There is something a little bizarre about the notion of the sustainable community, which is a horrible combination of double jargon. The very word “sustainable” drags in six different directions. When we talk about sustainable growth, we seem to be talking about environmental projects. When we talk about sustainable infrastructure, we seem to be talking about no ongoing financing. When we talk about a sustainable facility, we seem to be talking about no Government investment. When we

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talk about sustainable infrastructure, such as broadband, we seem to mean something that does not involve volunteers. The worst example, of course, is sustainable farming, in the name of which we see again and again in our communities farmers being paid Government subsidies not to farm, so that a time will come when the sheep have left the hillsides, the subsidy stops and the sustainable farming is neither sustainable nor farming at all.

I shall not discuss the variability in the notion of sustainable community, except to say—moving from the facetious to the serious—why the debate is so important. This is perhaps the most important problem facing Britain today, and it is a problem of trust. When polled, 87% of British people say that politics is broken and 84% say that society is broken. Every single one of us in the Chamber has the experience of sitting down, perhaps at a dinner party, and trying to make polite conversation with the people next to us as it gradually emerges, once they have discovered we are a politician, that they think that we are indeed a liar and a thief. We know the gentle politeness with which, after the first course, they ask, “Is it really true that you have a subsidised bar? Would you mind explaining exactly the nature of your expenses?” Then, as we move on to the dessert course, they ask, “What do you think about all these professional politicians? Don’t you think that people with experience should come back into politics?”

All that is a sign of a big problem, which is the gap between local people, local communities—the ground—and us. It is a problem that we ought to be able to solve, because this is our moment and this is the right country in which to solve it. This is our moment because we have never before in this country had so many educated, confident people able to challenge Government in every way. Britain is also a country with a very strong and deep tradition of local democracy, which we talked about incessantly through the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, however, we find ourselves in a position where France, which we always saw as a hyper-centralised country, is well ahead of us in terms of decentralisation and local government.

How shall we address that? We have begun, but we have not gone far enough or been ambitious enough. The tone of Government is beginning to change: under the banner of things such as the big society, we see individual examples up and down the country of civil servants checking themselves, rethinking and considering ways in which they can respond to local communities. We see it in the construction of the infrastructure for sustainable communities: in rural areas, that means investment in broadband, for example, which allows people in a remote area to continue to operate and to flourish. They can get health and education services, or run businesses down broadband; perhaps more important for our purposes today, they can challenge their representatives and organise themselves down broadband. Thus local communities are allowed a political and democratic voice through technology.

The problem is that we have not gone far enough. Sometimes I think we need to be more decisive and spend more money, to answer the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). We could spend more money in reference to splendid ideas such as, for example, National Citizen Service. That is a great idea to get a lot of young people and volunteers involved, but what have we got after two years? A very good project, but still only a few thousand people. The coalition Government

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are in power only until 2015, and if we are serious about getting National Citizen Service going, we should be aiming to have 70% or 80% of 16-years-olds going through the scheme by 2015. We should be putting the money behind it.

Sometimes it will be a question of challenging the structures of late capitalism, which is to say we need to challenge the structures of big business, and sometimes even the structures of big charities. An odd phenomenon of the modern world is that we sit in our local areas, and not only are supermarkets rolling into local communities and kicking out small shops, but major national and international charities that have 600 or so people sitting in their donor proposal writing departments in London are rolling into local areas and destroying local volunteer networks.

Solving those problems is not simply a matter of putting a little pressure on a local council or calling an official to account. We have to address the fundamental structures of procurement, the fundamental structures of financing and the structures of law. Again and again, we get caught up in state aid regulations in a way that we do not need to be, with small projects of £17,000 enmeshed in those regulations. We also need to take a different attitude to risk. If we are serious about working with local communities, we have to overcome some of our anxieties about accountability, predictability and transparency, and find ways of taking risk, trusting people and delegating to people.

A small example to illustrate how that is going wrong in my area in Cumbria relates to the bugbear with which I began: broadband. A classic example of local community activity is to be found in Mallerstang, a remote and beautiful valley, where the local community organised itself to get fibreoptic cables to every home. If the community had not done its work, that project would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, but because the local organisers signed up 100% of the people in the area for the service, because they found a way of digging the fibre trenches themselves, and because they negotiated with the supplier, the total cost to the Government will be £17,000. That is a very small amount of money to fire up a whole valley, yet somehow the Government have not yet got the money to the people. The last time I spoke to an official, that official suggested that British Telecom could make a charitable contribution of the money, because it was too complicated to get through the procurement and state aid regulations. As long as those attitudes and blocks remain, such fantastic opportunities for community action will never be realised. If we could use it on a national scale, that type of action could save us hundreds of millions of pounds and bring superfast broadband into communities—but only if the Government are as aggressive and flexible as they need to be.

This is not a question of attitude, of tone or of money; it is a question of the constitution. I pay tribute to the Minister who, above all, has expressed philosophically and consistently why that matters, why the dignity of the citizen matters, and why local communities matter. I think all of us in the Chamber would agree that if we are looking for one big constitutional change in this country, it is not tinkering with what happens here in Parliament, but changing what happens locally.

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It is very disappointing that we did not get as many elected mayors as we wanted. Philosophically, the Minister will disagree with the idea of imposing a centralised solution on local communities, but I am beginning to believe that one of the triumphs of the French commune system was Napoleon himself, and that if we truly want local democracy in this country, we need to go for it and to impose locally elected mayors on communities—force communities to be free, and force them to vote for their own local representatives.

When we are not being attacked at ghastly dinner parties, we are often praised in our local areas for being good local constituency MPs. That peculiar paradox—that everyone hates politicians in general, but quite likes their local MP—explains the vacuum at the heart of our constitution and the vacuum of local democracy. If we can address that, if we can get sustainable communities in place, and if we can aggressively address finance, law and procurement in our constitution, we can turn our benighted subjects into citizens.

3.14 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): You will excuse me, Mr Weir, for not standing up. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George). I am not sure whether I should be congratulating him on securing the debate or the Minister on signing the regulations today. If I make it a tie, perhaps both will be kind to me. None the less, it is important that we are having this debate and that, at long last, the regulations are in motion. I hope that the date of their publication—before the summer recess—is firm, as further slippage would be unfortunate.

I reflect on the contribution made by my good friend Sue Doughty in 2002, and all the work that has been done since. Like many other hon. Members, I spent more Fridays in London than I might have chosen to do to get this important legislation through. The number of hon. Members who have been committed to the process is significant.

On the idea of community, we have heard three very impressive speeches today, and I concur with much of what has been said. I have to say that I would not want to force communities to have a mayor, or force anything else on them, but I take on board some of the interesting comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart).

I want to focus my remarks right down at community level. I am sure we all have our experiences from celebrating the jubilee such a short time ago. If ever there was absolute evidence of strong community feeling, we saw it then, whether we attended a street party and the community was along that particular street; whether we attended a party in a park, which attracted people living on several nearby roads; or whether a village or even a small town came together. As well as signing the regulations today, the Minister must be committed to sorting out the time limits as we go through the process. There are many stories about people becoming disenchanted, having put their ideas forward and then having to wait a year or more to see whether they will progress. We should make the most of the enormous impetus that has just been given to community and pulling together, and act now. At the many community events I attended, people

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were saying, “We should do this again next year.” There was a real feeling that we can move forward and do all sorts of things.

As this debate is about localism, I shall refer to my constituency, which is interesting in that it is diverse but does not have a big town centre: it is composed of small market towns, district shopping centres and villages. There are some interesting aspects: for example, one district shopping centre and its neighbourhood put in a bid for Mary Portas money. I do not know how many local district shopping centres entered the bidding process, but I thought it was an ambitious thing to do, given the number of bids that would be successful. In itself, the bidding process was useful in bringing together ideas from the local community. Some communities will not get their neighbourhood plans off the ground. I think there is a hierarchy of what people might do, which is where the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 comes in, because it may not be a formal neighbourhood plan that takes matters forward, but initiatives under that legislation.

In district shopping centres, there are of course the same issues of use. My local shopping centre has many takeaways. My community obviously enjoys having takeaways or there would not be so many, but they affect the sustainability of the rest of the shopping centre, as do betting shops and some other uses. I feel that we need the hierarchy. I know the Minister is looking at use classes, and I hope that he will tell us today how the Localism Act 2011, “town centre first” policies, aspects of the national planning policy framework and the neighbourhood plans will all pull together as we move forward with the 2007 Act.

