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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 3 July 2013

[Sandra Osborne in the Chair]

High Speed 2 (Ancient Woodlands)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Syms.)

9.30 am

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I am grateful to have secured this important debate, which addresses the environmental impact of High Speed 2’s present route. Later I will specifically address the damage that will be wrought on our ancient woodland heritage—damage that will take literally hundreds of years to repair, if it can be repaired at all.

My constituents face being the unique recipients of both phase 1 and phase 2 of the HS2 project—a double whammy indeed. Its construction will cut through unspoiled countryside right across southern Staffordshire. There, and elsewhere along the route, HS2 will destroy our natural heritage, including some of the UK’s most precious natural assets, such as our ancient woodland, impacting, sadly, on wildlife and on the communities that cherish living in such a beautiful environment.

As I said in the Queen’s Speech debate earlier this year, HS2, as currently formulated, is causing an unnatural disaster in Staffordshire and huge problems in many other constituencies, not least those of Mr Speaker and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), who is sitting beside me.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister and Members of the House might be aware, I fully support the principle of an additional north-south line to relieve congestion on the west coast main line. The congestion on that line can only get worse in the years to come, as petrol and diesel prices move inexorably upwards, driving commuters off the roads and on to trains. I also anticipate and hope that the spare capacity freed up by HS2 will eventually enable more direct fast train services from Lichfield Trent Valley down to London and up to the north-west. However, despite those benefits, I cannot bring myself to support a project whose route causes such environmental degradation and blight, particularly when other options could be explored—an issue to which I will return.

I do not, therefore, oppose HS2 on principle, but as I said in the Queen’s Speech debate, it feels as if the route has been almost deliberately designed to be as damaging as possible to rural England. We have chosen the Labour route instead of the one we favoured in opposition, which used existing transport corridors, as is the norm in continental Europe. The route also fails to link with HS1 or adequately with Heathrow airport, and nor does it provide a direct link to Birmingham New Street, relying instead on a footway. It is seriously flawed.

Thousands of homes are being blighted by the present route. The Government must be swift and generous with compensation, and I hope they will adopt the property

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bond referred to by the Secretary of State during the Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): My hon. Friend has touched a nerve by referring to the property bond. As he knows, my constituents, and particularly Hilary Wharf, who leads the HS2 Action Alliance, are really set on getting a property bond, as the fairest and most reasonable way of compensating people whose lives, businesses and houses are being destroyed by the project. Does he hope the Government will adapt the paving Bill in Committee to include a property bond?

Michael Fabricant: I have discussed this with the Secretary of State, and he says he is open to the idea, although a number of practical difficulties need to be overcome. Providing that they are, however, I hope, as I said just now, that the Government will adopt the property bond, because it will give comfort to my right hon. Friend’s constituents and mine.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Simon Burns): May I give my hon. Friend the reassurance that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I gave during the Second Reading of the paving Bill? As a result of the 10th judicial review—we won the other nine—we will reconsult on the compensation schemes. Let me say categorically that consideration of, and consultation on, a property bond will be one of the options.

Sandra Osborne (in the Chair): Order. May I remind hon. Members that the debate is about High Speed 2 and ancient woodlands, not the project as a whole?

Michael Fabricant: I thank you, Mrs Osborne. That is, indeed, what I am getting on to.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that it is good news that the Government will reconsider the property bond, as we just heard from the Minister. However, does he agree that they must deal with blight now—because homes and, indeed, ancient woodlands are being blighted now—rather than in the future, when the line is built.

Michael Fabricant: That is absolutely right. My hon. Friend and I are affected by phase 1 of the route. We have been living with this issue since before 2010, and my constituents have been living with it too. The issue is, therefore, urgent, and it needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later. However, let me get on to the main subject of the debate.

The compensation packages must be the same for both phases, because it would be totally wrong for people living south of Lichfield, who are affected by phase 1, to be treated differently from those in the north of my constituency, who are affected by phase 2.

The Woodland Trust has indicated that the preferred routes for both phases will cause loss or damage to at least 67 irreplaceable ancient woods, which are home to 256 species that are of conservation concern. Some lessons have been learned in the design of the phase 2 route, because the most devastating environmental impact

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occurs in the construction of the London-to-Lichfield route, or phase 1. However, that alone will damage 21 ancient woods, while noise and vibration will affect the delicate balance of a further 48 woods within 100 metres of the line.

Ancient woods are lands that have been continuously wooded since 1600. They form only about 2% of our land. Their unique, undisturbed soils form the UK’s richest habitats for wildlife. They just cannot be translocated, and, once destroyed, they are lost—in effect, for ever.

We cannot credibly lecture other countries on deforestation while taking a cavalier approach to the loss of our own equivalent of the rain forest. Ironically, given their support for such a destructive route, the Government fully recognise the unique place ancient woodlands hold in our society. The forestry policy statement published earlier this year notes:

“England’s 340,000 hectares of ancient woodlands are exceptionally rich in wildlife, including many rare species and habitats. They are an integral part of England’s cultural heritage and act as reservoirs from which wildlife can spread into new woodlands.”

I agree.

As I indicated, my constituency is unique in that it will suffer the double whammy of construction during both phases of HS2. Phase 1 passes between Lichfield and Whittington below Fradley junction. Phase 2 joins the phase 1 route just below Fradley junction and travels through the constituency towards Stafford, passing Colton and the villages knows as the Ridwares. The phase 1 route will continue beyond the junction with phase 2 to join the west coast main line. The damage it will do is heartbreaking.

As a result of such extensive construction, three ancient woods in the constituency would be severely damaged. The line will pass directly through Ravenshaw wood, Slaish wood and Black Slough wood, while Vicar’s coppice, being only 62 metres from the line, would be damaged by noise and vibration during its construction—damage that, as I said, is irreparable.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the matter to the House. HS2 does not have any direct impact on my constituency, because I am a Northern Ireland Member, but none the less as a parliamentarian I have an interest in the environment, including what happens to ancient woodlands. I understand from the background information that four wildlife trust reserves, 10 sites of special scientific interest, 50 ancient woodlands and 84 local wildlife sites will be affected. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that it is not yet too late to give full consideration to the retention of habitat for wildlife including flora and mammals?

Michael Fabricant: I have pleasure in agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope indeed that the Minister will deal with that issue. The simple answer is no, it is not too late. I hope that the Government will rethink the route, because in my view it should not carve its way through previously unspoiled countryside, cherished by the communities who live in harmony with it. If it does, it will cause environmental damage not only to southern Staffordshire, as I have described, but to other sensitive areas such as the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon.

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Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), wanted me to point out, as, being a Minister, he cannot do so today, that South Cubbington wood in his constituency will be damaged too.

Not only does the plan fly in the face of common sense and environmental progress; it transgresses the Government’s own policies on protection of ancient woodland. Indeed, the forestry policy statement of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs states categorically:

“Protection of our trees, woods and forests, especially our ancient woodland, is our top priority.”

Christopher Pincher: I am obliged again to my hon. Friend; he is very kind. He rightly mentioned that south Staffordshire and its ancient woodland are affected by the proposals. He mentioned Kenilworth and Southam, and between there and Lichfield is the Bourne valley in the Tamworth constituency, where ancient woodland will also be affected by the proposed route. The effect on the midlands, coming on top of the toll road and the extension to the A5, is damage to much ancient woodland. The Government must recognise that.

Michael Fabricant: As ever, my hon. Friend makes his point powerfully and well. I hope that the Minister has listened to what he said. He is right to say that the west midlands has suffered, and I think that it has suffered in a way that has not been replicated in other parts of the United Kingdom.

In May, I tabled a question asking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his own assessment of the impact of the proposed HS2 route on ancient woodland. The response that I received in the Official Report on 6 June at column 1224W seemed, sadly, to indicate a belief in Government that such destruction is a price worth paying. It also noted that certain mitigation measures were being proposed, including the construction of a tunnel to avoid one ancient wood and movement of a line to minimise land take within another. That is simply not good enough. When we consider the vast sums of public money being committed we realise that the damage is inordinately large. As a minimum, mitigation should be proportionate and applied comprehensively for any ancient woodland lost or damaged as a result of the project. That should be based on the Lawton principles on habitat networks and landscape scale impact already enshrined in the Government’s widely welcomed natural environment White Paper of 2011. If, as it is claimed, HS2 is meant to be a world-class transport project, it should demonstrate world-class practice when it comes to the avoidance of damage and the showcasing of the very best practice in mitigation.

Further insult has been added to injury by the publication of a poorly written, half-finished environmental statement, which neglected to include crucial ecological surveys and assessments that are required for communities to respond effectively. The environmental statement sadly misunderstands the complexity and national significance of the habitats being damaged. For example, the summary states that

“at present there are no route-wide significant effects on habitats”.

Extraordinary. That is clearly not the case, given the national significance of ancient woodland, which is recognised in the national planning policy framework. I tabled another question in May—it appears at

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column 1224W in the

Official Report

of 6 June—about what discussions were taking place with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on minimising the impact of construction on ancient woodland. The evidence of the environmental statement is that there has been far too little such discussion, and the result is a statement that pays mere lip service to environmental protection.

It does not need to be this way. Done properly, HS2 would provide the Government with a golden opportunity to showcase the very best of British construction. However, if it is to be the world-class and truly green transport solution that it purports to be, far greater respect for the natural environment needs to be demonstrated, or the opportunity will sadly be lost.

In the light of the impacts that I have highlighted, I call on my right hon. Friend the Minister, and the Government, with whom I have had the honour of serving, to look again at the proposed route for HS2. In opposition, as I have said, my party championed a route that followed existing transport corridors, a tried and tested method used across Europe, which minimises environmental damage. I know that phase 2 of the route is an attempt to do that, but of course in southern Staffordshire it is not possible, because of the need to link to the existing and most environmentally damaging route: phase 1. That policy position is now, ironically, receiving favour from the current Opposition party, whose route the coalition Government have now adopted. It is incredible.

I call on my right hon. Friend, rather than cutting a destructive swathe through previously unblemished countryside, to think again and deliver a route that better respects the environment we all treasure. I hope that in his answer he will address the following six questions of which, Mrs Osborne, I have given him prior notice—so he has no excuse not to answer. He is waving his speech, so I hope he will answer these questions in detail: first, will he look further at how the loss of ancient woodland can be minimised? Secondly, what assessment has been made of how many hectares of ancient woodland will be lost? Thirdly, how much of the £33 billion—of course, that sum has now gone up—will be spent on seeking to avoid loss of woodland and on the creation of new woodland as part of the mitigation process? Of course, I pointed out earlier that ancient woodland cannot be replaced overnight. Ancient woodland is woodland formed in 1600 and before.

Mr Simon Burns: And after.

Michael Fabricant: No, it is not; ancient woodland is described as existing from 1600.

Mr Burns rose

Michael Fabricant: I will not give way to my right hon. Friend, simply because I think others want to take part in the debate. He can answer that point, if he wishes, in his speech.

My fourth question is whether my right hon. Friend will undertake to involve DEFRA and environmental organisations more fully. Fifthly, what say and involvement will communities have in any mitigation planting? Finally, will he ensure that the full environmental impact assessment, when it is published alongside the Bill, will be a major

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improvement on the somewhat inadequate work that was released earlier in the spring? I thank you for your indulgence, Mrs Osborne, and look forward to hearing from others in the debate.

9.48 am

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne, and I welcome you to the Chair. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on initiating the debate and speaking so well in opening it. I am glad to welcome the Transport Minister; however, perhaps he will understand my disappointment, because although I am sure he will show that he has great expertise and has been briefed perfectly, it would have been nice to have an Environment Minister present to engage with a subject that is specifically environmental. Much more cross-departmental co-operation is needed on the project, because it is not only the Department for Transport that should be putting its head on the block over HS2.

