Jim Shannon: I thank my hon. Friend for that. Clearly we are aware of the need for the coastal communities fund, which was set up in 2012 and has been extended

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to 2016. It aims to help seaside towns to achieve their economic potential, offer job opportunities and support local areas. I am delighted that many communities in my constituency will benefit directly from the fund. I am pleased that Portavogie harbour recently got funding of almost £1.5 million, which has enabled us to do more.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I represent a constituency that neighbours that of the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that positive consideration needs to be given to a reduction in VAT on tourism for all the UK to ensure better economic growth in coastal communities?

Jim Shannon: I have supported a reduction in VAT for tourism since the beginning. The hon. Lady and I have worked on that with other Members. We passionately support that proposal, and we hope it is taken up.

The funding that went to Portavogie harbour enabled funding for local sports clubs, such as fishing and yachting clubs. It allowed for the repair of coastal promenades for tourist use. Since 2012, the Ards peninsula has been included in the Mourne coastal route, a scenic driving route that stretches across various parts of Northern Ireland, including my constituency and that of the hon. Lady. The area has become popular with cyclists, and there is a variety of cycling and walking routes. Those things have happened because of Government funding through community funds, but also because of the enterprise of those involved locally.

The peninsula has received some great news about the potential opening of two whiskey distilleries, which will be of much interest to many people. The growth of SMEs with Government support has enabled that to happen. We all know about Bushmills whiskey, but shortly people will know about two new famous brands on the market: the Echlinville distillery at Kircubbin and the new micro-distillery at Portaferry, both on the Ards peninsula. They will provide construction jobs initially, and long-term jobs—in the factory on the assembly line and the production line, in guided tours and in the restaurant and the coffee shop. There will even be a tasting room. There is a rumour that there is a long waiting list for the tasting room. I suspect that many people will want to know when that job becomes available, because they will want to be first in the queue. That is a long-term investment, further consolidating and boosting tourism up and down the Ards peninsula. Those things are happening because of the private enterprise of SMEs, with Government support.

In conclusion, it is all good news, but as Christian Guy, director of the Centre for Social Justice, said:

“Investment in our seaside towns is welcome, but this should be only the start. We need to boost skills, attract businesses, provide decent housing”—

there is much more to coastal communities than the beach and the shore—

“and encourage family stability. This would breathe new life into these towns—not just for visitors, but the people that live there.”

It is necessary to kick-start the process. Everything else falls into place once that has happened, because the process helps the local economy, local people and local business.

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3.3 pm

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this debate. To add to what he said, an important factor for coastal communities is their geography. They are 180° communities; they can only draw on the 180° market behind them. They are peripheral to the main centres of population. They can be end-of-the-line towns that have to create something for people to want to visit them; otherwise people go elsewhere. Coastal towns tend to have a similar demography: an older population with high welfare dependency. As has been said, the brightest and best tend to move way.

Historically, most of our coastal communities were based around fishing and a hinterland of agriculture. The railways came, and then came tourism. Social change came with the working man being given holidays. A number of our Victorian seaside resorts grew and grew. Then they became Meccas for retirement. After people had enjoyed a holiday in a coastal community, the idea of retiring to the seaside was attractive. Then came the invention of the jet engine and the package holiday, and that prime position for domestic primary holidays ended.

That has left our larger Victorian seaside resorts with a number of challenges. It is not a north-south divide; the divide is between some of the larger, old Victorian seaside resorts and the rest. Scarborough, Blackpool and Torbay have similar problems. There are towns on the south coast that tend to boom, but they are exceptions rather than the norm. The challenges that face us are that primary holidays are now taken overseas. Brands and chains have largely overtaken the family-owned small businesses that used to plough their profit back into the area. The profit from tourism now largely leaves the area. There has been welfare migration, partly as a consequence of the older hotels and guest houses converting to houses in multiple occupation and being available to rent, which has led to insecure employment, low incomes and rising social costs, but it is not all doom and gloom. There is a great future for our coastal communities.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The picture that my hon. Friend has painted could be replicated along the Essex coast, including in Clacton. Does he agree that the VAT campaign has to take in the whole country, including historical inland resorts, and not just coastal resorts?

Mr Sanders: There is a case for looking at the VAT rates in comparison to those in Europe. A competitive advantage is given to some European countries, and the Government need to look seriously at that.

Coastal communities have a great future. Most of them are in beautiful environments, and that can attract people to live and work there. They are areas that lend themselves to cultural activities and to creative and high-tech industries. They are entrepreneurial centres that often have a high percentage of small businesses. For example, 75% of all internet traffic in north America used to travel on equipment built in Paignton in my constituency by Nortel Networks. Unfortunately, the company went bust in 2001, but at its height in 2000, it employed more than 6,000 people. Wages lifted across the board, and tourism in the area increased because of

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the number of business people coming in. Out of its ashes, we now have a good embryonic high-tech sector that needs nurturing and support. That could lead to more sustainable full-time jobs.

The future is to diversify away from an over-dependence on one industry and to have a number of different industries supplying jobs, including tourism—whether that is niche tourism or more upmarket tourism—and that can only be helped by such things as a VAT reduction. My main request to the Government is not on VAT, because that will take some time, but for something quick. I ask them to increase the amount of money in the coastal communities fund by a significant amount by raiding a tiny percentage of the regional growth fund. As small coastal communities are full of small businesses, they cannot lever in the kind of private sector money that they need to compete fairly for regional growth funding. They just do not succeed in their bids for regional growth funding. The coastal communities fund, which is tailor-made for coastal communities, is the obvious way forward.

There are three things every coastal community needs: good skills to attract inward investors and to create jobs locally, better connectivity—I am grateful for the money that has gone into the Kingskerswell bypass in my constituency—and affordable housing.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order.

3.9 pm

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): I extend my congratulations to the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing the debate. I have been honorary president of British Destinations for some years, and it was one of the sponsors of the Fothergill report. We have already heard some useful references to that report, which gave a balanced view of seaside areas. The issue, however, is what drives the economies of coastal and seaside towns. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) said, the key element must be the regeneration of the public realm and of infrastructure for residents and visitors, because if either category is not satisfied, the town will not flourish.

The CCF has been, and must be, an important element in providing support. However—the hon. Member for Southport was good enough to refer to this—it came two years after the Government had abandoned the Sea Change programme introduced by the previous Government, and after the future jobs fund, which produced about 4,000 jobs in seaside towns, and the coastal change pathfinder had been abandoned. Things come and go, therefore, but the CCF has been important.

As many Members have said, small business is vital for tourism and non-tourism, not just directly, but as part of a supply chain. In Blackpool, for example, procurement has been a key issue. Get Started, which the previous Government originally funded using local enterprise growth initiative funding and which now has funding from the regional development fund, has produced more than 1,000 new businesses over the past seven years, with sponsorship from Blackpool council. The Build Up initiative from Blackpool and The Fylde college has seen large numbers of people take up employment in construction.

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There are other challenges we have to look at. Small businesses need apprentices. As the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) said, they need appropriate support from funds such as the regional growth fund. The service sector also needs apprentices, although that sometimes gets lost in this process. Small businesses have been crucial in the South Shore area of Blackpool, which I and others have been trying to revive. We saw the effects of small businesses when we had small business Saturday last year. We had everything from the Lancashire Cheesecake Company, to a dolls collectables organisation, to a wool shop run by the local chair of the Federation of Small Businesses. Those are really important, but there must also be Government fiscal incentives for such things, which is why the Labour party’s promises to freeze and then to cut small business rates are important.

On structures, the regional development agencies did a lot to address some of the issues the hon. Member for Southport mentioned in relation to second-tier towns. The performance of the LEPs has been mixed; they could do much more, and we need to make changes. The direction of travel is for funding to move from Government to the LEPs across the piece, and it is important that we look at seaside and coastal towns in that context.

We must have decent economic drivers in seaside towns such as Blackpool. Small businesses need the regional bank proposals the Labour party has made in connection with a British investment bank. We need the Government to recognise the big issue of houses in multiple occupation and the unfairness of local government settlements, which has been spelled out since 2010, with skewed demography and pepper-pot deprivation not being recognised in funding.

Of course, it will never be easy for seaside towns to do everything they need to do. Using the funding it received from the previous Government, Blackpool has done an enormous amount with the tower and the Winter Gardens. Whoever is in government next, however, these processes should be an issue for all Departments, not just one. Embedding the interests of seaside and coastal towns across all Departments will be a key issue for whoever takes power in May.

3.13 pm

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Members have spoken with great passion about their constituencies, and I will certainly do the same. The coastal towns of Folkestone and Hythe are part of a coastal renaissance that is spread across east Kent. As the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) suggested, places such as Whitstable, Ramsgate and the Turner Contemporary centre in Margate are all examples of successful coastal regeneration.

We will never regenerate our coastal towns, however, if we feel sorry for them. We should feel proud of them, and we should make being a 180° town on the coast a virtue. Indeed, that is why towns are there—because being on the coast was seen as a virtue. These are places where people want to be, where they can enjoy themselves and where they can enjoy the high quality of life that comes from living near the sea.

Coastal towns have always been very creative, because they have had to compete. For those built on tourism, the tourism season in England, Wales and Northern Ireland does not last all year, and they have to have an

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out-of-season offer. In my constituency, one of the biggest employers is Saga, which provides financial services and holidays for the over-50s. It was started by one hotelier in Folkestone, Sidney De Haan, who offered out-of-season holidays to couples celebrating their silver and golden wedding anniversaries. It is now a multi-billion pound business, and it continues to employ a large number of people. That is an example of the creativity and ingenuity of coastal towns in stretching the holiday season and bringing in other types of investment.