I want to make a brief reference to parish councils, of which there are several in my constituency. I have received representations from some parishes, along the lines of, “Why aren’t we getting on with this?” or “Why isn’t it confirmed that we will be part of this process?” I hope that the Minister will answer firmly today. To give a small example—to contrast with the much bigger issue of broadband, which is important—one of my villages wanted to adopt a roundabout and attract sponsorship, so that the roundabout would be attractive. Five years later the villagers have abandoned the attempt, because the county council made it so difficult. It is incredible to me that they were unable to do something so simple—something that towns throughout the country do—but one obstacle after another was put in their way. I am sure that all hon. Members have many such examples.

Let us be truly visionary. Let us have the whole picture of how the 2011 Act will work and how everything will slot into it, and give communities their say and the power to do what they want to do. It might be something as small as adopting a roundabout or gaining the right to put up sign posts without county council interference, or it might involve the bigger issues of true sustainability, improving our quality of life and ensuring that the next generation has a good community to grow up in and develop further.

3.21 pm

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on introducing the debate, and on his persistence, which I

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regard as entirely responsible for the fact that the Minister has published the regulations today. I am sure there can be no other explanation.

I have always been a warm supporter of the original legislation in all its incarnations, and have done my share of Fridays. I have been lobbied on the subject by my local newsagents and sub-postmasters, and by the New Economics Foundation; and I accept the principle of locally driven initiatives with proper community buy-in. I have done my share of community campaigning, and once owned the domain name nogo2tesco, when my local Tesco wanted to extend its non-food range, appreciably to the detriment of my local town centre. I have been there and got the T-shirt, in a way, and I accept that the idea is good. I recognise, however, that it has been largely killed by the process.

I visited a website—it might have been Local Works, but I apologise if it was not—which offered a diagram explaining how the legislation works. I cannot help thinking that if a diagram is needed to explain legislation, its supporters are in some sense doomed. There are an awful lot of filters to go through before anyone can secure the new power so widely promised in the legislation. By the time people get to the end of the process, they have forgotten why they started; it is so long and convoluted. That reflects central Government nervousness about localism at the time of the legislation. Central Government are always happy to talk the talk, but are more concerned about what might happen if they walk the walk. That is an endemic feature; it is in the DNA of Government, and probably also the civil service which advises them. We talk about community empowerment, which is a bit of a cliché; we talk about powers of general competence, autonomy and localism. We even passed the Localism Act 2011. However, in the end, any power bequeathed to local government is regarded by central Government with slight anxiety.

Offsetting that, at the moment, and hopefully leading central Government down a different track, is another anxiety, which is both complement and antidote. The anxiety is about what we see around us—or think we see: the corrosion of communities and the creation generally of a more anomic, impersonal environment, where the citizens of our land move and have their being. We regret that, and think that things are not as they should be. We also couple it—I am sure that the Minister does—with the belief that something can be done about it, and that that needs to be locally driven, within a proper national framework that provides the appropriate levers.

Generally, we also believe that what happens must be sustainable, although, as the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said, we are not all clear about what we mean by “sustainable”. Clearly we do not mean something that we think should be sustained—something that, nostalgically, we still want, such as steam engines. I think what we probably mean is that we want something that will work, last and survive. There are people in this land who think that the high street can work, last and survive, despite changes in shopping habits, and that so can the local pub and possibly even the local post office. People want them to survive, because they see them as defining features of the area.

The issue, however, is not what we want but whether we can bring about what we think we want. Are there sufficient ideas around that will produce the outcome

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that people seem to hanker after, and are powers needed to ensure that we get the result we want? I am not certain that we are particularly clear about either of those questions. I think that we accept that any local power in this country, which is a non-federal state, is given by central Government to local government. I think that the Government are, generally speaking, ruminating on that. I hope that they are not ruminating on the imposition of mayors on communities that may not want them. Frankly, at the dinner parties I go to, people have never expressed an overwhelming demand for that. However, if we consider the Portas review, among other things, we see that the Government’s acceptance of certain proposals is based not on a clear understanding of what to do to revive the high street, but on wanting a variety of projects to proceed, so that it can be seen whether any are successful and worth implementing.

Rory Stewart: Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on why he thinks people should not have a directly elected mayor?

John Pugh: Probably because there is an element of democracy in my nature, and I think that wherever possible, and all things being equal, people should be asked whether they want things, rather than having them imposed on them.

It is not clear to me that, as a political class, we have clear convictions yet—we may be struggling towards them—about what is possible or desirable and, in the long term, achievable. After all, we are not talking about the collapse of the retail sector. People get their shopping and alcohol, and they have their mail delivered. However, the way people get those things is affected by changes in their habits, and so on. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned specialist shops, and I am keen on their establishment, but we must recognise the fact that now a specialist shop means one that is on the internet, thus acquiring a wider clientele than it would ordinarily do where it was originally established.

We are becoming something of a market society, in which we judge everything by price. The battle that I see us having to reach sustainable communities cannot be pitched as one between nostalgia and market brutalism, because market brutalism will win. However, something called a sustainable community can be established, and it can work, deliver and progress. It is along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend, but it requires a positive political will, and realistic evidence-based policy to implement it, because if we are to produce the outcomes that many of us want, and avoid some of those that currently happen, we will need Government to engage with the topic further. I am sure that the Minister is only too keen to do that.

3.28 pm

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. The title tempted me to come and listen, but I had not intended to speak, and was not sure what the debate would be about, for very much the same reason given by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)—I did not

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know what “sustainable community” was likely to mean. I had not taken part in the preparation of the regulations, and was not fully aware of where we were on the matter. I think of a sustainable community not as an objective that is ever reached, or even, in a sense, as a noun, but more as a process. I do not think that anywhere is ever reached satisfactorily; if that happened there would be a process of reversing, because there are always tensions at delivery.

I decided to make my contribution quite late on. It was instigated by a couple of comments made by the hon. Member for St Ives, and because I want to talk a little about my personal experiences, which I think are relevant. I started my public life as a member of a community council because I happened to live on the right road. The person who lived in our road stepped down, and as it was automatically assumed that someone from each road had to sit on the community council, I was prevailed on to join.

Then, almost through a series of accidents, I finished up in this Chamber. I had a disagreement with a county councillor over the views of my community, which were being ignored—that is relevant to today’s debate—and I stood against him in the county council and became its chairman. I then became a member of a quango, and as a result of that I became a Member of the National Assembly, although I lost my seat in 2007. That was a great surprise to me and I was hugely disappointed. In 2010 I was elected to the House of Commons, which was an almost equally great surprise because I had not expected that either. Therefore, through a series of accidents I finished up in this debate talking about sustainable communities.

To me, the principle has always been the engagement of people—the citizens—with the bodies that are doing things to them, or, supposedly, for them. The coalition Government have taken a number of initiatives to tackle that general area, whether through the big society, which is an attempt to engage locally, or the Localism Act 2011. Such measures have underpinned the Government, although whether we have been sufficiently successful or strong is an area for debate.

I shall refer to two points that were raised by the hon. Member for St Ives, one of which I agree with—as I said in my intervention—and one of which I do not agree with because of my own experience, although I do not argue with the principle. I also want to comment on onshore wind—I guess one of the reasons I came to the debate was in the hope of a chance to intervene on that point. However, I will not speak excessively about it today.

The first point concerns the impact of large retailers on towns. The two main towns in my constituency got a new supermarket, and as always there was a desire by the local community to take advantage of that and make the supermarkets spend a lot of money to benefit the community. There is, however, a limit on how such money can be spent, and in both instances a huge amount was spent on a road system near the supermarket, but the design was something that would be suitable for a city. In both cases, that has completely destroyed the communities and has the added disbenefit in busy seasons of preventing people from passing through Welshpool or Newtown to get to the west coast. Both systems are absolute disasters.

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We want to reach a position where, when local authorities decide on such big applications, any planning gain will be something that the community might want on a long-term basis. I do not know whether that is legally possible, although I think the hon. Member for St Ives may have been looking at the issue. Perhaps some sort of fund could be used to make it easier to park, or it could affect business rates or support the town centre itself. That would be a huge improvement.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I am sorry that I was not present at the beginning of the debate, but I have been following the thrust of the discussion. I have heard much talk about the issues surrounding urban development and sustainable communities, but I have heard nothing about the farming and rural communities. The hon. Gentleman comes from an area that represents both those communities, in particular the farmers. Does he agree that we should recognise the effect on sustainable development of farmers coming together in co-operatives with strength of supply, forcing large supermarkets to give better prices for their products? Does he think that should be a core part of Government policy?