I want to take up a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield made. I just happen to have looked, on my hand-held device, at the definition of “ancient woodland”. It is a term used in the United Kingdom to refer specifically to woodland that has existed continuously since 1600 or before, in England and Wales, or 1750 in Scotland. Before those dates, planting of new woodland was uncommon, so a wood present in 1600 is likely to have developed naturally.

Mr Burns: I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to make a point that I would have made to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), which is that 1600 is an arbitrary date; it does not mean that every woodland created in 1601 or 1602 is not necessarily an ancient woodland. That is the simple point that I was making.

Mrs Gillan: I know my right hon. Friend the Minister is getting on, but none of us were around in 1600 to see when those woods were planted. I would be interested to know when he last walked in ancient woodland.

Mr Burns: My right hon. Friend might be interested to know that I walked both in her constituency and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield in a private visit by car all the way from the M25 up to Warwickshire along the line of route.

Mrs Gillan: Which of my ancient woods was it?

Mr Burns: I was talking in particular about the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield. I went through the whole route from the M25, so I saw not only ancient woodlands but other areas of outstanding natural beauty. I also saw some water features, particularly near the proposed elevated sections near the M25.

Mrs Gillan: I would be delighted if the Minister had walked in Farthings wood or Mantle’s wood, if he had looked at the River Chess or the River Misbourne, our famous chalk streams, or even if he were uniquely familiar with all the details of the area of outstanding natural beauty. I am glad that he paid a private visit, and I invite him to make a public visit and come to meet

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some of our excellent conservation people who spend a lot of time maintaining one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom.

I was first elected to the House 21 years ago, and 20 years ago I found myself involved in the most amazing campaign to save Penn wood at Penn street. I believe that Penn wood was the first wood saved by the Woodland Trust. We collected donations from across the country to save the wood, which is still there to this day. I pay tribute to the Woodland Trust, which, among other conservation organisations, has briefed me for today’s debate. Saving Penn wood 20 years ago brought me much more closely in touch with our natural habitat in the Chilterns.

The Woodland Trust has analysed the number of woods threatened by the HS2 project—33 ancient woods are under threat and 34 ancient woods are at risk within 200 metres of the proposed line. Given the threat posed by, say, climate change to the natural environment, not least to ancient woodland, the Woodland Trust also supports the move to develop a low-carbon economy. However, a transport solution that inflicts such serious damage on our natural heritage, as the current route does, can never really be described as green. The Government’s preferred routes for the phases of the scheme will cause loss or damage to at least 67 irreplaceable ancient woods. As the Woodland Trust has said to me, that is too high an environmental price to pay, and the route should be reconsidered in light of those facts alone.

Why is ancient woodland important, and why does it matter? We have already established that ancient woodland is land that has been continuously wooded since 1600. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield rightly says that ancient woodland forms only 2% of our country. We are considering the largest infrastructure project since time immemorial, and it will damage that precious, small percentage that comprises our ancient woodland that still exists. Ancient woodlands have unique, undisturbed soils, and they form the UK’s richest wildlife habitats. They support at least 256 species of conservation concern. According to Natural England, nearly 50% of the ancient woodland that survived beyond the 1930s has already been lost. We should not threaten that small, precious piece of our environment in 2013.

There appears to be a huge conflict in Government policy. There is, for example, a Government policy to protect ancient woodland, and my hon. Friend referred to the recent forestry policy of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The January 2013 policy statement reads:

“England’s 340,000 hectares of ancient woodlands are exceptionally rich in wildlife, including many rare species and habitats. They are an integral part of England’s cultural heritage”.

It states categorically:

“Protection of our trees, woods and forests, especially our ancient woodland, is our top priority.”

That last quote is relevant to the Department for Transport and High Speed Two Ltd. How can that be when the Government propose to destroy comparably large swathes of ancient woodland?

Michael Fabricant: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the words she quotes are all very fine but that it is not words but deeds that count? So far, we have not seen any of those words translated into deeds or practice.

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Mrs Gillan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What is even more worrying is that, against the background of the National Audit Office report, the evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee on Monday, and the project budget going up by £10 billion, none of the promises or deeds that the Government are talking about at this stage will be kept if and when the project proceeds to construction. I am doubly worried, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right.

In Chesham and Amersham, we have the highest number of ancient woods within 500 metres of the line, 18 in total, and they will be severely damaged by the construction and ongoing operation of HS2; ironically, I am informed by the Woodland Trust that the Chancellor’s constituency of Tatton has the second highest number— 10 ancient woods will be devastated. Of those 18 ancient woods in my constituency, seven are directly in the path of the proposed line and will be totally devastated by its construction.

I will give three examples. I do not know whether the Minister has walked in Sibley’s coppice, but it will suffer the loss of 2.1 hectares of what is only a 7.52 hectare ancient wood, which is more than 28%. Farthings wood will see almost 1 hectare of ancient woodland lost to the construction of a cutting. The wood is only 2.56 hectares, so the loss represents more than 40% of the wood.

One wood about which I am particularly concerned, because I was walking in it on Friday morning, is Mantle’s wood. It will lose 6.3 hectares of ancient woodland, which represents a loss of more than 25% of a 20.45 hectare wood that is cherished by the local community. When I walked the public pathway to the entrance of the wood on Friday, I could hear some background noise—in fact, there was a lark singing overhead—and the distant sound of a plane from Heathrow, but by the time I had walked 5 yards inside Mantle’s wood, I was transported into a greenwood and back in time. It is one of the most beautiful woods that can be imagined, with dips and cherry trees that have been there for years. There are birds, insects and flowers, and I just missed the best season, because the wood had bluebells before I arrived, but they were just over. I encourage people to visit Mantle’s wood to see what this project will destroy.

There is no point saying, “Okay, we are just going to lose 6.3 hectares of a 20.45 hectare wood.” The path I walked along will become the main transport route to the portal that will emerge in the middle of Mantle’s wood. Nobody can tell me that all those men and vehicles, all that spoil shifting and everything that will go on during the construction of the major exit of a tunnel will not damage the rest of that wood irreparably. People would weep if they could see what their children, their children’s children and future generations will lose if the project goes ahead.

The loss of ancient woodland can never be compensated; it does not matter what the Minister says or how many people write it. Matt Jackson is the head of conservation and strategy at the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, and I am grateful to him and his colleague for taking me into the middle of Mantle’s wood and letting me see it not through a layman’s eyes, as I have just described it, but through those of a conservationist and expert. Anyone who saw what was there would understand implicitly that such woodland can never be replaced.

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Over the millennia, ancient woodland has evolved its own ecosystem, including soils and fungi. When those are disturbed, they are lost. One cannot just pick up the wood and the soil, move them somewhere else, build something, and then move them back and replant. That ecosystem has taken hundreds of years to develop, and we are going to destroy it just like that.

The plans drawn up by the Department for Transport, which involve planting 4 million native trees to create new habitats for wildlife and flora and to offset some of the carbon impact of construction, are not good enough. They may be welcomed, but they will never compensate for the loss of ancient woodland, which is, by nature, irreplaceable. It is important that that is understood fully by a much wider audience.

The Woodland Trust has considered the biodiversity offsetting ratio produced by the Department for Transport, which is approximately 2:1, and suggests an absolute minimum compensation ratio of 30:1. I refer the Minister to the trust’s HS2 fact sheet “Compensation and Mitigation for Biodiversity Loss”. He needs to re-evaluate and to revisit that issue.

Michael Fabricant: On the Minister’s visit—by the way, he did not write to me to say that he was visiting—

Mr Simon Burns: It was a private visit.

Michael Fabricant: Far be it from me to criticise my right hon. Friend. On his private visits, has he been to one of the newer woodlands to see for himself the difference between newly planted woodland and a wood of the type my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) describes that has existed for 300 or 400 years?

Mrs Gillan: I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to that point. Walking in any wood is a great pleasure, but if you go down to the woods today, Minister, you are in for a big surprise, because there are many people throughout this country who feel strongly about our habitat, our woods and our natural heritage.

The draft environmental statement goes on to say that the proposed woodland planting will have a beneficial effect that will be significant at the district and borough level. However, the view of our environmental organisations is that it is unacceptable to claim that the effect will be beneficial when the woodland planting will be only partial compensation for the loss of ancient woodland.

The draft environmental statement also says that one aspect of the design of the proposed scheme is to avoid or reduce impacts on features of ecological value. It refers to constructing a green tunnel next to South Heath in my constituency to reinstate habitat continuity in the area. However, ancient woodland at Sibley’s coppice would be destroyed to create that cut-and-cover green tunnel, and the avoidance of ecological impact is almost impossible. Strip planting schemes are proposed that purport to replace the loss of our ancient woodland, but the habitats of certain animals and organisms cannot be joined up across a road. Some of the claims that are made in the environmental statement need close evaluation because I do not believe that they do what they say on the tin.

Natural England states that ancient woodland is a system that cannot be moved. The baldness of that statement makes me believe that no matter what the

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Minister says about grand plans for replacing our ancient woodland, once it is destroyed, it is destroyed. We need to accept that, and to admit that that is what the scheme will do.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Is an ancient wood an ancient wood, or are there different types of ancient wood? In other words, would one find the same things in Chesham and Amersham as in Lichfield, for instance?

Mrs Gillan: I honestly cannot answer my hon. Friend with accuracy; I can answer only from my own experience. In Mantle’s wood, for example, we have the most magnificent cherry trees, which are native to the Chilterns. One can see that they have been there for years by the huge size of their trunks, their shininess and the rings on their bark. They are absolutely magnificent. It is a mixed wood; there are even oaks and beeches growing there. In the Chilterns and our area of outstanding natural beauty, we were famous for making beechwood furniture. I imagine that there will be some commonality across the country, but each wood is bound to have a unique and different nature, wherever it is, which makes it irreplaceable.

Michael Fabricant: Perhaps I can help. There will be variations between different types of wood depending on the quality of the soil, whether there is water and the environmental weather patterns in different parts of the country, but ancient woods all have one thing in common: because they have existed for hundreds of years, their ecosystems have evolved in such a way that any replacement with new plantations cannot replicate them. That is the point that my right hon. Friend and I are making.

Mrs Gillan: That is helpful. There is no doubt that my hon. Friend and I share a passion for our ancient woods. I hope that the fact that he has secured the debate and given others an opportunity to speak up will make the Minister and the Department think twice about pursuing the project and the route.

I want to allow other hon. Members to speak, but before I draw my remarks to a conclusion, I must say that, sadly, many people have found the draft environmental statement, which is currently subject to consultation, to be superficial, inconsistent and incomplete. Crucial ecology surveys and assessments are yet to be undertaken. It is almost impossible for communities to respond effectively, and the presentation suggests that environmental impact is a secondary consideration, but that is simply not good enough for such an expensive project.

The non-technical summary of the statement considers environmental impact only superficially and completely misunderstands the complexity and national significance of damage to habitats. For example, it states:

“At present there are no route-wide significant effects on habitats”,

which is clearly not the case given that 67 ancient woods will suffer direct loss or damage, and given the national importance ascribed to ancient woodland by the national planning policy framework.

I have some questions for the Minister, although I could speak for much longer. Sadly, we have not had the opportunity for detailed debates on HS2 in the House. On Second Reading of the preparation Bill, so many

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people wanted to speak that even I, despite being called first after the Front Benchers, had only six minutes. There has been little or no opportunity to consider into the detail of the project, which is why I am so grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield for securing this debate.

