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That is the only place I can find the word “merit”, and it appears in much the same place as one would expect to find the legal small print in an advertising brochure.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): As my hon. Friend may know, I voted against the trebling of tuition fees. I did that as someone who has been to one of the top universities on a maximum grant. When I applied to that university, I was looking not for privileged treatment in the admission exam, but for fair treatment, and for the ability to afford the course if I were fortunate enough to be successful. We were told that trebling fees would not put off people from poorer backgrounds from applying. We are now told that for people from poorer backgrounds to apply, we must socially engineer the people who get in. The narrative seems to have changed and it now contradicts what was said before. Instead of people getting in on merit, they are getting in on considerations of social position.

Mr Clappison: My hon. Friend’s point will be widely shared and many people have come to the same conclusion. There is always a problem with such attempts to compensate. Even though bursaries are rightly awarded to people from lower-income families, there will always be a family on lower-middle income, or in straitened circumstances, who remain just above the level at which bursaries are awarded. They are called the “squeezed middle”. When the previous Government introduced fees at a much lower level, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice raised that issue as a particular problem with the fee system, and it is a matter to which we must devote some research. We all want students to be encouraged to go to the university of their choice and not to be discouraged by their financial circumstances.

Mr Lammy rose—

Mr Clappison: Will the right hon. Gentleman contain himself because I have a number of questions to put to the Minister? I hope there will be other chances to debate this matter.

I have some questions arising from letters that I have received from my constituents and independent schools in my constituency. Is it not the case that universities are being put under tremendous financial pressure to come into line with the outcomes that central Government wish to bring about through the Office for Fair Access, irrespective of the principle of merit? As advocated by the Government, the principle of merit is a face saver, but the reality is that the financial pressure on universities puts them in an invidious position. Universities are told the outcomes they are expected to achieve, and financial pressure is put on them because they will not be able to charge the fees they wish if they do not achieve those outcomes. That cuts right across the principle of merit, which, much as Ministers may talk about it, cannot be sustained in light of the detailed guidance provided.

Will the Minister explain why the first access performance indicator relates to

“the percentage of students admitted from state schools or colleges”?

Given that a clear majority of pupils, including those who apply to the most prestigious universities, come

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from state schools, how does that equate to disadvantage? The headmaster of an independent school in my constituency wrote to me about the Government guidelines:

“The principle of widening access to university is an excellent one. But I know you will share my concern that disadvantage should not be equated with education in the state sector. Any lack of social mobility in the UK has causes that start even at the pre-school level: attempts to fix them at the point of university entrance are dangerous, misguided and unfair. Independent schools have large numbers of disadvantaged pupils receiving financial support: they do not deserve to be discriminated against.”

Ministers seem particularly interested in admission to Oxford and Cambridge, and although there are many other good universities, they choose to focus particularly on those. Is it the Government’s case that a lower proportion of independent school students who are admitted to Oxford and Cambridge go on to obtain a first-class degree than students from other backgrounds? That would appear to be the gist of the Government’s justification. Will the Minister supply evidence of a difference in degree performance between state sector and independent sector school students at Oxford and Cambridge? Even if the Government are able to provide such evidence—it will be interesting to see whether they can—surely that would be a matter for Oxford and Cambridge to take into account, and to exercise their judgment independently, without pressure from the Government.

A number of hon. Members may wish to ask questions of the Minister. To conclude, let me say that we all share—certainly in the Conservative party—the objectives of promoting excellence and spreading opportunity. However, in light of some of the interventions I have received, the Minister must explain how the Government’s plans for influencing university admissions will help raise standards in schools where standards need to be raised, and how they will help to raise aspiration. Should the Government not focus on improving standards in schools, establishing a positive ethos and, above all, raising expectations? I believe that is happening in the Education Bill, but the guidelines hardly seem like a vote of confidence for that. Would that not be a better course to take, and rather more in line with our traditional principles and ways of thinking, than the route taken in the guidelines, which are bureaucratic, complex and impose considerable burdens on universities? Above all, as I have said, the guidelines put significant financial pressure on universities. That cuts across the principle of admission on merit and sits uneasily with the Government’s creditable objectives of abolishing top-down targets and promoting localism and decentralised decision making. We must devote more time to this matter as there is a lot of interest in the debate from all parties. I hope that the Minister will begin, in his very fair manner, to give some indication of the Government’s thinking on this issue, and tell us what evidence lies behind it.

12.48 pm

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) for securing the opportunity to debate this important issue. As he was so generous in what he said about me personally, let me reciprocate. I understand his personal commitment to what he rightly described as the principle of merit—meritocracy. I would argue that equality of opportunity, rather than equality

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of outcome, is a key principle that the Conservative party believes in and that is probably shared by all parties.

The question is about how we apply the principle of merit and ensure meritocracy. The argument that we in government have gone though is as follows. First, we would all accept that, when going to university, merit involves some assessment of potential, not just what has already been achieved academically. Let us put ourselves in the position of an admissions tutor at one of the universities that my hon. Friend mentions. Let us say that two 18-year-olds present themselves. One has had an incredibly tough upbringing and been to a rather mediocre school with low educational standards, the other has had every advantage in life and benefited from high-quality schooling, but they have the same A-level grades. We would probably all intuitively reach a judgment about who had the higher underlying intellectual merit.

Dr Julian Lewis rose—

Mr Baron rose—

Mr Willetts: We might go further and say that the student who had lower grades but who came from the tougher background might have higher potential than the other student. That is our starting point. I see that requests for interventions are already piling in. I will accept brief interventions.

Dr Lewis: My right hon. Friend is, as always, extremely kind. I say to him that as someone who was in that position—someone who came from a poor household—I was prepared to be judged on the marks that I got, even though people in competition with me went through, shall we say, more advantaged educational processes, because once we start monkeying around with the grades and saying that the person with the higher marks should not get the place, we are in very dangerous and subjective territory indeed.

Mr Willetts: I hope to show my hon. Friend that it is not subjective, but absolutely it has to be about merit. I am not aware of any major higher education system in the world that says that the sole criterion for getting in is the exam marks that a person has already achieved. I would be interested to know whether my hon. Friend even believes that our own universities have ever solely used exam marks already achieved, rather than considering merit by including some assessment of potential.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Willetts: I see that a lot of Members want to intervene. There are nine minutes to go. I shall give way to the former Minister.