Glyn Davies: I very much agree. I have been a farmer all my life, and I have been involved in many initiatives designed both to buy and sell produce. The hon. Gentleman’s point is very relevant.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman mentioned what he described as planning gain. The problem with planning gain, as opposed to the proposal that I was advancing earlier, is that a one-off planning gain—or planning bribe, as I prefer to describe it—provides a one-off capital sum that will last for only a certain period. The impact of such initiatives needs to be sustainable over time, which is why my proposal seeks to address the problems of upward-only rent reviews and their impact on business rates in towns.

Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): Before the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire resumes his contribution, perhaps he will bear it in mind during his speech and in any interventions that I want to start the winding-up speeches by 3.40 pm.

Glyn Davies: That is very adequate, Mr Weir; I will not take any more interventions. I felt, however, that the thrust of the way I dealt with the issue was in some agreement with the hon. Member for St Ives. It is a complex way, although I am not quite sure what the legislation allows. I do not, however, think that a one-off investment that is in some way linked with a development is beneficial in the long term. We need much more flexibility.

My second point relates to planning permission for change of use. I admit that I used to be a supporter of that principle, but I chaired a planning committee for seven years; indeed, I was a Member of the National Assembly for Wales when the issue was considered by the Committee that I was chairing. The development of such a process, however, becomes so complex that it is almost impossible to operate. In the end, we came to that position. Whenever such a proposal is advocated, we need to think it through. Inevitably a certain percentage of cases would be allowed, and there would be a database, so that when that percentage was crossed, there would be an element of dishonesty.

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Finally, I want to say a brief word about onshore wind, although not in the same sense that I have sometimes contributed to that debate. In my constituency—I speak about mid-Wales—there is massive disengagement with the Government. By far the biggest issue that faces us is the development of onshore wind power on a very large scale; we are talking about another 600 turbines, 100 miles of cable, and a 400 kV line all the way into Shropshire. It is a devastating proposal, and if I called a meeting tomorrow, 2,000 people would probably come, just as 2,000 people came to Cardiff with me to demonstrate.

The people of mid-Wales feel that they cannot influence the Government and that no matter what they say or do, the Government have made up their mind and will find a way of getting round them. In one or two recent decisions, the inspector said that the view of local people counted, which was encouraging. However, in a community such as mine—indeed, wider than mine—and in many other parts of rural Britain, this is a very dominating issue. No matter what the Government do to persuade people that they can engage with the process and that the Government care about them, if the project goes forward in my area, people will for ever feel totally disengaged with the Government. They want to feel that they are part of those sustainable UK communities that we saw so brilliantly expressed during the jubilee.

3.38 pm

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing this important debate and on the comprehensive nature of his introduction, which has led to an interesting exchange. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), who demonstrated the importance of investing in truly local democracy if we are to tackle acute social problems that include substandard housing or rogue landlords.

I thought that the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) was going to treat us to a lecture on sustainable farming. That would have been very interesting, although apparently it will have to wait for another day. Instead, we heard about the importance of decentralisation.

The hon. Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), for Southport (John Pugh) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) spoke about the need actively to enable communities to regenerate and be sustainable, including by regenerating high streets. I want to come to some of those points myself.

For a community to be sustainable, it must have access to facilities such as schools, jobs, shops and green spaces, and, increasingly, access to a low-carbon future. Clearly, however, no two communities are the same. Each faces different problems and has different priorities and circumstances. That is why communities themselves are most often best placed to identify the problems that they face and to work with others to find solutions. I believe that the Government know that. They have talked loudly and frequently about their desire to give more power to local people. In fact, the Prime Minister went so far as to say:

“Our future depends on putting more political responsibility in the hands of local people.”

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The Minister will know that the Labour Government legislated for exactly that, with cross-party support, through the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which put greater power in the hands of local communities to encourage economic, social and environmental well-being in their areas. I, too, pay tribute to the many midwives that the Act had. I will not repeat all the names given by the hon. Member for St Ives, but I want to add one—that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Martin Caton), who did a lot of work on the regulations.

We then amended and strengthened the Act in 2010, so it is incredibly disappointing that progress on the Act has stalled, as the regulations that would allow the amended version to be implemented have not, until today, been forthcoming. It would be churlish not to thank the Minister for informing us that the regulations are—finally—on their way, but he will know that there has been growing anger and frustration at the Government’s failure to publish them. There are many written parliamentary question responses, letters and e-mails, dating from before November, promising time and again that the regulations would be published soon, very shortly or within weeks, but I will take him at his word and expect them very soon indeed.

Perhaps the Minister would like to take some time to explain to us why there has been the extraordinary delay in producing the regulations. After all, the consultation finished more than a year ago. Given the huge amount of work that has gone into producing other measures, such as the Localism Act 2011, that apparently are aimed at broadly the same goal, it is hard to understand why the regulations to support the 2007 Act could not have been forthcoming much sooner.

Many people and organisations have been frustrated by the delay. I have been contacted by organisations such as the Campaign for Real Ale, the Public and Commercial Services Union and Local Works and by a number of constituents. They want to know why, if the Government are so pro-localism, they have been so slow to move forward with the Act and put power into the hands of local communities. I therefore look forward to hearing the reasons for that extraordinary delay.

Labour supported the Sustainable Communities Bill in 2007 because it looked set to introduce bottom-up decision making and inspire more people to become involved in shaping the policies that affect them. We want to see that put into operation. Key to the 2007 Act was the compulsion for the relevant local authority and the Secretary of State to try to reach agreement on local people’s proposals. That, Local Works says, is what gives the Act teeth. Without a meaningful definition of reaching agreement, the Act risks becoming a glorified consultation process that might only compound frustration in some communities. Will the Minister give an assurance that, when published, the regulations will include the definition of reaching agreement given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears)—a dialogue in which the final decision is to be taken together?

Will the Minister also give assurances that he will urgently consult on new regulations that will, in line with his speech to the House in March 2011, allow town and parish councils to submit suggestions and proposals

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under the Act? Along with publishing the regulations, will the Minister write a memorandum of understanding between the Secretary of State and the selector to set a time limit on how long it takes for proposals to be dealt with and to ensure that the selection process is as transparent as possible? I should like to know whether the Minister plans to include Local Works as part of the selector.

Surely, the 2007 Act is one of the best ways to encourage sustainable communities. Does the Minister agree? Beyond that important Act, he and his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government have been busy introducing a raft of other measures that I am sure he hoped would give power to local people, but I have a few concerns.

The national planning policy framework was touted as a way of engaging communities in planning and ensuring that they had a positive say on development in their area. Essential to that are neighbourhood planning forums and the plans that they produce, but a huge number of communities are likely to face significant problems in getting those groups off the ground. The Government have given funding of £20,000 to front-runner forums. I welcome that, but am very concerned about what will happen in the future, especially as we know that the Department itself has estimated that the plans could cost up to £63,000. I am concerned that that runs the risk of affluent communities being able to engage positively in the planning process, while disadvantaged communities cannot.

The 2011 Act is designed to give local communities the power to bid for services or assets, but again it is not clear how they will achieve that or where the resources to enable them to do so will come from. I am worried that the Government are sometimes confusing giving responsibility to communities with devolving power to them. In addition, new duties are being placed on local authorities, while many are seeing their resources from central Government cut massively.

Another key part of sustainability is, of course, the environment. We are in the process of moving to a low-carbon economy, but we will achieve that goal only if all communities have access to renewable and low-carbon energy. This might be outside the Minister’s remit, but it would be useful to hear something about how he thinks all communities will be able to gain access to renewable energy sources and within a reasonable time frame.

The last issue that I want to raise has been mentioned by other hon. Members—the need for regeneration of our high streets. Again, it is important that we welcome the money that has gone into the Portas pilots, but clearly it is not enough and it will not help all communities, including some of the most needy, to regenerate their high streets. Are the Government doing any more thinking on how to ensure that all communities can regenerate their high streets? Finally, how will the Minister ensure that all communities can take full advantage of the 2007 Act once the regulations are published?