If the project goes ahead, the Department for Transport must come up with a much better story to support it and a much better way to deal with the problems arising from it. The route through the Chilterns and my hon. Friend’s constituency is a straight line. It is like a piece of steel going through the heart of our community and through an area of outstanding natural beauty, which is designated as such because we are supposed to protect it for future generations. We are breaking that protection and that vow by putting the project through the middle of the AONB.

Reportedly, the route has to be a straight line through the middle of the AONB and up to Birmingham because everything is about speed; a straight line is necessary to run those really fast trains. The story has changed a little, however; it is now about capacity on the west coast main line. If that is the case, the Department for Transport must look seriously at variations to the route to minimise not only the environmental damage, at least, but some of the horrors of blight that will be caused to people’s lives, homes, businesses and communities along the line. The existing proposal had better not be the last word on the route from the Department. We will have the hybrid Bill process, if HS2 goes ahead, but if that happens, I make a plea for moving some of the line so that we can protect one of the most fragile parts of the United Kingdom.

Michael Fabricant: Does my right hon. Friend share my curiosity about what the Opposition spokesperson will say about the line’s route? The Opposition now seem to have adopted the route for which we were campaigning when we were in opposition before 2010.

Mrs Gillan: Senior distinguished members of the Labour party, such as the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), have come out in public against the route. Today, the former Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, features on the front page of the Financial Times, and “‘Expensive mistake’ warning derails consensus on HS2” is a pretty heavy headline. The Labour party is in a great deal of difficulty. This morning, Lord Adonis tweeted with bravado that it will not make the same mistakes as were made on the Channel tunnel and cancel HS2. The original idea was indeed Lord Adonis’s way of dealing with what was looking like a pretty comprehensive transport policy from the Conservative party in the run-up to the election. The gaff has been blown by Lord Mandelson—Lord Adonis came up with an idea that was more political than practical. Labour was probably a little surprised when we adopted it hook, line and sinker, and certainly when we went for the route through the AONB.

I want the Minister to re-examine the reasons for HS2. If the case for HS2 is not only speed, but capacity, and if the project goes ahead, even though the dreadful business case is getting worse, it must be possible to vary the route of the line to minimise the damage.

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I want him to look at greater tunnelling. I was grateful when the Government’s second Transport Secretary—I think the Minister works for the third Transport Secretary in as many years—listened to me and took seriously my points about the geology of my area, with its chalk streams and the aquifer, and about the environment and woodlands that would be affected. She extended the tunnel, although unfortunately she extended it right into the middle of a piece of ancient woodland.

I want the Minister to undertake to look seriously at greater tunnelling. A Brett tunnel plan, with a gap at Durham farm for engineering and environmental reasons, is being proposed on behalf of Conserve the Chilterns and Countryside and the Chiltern Ridges HS2 Action Group. It would protect all the ancient woodland in the Chilterns for future generations to enjoy. I want him to assure me today that he will examine the proposal seriously and not rule it out on grounds of cost, because the cost to our environment will be even greater. I want the Government to ensure that that is covered by the final environmental statement, when that is deposited along with the hybrid Bill. That is in the Minister’s gift, because the current consultation on the draft environmental statement is being carried out by HS2 Ltd, so it is not a statutory consultation, but a gratuitous one—perhaps that is why the document is so poor. The real environmental statement must be produced by the Department for Transport and it must be deposited with the hybrid Bill. I understand that it will run to at least 50,000 pages, but I want an undertaking from the Minister today that it will run to 50,001 and include the full tunnelling option that would protect the AONB.

If HS2 goes ahead, and goes ahead on a straight line, without the route being varied and without greater tunnelling, I ask the Minister to look at the mitigation ratios that I was discussing earlier, because 2:1 is not enough; 30:1 is more like it. What is more, I want the finance for that to be protected—I am not stupid. The project has already gone up in cost by £10 billion and has one of the largest contingency funds in living memory. The costing has been got wrong at almost every turn, and at every stage, by clever consultants, by the Department and by HS2 Ltd. Mistakes have been made in calculating the spoil coming out of tunnels and in the business case. Dare I say it, mistakes might even have been made in calculating the traffic on the west coast main line. When money is squeezed, the first thing to go is promises to protect the environment. That is all too easy, and I have seen that process happen along the London underground line in my constituency. Trees and foliage were cleared to keep the line safe; on one side they were replaced by soil full of local flora and fauna, but the money ran out, so a spray thing was used for the other side instead. Anyone walking along the line can see the meadows and the wildlife coming back on one side along that Chiltern railway line, which is so beautiful, while on the other side, where the cheaper material has been used, it is like a desert. I have written to London Underground asking it to ensure that it continues the planting. I therefore have practical experience of the fact that when the Government and organisations run out of money, the first thing to go is the promises that they made to protect and enhance the environment.

There is another option, however. You know it, Mrs Osborne, I know it, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield knows it, everyone else involved in the

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project knows it and now Lord Mandelson and the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West know it: cancel HS2 and look at other options. If we are going to spend billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money—we are not in Victorian times, so it is our money, not private money, that will build the railway line—a better way to achieve the Government’s laudable aims is to look at other projects that will deliver better value for money for the taxpayer and protect our environment. I hope that the Minister will take my points seriously and reflect on them at the Department for Transport, and that he will make alterations or look to other schemes that would benefit the country far more.

10.17 am

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I apologise for my terrible cold, which is affecting my delivery somewhat.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing this important debate and for posing some important questions on behalf of his constituents and others who are concerned about our natural environment. The debate will be followed closely in communities along the proposed route and, speaking as a Greenwood myself, I have a natural sympathy for a number of the points he made. The debate is timely, because there are only eight days left before consultation on the phase 1 draft environmental statement closes. We have heard from right hon. and hon. Members about the impact on ancient woodlands. Before addressing such valid concerns, however, I will say a few words about the wider environmental significance of the new north-south line.

A new line can help the UK to meet its 2050 carbon reduction targets under the Climate Change Act 2008 by attracting new passengers to the railways and by providing the additional capacity that freight and passenger services need. The rail freight sector has enjoyed 10 years of growth, and any Government that is serious about tackling carbon emissions would want to see that success continue. Without additional capacity, however, the risk is that freight operators will have to be turned away in future. Greengauge 21 looked at the environmental impact of the HS2 project last year, in a report commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Campaign for Better Transport and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. That report makes it clear that the environmental benefits of the new line have a close relationship with other policy areas.

At the moment, rail journeys consume much less carbon than equivalent car journeys. That gap was expected to close as more electric cars entered the market. I remind Government Members that the full coalition agreement included a commitment to

“a national recharging network for electric and plug in vehicles”.

In reality, those plans have been drastically cut back. It may make uncomfortable listening for some Government Members, but the Government’s failure to deliver a national recharging network strengthens the environmental case for a new rail line.

The report also highlights the need for a full network as the carbon reduction benefits are multiplied fourfold when the second phase to Manchester and Leeds is factored in. The Government should and could have

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provided that certainty by introducing a single hybrid Bill to cover the entire route, allowing construction to start at both ends of the line. We need a clear timetable for decarbonisation of the electricity market, and that was one of the report’s recommendations. Labour has made a commitment to decarbonise the sector by 2030 before phase 2 of the new line is completed.

Network Rail has embarked on a major programme of electrification on our existing rail network, as well as on the new high-speed line. We need an ambitious timetable for decarbonisation to reduce the impact of that additional demand. There are steps that the Government could take now to maximise the environmental benefits of the new north-south rail line, However, those wider gains will not cancel out the loss of individual habitats. Loss in some areas may be unavoidable, but damage should take place only when all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted. The test is whether every reasonable step has been taken to mitigate environmental damage.

Hon. Members and communities along the line have raised serious concerns about the way in which HS2 Ltd has handled consultation up to this point. It is no secret that many of the early community forum meetings in particular were badly organised, with underprepared staff giving incorrect or conflicting information to the public. As the Chilterns Conservation Board said at the time, the meetings were characterised by

“a lack of clarity on what the Community Forums will actually cover. Many of the HS2 Ltd staff…were…quite new in post and could not confirm how the meetings should work or even if they would be attending future ones.”

The Minister must ensure that when the consultation on the final environmental statement begins—I would welcome a date for that—the process is transparent and accessible, and that enough time is provided for proper responses fully involving the affected communities. More than a year on, there are still serious questions about the route, including whether the tunnel under the Chilterns will be extended, with only eight days left for the draft environmental statement consultation.

The situation was not helped when misleading statements were made early last year. In a letter to the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), suggested that woodland could be transplanted to an adjacent site, a process known as translocation. We must be clear that ancient woodland cannot be moved, but some animal species and soil can be moved or translocated, although the consequences of moving soil from ancient woodland are, sadly, poorly understood. Any trees that are moved will be coppiced, radically altering their appearance and risking the death of individual trees during the moving process. Although some constituent parts of the woodland may be salvaged, the original biodiversity cannot be recreated and is lost for ever. Natural England has said that translocation might, if carried out as a last resort when loss of the original habitat is completely unavoidable, form part of a package of compensation measures. In other words, translocation may have a part to play, but we must be honest about its limitations.

The onus should be on route design and mitigation measures to avoid disrupting ancient woodland in the first place. Some measures have been introduced to reduce the line’s impact, such as additional tunnelling,

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but we would like clearer information about the cost, especially now that the overall cost of the project has increased, largely because of new tunnels in west London, Birmingham and the east midlands.

Michael Fabricant: Will the hon. Lady clarify whether the official Opposition now support the route, more or less, that we proposed when in Opposition, which would follow an existing transport corridor, thus minimising environmental damage, and not the Adonis route that we have adopted?

Lilian Greenwood: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right to point out that we considered alternative routes and argued that they should be considered by the new Government. We want the project to proceed, but there are significant concerns about the Government’s timetable, particularly the hybrid Bill. The Government are in a position to make decisions and we want the project to proceed, but that does not mean that we should not look carefully at the option for mitigation and compensation to protect the natural habitat.

Will the Minister tell us whether he is satisfied with the way in which alterations to the proposed route have been made so far, whether he expects further changes, including additional tunnelling, to avoid ancient woodland, and whether he has given any thought to how ancient woodland in particular will be approached during the hybrid Bill’s petitioning process? When the Bill goes into Committee, the Government will be able to set limits of deviation restricting the extent to which alterations may be made during that process. We ask for careful thought to be given to how ancient woodland might be affected by those limits. The commitment to planting new trees is welcome, provided they form a sensitive and effective sound barrier, but they cannot replace ancient woodland which is, by definition, irreplaceable.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Lichfield agrees that a north-south rail line is right in principle. As the House debated last week, there is an impending capacity crunch for our railways, especially on the west coast main line which will be full by 2024.

Mrs Gillan: The hon. Lady says that the west coast main line will be full by a certain date. Can she give me her source of information and the evidence base on which her statement is based?

Lilian Greenwood: My information is based on the evidence provided by Network Rail and others showing the continuing huge growth not just on the west coast main line, but on all rail lines. There is great demand from passengers and freight and we must be able to meet that from an environmental perspective because of the importance of rail for our future economic growth and regeneration.

A new north-south rail line is necessary to keep pace with rising passenger and freight demand. This project can bring additional private investment along the route, generating jobs and growth while improving connections between our cities, particularly in the midlands and the north. The hon. Member for Lichfield was absolutely right to call for this debate on ancient woodland, which is a particular concern for his constituents. This discussion

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comes at a crucial point as the designs for phase 1 are finalised. I hope that the Minister will explain exactly how he intends to act on the back of the points raised today, and provide full answers to the questions that other hon. Members and I have posed.