Mr Lammy: I just want to confirm what the Minister said. Entrance to university in this country has always been based on attainment and achievement, potential, and aptitude to perform. There is lots of academic evidence that children from poorer backgrounds who get to universities do better than those from independent schools.

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Mr Willetts: I shall now give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr Baron: My right hon. Friend is being generous. Is that not the point? No one could disagree with equality of opportunity. We are trying to assess potential. However, it is not for the Government to assess potential; it is for the universities to assess potential. That is the key point, and something that I think the Minister is missing.

Mr Willetts: I agree that it is for universities to assess potential. Let me take hon. Members through the next stages of the argument. There is a disagreement of principle. I am surprised that people could imagine that our universities have ever simply gone on academic marks already achieved. My understanding of how they have always operated is that they have tried to assess potential, and an understanding of merit does indeed involve consideration of the aptitude for future academic accomplishment. The question is how that should be done. Historically it has happened, but it has been done on a discretionary basis. We all have a picture in our mind of the elderly Oxbridge don sucking at his pipe as the interview candidates come through and assessing who might be best able to benefit from such an education, making an assessment that goes beyond simply the marks that they have already achieved.

However, it is very hard to operate a system on the basis of the personal discretion of the don or academic in a world in which, first, we are dealing with mass higher education; secondly, it is very important that those judgments be transparent and not be capricious, because otherwise they could be on the basis of personal bias; and thirdly, those judgments should be legally defensible. That is why it is very important that we have objective evidence.

Let me now turn to the legitimate challenge from my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere: do we have any evidence? I shall cite two papers that try to get to the heart of the issue by assessing the relative chances of people getting a good degree when they go to university. There have been two recent studies, and experts will be able to assess their rigour. There has been a study of Oxford and a separate study in Bristol. Both examined the likelihood of getting a good degree, measured as a 2:1 or a first. We could apply what I would regard as a defensible, meritocratic criterion: we will accept students on the basis that they will have an equal chance of getting a 2:1 or a first. The studies found that students who came from schools where there had been particularly high academic standards got higher A-level grades relative to their chances of getting a 2:1 or a first than prospective students from other backgrounds.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) will accept that, if we are to apply the principle of merit, one reasonable way of doing so would be to accept students on the basis that we are considering potential, based on an equal chance of getting a 2:1 or a first. Otherwise we would not be applying the principle of merit. We would be selecting students because they had good A-levels, rather than on the basis of their academic merit.

Mr Clappison: My right hon. Friend was kind enough to supply me with a copy of a speech that he had already made in which he referred to that evidence. He drew certain conclusions from it, which he has just

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referred to. The three authors of the report were called Ogg, Zimdars and Heath. Has my right hon. Friend read the whole report?

Mr Willetts: I confess—it may be a rather sad confession—that I have read the whole paper. Of course, there will be continuing dispute about its content, but I have read it. The question is, having gone this far—

Mr Clappison rose—

Mr Willetts: I will give way, but we have only four minutes left and I want to respond to another challenge; I am getting behind on the challenges.

Mr Clappison: How does my right hon. Friend square what he has said with the conclusion of the report, to which he did not choose to refer? The authors of the report said that there was a slight difference between state and independent schools and it ought to be taken into account. However, it already was taken into account by academics in the admissions process. The report says that

“according to earlier research using the OAS data set, the selectors at Oxford in fact appear to already discount the GCSE grades of private school students…One might therefore be tempted to suggest that the selectors at Oxford have done their job of getting the best students to Oxford fairly well.”

The authors go on to say that there is no evidence of under-performance by private school students.

Mr Willetts: The crucial thing is that what universities have said they expect of us, quite reasonably, is a framework for their decisions that is—I shall quote our letter to OFFA—“fair, transparent and evidence-based”. Let me turn, in the few minutes left, to the crucial issue about universities. I value the autonomy of universities. We are not telling universities whom to select. We operate within a legal framework that goes back to the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which makes it absolutely clear that it is not for Ministers and the Government to determine the admission of students. What we are trying to do is, quite simply, ask universities to choose and set out for themselves the criteria that they will use to ensure that we are not wasting talent in this country because there are children whose underlying abilities are being hidden by bad education.

Of course we hope that in the long run our school reforms will mean that that problem disappears, but as

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a Conservative I have to deal with the world as it is, and teaching standards in secondary schools diverge. I hope that when teaching standards in all secondary schools are the same, these types of exercise will not be necessary, but while teaching standards in secondary schools diverge, the assessment of potential cannot be based simply on the points that someone has achieved in their A-levels or elsewhere. Universities have to be able to exercise that judgment. They ask, quite rightly, for a framework from us, and we make demands of them. We agree that the criteria should be fair, transparent and evidence based. There will not be quotas. There will not be a specific requirement on a university to select people on a specific basis.

However, universities will have to show what they are doing to broaden access so that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who are clearly under-performing when it comes to getting to our most selective universities, have a fair opportunity to go there. Otherwise, we will not be delivering meritocracy. We will be rewarding the people with the best A-level grades; we will not be choosing the best and brightest to go to our research-intensive universities. That is morally wrong; it is not the principle of meritocracy and it is economically wasteful.

We can no longer rely on the old discretionary procedures, because they would be too capricious and they would be subject, rightly, to legal challenge. We have to have mechanisms, put forward by universities, that are fair, transparent and evidence based. Universities tell us that they understand that and welcome the fact that we are providing guidance and that they will not have to impose quotas. They will ultimately be deciding, on a case-by-case basis, on the merits of the individual person. However, that judgment must be based on assessment of potential, and assessment of potential can no longer be done on the basis of personal whim and discretion. They have to have something that is defensible to all of us as fair, transparent and evidence based. That is what our letter to OFFA is about. I believe that it passes the tests that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has set out. It is consistent with the principle of merit; indeed, it is necessary to deliver the principle of merit. It does not intervene in the individual admissions decisions of universities and it is evidence based.