I agree with other hon. Members that infrastructure is key, and there is no doubt that east Kent benefits massively from High Speed 1, which has brought journey times into St Pancras down to under an hour, greatly helping the regeneration of my constituency, bringing in new jobs and investment, and bringing in money and people from London.

The Government have certainly helped through the regional growth fund, and I know the Minister has been busy visiting lots of coastal communities around the country—she has certainly been to my constituency and others in east Kent. The fund has been helpful in targeting money at local businesses—not just traditional tourism businesses, but engineering firms and creative industries companies—helping them to grow, creating new jobs and providing better business infrastructure. That has been supported by excellent initiatives from the local authority, which has supported schemes in my constituency such as the Marsh Million fund for Romney Marsh, which helps small and micro-businesses to get started.

I ask the Minister to give favourable consideration in the next round to the local enterprise partnership bid from the South East local enterprise partnership, particularly in relation to support for the Folkestone seafront regeneration. Folkestone has embraced the need to have a new purpose. The town was originally born from fishing and farming. It then became a popular Victorian resort based on the railway. We now have good rail infrastructure, which is vital to the town’s future success, but the town’s new role as a hub for the creative industries, with a fantastic link almost directly into Tech City, is part of its future. Attracting business investment in this high-growth sector is important, and that is complemented by the creative industries’ natural role in attracting people interested in the arts and the outdoor space, and people looking to work in an alternative, different way while still being within striking distance of a main business centre. That is part of our plan, but we also want to link that growth and investment in the creative industries to education and training opportunities for young people so that investment in business today is linked to jobs in the future for young people.

The opportunities are there. The coast in east Kent has a bright future. We are on the edge of a genuine coastal regeneration but, as I said, the Government’s role in providing infrastructure investment through the growth funds and the LEPs to support that growth will be vital.

3.17 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I have two coastal towns in my constituency: Prestatyn and Rhyl. Both are blessed with a built environment and a natural environment.

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The backdrop to both is an area of outstanding natural beauty—one of only three in Wales—and the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins spoke lyrically about both. Both towns are blessed with beaches, and the Victorian artist Cox painted Rhyl beach. Both also have a coastal footpath and are part of the Sustrans national cycleway. Prestatyn is at the northern end of Offa’s Dyke, and there are the Prestatyn Morfas—the marshes—which I helped to protect in the local development plan five years ago. Rhyl has a harbour, mudflats and a marine lake. Both towns have excellent natural and built environments.

The Prime Minister often slags off the Welsh Government for a lack of focus and investment, but let me just tell him what they are doing in Rhyl and Prestatyn. In Rhyl, they have spent £10 million on a new harbour. They are spending £12 million on new flood defences. In Prestatyn, they are carrying out a £4 million revamp of the Nova leisure centre and a £7 million revamp of the railway station. In Rhyl, they are having a £28 million new housing scheme. They are knocking down houses in multiple occupation, which are six storeys high, and building two-storey family accommodation, which will be put up for sale, changing the tenureship in the community.

In Rhyl, a £25 million new school was started in December, and there will possibly also be a £28 million new faith school. Some £22 million has been spent on the town’s first college, including a £6 million extension, and £6 million has been spent on a sixth-form college. Some £22 million is being spent on a new community hospital, and £5 million has been spent on a new clinic in the town’s West ward. That is what the Welsh public sector is doing in Rhyl and Prestatyn.

The private sector is also playing its part in investing in coastal towns in my area. The Apollo cinema—a £2.5 million investment. A new hotel in Rhyl—£5 million. A new bus station and railway station—£5 million. In Prestatyn, we have had a multi-million pound new shopping centre.

What are central Government doing for investment in my constituency’s coastal towns? Let me tell the House: 100 years after its opening in 1914 they are closing down the Army recruitment centre. In Rhyl they are closing the office of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in Churton road and the family courts in Clwyd street, and they will either close or relocate the Crown post office in Water street. I believe that in Wales and in the coastal towns of my constituency we have the answer—a Welsh solution—to the UK problem of investment in seaside towns. In the past 50 years, the struggling areas—coal, steel, inner city and rural communities—have had billions of pounds put into them, and rightly, because they were struggling; but the long-term decline, politics aside, of coastal communities—[Interruption.]

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order.

Chris Ruane: The 40 or 50-year decline, especially of seaside bucket and spade communities, has not been addressed properly. In Wales it is now being addressed and I urge the Minister to take a look at the best practice in Wales, and at what Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, Edwina Hart, the Economics Minister, Huw Lewis, the Education Minister, and Carl Sargeant, the Floods Minister, are doing.

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3.21 pm

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my near neighbour—at least he is in Lancashire—the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), for introducing the debate, which is well attended. The debate is about coastal towns but let us not forget that between those are villages and hamlets, and the coastal community area, which is not just urban territory.

Fleetwood’s population is 26,000. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) about the Government needing to learn much from Wales about investment. Five primary schools in Fleetwood have been completely refurbished at a cost of, I think, around £10 million. There is a brand new fire and emergency centre, and a £60 million-plus investment in a new sea wall to protect thousands of properties; that work is under way at present. The town has also had £1.5 million from the coastal communities fund for the front and for improvements to the Marine hall; and £2.4 million from the lottery fund, for improvements to the memorial park created in recognition of those who died in the 1914-18 war. The nautical college, one of the few left in the country that train people for the merchant marine, has been upgraded and become part of a new energy specialist college.

Putting politics aside, there are obviously still other pressures. Other hon. Members have talked about towns at the end of the line, and Fleetwood is one of the 10 biggest towns in the country that still do not have a main railway line connection. That went many years ago. The refurbishment of the tram line has finally been finished, but it comes to a full stop near where Fleetwood pier used to be. Unfortunately that caught fire a number of years ago, although how a concrete pier caught fire remains a mystery.

The key to Fleetwood in the past was not just attracting visitors. I am sure that many hon. Members realise that it centred on the fishing industry, which was huge. What we are left with at present, in the dilapidated docks—although there is a yachting marina and a great deal of yachting—are three boats out of the huge fleet that I remember from my childhood when I would spend holidays in Blackpool and go to Fleetwood to watch the ships come in. Around the fishing industry was a fish processing industry, however, and the skills have been maintained in family after family. Today, the fish processing industry in Fleetwood generates £135 million annually for the local economy, and employs more than 600 people.

I am taking part in the debate today to make an appeal in relation to a proposal from Wyre council, supported by Fleetwood town council, for which private sector funds are waiting as part of the regional growth fund, to fund what we call a new fish park—or a Billingsgate of the north. That will concentrate the fish processors and take them out of dilapidated buildings, and, as other hon. Members have said, build on the skills of smaller companies and enable them to expand. The proposal includes expanding the fish processing industry by more than 25%, and I hope that the Minister will carefully consider it, because it has the potential to bring significant improvement to Fleetwood.

I welcome what the Government have done in the past five years through significant investment. A great deal more is needed, and, with reference to the comments

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of my near neighbour the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), I suggest that whichever party next has power, we may need a Minister for Coastal Communities to bring all the disparate parts of government together and build on the achievements of the present Government.

3.25 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Happy new year to you, Mrs Main, and to hon. Members. I will in my speech bridge the gap between the different levels of government, because I have seen significant change in my coastal community, and I am one of the few MPs in this Parliament who represent a purely island community.

My constituency is surrounded by 125 miles of the most beautiful coastline in the United Kingdom. It is on the periphery only from the point of view of someone in London, Cardiff or the midlands, because it is the heart of the British isles. Its near neighbour is Ireland and Northern Ireland; Scotland is to its north and England is to its east and south. It is a gateway, and I agree with the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins): we do not need to take a depressing view of coastal towns and communities. I represent coastal communities as well as the larger towns around the coast. They are gateways, set up when people brought goods through the ports, and they were strategically important to the United Kingdom. I still believe that they are strategically important to the whole United Kingdom and that that must continue.

Success in my area has been due to partnership working between local authorities. The Welsh Government have added a new dimension since 1999, and so have the UK Government and the European Union. We have had structural funds, and the EU identified the fact that many areas on its periphery—and on the periphery of Britain and of Wales—need special attention. I am not very proud of it, but we qualified in 1999 for objective 1 status because of deprivation in those coastal communities. On the map of Wales, the urban valleys experienced that depression, and so did west Wales. Those peripheral communities suffered and it was difficult for them to regenerate.

Chris Ruane: What will happen to those European funds, from which my area also benefits, if we pull out of the EU in 2017?

Albert Owen: I am sure that we want to talk about coastal towns and not the EU, Mrs Main, but the funding has been hugely positive. We have had partnership working, and the need for the help was identified at European level, so I think that I want my community to be in Europe—and at its heart, as Anglesey is the heart of the British isles. I want it to benefit from being in Europe and the United Kingdom.

Objective 1 has been beneficial. There is greater flexibility in the new round of structural funds that coastal towns can take advantage of to regenerate communities for tourists and residents alike. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), mentioned the importance of residents and not just visitors, although they are very welcome. I think it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) who talked about Scarborough; I went there this year, and if the weather is fine it is as good a place to go to as anywhere in continental Europe. There are some good places.