There is no doubt that there is a difficult balance to be struck. High-speed rail can help to deliver carbon reduction, which is why the Woodland Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Greenpeace support it in principle. Inaction is not an option, as road schemes and degraded air quality also threaten woodland. The line can bring real environmental benefits, but only if other policy decisions are taken, including in particular a commitment to decarbonise electricity. That wider context is crucial, especially as Parliament is being asked to confer extra spending and planning powers in aid of the scheme.

As hon. Members have pointed out, there is an apparent contradiction between the Government’s national planning framework, which contains a provision against development on ancient woodland sites, and the proposed route, which goes through several such areas. This is exactly the sort of issue that could be addressed in the long-awaited national transport strategy, but three years in, the Government still do not have one. Perhaps the Minister will tell us when he expects the document to be published; it would be of great assistance to MPs and the public as the debate continues.

To conclude, we have lost half our ancient woodland since the 1930s, mainly as a result of agricultural development. The hard truth is that although the new north-south rail line will bring a great number of benefits, it is likely to result in further loss. That is a matter of regret, and both the Government and HS2 Ltd must present an absolutely watertight case when they propose the disruption or destruction of ancient woodland sites. I promise hon. Members and the wider public that Labour will return to the issue during the Bill’s Committee stage.

10.30 am

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Simon Burns): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for securing the debate. As everybody who has taken part in the debate or been in the Chamber will acknowledge, the issues that have been raised are extremely important. I assure my hon. Friend that, during the course of my comments, he will be getting answers to the six questions that he asked.

One has to accept, as the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) did during her speech, that a balance has to be struck between the economic needs of the country and the potential impact on a countryside that has been enjoyed by generations of people. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) described, in very moving terms, the importance to many communities throughout the country of not only ancient woodlands, but other environmental features of their local communities.

Although I believe HS2 to be in the national interest, we know that it is sadly not possible to build a railway without any effect on the environment. When designing the route, we must carefully weigh important considerations

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such as wildlife habitats against other concerns, such as protecting as many people’s homes as possible. We must ensure that any environmental effects are reduced as far as possible and also look for opportunities to benefit the environment along the way.

I assure right hon. and hon. Members that the Government are determined to make the scheme environmentally responsible, and I believe that we have gone to great lengths to listen to those who are concerned about the environmental effects of the project. In February 2011, we consulted on the appraisal of sustainability. As hon. Members said, we are now consulting on a more detailed draft environmental statement. That is an unprecedented level of consultation to ensure that we do the right thing by the environment.

A great deal has also been done on designing the route of HS2 to reduce its environmental impact. HS2 Ltd has worked closely with Natural England and the Environment Agency on choosing options and preparing designs that have no impact on sites of international importance for nature. In addition, bilateral meetings have been held with county wildlife trusts to discuss possible impacts on wildlife sites and mitigation measures that could be employed to reduce impacts whenever practicable.

As I said, in September last year, I made a private visit—driving from the M25 up to Warwickshire—to see exactly what the impact of the line of route would be on not only the environment, including woodlands and water, but some of the communities, villages and houses near the route. It was extremely important that I could visualise that for myself, rather than seeing this only as a concept on a piece of paper, from photographs, or from what people have told me.

What struck me was that all too often, when the Government or some other organisation produces a recommendation, that is their view of what should happen. More often than not, when people come up with improvements, fine tuning, or even criticism to it, those who have drawn up the proposal feel threatened, dig their heels in, and take an attitude that what they want is right and what anyone else wants to change, modify or reject is wrong. Hard and fast positions are taken, so no one is prepared to budge. Going along that line of route, I was impressed by proposals that had come in to fine tune or change the line of route slightly, or associated proposals, and the way in which HS2 Ltd has been prepared to work with groups and local communities to make improvements. We have not had the unfortunate situation that happens all too often whereby because the proposal was the Government’s and HS2 Ltd’s, it was 100% right, and anything that challenged it was a criticism of them, and they were not prepared to think again.

It is fair to say that a number of changes—and, to my mind, improvements—have been made to alleviate problems for not only the environment, but individuals, their communities and their properties. However, I also accept that one will never be 100% able to meet the wishes and requests of people who want changes, because it is just not possible to do so, given the project’s sheer scale. One has to reach a judgment on what is in the national interest and what must go forward, because it is in the national interest, while at the same time trying to minimise

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any damage that might occur to the environment and to people’s homes and businesses. I will deal with part of that later in my speech.

As I said, HS2 Ltd has worked closely with Natural England and the Environment Agency on choosing options and preparing designs that would have no impact on sites of international importance for nature, which is important. There have been bilateral meetings with county wildlife trusts to discuss the possible impacts on wildlife sites. The Government have already committed to planting 4 million new trees as part of the HS2 project, and hon. Members referred to that important point in their comments. I certainly take the point that that has to be done sensitively and properly, but it represents an important improvement to the environment, especially where the line of route will be.

Mrs Gillan: I am not being ungrateful for what the Minister is saying, but I would like to point out that the ratio of replanting—the 2:1 that I referred to, although the experts say that 30:1 is needed—should be considered. It sounds like an awful lot of trees, but when we start to look at the density per hectare, it is not a large number of trees.

On community involvement and bilateral meetings, the Minister must admit that, particularly in my area, they have not always been the most successful or effective exchanges of information as far as larger groups are concerned, even in relation to their number and frequency.

Mr Burns: I take on board my right hon. Friend’s point about the number of trees, but I am not 100% convinced that 4 million new trees along the line of route is not the right number. Of course, that is only part of the remedial action that the Government and HS2 Ltd will take to protect the environment, which I shall address in greater detail later.

My right hon. Friend also raises an important point about community forums and the interactive dialogue between communities and HS2 Ltd. I will be frank with her: we get a variety of reports of those meetings. Some reports have been extremely positive, saying that people have found the meetings extremely helpful. As she will know from her correspondence with me on behalf of her constituents, they have been concerned about some of the meetings that have taken place in her constituency, and I accept that point. I have noted the criticisms that she has drawn to my attention. We have certainly spoken to HS2 Ltd and we or it will address the concerns of several of her constituents, because we believe that it is important that there is a proper dialogue between communities and HS2 Ltd, and that people work together. Even if people do not necessarily agree with the project, that is the important thing. Because I and the rest of the Government believe that the project is in the national interest and should go ahead, we must work with local communities, and local and national organisations, to ensure that we get the best project that causes the least damage to the environment.

In addition to the new trees that will be planted, we are examining opportunities to enhance existing habitats or create new woodland areas and wildlife habitats, but we must be mindful that it is not possible—unfortunately, and as much as I would love to have it in my gift—to avoid completely all sensitive areas. We have already made every effort to avoid sites that are of importance

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for their international ecological value and areas of national designation, such as the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. In this instance, of the 13 miles of route through the area, less than 2 miles will be at or above the surface. Compared with the phase 1 route that was originally subject to consultation in 2011, there will be a more than 50% increase overall in tunnel or green tunnel, and the initial preferred scheme for phase 2 has no impact on national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty.

When it comes to minimising impact on ancient woodlands, the Department and HS2 Ltd take their obligation to conserve them extremely seriously. Through careful design of the route and strict controls during construction, we are seeking to reduce, as far as practicable, any impacts. For example, the provision of a tunnel at Long Itchington avoids the ancient wood there, and a retained cutting minimises land take at South Cubbington wood.

Ancient woodlands, as everyone who has taken part in or has listened to the debate accepts, are a very important part of our natural heritage. However, as I have said, it is, sadly, not possible to build a railway without any effects on important environmental sites. Other factors, such as the location of people’s homes, have to be taken into account as well. The Government have to strike a balance between a range of important considerations. That debate has taken place to good effect in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, where the original route has been moved away from those places where the majority of people live. Designs have also been developed to avoid important employment areas and to ensure that local conditions for growth are not missed.

Michael Fabricant indicated assent.

Mr Burns: I hope from the way my hon. Friend is nodding in the affirmative that he is appreciative and accepts that that was the right thing to do.

To provide an effective outcome for the natural environment, I strongly believe that we have listened and engaged, and we will continue to engage with those non-governmental organisations with an interest in the natural environment. The Woodland Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and other groups already form part of the debate through my regular environmental round-table meetings. They are already proving effective, and as a result we are implementing plans for a design panel to inform the aesthetics of the detailed design.

I assure my hon. Friend that we will be providing suitable compensation for any ancient woodland that is lost, following the best practice recommended by our ecologists, which is developed in conjunction with Natural England. We will also be examining opportunities to enhance existing woodland and to create new woodland areas and wildlife habitats. With more than 22,000 ancient woodlands in England and Wales, it is impossible to avoid them all. That being the case, we believe that it is appropriate to provide some form of compensation when avoidance is not possible.

Current best practice, which builds on methods employed for other major infrastructure projects, such as High Speed 1 and the M2 widening scheme, includes the

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relocation of the ancient woodland soil with its seeds to allow it to regenerate over time, together with the planting of native trees of local provenance. Ten years’ monitoring undertaken by environmental specialists has shown that new areas of habitat were successfully created along the HS1 route, including for protected species such as the dormouse.

It should be noted also that HS2 has committed to seeking no net loss of habitats. When ancient woodlands are affected, it will result in a larger area of woodland being created than the area lost.

Mrs Gillan: I appreciate what the Minister is saying and I know that he is on a very sticky wicket in dealing with this. In the draft environmental statement, HS2 claims that the translocation of woods will result in habitat of a similar value, but the Construction Industry Research and Information Association specifically states that translocation of ancient woodland is only

“an appropriate activity to salvage and create a new habitat of some value, albeit a lower one than lost”.

That directly contradicts the claim in the draft environmental statement. Will the Minister now admit that it does not matter what is said here as the position is in line with what Natural England says? We cannot replace ancient woodland at all, and whatever we do will always result in a habitat of lesser value.

Mr Burns: May I say to my right hon. Friend, in shorthand script, that the answer to both points is no? First, I am not on a sticky wicket. I am outlining to hon. Members what the Government are doing to try to minimise the damage. It is certainly not a sticky wicket; it is actually a range of proposals and initiatives of which I believe that the Government can be proud because of the efforts that we are putting into ensuring that we do everything to avoid causing damage when that is possible and, when it is not, taking the maximum opportunity to minimise the damage that will be caused by building the railway.

Secondly, I do not accept the point about conflict with what HS2 is proposing. Yes, by definition, we cannot uproot an ancient woodland and transplant it lock, stock and barrel to another site, so in that respect my right hon. Friend is correct, but what we can do is take the measures I have described to transplant an area when woodland is being lost because of building work, which will go a considerable way towards helping to protect and improve the environment. That will not, of course, be the same as if one did nothing at all and left the existing ancient woodland, but it is a very good second-best option, and it is certainly better than doing nothing at all and letting that woodland be lost for ever.

Lilian Greenwood: I want to return to the Minister’s statement about no net loss. I query whether that is consistent with the Government’s national policy as set out in the natural environment White Paper and the national planning policy framework. Should they not actually adhere to the current policy of net gain?

Mr Burns: Yes, certainly. What I said was absolutely right: there will be no net loss. We will work according to that principle. In some respects, we will have to wait and see whether there is an increase, particularly with the second phase of the route. All my right hon. Friend

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the Secretary of State has done is to publish the proposed preferred route—the consultation is still to take place. Just as with the hybrid Bill on phase 1, and the hybrid Bill on phase 2 in due course, decisions may be taken in the light of the process that might have an impact. As of now, the policy, the intention and the determination is that there will be no net loss.