I look forward to continuing these exchanges with my hon. Friend, because I fully understand his passionate commitment to equality of opportunity. That is a principle in which all in our party believe.

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Voluntary Sector (Nottingham)

12.59 pm

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne?

The voluntary sector in Nottingham is doing a huge amount for our city and its citizens. It provides services, support and advocacy to a wide range of groups, including some of the most vulnerable in society, as well as raising awareness, campaigning and fundraising. It also offers thousands of volunteering opportunities, which are important in strengthening our civil society and sense of community, but which also provide vital experience and skills to people seeking to move into paid work. Finally, of course, it provides employment to many people who are committed to making Nottingham a better place to live.

There are 678 registered charities in Nottingham. Nottingham Community and Voluntary Service, the local support organisation for the voluntary and community sector, has more than 1,000 local groups on its database, including charities, community groups and social enterprises. I am grateful to have the opportunity today to pay tribute to the fantastic work that the voluntary sector carries out in Nottingham, but I also want to express the hope that action can be taken to protect the sector before it is too late. I must tell hon. Members that Nottingham’s voluntary sector faces a crisis brought on by the Government’s spending cuts and the particularly severe reduction in funding for our local authority.

In its response to the city council’s budget consultation, the NCVS has stated that

“we believe that direct support to the sector from the council in 2010/11 totalled approximately £47.5 million. This is testament to both the strength of our local voluntary sector and the spirit of partnership working developed over many years by the Council”.

It is clear that Nottingham is already doing what the Government say they want local councils to do by using specialist providers in the community and voluntary sector to provide services to local people.

Over the past week, Delia Monk, the local government correspondent for our local paper, the Nottingham Post, has revealed the impact that spending cuts are having on the many different groups that make up the sector. The paper has done the community a great service by bringing the crisis to public attention and explaining how and why it should matter to us all.

Local groups face this funding crisis because of Government decisions to cut local authority funding too far and too fast. The Government claim that Nottingham’s spending power will be reduced by 8.4% in 2011-12, but the actual figure is 16.5%. That masks even deeper cuts to needs-based grants, which have now been rolled up into the total settlement. Those cuts include the scrapping of the working neighbourhoods fund and the future jobs fund and the 48% reduction in Nottingham’s allocation for Supporting People.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lilian Greenwood: No, I am sorry, but my time is very limited.

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The evidence for those cuts has been set out in an exchange of correspondence between the leader of the council and Ministers. NCVS anticipates that £47.5 million of council funding for the voluntary sector last year could shrink to about £29.5 million this year, which is a 38% drop. That reduction includes the loss of £7.5 million from the working neighbourhoods fund and £3.5 million from the future jobs fund, £7.6 million of cuts to Supporting People funding, cuts to commissioned services and likely reductions in grant aid and in-kind support.

Although cuts to local authority funding are the biggest worry for local groups, they come alongside big changes to the way groups can access alternative funding. Those changes include, for example, the introduction of charges and direct payments for social care and the upheaval in the health service, which is also a commissioner of services. Some groups will also be hit by the Government’s 60% cut in funding for asylum advice and the decision to end entirely funding for advice to people with refugee status. Refugee Action has been forced to leave Nottingham and to offer only outreach from its Leicester office. Legal aid cuts will also prevent Nottingham’s advice agencies from responding effectively to increasing local need.

Last Tuesday, the Nottingham Post reported that 40 services in the city and the county are at risk of closure.

Anna Soubry: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lilian Greenwood: I am sorry, but I have said that my time is very limited.

By this morning, that list had grown to include 35 services that are due to close, 16 that are at serious risk of closure and 12 that will be reduced. Those include services for children, such as play sessions and toy libraries, help and support for teenage parents, services for the mentally ill and their carers, a handy person scheme for the elderly and projects supporting women and children suffering domestic abuse. The support service for those who are homeless, or who could become homeless without adequate support, is particularly hard hit.

In the time available, I cannot possibly set out the full range of support services that will be lost as a result of this Tory-led Government’s choices, or describe individuals and families and the ways they will be affected, so I intend to focus on three issues: how the reductions in Supporting People will impact on not only service users, but the wider community, and how they will cost us all more than they save; how opportunities for volunteers and volunteering will be undermined rather than enhanced; and how employment and the local economy will suffer.

The previous Government introduced Supporting People funding to provide housing-related support, such as services to support homeless people and services to help individuals with learning disabilities or mental health issues to live independently in their own homes and to participate in the community. An independent evaluation by Capgemini for the Government in 2009 estimated that national expenditure of £1.6 billion generated net savings of £3.4 billion by avoiding the need for more costly acute services. I know from my own casework that the lack of proper support for vulnerable people—for example, those with mental health issues or substance misuse problems—can lead to difficulties with neighbours,

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require intervention by the local housing office, police and health services, and ultimately threaten people’s tenancies.

Framework is a homelessness charity based in my city, which provides housing, support, training, care and resettlement services. It often works with those groups that are most marginalised and stigmatised, including ex-offenders, people with a history of alcohol or substance misuse, and Gypsies and Travellers. In addition to being a direct provider of services, Framework heads a number of consortia of smaller specialist organisations that fulfil contracts commissioned by the city council.

Of the £22.3 million the city council spent on Supporting People services last year, approximately £7.5 million was spent through Framework contracts. In 2011-12, that figure is due to fall to approximately £3.5 million, resulting in the complete loss of 10 services and reductions in a further two. The 10 to be closed include specialist floating—that is, home-visiting—services for people with problems related to the use of illegal substances and alcohol. Such services have helped more than 500 service users in the past year. Other services to be closed include floating support for teenage parents, which supported 128 young people in 2010-1, a 16-bed hostel and five supported move-on flats for young people with complex needs. Without such support services, people with real needs face the prospect of getting into difficulty with their rent and housing, not looking after themselves or their home properly, becoming isolated and possibly placing a much greater burden on local services. Such people do not have a strong voice and do not always enjoy widespread public support.

We should be concerned about these cuts, because we are compassionate and care about social justice, but even on a more practical level, they are short-sighted in the extreme. It will cost us all more to deal with problems when they become urgent, when they could have been avoided through less expensive preventive measures. That is the principle behind the early intervention work pioneered by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), for which our city is rightly recognised. There will also be non-financial costs because of the distress caused to service users, their families, their neighbours and people in their local community. Many of us remember the sight of rough sleepers on our city streets, and none of us wants to return to those days, yet the Government’s actions make that a real risk.

The Government claim that the national Supporting People budget has not been significantly reduced, but it has certainly been redistributed away from areas of high need. Nottingham is the 13th most deprived local authority in the country and is suffering the 21st largest reductions in formula grant funding, whereas Windsor and Maidenhead, which ranks 323rd in terms of deprivation, has seen its spending cut by just over 1%.

In Nottingham, the council has sought to cushion the impact on the voluntary sector by not passing on the impact of the full cuts—almost £10 million in 2011-12—to Supporting People. With the reductions already being made to other parts of council services, the ability to protect the sector is limited, and it is inevitable that front-line services will be affected now and in the years to come.

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The second area that I want to highlight is the impact on volunteering. Given that the Government have said that a key objective of the so-called big society is

“encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society”,

it seems incomprehensible that they are making cuts that undermine the very organisations that provide those opportunities.

Anna Soubry: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lilian Greenwood: It is normal to ask in advance of the commencement of a debate whether it would be okay to intervene. I am afraid that the hon. Lady did not do that, and I am short of time, so I will not. I am sorry.

Nottingham volunteer centre supports groups to recruit and retain volunteers, as well as helping potential volunteers to find suitable placements. In the past year, the centre matched about 2,500 people with volunteering opportunities in the city. A recent survey also found that volunteers in Nottingham gave more than 1 million hours of their time free, to support local people. If the volunteers were paid for their work, it would cost more than £14 million. In less than four weeks, all funding to support volunteering in Nottingham will end. The volunteer centre is affected by the scrapping of the working neighbourhoods fund and the national youth volunteering programme, vinvolved—eight members of staff are losing their jobs. The Government plan a new national citizen service for young people, but, as far as we are aware, none of those projects will take place in Nottingham, and the valuable expertise and infrastructure that has been built up in the city will soon disappear completely.

In Nottingham, more than half the volunteer centre’s service users were aged 25 or under, and when I visited the project recently I was impressed by the commitment and skills of the staff. Last year, 16% of the people supported by the V project were classed as not in education, employment or training. At a time of record youth unemployment, when one in five young people is unable to find work, it seems both cruel and foolish to cut off that vital link to skills, training and confidence for the most disadvantaged groups. That is best summed up in the words of a young woman who at first doubted her ability to make a worthwhile contribution through volunteering.

“I doubted myself…who was I kidding to think I could do something so mature like help at a hospice. I called Charmaine at Vinvolved to tell her that I didn’t think could do it. She was brilliant…she reassured me....I’m so glad I called her as I was ready to give up....3 months have passed and I’m still volunteering. My confidence has grown loads.... I really feel like I am making a difference.”

With 40% of the centre’s users out of work at the time they come in to volunteer, not only will the loss of the service reduce the opportunities available for people to retrain and improve their skills and employability, at a time when demand for the service is expected to rise, but it will deprive dozens of organisations of potential volunteers. Unfortunately, as local community and voluntary sector groups are unsure of the future of their own services, they are also losing the capacity to recruit and train volunteers. In most cases having fewer paid staff will mean fewer volunteers, not more.

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That brings me to the third point that I want to highlight, which is that the cuts will lead to a significant reduction in employment. Nottingham city Unison, the local union branch that represents many voluntary sector staff in the city, reports that more than 1,000 members have been placed at risk of redundancy. Others face proposals to make significant cuts to their terms and conditions in a sector where pay is not generally high. NCVS-commissioned research from 2010 indicated that voluntary organisations benefit the local community by employing local people, so the job cuts and pay cuts will affect the spending power of hundreds of families in Nottingham. Coupled with job losses in local government, the police, the health service and the construction industry, following the Government’s decision to cancel investment in new school buildings and better social housing, they will further undermine the ability of our local economy to recover from the recession.

I could say so much more. On the 100th anniversary of international women’s day it is particularly saddening to read of the loss of services for women, such as the closure of Noelle House, the only gender-specific homelessness service in the city, and the loss of courses for teenage parents run by Platform 51, formerly the Young Women’s Christian Association, which were funded by the local primary care trust. The Women’s Voluntary Action Network is so concerned that it has appealed to the Minister for Women and Equalities to intervene. Black and minority ethnic communities will also feel the effect of the Tory-led Government’s decisions. Tuntum housing association reports cuts of 80% in its Supporting People funding, which will remove all the assistance it provides for vulnerable young people, primarily from BME backgrounds, and particularly young women.

I have no doubt that the Minister will say that the cuts were inevitable and that what I have described is the legacy of a Labour Government who left the national coffers empty, but people in Nottingham are not gullible. They understand that the money spent on British schools, hospitals and police officers did not cause the recession that was felt in Ireland, France, Greece and the USA. They know that we had to borrow money to bail out the banks and that tax receipts plummeted, making the deficit inevitable. They also know that the decision to cut the deficit as deep and fast as the Government are doing is a political choice. My concern is that that political choice will have devastating effects in the city I represent, and that those bearing the brunt are the very people who are least able to withstand it, including the poor, the old, the young, the disabled, the mentally ill and the homeless.

The Minister will doubtless say that that is the fault of Nottingham city council, but not a single Communities and Local Government Minister would meet representatives of the council or the city’s voluntary sector when they came down to Westminster last Monday to voice their concerns about the unfair settlement imposed on our city.

Anna Soubry: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Sandra Osborne (in the Chair): Order.

Lilian Greenwood: Perhaps the Minister will also say that the council should cut backroom functions and make efficiency savings. Well, it is already doing those things, cutting corporate services by 20%. It has already reduced the chief executive’s pay.

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The debate in our local press has brought the work of the voluntary and community sector, which often goes unnoticed, to the public attention. I hope I have been able to highlight some of the work under threat. It has also raised questions and concerns among the people whom we serve, and now I want to put those questions before the Minister. How can it be fair for councils that serve the most disadvantaged communities to suffer the deepest cuts? How can we expect people to take responsibility for themselves, while at the same time cutting away the support they need to do so? What good is talking about a big society while removing the infrastructure that it needs? Nottingham people want answers, and I hope that the Minister has them ready.