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Some constituents of the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) go on short holidays to north Wales, and that is why the European dimension is important. The A55 expressway through Wales does not only link England and Wales; continental Europe sees it as a major transport link to the Republic of Ireland, on which we welcome many visitors through Wales. Wales should be seen not just as a transit area, but as a destination. I ask the Minister to consider the partnership working that can be developed. I work closely with Visit Wales, VisitBritain and my local authority, which has a Destination Anglesey project. That includes the overlooked tourism importance of local people staying in their area. They can go for weekends locally rather than away from the area.

Tourism is important and so is industry. It is not an either/or thing. Both can live side by side if there is proper planning, but planning is better if the big picture is considered, together with the advantages to be had from working in partnership with local authorities, the Welsh Government—in my case—the UK Government and the European Union, for the benefit of residents and visitors.

My sole aim in coming to this place is to promote my community as a place to work, live and visit. If we look at those things, coastal communities can be top of the league in the future and can thrive again as people’s first port of call. They can act as gateways for attracting new industries, new businesses and economic regeneration to the whole of the United Kingdom.

3.30 pm

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): My constituency covers the part of the north Yorkshire coast that includes the vibrant town of Redcar and the pretty village of Marske. It is also the east end of the Tees valley city region. One issue for coastal areas such as mine is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) said in his introductory remarks, identity and vision. Whether the coastal town wants to be a resort, a day trip leisure destination, a dormitory town or even an industrial centre has major consequences for planning its transport, regeneration, accommodation provision, business development, housing, the environment and so on. I see all that in my constituency. When I see a list of the issues that coastal towns have, I can usually identify with pretty well all of them.

Studies show that the most successful coastal towns have certain characteristics. They have an enterprise culture. Many are close to major population centres, which helps them to regenerate. They have good transport and communication links. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) talked about the revival in Kent, and good transport links can turn coastal towns into dormitory towns; the Government should make that a policy target. Successful coastal towns have access to business opportunities and understand the wider area in which they sit.

Things have been improving in my area under the Government. The steel works have restarted in Redcar, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has invested £30 million in the seafront, which has provided a new promenade. We have had leisure investment. The Tees Valley local enterprise partnership

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has been active and successful. The regional growth fund has been pouring money into my area at a rate five times greater than under the old regional development agency. Many new industries are active, business formation is up 19% in the past year and we are about to get a new oil and gas college. I could go on. Unemployment is down by more than 35% since 2010.

I agree that we need to have aspiration, ambition and a positive outlook for our coastal towns. There is still a lot more to do in my area, in particular on entrepreneurship and skills development. In the last table I saw, Redcar and Cleveland had the lowest number of entrepreneurs per head in the country. That is certainly a target for our part of the coast. We also need to make our enterprise zone function. There was inertia after it was given to an outfit called Onsite, which was not enterprising and did not want to do anything.

I am optimistic about my area. There are various things that the Government need to do. They need to continue with the LEP model, which serves my part of the world extremely well, although I accept it may not do so everywhere. They must continue to support job creation in areas of the country, such as Redcar, where we have economic capacity—people, houses and school places—without the need for massive extra investment. It is sensible for the country to invest in those areas. They must give Tees valley the European money that it qualifies for. It has a status that results in a fair amount of money coming in, so let us keep it coming directly to the area.

We have benefited from the coastal communities fund. I ask the Government to look closely at favouring areas in which the licence income is generated. We have 27 turbines just off our beach, in addition to gas pipelines, cables and so on. That is where a lot of the coastal community money is generated, so let us make sure we get our fair share of it back again. We need an electrified rail line in the Tees valley and to Middlesbrough—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order.

3.34 pm

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this debate.

Most of the contributions have focused on the enduring value and potential of coastal towns and the visitor economy. Furness is undoubtedly the most beautiful part of the Morecambe bay area, and there is enormous potential for the visitor economy to grow. Visitors to the Lake district can come to its beaches and use its Dock Museum as a rainy-day destination—unfortunately, it is no secret that it occasionally rains when people go walking in the Lakes. We should not forget the enormous potential of many of our coastal areas, including mine.

3.35 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.46 pm

On resuming—

John Woodcock: Where was I? Everyone remembers, I am sure.

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I was talking about the industrial power of coastal towns. Barrow went from a mere hamlet to a shipbuilding powerhouse within a few short decades because of the mix of coal and iron and the town’s location by the sea, enabling it to grow. It is precisely the location of coastal towns that has often given them that industrial kick.

South Cumbria has amazing opportunities ahead. It has the combination of the new generation of nuclear submarines being built in Barrow shipyard—involving many thousands of the highest skilled jobs in manufacturing and engineering that exist anywhere in the country—new civil nuclear up the road, offshore wind growing apace, gas coming in and a cutting-edge biopharmaceutical plant being built by GlaxoSmithKline. Amazing things are happening, but we need to do more and Government need to work to ensure that the area’s true potential is reached. Critically, the many small businesses in the area should be able to become part of the supply chains of those giant groups, which has proved too difficult in the past.

We were delighted when Furness Enterprise’s bid to the coastal communities fund was fast-tracked back in June, because it was to provide support not only principally for small businesses, but for the tier 1 companies to develop local supply chains. We became increasingly worried when the bidding process dragged on and, before Christmas, Furness Enterprise announced that it would have to be wound up because the bid had not been achieved. I was so grateful to the Minister for agreeing to see me at such short notice before Christmas to discuss what was happening with the bid. She assured us that it remained live, despite the formal winding up of Furness Enterprise. We are absolutely clear that the capacity remains in the region. A number of us wrote to her over the Christmas break with assurances about what we believe to be the way forward for the bid. If the Minister has time when she responds, I would be grateful if she could tell us whether she has considered the bid and when she will be able to make an announcement about it.

3.49 pm

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this important debate, which has generated a huge amount of interest throughout the country and the House. We have heard some interesting and diverse contributions about the range of issues facing our seaside towns and coastal communities.

I have heard that it is important for people to claim their area as the premier resort, whatever their part of the country, but I can tell everyone that the Boating lake at Corby is the premier resort in north Northamptonshire. We, however, are located at the centre of the country—not the centre of the British isles, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) told us, but the centre of the mainland UK. We are therefore a centre of logistics and have all sorts of advantages from our location, although we are one of the furthest places from the seaside—it is two hours to Skegness and a little further to Hunstanton. However, the roads to the east coast and further afield are well travelled by Northamptonshire folk, and we have just as much of a love of the seaside and our coastal communities as has been shown by hon. Members from all across the country today.

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In fact, when thinking ahead to this debate I thought of my experience just a few weeks ago in Cornwall. I visited some of its beautiful fishing villages, such as Port Isaac, Boscastle—famous, of course, for the flood there, which shows the importance of flood defences—and the now famous Padstow, known to some as “Padstein”; the culinary offer developed there has helped to regenerate that community. That shows us that coastal towns need a vision that goes beyond the core ingredients of an area and is developed into a vision of how to bring much wider economic benefits. For example, in Padstow there is now a cookery school, a huge amount of hotel accommodation and so on, and the community has really begun to develop.

Coastal communities are at different stages. The hon. Member for Southport characterised the types as those experiencing prosperity; those on a journey towards prosperity, and that are developing and regenerating—a journey common to many of the stories we have heard today—and those that still feel that, for a range of reasons, they face decline and so are looking for a way forward to make the most of the opportunities for their communities.

I went to Hastings recently to meet representatives of the local authority there and hear about the great work that, like many other local authorities across the country, it is doing to regenerate its area. I saw the historic pier being rebuilt and tasted a beautiful pint of Pier beer at the White Rock hotel. I also saw the interesting role the local authority is taking with its Grotbusters strategy to improve the built environment and get private landowners to improve premises, particularly on the beautiful seafront, and bring them up to standard. Local authorities can play an important role.

Government must also play an important role. We know that people like me from the midlands are often drawn to coastal communities for tourism and so perhaps are drawn to the most beautiful and picturesque parts of those communities. But there is a more mixed and complicated past, present and future for those communities, with issues of physical isolation, higher than average deprivation levels, inward migration of older people, large numbers of people passing through without settling, outward migration of young people—that has been referred to—and higher than average unemployment.

John Pugh: The hon. Gentleman mentioned Hastings, which was one of the places visited some years ago by the Select Committee of which I am a member. The people we met specifically mentioned that they did not see the revival of Hastings as necessarily being the same thing as the revival of the seaside industry. They were also thinking about IT and improved transport links, and did not necessarily put all their money on the seaside brand.

Andy Sawford: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. The thumbnail sketch given by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) of the range of industries in his constituency shows that we would be wrong to think of seaside towns and coastal communities as having a future only in tourism; although that sector may offer something important to many communities, we need a much more rounded picture of the types of jobs that can be created and the industries that can thrive in our coastal communities.

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Tourism is Britain’s fifth largest industry. It accounts for 9% of jobs, supports nearly 250,000 businesses and generates huge revenue for the UK economy—£134 billion—so it must be part of our strategy. But coastal communities have distinctive geography. They are often on the periphery, and many hon. Members discussed some of the challenges that that can bring. They can also be jumping-off points or transit points, as other hon. Members mentioned. They balance new businesses and technologies while trying to retain their tourist market. Seaside towns experience a particularly high proportion of poor-quality housing. It is important that we support renters. We must take real action to tackle the issues that arise from houses in multiple occupation, and give renters greater security.

The hon. Member for Southport mentioned the sea change programme, which drove cultural and creative regeneration in many places. He will know that this Government abolished that programme. That is a symbol of the way in which the Government have let down our seaside and coastal communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) was right to highlight the future jobs fund, which created nearly 4,000 jobs for young people in seaside towns. Its abolition was wrong and was particularly damaging at the time. The Government also abolished the coastal change pathfinder scheme to help coastal communities deal with the consequences of flooding.