Many of our remaining ancient woodlands are small, and there is generally a patchwork of fragmented sites in an intensive agricultural landscape. One of our objectives, which is very much in line with the recommendations that emerged from the Lawton report, is to take this opportunity to link fragments of ancient woodland, when practicable, through the planting of new woodland links. Natural England and the nature conservation NGOs have welcomed that approach, and I hope that it will be welcomed by hon. Members in the Chamber and beyond. Even though it can take many years before the replanted woodland returns to anything like the character of the original, such planting is important to ensure that future generations can enjoy these important sites, but we would be open to any other ideas, if people think that a different form of compensation would be more appropriate. I invite any of my hon. Friends or the official Opposition to contribute if they have any ideas that they believe will help to improve or enhance the process.

We should not lose sight of the fact that many of the best environmental specialists in the country are working on a detailed environmental impact assessment, which will identify the true effects and allow us to bring forward our plans to mitigate them as much as we can. It is currently in draft form for consultation, so I urge all hon. Members to ensure that their constituents who have an interest contribute to the process.

Mrs Gillan: The Minister knows that I have tabled questions about the environmental consultation and asked him to extend the consultation period beyond the eight weeks allowed, but he has repeatedly refused to do so. May I ask him one more time? He appreciates the complexity of these matters and the imperfect nature of the document. Given their resources, many people are struggling to respond to a project of this nature—the environmental organisations are stretched to the limit. Will he please once more see whether he can extend the consultation period by four weeks? That would be the right thing to do, because many of our conservation organisations are stretched to the limit by this project and they need to put proper responses into ensuring that our environment is protected. He is causing damage by not extending the consultation period.

Mr Burns: I do not want to cause disharmony between myself and my right hon. Friend, but I am afraid that what I said in correspondence to her is the answer: I am not prepared to look again, because there has been a reasonable period, for reasons I will come to when I answer the last question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield. In the spirit of co-operation, however, I will respond to her important point about the Brett tunnel option. She asked whether we will reconsider whether the tunnel could be extended beyond where it is proposed to end. HS2 Ltd has looked at the matter again and found that an extension will not offer more benefits than the current option, not least because

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to extend the tunnel beyond the wood, we would need a ventilation tunnel in the middle of the wood, given the safety requirements for tunnels of certain lengths, and I believe that that would be far more environmentally damaging than the current proposals.

I now come to the specific points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield at the end of his speech. He asked whether my Department will look further at how the loss of ancient woodland can be minimised. The answer is emphatically yes. HS2 Ltd is constantly looking at the route and refining the mitigation that can be applied, and that will continue up until the hybrid Bill process. He asked what assessment has been made of how many hectares of ancient woodland will be lost. HS2 Ltd’s proposals, as they stand, identify fewer than 36 hectares of ancient woodland lost for phase 1, including the land needed for the construction phases of the route. That will be confirmed in the environmental statement that comes before Parliament later this year. It is too early in the design of phase 2 to give accurate figures on the potential loss, but 17 ancient woodland sites are directly affected by it. For some of those sites, the impact is at or near the margins of the wood, and there is scope for reducing the impact as the design progresses. I hope he is reassured on that.

My hon. Friend also asked how much of the total cost of HS2 will be spent on avoiding the loss of woodland and creating new woodland as part of the mitigation process. I hope that he will be pleased to learn that the rough estimate—he will understand why there is only a rough estimate at this stage—is between £10 million and £20 million. We have not finalised the ancient woodland compensation measures however, which will be reported in the formal environmental statement.

My hon. Friend asked whether we will undertake to involve DEFRA and environmental organisations more fully. I assure him that DEFRA, Natural England and the Environment Agency are fully engaged in phase 1 and will continue to be fully engaged. He also asked what involvement communities will have in any mitigation planning. HS2 Ltd engages with local authorities through the planning forum and local people are engaged through the community forums and the current round of consultations. Their views will continue to be considered throughout the development of the designs for HS2. I reiterate that it is important that people respond to the consultations and engage fully in the whole process so that we can work together to do as much as we can to get this right.

Finally—my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham might also be interested in this—my hon. Friend asked whether we will ensure that the full environmental impact assessment, when it is published alongside the Bill, will be a major improvement on the “somewhat inadequate work” that was released earlier in the spring—those are my hon. Friend’s words, not mine. I hope that I can reassure him. The draft environmental statement has been provided at the earliest stage to enable people to participate in the development of the scheme. There is no requirement for the Government to provide such a draft, so we are setting a high standard by taking this approach and publishing the document. To my knowledge, no project on this scale has attempted to provide such information at this early stage—before there is even consent.

Lilian Greenwood: Will the Minister give way?

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Mr Burns: No, because I have only half a minute left.

In conclusion, I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham and others who have been kind enough to attend the debate that the Government will keep listening to those who are concerned about the impact of the scheme on the environment. We will endeavour to make the scheme as environmentally responsible as possible. It is in all our interests to get the scheme right. We are determined to work with organisations and agencies and in government to do the least damage possible through this massive national project in the national interest.

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York (Green Belt)

11 am

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne, for what is, I think, the first time. The subject of the debate is an incredibly important issue, not only for my constituency and the City of York, but for the rest of our great county of Yorkshire and the many other historic and beautiful cathedral cities across the country.

The green belt is absolutely necessary to protect the rural countryside for which this country is renowned, but it also protects the character and setting of our cities, and prevents suburban sprawl. Without it, I have little doubt that some of the most culturally and economically important cities in the country would be changed beyond all recognition. The green belt covers 4 million acres of land across England, and serves five main purposes: stopping urban sprawl; preventing coalescence—the joining together—of local settlements; safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; protecting the setting of historic towns and cities; and encouraging urban regeneration.

The importance of the green belt, particularly in carrying out the stated aims, is well secured in the national planning policy framework—NPPF—which states:

“The fundamental aim of Green Belt…is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.”

Sadly, in York the permanence of the green belt is being dramatically tested. City of York council’s draft local plan is currently out for consultation, and I speak on behalf of the vast majority of my constituents when I say that many of the proposals in the plan are deeply concerning.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab) rose—

Julian Sturdy: I am more than happy to give way to my neighbour.

Hugh Bayley: For decades, City of York council, under Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour leaderships, has failed to designate the green belt around the city, which has acted as a blight on development. Does my hon. Friend—I call him that because he is a friend—agree that designation should go ahead, even if he does not agree with the precise details and wants changes to the proposed local plan? Does he agree with the principle of designating a green-belt area around our city?

Julian Sturdy: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is right and proper that we finalise the green belt in the local plan. That was always the intention. It was the intention in previous local plans that were sadly thrown out by the inspector for a number of different reasons. However, I believe that in the process of finalising the green-belt boundaries in the new local plan, sacrificing more than 2,000 acres of green-belt land and potentially changing the setting and character of our great city for generations to come is a sacrifice too far. Although the draft plan makes the green belt permanent, it sadly threatens the very fibre of York’s existing green belt.

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The council has proposed a staggering 22,000 homes over the 15 to 20-year lifetime of the plan, which is a vastly over-ambitious and completely unsustainable figure, but perhaps what concerns me most is the fact that more than 16,000 of the proposed homes are to be placed on more than 1,400 acres of York’s green belt. In trying to fulfil what can only be described as over-inflated targets, the council not only proposes radically to alter the make-up of a number of communities in my constituency by extending them dramatically but to develop two entirely new towns on York’s already deeply congested road network—the Minister has witnessed that congestion at first hand.

In one of the proposed towns, which is known as Winthorpe in the draft local plan, more than 5,500 new homes have been proposed on nearly 500 acres of prime agricultural land. Although it is not a conservation zone per se, the land is home to an array of important wildlife, including protected water voles. In addition, the council has proposed a 4,000-home town on more than 300 acres to the north of the city, again on high-grade food-producing land. Sadly, however, that has not fulfilled the council’s hungry appetite for devouring green-belt land, and in many areas of my constituency it has sectioned off hundreds more acres, which are deceptively termed “safeguarded land”. At first glance, one might think that the land was safeguarded from development, but sadly it is safeguarded for future development, in the longer term. The terminology in the NPPF regarding safeguarded land is, sadly, causing confusion, and could be used by local authorities such as City of York council to brush proposals under the carpet by failing to explain safeguarded land properly to the wider public, including in any so-called public consultations. I therefore urge the Minister to consider amending the terminology used in the NPPF to prevent any further confusion about the definition of safeguarded land.

In total, the land safeguarded for future development in York—land taken out of the green belt—stands at just short of 1,000 acres, which means that the full development burden on York’s green belt from the draft local plan amounts to well over 2,000 acres, as I have mentioned. Sadly, that is not all that City of York council has proposed for the green belt. Adding insult to injury for all those who care passionately about protecting York’s picturesque rural setting, the council had proposed 40 potential sites for wind farms, encircling the city. York is evidently the first local authority to go down that route in its local plan, and one has to wonder why, because if the plan is realised it will be hugely damaging for York and for those who live in and around the city. In essence, the wind farms could change the character and setting of the city beyond all recognition. The proposals could also have a sustained negative impact on the local tourism industry, with York’s standing as a beautiful, cultural and historic holiday destination sadly diminishing.

Perhaps what has caused most controversy in my constituency are the proposals in the council’s draft local plan for more than 80 Traveller and showpeople pitches. My constituents are not only perplexed by the quantity of pitches proposed—they believe that the number is being justified by an exaggerated calculation of need—but, like me, they are astonished by the locations put forward, all of which are on green-belt land. That is against Government guidance, in which Traveller sites

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on green-belt land are deemed inappropriate developments. In the award-winning village of Dunnington, where a 15-pitch Traveller site has been proposed, local residents are understandably concerned that such a site on the green gateway into the village will, without a doubt, be hugely detrimental to Dunnington’s character and setting.

Knapton is a tiny, peaceful village on the outskirts of York. It is very close to my hon. Friend’s constituency of York Central, and I am sure that he will have received representations on the proposal for the village. If the council gets its way, Knapton will become home to 20 travelling showpeople families. The guidance states that each showpeople pitch must be 0.25 sq km, which would mean that Knapton residents could be facing a site larger than the village itself.

The NPPF and supporting documents refer specifically to the need for such sites to be smaller than the nearest settled community, so Knapton residents are astonished by the council’s proposal. Needless to say, those proposals are entirely inappropriate both for the villages concerned and for York’s green belt as a whole.

I remain steadfast in my support for localism. I believe that the Government were absolutely right to give local authorities and communities more say over development. The NPPF clearly places the emphasis on local authorities in the drawing up of development plans, but given what the council has proposed, I wonder whether it paid any attention whatever to the rest of the NPPF when it drew up its draft local plan. For example, one core planning policy principle is recognition of the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside, but the council seems to have disregarded the sanctity of York’s countryside and surroundings and, sadly, to be treating them as a bargaining tool for eager developers. Planning policy is clear about the need to prioritise brownfield sites.

Hugh Bayley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, especially as we do not see entirely eye to eye on the green belt. He is about to discuss brownfield sites. I am strongly committed to the development of housing on brownfield sites such as the former sugar factory site—the former Terry’s factory site—that is going ahead, and the York central site. York has had strong growth in jobs over recent decades, which is driving up housing prices for both rent and sale. Does he agree that development needs to be balanced, with housing development on brownfield sites in the city centre as well as in suburban settings in his constituency?

Julian Sturdy: I agree with part of that intervention. We need sustainable development and a plan that is sustainable and works for the whole of the city. My main argument is that the council’s plan is not sustainable; it is really damaging to the character and setting of the city, given that 1,000 acres of green-belt land will be taken out for development.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need for brownfield sites to be prioritised, as is stated in the national planning policy framework. As he mentioned, York has many large and strategically important brownfield sites, yet—this is where we part company—the council has decided to change the emphasis on those sites so that more are used for employment-based development. That has significantly increased the housing burden on the green belt, but what really worries me is that it also

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calls into question the viability of brownfield sites under the council’s shifting policy. I mentioned at the outset that the fifth main purpose of the green belt is to encourage urban regeneration, but if we rip up thousands of acres of green-belt land around York, where is the incentive to develop such strategic brownfield sites?