Sandra Osborne (in the Chair): I just want to point out that in half-hour debates the Chair’s practice is to call the Member who obtained the debate, and the Minister. The Chair will call other Members to speak only if the Member in charge and the Minister indicate in advance that they are content. Whether Members accept interventions or not is a matter for them.

1.17 pm

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Ms Osborne. [ Interruption. ] There is a sort of chuntering noise somewhere in the Chamber. I do not know whether it is the microphone. Perhaps it is picking up some interference.

Anna Soubry: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: I thought it might be the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I will give way if I can just speak for a couple of minutes. [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Lady will allow me—

Sandra Osborne (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is not accepting an intervention.

Chris Leslie: This is not very becoming of the hon. Lady. Some might say that she is plucky in the way she is disrupting the proceedings, but others might say she has quite a lot of brass neck. [ Interruption. ] We are talking about a subject that is incredibly serious, and there should be all-party consensus on the matter, given that we are not talking about hanging baskets, coffee mornings or other such elements of the voluntary sector; we are talking about homelessness and people who may well find they have nowhere to reside, if their current accommodation closes.

Without getting into too much detail about the grant formula settlement, the simple point that I want to make in my couple of minutes is that homelessness charities and hostels are the things that most people will feel particularly strongly about. They are, after all, the last resort for many of the people who are in greatest need. They provide specialist support and acute help for people with mental difficulties, drug and alcohol problems and learning disabilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) mentioned the charity Framework and some of its hostels. In my constituency I am particularly concerned about the closure of the Handel Street centre, which specialises in dealing with drug and alcohol problems. The new Albion hostel with 21 flats is potentially under threat. My hon.

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Friend mentioned the Noelle House closure. There is also Acorn Lodge in St Ann’s, which is run by the Salvation Army, for homeless people over 55.

The consequences are obvious in terms of rough sleeping and potential disorder, but it is the ill health issues that worry me most, such as the knock-on effects on accident and emergency, bed-blocking and so forth. We are expected to believe in the big society, but I wonder whether it is realistic to expect private philanthropy to fill the void in what has been the historical support for these services. That is my concern. I urge the Minister to reconsider the quick withdrawal of this grant support given that there is no alternative plan.

Anna Soubry: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Over the years, Nottingham city council has spent excessive money not only on political advisers for the Labour group, but on promotional publicity, foreign jaunts and the like. It is unfortunate that the Labour-run city council did not use that money—taxpayers’ money—on the very services that he now is so keen to protect.

Chris Leslie: I had a feeling that the hon. Lady would want to make a political point. As predicted, some would say that she has a brass neck intervening on that point, given that it distracts from the primary issues that we face. There will always be examples of lower levels of expenditure on which local councillors will disagree, but given the sums involved—it is in multi-millions of pounds—it is not credible for the hon. Lady to say that that is the driver for the withdrawal of some of those services.

Anna Soubry indicated dissent.

Chris Leslie: The hon. Lady disagrees—she has her point of view—but we have to do more to help the homeless in Nottingham and in my constituency.

1.21 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this debate. She started by paying an extremely sincere tribute to her local voluntary community sector and her local paper. I began to lose respect for her speech, however, when she failed to recognise the difficulties faced not only by the Government, but by those trying to govern local authority areas.

The situation is horrendously difficult for everyone. The hon. Lady spoke of political choices, but I did not go into politics to make spending cuts, and I doubt whether the people on Nottingham city council did so either. The cuts were forced on us by the shambles that resulted from the previous Administration’s stewardship of our public finances, but she showed no recognition of that. I leave to one side whatever happened in the past to the administration of the various Nottinghamshire councils.

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Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene, given the short time that he has left. Is he aware that Nottingham city council has compensated two previous chief executives that it could not get on with, has sent an executive to the south of France on jollies and has hired a cherry picker to remove conkers from a tree? Would it have been better to spend that money on the voluntary sector rather than wasting it like that?

Mr Hurd: My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, which brings me to my next point. However difficult this environment may be, it boils down to local choices, and local choice is often dictated by decisions taken in the past.

Those are local choices, but it is clear to me that the picture is very different around the country, with some local authorities—perhaps they were better run in the past, with a greater eye for efficiency and spending on what is really valuable—being in a position to minimise reductions to the voluntary and community sector. Indeed, places such as Reading and Wiltshire have increased investment, or are engaging in a process with that sector that is more transparent, more up-front and more engaged. There is a mixed picture across the country.

I know from personal contact with representatives of Nottinghamshire’s voluntary community sector that there are problems on the ground. I wrote to every Member of Parliament offering to meet members of the local voluntary community sector, and I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) took up my invitation. I met representatives of the sector there, and they directly expressed their concerns to me, which were principally about how the county council had managed the process of engagement.

In the little time that remains, I shall try to set out our stall and say what the Government are trying to do to help in this incredibly difficult situation. Clear messages have been sent to local authorities on the best way of behaving in this situation. The Prime Minister gave a clear steer, asking councils to cut their cost bases and make their own efficiencies before starting to think of making what might seem to be easy cuts to the voluntary sector. That is what my local authority has done, and many others are doing so, too.

That approach is clearly not happening across the piece, however, which is why I am delighted that my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government have gone further. They are urging local authorities to be much more transparent about their spending on the voluntary and community sector, so that the people whom we represent can see what is being done in their names and exactly what choices are being made—for instance, decisions on county hall salaries compared with cuts for the local voluntary and community sector. The public have a right to know what is being done in their name.

Anna Soubry: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. It is most unfortunate that of all the local authorities in England, it is Nottingham that still refuses to publish expenditure of more than £500. One wonders what is the problem—what has Nottingham got to hide?

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Mr Hurd: That is certainly the question in my mind and in the mind of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We, in Parliament, know the power of transparency—we know that it gives real power to citizens. In this instance, the public have the right to know how their money is being spent and what choices are being made. We are trying to help by sending a strong steer to local authorities and allowing the public to make up their mind about local decisions.