I recognise that the Government have set up the coastal communities fund, which I am sure the Minister will refer to. The fund is welcome, but coastal communities need more than a grant of £50,000, welcome though that is. I agree absolutely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) that they need long-term commitment to regeneration. The example of the Welsh Government, which we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), is a powerful one. The commitment to a wide range of regeneration projects—the harbour, the natural environment, new housing, a new school, the railway station—is the kind of commitment that our coastal communities, including those across England, need from their Government.

In his introductory remarks the hon. Member for Southport said that we need to place the issues in a wider context, and he is right. He will know as well as any hon. Member the impact of the Government’s cuts on local authority funding and their unfair distribution across the country. The National Audit Office recently found that the Government will have reduced funding to local authorities by 37% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2015-16. It also found that those cuts have hit the most disadvantaged communities hardest.

That is a concern for coastal communities. Blackpool has faced a cut of 20.6%, as the hon. Gentleman will know. Plymouth faced a grant cut of 14.3%, and Hastings a cut of 10.7%. They will face even greater challenges in maintaining the kinds of services their communities need, but the spending power of councils such as Wokingham, Surrey Heath and Elmbridge, in the centre of our country, has been increased. People living in places such as Blackpool will not understand why the Government have made such unfair cuts to different parts of the country.

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Damian Collins: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there are constituencies such as mine, which has some of the highest levels of deprivation in the south-east, where the local authority has managed to find efficiency savings to deal with the cuts and has also cut council tax throughout this Parliament?

Andy Sawford: Local authorities up and down the country have done a fantastic job. In fact, Labour authorities, which have, on average, faced much higher cuts, deserve particular praise from hon. Members for trying to keep local services going in their communities and trying to protect those communities from the impact of the cuts. However, the cuts have been really unfairly distributed. Disadvantaged areas have been hit the most. There is higher than average deprivation in coastal communities, and a cursory look at the list of cuts that different areas have faced tells us that our coastal communities—particularly those that most need the Government’s support—have been hit hard by this Government.

There is an alternative. Councils need fair funding, help with longer term funding settlements so that they can plan ahead to protect services, and more devolution of power so that they can work with other public services locally to get the most out of every pound of public funding. We need to help every part of the country to succeed. I agree with hon. Members from all parties that our coastal communities need to be a key part of the deliberations of local enterprise partnerships—working with local authorities and the combined authorities that have been established in some areas and ought to be established more widely across the country—when they consider how to drive economic growth in all parts of the country. It is all well and good for the Chancellor to go to Greater Manchester and for the Government to talk a good game about city deals. We need county deals, too, and coastal community deals. That is what Labour will offer after the next election.

We need to integrate health and social care—that will be critical to many coastal communities, which have large retired and elderly populations. We can see from the news today of the worst NHS crisis in 10 years that doing that is vital. It matters to our coastal communities.

We also need to devolve powers on transport. Coastal communities are often at the end of the line; sometimes, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) said, they are not on the line at all. We need to give those communities the opportunity to look at how they can bring transport networks together, and how they regulate bus services in their area. We need to give young adults the opportunity to gain the skills they need to make the most of new jobs in the creative and cultural industries and the high-tech economies.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth rightly highlighted, we need to look at cost of living issues. We need to look at the use of zero-hours contracts in these areas and we need to raise the minimum wage. That is why people in these communities need a Labour Government. If people living in coastal communities do not have the money in their pockets, they cannot take advantage of Destination Anglesey and the “staycation” opportunities that we want to promote to allow local people to enjoy the communities on their doorstep.

I am conscious of the time, Mrs Main.

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Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): I would ask you to draw your remarks to a close.

Andy Sawford: I will do. For all those reasons—whether housing, supporting tourism, universal broadband, giving our young people a chance or a regeneration strategy that opens up opportunities to all areas of the country—we need a Labour Government this May.

4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Penny Mordaunt): I think that all hon. Members who wanted to speak in the debate have done so, but if anyone wants to get on the record, I will be happy to take interventions. I thank the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing the debate. He set the scene extremely well. I also thank all hon. Members who contributed. They have spoken eloquently and with pride about the economic challenges and opportunities that face their constituencies, and what needs to be done.

The Government are at one with hon. Members in wanting to see our coastal towns thrive and we are committed to making them better places to live, work and visit. Coastal communities are a major part of who we are as a nation. More than 11 million of us live in coastal areas, from major cities such as my own of Portsmouth to seaside villages.

As we have established in the debate, they face some unique challenges and the Government recognise that. That is why we are providing additional support for those challenges. Whether they be the transport challenges of being at the end of the line, the skills deficit or battling the elements, those communities need that additional support. However, as has come through in the debate, they also have unique opportunities, whether through their natural history or their tremendous heritage. They are also incredibly resilient, creative and adaptable communities. I have seen that as I have travelled around the country as the Minister. He also touched on what makes a success story in such areas: a clear vision for that area’s future, plugged into the wider area’s economic plans, with strong leadership and a dynamic local team to bring that to fruition.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted two important themes. First, as the Sheffield Hallam study showed, some places are faring better than others. While many resorts in the south-east and the south-west are doing well and showing solid growth in tourist employment, in some places—such as Blackpool—jobs in seaside tourism have decreased. That underlines the second theme: our coastal and seaside towns are not a uniform group. Each has its own unique and varied history and often different economic, social and physical circumstances. A locally tailored approach is needed, so it is vital that that is provided to let those communities thrive.

The Government’s response has been to give coastal communities the means to take control and act in the best interests of their local area. We have done that through a variety of tools and incentives, freedoms and flexibilities to help drive growth and create jobs, including the coastal communities fund; tax breaks; local enterprise partnerships; enterprise zones; city deals; the regional growth fund; transport spending, with £9 billion to date and £15 billion to come; investment in broadband

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infrastructure; the better care fund; sea defences; community rights through neighbourhood planning; and community asset transfer. We have also taken actions to cut red tape such as the marine and coastal concordat, which has had tremendous success in helping our ports.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we need to ensure that all of those measures work together, as opposed to being distinct items. They must pull together so that we can maximise the benefits for our communities.

Chris Ruane: I concur with what the Minister said, but does she think that the closure of the tax office, army recruitment centre and family courts in Rhyl and the possible closure of the Crown post office shows that the Government are working in the same direction with local government and the Welsh Government? Is that helping to regenerate or degenerate Rhyl?

Penny Mordaunt: If that is what the hon. Gentleman is reliant on to create jobs and not just economic growth, but quality of life in his area, he will be on a sticky wicket. The challenge in looking to the future is to put infrastructure in place to create jobs in sustainable new industries. That will mean change for many of our coastal communities but, from what I have seen, they are well placed for that, because they are incredibly adaptable.

What we need to ensure, through that long list that I just mentioned, is that these communities have investment. They need the opportunities to lever further funds, whether European or private sector, and to unlock the good will that exists though community asset transfers and other things. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to look at the many examples that have been mentioned today and to raise his ambition for his area.

I will touch on two items that I mentioned in the list. Local enterprise partnerships have been a tremendous success. They are well established as the bodies that are taking forth economic development. They are clearly evolving, but they have achieved a huge amount. About half of all LEPs are in coastal or estuary areas. As part of the growth deals in July, we committed more than £500 million to projects in coastal areas and in the autumn statement the Chancellor announced a further allocation of £1 billion of investment in the second round, and the bidding process is well under way for that. However, as the hon. Member for Southport said, we need to do more to ensure that coastal communities have a high profile in LEPs and that their projects, ideas and initiatives are well embedded in the local economic strategy. I will shortly make some announcements that will help to strengthen that, but we are already talking to LEPs about the importance of coastal communities and doing things in a more joined-up way.

Secondly, I want to touch on the coastal communities fund. The fund to date has provided £65 million in grants to 117 projects across the UK, attracted a further £103 million of other private and public sector funding and it is forecast to deliver just shy of 9,000 jobs, nearly 4,000 training places and apprenticeships and more than 400 new business start-ups. It has been a tremendous success.

I want to see that fund adapt, improve and grow. It must be embedded in the local economic strategy. We must also look at it in the round to unlock the further good will and funding that coastal communities fund

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projects could lever. I am encouraged by the number of hon. Members who spoke about successful projects in their areas. Indeed, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), whom I thank for the time that he has spent with me, has a bid that is still live. I hope to make announcements on the next round of coastal communities funding shortly. He will understand that I cannot give him assurances, but his is a strong bid, as is that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). We were encouraged by the helpful correspondence we received over Christmas, so I thank him for his role in that.

Our coastal towns are reinventing themselves. Government have provided all this help, but those communities are really the heroes here, whether it is Lowestoft, which is reinventing itself as a hub for clean technology, or Folkestone, which my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) spoke very eloquently about, with its tremendous input on creative industries. Whether it is sustainable fishing—[Interruption.]

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. There is a Division in the House. Has the Minister concluded her remarks?

Penny Mordaunt: For the benefit of everyone, I will sum up very quickly. I assure all hon. Members that the matters they have raised—having a higher profile for coastal communities with local enterprise partnerships, additional support for those with the biggest challenges, including those in the north, and continued support and investment—will come to pass. We should be optimistic about the future, and the only return to the 1930s will be in some beautifully renovated lidos. I thank all hon. Members, and particularly the hon. Member for Southport for securing the debate.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): We will allow 15 minutes before the commencement of the next debate.