The NPPF states that local plans should be “aspirational but realistic”. The council’s draft local plan fulfils the former word, but completely ignores the latter. The council appears to base what I describe as its over-ambitious housing targets on completely unrealistic job growth forecasts that suggest that York will create close to 1,000 jobs a year for the next 15 to 20 years. I am optimistic about York’s economic prospects, and I work closely with my hon. Friend on delivering that, but the figures suggested by the council are off the mark. The York job market has contracted over the past eight years, which calls into question the way in which the council has linked job growth to housing need. That must be closely examined.

The NPPF is clear on the need for sustainable development, but, as I have mentioned, the draft local plan is profoundly unsustainable. York is a small historic city, in which local infrastructure is under strain. To add tens of thousands of homes could mean tens of thousands more cars on already overcrowded and congested roads, and I have not even touched on flooding and drainage issues, as well as the strain on health and school facilities.

The road network in York’s green belt is of particular concern. The Campaign to Protect Rural England reports that York has only 8 metres of public rights of way per hectare, which is just over half the national average. With an average build-out rate of 400 homes a year on any one site, York will be surrounded by construction sites for years to come. I am deeply concerned that added construction traffic will cause the city to grind to a halt. What will that do for the wider local economy?

All the while, the council has no guarantee that it will secure the necessary investment in our infrastructure. Its policy very much puts the cart before the horse. In my mind, the council must absolutely reduce the figures in the local plan to a more sustainable and manageable level. Even its commissioned reports indicate that its highly inflated figures will be difficult to deliver.

Global food security is swiftly becoming one of the most important issues that faces the future of the human race. The importance of productive agricultural land in helping to secure food supply is rightly recognised in the NPPF. In York’s green belt, 30% of the land is grade 1 or grade 2, and it is some of the best and most versatile land. That is nearly double the national average, so why does the council want to develop thousands of acres of fertile, food-producing land?

York’s green belt is a bastion of good environmental practice, with 56% of its agricultural land subject to Natural England funding to support environmentally sensitive farming. York’s environment is certainly worth protecting, with 3% of the green belt registered as sites of special scientific interest, alongside a further 50 acres that is devoted to local nature reserves—for example, the Hassacarr nature reserve in Dunnington, which is adjacent to land on which the council is proposing a 15-pitch Traveller site.

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York’s green belt is clearly under threat. Based on the series of packed-out public meetings I have held in my constituency during the past few weeks, I believe that the vast majority of my constituents support my view. York’s local plan is only in its draft—I emphasise, draft—phase and is currently out to public consultation, but I remain deeply concerned that City of York council is using the localism aspect of the NPPF to enable it to ignore the rest of that document.

Sadly, the ruling administration on the council is not interested in formulating a plan that is in the best interests of all—I stress, all—York residents, but I know that local communities will rise above the style of smoke-and-mirrors politics that it appears to conduct locally and will be united and resolute in their opposition to the plan. If the plan is implemented, it could turn a beautiful historic cathedral city, surrounded by green-belt land, into a west Yorkshire suburb of Leeds, by destroying the very land that captures its beauty, as it has done for centuries.

I fear that, in spite of the opposition of the residents whom it is supposed to represent, the council will push ahead with its proposals. I therefore conclude by asking my right hon. Friend the Minister what advice the Government can give my constituents, who are desperate to protect York’s green belt from the threats posed by the council’s draft local plan. In turn, what advice can the Government give the local authority to ensure that its plan is representative of the wants and needs of all York residents, not just those in the ruling administration?

In closing, I want to add my voice to recent calls for an amendment to the NPPF, the better to strengthen the protections afforded to green-belt land and to prevent unruly local authorities from using localism as a means of disregarding all other planning policies.

11.20 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): It is a pleasure, Mrs Osborne, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for having invited me, a few months ago, to visit the fair city of York and, as he pointed out, to spend a certain amount of time stationary in a traffic jam, which did of course allow me to appreciate some of the wider environmental beauties of the city. He was kind, but too kind, to me; I might be honourable, but I am rarely right, and I am certainly not yet right honourable.

Let me start by clarifying green belt policy in the national planning policy framework. Although my hon. Friend referred to it, it is important to understand quite how clear and how strong that policy is. Paragraph 79 of the NPPF says:

“The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.”

That could not be clearer, which is why, when we were going through the process of revoking the regional strategies that were so unpopular and that also failed to deliver their own targets, we listened to representations from my hon. Friend and many others that we should save the policies in the regional strategy for Yorkshire and Humberside to ensure that protection for the green

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belt around the city of York should remain, until that can be permanently defined in the local plan. I certainly welcome the fact that there is now a local plan process under way in York—it is long overdue—and that that will involve a determination of the boundaries of the green belt of York for the long term. The NPPF says:

“Once established, Green Belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances, through the preparation or review of the Local Plan. At that time, authorities should consider the Green Belt boundaries having regard to their intended permanence in the long term, so that they should be capable of enduring beyond the plan period.”

It is important that the conversation that is taking place in York at the moment has a lasting outcome.

The priority that we give to the green belt has also been recently reflected in a written ministerial statement published by the noble Baroness Hanham in the other place. She made it clear that we will be looking more closely at applications for Traveller sites in the green belt, and that we will consider calling in more of those applications than we have in the past, because we are concerned about the balance of policy, as set out in the NPPF. We recognise that there is a need to provide sites for Travellers, as there is a need to provide housing for all members of the community, but it must be properly balanced against the protections for the green belt. We do have a concern that, in recent decisions, that balance has not been completely right.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have also clarified our views on the siting of renewable energy infrastructure, especially onshore wind turbines. Recently, on 6 June, the Secretary of State said that the Government will issue new planning practice guidance to assist local councils in their consideration of local plans and individual applications. That will set out clearly that

“the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and…decisions should take into account the cumulative impact of wind turbines and properly reflect the increasing impact on (a) the landscape and (b) local amenity as the number of turbines in the area increases”.—[Official Report, 6 June 2013; Vol. 563, c. 114W.]

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that those two decisions, on Traveller sites and on wind farm applications, show that we are determined to protect and reassert the protections for the green belt that are contained in the national planning policy framework.

It is important to note that, as the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) pointed out, York has an intense housing need. That is evidenced by the house prices in the city of York, which are well ahead of many of the other communities in the area. The NPPF is clear also that it is the responsibility of every local authority in its local plan to make provision for that housing need and specifically to bring forward sites that are immediately deliverable and developable to meet that housing need over the next five years. That, too, is an important priority in the national planning policy framework.

In a sense, the Government and I make no apology for the fact that we do not believe that it is right for Ministers to decide how any local community should balance the important priorities in the NPPF. That is

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something that can only happen through a local conversation between all parties about a local plan. I welcome the fact that that local conversation has now started. It was a great abdication of responsibility by previous councils that they failed, over many decades, to conclude that conversation.

My hon. Friend is absolutely entitled, encouraged and empowered to take part in that local conversation and to represent the views of his constituents as eloquently and as passionately as he has today. It is not for me as a Minister, nor for any other Minister, to interfere in that conversation or to indicate that one particular policy in the national planning policy framework is more important in a particular set of circumstances than another policy. The importance of the protections for the green belt is clear. The protections are clearer than they were in any previous set of national policy, but so, too, is the requirement to meet housing need.

Almost the most important thing in the national planning policy framework and in the Government’s overall approach to planning—I hope this will provide some reassurance to my hon. Friend—is that development must be sustainable. That means that the development proposed in any local plan must be sustainable, and that any individual planning decision to allow for certain developments must also demonstrate that the particular application is sustainable—environmentally, economically and in terms of the transport infrastructure. All those things are important, and there is no point for any local authority anywhere in the land to propose development in a local plan that is transparently not sustainable, which is where the role of the Planning Inspectorate comes in through the examination.

When the draft has been consulted on and a final draft has been produced, the local plan will be presented for examination by the inspector. My hon. Friend will have, at that point, yet another opportunity to make the arguments on behalf of his constituents as to why he feels that elements of the plan, if it has not been amended by that point, are still not sustainable. The inspector will consider all the evidence and submissions in making a final determination as to whether the plan is acceptable.

I am afraid that, because of that process, I must resist my hon. Friend’s plea for an amendment to the national planning policy framework. It is perhaps a disease that all politicians on both sides of the House suffer from, and I am certainly not immune to it, to think that the answer to every particular problem is a change in national policy. I fear that that is not the case. The virtue of the national planning policy framework is that it is crystal clear, but it will only retain that virtue if it remains stable, and if we are not permanently fiddling with it to try to suit it to a particular circumstance. None the less, I can reassure my hon. Friend that the protections for the green belt are very strong, and he has all the arguments well marshalled to make his case in the local plan process.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I have a wealth of talent before me to debate the effect of co-operatives on the economy, and I call Chris Evans.

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Mr Hollobone; you are too kind. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again.

It gives me great pleasure to have secured the debate right in the middle of co-operatives fortnight. I am a proud member of the Co-operative party and take great pride in sitting as a Co-operative Member of Parliament. The Westminster group of Co-operative MPs is the largest that it has been for 95 years. I am pleased to work alongside colleagues in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, together with thousands of councillors around the country.

The purpose of this year’s co-operatives fortnight campaign is to focus on helping people to find co-operatives they love, whether they are providing sparkling wines or energy, and whether they are online or in-store. The campaign also gives Members from all parties in the House an opportunity to learn more about what is happening co-operatively in their constituencies.

Co-operation runs through the fabric of the south Wales valleys, where I was born and brought up, and which I am proud to call home. Indeed, family legend states that the last words of my great-grandmother, before she passed away at the age of 104, were, “It’s okay; I’m with the Co-op.” From Tower colliery in Cynon Valley to local corner shops, co-operatives permeate every strand of our society.

The debate affords me the opportunity to speak about the Islwyn community credit union, which offers saving accounts and small loans to members who, after a few months, become eligible for a loan at low interest rates. The great thing about the credit union is that its methods are working. In the past few days, the coalition has announced its intention to crack down on payday lenders. I am pleased that it is credit unions such as the Islwyn community credit union that have been at the forefront of the fight to turn households away from doorstep lenders and payday loan companies, which for too long have had a stranglehold on the type of valley community that I represent.

I feel extremely privileged to have been able to share a number of milestones with the Islwyn community credit union, most notably when it celebrated lending £1 million to families across my constituency of Islwyn. The credit union is an example of the impact that co-operative organisations can have on a local economy, which is why I am pleased that the co-operative sector has outperformed the rest of the UK economy since the financial crisis began.

With every pound spent in a co-operative generating an additional 40p for the local economy, the success of co-operatives can only be a good thing for the communities that we represent. Co-operatives are popping up all over the country, even in areas that do not have the history of co-operatives enjoyed by areas such as mine in the

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south Wales valleys. Since 2008, the UK co-operative sector has grown by more than 20%, and co-operative businesses in the UK now have a turnover of more than £36 billion a year.

As other industries and sectors feel the impact of the recession and the economic crisis, the number of co-operatives has increased in each of the past five years. There are now 6,169 co-operatives nationwide, 446 of which are based in Wales. Last year alone, the number of co-operatives throughout the country increased by 236, which was a rise of 4%. Membership of co-operatives is also growing month by month and now stands at more than 15 million, which is a 36% increase in membership since 2008.

The co-operative sector has also diversified over the past five years. More and more people understand that co-operatives are not just supermarkets or—as my great-grandmother understood—providers of funeral services. They also operate in other parts of the economy, from health care to housing, from farms to football clubs, and from credit unions to community-owned shops.