3.50 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I join the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for

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St Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. I detect from the excellent speeches that we are a band of believers. It is a pleasure to be able to respond the debate and to speak again on one of the most important Acts of Parliament that we have passed in recent years. As was made clear by the references to the various midwives from all parties and of different vintages of parliamentarian, it very much reflects the view of the whole House of Commons representing our various constituencies. The legislation going on to the statute book was an early marker of the power of leadership for people in constituencies, beyond political parties.

I am delighted that so many Members contributed to the debate. It is good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) here. I know that he was to speak at the funeral of his neighbour and constituent, whom he knew for 50 years. He has attended the debate to represent his constituents, and I am sure that members of his community will greatly respect the obligations that he has to the House. I offer my condolences and, I am sure, those of other Members to the family of his friend and constituent.

The ambitions of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives are completely shared by the Government. The cross-party support for the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 has been striking. If I were to summarise the Act’s contribution, I would say that it established the principle that the right of initiative should not be held in monopoly by people in Westminster and Whitehall—that we should not be the only people who can propose changes to the way things are done, but that that right of initiative should increasingly, and perhaps more normally, come from people in communities, and we as parliamentarians and members of Governments should respond to the initiatives of people in communities.

Our role should be to be the midwives to good ideas that come from local level. It is extraordinary that for so many years—decades—it has been the almost unthinking assumption that ideas have to come from this place and are then visited upon our communities. The notion that Ministers in Whitehall or parliamentarians in Westminster have exclusive access to wisdom and sagacity when it comes to ideas is extraordinary. More than that, as was evident in the contributions today from representatives of almost every part of the United Kingdom, the idea that any place in the UK is in any sense identical to another is for the birds. It is the glory of this House that we represent places that are unique and have their own local character and civic and political traditions—every aspect of community life is reflected.

When people in communities are given the right of initiative, we should of course expect that they will want to do things their own way—differently from one another and from one place to another, and differently from how they have been done in the past. Traditionally, Government and, too often, local government have, first, been frightened of those differences and, secondly, tried to suppress and iron them out. They have tried to impose uniformity across the country, across counties or across districts, as though the differences were regrettable anomalies, rather than a reflection of different requirements and needs that should be positively encouraged.

The principle established in the 2007 Act—that every community in the country should have right of initiative, the right to be heard and the right to address the Government directly and pitch its ideas to them, and

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that the Government should be under a legal duty to respond—is important not only as a principle, but as the germ of an idea whereby it has an even greater influence on our deliberations across the board. It has been seminal in the Government’s thinking on various reforms, such as the 2011 Act. Section 1 of that Act on the general power of competence reverses completely the old idea that local government exists to do what central Government require of it. That has changed and local government is free to do whatever it wants in pursuit of the service of local people, unless what it proposes is specifically prohibited by central Government. That seems to be the correct default position. The contributions of the debates over many years on the 2007 Act were important in establishing that principle across Government.

John Pugh: On what central Government may or may not prohibit, there is much Government thinking at the moment about making social services entitlements portable across local communities, no matter in which local community someone is resident. How do we manage that tension?

Greg Clark: I am not saying that there are no tensions, but rather than start from the position that nothing is possible that was not previously allowed, one should deal with each case and consider whether it may give rise to problems. That is exactly the philosophy and spirit of the 2007 Act. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives offered many suggestions, all of which I accept it is our duty to consider. I hope that they will come through the procedure of the 2007 Act. That is the right approach.

Let me say a little about the process and then I shall respond to some of the points made—I am conscious that I have very little time. I do not accept the admonishment of the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) about the timeliness of the measure for two reasons. First, part of the frustration that many communities experienced during the early days of the 2007 Act was that, having responded to an invitation to submit proposals in October 2008, the previous Government did not respond at all before they left office. We inherited every one of the proposals made under that initial call for evidence. The previous Government took no action whatever and sat on them for nearly two years, but within six months we responded to all the proposals.

More than that, we have swept away the requirement to be forced to consider proposals from communities. We have now established a principle in my Department that any proposal from any member of the public or any community can be pitched to the Government, and we will consider it and it can be tracked in real time via the barrier busting service. There is a website——and since it was launched in December 2010, we have dealt with 258 cases that have come from it. With the regulations, we are talking about back-stop powers for people who are dissatisfied with the Government’s response.

I signed the regulations to bring these measures into effect today. It took a little time because the consultation revealed disagreement between the representatives of local councils and the representatives of community groups, such as Local Works. I was keen that we should

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not take the lowest common denominator, but seek agreement, which we have been able to do on matters including, for example, the retention of the duty to seek agreement and the establishment of an advisory board to the selector. I fully expect Local Works to be part of that process and group. We have very much strengthened the regulations, and it was absolutely right to do so.

The regulations were signed today and will be formally laid before Parliament within a week—they need to be printed. They will come into force by 26 July 2012. They include a duty on local authorities to consult their communities. There will be a memorandum of understanding between the Secretary of State and the selector to include a time limit during which proposals that have been submitted for consideration will be considered—that is likely to be a maximum of six months, except for special cases. There will be a requirement to be transparent about the processes that are gone through. We will publish simultaneously with the Hansard report of today’s debate the response to the consultation, and a consultation specifically—it is required, unfortunately —to allow parish councils to submit proposals directly. Parish councils already can submit proposals through the barrier busting website, but we will consult on that additional safeguard. I strongly believe that we should allow parish councils, through the principle of subsidiarity, to engage in that process.

I am keen to see many applications. People should not wait to go through the formal process; if they want to pitch directly to the Government, they should. I hope and am confident that following the enactment of the regulations, the rights of every community in the country will be robustly enshrined.

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Bilateral Trade (Israel)

4 pm

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I am pleased to raise Government policy on bilateral trade with Israel in this half-hour debate. First, let me draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in which I declare my trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in September.

The relationship between the UK and Israel has always been strong, and the UK has always been a constructive partner in the peace process. Britain can and should be a force for good in the region. With a balanced approach, we can exert our influence as a strong and impartial mediator with the ability to corral both parties to the table.

Alongside our role in the peace process, Britain should be making the most of investment and trade opportunities with the economic success story that is the modern state of Israel. Since its creation in 1948, Israel has been involved in near-continuous conflict. In 1948, 1967 and 1973, Israel’s Arab neighbours vowed to destroy the Jewish state, but, despite being vulnerable on all borders, Israel fought back and prevailed in those wars. The state has also survived several intifadas imposed on it by the Palestinians. The continuous threat of terrorism and suicide bombings has affected life in the country in ways that the UK cannot truly understand. Despite those near-impossible conditions, Israel has developed into an economic and industrial power that is admired the world over.

Israel is a country that is low in natural resources, and, to succeed, it must depend on the inventiveness of its people. Indeed, its people are its greatest asset. Israel has done well not because it has vast mineral wealth, oil or huge natural resources, but because its people are enterprising, extremely innovative and able to apply high technology.

I have had first-hand experience of those qualities, as I spent many years working for HP Indigo with Israeli entrepreneur Benny Landa, who pioneered the invention, development and commercialisation of ink-based electro-photography—digital printing. It was Benny’s vision and determination to bring the printing industry into the 21st century, despite the difficulty of overcoming traditional thinking and aggressive competitors, that were most impressive. The fact that Indigos are still made in Israel and Hewlett-Packard is the country’s second largest employer after Intel is indicative of Israel’s creative and entrepreneurial culture.

My perceptions were further reinforced when on my first visit to the country last year I had the privilege of visiting the world-class Weizmann Institute and meeting some of the professors of science.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the Chamber. Many of us are interested in this subject and are keen to see how we can advance the relationship between Israel and the United Kingdom. One of the areas in which Israel clearly leads the world is medical and pharmaceutical innovations. Does he feel that those advances and opportunities in the medical and pharmaceutical industries

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should be exchanged, so that we can build up a trade exchange that would advance both Israel and the United Kingdom?

Graham Evans: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I totally agree that we can work more closely with Israel, and later in my speech I will bring in some specific examples of medical advances in Israel and show how they have helped citizens in the United Kingdom.

Meeting some of the professors of science at the Weizmann Institute was most welcome and inspiring. Institutions such as the Weizmann, the Hebrew university of Jerusalem and the Haifa Technion are all rightly considered to stand alongside top institutions throughout the world, especially in the US and the United Kingdom, in academic excellence. The energy and resourcefulness that I witnessed working for Indigo and at Weizmann and among the population in general explain how Israel has converted what was once a land of citrus groves and kibbutzim into a high-tech powerhouse. Israel is now a modern industrial state, producing some of the most advanced and sophisticated technology in the world.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that a distinction must be drawn between trade with the state of Israel and trade with illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, and does he intend to address that aspect of the relationship in his speech?