4.10 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Phone and Broadband Coverage (Herefordshire)

4.21 pm

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): We can commence the debate, as the Minister and the Member whose debate it is are in position. If hon. Members intervene on Mr Norman, could they please be brief, as this is a half-hour debate?

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship or chairladyship, Mrs Main.

As colleagues will understand, this is a very serious issue that affects vast numbers of our constituents. This is only a short debate, but I see from the serried ranks of Conservative MPs and, sadly, the absence of Labour MPs that at least on one side of the House, this is a matter of great importance. I will be delighted to take interventions, as Mrs Main said, but let me make some progress first, and then I will invite colleagues to express their views.

I came to this subject because I was concerned about the combined effects of a bad mobile signal, a bad broadband signal and a phone line that is not working well. We see that in Herefordshire. Just a few weeks ago, I surveyed more than 1,100 people living and working in my constituency on the issue of mobile not spots and—

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): On that subject, will my hon. Friend give way?

Jesse Norman: That is not quite what I was talking about. [Interruption.]

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order.

Jesse Norman: If my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) will let me continue, I will flag up when I am ready for the odd intervention or two.

The overwhelming majority of the constituents whom I surveyed thought that this was a serious concern and were in favour of action to tackle partial mobile phone not spots. We welcome the work that has been done on that by the Department so far. The situation is exactly the same for businesses. When Herefordshire’s sustainable food and tourism partnership surveyed its members, 97.8% responded to say that they had specific concerns and problems.

However, this is just part of a bigger picture. The Government need to look not merely at the effects of bad mobile and broadband coverage individually, but at their compounded effect. That is further magnified where there are insecure energy supplies, as in rural areas such as mine.

A mobile phone service is a lifeline for many people in rural areas, especially as BT telephone boxes are being withdrawn. Utilities, emergency services, telemedicine, delivery companies and tourists all require and rely on mobile and wi-fi coverage. However, it is common for my constituents to have download speeds of 400 kilobits per second and upload speeds of 120k—barely better than the old 56k connection—on aluminium phone lines, which prevent any kind of easy upgrade.

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Welsh Water has told me that bad mobile coverage affects

“our speed of response and efficiency”

in attempting to serve tens of thousands of local people.

Kingstone surgery in my constituency has such a bad signal that if BT Openreach does not make urgent repairs, it will be unable to upgrade its software, potentially affecting 4,200 patients.

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): One of the issues that my hon. Friend is rightly exploring affects both our areas. Much of the rural heartland that we represent cannot be reached by the outreach that BT is doing, and we will need extra funding for some of our areas. I expect that that is exactly what he is homing in on. Across Exmoor, Dartmoor and those places, we will need that funding, I would have thought.

Jesse Norman: I think that is true. It is not clear that an enormous amount of extra money is required, but it does have to be targeted at areas that suffer that compounded effect.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate, and may I join him in pressing for a longer debate? Clearly, the attendance at this debate shows that we need that. May I also echo my hon. Friend’s words about not spots? The Government are doing a great job nationally of rolling out 90% mobile and broadband coverage, but for the 10%, which is disproportionately in rural areas, we will need further help.

Jesse Norman: I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks, with which I concur. I would go further and suggest to colleagues that the ability to communicate is a fundamental freedom, protected in law, which underlies the very basis of human well-being and prosperity. In this digital age, people who are prevented from being able to use a phone or personal computer are in effect being stifled or gagged. They must be allowed the ability to send and receive information without impediment. In Herefordshire, it is not a matter of money; the system just is not available at any price, or at least at any price short of a satellite uplink.

Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. The situation is every bit as bad as he says, because if we cannot get proper broadband, we cannot get the boost to the mobile phone signal, either, so we are caught in a forked stick.

Jesse Norman: I absolutely concur with that, too. The point is that the Government need to take this seriously, not only as a matter of policy but as a matter of basic humanity and responsiveness to deep social needs.

Let me summarise the situation in Herefordshire. I will start with the mobile side. We have the fourth lowest overall population density in England and the greatest proportion of its population living in “very sparse” areas of any local authority in England. About 5% of Herefordshire by geographic area has no mobile phone coverage at all. As for partial not spots, according to Ofcom’s UK mobile services data for the year before

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last, nearly 40% of Herefordshire’s geographical area can receive a signal only from one or two operators. That is the highest incidence of partial not spots in England.

That directly damages public services. I mentioned Welsh Water. Even the Royal National College for the Blind, based in Hereford city, has said that its staff struggle to get a mobile signal when assisting their blind and partially sighted students. Everyone in this Chamber would agree that that is absolutely unacceptable.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I wonder whether my hon. Friend’s constituents in Herefordshire are as frustrated as mine in Nottinghamshire. The Government spent an enormous amount of money advertising the fact that broadband is coming, so when people find themselves in a not spot, that almost adds to the frustration that they feel.

Jesse Norman: That is certainly true. It is known in the literature as the tunnel effect. If we are sitting in a queue in a tunnel and the lane next to us starts moving, our initial feeling is optimism. If that lane then continues to move and we do not, that optimism can quickly turn to social frustration. I think that that is what we have seen in this case.

There are bright spots. I do not want to discourage colleagues from recognising that. We now have digital exchanges in Hereford city. We have a 3G femtocell in the village of Ewyas Harold. That just shows the power of this technology when it can be properly rolled out, because the people there are delighted with the progress. However, it has been extraordinarily difficult to achieve any real change.

The mobile infrastructure project, which the Department has very wisely and interestingly rolled out, is a case in point. When the sites to benefit from it were first announced, in July 2013, the ambition was for them to be acquired and built by 2015. That has now slipped to spring 2016. Ten sites were identified in the county of Herefordshire. To date, only two sites in the country—forget the county—have been delivered. That illustrates how difficult it is to achieve change.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share the view of one or two of the mobile phone companies that the market has almost become too competitive, and that providers are being forced into the densely populated areas to chase a decreasing margin, which means that rural areas suffer?

Jesse Norman: That is an interesting line of thought, which I have not heard of. I wish it could be said that providers were competing for the custom of my constituents, but at the moment they are not making themselves available in any degree at all in many areas, which is why we have so many partial not spots. In any case, the mobile infrastructure project, which is such a worthwhile potential scheme, only targets basic 2G services. Why can we not put 3G and 4G services on those masts to provide a cost-effective universal broadband service?

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): May I bring the attention of my hon. Friend and the Minister to a further, more fundamental problem? Before we

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have even entered the next stage of roll-out, we in Cumbria already face a heartbreaking problem. Even with plans in place from the county council and BT to roll out, it looks as though inflexibility in extending funding will mean that we may not be able to push beyond March to September, and we may end up with £3 million unspent. There needs to be a big push in Herefordshire to ensure flexibility in funding. Without that, even the existing plans will fail.

Jesse Norman: I am grateful for that advice. On the fixed line side, the situation is almost as bad. I was delighted when, in the company of the Minister, we had a great summit in Herefordshire in July 2010 and shortly thereafter won one of the first four fast broadband pilots. That was a great moment for the county. I know that the Minister—on whose growing beard I congratulate him; he has succeeded in the beard-anuary bet—has been tireless in his work on the project, as has Herefordshire council. The whole thing has been delayed by the need to get EU clearances, by slow procurement and by very slow implementation by BT. As a result, my county is still, nearly five years later, one of the very worst places in the UK for fixed line internet speeds.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): Dorset has a problem similar to that in Herefordshire. In the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we took evidence the other day from a senior director from BT, and from listening to him or reading the transcript we get the impression that all is dandy. Will the Minister put more pressure on BT to meet those targets? If we listen to BT, those targets are going to be met, but clearly they are not.

Jesse Norman: That is unfortunately true. BT lives in a Pollyanna-ish world in which all is for the best in this best of all possible internet worlds, but that is simply not the case in the real world. The truth of the matter is that more than half the wards in Herefordshire are in the bottom 25% of England and Wales for average download speed, and only one ward in the entire county is in the top half. House of Commons Library analysis shows that rural village wards in Herefordshire have substantially slower broadband speeds than average, which makes it difficult or impossible to use voice over internet as a substitute for the mobile phone signal that nobody receives in any case. Even some commercial premises in Hereford that were recently upgraded to digital exchanges do not have decent broadband coverage, which is simply unacceptable and a great depressant on local economic activity.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): As we can see from the number of hon. Members present, that is not simply a problem in Herefordshire. Three of my constituents, Mark Dixon, John Ballantyne and John Gannon, have complained about inadequate broadband coverage in rural areas. Surely the Minister should address the wider issue of ensuring that there is superfast broadband to all homes throughout the United Kingdom.

Jesse Norman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that remark. If I listed all my constituents who are affected, it would take a full day and a half of debate.

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Difficulties with reliable mobile coverage have been compounded by poor service from BT Openreach. Its remit as a non-customer-facing organisation causes enormous problems for my constituents. It is nearly impossible for them, or even for my staff, to get hold of people at Openreach. It takes too long to get one of its engineers to site, and they are often unprepared for the challenges of work in rural locations. It is difficult even to get in touch with Openreach, because there is no mobile signal in the areas from which one might seek to contact it. In addition, no effort seems to be made to prioritise customers who might be vulnerable because of age, disability or the sheer remoteness of their homes.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I praise my hon. Friend for the timeliness of the debate. Does he agree that extreme weather conditions such as floods, ice and snow highlight the importance of good broadband and mobile phone coverage? In the last week, my rural communities in Marsden, Hade Edge, Scholes, Cinderhills, Wooldale, Golcar and many more places were left isolated because of the questionable gritting policy of my local Labour-run Kirklees council. My constituents really need good broadband and mobile phone coverage.

Jesse Norman: It is a shame that literally no Opposition Members, let alone a Front-Bench spokesman, have attended the debate. I absolutely concur with the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. Constituents of mine have pointed out that they have been unable to contact the emergency services in the case of road traffic accidents and emergencies because they cannot get a mobile signal. There is a serious issue about allowing the emergency services to do their work.

What is to be done? I entirely reject, as colleagues will have heard, the argument that mobile phone coverage is a luxury, or that extending it should not be a concern of Government. I am delighted that that idea has been rightly rejected by Ministers for the nonsense that it is. Mobile coverage is absolutely essential to our constituents’ economic and social well-being. As a practical matter, they have no real economic power to secure parity of treatment. Someone who lives in a partial not spot has no place to go. They cannot secure the coverage that they need, and they have no alternative that might give them any economic leverage. On the contrary, the status quo raises serious questions about the effectiveness of competition in the market for mobile phone services in many parts of the country.

I absolutely welcome the initiative of the Secretary of State in this area and the recent agreement reached by Government and the mobile network operators. I wish that they would take that a step further and press for wider roaming rights for our constituents. Areas such as Herefordshire with multiple communications problems should be prioritised for improved coverage in a manner that follows local needs, not industry lobbying.

I will seek a full debate on the Floor of the House of Commons on those issues. I will encourage all my colleagues who are present today, and the dozens of others who have expressed an interest in the matter, to come along and take part in that debate. I want to cover three or four specific issues in that debate: first, a full understanding by Government of the nature of the problem, namely the combined effects of poor mobile, broadband and voice coverage; secondly, the specific

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performance of BT Openreach as a monopoly supplier of network infrastructure, and its manifest inadequacies; thirdly, recognition by Government that failure of phone or electricity is more serious where mobile coverage is patchy, so BT Openreach and the utility companies should prioritise repairs to such areas; and, finally, I suggest that Ofcom needs to look at service contracts. Mobile customers who sign such contracts and find that their connection is much worse than expected should be able to leave them early and on non-punitive terms.




On that basis, and with a welcome to Labour colleagues who have just entered the Chamber, I conclude my remarks.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister, I point out that we will finish at 16.52. On a point of clarification, although the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to say that there were no Labour Members present during the debate, it is not appropriate for a Labour shadow Minister to be here.

Jesse Norman: I am grateful for the correction, Mrs Main. Thank you very much indeed.

4.38 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Madam Chairman Ladyship, and I put on record your new title, which has been proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman). He is well known in the House as an expert on constitutional matters, so I will not take issue with him on that. As he noted in passing, this is the first outing of the beard, and it depresses me that it took him nine minutes and 42 seconds to mention it. Subject to the nature of the interventions that follow, the beard may or may not survive the week.

We are talking about a serious issue, so I will take a more serious tone from now on. I note that I have plenty of time to set out our position, and I will be happy to take any interventions from hon. Members should they wish to further the points they have made so eloquently throughout the debate. It is fair to say that, given the absence of Labour Members, we in the Government cannot be accused of gerrymandering in the way in which we are tackling broadband coverage. Clearly, it is doing very well in Labour-held constituencies.

Mr Spencer: Conservative Members understand that Government cash is limited so the Government should spend their money in the most efficient manner possible. Can the Minister explain to my constituents who cannot raise the funds to get broadband why the Government put a double-page, full-colour spread in the Daily Mail saying that broadband is coming? Would that money not have been better spent on actually connecting a dozen households in my constituency, rather than telling them that it might happen?

Mr Vaizey: As a Minister I am also responsible for supporting the national and local press, so I am obviously in favour of anything that we can do to support the Daily Mail. The serious point behind that advert is that we are rolling out superfast broadband throughout the country as part of our rural broadband improvement programme. Although we are using public money to fund it, it is a co-investment with Openreach. One

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reason why we are doing it is that sometimes, broadband is not commercially viable, and one way to make it more viable is if more people take it up. We have noticed that, even in rural areas where people have cried out for broadband, they are not taking it up when it is there, so we want to encourage take-up. It is worth saying to my hon. Friends that the more people take up broadband, particularly under the rural broadband programme, the more money we will get back under the contracts we have negotiated with Openreach and therefore the more money we can invest in rural broadband.

Rory Stewart: Given his commitment to superfast broadband, will my hon. Friend the Minister absolutely confirm that we in Cumbria will not find that inflexibility from the Department for Communities and Local Government and too narrow an interpretation of European Union guidelines leads to us being unable to spend the money allocated to us, thereby leaving tens of thousands of my constituents without broadband coverage?

Mr Vaizey: I absolutely take on board my hon. Friend’s point, which he made to me over the Christmas recess. I can confirm to him that my Secretary of State is in touch with the relevant Minister at DCLG. There is a technical point: European Union funds must be spent by the end of 2015. There is, therefore, a deadline by which such funds much be spent—currently March—to ensure that the time for spending them does not inadvertently overrun. We are making a confident case to DCLG that we can continue to spend the money throughout 2015 without any danger of spending it after the cut-off date at the end of 2015. My hon. Friend’s point is well made and the Department agrees. We are working hard with DCLG to come up with a solution because, when European money is on the table—I know that Government Members are all in favour of Europe—it is important that we spend it effectively on behalf of our constituents.

Mr Newmark: Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that we must encourage not just the big players to get involved? There are smaller players such as County Broadband in my constituency, which is a local player that knows the local parishes very well. It is important to make room for some of the small players as well as the big ones, particularly when it comes to bidding for contracts.

Mr Vaizey: My hon. Friend is quite right. I am pleased to say that some of the smaller players have participated in our latest fund, which is designed to ascertain the cost of getting broadband to the last 5%—the most expensive and difficult-to-reach premises. Of the eight contracts awarded, I think that almost all have gone to smaller players, which continue to play an important role in rural areas—for example, Gigaclear provides a first-class service to many of the villages in my constituency.

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In many ways, North Yorkshire is a bit like Herefordshire in its rurality. We have had great success: in some villages, take-up of superfast broadband has been 50%, and in one village it is at least 70%. Does the Minister agree that, for those people who are out of the way, in the 10% without coverage—

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4.44 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.54 pm

On resuming

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): The Minister has eight minutes left. I think he was taking an intervention.

Mr Vaizey: Yes, I will take that intervention again now.

Nigel Adams: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for yet another chance. I have been asked by the Clerk to clarify my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a director of two telecoms companies.

Returning to the point about the 10% of people who do not have broadband access, or who have access of less than 1 MB, does the Minister agree that rapid deployment is needed of alternative solutions, such as fibre to the remote node and wireless solutions, so that the people in that 10% can enjoy the benefits of superfast, as many of my constituents are already doing?

Mr Vaizey: I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why we put together the £10 million fund. As I said, a number of private providers are trialling such technology. The trials are under way, and we will evaluate them shortly, which will influence phase 3 of our rural broadband programme. It is no secret that our ambition is to deliver superfast broadband to 100% of premises in the UK.

Simon Hart: That is good news about take-up in Yorkshire. Before we leave that point, take-up in a lot of rural areas is as low as 18%. It is one thing for the Government to encourage people to take it up, but an 18% take-up rate for such a huge infrastructure project is tantamount to a failure. We must do better than just encouraging.

Mr Vaizey: I do not really know how to answer that point. On the one hand, one hon. Member criticises me for putting adverts in newspapers to encourage the take-up of superfast broadband; on the other, another hon. Member asks me to do more to encourage it. We cannot order people to take up superfast broadband, but we can tell them that it is here. We can also make the point that we have some of the cheapest superfast broadband to be found anywhere, not only in Europe but around the world. I am used to hearing people say, as I am sure my hon. Friends are, that they can access much better broadband when they go to their holiday villa or the like, but what they do not say is how much it costs to access it. We have some of the cheapest broadband.

Jesse Norman: The Minister has talked about the third phase of the Department’s plans. Can he spend a second or two talking further about that? Also, does he recognise the point about the compounded effects of lack of service, and might that justify an allocation of more funding in the third round to rural areas such as the ones we have described?

Mr Vaizey: To put phase 3 in context, during phase 1 we put £500 million on the table, along with local authorities and BT Openreach. That figure rose to £1.2 billion. We intend to reach 4 million premises; we have already reached 1.2 million, and will shortly have reached 1.5 million. We are passing 40,000 premises a

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week. We will do the last 3 million of those 4 million premises in the time that it took us to do the first 1 million. That was phase 1. Across Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, the area in which my hon. Friend’s constituency is located, the programme is worth about £45 million. About one third of premises in his constituency, or about 14,500, will get superfast broadband coverage as part of that programme.

In phase 2, we wanted to go from the 90% target we had set ourselves—we were open about that target—to 95%, which will give an additional 1,600 or so premises in my hon. Friend’s constituency access to superfast broadband. At the end of that phase, 42,000 premises in his constituency, or about 92%, will have superfast broadband.

Phase 3 initially involves a £10 million fund to do pilot projects in different parts of the country to trial the new technologies that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) talked about, in order to evaluate the potential overall costs of getting to 100%. The figures on the back of an envelope were in the region of £1.5 billion to £2 billion, which is clearly an extraordinary amount of money, so we wanted to do work on the ground to evaluate how much it would actually cost.