We have set aside £100 million of taxpayers’ money—a significant sum—as a transition fund to help voluntary sector organisations. Many are finding themselves terribly exposed to cuts of grant or in contracts, and need some help to get out of the hole—as long as they have a plan to do so. We continue to invest on behalf of the taxpayer in that sector. My Department has a budget of £470 million, and we structure what we do around three questions.

First, we ask what we are doing to make it easier to run voluntary community sector organisations. That involves cutting red tape to make it easier for those who have the incredibly difficult job of running small charities or civil society organisations. We continue to invest in the infrastructure that exists to support the sector. We want to make it much more effective.

Secondly, we ask what we can do to get more resources—both time and money—into the sector. We published a Green Paper on giving, which will become a White Paper. We are well on track to deliver a big society bank, which will make it much easier for social entrepreneurs to access capital, and we are coming up with new programmes such as the National Citizen Service, which I hope will be available in Nottinghamshire before too long. We are about to commission next year’s pilots, with 30,000 places. I urge the hon. Member for

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Nottingham South to engage with it when it arrives, as it will be an enormously positive opportunity for local young people, and a fantastically good process of connecting them and giving them the power to make a contribution to community.

Last but not least, we ask ourselves the question, “What can we do to make it easier for charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations to deliver public services?” The sector delivers about 2% of contract value, but we would like it to do much more. We are working towards publishing a White Paper on public service reform, which will specifically address what should be done to open up the public service markets to more competition. Under it, charities and social enterprises will have the opportunity to deliver more public services, with some of the real value being in supporting those people mentioned so eloquently by the hon. Member for Nottingham South. In my experience, with some of the really difficult things—getting the long-term unemployed back into work or keeping people out of jail or off drugs—really valuable work is being done by quite small community organisations or social enterprises. We want to level the playing field to make it much easier for such organisations to deliver public services.

Lilian Greenwood: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hurd: I shall not give way, as this is my last minute and the hon. Lady spoke for a long time.

None of this is easy, but we are actively trying to help the sector and local authorities through the difficult process of managing this transition. We want to minimise the damage in the short term, and maximise the opportunities for the voluntary and community sector so as to unlock the potential that is out there for improving more lives.

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Eco-island Strategy (Isle of Wight)

1.29 pm

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am glad to be speaking today about eco-island. A group of environmentalists saw the opportunity to make the Isle of Wight the first truly sustainable region in Britain. As this issue clearly transcends departmental responsibilities, I understand that the Minister may not have all the information at his fingertips. In terms of being able to demonstrate sustainability, the island is almost perfect. It is a microcosm of the mainland, with a manageably sized population and a well-defined border. It is the perfect place in which to bring to reality a vision of living in balance with the land.

The Isle of Wight has great natural beauty, but it is not Utopia; it is faced with many challenges. It is dependent on the mainland for much of its food, power, water and fuel. To become truly self-sustaining, fundamental changes, both physical and social, must be made. To attain the eco-island vision, the energy equation must be addressed.

At present, the island is almost entirely dependent on the coal and oil-fired power stations on the mainland. Eco-island would introduce a whole new raft of technologies to change that. The Isle of Wight needs 575 GW-hours of electricity to become self-sufficient. Much of that could be achieved with a mix of solar voltaic panels on the roofs of social and private housing; solar thermal addressing some of the hot water and heating needs; wind, tidal and geothermal power; and energy recovered from waste recycling. The feed-in tariff designed for small installations supports the roll-out of photovoltaic technologies on a domestic scale. Solar farms on agricultural land may not be the best solution, but panels in business parks, and even awnings over car parks, could provide a significant amount of energy.

The feed-in tariff is currently under review. I am sure that the Department of Energy and Climate Change recognises that such schemes can successfully promote renewable energy across a broad range of properties. I hope that that will be taken into account when decisions are made about the future of the feed-in tariff and other schemes that are designed to promote renewable energy.

A number of other positive initiatives are on the horizon. The renewable heat incentive should be implemented as set out in consultation papers. It could make a massive difference to the number of installations of ground and air-source heat pumps, combined heat and power plants fuelled by biomass, and solar thermal systems. Currently, eco-island plans need certainty about the level of the RHI to encourage enough individual householders to take up the scheme. Will the Minister give an indication whether the RHI is likely to be introduced at the planned levels?

The Isle of Wight is blessed with more sunshine than almost anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It has a superb natural environment and could harvest a vast amount of energy direct from the sun. For workable plans to be put in place, the Government must maintain their commitment to renewable energy generation. Eco-island has already gained a good deal of interest and support.

With the support of the local council, the chambers of commerce, tourism and local businesses, the Eco-Island Partnership, a community interest company, has been

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formed. The partnership is led by David Green, who is personally so committed to sustainable living that he has turned his own home into a show home for renewable technologies.

The new partnership will act as a conduit and funding vehicle for the roll-out of new green technologies. A number of strategic projects and initiatives are already in the pipeline, including the installation of solar panels, free of charge, on social housing. While the panels are generating, the tenant will get a contribution to their energy needs. The feed-in tariff payments will cover the financial investment and generate funds to invest in other green community projects on the island.

A key area for long-term investment is helping people and businesses to reduce energy use. Energy conservation projects, in tandem with renewable energy generation, will make the eco-island goal of carbon neutrality easier to achieve quickly and economically. The focus will be on making existing housing less power-hungry both to improve living standards and to cut energy bills.

Eco-island is not just about solving the energy equation. As part of the vision, other challenges will be addressed. Electric cars and bikes will be introduced, thereby reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Public transport will be promoted. The use of water will be cut, thus reducing the island’s dependence on supplies from the mainland. Local produce will be collected from farmers via a local food hub to supply shops, hotels and restaurants that are keen to “buy local”. The Eco-Island Partnership is also engaged in discussions about acting as a vehicle to manage a whole-island waste solution. It seeks to cut landfill to zero, generate heat and power as by-products and stop waste being transported off the island.

Chale is one of the least populous parishes on the island, but it has 70 social houses and flats. Some of those ideas have already been piloted with the Chale community project, which received welcome support from DECC last year. Solar panels and effective insulation were retro-fitted in 1960s houses. All windows were replaced, and air-source heat-pumps installed with new wet-radiator systems and tanks. That led to carbon savings of about 50% and reduced energy costs to tenants by up to 30%. Some 1,500 further installations are now planned by the housing associations themselves working with the Eco-Island Partnership. That project proves that DECC funding, properly directed, can, as intended, produce a ripple effect, increasing the renewable energy infrastructure.

There are even bigger challenges. As more energy is produced, the balance of the grid will slowly shift. The Eco-Island Partnership will install “smart meters” to assist in managing peak supply and demand. The technology will gather and monitor data and shape demand, fitting it more closely with the availability of renewable energy. Until they are used to the system, people will receive messages telling them when solar panels are active or wind turbines are turning in their area. Put simply, when renewable energy is being generated, they will be reminded to put their washing on. Ultimately, homes may be semi-automated, with smart meters activating appliances when renewable energy is available.

The Eco-Island Partnership has started that work and the Isle of Wight is the perfect place in which to roll out the technology. The benefits will be measurable and

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quantifiable, but it is undoubtedly a difficult technical challenge. Can help be made available, in the form of knowledge and technical expertise, to ensure that the right technical solution is found for the island? The benefit of that will be that once the right technology is in place and thoroughly trialled, the solution can be promoted throughout the rest of the UK.

Part of the eco-island plan is to launch the greenback card, which will promote the benefits of renewable energy and offer discounts to members of the community. The card is designed to deliver significant savings to the average island family throughout the year. The Eco-Island Partnership will work towards improving the quality of life, increasing the island’s sustainability and reducing the cost of living for eco-islanders, all at the same time.

There are also plans to create an eco-centre visitor attraction on the island, which would be used to demonstrate renewable energy technologies, showcase the science of new builds and engage people in the process of becoming more sustainable. Activities will be related to growing, managing woodland, arable farming and livestock. All the materials used would be local and the technology would be capable of being updated. Approaches have already been made to schools with a view to their using such a resource to support the curriculum. The centre could also provide a valuable focus to support the development of eco-tourism on the island from the British isles and from further afield. Why not provide people with a showcase of how sustainability can work and of what a future sustainable society might look like? I would be grateful if Government officials explored with David Green of the partnership whether any support might be available for this education work.

Representatives of the Eco-Island Partnership are talking to major companies about possible employee volunteering schemes, in the hope of attracting top talent to help it with its work. BT and a number of other companies have agreed to help. A training scheme could be developed with the Isle of Wight college, which would offer all the necessary building industry qualifications and train up to 30 young people a year for jobs in the renewable energy sector. Those young people could work as apprentices as renewable technologies are installed.

Green businesses will be attracted to the island. Eco-technology companies will enjoy a business incubator environment and they will be at the centre of sustainable technology development. In time, the partnership hopes to act as an “eco-dragons den” for new business ideas, offering start-up loans and pump-priming new initiatives and opportunities on the island.

I would be grateful if the Minister indicated his support for these efforts to encourage eco-businesses. The partnership would like to receive help from DECC or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to identify where assistance is available for green business start-ups and employment training. Much of the funding for these plans will come from the private sector. The Eco-Island Partnership can provide a vehicle for individuals and investment companies to invest in ethical green community projects and it can act as a “one-stop shop” for a variety of investment projects. The partnership is also working to establish a dedicated eco-island equity fund, which would allow investors to contribute directly to its work.

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When viewed as a whole, eco-island looks like the big society in action. When the big society bank comes into existence, I hope that the Minister will make representations to ensure that such schemes can apply for support from it. The Eco-Island Partnership regards the eco-island vision as being in tune with the big society ideas and localism.

The Eco-Island Partnership is representative of a community that is trying to take some of its destiny back into its own hands, by seeking to address the big issues and the realities that the community will face, as well as working towards a better quality of life for local business people, residents and visitors to the island. The partnership is also trying to convey that message of sustainability to the rest of the UK and to places further afield. The eco-island vision for the Isle of Wight is ambitious but it is grounded in reality. The projects that the partnership is engaged in are large and challenging, but they address the problems that we face as a nation while remaining focused at the level of the island itself.

The people behind eco-island are resourceful, pragmatic and highly motivated. They care passionately about the island. They view the various energy and environmental challenges as opportunities to find solutions that will benefit the eco-island community and ultimately—hopefully—the nation as a whole. The eco-island team would welcome the opportunity to have discussions with Ministers and officials to explain the eco-island strategy in more detail and to explore ways to develop the concept in line with Government aims.

1.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) on securing this debate and I also congratulate his constituents on what is really a remarkable project. It is great to hear about this ambitious plan, which has the potential to be an exemplar for sustainable development in action.

Just last week, my Department announced our plans for mainstreaming sustainable development across Government. The plans aim to ensure that sustainable development is at the heart of everything that we do, from the way that we make our policies to how we operate our estates and procure our services. Our “greening Government” commitments were announced at the same time and they set out challenging goals for Departments to achieve in reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions and in the steps that must be taken to address adaptation to climate change and sustainable construction. The Government need to show that we can get our house in order, to inspire others to do the same. The eco-island strategy is a good example of a community recognising the need to do more to secure a sustainable future.

I realise that many of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised are perhaps more relevant to my colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. However, I am here today and I can assure him that DEFRA and DECC are two Departments that are joined at the hip, and we are working closely together on our sustainable

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policies and on our greening of Government. There is a considerable overlap between the two Departments and I will try to address the points that he has raised.

My colleagues in DECC recently announced their carbon plan, which is a cross-Government action plan on climate change backed by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. It sets out strict deadlines and actions for Whitehall. The new carbon plan sets out what must happen and by what date if the Government are to live up to our green ambitions, by meeting our tough domestic carbon targets and encouraging greater action internationally. The plan is focused on the jobs and economic opportunities of the low-carbon economy, and on policies that will help to insulate Britain from future energy price shocks. It precisely addresses the points that my hon. Friend has outlined about the impressive eco-island scheme.

The carbon plan is published in draft today, with the Government inviting the public and organisations to give their views on its contents. A final version will be published in the autumn. I hope that the people involved in the eco-island project on the Isle of Wight will have a chance to see the plan. We can learn from what they are already doing.

My hon. Friend talked about green jobs. We must recognise the importance of that issue. We know that it has been a huge issue on the Isle of Wight and received considerable publicity not long ago. It is great to see that there is a determination among those who are in business or in local government on the island to try to ensure that the island becomes a hub of green-growth jobs, and they are being led by my hon. Friend.

At least 1,000 green deal apprentices could receive Government funding towards their training, which might be an opportunity for the Isle of Wight. The apprentice scheme is part of our plans to reduce carbon emissions and to insulate the UK’s homes and businesses against rising energy prices. That is an important announcement that might be of interest to people on the Isle of Wight.

Regarding green skills, my colleagues in DECC continue to work with the sector skills councils and the National Apprenticeship Service to ensure that the provision of skills matches demand. NAS and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board are working together to increase the number of apprentices within the engineering-construction sector, to meet the future demand that will be created by major energy projects. There is great potential for synergy between the eco-island strategy and what we are doing in Government.

The opportunities offered by a move to a low-carbon economy are huge. In 2008-09, the global market for low-carbon goods and services was worth £3.2 trillion and it is forecast to grow by about 4% in the next five years. There are major opportunities for businesses to use energy more efficiently. They could save £3.3 billion per annum on energy bills through cost-effective measures. It has been interesting to hear how businesses on the Isle of Wight are embracing some of the technologies that promote energy efficiency. The market size of the UK low-carbon environmental goods and services sector rose to £112 billion in 2008-09, which represented an increase of 4.3% on revised figures for the previous year. The sector is the largest in the world.

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My hon. Friend asked about the renewable heat incentive. The Government are committed to a massive expansion in renewable energy, of which supporting renewable heat is an integral part. We remain committed to the ambition to move from 1% to 12% of all heat generated being from a renewable source by 2020. The renewable heat incentive represents an investment of more than £860 million over the spending review period, and it will drive a more than tenfold increase in renewable heat over the coming decade, shifting the industry from the fringes to the mainstream. In the next day or two, we hope to publish measures to support renewable heat, within the budget agreed at the spending review.

Finally, on my hon. Friend’s points, I was particularly interested to hear him talk about Chale. The scheme there is remarkable and, with the support of organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it appears to be bringing an entire off-grid rural community out of fuel poverty with an integrated approach to reducing carbon. That is really impressive. Additional funding is provided by the social landlord, to ensure that the properties are upgraded to the decent homes standard, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation supports the project management and behaviour change elements of the scheme. The entire village will benefit from the social improvements, and a number of photovoltaic installations throughout the estate will feed a community-managed funding initiative to ensure that the project continues to support improvements in the village for years to come. I commend the people involved on their enlightened approach, from which we can all learn for our constituencies elsewhere around the country.

The cross-Government adapting to climate change programme, based in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, supports local authorities in preparing adaptation strategies, including through the nine English climate change partnerships, the UK climate impacts programme and work undertaken with the Local Government Group. The adapting to climate change programme is also undertaking the UK’s first climate change risk assessment, which is due to report in January 2012, and which will inform the development of the Government’s first statutory national programme of action to prepare the country for climate change. Local authorities will need to play a key role in delivering on that important agenda, and it seems that the Isle of Wight is way ahead of the curve.

The Localism Bill will radically reform the planning system to give local people new rights to shape the development of the communities in which they live, including through neighbourhood plans. During this year, the Government will consult on a national planning policy framework, which will set out in a single, concise document our broad economic, environmental and social priorities, and how those priorities relate to each other. We are seeking, therefore, to do at a national level much of what the Isle of Wight is doing locally. The reforms will ensure that the majority of planning decisions are made at the local level, with the minimum of interference from Whitehall, empowering local authorities to achieve sustainable growth alongside environmental improvements and an improved quality of life for communities. The vision that my hon. Friend has described is precisely that which we seek to encourage, and I hope that the people involved will feel appreciated and valued for what they have done thus far, and for what they will do in the future.

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We are also taking sustainable travel seriously. In January, the Department for Transport announced the introduction of a new local sustainable transport fund, providing £560 million for sustainable travel schemes. The January 2011 White Paper “Creating Growth, Cutting Carbon: Making Sustainable Local Transport Happen” sets out the importance of sustainable transport systems such as those in the eco-island strategy. The benefits from improved public transport and from encouraging modal shift away from car use to walking and cycling are clear, and these types of scheme often offer the best value for money. The Government understand the problems that councils have in maintaining their road network, and in February the Department for Transport announced, following the recent severe weather, that extra funding of more than £100 million would be given to councils for the repair of potholes.

The coalition also believes in work towards a zero-waste economy, and my hon. Friend touched on that. To ensure that we have the right policies to achieve that aim, the Government are conducting a thorough review of all aspects of waste policy and delivery in England, and the preliminary findings will be published in May 2011.

We recognise the benefits that the marketing of regional and local food can bring to producers and consumers alike. Shoppers increasingly want to know how the food they buy has been produced, and what its provenance is, and the established tourism industry in the Isle of Wight is ideally suited—I cannot think of anywhere better—to benefit from this Government’s determination

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to expand local food networks and identify key brands. Despite the evidence not being conclusive, we all know that local food is better for the environment. When production, processing and distribution systems are similar, choosing produce that has travelled a shorter distance can result in lower transport emissions. That must be one of the most obvious comments ever made in the House, but the opportunity for communities such as the Isle of Wight to benefit from such a strategy is enormous.

Finally, I shall mention the natural environment White Paper, which is a major piece of work being carried out by DEFRA, offering both large and small communities a vision of how we want to manage our natural environment, and how we value it and will continue to value it. I commend that important work, which will be published in a few weeks’ time.

I have spoken about several issues, which are linked by the fact that they all highlight the importance of sustainable development. Sustainable development covers everything we do, and is reflected in our recognition that decisions should not be taken in isolation. I look forward to hearing more about the progress on the eco-island strategy. I commend the people involved in it, and I commend my hon. Friend both for raising the topic in the House and for his leadership in the area.

Question put and agreed to.

1.57 pm

Sitting adjourned.