Graham Evans: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. The institutions that I have visited are not on any so-called settlements. Israeli settlements occupy roughly 1.5% of Palestinian land. I appreciate the question, but this debate is really on bilateral trade, and to my knowledge, I have never done any trade with those settlements. If I may, I will now carry on with the point of the debate.

The state is a world leader in medical devices. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just referred to medical advancements, devices and electronics. Military electronics, civilian and military aviation, agri-technology, telecommunications, computerised graphics, cellular telephones, microchip, voicemail, and water technology and desalination are just a few areas of Israel’s expertise.

Agricultural technology is playing a pivotal role in efforts to alleviate disease, hunger and poverty throughout the developing world. When asked to explain the $4.5 billion investment in an Israeli company, Warren Buffett replied:

“Some Americans came looking for oil, so they didn’t stay in Israel. We came looking for brains, so we stayed in Israel.”

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I want to follow up on the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith). I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not seriously saying that we should not consider the political climate in Israel when we talk about the important bilateral aid relationship. We need to consider the activities that are taking place in illegally occupied territories. Yes, we need to consider the tremendous innovations that are helping to fight poverty and to create opportunities rightly around the world, but what about the poverty and the killing of

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opportunity that is taking place in the illegally occupied territories as well as in the west bank and Gaza strip?

Graham Evans: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I merely point out that the illegal settlements are a relatively small part—1.5%—of the Palestinian territories. One of the best ways in which we can encourage and influence solutions to these issues throughout the world, especially in Palestine, is through trade. It gives us an opportunity as a nation and as a member of the European Union to speak to both parties about a two-state solution that is right for both parties. The point that I am trying to make is that trade is vital and that Israel can play a role in global economics and technological and scientific development.

Chris Kelly (Dudley South) (Con): On that very point, will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming Israeli high-tech firms partnering with British manufacturers? For example, Eurocraft Enclosures in my constituency of Dudley South has partnered with ECI Telecom to provide the technological internals that are encased in high-quality British engineering. That is providing jobs in my constituency. Does he agree that that is an example of what we need in the future?

Graham Evans: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. This is about creating wealth and jobs in our country and within Israel. Partnering with such innovative companies in Israel will lead to job security and wealth creation in all our constituencies and in the whole country. In the 21st century, Great Britain has to pay its way in the world. If we look at the growth in the Israeli economy, we can see that Great Britain has a few things to learn.

Jim Shannon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again and for his graciousness in doing so. Perhaps one of the best ways to build relationships between the Palestinians and the Israelis is to build up economic relationships and the job opportunities that come from those relationships. Does he feel that Britain can perhaps have a greater influence on what takes place in Israel by building those economic and employment opportunities?

Graham Evans: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I totally agree with him that the more that we work with nation states and create innovation, jobs and wealth, the more everybody benefits from that creativity and bilateral trade. It benefits all nations.

A little earlier, the hon. Gentleman mentioned some Israeli medical advances. The example of such an advance that I should like to give shows Israeli ingenuity and brain power. In April, I participated in the London marathon. I might not look as though I am fit enough to run the London marathon, but I ran it with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly); I hasten to add that he beat me, but there we are. A lady called Claire Lomas, a paraplegic British woman, was able to walk the entire route of the 2012 London marathon, thanks to a futuristic Israeli medical device. Her amazing achievement was made possible only because of Argo Medical Technologies’ ReWalk, which is a futuristic Israeli product. ReWalk is the world’s first commercially available upright walking technology for people with lower-limb disabilities. The 44 lb device

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comprises a brace support suit that integrates motors at the joints, sensors and a computer-based control system, and it has rechargeable batteries. Sophisticated algorithms analyse body movements, and then trigger and maintain gait patterns, as well as stair-climbing and shifting from sitting to standing. ReWalk transforms the lives of paraplegic people.

Claire Lomas was permanently paralysed below her chest as a result of a riding accident in 2007. However, she was determined to participate in the 26.2-mile marathon, even though she could cover no more than 2 miles a day. It took her 16 days to reach the finishing line—

4.12 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.27 pm

On resuming—

Graham Evans: As I was saying, it took Claire 16 days to reach the finishing line, accompanied by her husband, Dan Spicer. That is an inspiration to us all.

Aside from the inventiveness of its people, what is it about Israel that makes it such an economic and high-tech success story? A well-established and fully functioning democracy, a western legal system, the full infrastructure of transportation, communication and utilities, and an educated and motivated population make the country attractive to foreign investors and industry. For that reason, virtually all major US high-tech companies have installations in Israel, and companies such as IBM, Intel and Motorola have established plants in the industrial parks that are expanding around the country’s academic institutions.

It is most heartening to see how we in the UK are now taking advantage of the business opportunities provided by Israel. Israel is one of the UK’s key strategic business partners and has become its largest individual trading partner in the near east and north Africa. Over the past 10 years, the value of bilateral trade in both directions has increased by 60%, from £2.3 billion to more than £3.7 billion. In 2011, the value of British exports to Israel reached £1.57 billion, and Israel’s exports to the UK, primarily machinery, diamonds, technology and pharmaceuticals, totalled £2.18 billion. In fact, the Israeli pharmaceuticals company, Teva, is the largest supplier of generic drugs to the NHS. More than 300 Israeli-related firms operate in the UK, of which 34 are listed on the alternative investment market and 11 on the main market of the London stock exchange, and more than 75 major UK companies have offices in Israel.

Israel’s success in integrating into the global market has been facilitated by an enormous number of free trade agreements with the US, Europe and other countries, including Canada and Mexico. In fact, Israel’s approach to free trade is one that we in this country could learn from. UK-Israel business is strongly assisted by the existence of a free trade agreement between the EU and Israel, which provides import duty exemptions for most Israeli-made products arriving in the EU. I urge the detractors who argue that that trade agreement benefits

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only Israel to reconsider in the light of the bilateral trade figures. It is in the interest of both the UK and Israel to develop bilateral trade, which is hugely significant to the UK’s economy in encouraging growth, employment and the creation of wealth—factors that we all know to be crucial in our economic recovery. To that end, will the Minister give assurances that trade that benefits both countries will not come under threat from pressure by politically motivated groups and organisations?

In addition, are there any plans to develop a bilateral investment treaty between the UK and Israel along the lines of the one between Israel and Germany? A 2011 UK White Paper, “Trade and Investment for Growth” pointed to Israel as a pivotal strategic partner for Britain’s future. The White Paper stated:

“The Government will encourage a stronger partnership between British and Israeli companies to exploit the potential synergies between Israel’s high levels of innovation and British strengths in design, business growth and finance, as well as the UK’s own high technology and scientific strengths.”

I was therefore delighted to learn of the work that our excellent ambassador, Matthew Gould, is doing to build a stronger partnership between Israel and the UK.

As part of that, the UK-Israel technologies hub was launched in October 2011. It is tasked with promoting economic growth and innovation in the UK and Israel by creating lasting partnerships in technology between the two countries. It is also important to note that, since both nations boast active fields of research and development, the UK has been particularly committed to enhancing ties in that area. For that purpose, £10 million will be awarded over the next five years to the Britain-Israel research and academic exchange, whose aim is to bring together British and Israeli scientists on academic research projects. Furthermore, the recently established UK-Israel Life Sciences Council was formed to enhance scientific collaboration. To that end, 19 leading scientists from both countries, including four Nobel prize winners, three Members of the House of Lords and presidents of universities, among others, have come together.

I applaud those initiatives and collaborations in the fields of business, science and academia. What discussions has the Minister had with his Israeli counterpart to increase such co-operation? Israel is a phenomenal source of innovation, with more start-ups per capita than anywhere else in the world. Israeli companies need foreign partners for capital, business and product development, and access to global markets. With market access to Europe, the world’s strongest financial centre, world-class professional and creative services, and complementary strengths in technology emerging from our world-class academic institutions, Britain can and should be a natural partner for Israel.

4.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I thank my hon. Friend the Member Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) for securing the debate, how he has raised the subject and his courtesy in sending me an advance copy of his remarks, which I appreciate. I salute his personal interest and commitment to enhancing the UK’s relationship, particularly its commercial relationship, with Israel. He made reference to several high-tech and research developments, some of which I will refer to.

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My hon. Friend particularly mentioned the London marathon. He will know, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly), that we share that interest; I have done nine. This year, we saluted the extraordinary courage of Claire Lomas in taking part as she did. It was absolutely proper for my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale to draw attention to the suit and kit she wore and the part played by Israel and its scientists in their development.

I welcome the opportunity to reiterate the importance the Government attach to developing our trade relationship with Israel as part of our overall efforts to broaden and deepen our bilateral relationship. I will cover the issues about settlements that have been raised by other colleagues as part of my response, if I may.

Israel, with its strong economic performance, low inflation and falling unemployment rate, continues to provide a growing export market for UK companies. Israel has an excellent reputation for innovation and invention, and it is a world centre for research and development. I have seen for myself that its reputation is well earned; on my visits to Israel, I have paid particular attention to visiting high-tech and innovative businesses.

Over the past 10 years, the value of bilateral trade between Israel and the UK has flourished in both directions. It has increased by 60%, and it reached a record high of £3.75 billion in 2011. Currently, Israel is the UK’s largest individual trading partner in the near east and north Africa region. It ended 2011 as the UK’s third biggest export market in the middle east. This successful partnership continued to thrive in the first quarter of 2012. UK imports were more than £500,000 from January to March 2012, an increase of 65% on the same period in 2011. The UK exported £439 million of goods from January to March 2012, an increase of 13% on the same period in 2011. I am sure that colleagues will agree that such trade figures are extremely encouraging.

The Government fully agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale that the UK and Israel are natural economic partners. However, our efforts to develop that economic partnership are fully consistent with our strong commitment to an early solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as essential to the long-term security of Israel and the region, and for the economic prosperity of all in the area. Our policy is also fully consistent with our condemnation of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and our efforts, with our European partners, to demonstrate that concern through, for example, steps with regard to settlement produce.

Mr Andrew Smith: Does it surprise the Minister that the UK and EU guidelines on procurement, as I have been told in answers to parliamentary questions, do not differentiate between products emanating from Israel and those emanating from the Occupied Palestinian Territories? Will he comment on that?

Alistair Burt: The voluntary guidelines available in the EU and put into effect here enable greater choice for consumers and they are important, but the area is developing in relation to both goods and services. We are constantly considering ways to ensure that choice is available without going down the route of a boycott, which the Government oppose.

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There are two things in particular. The first is the importance of clear choice and clear labelling of goods and services. Secondly, we set the issue in the context of what we believe to be most important, which is the negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. We do a great deal of work in the occupied territories in relation to business development. We are working to strengthen the Palestinian private sector by sponsoring numerous trade and investment-related meetings in both the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the UK. We continue to urge Israel to remove the barriers preventing greater trade between Israelis and Palestinians. They are natural trading partners, and greater trade between the two would enhance both. That is why we set the growing and important bilateral trade relationship with Israel in the context of what we believe is still possible and would enhance economic prospects for all.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that confidence is built by people trading. That is a view that we share, which is why we are against boycotts and in favour of trade. We think that enhancement of trade in the region will help the process of negotiating an arrangement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which is why we encourage it, but we do not see that there is any reason for us to slow down the bilateral relationship with Israel. Quite the contrary; we think that a thriving Israel is good news for the region.

Having spent a bit of time on that part of the issue, I return to the meat of the debate as introduced by my hon. Friend. With our full support and encouragement, British companies have a growing presence in Israel. Barclays Capital recently opened a research and development centre in Tel Aviv. Major British companies such as Lloyd’s, GlaxoSmithKline, British Airways and HSBC also continue to have significant interests in Israel.

Equally, Israeli companies have increased their trading presence in the UK. There are now about 300 Israeli firms operating in the UK, providing thousands of jobs. They cover a wide spectrum of sectors, most notably in pharmaceuticals, defence, information and communications technology, mining, food processing and plastics manufacturing.

Despite the excellent trade links that already exist, there is huge potential to build on UK-Israel collaboration. As my hon. Friend made clear, Israel is a powerhouse of innovation and entrepreneurship, leading the way in the fields of digital, life science and technology. There are excellent opportunities for UK companies to pursue agreements with Israeli high-tech companies.

Our partnership in high-tech could become an important contribution to Britain’s economic growth. At present, America remains the Israeli entrepreneur’s first thought for international partners. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said:

“We believe that Britain should be a natural partner for Israel in high tech”,

sentiments echoed by my hon. Friend. I also gave that message to a number of high-tech entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv in January.

We have taken important steps towards achieving that goal. In October 2011, during a visit to Israel, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer launched the UK-Israel tech hub. The creation of this new team at the British embassy in Tel Aviv follows an

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agreement between our respective Prime Ministers to build a UK-Israel partnership in technology. The hub has already identified key areas and projects in which the UK and Israel offer each other complementary advantages, and it acts to create closer collaboration in those areas.

For example, the hub has focused on delivering Israeli innovation in water technologies to UK utilities, and on building connections between the UK’s leading media and creative industries and leading Israeli new media-tech companies. As part of this, the Government have sent several high-level delegations to explore those opportunities, led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science and the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). We have also launched the UK-Israel tech council, a body of senior Government and business individuals dedicated to advancing the partnership.

The high-tech hub team—the first in the world—consists of qualified staff from the business and high-tech sectors, including Digital, Biomed and Cleantech. They will help to find partners for Israeli companies, bring the best of Israeli innovation to British companies, and help each of our economies to exploit the potential of the other.

Last year the embassy in Israel also launched the regenerative medicine initiative within the framework of BIRAX—the Britain-Israel research and academic exchange programme. The £10 million fund, raised mostly from private resources, enables UK and Israeli researchers to apply for joint research grants in the field of regenerative medicine, an area of collaboration recommended by the UK-Israel Life Sciences Council. The first call for proposals was followed by the first UK-Israel regenerative medicine conference, which took

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place in Israel and had 60 UK participants. Both were a huge success. The proposals are being evaluated and the first eight BIRAX regenerative medicine research programmes will start operating in the forthcoming academic year.

Looking ahead, our next major event to promote UK-Israel bilateral trade will be the UK-Israel business awards dinner on 26 June in London. The dinner, in conjunction with UK-Israel Business, the Israeli embassy and the UK-Israel tech hub, will celebrate our tech partnership. I commend the contribution that UK-Israel Business is making to promote the UK to the Israeli business community as a central destination for global expansion. The dinner will come just after a major tech event that day called “Innovate Israel”, which will aim to reinforce that message and will be the most prolific attempt to date to promote trade relations.

There is also significant potential for new UK-Israeli co-operation in developing oil and gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean—co-operation that could expand to include further partners, such as Cyprus. This is an exciting new opportunity for both countries and offers the prospect both of energy independence and of closer, more co-operative relations across the region.

In conclusion, the UK-Israel trade figures for 2012 so far are extremely promising. Our new initiatives—the tech hub and the tech council—are taking root, and we are establishing new UK and Israel business partnerships. We strongly expect continued growth throughout 2012 and 2013.

It is clear from those endeavours that we greatly value our bilateral trade relationships with Israel. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale that the British Government will continue to develop and strengthen this important relationship, which we set in the context of greater prosperity and greater security in the region as a whole, which will help everyone.

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Railways (Kettering)

4.45 pm

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me to hold this debate and welcome the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who has responsibility for rail, to listen to what I have to say on behalf of my constituents. First, though, I would like to thank a number of local people. Councillor Mike Tebbutt of Kettering borough council, Councillor Russell Roberts, the leader of the borough council, and County Councillor Chris Groome, the leader of the Kettering rail users group, have all encouraged me and helped me to prepare my remarks today.

The upgrading and electrification of the midland main line would be of immense benefit to Kettering and to the east midlands. The midland main line connects four of England’s largest cities and the Northamptonshire growth area, which is one of the fastest growth areas in the country, with our capital city. Passenger journey numbers have risen from 5.8 million in 1996-97 to 13.2 million now, an increase of 127%, compared with a national increase in rail passenger numbers of 69%. A further 28% rise is expected in the next 10 years, according to the route utilisation strategy.

Due to under-investment in the past 20 years, Midland Mainline trains cannot go at their top speed on any stretch of the track. Most other inter-city lines can go up to 125 mph, but despite the fact that InterCity 125s run on the line, their top speed is mostly limited to 100 mph. Despite having a very good punctuality record, the midland main line is the slowest of any of the inter-city lines. There are three pinch-points that restrict the service—Leicester, Derby and Kettering-Harborough-Wigston—all of which need upgrading before electrification takes place.

Upgrading and electrification will bring higher speeds, which will not only make the service more attractive and have a positive commercial benefit, but increase capacity to meet the increase in passenger numbers. That should generate £450 million of wider economic benefit to the region. For Kettering and neighbouring Corby, it will mean better connections north to Leicester—a route served by only one train an hour off-peak—and the travel time from Kettering to London should be cut by an average of five minutes, and potentially by more than 12 minutes. Travel times from London to Sheffield could be cut by 14 minutes. Upgrading and electrification should enable Midland Mainline to increase its train services from five to six per hour, so Kettering could get three trains per hour, rather than two, and that third train could have a journey time of48 minutes, rather than 62.

A 2011 Arup report shows that the benefits of the project would reduce the annual costs of running the line by £60 million, because electric trains are lighter and more efficient to run; they are also quieter. The project should pay for itself within just 10 years, which is an extremely quick pay-back period for an infrastructure project. In addition, it would cut carbon emissions by 13,000 tonnes per year, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 15,000 cars.

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Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his excellent question at Prime Minister’s questions earlier today. He has already mentioned the £450 million of wider economic benefits, but another issue—he may intend to address this—is the impact of the expected increase in freight. I think we all agree on the importance to saving carbon emissions not only of using non-diesel trains, but of getting more freight off the roads and on to the railways. If that is to work, however, it cannot slow down the passenger trains. My hon. Friend has mentioned the three pinch-points. To get a sixth train on the line, there must be a way for freight trains to get by and for the passenger trains to avoid them.

Mr Hollobone: I am most grateful for that very helpful contribution from my hon. Friend who, as always, is serving her constituents so well. I think I am right in saying that Network Rail estimates that freight traffic, particularly through the Leicester pinch-point, is likely to increase by some 50% by 2020. That is yet another reason why, in introducing proposals for electrification, the Department for Transport must concentrate on upgrading those key sections of the track. Electrification on its own will not work; we need to have the upgrading first. Let me put it very simply: if the line is electrified and upgraded later, it will cost extra money because all the new electrical equipment will have to be moved as well. That is why the upgrading is so important.

It is crucial to emphasise that quite an amount of money will have to be spent on the line anyway in the next few years. For example, track and signalling maintenance and renewals expenditure will be ongoing.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about investment. Does he share the concern that I and many people in Sheffield have about the contrast between investment in the midland main line and investment in, for example, the west coast main line? Some £200 million has been spent on a constraint at Milton Keynes, £190 million has been spent at Rugby, £180 million at Nuneaton, and £150 million at Stoke, and work costing £153 million is under way at Stafford.

We are talking about a relatively small cost in relation to the benefits that the hon. Gentleman has argued very strongly would be achieved not only for Kettering, but for Sheffield and many other cities on the line. A commitment to sorting out those three key pinch-points would go a significant way towards remedying the historical under-investment in the midland main line. Does he share my hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance on those points today?

Mr Hollobone: The hon. Gentleman is, as always, correct. I believe I am right in saying that, in recent years, some £12 billion has been spent on the rail network, but only £200 million has been spent on the midland main line. Another figure that comes to mind is that the line has attracted only 2% of the financial investment that has gone into other rail networks. Ours is very much this country’s overlooked line, even though we connect so many places of importance, including the hon. Gentleman’s city, to our capital city. I think the midland main line’s time has now arrived. For what should be relatively little expenditure, major improvements

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could be made to the line. I think I am also right in saying that, over the next 20 years, some 800,000 extra people are expected to live in the towns and cities along the route, which is the equivalent of having a new city the size of Leeds. Effectively, that new city will generate lots of demand for the rail network, which is why investment needs to take place now, otherwise we will have very real problems in the not-too-distant future.

Moneys have already been committed to do two major jobs: the improvement to the layout of Nottingham station, and gauge improvements for freight between Felixstowe and Birmingham using existing midland main line track. However, the two big bottlenecks that need sorting out are Derby and Leicester. It would be a big mistake to electrify those without sorting out the pinch-points.

The high-speed trains, which do not travel at their top speed, that are used for the Nottingham service are due to be retired in 2019, unless they are upgraded with electric doors and toilet tanks. That gives us an option to upgrade and electrify to Corby and Nottingham as part of a staged programme in control period 5, including the Leicester improvements, while the Government, if they felt under financial pressure, could carry over the extension to Sheffield—the constituency of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield)—into control period 6. That might assist the Government to overcome any resource and cash constraints in control period 5.

Higher speeds will not only make the service more attractive and have a positive commercial benefit, but increase capacity. For Kettering and Corby, that will mean better connections north to Leicester—there is only one train an hour off-peak—without the conflict with northern cities, which want faster services in the absence of the investment to make it possible, and serve intermediate stations.

There are key benefits for Kettering in having the pinch-points dealt with and in having the extra train. I cannot go into all the details about all the pinch-points, but perhaps the biggest one is Derby. Derby is very congested, and many trains have to wait outside the station for a platform to become free. However, all the track and signals at Derby are life expired and must be renewed anyway by 2016. This is the perfect opportunity to replace them with a superior layout that has more platforms and greater capacity, and segregates different routes to minimise conflicts and constraints.

Network Rail has designed that improved layout, which would cost an additional £66 million, taking the total cost—renewal and enhancement—to £140 million. As the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said, that is less than the cost of similar schemes on other inter-city routes. The danger is very simple: it would be cheaper not to do the enhancement and simply to replace like-for-like the already inadequate 1960s layout. However, that vividly illustrates the consequences for Kettering of these constraints. One Midland Mainline train each hour that has insufficient time to call at Kettering, because it must pass through those pinch-points at set times, sits in Derby station for 8 minutes because of congestion there. If the constraints were to be eliminated,

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a future train operator could choose to call at Kettering and still reduce the overall Sheffield to London journey time.

As with the other pinch-points, removing the Derby pinch-point would open up the possibility of a sixth train every hour calling at Kettering. That is the crucial thing for Kettering—the extra sixth train. There are five Midland Mainline trains per standard hour: two to Sheffield, two to Nottingham and one to Corby. They have to cater for the big long-distance flows between the big cities, as well as the flows to intermediate towns such as Kettering, so the calling pattern is inevitably a compromise. A sixth train per hour would allow a different pattern of train services and station stops, and would give the train operator more scope to cater appropriately for both the big cities and the towns. It is not possible to say in advance how a sixth train per hour would be used, because the Government have rightly stated that they will be less prescriptive in the next franchise, after 2014, and will allow the new train operator to decide such things on a commercial basis. However, there is a very strong case for an additional sixth train per hour calling at Kettering, and without that additional sixth train, there is no real prospect of any additional service to and from Kettering.

The benefits to Kettering would be a third train per hour to and from London, with a fast journey time of around 48 minutes. That train service used to exist, but was taken away some years ago. The sixth train per hour would also allow a second train per hour to and from Leicester probably going on to Derby, which would give Kettering vastly improved connections and a half-hour reduction in journey time to Leeds, Yorkshire, the north-east and, Mr Weir, Scotland. Clearly the extra trains would also increase capacity for Kettering, thereby catering for future growth.

Is a sixth train per hour realistic and achievable? Yes. There are six midland main line paths every hour out of St Pancras, so it would be perfectly possible. However, the three pinch-points cause the real problems, which is why they need to be addressed. In fact, a sixth train is already run for a couple of hours per day, essentially at the peak periods, but that that happens only because other conflicting trains—mainly freight trains between the north and London, or east-west passenger trains—have been effectively pushed out of the way for those couple of hours. It is not possible to do that for the whole day. In fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) said, the prospect is that freight will increase over the next 10 to 20 years. That will cause particular problems with east-west traffic at Leicester, on which an additional 30 trains per day will be running by 2019.

It is standard practice to increase the number of trains on inter-city routes to cater for growth. The number of trains running on both the east coast main line and the west coast main line has been increased on many occasions since 2000—effectively, they have doubled in the past 10 years. In complete contrast, it has been 12 years since there has been any increase in the number of trains north of Kettering, although East Midlands Trains did introduce the new Corby-London service in 2008.

The reality is that to cater for the relentless growth of patronage on the midland main line, it will be necessary before long both to lengthen trains and to run a sixth

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train per hour, and it will be practical to run a sixth train per hour only if the constraints at the three midland main line pinch-points have been properly resolved. Fortunately, other works are already planned at each of the three pinch-points. That presents the perfect opportunity to solve the midland main line problems very cost-effectively.

The upgrading and electrification of the midland main line is a priority for colleagues in all parts of the Chamber. There is a very strong cross-party consensus in favour of the inclusion of the proposals in control period 5 and, if needs must, into control period 6. Political parties on all sides up and down the route, represented by local authorities, rail user groups, rail forums and freight groups, are all behind the scheme. Kettering sits in a very important place on the midland main line and there would be particular benefits to Kettering were the Government to give the go ahead for the proposals. On behalf of my constituents, I hope that the Minister will take on board these points. I am confident that she will do her best to ensure that the right decision is made.

5.1 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate, and on his very detailed and well-informed analysis. It is also good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) in her place. Both my hon. Friends have played a leading role in the campaign for the electrification of the midland main line.

I understand the importance of the issue not only to my hon. Friends’ constituents, but to many communities in the east midlands and south Yorkshire that are served by the midland main line. I am also aware of the wide-ranging coalition of MPs, local authorities, businesses and other stakeholders, many of whom were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, who are all campaigning for improvements to the line and, in particular, electrification. The Government’s response to the campaign will depend on what is affordable within budgets that are constrained by the pressing need to deal with the deficit we inherited from Labour. Despite the deficit, we have already embarked on a major programme of rail improvement that is bigger in scale than anything attempted for 100 years. Improving our transport networks is a key part of our strategy for growth, and rail electrification is playing an important role in those efforts to improve our transport system and to boost our economy.

This is a timely opportunity to consider and debate electrification of the midland main line. Electrification can support our carbon reduction goals, as well as contribute to economic growth and the benefits outlined by my hon. Friend. In the longer term, some electrification schemes can also help us to achieve our goal of cutting the cost of running the railways; it is essential that the cost come down, because that is the only way to see an end to above-inflation fare increases. A more financially sustainable railway will also help us to deliver the sort of improvements called for by my hon. Friend today, and by other hon. Members day in, day out, in this Parliament.

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Where the business case is strong and funding is available, the Government support progressive electrification of the rail network. As my hon. Friend said, electric trains are cheaper to run and maintain than their diesel equivalents. They emit less carbon and are quieter and lighter, which saves wear and tear on the track. Our committed programme of electrification includes the great western line to Oxford, Newbury, Bristol and Cardiff, and a significant programme in the north-west, including Liverpool to Manchester and Blackpool to Manchester. In his autumn statement, the Chancellor added the route from Manchester to Leeds and York to our electrification proposals, subject to confirmation of the business case.

The action taken by the coalition on electrification is in marked contrast to the approach of the previous Government. Their 30-year strategy for the railways, published in 2007, paid almost no regard to electrification and set out no sensible plans for it. In their 13 years in power, they managed to electrify less than 10 route miles of track on our network.

The midland main line has received some important investment in recent years. New stations have been built at Corby and East Midlands Parkway. Major station improvements have been delivered at Loughborough, Derby and Sheffield, and St Pancras has been transformed with the arrival of High Speed 1. Further improvements are in the pipeline.

Paul Blomfield: Will the Minister acknowledge, contrary to her previous point, that they were actually achieved under a Labour Government?

Mrs Villiers: I was not saying that the previous Government did not do anything; I am saying that they did almost nothing in relation to electrification.

By 2014, £69 million will have been invested by Network Rail to cut journey times for passengers between London and Sheffield by eight minutes. In the longer term, the second phase of High Speed 2 will slash journey time to the east midlands and Yorkshire. As I have said on a number of occasions, both in the House and outside it, the Government recognise that the business case for the electrification of the midland main line is strong—a point emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and a number of hon. Members. Useful supporting evidence has been provided by the report commissioned by East Midlands Councils and the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive, “The Case for Upgrading and Electrifying the Midland Main Line”.

The report highlights the significant potential economic, environmental and financial benefits that would come with electrification and other improvements, a number of which were outlined by my hon. Friend. He is right to focus on significant passenger growth on the line in recent years. It is important to take on board the points he made about projected population growth, the wider economic benefits that could be generated by improvements to the midland main line, and the potential for running- cost reductions—always an important concern—of electrification. I also note the points he made very strongly about the scope of electrification to provide capacity expansion. It is important for the Government to consider all those matters when making a decision on which schemes can receive funding.

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The Government recognise that electrification of the midland main line could help to spread the benefits of high-speed rail, because it would enable through-running of services between the new high-speed network and the midland main line. That is something we will consider as we prepare our response to HS2 Ltd’s advice on phase 2 of the project to complete the Y network to Manchester and Leeds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough rightly highlighted the importance of considering the impact on freight of improvements to the midland main line, and we will do so carefully. We will also consider carefully the proposals for the range of improvements stakeholders are calling for in relation to the midland main line. I acknowledge that there is an aspiration to go beyond electrification and combine it with addressing some of the pinch points referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. I note his analysis of the potential that a sixth train per hour might be able to deliver in terms of reconfiguring services and benefiting his constituents.

The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) compared the prospects for the midland main line with the resources spent on the west coast main line. Yes, it is important to consider the relative levels of support for different parts of the country. Network Rail learnt many lessons from the west coast main line. Obviously, that project cost far in excess of what was originally envisaged. We hope that whatever schemes go ahead in future, whether midland main line improvements or others, Network Rail is able to avoid some of the mistakes made in relation to the west coast.

Electrification of the midland main line and a number of other upgrades are included in Network Rail’s initial industry plan, which sets out the rail industry’s view of options for inclusion in the next HLOS—high-level output specification—statement, for delivery in the period between 2014 and 2019. That plan is playing an important role in our deliberations on which projects can be funded in that five-year control period.

Although the case for electrification looks good, it is a major undertaking with a significant price tag. Just electrifying the line is expected to cost more than £530 million. The further upgrades that many campaigners are asking for could add more than £100 million to that figure. The Government already have commitments to improve the rail network in the period up to 2019, amounting to some £5 billion.

Mr Hollobone: I have listened carefully to the Minister. Is she impressed that the annual £60 million saving in running costs means that the electrification would effectively pay back within 10 years, which is almost unheard of for an infrastructure project of that sort?

Mrs Villiers: It is rare for an infrastructure project to pay for itself. Yes, that point will be important for us to consider when we take our decisions. My hon. Friend has made that point clearly and we are aware of it.

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However, even with the importance placed on transport by the coalition and with the positive business case for improving the midland main line, we will still need to make choices between competing priorities, because, of course, colleagues from throughout the country have priorities in their own areas.

We need to strike a balance between the aspirations of many communities for improved rail services and the need to ensure that the Government’s finances are not overstretched in these difficult times. The scale of what can be delivered to improve the midland main line depends on what is affordable and on a careful, fair assessment of competing priorities elsewhere on the rail network. The points that my hon. Friend made about the running-cost savings that could be delivered by electrification will be at the forefront of our minds when we take our decisions. However, we have not taken those decisions yet. I assure my hon. Friend that we are aware of the strength of the business case and of the support for going ahead with electrification.

Not all the projects that will take place in control period 5 will be expressly mentioned in the HLOS statement that we will publish. Some of the bigger ticket items may be expressly listed, but for projects that are not on such a big scale we are more likely to specify an outcome to be achieved on a route or into a certain city, such as increased capacity or faster journey times, and then it will be left to the industry, overseen by the regulator, to decide how best to deliver those improvements for passengers. Some improvements that campaigners have asked for over and above electrification would be more likely to fall into that category. If they were to go forward in CP5, they would therefore be subject to the industry HLOS process—an assessment by the rail industry and the Office of the Rail Regulator on how best to deliver them. I thought it might be useful to give that procedural clarification of what hon. Members can expect in terms of the type of scheme that would be headlined in the statement and those that might still be delivered during the CP5 period, but would be subject to further work by the rail industry.

Nicky Morgan: Briefly, since the Minister is dealing with procedural aspects, will she give us an update on timing? I have been told that we should expect some announcement in July. Is that still the timetable?

Mrs Villiers: Yes, the announcement will be made some time before the end of July, but we have not set a date.

The case for electrifying the midland main line continues to be made impressively by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and many others. Debates such as this provide important, timely input to the process of deciding which rail improvements can be funded in the five-year period up to 2019. I will ensure that all the points made today are carefully considered when the decisions on the HLOS statement are made.

5.14 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).