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): I thank the Minister for his generosity, even with his beard. He is being kind in responding to the comments from colleagues, but he has not responded to one particular point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire, which concerned BT’s performance as a monopoly provider. My parents moved house recently, well before Christmas. They moved into a mobile phone not spot in Begbroke in my constituency, and applied for wi-fi. It was only put in place on Monday. That is an unacceptable level of service, and it is common. How will the Minister improve the level of service from BT?

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. The Minister has two minutes left.

Mr Vaizey: I am aware of some of the problems Openreach has. It is recruiting some 1,500 additional engineers. My glass is always half full, so I praise Openreach for the work it has done. I visited some Openreach engineers working in my constituency over the Christmas period, when they were busily wiring up 360 of my constituents in the village of Steventon.

To sum up, we have the superfast broadband programme. We also have the mobile infrastructure project, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire pointed out, there are 10 MIP sites in his constituency. It has been tough going, getting the MIP up and running, not least dealing with landlords. However, we are also upgrading the technology so that it can accommodate 3G and 4G as well. Of course, there is also the landmark deal that my hon. Friend referred to: we have negotiated with the mobile operators to provide 90% geographic coverage, which will get rid of two thirds of not spots. That was a deal done without the need for legislation and time-consuming consultation. Already, the mobile operators are committed to 98% coverage of premises, but 90% geographic coverage will make a significant difference to rural areas.

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I must make it clear that, despite the rightly testing nature of some of the speeches of and questions put by my hon. Friends today, we are on the same side, in the sense that we absolutely recognise the needs of rural communities. That is why we started the superfast broadband programme, why we extended it to phase 2, why we are looking to extend it to phase 3, why we have put in place the MIP and why we have put together the deal with the mobile phone companies.

However, implementation is quite another matter. I absolutely hear the concerns of many of my hon. Friends about how, and the speed with which, these projects are being implemented. I assure them that the superfast broadband roll-out programme is now going very quickly indeed. The roll-out of 4G is the fastest anywhere in the western world, and we have put a rocket under the MIP as well.

I welcome this debate and the forthcoming Adjournment debate, and I look forward to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire, who so ably secured this debate, having a debate in the main Chamber so that we can examine these issues in more detail. I apologise for the fractured nature of my speech. I wanted to take as many interventions as possible, but we have been interrupted by Commons business and the odd joke.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order.

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Carbon Price Support (Land Reclamation)

5.2 pm

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Thank you, Mrs Main, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship today.

Before the demise in 2013 of the two principal operators—Scottish Coal and ATH—the East Ayrshire coalfield produced 25% of all UK surface/open-cast coal, and 50% of that produced in Scotland. Given the history of deep mining, the communities of East Ayrshire have a long standing commitment to the coal industry. So, when the companies went into liquidation, the effect on East Ayrshire was greater than on anywhere else in Scotland, with the resultant environmental dereliction across the coalfield communities of the area extending to almost 20 sq km of disturbed and unrestored land, including 22 voids, 16 of which were water-filled. To put that into some context, the whole of the City of Westminster is just under 21.5 sq km. That gives some indication of the huge extent of the problem in East Ayrshire.

In mid-2013, East Ayrshire council commissioned an independent assessment of the true cost of restoring the land to the level required under the original planning consents; that restoration work should, of course, have been carried out, but was not carried out. The cost was £161 million and Hargreaves has estimated that, as of today, in excess of £300 million of restoration work is required across Scotland. However, the bonds available to carry out such restoration work in East Ayrshire totalled just over £28 million, so clearly in that area alone there is an enormous funding gap. That is the legacy that these communities have been left with, through no fault of their own.

Before I go any further, I would like to say to the Minister that when his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence was an Energy Minister he was given a map showing the dereliction in East Ayrshire and he was completely shocked. To his credit, he immediately recognised the scale of the problem. So I invite the Minister who is here in Westminster Hall today to visit the area to see the devastation for himself.

At this point, I would also like to say that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), has been involved in this issue from day one. His constituents are also affected and he has been extremely helpful throughout. No doubt he will wish to discuss this matter with the Minister himself, but I know that he also believes that it should be given urgent consideration.

This is not and should not be a party political matter, although I fear that we have the usual pattern of the Scottish Government seeking to point the finger at Westminster, to take the focus away from their responsibility in this area as far as funding is concerned. I previously secured a debate about the proposal for increased freight charges, which would have adversely affected the coal industry and cost jobs, and I am pleased to say that the Government listened to that argument.

I have also pressed the Government to return funding to Scotland from its contributions to the coal levy. From recent correspondence, we know that the Government do not see that as a possibility, arguing that the matter of restoration is devolved. That is true, but I do not see

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how it prevents a contribution being made from the coal levy, which Scotland has paid into. Equally, however, it is clear that the Scottish Government should also consider funding for restoration.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this topic to the House, and I sympathise with her for having to wrestle with the Scottish National party. However, I hope she recognises that of course this issue affects England as well. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been quite supportive, but it is the Treasury where the real challenge lies. We need to get the Treasury to recognise that changing this situation can lead to regeneration of these coal tips and the creation of some nice country parks and other pleasant areas for our constituents.

Sandra Osborne: Indeed, that is entirely true and I hope that the Minister, in his response, will refer to what can be done in that regard.

I am part of the coal taskforce that was set up by Scottish Government and I welcome the work being done by the various bodies involved, which I hope will go a long way towards ensuring that there is better regulation and financial insurance in the future, so that this situation can never happen again.

As I have outlined, however, the bottom line is that substantial funding is required, and so far it has not been forthcoming from the Scottish Government or from anywhere else. East Ayrshire council is working with the two current operators to ensure that restoration is maximised. So far, around 43% of the bond money has been achieved, and to date there has been a success rate of around 80% of the upper total values. However, it is vital to recognise that the remaining balance will be much more difficult to achieve and will undoubtedly result in much lower awards.

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an issue that also affects my constituency, which is also part of East Ayrshire. Does she agree that constituents in our local areas have indeed made a huge commitment to the coal industry over the years and now expect to see everyone—the Scottish Government, the UK Government and indeed the local authority—working together to find a solution? Also, does she agree that it would be very helpful indeed if the Minister would consult with his colleagues in the Treasury to see what solutions might be possible to ensure that the necessary funding is provided?

Sandra Osborne: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I totally agree with everything she said. I also thank her for the work she has been doing, alongside me, on this issue from the very beginning.

Even with the moneys now banked with the council, only restoration schemes of a greatly reduced quality will be delivered. Therefore, additional funding is vital and that is why the Hargreaves request for a technical change to extend the coal slurry carbon price support exemption to include coal derived from schemes supporting restoration projects is worthy of serious consideration.

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It is not possible to over-emphasise the urgency of the situation that we face. The objective is to achieve remediation and the avoidance of long-term blight; already, the existing blight is getting worse with each passing month. The sites also present an ongoing health and safety risk. They are so large they cannot be effectively secured from trespass and they are dangerous places. Unstable head walls and extremely deep water bodies with vertical drop-offs make for dangerous playgrounds, and they are often quite close to villages and houses. I, for one, live in dread that an accident could occur at any time.

Recent wet winters have accelerated the rate of flooding of voids, making ultimate restoration longer, harder and more expensive. The longer we go on without a planned and properly funded restoration, the worse this will get, and in the meantime there are two restoration schemes progressing in East Ayrshire that are far from ideal. An early decision on this proposal would mean that abortive work might be avoided.

The Minister is only too aware that the coal industry is on a downward spiral at present, given the importing of cheaper coal, which will mean that in 12 to 18 months annual UK coal production will have fallen to less than 4 million tonnes, with no prospect of recovery in the immediate future. This can only lead to cessation of production thereafter, with no betterment of these legacy sites—and other sites—and indeed their potential abandonment a second time.

Of the 311 East Ayrshire people made redundant in 2013, 167 are now in employment, but these are not all within the coal sector and not all are within East Ayrshire. Depopulation of our rural areas continues. According to the Hargreaves proposal, we could see the legacy sites across the country all restored effectively to their original quality within a five-year period. Providing an incentive for an industry-led solution would make the difference in East Ayrshire in particular to the value of around £161 million, against less than £20 million at best recovered from bond moneys and a poor level of restoration not worthy of the name. For that five years there would be guaranteed employment of a local work force. Hargreaves estimates 1,000 plus indirect employees, but to be honest, in the position we are in, any and all employment opportunities are most welcome and badly needed.

Rightly, questions have been asked about the impact of such a proposal by the Scottish Opencast Communities Alliance and others. It is hardly surprising that people are suspicious of the motivations of operators, given how much we have been let down in the past and the way that our priority to bring jobs to the local area has undoubtedly been manipulated; for example, with planning extensions being applied for in the full knowledge that planning conditions would not be met. I bow to no one in the anger I feel about this and I will continue to seek justice for the community regarding those who were guilty of it. However, Hargreaves is not the culprit and thus far it has been the only show in town. If there is even a chance that this could provide a solution, I am willing to grab it with both hands.

There are those who think that no taxpayers’ money should be spent on clearing up the mess, that no funding should be directly applied, and that no tax incentive should be solely for restoration. In saying that, I am aware that if an exemption was applied to the

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completion of the restoration, this could be regarded as tax hypothecation, a practice not generally adopted by the Treasury. I welcome the Minister’s views on this.

I am clear about this. I have raised requests for funding from both the Scottish Government and here at Westminster from day one and I still do so today. However, in reality there are no clear alternative funding sources forthcoming, so I think we must look at each and every option. We must do so with the proviso that the bottom line for support of any kind is that there should be no opportunities for companies to profiteer, use any support to substitute for their ongoing restoration responsibilities or escape adherence to an upfront restoration plan with transparent and appropriate independent monitoring.