While preparing for the debate, I read about the increase in community-run shops. With more and more commercial shops struggling in the recession, communities are coming together to preserve stores that offer valuable services to a town or village, such as a local bakery. Food stores that can no longer cope with high rents or costs and therefore have to leave the local high street are being replaced not by new commercial businesses buying vacant units on the high street, but by local people who know at first hand how valuable local stores are to the communities in which they live. Some 6% of commercial village shops are being taken on by groups of residents who are determined to ensure that shop closures do not leave a gap in their community. These stores are not only having an effect on local life, but making a significant contribution to the UK economy.

The Co-operative Group has a work force of almost 100,000 people, which makes it one of the largest private employers in the UK. In 2012, community shops had a combined turnover of £49 million and more than 50,000 people were involved in some way in a community-run enterprise. The Plunkett Foundation reports that there are more volunteers working across co-operative community shops in the UK than there are helping national charities. Such co-ops are having a long-term impact on the economy; they are not a short-term fix to keep a store open temporarily before a commercial company can come in and take it over. Research by the Co-operative Group indicates that while only 65% of conventional businesses survive for their first three years, more than 90% of co-ops are still in business after their first three years. Those co-ops are local enterprises that create jobs and employ people on local high streets. In turn, those people are walking up the same high street and spending their wages in local shops. Co-ops and their staff are putting money straight back into the economy and the small businesses that make up our communities.

I was especially interested to read the results of a recent YouGov poll that asked people for their thoughts on co-operative businesses. Some 52% of respondents described co-operative organisations as “trusted”, compared with a figure of just 7% for plcs. We see that though the work done by societies all around the country. The top three words that came to people’s minds when they were asked their views on co-operatives were “fair”, “democratic”

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and “trusted”. That tells me that, unlike almost every other profession and institution in the UK, co-operatives still have one thing that the rest do not seem to have: that simple word “trust”.

Every Member will have felt the distrust that the public have developed for politicians, but we all know that it does not stop there. The police, journalists and bank managers—all good professions—have been damaged in the past decade, and the trust that people once had in them has all but gone. When I hear about community-run co-operatives, it says to me that they can fill the gap. Quite simply, people have to trust something, and if they do not trust businesses, banks or whatever, they can trust local co-operative organisations. In society, even outside co-operatives, it is important that people have trust, because without trust, people cannot believe in anything, and that brings about anarchy. However, if trust is still there for co-ops, it shows that they can fill the void so, quite simply, we have an opportunity.

I am saddened that the opportunity to promote co-operatives and mutuals as an alternative is not being exploited by the Government. I have spoken about the impact of co-operatives on the economy, but I am worried about how seriously the Government are taking them. We have a heard in the past few weeks from Government Members about the place of the Co-operative party in Westminster, but I know that a Conservative co-operative movement was recently established, and its members will appreciate some of the points that I am about to make.

Let us take the example of the Energy Bill. When the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was appointed, we were promised a “community energy revolution”. My Labour and Co-operative colleagues on Labour’s shadow Energy and Climate Change team worked hard to make sure that he stuck to that commitment. Co-operative energy companies, such as the one created by the Midcounties co-operative, have an important role to play in the energy market. We all want to see large community projects such as the Westmill wind farm co-operative in Oxfordshire, but there will be less and less chance of such projects popping up across the country if the Government do not give co-operatives proper support.

I do not have to tell you, Mr Hollobone, that the energy industry faces a lot of challenges. There is widespread opposition to projects such as wind farms, which will become more and more of a reality in the coming years whether we like it or not. What frustrates me is that a lot of that opposition is completely unnecessary; it could be avoided if the Government further supported co-operatives and did not overlook them ahead of scrutiny in this place.

Research commissioned by the Co-operative party has shown that two thirds of people who would oppose wind turbines near their home would change their mind if the turbines belonged to the community. When people were surveyed on their perception of energy companies, the results showed that the public were 4.5 times more likely to “completely trust” a co-operative energy supplier than another energy supplier. This was what I was getting at when I spoke about trust: people instinctively trust co-operative projects. However, more has to be done if we want co-operatives to continue to stimulate the economy in sectors such as energy.

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I have spoken numerous times in the House about housing, because we are facing a genuine housing crisis. There can be little doubt that investing in infrastructure is the way to stimulate and grow the economy, and the prime way of doing that is house building. If the Government are building new homes, it means that people are in work and that building firms can bid for contracts, and it also helps to bridge the gap that is starting to develop between supply and demand. I see that in my constituency surgery each week. When people affected by the bedroom tax ask me, “Where am I going to live? The council do not have any homes and I cannot stay where I am,” I am sorry to say that I do not have an answer for them.

The majority of social tenants in Caerphilly county borough council are in two or three-bedroom homes, and there are no one or two-bedroom homes for them to move into. In parts of my constituency such as Crumlin, 70% of tenants are thought to be in under-occupation. In Newbridge, the figure is 60%. Everyone in the borough knows that there are no homes to move into, but what choice does the council have but to implement the policy? These families are victims of legislation—that is why they are suffering—yet the Government still do not build homes. That frustrates me, because the Government could look to co-operative housing to fill the gap.

Throughout Europe, 10% of people are in housing co-operatives, but the figure for the UK is only 0.6%. In Sweden, co-operative housing tenure has existed since 1920 and nearly one fifth of all housing is provided in this way. In Poland, 3.5 million homes, which account for almost 30% of the total housing stock, are managed by a housing co-operative.

Co-op housing works in different ways in different countries, but the basic principle is no different from that of credit unions or community-owned shops. Such housing providers are jointly owned and democratically controlled by their members. Community co-operatives have rescued pubs and shops in the UK, but we do not seem to think of the impact that they could have on the housing market and, subsequently, our economy, so an opportunity is being missed. David Rodgers, the current president of the International Co-operative Alliance, said:

“Britain has stood still for two and a half years and has failed to recognise the contribution co-operative housing can make”.

Such opportunities are not receiving the support that they should get.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) introduced the Co-operative Housing Tenure Bill last year, which would have had a real impact and improved the legislative framework for co-operative tenure. The Bill would have given people an alternative to owning and renting, but the Government did not support it. They like to talk about house building as a way of driving economic growth, and they went as far as explicitly saying in the coalition agreement:

“We will promote shared ownership schemes and help social tenants and others to own or part-own their home”.

However, it seems that co-operative housing is another area in which the Government talk a good game but fail to deliver.

In respect of financial mutuals, the Government could look at co-operative examples to help to stimulate the economy. After three years in this House, talking about

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the economy month after month, I have discovered a few things. First, it is fashionable to blame the bankers for everything. I admit that when I first came to the House, I was guilty of doing the same thing, like everybody else, even though I used to be one. Secondly, nobody seems to be coming up with any real alternatives to our financial system to avoid scandals such as Lehman Brothers in 2008 and more recently involving LIBOR.

It seems a while since the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister stood together in the rose garden of No. 10, but it was only three years ago. Once again, the coalition offered high hopes to reform our banking sector, pledging to

“bring forward detailed proposals to foster diversity in financial services, promote mutuals and create a more competitive banking industry.”

Yet when the Government had an opportunity to put these words into action, what did we see? Absolutely nothing. If the coalition had been serious about promoting mutuals in our financial sector, they could have re-mutualised Northern Rock. Instead, the Treasury sold the bank to Virgin in a deal that the National Audit Office has subsequently suggested did not give the taxpayer good value for money. Co-operative colleagues tabled a raft of amendments to the Financial Services Bill earlier this year that would have forced the Government to make good on their pledge by introducing financial inclusion, education and transparency, but once again the amendments were chucked out and the Government ploughed on with the same old approach.

Last year, I tabled a private Member’s Bill, the Banking (Disclosure, Responsibility and Education) Bill. It is based on the Dodd-Frank Act in America, which enables every bank transaction to be monitored. My Bill would require banks to produce a report specifying who they are lending to, to find out about those excluded from financial products from mainstream banks.

When we talk about people excluded from financial products, we are not just talking about those without complex bank accounts. We are talking about the 9 million people without access to any credit whatsoever from banks. These households have serious difficulty getting access to essential services such as energy, water, land lines and the internet. A situation like that creates a breeding ground for loan sharks and high-interest lenders.

Where I grew up in the south Wales valleys, we lived on an L-shaped street. On Monday nights we would see a white car come over the top—an XR3i, for hon. Members who remember those souped-up cars. I can remember a woman getting out of the car, and all the doors were slammed shut. All the kids were pulled in from the street. It was the woman from the Provident. My mother claimed that she smelled of cheap Estée Lauder perfume. I do not know what Estée Lauder smells like, but my mother said it was cheap. That woman would knock on someone’s door and shout, “You owe me £400”. That was wrong, but everybody in our street thought that person owed £400. “I’ll get you next week, love”, she used to say.

I remember my mother panicking about whether we had enough money for the Provident. We would get our hands down behind the settees, looking for spare change to get it together to pay the woman, because we did

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not want her shouting down at us. We felt that climate of fear at 6pm every week, on a Monday. The saddest thing is that I know that is still going on, not just in communities like mine, but in communities throughout the country.

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend rightly hits on one key benefit of co-operatives, which is their values. He also reminds me of my own childhood. I remember that Sid, who ran the Co-op at the bottom of the road, ran a book based on trust. Every so often, my dad would settle up. Occasionally, we hid in the kitchen from Tommy the milkman, because mum had not got enough money to pay him that week. In the end the accounts were settled, because the Co-op was part of our community and there was a relationship of trust between us. That is one of the key benefits of co-ops.

Chris Evans: That sums up the benefits of co-ops for so many communities, including mine, and those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. When we grew up in those communities, there was a level of trust. We trusted one another. We knew one another and we grew up in communities where we knew everybody. It sounds romantic to say it now, but we did know our next-door neighbour. I knew everybody in the street that I grew up in. I do not think that I do now. That is the saddest thing.

The important thing is that the co-operatives brought about trust and a sense of values and ethics, which we do not see in society very often. That is why it is important for people to support their local co-operative, such as the one run by Sid at the end of the street, who had a savings club for Christmas. My hon. Friend says that his family used to hide from Tommy the milkman behind the settee. I wonder whether his family still speak to him.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): Many Government Members accept the points being made about trust and the model of the co-operative. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not conclude without considering the recent collapse of the Co-operative bank and the fact that the co-operative movement chose not to bail it out. The bond holders, many of whom are pensioners and not well off, are having to pay to deal with that. Does he consider that some points made about ethics and trust could be undermined by that? I am not asking that in a pejorative way, but because I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s reaction.

Chris Evans: There is still a lot to work out with the Co-operative bank. These issues are serious. I am not going to deny those things, but the central thrust of what I am saying is that co-operatives have worked and there is still a lot to done about that.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): It is appropriate to raise the Co-operative bank in this debate, but when doing so we have to consider the Britannia takeover in relation to the situation that the Co-operative bank finds itself in. It would be wrong to besmirch the values or the running of the co-operative movement during this difficult time. Of course, that situation must be faced up to, but we should still consider that, considering the whole array of banking and financial institutions in this country, the co-operative

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movement—the Co-operative bank—is still very much up there in terms of best practice in this country, difficult as this time is.

Chris Evans: I agree with my hon. Friend; he is correct.

David Mowat: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; I shall not make another contribution after this. I accept that it was the Britannia. It was also mismanagement of a large IT project. I wonder whether one of the lessons to be learned is that there is a size issue in terms of types of activity: whether something that grew out of being a credit union into something much more than that did not have the management processes necessary. I wonder whether there is an issue there that the hon. Gentleman might consider.

Chris Evans: Not being a member of the management team myself or privy to decisions in the Co-operative bank, the best people to answer that are on the board of that bank. The Britannia takeover was particularly difficult for the Co-operative bank and has had a major effect.

