson of Broxtowe borough council said:
"It has now been over a year and three months since proposals were submitted and yet they have still not been dealt with by the Government. There is now widespread grave concern that the huge numbers of people who put their time and energy into getting involved in the Act are becoming disillusioned and disengaged."
Councillor Clare Hopkinson of Warwickshire county council said:
"It is unacceptable that government moves so slowly."
Councillor Elaine Hall of Moor Monkton parish council said:
"It has now been a year and three months since these proposals were put before government and we need to see some action."
Councillor Robert Dyson of Shadwell parish council wrote to the Minister, saying:
"I gather that 300 ideas were finally put forward to the last government some 15 months ago, since which time there has been neither feedback nor action."
"You are now part of a new Government, which is promoting the idea of the 'Big Society'. If the idea is to be something more than a mere slogan, can you please give me some assurance that some active consideration will be given to the ideas put forward to promote local sustainability?"
Ruth Bond, chair of the National Federation of Women's Institutes, said:
"We now are encouraging the government to ensure the Act is properly implemented by dealing with the proposals. It is important that this is done soon as it is over a year since the proposals were submitted...When our members and others start to see results at a local level their involvement will have meant something and more people will be inspired to engage in this new democratic process. However if things drag on there is a serious risk that disillusion will creep in and further damage public involvement in democracy."
Mike Benner, chief executive of the Campaign for Real Ale, said:
"Since early last year, many communities and councils, as well as our members and branches, have been involved in the Act. Hundreds of exciting ideas for government action to promote thriving communities, many of those relating to protecting and enhancing local pubs and local beer, were submitted as proposals. However, we are concerned that the process is dragging. It is over a year since the first set of proposals was submitted. Our members and others who got involved are starting to ask what is going on. Because of this we believe it is vital that the government deals with the proposals made under the Act urgently."
I have similar comments from the chief executive of the Rural Shops Alliance, the director of Unlock Democracy, the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, the chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the executive director of Friends of the Earth.
A while ago, to try to stimulate action, I tabled early-day motion 178, which calls on the Government to deal expeditiously with the proposals under the Act. That motion is now supported by 236 Members from across the parties in the House-by far the highest
number of signatures for any early-day motion this Session. I understand that the Government have said that it might be next year before all the proposals are dealt with. If so, the disillusionment I have demonstrated will deepen.
It also raises another question about process. Before the end of this year, the Government must announce the timetable for the second invitation of proposals required by the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Act 2010.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on such an important issue. On process, does he agree that local authorities should have the option to submit proposals when they want, so that the 2007 Act creates a continuous, streamlined process?
Martin Caton: It will be a continuous process, but I support the timetabling in the original Act, because it ensures that projects are considered and should have ensured that the Government were engaged by now with the Local Government Association.
I mentioned the consequences of the 2010 Act. That Act will mean that a new tranche of proposals will be invited very soon. As I say, if the Government do not pull their finger out, they will have to announce the second invitation before having dealt with the proposals from the first. That will send out all the wrong signals about the Government's commitment to sustainable communities. Let us get things moving right now.
I recall that the Minister was at the Bill's Second Reading debate. He intervened on the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner on the issue of garden grabbing-a subject I know is close to his heart. In responding, the Bill's promoter described the Minister as
"a well-known champion of localism"-[Official Report, 19 January 2010; Vol. 455, c. 1041.]
Today, I am asking him to prove that that description is accurate.
The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Turner, and it is a privilege to respond to the debate, which has been initiated by the hon. Member for Gower (Martin Caton). Throughout my time as an MP, and before then, he has been a passionate advocate for all things local and sustainable. Indeed, he was described to me just this morning-I know he will take this as the compliment that it was intended to be-as being the new David Drew, to whom he referred earlier.
The hon. Gentleman has the admiration of the House not only for helping to secure the passage of the Sustainable Communities Bill, which he did with the now Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), but for rightly keeping up the pressure on the Government to take the required action. I join him in paying tribute to the Local Works coalition, which has been absolutely indefatigable from beginning to end. It was a tortuous
process to get the Bill passed, and it is quite right that he is taking a continuing interest in ensuring that the provisions are enacted.
In responding to the hon. Gentleman's passionate speech, I would like to do three things. First, I reiterate my personal view of the importance of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007-indeed, the Government share that view. Secondly, I am pleased to say that I can give him substantial reassurances on the points he raised. I hope that that will also reassure people listening to the debate. Thirdly, I shall discuss how, in the next round, we can respond to some of the bureaucratic problems that have beset the process to ensure that we can address the issues more speedily in future.
I supported the Bill during its passage through Parliament. I regard the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 as one of the most important pieces of legislation to be enacted in the past decade. The principles established by the Act mean that local people have the right to know what is being spent and done on their behalf in their communities. Armed with that information, local people should have the right to suggest alternative ways of proceeding. Local people's right to have their suggestions seriously considered, rather than rebuffed, is the essence of a new approach to government that is fundamental and will change how government is done. I am determined to ensure not only that we follow those principles in the decisions we make about the Act, but that such principles underpin the localism Bill that will shortly be introduced to the House. It should no longer be possible for people in authority to say to community groups and local community institutions, "You can't do what you want to do just because we say so." Such an approach is not terribly good parenting and it is certainly not good government. We need to move away from it once and for all.
On the hon. Gentleman's particular concerns about the timetable, he is right that the first invitation was issued in October 2008. Some 301 submissions were received by the LGA in July 2009 and a short list of 199 was supplied just before Christmas, on 23 December 2009. I share his frustration. When we came into government, I was pleased to be appointed to the portfolio with responsibility for the Act. Frankly, I hoped to be able to pick up a substantial body of work that had been done from December to May and to find that things had been properly scrutinised and were ready to be enacted. My inheritance was that no decisions had been taken and no decisions were ready to take.
Although incoming Ministers do not have access to previous Ministers' papers-and rightly so-my understanding was that only about a dozen of the proposals were minded to be introduced with any particular speed. I will be candid with hon. Members: that was a disappointment to me when I came into office. However, I was determined that we should not simply progress a select, hand-picked few proposals that might catch the eye of Ministers, but that we should take a comprehensive approach and adopt the demeanour of wanting to say yes, rather than trying to find reasons to say no. Far from there having been no negotiations with the LGA selector, I have, in fact, been through all the proposals with it. We have already agreed with the LGA selector on half the proposals.
Martin Caton: I have no doubt about the Minister's commitment to localism, but I am a little worried that he says that there have been negotiations with the LGA. Openness and transparency are at the heart of the Bill, and the process by which the selector-the LGA-chose which measures it wanted to send on to the Minister was done openly in open meetings. He now informs me that there have been negotiations, but they have not been reported to anybody. They have certainly not been reported to those bodies and organisations that are the driving force behind making the Act work.
Greg Clark: In fact, the term "negotiations" is a misnomer because we found it easy to agree. There is positive volition on the part of the Government to say yes to as many of these proposals as we can. Within the next few weeks, I hope to be able to agree-I am meeting the chairman of the selector again next week-with the selector on all the proposals made under the Act. What the hon. Gentleman says is absolutely correct: if we are to move on to the next round-as, indeed, we will be doing-we ought to have dealt with the current proposals. I have been very careful and have personally gone through every proposal made-there are a lot of them and they consume much paper-and I hope to be able to give a positive response to about two thirds of the proposals selected by the selector. That relates to two thirds of all short-listed proposals. I hope that our response, which again I hope will be made soon, will be very positive.
My Department's business plan commits us to making these decisions by the end of January 2011. That is our published commitment. As I say, it is a source of frustration that more preparatory work was not done by the previous Government. I do not want to make a party political point; it is more of an administrative point. It would have been nice not to have had to start from scratch on the matter but, in the time we have had, we have made pretty good progress. I would like to be in a position to make that announcement well before the published requirement of the end of January 2011. I would much prefer to be able to do it before the end of the year-before Christmas-and I will be pushing for that.
Martin Caton: What the Minister is saying is very welcome indeed. I would just like to challenge him on two things. He is being a little unfair on Ministers in the previous Government. Obviously he has not seen the papers, but I think considerable progress was made-although admittedly that was initially on, as he says, about a dozen projects. More importantly, is he saying that we will have the announcement on the projects before the end of this year?
Greg Clark: That is my intention. I should reiterate that our public commitment is to making the decisions by 31 January 2011, but I am doing everything I can to bring that forward. If we can make the decision before the end of the year-before Christmas even-that is what I would like to do. I am personally working with my officials and with the LGA selector to try to do that. In any event, the published self-imposed deadline of 31 January is a backstop, but I would like to use best endeavours to bring that forward.
In response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on the subsequent invitation for the next round, I would like to make a simultaneous announcement on the arrangements for the next round of submissions from community groups across the country. It is not a one-off exercise, but the beginning of a different way of approaching government, and I am absolutely determined to build on it and go further. We want to do that as soon as possible, and certainly before we are obliged to do so.
Rehman Chishti: What proposals are there to ensure that more proposals come forward from community groups and citizens, rather than simply from councils?
Greg Clark: My hon. Friend touches on an important point. I pay tribute to the selector panel and, in particular, to Councillor Keith Mitchell, who has put a great deal of effort and personal commitment into scrutinising the measures and putting them forward. Here we get on to the wider agenda, because the principle embodied in the 2007 Act is that communities of all descriptions, including, but not exclusively, local government, should have access to the machinery of government so that they can unblock the barriers that prevent them doing what they could do. I want to look at how we can extend that.
One of my earliest impressions when I became a Minister was that I had access to a wide range of talented people in the Department who are there to help turn ideas into reality and policy ideas into law. However, my view, which I suspect those hon. Members present share, is that the best ideas are not the exclusive preserve of Ministers, or even of senior officials, in Whitehall, but actually come from people in communities. It seems to me, therefore, that the support and advice that Ministers have access to ought also to be available to people in communities. That is a commitment that I have made and am working on so that we can, almost literally, turn government upside down in the Department, to make help and support available to people in communities, rather than being exclusively for Ministers to help them get things done. After all, if Ministers need help in overcoming some of the barriers, goodness knows that people in communities will, too.
I have established a team that we refer to as "barrier busters". During the last Communities and Local Government questions, I extended an invitation to Members who have examples of burdens, rules, regulations and barriers that are standing in the way of local action, and which only central Government are able to remove, to contact the Department so that we can give them access to people who can help them to look at the regulations and the law or to bang heads together in Whitehall if
that is necessary. We will not always succeed, but we will certainly do the best we can to achieve that.
The opportunity in the next round is to make access to our "bureaucracy busters" more widely available across the country and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham suggested, to see whether we can ensure that we do not need to wait for a long time before acting on good requests. If something is a good idea, we should get on with it.
By coincidence, I happened to have a meeting with Local Works and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner this morning to discuss how we can really build on the ambitions and the early success of the Act to go ever further and better in future. I hope that we can make some improvements to the system that will make the Act even more effective in the months ahead.
Martin Caton: I welcome the invitation to visit the bureaucracy busters. On the theme of consulting Members of Parliament, if it proves that the Minister cannot deliver the accelerated timetable that he clearly hopes to deliver, would he be prepared to meet a cross-party delegation of Members to discuss how we move forward?
Greg Clark: I do not need to make it contingent on that eventuality: I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman at any time and with any colleagues who have a contribution to make. MPs are leaders in their communities and have experience and knowledge, as he has in spades, about some of the obstacles we need to overcome, so I would be happy to meet him and other colleagues in the weeks ahead. Our formal commitment, which I ought to respect, is to make a decision by the end of January, but I will do everything in my power to make that earlier.
The approach embodied in the 2007 Act that local and specific approaches to problems can provide lessons on how things can be done better by other communities, not only in that area, but across the country-possibly around the world-is a powerful way of thinking about government. It is about helping with the specifics, learning the lessons and then taking practical action. I am determined that our response will respect the spirit of the Act and indeed will imbue our whole approach to government. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us the opportunity to discuss the matter today and hope that all Members, and everyone who has given their time, effort and commitment to the process, will shortly see that there is an even greater prospect of success in the future than we have heard today.