I refer the Minister to the position of Coalpro, which as he knows represents the majority of the UK coal producers. It supports any mechanism that assists in restoring both the sites left behind by former operators and the reputation of the responsible operators who remain and have continued to work in Scotland throughout this period of falling coal prices. Although opposed to the carbon price support mechanism, it is in favour of an exemption in the short term, if this would enable abandoned and orphaned former mine sites to be restored to beneficial future use. So the industry supports this, which is obviously very important.

According to Hargreaves, a targeted carbonyl sulfide exemption would have no overall impact on coal burn and CO2 production—only a small substitution effect, with imports from Russia and Columbia—and the measure would not overly profit or extend the life of the UK coal extractive industry, but would merely enable it to clear up its own mess before winding down. However, it would help maintain capacity for the next five years: a major benefit if the UK is to consider pursuit of carbon capture and storage projects.

The scheme would only relate to “orphaned” restoration liabilities, where owner and operator were bankrupt or liability has fallen back on the state, so there is no breach of the “polluter pays” principle, and the exemption would be limited to the amount of restoration coal necessary to make the scheme viable.

The proposal is that this is policed by the local authorities and the Coal Authority independently. There are plenty of examples of and precedents for using taxes to incentivise environmental benefits across a wide range of taxes, including low road tax on CO2-efficient cars; lower VAT rate for the supply and installation of energy saving materials; and recycled aggregates being exempt from aggregate tax levy. There are plenty of examples where tax has been used to promote restoration and remediation schemes, such as the obvious precedent that coal slurries have been exempt from carbon price support since 2013, with about 1 million tonnes per annum, which is about the same as the estimate for restoration coal. That exemption has worked well and has caused no ripples or issues in the markets. Most deep mine slurry ponds are already capped off: they are inert and present nothing like the environmental and health and safety risk presented by the orphan open-cast sites, so it seems a simple and logical extension.

The Minister will be interested to know that Hargreaves has received legal advice on competition law and state aid on restoration-related coal and will not be surprised to learn that it believes there are compelling arguments

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about why the proposal would not give rise to concerns about these matters. I do not have time to go into detail about that. In any case, this is clearly something the Government would wish to assess for themselves.

There are many questions from the community and the companies, and many questions that the Government would have to consider, but I do not have time to go into those in this short debate. My main purpose today is to emphasise the extent of the environmental and financial problem, the fact that it needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency and the absence of any clear alternative, and to make a plea for this proposal to be considered seriously and as soon as possible. We have already lost another winter, but I am realistic: an announcement at the Budget—if not before—would be extremely welcome.

Although arguments continue about how this all came about in the first place—the negligence of the operators involved and the lack of monitoring by the planning authority and how they should be held to account—no one can argue that this should not be fixed, and fast. This is a national environmental disaster for Scotland, the extent of which has never been seen before. In the medium to longer term, this will take several years of concerted and focused effort, but big problems need big, bold, decisive and effective solutions. I hope the Minister will agree that this could potentially be the answer we have been looking for. I look forward to his response.

5.17 pm

The Minister for Business and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this debate on an important issue in her constituency and other surrounding constituencies. I know that this has been a significant concern since the 2013 failure of the two major open-cast operators in Scotland.

I recognise the enormous contribution made to the coal industry north of the border and its historically vital role in respect of the UK’s wider energy needs. Scotland has a proud deep-mining heritage, brought to an end in 2002, when flooding closed the last remaining deep mine. Since then, the torch has been carried for many years by a vibrant surface mining sector. However, over the last year and a half it has become all too apparent that operators of considerable significance within that sector have not been managing the full range of their responsibilities with the care and rigour that could reasonably be expected of them.

Healthy production levels had been masking a growing backlog of unfulfilled and inadequately underwritten restoration obligations. At the same time, it emerged that in some cases those tasked with monitoring the compliance of operators had fallen short in their duty of care towards open-cast mining communities. Against that backdrop of an industry making an important contribution to local economies where alternative job opportunities are often limited, it would appear that more weight was sometimes given to retention of employment than to ensuring that operators were properly keeping their houses in order. The root causes of the significant problems that have emerged as a result have been independently and comprehensively examined by

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a team led by the Scottish Government’s former chief planner, Jim Mackinnon. Its report, published in January last year, looked into the particular circumstances in east Ayrshire.

Since the events of April and May 2013, action has been taken. I pay tribute to my counterpart in the Scottish Government, Fergus Ewing, for the prompt action he took in establishing and convening the Scottish coal task force—as the hon. Lady said, many of these issues are devolved—which brings together a broad range of stakeholders including not only those affected by the industry’s collapse, but those in a position to mitigate some of the immediate impacts and offer solutions for the future. The task force has met seven times since May 2013 and has been a catalyst for positive action. Many of its members have worked hard in other forums, not only to address the employment and environmental consequences of the 2013 events, but to look at how safeguards can be put in place to ensure that the same circumstances do not arise again.

Sandra Osborne: As I said in my speech, I am a member of the task force and I fully appreciate all the work that has been done, not least to try to prevent such things happening again. That does not, however, substitute for the amount of funding needed to deal with the problem. I have raised that point several times in meetings of the task force. It is the elephant in the room. We still do not get a positive answer. Does the Minister agree that we need to look at the funding situation?

Matthew Hancock: Of course, I was going to come on to that point. Action has been taken and needs to be taken through the task force, especially on the employment side. We have to recognise the role that the industry continues to play and has to play in the future. As the hon. Lady said, in particular we have to recognise the role that Hargreaves plays and the significant commitment and investment in the Scottish sector that it made in stepping into the shoes of the failed companies. As she said, it is not the fault of Hargreaves. It is part of the solution and should be thanked for its continuing contribution, along with others, to local economies. Hargreaves provides 500 direct employment opportunities where there might have been none, had it not acted as a replacement for the companies that went bust.

Mr Spencer: Since the Minister’s appointment, he has built a long record of knowledge of and support for the coal industry, particularly in Nottinghamshire. Does he recognise that the industry can help itself if the Treasury assists in changing some of the tax laws around the carbon floor price? Can we assist him in lobbying Treasury Ministers and getting that message across to the Treasury?

Matthew Hancock: I am glad my hon. Friend said that, because I was just about to come on to that issue. Carbon taxes bear down on carbon-producing industries, and that has an impact on coal, which is at the core of today’s debate. The carbon price floor policy sets out the future cost and the trajectory to 2030. We have brought that trajectory down in recognition of the impact on carbon-intensive industries. The carbon price floor is designed to drive the uptake of low-carbon investment.

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The question of whether we should look for an exemption is at the core of the debate on the future. There are a number of different issues, including the question of whether using a tax offset to deal with what is essentially a problem of spending is the best solution. I am happy to meet with the hon. Lady, Treasury colleagues and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), whom I spoke to this morning about this issue, in which he takes a close interest. There is also the vital question of value for taxpayers’ money. We are living in times when taxpayers’ money is scarce and there is not much money around.

Cathy Jamieson: I am listening closely to what the Minister is saying. If he thinks that a tax offset is not the correct solution, will he commit to exploring other solutions with Treasury colleagues, given that our constituents are left with these massive holes in the ground?

Matthew Hancock: I am not ruling out a solution through tax; I am merely saying that there are several ways to tackle this problem. We should work in partnership with the Scottish Government in dealing with it, because the question of where liabilities fall is complex. We should also work in partnership with the local authorities involved, which have already put a huge effort into trying to resolve the situation. I propose that we work with the Scottish Government, local authorities, the Scotland Office and the Treasury. I am happy to set up that meeting with the Members here today to see whether we can find a policy solution that works and is technically feasible, whereby the financial issues can be resolved while being consistent with the need for value for money in public spending. Our estimate is that the tax proposal put forward by Hargreaves would cost the Exchequer a minimum of £200 million. Obviously, we would need to be convinced that it is the most effective way to address the issue.

Sandra Osborne: I point out that Hargreaves says that the number of people who would be employed, the tax take from that and the knock-on effects for the local economy would help offset some of those costs.

Matthew Hancock: I am thrilled to hear that another Member of the Opposition has been converted to the principle of the dynamic scoring of taxes. On whether a reduction in tax, which is essentially what the hon. Lady is calling for, would have a positive impact on the economy and would feed through positively, perhaps I can persuade her with some good old Scottish Adam Smith—that a low-tax economy is the way forward. However, it is not only the wider benefits for employment and the economy that have to be taken into consideration in the question of value for money; there is also the environmental impact of doing nothing and the question of how we resolve the legacy.

Two hundred million pounds is a lot of money, and there is not a lot of money around at the moment. The issue will require hard work and some lateral thinking. I suggest that the next step is to get together with different Departments in the UK Government and the Scottish Government, as well as local authorities and concerned MPs, to work with the UK Treasury, which I have met on this issue, to try to achieve some kind of resolution.

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Whether that is this specific proposal or a wider package that can be put together, we should look at all the options. We should work out on whom the liability falls. We should work with the industry and Hargreaves in particular—it plays an important role in this and in mining elsewhere, and I work closely with it—to try to achieve a resolution.

I give the hon. Lady this commitment: I will work towards that solution alongside Ministers in other Departments to see what we can do to resolve what is

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clearly an unhappy circumstance that has a big physical impact on her constituency, as well as on her constituents and those in neighbouring constituencies.

Question put and agreed to.

5.29 pm

Sitting adjourned.