We talk about IT projects, and we have seen such things happen in government as well. My predecessor in Islwyn served on the Public Accounts Committee, and when I worked for him I saw that a lot of problems reported by the National Audit Office were often to do with IT programmes. The lesson to be learned for the Co-operative bank, as with others, is that when investing in IT, if it goes wrong it really does go wrong.

Andy Sawford: I sense that my hon. Friend has many other important issues to address, but does he agree that it is important that we use the right language to describe what has happened at the Co-operative bank in recent months? Terms such as “collapse” are not helpful in assuring savers of the bank’s future. We ought to recognise that, unlike other banks and financial institutions, the Co-operative bank has not sought a bail-out from the Government but has righted itself, and we all should support it in what I hope is a sustainable future.

Chris Evans: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Co-operative bank—along with other mutuals—is the only bank that did not take a bail-out from the Government. If we have learned anything from the financial crash of 2008, it is that the language we use can have a serious effect on consumer confidence. I do not think any of us will forget the queues outside Northern Rock on that Saturday, which all came from a few misjudged words. The Co-operative bank is still on the high street, is still flourishing and has righted itself. We all have to be careful in the language we use. As the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) said, there are lessons to be learned, and I am sure they will be learned in the next couple of years.

We do not want to create a breeding ground for loan sharks and high street lenders. Sadly, Provident, Wonga, Cash Converters and Shopacheck are now household names. When people have nowhere else to turn, and when there is no food in the fridge or money left in the electric, where are they going to go? I spoke earlier about Islwyn community credit union, and I am pleased that in Wales everyone has access to a credit union. I have spoken previously about expanding the role of

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credit unions, which do not have to lend solely to individuals; they can lend to businesses, too, whether they are micro-businesses or small businesses that cannot get money elsewhere. We need to see more from the Government to promote co-operative finance and mutuals so that they live up to the promises they made when they came into office.

It is worth remembering that conventional banks used £60 billion when they were bailed out, but the mutual sector did not use any money at all. Bradford & Bingley operated as a building society for 150 years, yet it lasted only 10 years as a bank. I hope that the Minister will explain exactly what the Government are doing to encourage mutuality in the banking sector. I also hope he will address the potential for co-operatives in the energy and housing sectors, because I believe they could form the basis for real and lasting economic growth.

I will end by citing a statistic that demonstrates the potential of a co-operative economy. The UK is ranked 15th in global GDP, but the UK co-operative economy is the eighth largest globally. We are clearly doing something right, but with more than 1 million co-operatives in the world serving 1 billion members, we have the potential to do a lot more. There is growing consensus on the factors that serve business excellence—a clear mission, better customer service and, above all, fairness and transparency. At the heart of the success of the co-operative movement are the fundamental values of equality, democracy and participation, and therefore co-operatives should be encouraged and adopted.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. I will call Members in the order on my list. I do not want to call Front-Bench Members any later than 3.40 pm, but I would prefer to call them before. I have four people on my list, and I will take them in this order: Simon Danczuk, Jonathan Reynolds, Tom Greatrex and Andy Sawford. If they are all fair to each other in a co-operative way, everyone should be able to speak.

2.53 pm

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for securing this important debate, which is very much appreciated.

Members present do not need me to tell them, although I will tell them anyway, that I am very proud and pleased to say that Rochdale was the birthplace of co-operatives. I think I am right in saying that the Minister hails from Rochdale, so he will have a good understanding of what I am about to say. The Rochdale pioneers established the very first co-operative on Toad lane in 1844. The building is still there, and it has just been renovated with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is a great museum, and I urge hon. Members to pay it a visit whenever they get the opportunity. My reason for mentioning the Rochdale pioneers is that they are the people who made this debate possible. They established and pushed the first co-operative, and co-operatives have now been taken up across the world. People visit the museum from Japan, Canada, America and all over the world to honour the concept of mutual organisations, of which Rochdalians are rightly proud.

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Yesterday, I spoke about the importance of self-reliance and about how Governments can encourage people to do things for themselves. Co-operatives are a great and important example of how people come together to help each other. They are a great example of self-reliance, and one that we should continue to support and celebrate.

In Rochdale alone there are co-operatives of many different shapes and sizes that have a real, positive impact on our economy, the community and the town overall. We have just established the largest housing co-operative in the United Kingdom, Rochdale Borough wide Housing. I spoke to its chairwoman, Lynne Brosnan, earlier today. It is owned by its tenants and employees, who have a major say in how the organisation operates across the town. We are proud of that organisation.

Rochdale has a variety of Co-operative Group stores, travel agents and banks, as would be expected, but it also has a number of smaller co-operatives that have an impact on the economy and the community. I particularly want to mention Sunshine Care. Local authority care workers, all women, came out of the local council in 2009 and came together to establish a home care co-operative. I have met those ladies over the years from before they started to where they are now, three or four years later. They have been through some really tough times and challenges in establishing their co-operative. I spoke to one of the founding members, Christine Bailey, just before this debate, and I asked her how the co-operative is progressing. It now has 34 staff, which is fantastic, and it provides 600 care hours a week to older people. Ideally, older people would want services delivered by people coming into their home to be delivered by a mutual—by those women who have come together to develop this fantastic co-operative.

Sunshine Care is great. As Christine says, there are no directors creaming money off the top of the organisation, so everything the organisation earns goes right back to the workers, who each have a stake—they get voting rights after working for the organisation for six months. Sunshine Care is also a Cabinet Office pathfinder, and the ladies who work for it are proud of their co-operative status, which is important to them.

The Government are considering whether to dilute the value of the term “co-operative.” In their red tape challenge, the Government have been talking about removing “co-operative” from the list of sensitive words, which would be a big mistake. We need to protect, not diminish, the good name of co-operatives. I hope the Government will think twice before doing anything that damages the co-operative brand in that way.

My final point is on Government support for co-operatives. I am a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, which took evidence on mutual and co-operative approaches to delivering local services—I have the report here. The Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr Maude) gave evidence to the Committee. Although I got a good sense that the Government are keen on co-operatives and see them as having a role in the economy, I am a bit concerned about the Government’s response to some of the Committee’s recommendations. There are opportunities for the Cabinet Office, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury to work better together on promoting

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and helping co-operatives. There is also an opportunity for the Government to push the banks and other financial institutions, including Big Society Capital, to lend to mutuals and co-operatives.

There is probably an opportunity in tax incentives for co-operatives. We also need to look at the procurement rules, particularly for local government, which could be of added benefit to co-operatives. To give the Government some credit, they established the mutuals taskforce and the mutuals support programme, but there is still more to be done to help co-operatives develop.

Co-operatives make a fantastic contribution to our economy. They are just one of the great things to come out of Rochdale.

3 pm

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for securing this important debate. In his speech, he not only highlighted some of the best practice in co-operatives but made a strong argument about how many current public policy problems in this country could be addressed by taking a more co-operative approach. In particular, I thank him for mentioning co-op housing and my Co-operative Housing Tenure Bill, which I believe has huge potential to address some of the housing challenges that this country faces.

It is with great pride that I sit in Parliament as a Labour and Co-operative MP. I am fortunate to represent a constituency steeped in the co-operative tradition. The first co-operative store in my constituency was opened in Mossley in 1856, and to this day there is a Co-op store on the same site. The co-op movement was active in parts of my area well before the Labour party even existed, and my constituency, of course, is only a stone’s throw away from the co-operative movement’s spiritual home in Rochdale. It would be wrong to claim that the values championed by the co-op movement—democracy, openness, trust and social responsibility—are characteristic only of areas such as mine or south Wales, because the modern co-op movement is nationwide, but it is not mere coincidence that we started it.

I cite these things not just as an amusing historical preamble to my speech, but because it is extremely important, particularly for those of us on this side of the political divide, to remember and stay true to the political tradition that the co-operative movement represents. For many reasons, not least the success of the 1945 Labour Government in creating national institutions such as the NHS, which celebrates its 65th birthday this week, the Labour party in modern times has prioritised a statist, top-down view of politics, but we should never forget to combine that with the earlier tradition of bottom-up, grass-roots and community campaigning.

It is interesting that in recent years, through the work of the co-operative movement and through things such as community organising and living wage campaigns, we have begun to get back in touch with that tradition, which is good. We should recognise that at times, domination by the state can be as detrimental as domination by the market. The co-operative movement is a fine example of something that has always been balanced between the two.

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We are obviously still in a difficult economic situation, facilitated by the failure of the Government’s plans to get things going at any level. I am of the firm belief that co-operatives are vital to the economy of this country, not just for their economic value but for their social benefits. More than 15 million people in the UK—nearly a quarter of the population—are members of a co-operative. That is no small number. It is a sign to all of us that there is more to be explored in co-operatives and the value that they can bring.

I want to discuss how co-ops can have a positive impact on our economy and the social fabric of our communities. It is timely that in a week when the Government have organised a summit with the heads of payday loan companies, this debate gives us the opportunity to showcase the value of credit unions, which offer a brilliant example of how co-operative values can have a positive effect on local economies.

More than 1 million people in the UK use credit unions. Research by Salford university on behalf of Leeds city council found that for every £1 the council invested in credit unions, there was a £10 benefit in retained income for the local economy. Manchester credit union, which serves people in my constituency, can trace part of its roots to the Hattersley area, which I represent. Today it has more than 10,000 members and lends out more than £4 million a year. In a few weeks, Cash Box, a local credit union in Hyde, will open its first high street branch, which we should celebrate.

Yet credit unions account for only a small proportion of the total consumer lending market. Given that their average annual percentage rate is 26.8%, we must ask why people are attracted to payday loan companies that get away with APRs of more than 4,000%. Something has to change. Many of us believe that payday lending in this country is out of control.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for not being able to be here at the start of this debate. My hon. Friend is making a strong case about the importance of credit unions. Does he also agree that one thing that credit unions bring to the debate about the cost of living crisis in this country is how they help members, not just by giving loans but by giving debt advice? That is precisely the value of a co-operative mindset: to think in the long term and to think about the whole person and what they need from services. That is why credit unions are so important.

Jonathan Reynolds: I agree completely. We all pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her tremendous campaign against payday lending. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn discussed trust and the wider benefits to a person, rather than the exploitative relationship that many of us believe payday lenders have. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) is absolutely right to address the wider benefits of that approach for people and their communities.

I recognise that the Government have relaxed the rules on how credit unions can operate, allowing them to reach out to more of the community, but to echo the point made previously, I regret the Government’s refusal to accept the Co-operative party’s amendments to the Financial Services Bill, which would have helped promote mutuals and create a more competitive financial services industry. In a climate where people feel increasingly

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detached from the banks, credit unions based on co-operative principles help local people deal with everyday issues and make a positive impact on the local economy.

My second point involves the relatively new idea of co-operative councils and how they may be able to offer a new, innovative way of procuring local services to meet the needs of local communities in difficult financial circumstances. I read the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government report from 2012, “Mutual and Co-operative Approaches to Delivering Local Services”, particularly the evidence given by Lord Glasman, who said that giving users a stake in public services ensures that they feel that they are at the heart of local government, and that making people feel involved strengthens their relationship with their local economy.

Co-operative and mutual models help councils facilitate long-term jobs and investment and help ensure that long-term social benefit is prioritised over short-term gain. It is no coincidence that a majority of all the councils that have signed up to the co-operative council network already pay their staff a living wage, which is clearly of huge benefit to local economies.

The question that we should ask in debates such as this is how the Government can help organisations and local authorities deliver economic growth by building on best practice within the co-operative movement. One of the key conclusions of “Mutual and Co-operative Approaches to Delivering Local Services” is: