We have the problems that I have described in urban areas such as mine because of a fundamental flaw in the arrangements for the roll-out of superfast broadband.

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It applies not just in my constituency, but in many other urban areas up and down the country. It is the basic problem that Government schemes and funding arrangements do not apply to areas where, it is believed, superfast broadband can be deployed commercially and therefore does not need to be subsidised. However, what then happens is that BT—it normally is BT—decides that it is commercially unviable to provide superfast broadband in certain areas, and nothing seems to change to make that move a little more quickly. It is Catch-22: these areas are commercially viable, so they do not get the subsidy—the financial arrangements—but we are told that it is commercially unviable for the market to provide in those areas.

I have lots of examples from my constituency. You will be relieved to hear that I will not go through them all today, Sir Alan, but they involve some incredibly densely populated areas. Quite often in new build developments of hundreds of flats, it is for some reason not regarded as commercially viable to provide superfast broadband. Of course, there are business locations in the area as well. We find instances in which the cabinets are there, but there is no indication of when superfast broadband will be provided. Even more frustratingly, we have a number of locations where the fibre-optic cable is in the street, running past particular houses, blocks of flats and blocks of offices, but there is no indication whether those properties will actually get superfast broadband, although someone down the street will obviously do so.

In Edinburgh city centre, the heavy concentration of commercial activity means that the residential properties are relatively dispersed, so again it has not been regarded as commercially viable to provide superfast broadband to those properties. There is something wrong when houses in the centre of some of our most concentrated urban areas still do not have a clear date for obtaining superfast broadband. I have raised the issue time and again with various levels of government—UK Government, Scottish Government and local government—and all I seem to get is an assurance that it will be all right eventually, but the problems persist. I have raised some concerns with the Minister in the past, but I urge him to look again at some of the cases in my constituency. I have had more cases over the past few weeks, and I am happy to provide him with the details.

I also want the Minister and his counterparts in the devolved Administrations to look at ways of ensuring that as many properties as possible in the areas in which contracts are rolled out have the opportunity to access superfast broadband. That should not be beyond the wit of Government, regulators or companies. If the contractual arrangements for roll-out are too far advanced in many parts of the country, as I suspect they may be, it should be the responsibility of Government to look at schemes to fill the gaps. We want to find some way of ensuring that not spots in urban areas, just as in rural areas, get superfast broadband. That is important not only because people enjoy having it, but because it is, in many cases, essential for business, essential for communication and essential in a world in which more and more of the transactions of everyday life—including contact with Government, both local and central—are carried out online. People who do not have access to superfast broadband will lose out, and that needs to be addressed in urban areas as well as in rural areas, which have different problems but which suffer from the issues that affect us all.

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3.1 pm

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I am afraid that I do not share the optimism of my colleague the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) about what will happen in Devon and Somerset. The Government’s own figures show that only 41% of residents and businesses in Somerset have access to superfast broadband. That goes nowhere near meeting the needs of local people or rural businesses in my constituency. Effective, reliable and affordable broadband is essential in the 21st century, and it is fairly shaming that we can in no way compare ourselves with places such as Korea, which seems to have magnificent broadband coverage. It is a bit of a shame to have to say that. [Interruption.] Did the Minister want to say something?

Mr Vaizey: I did, but I have changed my mind. I am just going to check the facts.

Tessa Munt: Okay. Effective, reliable and affordable broadband is essential to keep people connected and ensure that our rural economy prospers. I do not understand how providing superfast rural broadband appears to mean strengthening the broadband in towns, where we have some coverage already, while coverage peters out as we move into rural areas. Surely, the whole point of rural broadband should have been to start in areas where there is little or no coverage and work back towards the places that have at least some coverage. The whole thing seems to be back to front, as far as I am concerned.

The Minister is always very optimistic and loyal about this project, and I would be delighted to share his optimism, but I have no idea how the final 59%, let alone the final 5%, of people in Somerset will be anywhere near getting some sort of decent service by 2020. The idea of getting to 90% by 2015 and 95% by 2017 is an utter dream. I would also like the Minister to tell me what superfast broadband is. Every time I have asked BT the question, it has fluffed the answer. I want to know what people in my patch can expect by way of an upload speed and a download speed.

Mr Vaizey: I am now ready to intervene. May I briefly put on the record that as far as I am aware, 21,000 premises in the hon. Lady’s constituency will be covered under phase 1, which is getting to 90%? That is effectively the same amount as were covered commercially. The figure of 21,000 and the term superfast broadband are audited, so we do not say that those premises are reached unless they are getting speeds of 24 megabits a second.

Tessa Munt: I thank the Minister for that clarification. If he has information about where that will happen, that leads me to my next question. Every time I have asked where the not spots are, I have been given all kinds of maps showing different colours. Most of my constituency is under consideration, or somebody is looking at the plumbing, or whatever. It seems unlikely that anyone will be able to make any headway in those areas. If the Minister is that sure, however, I am delighted.

I would be very grateful to have that information from him so that people who have no coverage can make alternative arrangements. I have heard reports, from my part of the country and others, of parish councils attempting to find out what is going on, and

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arranging for their own parishes to go online through some alternative to BT. Just when they have been about to hit the button and go for it, BT has suddenly come back to them and said, “Actually, we are going to do your bit after all.” That is not very competitive. If BT is not going to be up front, it is not fair for it to come back to communities that are trying to make their own arrangements and say, “Don’t do that, because we are coming in anyway.” That is slightly anti-competitive practice, and it does not look good, even if it is the truth.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and various other parts of Government, such as the Rural Payments Agency, have moved to digital. However, according to the figures that we have been given by the Country Land and Business Association, more than 10% of the countryside is without access to any broadband, and 12% has no digital footprint whatsoever. The trouble is that our suppliers expect farm businesses to be fully interactive online. Even though the basic infrastructure is not in place and Government-funded schemes are not delivering to remote and difficult-to-connect communities, they still have to use the various basic internet systems. Farmers find it difficult to innovate and to use new farming technology and software, which has to be downloaded from the internet. They also find it difficult to comply with other Government regulations by, for example, submitting VAT returns, getting vehicles taxed and processing animal tagging.

In my constituency, accessing the internet is also vital for jobseeker’s allowance claimants. Those who are looking for work, for whatever reason, have to show that they have applied for every possible job opportunity online. If they do not have internet access, it is absolutely impossible to meet the criteria, and their benefits may be stopped. Some of my constituents have to travel some distance to use the internet. They have to go to Bridgwater or to Wells, and there is little public transport. For people who are challenged financially and have little money because they have no job, but who are trying to find themselves work, it is incredibly difficult to compete and get the jobs that they need and want.

Mr Heath: Is not much of the problem caused by the hugely deceptive nature of percentages? We talk about a large percentage being covered without realising that in Somerset and the surrounding area, that means the fleshpots of Taunton and Exeter, and probably places such as Tiverton and Honiton. That relatively small percentage of people covers a large area of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, and they are the people who do not get broadband and do not get mobile phone coverage worth having. In fact, they do not get anything, and it is time that they were properly served.

Tessa Munt: I tend to agree. Rather than looking at percentages, we should look at people. Back in the 1980s—I can remember all of this—we had British Rail trying to move trains from A to B and forgetting that its job was to move passengers from A to B. Exactly the same lack of focus on people has led us to where we are with broadband.

When my children were in senior school, they found the internet essential because they had to access their homework online. When they were at college, they had

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to send all their submissions online to their tutors, and they have to do exactly the same thing now that they are at university. It is difficult for someone who has no broadband and who lives some distance from the library, if they cannot drive or do not have a car and there are no buses. How the hell is anybody meant to be able to do these things?

I have a wonderful constituent who is 94 years old, who moved into Cheddar and found herself waiting weeks and weeks for some sort of connection. She used Skype, Twitter and Facebook to keep in contact with members of her family, who were all over the world. We must remember that in order to keep older members of the community living in their own homes, it is absolutely essential they can access services such as having their heavy shopping brought in from the supermarket by ordering online. They can still pop out to the shops every day and do the small items of shopping. Using the internet in such a way will help to keep them in their own homes.

Many of the businesses in my area are tourism-based, and if they do not have a reliable online connection and cannot use broadband at the right speed, they do not have a competitive edge. It is also difficult to buy, sell and communicate if the connection drops out all the time. Without a decent broadband connection, life is so much harder.

I wrote to the Competition and Markets Authority asking it to look into BT’s apparent refusal to join an open bidding process to increase high-speed fibre broadband access in Somerset. There is slight confusion over this, but it looks as though BT has held back information that might have enabled other organisations to join the bidding process. By saying that that information is commercially sensitive, it has prevented anybody from being involved in tendering for the phase 2 superfast extension programme.

Mr Bacon: I have no doubt the hon. Lady is right that BT has engaged in anti-competitive behaviour, and broadband is now a regular source of complaint among residents and businesses in my surgeries in Norfolk. However, is the situation not even worse? BT inflated its budgets for the BDUK rural broadband programme, thereby obtaining more state aid than it was entitled to. At the same time, it invested less in the programme than it communicated to the Government.

Tessa Munt: The hon. Gentleman has taken the words right out of my mouth. I hope the Minister will be in a position to address our concerns.

Mr Vaizey: I am happy to.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Order. Minister, quite a few Members want to speak, and the debate should not be turned into a question and answer session between you and one Back Bencher or another. It is much more important that we have as full a debate as we can. In the generous amount of time that remains, you will get an opportunity to reply to all the questions put by Members on both sides of the Chamber.

Tessa Munt: I am pleased that the Minister is so keen, but I take your point, Sir Alan.

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My next point relates to the consequences of using the closed tender option in the Connecting Devon and Somerset bid. It is likely that all the confidentiality clauses required by BT, which shrouded the phase 1 programme, will carry straight over into phase 2. There can, therefore, be no demonstration of value for money to the public. BT will not invest in the programme to take coverage above 95%. Its focus must be on shareholder value, so there is no incentive for it to do that. People will not know whether they will get faster broadband under phase 2 until BT sees fit to tell them. Businesses and individuals cannot plan their futures on that basis.

Another aspect is the number of constituents who contact me about the allied organisation, BT Openreach, and I have spoken to the Minister before about my dismay at its pretty appalling service. In my village, lines went into an office and shop connection, but giving the broadband connection some life seems to require a bloke coming 20 miles across Somerset to flick a switch. When he fails to turn up, and businesses are not online, as they need to be, that makes things difficult, because there is no way for people to contact someone who can tell them what is happening.

We have been talking about digital darkness, and I will finish on a slightly lighter note—actually, it is not a lighter note, but something that filled me with horror. Last week, I asked the Prime Minister what he was going to do about the 41% coverage in Somerset. He told me:

“All local councils now have searchable websites”—[Official Report, 25 February 2015; Vol. 593, c. 318.]

He said people can therefore see when they can expect to get broadband in their area by going online, which is brilliant—if they are online.

3.15 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing the debate.

I have been very focused on this issue in the last five years, first as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which has looked in detail at the rural broadband programme and made a number of criticisms of it. I have also been to a series of debates—in fact, so many that I have seen more of the Minister this last fortnight than I have of my husband. That is not a joke, sadly, much as I like the Minister.

In my constituency, I have constant complaints from businesses and residents about connection times, speeds, unreliability of service and, of course, cost. I represent one of the most urban areas of the UK. We are a powerhouse for the future of the tech economy. We have frequent visits from the occupants of Nos. 10 and 11 Downing street. The Prime Minister has dubbed my area tech city. There is, therefore, great Government pride in the area, but we have pretty poor broadband. When I complain, I am told, “It’s okay: two thirds of businesses in Shoreditch have a connection.” However, that means that a third of businesses in this critical area do not.

The House of Lords Digital Skills Committee has now joined the cacophony on this issue. Given that the Committee is in the other place, it is worth putting on record its very first recommendation, which is about hard infrastructure:

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“We are concerned about the pace of universal internet coverage and the delivery of superfast broadband. In particular, we find it unacceptable that, despite Government efforts, there are still urban areas experiencing internet ‘not-spots’, which is hampering universal coverage and the UK’s international competitiveness.”

It goes on to say, and I agree, that broadband should be seen as a utility—something that is necessary, just as water and electricity are.

A report by Digital Business First says that 10 million UK premises—homes and businesses—are unable to access superfast broadband. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) rightly highlighted, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. A few percentages here and there do not reveal the real trouble and pain that many businesses and residents face.

Let me give just a couple of examples. A resident in the Victoria park area, on the edge of Hackney, near Tower Hamlets, worked from home. However, his broadband service was so poor that he moved out of Hackney to get better coverage. I will not go into the numbers of businesses that have had problems, but I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) about the poor quality of service. It takes a long time to get an Openreach engineer to visit. The Perseverance Works on Hackney road is a consortium—a co-operative, in effect—of businesses, and it took ages to get an engineer to visit it. When an engineer does visit, they do a survey, but it does not seem to belong to the customer, even though they paid for it. It is really difficult to find out exactly what is happening—the lack of transparency about the service is poor, and it really needs to be improved.

The Public Accounts Committee is now seeing the next phase of rural broadband being rolled out. Some real alternatives are being proposed. Finally, to pick up the point from the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), alternative technologies are being promoted, albeit very late in the day, and only, of course, after the bulk provision has been cherry-picked. The cost envelope for the more difficult-to-reach areas is that much higher, which makes it much harder to deliver services.

I said I represent Shoreditch, which is an international hub of tech progress, but we are falling behind. Shoreditch is, frankly, a national embarrassment, when we consider the place it occupies in the world. It is second only to silicon valley in terms of the investment going into tech businesses, but broadband speeds, and upload speeds in particular, are very poor.

Tech City News does a weekly video round-up, which I recommend to the Minister, as it discusses cutting edge digital technology around the world and in Shoreditch. I have mentioned it before, but it is worth emphasising that the former editor, who has just moved on, says that it would be filmed and taken to his house to be uploaded, because the speeds around Old Street roundabout were too slow, and it took too long. If that is not a national embarrassment I do not know what is. I am always embarrassed to repeat that story in Parliament, as I do not want to dump on my area, but it is time the Government took that seriously. Perhaps the next time the Prime Minister and Chancellor visit, they will be able to celebrate success, rather than tripping over failures. In South Korea the aim is a national 5G wireless network. We need to look for the same. We should aim for more one-gigabit cities. There is some progress, and some companies are keen on achieving it.

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I have some questions for the Minister and would welcome answers in writing if he cannot answer now. As part of the approach to improving access to and roll-out of superfast, the Government have put out an advertising programme, which—paraphrasing only slightly—says, “Superfast broadband: it’s coming—would you like it?” I would like to know the cost of the advertising programme, given that the Government have made great play of cutting back on advertising. How are they measuring success? What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Communities and Local Government on planning rules to make it easier for other technologies to get into urban and rural areas and deliver superfast speeds, where the cable and fibre optics will not deliver?

More one-gigabit cities should be an aspiration of both the Government and the Opposition, so that things do not fall apart upon a change of Government. I hope we can be united in our aspiration. We need more collaborations such as that in York between the far-sighted Labour city council and TalkTalk, which wants to roll out superfast in its own way. It is important to give local authorities power over such contracts. More could be done to strengthen the arm of councils that want to follow that lead.

We need more competition in the market. That involves planning issues. Changes are needed to planning law to require landlords to provide what I would describe in simple terms as reasonable access for the installation of technology, particularly on high buildings. That would allow satellite and mobile superfast, for example, to fill the gaps. That might be more challenging in rural areas, and there might be other planning issues to do with rights of way across land, particularly agricultural land. Certainly in urban areas, however, it would be a fairly simple solution. All that it would require would be joined-up Government action and real will, not just on the part of the Minister, who, as the hon. Member for Wells said, always comes to our debates very optimistic about the programme, but on the part of his colleagues in other Departments. They also need to take the matter seriously. Will the Minister outline what conversations he has with Ministers in other Departments? Can he reassure us that they take the issue at least half-seriously? Are they, as I hope, stepping up to the mark to make sure our constituents no longer have to suffer the ignominy of the supposed superfast broadband programme, which is not delivering?

3.23 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Meale. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing the debate. The roll-out of superfast broadband has been a priority of his since his election to the House in 2010, and it is to his credit that he has been pushing it on behalf of his constituents, and businesses in his area—and talking about the national issue as well.

The debate has been excellent and is very important. We have heard that broadband roll-out is an issue that affects not only Devon and Somerset, and rural areas, but urban areas, too. We have heard about problems in Edinburgh, Hackney and Huddersfield. However, I want to mention the most important place of all—Hartlepool. I live in the town of Hartlepool, and not in an outlying village. Given that Hartlepool is the centre of the universe,

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it strikes me as odd that it takes me 10 minutes to download something from iTunes. The idea of watching the new series of “House of Cards” on Netflix is a pipe dream that I could not possibly think about. BT has said it is because my neighbours and I are too far away from the cabinet—therefore it is not acceptable for us to have superfast broadband. That cannot be right for constituents and households in an urban area. However, things can be even worse than that: this morning I was speaking to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) about this debate, and she said that businesses in Trafford Park, the largest industrial estate in Europe, are still waiting for superfast broadband. Someone from one of the businesses there told her that they were paying 10 times the price, for a fifth of the average speed.

That cannot be the right approach, because broadband is essential for the future competitiveness of the country. We are in the midst of a third industrial revolution based on digital technology. The digital revolution is already transforming the way commerce is transacted, social interaction conducted, and public services provided to citizens. It will continue to do that—indeed, its impact on society and the economy will accelerate. It will affect skills, employment and other things. It is not sufficient for firms to say, “We will have an add-on digital strategy.” Digitisation and technology will be intrinsic to everything that the economy, Government and society do. If we in this country are to enjoy rising living standards and improved productivity, and to maintain and enhance competitiveness in the global economy, we must have the ambition of being the leading digital nation, both in skills and in hard infrastructure, which is crucial.

In many respects the UK is well placed to achieve that. We are presently ranked ninth among the leading global digital economies by the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index. We have a culture of innovation and invention, and we have a digitally savvy population, in many respects, but we must go further, and we could do more. It seems to me that in 2015 the country is at a tipping point with respect to what we need to do to enhance our competitiveness in the digital world. The countries that rank higher than the UK are Switzerland, Singapore, the US, Finland, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong and the Netherlands. All of those are our competitors.

In a telling speech, the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) mentioned South Korea. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) mentioned, too, it announced last year that it would deliver a national 5G wireless network offering speeds of 1 gigabit per second by 2020. It is striking that the nations I mentioned have all invested in digital skills as a priority, but have also prioritised digital infrastructure, with a particular emphasis on driving universal access and usage. We have heard time and again that digital businesses can locate anywhere in the world, and that they will often go where connectivity is amenable; but we have also heard that 10 million UK premises are unable to access superfast broadband.

For all the much-vaunted notion of London as a tech hub and Shoreditch as tech city, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch said in her

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excellent and knowledgeable contribution, there are connectivity problems in a place that is often seen as the national centre of the digital economy. The city’s average broadband speed ranked 26th out of 33 European capitals. London has an average speed of 25.44 megabits per second, whereas Bucharest, at No. 1 in Europe, has speeds of 80.14 megabits per second. As we have heard in the debate, and as I have mentioned, the UK suffers from internet not spots, in which businesses cannot connect and therefore cannot compete and grow.

The country suffers far too much from patchy coverage. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch has already mentioned last month’s excellent report of the Digital Skills Committee in the other place, but it is worth referring again to such an excellent report and recommendation. It made it clear that the pace of universal internet coverage and the delivery of superfast broadband should be a matter of concern; universal coverage and the UK’s international competitiveness are being hampered. Yet as the National Audit Office set out, the Government’s rural broadband project will be delivered 22 months late. Only nine local projects will, it is estimated, meet the programme’s target of supplying 90% of premises with superfast broadband by May 2015. The Government now say that the date could be December 2017, but BT has stated that the programme may

“end up being in 2018”.

Why has that been allowed to happen?

That question was also asked by the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, is an excellent member of the Public Accounts Committee. Why have the Government structured the policy and the institutional architecture in that particular way? What did the Government do to ensure that the targets were achieved? Why was action not taken sooner to ensure that delivery times were met?

On phase 2 of the rural broadband roll-out, why did the Government not prepare a comprehensive and separate business case, based on the findings of phase 1? The Minister will be aware of the NAO’s progress update on the delivery of the programme, which was published some five weeks ago. Is he concerned about the NAO’s comments that phase 2, currently at the procurement stage, will face limited competition, given that BT is the only participant in the BDUK procurement framework?

We have heard time and again about BT’s role in the process. The Minister will be aware of the remarks by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee following the publication of the Committee’s report on the roll-out of the rural broadband programme:

“The Government has failed to deliver meaningful competition in the procurement of its £1.2 billion rural broadband programme, leaving BT effectively in a monopoly…BT’s monopoly position should have been a red flag for the Department. But we see the lack of transparency on costs and BT’s insistence on non-disclosure agreements as symptomatic of BT’s exploiting its monopoly position to the detriment of the taxpayer, local authorities and those seeking to access high speed broadband in rural areas.”

On that basis, and given the comments made by hon. Members this afternoon, does the Minister really think that we have a healthy, competitive market that promotes good competition and encourages new entrants, who will drive down costs, drive up quality and access, and improve our country’s competitiveness?

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Given the structure of BDUK, and given the structure of the process introduced by the Government, why were options other than that monopoly position not considered? Is the Minister concerned that the Government’s handling of the process means that a single private company will be able to reinforce its already strong position in the market, to the detriment of new competition? What will he do to ensure that the excellent local initiatives that we have heard about—the City of York council and TalkTalk initiative being a particularly good example—are encouraged as much as possible? We need local, innovative solutions that address specific local circumstances.

I am interested in the important question of who owns national infrastructure assets. What happens to the £1.7 billion public sector investment, in terms of BT’s assets and infrastructure? Is the Minister content that, in this case, vast amounts of taxpayers’ money has been used to improve a company’s balance sheet? We have heard about the importance of transparency. What is he doing to improve the transparency of data, access and cost base? I fully respect “commercial in confidence” agreements, but why are non-disclosure requirements allowed? How do they promote competition? What will he do to change that?

I have specific points about individual funds established by the Government. How much of the £20 million rural community broadband fund has been spent, and what has it achieved? Similarly, what proportion of the super-connected cities programme has been allocated, and what take-up has resulted from that programme?

This has been an important debate, because connectivity for our businesses and homes will be crucial in the 21st century economy, which will be led by a digital revolution. We should see broadband as a national utility, just as electricity, water and transport were in previous decades. Does the Minister need to think in a wider and more co-ordinated way across Whitehall to ensure that happens? Do planning and access to land also need to be altered to ensure that we can highlight and prioritise this important function of future competitiveness? Other countries are speeding ahead with connectivity, at the cost of our own competitiveness, prosperity and social inclusion.

Time and again, we have heard questions from hon. Members about value for money, accessibility, connectivity, availability and the services that businesses and constituents have received. I hope that the Minister will take on board the serious questions that have been asked today, and I hope he will be able to address them in the time remaining.

3.34 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I apologise for my Tigger-like behaviour when I kept intervening earlier in the debate. As you rightly predicted, I now have plenty of time to set out the Government’s stall in response to the excellent contributions that we have heard.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for securing this important debate and for making his points in such a fair and balanced manner. I also thank the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) for her usual forthright remarks. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith

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(Mark Lazarowicz) for his long contribution, and I thank the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for spreading the rumour about us, which will no doubt spread like wildfire thanks to the availability of 4G in and around Westminster. I am grateful for the interventions by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), to whom I am paying homage with my extensive facial hair. Of course, I am always grateful for the response by the spokesman for the official Opposition, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), a man for whom I have the utmost admiration, even if I do not always agree with him.

To utter that terrible phrase that tends to kibosh Tory Ministers, I will begin by going back to basics. I will set out in some detail exactly what the Government set out to achieve, and I will try to do that in as non-partisan a fashion as possible, despite the fact that this may be our last broadband debate before Dissolution. We came into government with the previous Government having set a target of 2 megabits of universal broadband by 2012, which was perhaps a perfectly respectable target at the time. The then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), looked at that target and said that it was not ambitious enough and that 2 megabits was not the kind of speed that people would expect to receive as the programme rolls out, and it is fair to say that his prediction was absolutely right. Indeed, one or two of the rural lobbying groups, possibly including the Country Land and Business Association, are now effectively asking for a universal commitment of 10 megabits. Most people now regard 7 or 8 megabits as the kind of broadband speed they need to do what one might call the basics, even though some people argue that 1 or 2 megabits is what people need to use the iPlayer.

We had to find money for the programme and get state aid approval before letting the contract. We found £530 million from the TV licence fee, some of which was originally set aside for the digital television switchover, on which there was an underspend. We knew the core figure, and we decided that it should be match funded by local authorities, obviously not just to increase the available pot of money but to give local authorities ownership of the programmes. That was a conscious decision, and some people might say that it was a wrong decision, but I think it has proved to be right that local authorities will own and co-fund the contracts and will be partners in delivering in local areas.

We can dip into other pots of money. European money, for example, has been important in certain areas, and let us not forget the contribution of the company that eventually won the contracts—BT. This morning I looked at figures showing that some £410 million is being spent on delivering rural broadband in Scotland, with £120 million of that coming from BT. BT is not simply an open mouth into which taxpayers’ gold is being poured; BT is making its own contribution.

I agree with all hon. Members representing rural areas who have spoken today—the hon. Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch and for Edinburgh North and Leith represent urban constituencies—and recognise that leaving broadband delivery to the marketplace is not enough. It does not make commercial sense for a private company to invest many millions of pounds upfront when it is unlikely to get a return on its investment because, frankly, there simply are not enough people in

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rural areas to take up broadband services. A subsidy was needed. We made it clear from the outset that, with that money and this scheme, we thought that superfast broadband speeds could reach 90% of the population. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, people might criticise us and ask, “Why didn’t you go for 100% from the very beginning?” However, we went for 90%. In effect, we thought that was achievable and realistic; it was a promise that we could keep. The programme has gone well.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I pay tribute to the Minister for his commitment to the project and the investment of £57 million in the Welsh roll-out. However, there were always people who were not to be connected to rural broadband and in Wales that was set out under postcodes. In the rural areas, postcodes cover communities that are spread widely and some people have not been able to get broadband even when it was said that it was available. A £1,000 grant has been offered—in England I think it is called the voucher scheme—for those who cannot get broadband, but people in postcodes that were told they would get rural broadband now cannot apply for the £1,000 to get access through satellite or some other technology. Does the Minister see how that is frustrating for constituents of mine and, indeed, many other people?

Mr Vaizey: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. As he knows, I was recently in his constituency, sitting in a digger, trying to do my bit to deliver superfast broadband to his constituents. From looking at the figures and as I understand it, no commercial coverage of any kind was planned for Brecon and Radnorshire, but under this scheme some 26,000 people should get superfast broadband by the end of 2016 who otherwise would not have done. However, I will come to the issue of people who feel as though they are in one category and cannot self-help, as it were, or apply to other schemes.

Neil Parish: One of my questions—the Minister may get on to this in a minute—is not whether BT is providing the money as well as the taxpayer, but whether we are getting value for money out of the contracts.

Mr Vaizey: I can give my hon. Friend an unequivocal answer—yes. Our latest audit found that the scheme cost is, I think, £92 million below what we expected. With clawback provisions—if more people take up broadband than expected and, therefore, more revenue comes in—we find that we can go further. In Cornwall, for example, a scheme started under the previous Government had a target of 80% coverage, but with the same money we will now reach 95%.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool quoted the National Audit Office report from, I think, 18 months ago, which was when I had to tour the studios with the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) to contest her conclusions. That report got wall-to-wall media coverage, but last month’s NAO report, which gave the scheme a clean bill of health and said that we had made a lot of progress, got absolutely no coverage at all. In fact, I wrote down a quote from the right hon. Lady. She said that there

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“does seem to have been some progress, which we…welcome”.

Coming from her, that is a massive vote of confidence.

Tessa Munt: Will the Minister answer a simple question for me? He has already talked about return on investment. If people have contracted with a company to receive broadband at a certain speed but they then suffer slow speeds, poor connections and constant drop-out, they receive no return on their investment. How can they get their bills adjusted to reflect what they receive, because there is a definite variance between what they contracted for and what they get?

Mr Vaizey: That is an interesting point. If I wanted to dodge the hon. Lady’s question, I would say that that was a contractual matter between BT and its customer, or indeed any other provider and its customer, but it is an important point that I shall take seriously. We have already tackled relatively straightforward issues, such as stopping companies from advertising their speeds as the fastest speed that could be possibly received. We have asked them to advertise only the average speed that people are likely to receive. However, I want to look at whether we can have different levels of contracts for people who clearly receive slower speeds.

Tessa Munt: I thank the Minister very much indeed. Will he do that in the next few weeks, while he has still got the power?

Mr Vaizey: I know that the hon. Lady has nothing but admiration for my abilities. That is certainly something that I want to look at and, given that I said that in an open debate, she can be assured that we will look at and discuss that with BT and others.

Let me go back to basics—it is good to see one of the leading members of the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), returning to his seat, as I have already prayed in aid the National Audit Office. No doubt, he will seek to correct that position.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): While the Minister is going back to basics, I want to applaud him and the efforts in Cornwall on superfast broadband. He rightly points to some good results. However, I would really like him to address the point, which he mentioned, of the people who will not get fibre. What will we do to ensure that they have access to alternative technologies? Where those technologies are satellite, which—as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) rightly pointed out—are much more expensive than BT packages, what will we do to enable them to have equality of access and ensure that they are not priced out?

Mr Vaizey: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. Time is pressing, but I will answer her question now. We were clear about 90% coverage. People can question whether that target was ambitious enough, but when the programme was going well enough, we found more money—the Treasury gave us an additional £250 million—to go to 95%.

I stress that that was not us moving or revising the target. We said, “Phase 1 is going well. We think we can go further. Here is £250 million and we think we can go

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to 95%, again by 2017.” To answer the question from the hon. Member for Hartlepool, yes, some of those contracts extend beyond 2017. I used to be a lawyer. Thankfully, I am no longer, but, if he has ever met a lawyer, he will know that if they could write into a contract a completion date in 2117, they would do so to give themselves enough wiggle room. However, the end of the contract does not signify when the project is likely to end.

Of course we want to get to 100%, and all the advice we received said that getting to that last 5% could cost £2 billion. Those were, to put it bluntly, back of a fag packet calculations—they were by sophisticated people and on sophisticated fag packets, but that is what they were—so the previous Secretary of State, my Friend the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who deserves a lot of credit for the work she did across a range of issues, found £10 million from the Treasury for some pilot schemes, which are now well under way. Some of them are delivering superfast broadband and we are auditing them at the moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) is quite right that satellite is quickly emerging as one of the key solutions for the last 5%. We now want to do an analysis of what that is likely to cost, go to the Treasury with an evaluation, and think how best that can be delivered. That will probably involve some of the smaller providers. That is the plan and hopefully by 2018-19 we can be close to 100% superfast broadband access.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said that he wants the pace to be picked up. We have passed the 2 million homes mark under the programme and we are adding 40,000 homes a week—50,000 a week in some instances. However, this is an engineering project and it cannot be delivered overnight.

I want to talk about competition. We had an open competition: we put in place a state aid approved framework contract and anyone could have bid for the contracts. At the beginning, a consortium led by Fujitsu did indeed bid against BT. However, there are constraints when bidding for such contracts. To take Connecting Devon and Somerset, for example, the aim is to try to connect 360,000 homes, but there are not many players in that space, much as I would wish there to be. If a company takes money from the taxpayer—I think it was the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome who asked who owned the assets—there will be open access, so the TalkTalks of this world will provide their retail services on such networks, built partly by the taxpayer and partly by BT. That is open access. That is why, for example, a player such as Virgin Media, which some might think has the scale to compete against BT, did not want to play in this space, because it does not want to run an open-access network. I again give credit to the last Government for the structural separation of Openreach from BT. Openreach is an open platform to which others are allowed access, at prices that are regulated by Ofcom—

Mr Heath: Can I bring the Minister back to his “fag packet”, because one of his problems is that he has raised expectations? In Somerset, we may be a bit rough and ready; we are certainly very rural. However, we do not have big mountains, we are only under water part of the year and it was entirely predictable that the rotten old copper cables that ran three and a half miles from

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my house to an outhouse in Upton Noble were not going to be sufficient, so I do not understand why that was not factored in originally. Why was the contract not let on the basis of delivering fibre to those communities, rather than on the basis of some notional figure, which has failed to be met?

Mr Vaizey: I really fail to understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, and I will not invite him to make it again or we could be here all night. In his constituency, 26,000 homes will get coverage under phase 1 of the programme, and nearly 2,500 more homes will get it under phase 2, so we are talking about 28,500 homes in his constituency that will get coverage.

The programme is run by the local authority. To make a blunt point, we are seeking bang for our taxpayer buck. To pluck a figure from the air, if it will cost £50,000 to connect a village of 20 people and one of 200 people, which group will be chosen? That is potentially a political decision as well. One might take a view that connecting those 20 people is better, in the sense that they are at the end of the queue, so let us bring them forward. However, that is something that we also left to local authorities, because we wanted them to partner this programme. It was not for us in the centre of Whitehall to decide between village A and village B.

Tessa Munt: Can the Minister comment on what appears to be utterly anti-competitive behaviour? I have written down in my notes some fairly serious allegations, and this story has been covered in both the Western Morning News and the Western Daily Press. It is claimed that BT said it would withdraw from the tender process for the contract for Connecting Devon and Somerset if CDS did not use the Broadband Delivery UK framework and run a closed tender process in which BT was the only bidder.

Mr Vaizey: I will happily look at evidence the hon. Lady has of any anti-competitive practices by BT. I will try to unpack what she is alleging. First, BT is free to bid or not to bid for these contracts. We should remember that when we are busily kicking BT, which we do in all these debates; for a quiet life, BT might not bid for any of these contracts.

Tessa Munt: As I understand it, in the national parks, parts of Exmoor and Dartmoor have been parcelled off, so that the contracts for those areas can be tendered competitively. Ironically the suppliers there have to confirm that they are not participating in any “anti-competitive activities” and they have to sign a “certificate of non-collusion”—

Mr Vaizey: I get the point. I am running out of time, so let me simply say that BT is free to bid or not to bid, and it is free to say to a contracting authority that it wants to use the framework contract to save time and make life more efficient, and that if the authority is going to use a different contract it will not bid. That is entirely up to BT and I do not think that is anti-competitive behaviour.

Obviously, we have a debate—a constant to-ing and fro-ing—with BT, because we audit its figures and invoices. Again, it is worth making the point that BT invests this money up front; it does not receive any

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money from the Government or the taxpayer until it has done the work. It is not handed a cheque to meander kindly down the road and do the work when it feels like it, and if there is some good football on the telly on Wednesday night, it will not do the work. It does the work and then it gets paid.

As I say, we audit those figures and they show value for money. BT is a national provider, and therefore it was in a very good position to win those contracts. However, there is competition throughout the country.

Mr Bacon: Interestingly, the Minister said earlier that Fujitsu bid against BT. No, it did not. It bid to be inside the contract, even though it had told the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), that if it got inside the contract it would not bid for any work. She got down on her hands and knees and begged it to be inside the framework contract, because otherwise there would be only one successful bidder inside the framework contract. That is what happened, even though the Department knew that if Fujitsu entered the framework contract, it would not be bidding for any work.

Mr Vaizey: That is not my understanding, but I will happily write to my hon. Friend and explain what I think happened. However, I still fail to see the point that he is trying to make. The point I have just made is that these were quasi-national contracts—big contracts, to cover 360,000 homes—and very few players were willing to participate in that competition. Nevertheless, it was a competition—

Mr Bacon: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Vaizey: No, I will not give way again, because I want to make the point—

Mr Bacon: The Minister said he failed to understand my point—

Mr Vaizey: We could keep going to and fro, but you have made it clear, Sir Alan, that you want this to be a debate—

Mr Bacon rose—

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Order. The Minister is not giving way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr Vaizey: As I was saying, you want this to be a debate, Sir Alan, and not a question and answer session.

There are competitors. Virgin Media, for example, has just announced £3 billion worth of private investment to reach 4 million homes in cities. I think the hon. Member for Hartlepool mentioned York, where TalkTalk, with Sky and CityFibre, is planning to build a network, but that will not be delivered overnight. Again, those involved must get investment to do that.

I will say this again and again and again—I make no apology for working for what BT is doing. We can argue about its customer service, and I am not BT’s representative. As a constituency MP, of course I deal with my constituents’

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tales of woeful customer service from BT—I do not know how many millions of customers a week, or a month, BT deals with regarding faults on the telephone line, or whatever. I do not seek to be an apologist for BT’s poor customer service when it comes across my desk.

I will, however, stand up for BT as a great British company, which has worked tirelessly on this project and for which it seems to have received an endless supply of grief. BT has provided value for money; it has delivered what we have asked it to deliver; and it is working at pace. I was delighted to meet some BT engineers during the Christmas period while they were installing a cabinet in my constituency.

I am also pretty fed up with people doing down Britain in terms of our comparison with the rest of the world. The hon. Member for Wells talks about South Korea. Well, South Korea is a very different country to the UK. It is densely populated, with a lot of tower blocks that can be connected pretty easily. Nevertheless, its average speed is about 21 megabits, whereas our average speed—[Interruption.] Please stop heckling. As I was saying, South Korea’s average speed is 21 megabits and ours is 18 megabits.

Also, of course, when people talk about the speeds in other countries, they never talk about what that speed costs; they never talk about the equivalent of hundreds of pounds that people would have to spend every month to get these 1 gigabit speeds. And they also never talk about take-up. The fact is that some of this superfast broadband in South Korea, which people are so pleased to talk about, is used by very few South Koreans, because South Koreans do not want it as it is too fast and too expensive.

That brings me neatly to London, where the very misleading survey that was used in the Evening Standard does not come close to showing how competitive London is. The survey cited a company that said, “Oh, we couldn’t get any broadband. It’s terrible. We’re in the centre of London.” In fact, that company actually has superfast broadband running past its door, but it does not want to pay the price for it. However, thanks to the publicity that has been generated, I gather that it has been offered free superfast broadband by a local business provider.

When we launched our voucher schemes—more than 10,000 businesses now have these vouchers—we had around 500 suppliers on our books. There is no shortage of business broadband in London or in many other cities, but there is a shortage of businesses willing to pay the price for it. That is why we have asked Ofcom to review the price of leased lines and the business market. We want to see those prices coming down, and indeed BT’s prices have come down.

I have taken rather too many interventions and perhaps not put my points as forcefully as possible. However, I will say that I am proud of this programme; I am delighted that 2 million premises have received superfast broadband as a result of the programme; I am delighted that 40,000 premises will get superfast broadband this week, and that another 40,000 premises will get it next week; I am delighted that the programme is being delivered by a great British company; and I am delighted that that company is delivering massive value for money to the great British taxpayer.

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Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (Stanmore)

4 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, in this vital debate that is important not only locally in my constituency, but nationally. The Royal National Orthopaedic hospital in Stanmore is a national and international institution par excellence. I will use a quote that I gleaned when doing some research. The RNOH delivers

“Outstanding clinical outcomes for patients”

in premises that are

“not fit for purpose—it does not provide an adequate environment to care and treat patients.”

I and the staff of the hospital could not have put it better. That is a direct quote from the most recent inspection by the Care Quality Commission in August 2014.

The hospital premises were built during the second world war to house airmen who were defending our shores and to ensure that facilities were available to treat our brave soldiers, airmen and seafarers returning home. Sadly, we still have the same premises that existed during the second world war. I want to put on the record my tribute to the brilliant work that is done by all the medical staff, all the clerical staff and the entire team who provide facilities and services at the hospital. Many charities that are associated with the work of the hospital also operate from the site.

I wanted this debate today because I took the then shadow Secretary of State for Health to Stanmore in January 2010 to see the hospital at first hand. He gave a commitment to the board, the staff and everyone associated with the hospital that, were there to be a Conservative Government after the election in May 2010, the hospital would be rebuilt.

Just before the election, in March 2010, the then Secretary of State for Health, who is now the shadow Secretary of State for Health, announced funding for the redevelopment. It is fair to say that immediately after the election, when hon. Friends discovered there was no money left at the Treasury, I had to work very hard with civil servants and elected politicians at the Treasury to ensure that the promised funding for the rebuilding of the hospital was safeguarded in the emergency Budget that took place immediately after the election.

Here we are now, four and a half to five years on, and there has been very little progress on the rebuilding work. The trust that runs the hospital—I have worked with the board of the trust and others—has responded to every question posed by the trust development authority. It seems almost impossible to get through the positively Kafkaesque process of repeated reviews. The only beneficiaries of that process are the management consultancy firms. Patients and the medical staff have not benefited one iota.

I believe—I stand to be corrected if this is not so—that some £75 million has been spent on management consultants. It has not been spent on the consultants who treat patients, but the people who come and do management studies. I think that that is a disgrace and a waste of public money. All 13 independent reviews have concluded that the orthopaedic hospital offers

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excellent, high-quality, world-class care. The CQC has rated outcomes as “outstanding”, and the trust is regularly in the top 10% of all hospitals in respect of infection control and friends and family tests.

All independent reviews concerning the hospital’s geographical location have concluded that there are no better alternatives to having the hospital on the Stanmore site. All independent reviews concerning the financial risks associated with the redevelopment have concluded that the Stanmore site development offers the best value for money and that no “more affordable” option is available.

In the meantime, the future of the trust continues to be reviewed, debated and deferred. As I have said, more than £70 million of costs have been incurred, with a severe waste of money on project fees of £20 million, maintenance costs of keeping these rotten buildings going of some £15 million and the lost efficiency opportunity of some £35 million. In this modern day and age, that cannot be right.

By way of background, the hospital is a centre of international expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of neuromusculoskeletal conditions, which include acute spinal injury, bone tumour and complex joint reconstruction. This centre of expertise is not replicated anywhere else within the national health service. It has the largest spinal surgery service in Europe, with a third of UK spinal scoliosis surgery and two thirds of specialist nerve injury work being carried out on the site.

Some 95% of patients rate the care as “good” or “excellent”, and 90% of staff and patients would recommend the hospital to their friends or relatives. The hospital was the longest-standing in London with no MRSA infections in the past five years. Without question, this hospital delivers services and medical treatment that are the best in class. The clinical excellence and innovation are beyond doubt. The problem is that the buildings were built to last for a limited period, but that has stretched to 70 years. It cannot be right that we insist on brilliant medical staff operating in substandard conditions that would shame the third world.

We need to ensure that the rebuilding takes place. I understand completely that the health service has a process for business cases and has to offer value for money. We would all support that in principle. However, as this is a specialist hospital of international renown, it has a special place within the national health service. Successive Governments and the health service have prevaricated on the future of the RNOH for decades—literally 30 years. We have to have a different, more proactive approach to resolve the problem. It is clear that the board that runs the trust will have to conclude at some stage that it can no longer offer safety to patients in the substandard conditions in which it operates.

The creditability of the Government, the national health service and everyone involved is on the line here. Political leadership is required to ensure the best interests of patients and taxpayers. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister for some suitable answers, because this has been going on publicly and privately for the past five years that I have been involved, and, before that, for the past 30 years.

So the RNOH has a track record of delivering financial and performance targets. It responds time and again, updating and revising financial plans and risk assessments

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and refreshing commissioner support. Every time the board responds, it appears that we do not move forward, but backward. That cannot be allowed to continue and we must reach an appropriate arrangement. We need an innovative and alternative financing option—that is not encouraged through the current NHS process—to ensure that the hospital is delivered.

We should be clear that the key to resolving this matter is the top-up of public money by capital or a loan of some £20 million. It should be understood that the board will build a private hospital alongside the NHS hospital, and that will generate income. The board will also sell off land for housing development, which the area needs, but the board takes the sensible view that it will realise the land receipts gradually as the need arises for the programme’s funding. That will maximise their value and provide a decent level of housing in the local area. Both those things have been positively embraced. The RNOH and the trust development agency have been developing the outline business case since September 2014. In March 2015, we are still waiting to see whether it will be approved and action taken, so that the redevelopment can take place.

It is time that the Department of Health acknowledged that highly specialist hospitals and providers such as the RNOH need a different approach from that taken with the generality of NHS providers. It cannot be right that a super, specialist organisation with such excellent results is denied facilities for the want of a relatively small amount of public money.

In summary, the RNOH is a vital national provider of treatment for the most complex orthopaedic conditions and the rehabilitation for people with life-threatening conditions, such as spinal cord injuries. It does vital work on the innovation of new treatments, leading-edge research and development, the manufacture of state-of-the-art prosthetics and the training of future orthopaedic specialists. The hospital has treated many famous individuals, including Lord Tebbit’s wife after the Brighton bombing and Princess Eugenie. Moreover, the RNOH recognises the financial constraints it operates within and has continuously demonstrated that mitigations to affordability risks are available. Demand for services grows every day. Major land sale receipts will be available. Planning permission is in place; there is no hold-up on that. Housing and employment for the local population will be increased by the proposal, and major private patient income will come in.

The RNOH has a track record of delivery against every target that it has ever been set. It has responded time and again to the requirements of the TDA and every other aspect of the health service. It is clear that every time there has been a step forward, there have been two steps back. Every time proposals have come forward on alternative financing options, we have just ended up spending more public money. If that £75 million had been invested in the project, we would now be looking at new hospital facilities on the site. We would have first-rate, world-class facilities for world-class medical professionals.

No one believes that anyone wants to see the facility closed down, but the reality is that the Department of Health has to move forward and instruct the TDA to abandon the position that it has adopted, so that the

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RNOH can move forward to development. If we do not do that, we might as well close the hospital. That would be an absolute tragedy for all the specialists, medical staff and patients. By bringing those services together, the medical professionals have developed world-class techniques and an ability to cure individuals of very serious problems. Indeed, the medical staff of the RNOH provide national and international services way beyond the bounds of the hospital. I urge the Minister to give us some good news and to ensure that we get the funding required for the hospital to be rebuilt and for facilities to be provided for the brilliant staff, who do a brilliant job for the patients.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Before you begin, Minister, I want to pass a message on. Generally when debates are answered in this place, the Parliamentary Private Secretary is present. There was not a PPS in the last debate or this debate, and that might happen in the next debate, because I see the Minister for it standing by. When a PPS for the Minister is not present, it is usual for someone from the Whip’s Office to be involved. Sometimes mysterious pieces of advice appear from other places and have to be passed forward to the Minister. When those people are not present to do that, we have to rely on House of Commons staff. They have enough to do, and we should try to help them where possible. I am not saying that it is anything to do with the Minister, but I would be grateful if he could pass that expectation on to the Whips or the PPSs.

4.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr Daniel Poulter): I will of course pass that message on, Sir Alan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for, I think, the first time in the almost three years I have been a Minister. I heed and take note of your comments. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this debate on an issue that is important to him and his constituents—and, more broadly, to many others. As he rightly outlined, Stanmore is a centre of national excellence in orthopaedic care. It has an international reputation. With the care it provides to its patients, it is one of the best centres in the world.

Before I address the issues my hon. Friend raised, I pay tribute to all those who work in our NHS—not just in his constituency, but right across the country—for their dedication, determination and commitment in providing first-class services to all whom they care for. I know that he made his remarks in that spirit. First-class, dedicated NHS staff need to be supported with the right facilities to provide that level of care. That is exactly why he raised the issue today, and I hope my remarks will bring him some reassurance.

One issue I wanted to pick up on was consultancy spend. I agree with my hon. Friend that hospitals spending money hand over fist in that way on consultants is completely unacceptable. I hope he will be pleased to know that the consultancy spend in the NHS has been reduced by £200 million since the previous Labour Government were in power, which is a strong step in the right direction. Many of the issues that he raised on that are historical. We have introduced new section 42 guidance for trusts that are in deficit to ensure that they are much more rigorous in how they spend their money

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when they want to receive additional Government cash. Looking at consultancy spend and ensuring that money is not wasted in the way that he outlined are important parts of the new criteria.

As we have heard, the RNOH is the largest orthopaedic hospital in the UK and is regarded as a leader in the field of orthopaedics in the UK and worldwide. It provides a comprehensive range of neuromusculoskeletal health care, ranging from treatment for acute spinal injuries to orthopaedic medicine and specialist rehabilitation for those who suffer from chronic back pain. The range of specialist treatments provided by the trust includes: the rehabilitation of people with life-threatening conditions, including spinal cord injuries; the innovation of new treatments, which is increasingly important, particularly in the areas of care provided by the hospital; leading-edge research and development; the manufacture of state-of-the-art prosthetics; and the training of future orthopaedic specialists. The trust is a national provider of health care: 45% of the trust’s patients live in London, a further 22% are from the remainder of the south-east, 31% are from further afield in the UK and 2% are international, which shows the hospital’s outstanding reputation.

The RNOH plays a major role in teaching. More than 20% of all UK orthopaedic surgeons receive training there, which is testament to the desire of the surgeons of tomorrow to ensure that they train and have experience of providing care at an outstanding centre of excellence. Patients benefit from a team of highly specialised consultants, many of whom are recognised for their expertise both in the UK and abroad. As my hon. Friend outlined, according to the friends and family test, Care Quality Commission inspections and many patient indicators, Stanmore is a centre of excellence and produces the very best possible care and results for patients.

The RNOH’s proposed redevelopment of the Stanmore site is key to ensuring that it can continue to improve the care it provides. I am aware that most of the buildings at Stanmore date from the 1940s, and many are no longer appropriate or fit for purpose for the high-quality care and excellent clinical outcomes that the RNOH provides for its patients. The plan is to rebuild the hospital so that it can continue to provide its specialist orthopaedic care to thousands of patients, young and old, with conditions too complicated for other larger general hospitals to handle. The new hospital will be a state-of-the-art facility that reflects and enhances the medical excellence that already exists at the RNOH. It will provide 124 beds, the majority of which will be in single rooms, thereby greatly enhancing patient privacy and dignity and helping to reduce the transference of infection, the incidence of which, as my hon. Friend outlined, is remarkably low at the trust.

Patient experience will be enhanced through a number of en-suite single rooms and modern, spacious and well-equipped communal areas. Improved facilities for staff will give them a better environment in which to work, enabling them to provide the best possible care. The RNOH is renowned worldwide for its clinical excellence, and manages to maintain high standards of outcomes despite the condition of the estate. The trust looks forward to continuing that high standard of care in the new hospital, which will provide an enhanced setting both for patients, and for support staff delivering the highest possible quality of care.

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I appreciate the concerns that have been expressed. My hon. Friend called some of the challenges Kafkaesque, and I share his frustration at the difficulties experienced in developing and improving the facilities at the trust. It has taken a long time to get the proposed redevelopment to this point. Nevertheless, it is important that the business case is affordable. We know some of the historical dangers and challenges of unaffordable private finance initiative deals. In fact, a PFI deal crippled the South London Healthcare NHS Trust; that serves as a reminder to us all of the challenges that hospitals will face in achieving sustainability and delivering high-quality patient care if they take on unsustainable and unaffordable PFI deals.

I know that it has been frustrating, but we must ensure that the financial arrangements for the loan, as well as those underpinning the new development package, are sustainable, in order to ensure that the future provision of services is not jeopardised by a rush into an imprudent financial arrangement. It is in that spirit that there has been a lot of due diligence, although I accept that it has been frustrating.

In April 2013, the NHS Trust Development Authority took over responsibility for approving business cases for estate redevelopment. Between April and December 2013, the TDA worked with the trust to address the additional assurances required on the draft appointment business case. Both the trust and the TDA are clear that the right solution must enable the provision of excellent services to patients, be affordable, and offer value for money.

In December 2013, the RNOH trust board determined that it was unable to give its continued support for the draft appointment business case, because the trust concluded that the risks to affordability and flexibility associated with continuing with the scheme as then proposed were not sustainable. At that point, recognising the importance of the proposed redevelopment, the TDA committed to supporting the trust in working up alternative options for funding. The TDA has been supporting the RNOH to develop a business case that offers value for money and stands a good chance of securing the necessary funding to enable important improvements to be made for the benefit of patients. Serious consideration must also be given to the impact on the long-term sustainability of the trust.

In January 2014, when the financial modelling was complete, the trust concluded that a PFI scheme was unaffordable and that it wished to pursue an alternative scheme. In May 2014, the trust presented to the TDA an outline of its new preferred option for the redevelopment of the Stanmore site. It is a smaller-scale capital redevelopment, costed at around £40 million, as my hon. Friend said. The cost is to be met jointly through public funds and the proceeds from land sales.

Hospitals and trusts sometimes have surplus land that is not used for patient care, and that it costs them money to maintain—money that does not go to front-line patient care. It is of course right that, if they would like to redevelop facilities for the benefit of patients, they should use some of the capital receipts from the sale of that land to contribute to any planned redevelopment. It is in that spirit that the new package was put together. Indeed, it is in that spirit that the section 42 guidance for trusts in deficit that require finance, which I outlined earlier, was drawn up. Where trusts have surplus land

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that they could release because it is not required for patient care, that land can be freed up in order to provide affordable homes for local people, support the construction industry and, of course, reduce the overall cost of running a trust’s estate. That is a win-win situation for the NHS, as well as for the local economy and, often, young families in the area. I am sure that that will be a benefit of the proposed new scheme, as my hon. Friend said.

The TDA supports the approach that has been put together as part of the £40 million package, and will advise and support the trust on the development and submission of its application for public funding and its business case for the sale of land.

Looking to the future, I understand that the TDA received the trust’s revised outline business case on 29 January. The TDA is now assessing the business case with the aim of making a decision at the earliest opportunity; its board meeting will be held on 19 March—in less than three weeks’ time. This morning, I spoke positively to the TDA about the business case. I have every hope that the outline business case will be strongly supported. We must obviously wait for the outcome of the meeting, but I hope that my hon. Friend and his constituents will hear good news later this month.

The TDA recognises the unarguably poor quality of the Stanmore estate, and the great challenges that that presents to the delivery of high-quality health care and a positive patient experience in the months and years ahead. It is mindful of the need to make a swift decision, so it is committed to working alongside the trust to agree a business case for clinical quality reasons. It is vital that that is done in a way that safeguards important services for patients. Now that the TDA has received a formal business case to review, the process will continue at pace. Once the business case is approved, the TDA will support the trust in developing a full business case and finalising any outstanding assurances that might be required, in the shortest time possible.

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that a very active process is now in play, with the Trust Development Authority proactively supporting the trust to progress its business case, which I am optimistic will be approved in its outline form later this month. I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will then receive some very good news that will be welcomed not only at Stanmore and by his constituents, but by orthopaedic patients in this country and elsewhere in the world who receive the best possible care from the trust.

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Urban Food Growing (Planning)

4.28 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I secured this debate partly to highlight a constituency issue and to ask the Minister how the planning system can better protect food growing in urban areas. There are obviously many pressures on land in our towns and cities. We need employment space, public spaces, and, above all, we really need to start a systematic programme of house building again. But our green spaces are also important.

The Wildlife Trusts and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds found in their “Act for Nature” campaign that the most deprived communities are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas and that access to green space helps to reduce health inequalities. The creation of green corridors in urban areas helps to avoid habitat fragmentation, reduces the urban heat island effect, better harvests rainwater and improves air quality.

As the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) noted in the main Chamber a few weeks ago,

“increasing the amount of ‘green infrastructure’ by 10% could entirely offset the impact of rising temperatures in such high-density urban centres.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 981.]

Urban food growing is very much part of that picture.

People have become much more concerned about the provenance of their food. They are keen to see more sustainable food and farming practices and they want to protect urban biodiversity and wildlife. Urban agriculture should be seen very much as part of a strategy to tackle food poverty and the public health challenges associated with poor diet.

As recent reports by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have highlighted, the issue is also one of food security, food sovereignty and the UK’s declining self-sufficiency in food. Achieving food security is about building environmental and economic resilience in the face of climate change, using resources more sustainably in the production and supply of food, reducing food waste, lowering high emissions from the food supply chain and promoting healthy and sustainable diets. I am pleased and proud that Bristol is in the vanguard of that movement.

Back in 2009 Bristol council commissioned a report by Joy Carey, “Who feeds Bristol? Towards a resilient food plan”. We became one of the first cities in the UK to establish our own food policy council, which drives forward policies to increase the amount of land available for growing food and to safeguard the diversity of retailers. We launched the good food plan for Bristol, which has the ambition of ensuring that everyone has access to good, affordable, healthy food. The Bristol Food Network helps to connect up all those people and businesses with a shared vision of transforming Bristol into a truly sustainable food city.

A study by the university of Gloucestershire-based countryside and community research institute found that for every £1 of investment in community food projects, there was a sevenfold social return on that investment to the community. There are far too many such projects in Bristol to name them all, but I want to

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mention a few. The Severn Project provides horticultural training to people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency. It is a successful social enterprise, acting as a hub for satellite growers and providing access to land, equipment, sales and distribution. It estimates that every kilogram of its produce is worth £15 to the local economy.

Elm Tree farm is based on a 35-acre site in my constituency and offers vocational training to about 60 people who have autism or learning disabilities, illustrating the therapeutic value of food growing projects, as well as offering them a route into work. Incredible Edible Bristol advocates guerrilla gardening, taking over grass verges and other underused land to plant seeds and grow food. The Matthew Tree Project’s FOODTURES initiative helps long-term unemployed people back into skilled work through training in horticulture, food processing and supply. It brings the best nutritious food to the poorest areas of the city.

Last but not least, Feed Bristol is an exemplary study of the social, environmental and economic benefits of community food growing. Over the past three years, it has directly helped 36 people back into employment, and in acting as an incubator site for businesses related to food and to wildlife, six new businesses have been launched. Feed Bristol engages many thousands of disadvantaged people and school children in activities on the site, from helping to educate children in the value of food and where it comes from, to developing horticultural skills. Sadly, however, we are now engaged in a last-ditch attempt to alter a new MetroBus route that will involve the building of a bus-only junction on prime agricultural land, which includes the Feed Bristol site.

Since the MetroBus scheme was first designed more than five years ago, the area planned for the junction has become a new hub of Bristol’s urban food growing movement. If the scheme goes ahead, which we fear it will, the junction will pass through not only the Avon Wildlife Trust’s award-winning community food growing project, Feed Bristol, which I have just mentioned, but the long-standing Stapleton allotments, the Sims Hill Shared Harvest organic community-supported agriculture market garden and the Edible Futures educational market-gardening co-operative.

The land under threat is part of what is known as the “blue finger”, which is highly fertile, food growing soil, predominantly grade 1—coded blue on maps, which is how the area gets its name—and some peripheral areas of grade 2 and 3, collectively known as “best and most versatile” land. Less than 3% of soil in the UK is grade 1, so the blue finger land is a valuable asset not only for Bristol, but for the whole UK. The land is also designated green belt and includes the Frome valley conservation area, as well as a wildlife corridor and woodland, but none of that has protected it from development.

The transport scheme received planning consent back in August and is now with the Department for Transport for final funding approval. Meanwhile, the council, in its eagerness to start felling trees, has applied to the High Court to clear the site of protesters, who have been camped for the past month on the land, high up in the treetops in tree houses. The protesters have a tremendous amount of support from local residents and from further afield. I do not know whether the Minister can do anything to help us in our fight to protect the site. I have written to the Secretary of State for Communities and

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Local Government and met and written to Transport Minister Baroness Kramer. We have not yet given up hope.

On the broader issues raised, national planning policy includes the aim to protect best and most versatile agricultural land in recognition of its role as a precious national asset, essential to our future food security. Once land is lost to development, it is extremely unlikely that it will ever be returned to agricultural use. In 2011, however, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reported a huge loss of BMV land to development over recent years, although we do not really know the extent, as such data are not collected systematically.

Furthermore, there has been a weakening of the protection given to BMV land, most recently as a result of changes to the national planning policy framework in March 2012. Will the Minister discuss with her DEFRA colleagues the feasibility of monitoring the loss to development of our most productive soils—a process that is vital to understanding the scale of the problem? What plans does her Department have to strengthen the protection of our best soil in national planning policy as critical to our food security? That was promised in the Conservative party’s “Open Source Planning” policy green paper in 2010. Then, in the natural environment White Paper, the Government said that they wanted

“to protect our best and most versatile agricultural land.”

Another problem is that while the planning practice guidance supports space for growing food, the national planning policy framework does not include local food growing, which tends to mean that local plans do not include it either. Promoting local food may be put into a local plan—in Bristol, it is included in both the local plan and the core strategy—but it does not have to be. At the national level, no link is presumed between sustainable development and supporting local food. Food production is missing, yet it is a major land use. It thus falls to experts at the local level to show that local food meets the core planning principles of the NPPF.

Will the Minister acknowledge that including local food in the NPPF and demonstrating how it meets sustainable development objectives would make a big difference? Will she say something on the value of food growing to the achievement of sustainable development inherent in the planning system? The economic strategy of the West of England local enterprise partnership also does not mention food production. Will the Minister comment on the relationship between that strategy and the core strategies and local plans of the west of England local authorities?

In a recent speech, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs talked about the creation of

“Food Enterprise Zones to kick-start local food economies and join up farming, manufacturing, distribution and retail firms”,

which sounds to be very much along the lines of what we want to achieve in Bristol. I appreciate that the Minister is in a different Department, but it would be good to hear more about how such plans can be protected by the planning system and the Minister’s Department.

The MetroBus bus-only junction project has caused serious concerns about how allotments are sold off for development—a process that requires the consent of

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the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Last year, Labour’s shadow Communities Secretary found that the Secretary of State had rejected only two out of 83 applications by English councils to sell off allotment sites for development between 2010 and 2013. So is it simply a rubber-stamping exercise by the Secretary of State, or can we rely on the process to protect our allotments?

The council’s application to move the Stapleton allotments for the MetroBus junction did not mention that the site to which the allotments would be relocated had considerably inferior soil and was already home to a beautiful wildflower meadow and wildlife corridor. Subsequently, the soil on the new site was discovered to contain levels of lead too high for community gardens, but the Minister’s Department was not made aware of that. The council proposes to take topsoil from the BMV land and use it to replace the topsoil in the new location, but like biodiversity offsetting, the science of how well the soil will work in the new location is unclear. A number of experts have expressed doubts.

Turning to the green belt, under the planning system large transport systems should only be developed on green belt in exceptional circumstances and the potential harm caused should be clearly outweighed by other considerations. In the planning application, however, those exceptional circumstances seemed to rest on fairly unsubstantiated claims that it would “unlock employment”, while the “potential harm” to the area was not assessed. To be fair to the Minister, I do not intend to go into details of the MetroBus scheme, which I appreciate is a matter for her colleagues in the Department for Transport, but I flag up the frustrations felt by people that the planning system was not adequately considering matters that it should have been considering when the scheme went through.

I will finish by expressing my concerns about how local people were consulted about the scheme, how the situation was handled by the planning committee on the night of the decision and just how difficult it has been throughout the process, which has been going on for several years, to challenge it. The Minister’s boss is a great advocate of localism, but it is clear that not enough local power was in local people’s hands.

When the planning committee met to consider the application in August last year, it was told by officers that it was an all or nothing situation and that funding for the whole £200 million bus rapid transit 3 scheme would be withdrawn if the application was not approved there and then. That does not square with what I was later told by the Transport Minister, Baroness Kramer, but with that threat hanging over the committee’s head, the application went through.

All along, we have found it incredibly difficult to get information from the council about whether alternatives to the bus-only junction had been considered, what the benefit-cost ratio of those alternatives was, what discussions, if any, there had been with other stakeholders, what rules ought to be followed and whether the correct applications had been made and permissions granted. The balance of power is weighted against local people, and the Government’s recent clampdown on the right to judicial review, which was already out of reach for most community groups, has made it even worse.

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I do not know whether the Minister can do anything to help us save the blue finger. I hope that I have managed to persuade her that this is a serious issue and that, even if we cannot protect the blue finger in this instance, it would be good if her Department—or a future, Labour Department for Communities and Local Government—would look at how we can change the planning system to make sure a situation like this one does not happen again.

4.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Penny Mordaunt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this debate on a topic on which I have a great deal of sympathy with her. I am from Portsmouth, the most densely populated city in Europe—we are also an island—and so very much understand the importance of green space and of allotments in particular.

The Government recognise how important allotments and other open spaces are for local people. They provide people with the opportunity to enjoy regular physical exercise, meet new people in their neighbourhood and benefit from a healthier diet, regardless of income. It is only right that the law reflects that importance.

Local authorities must provide allotments where they see there is a demand for them, and cannot sell or change the use of such land without first getting consent from the Secretary of State. Both the mandatory statutory criteria, set out in section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925, and the additional policy criteria ensure that allotment holders will not lose their plots or have nowhere left to garden. Those criteria make sure that unless there are exceptional circumstances, a site that is fully or mostly occupied will not receive consent for disposal. The criteria also ensure that, before consent is given, the local authority must show that it has promoted allotment gardening and made residents aware of the site it plans to dispose of. Where an allotment site is mentioned in the local plan—perhaps as a designated local green space—the local authority will not get consent unless it can show it is not acting contrary to the plan.

Last year the Department published “Allotment disposal guidance: safeguards and alternatives”, a new set of guidance clarifying the legal and policy safeguards in place to ensure that disposal is properly and thoroughly handled, which is available on the gov.uk website. The process for handling disposal applications is now wholly transparent and sets out each factor that will be taken into account when deciding whether each of the criteria has been met.

We recognise that demand for allotment plots still outstrips supply, but the situation is slowly improving. A survey of allotment waiting lists carried out by the National Allotment Society in 2013 indicated an average of 52 people waiting for every 100 plots, compared with 57 per 100 plots when a similar survey was carried out two years earlier. In addition, the survey indicated that in the two years before it was conducted, 65 new allotment sites had been brought into use by 51 councils, covering 30 hectares, creating nearly 2,000 new plots.

Before I turn to areas of regulation and policy that can assist communities, I will address specific points raised by the hon. Lady, who has asked for some

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practical help. As she recognises, my limited brief does not extend to either the Department for Transport or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but I am here to be helpful. I am happy to consider whether there could be more encouragement for local food growing when the NPPF is next revised, but she obviously also needs help now.

Metrobus required planning permission from the three local authorities that cover stretches of the proposed bus route, as well as an order under the Transport and Works Act 1982 from the Department for Transport and separate consent to dispose of the sites, which technically are allotment land—the application for that consent is still under consideration by the Secretary of State. It is true that now the planning permissions have been granted only a court could set them aside. We are also beyond the stage at which the Secretary of State can exercise his powers to call in a planning proposal.

As a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, it would not be proper for me to comment on precise aspects of planning permissions, the handling of an application or any planning conditions imposed. Those are a matter for the local planning authority. As I have said, one aspect is still under consideration by my Secretary of State. The merits of the scheme have been outlined to the hon. Lady in a letter from the local mayor. I should clarify that the council is free to submit a revised planning application that would be determined in the usual way; I put that on the record now for her benefit.

An important part of localism is ensuring that councils and communities can protect the green spaces that are precious to them. Local people know their areas better than Whitehall does, and are best placed to make decisions about their planning needs. Local plans, supported by neighbourhood plans, are the best way to steer development to the appropriate locations and decide where planning restraint is essential.

The planning system is led by the policies in the local plan. Those policies are adopted only after public consultation, followed by independent examination by a planning inspector who will check and report on the soundness of each draft plan. Planning law requires that specific planning permissions be obtained before any material change of land use occurs. Planning permission is also necessary for any building or engineering works affecting the land.

Planning policy also puts local communities at the heart of planning. In our NPPF we ask planners to assess the needs of the food production industry and resolve associated planning barriers. Planners should be no less keen to support people in our towns and cities who wish to grow their own food, whether on an allotment or in a domestic garden. The framework also asks local planning authorities to insist on high standards of design, including when it comes to the layout of our towns and cities and the provision of green space within them.

Allotments, along with community gardens, urban farms and other such land uses, are open spaces of public benefit. That should always be recognised by local authorities when preparing assessments of need and audits of existing open space and recreational facilities in their areas, or when considering the impact of new development. Some allotments are on the outskirts of towns, and may fall within the protections given to

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the green belt or other types of designated area. There, the local planning authority should refuse planning permission for inappropriate new building that would harm the openness of the land. Moreover, in conservation areas, any gardens, parks and other green spaces between the protected buildings may be identified by policies in the local plan as part of the characterisation of the area and preserved for that reason.

The phrase “green infrastructure” may be jargon, but it helps to make the point that the provision and retention of high-quality green open space and tree planting are not only vital to the well-being of communities, but should be part of the strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change. In all our towns and cities, the provision and enhancement of green space is important. The Government have introduced a range of new powers to allow individuals and communities to protect the spaces of most value to them. Those powers include the power for communities to create local green spaces—a designation made as part of a local plan or a neighbourhood plan that enables communities to identify green areas of particular importance and impose protection as strong as that applied to green-belt land. That will be of interest to the hon. Lady.

Neighbourhood planning is capturing the imagination of communities across the country. About 1,400 communities have started the neighbourhood planning process, and more are joining them each week. Neighbourhood plans have a legal weight prior to being adopted through a referendum. The fact that a plan is being written and is in place, subject to a referendum, gives it legal weight; it does not have that status only after a referendum.

I am pleased to see that a number of policies on allotments are coming forward from neighbourhood plans. In some instances, they are about maintaining existing provision, and in other cases they seek to promote the creation of new allotments. If the hon. Lady is interested, I suggest that she look at the neighbourhood plans for St James in Exeter, Thame and Cringleford, which have done some trailblazing things on allotments.

There is also the community right to bid. More than 300 green spaces have been listed as community assets, which ensures that groups can pause the sale of land for up to six months to give them the opportunity to raise the money to buy the land. There is also the community right to reclaim land, which enables community groups to acquire vacant or underused land and bring it back into beneficial use.

The hon. Lady has clearly been active in campaigning on this issue for her constituents. She has spoken to other Departments, and I encourage her to carry on speaking to the Department for Transport, although most of the levers are clearly in her local authority’s hands. Although she will not want to consider failure in her campaign, if she is faced with the option of a plan B, my Department may be able to do some things to assist her, given its remit. The hon. Lady said that Bristol is a trailblazer on this issue, and it is also a trailblazer in recognising the importance of social enterprise. The local enterprise partnership recognises the importance of social enterprises, and it is focused on providing opportunities for economic regeneration, getting those who are in long-term unemployment back to work and so forth. Although I am not completely au fait with them, there are clearly a number of enterprises and

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ventures that are of value to the community that are contingent on the piece of land in question. If the hon. Lady were faced with that situation, we would not want those enterprises to be placed if jeopardy. If they need help relocating, finance to assist them or any other support mechanism, officials in my Department will be able to help with signposting, and I will be able to talk the hon. Lady through the support and options that are available. If she were in that situation, I would encourage her to get in touch with me. Obviously, her aim is to prevent that from happening. I hope that my outlining of some of the policies available has left her better informed.

Kerry McCarthy: I sense that the Minister is about to draw her remarks to a close, but she has not yet addressed the issue of soil quality and the protection of the best and most versatile land in the planning system, which is one of the key things that we have been pushing for.

Penny Mordaunt: That is on my list; I was trying to find it. As the hon. Lady said, that is not within my Department’s remit; it is very much a DEFRA issue. However, I will undertake to write to her about the prospects, and about what is done currently and what may be done in the future to monitor what is happening to high-grade land.

Kerry McCarthy: I appreciate that the issue of farming, soil quality and so on falls primarily within DEFRA’s remit. However, I asked the Minister’s Department a year ago whether this could be a special category that is protected within the planning system, and the answer was that it could perhaps be dealt with in the local plans. However, as I have outlined, it is not on local authorities’ radars yet. Could the Minister undertake at least to talk to her officials about whether that is possible? [Interruption.] I think a note is winging its way towards her.

Penny Mordaunt: Yes, certainly. I have said that I am happy to look at those things when the NPPF is revised.

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The clock is clearly ticking for the hon. Lady on this issue, and I hope that I have been able to count her through some of the levers that are available to her. She said that it has been difficult for her to get to the bottom of certain facts. Clearly, the process that should be being followed is transparent. It is on the website if she has any technical questions. If she has had difficulty in getting certain facts and pieces of information, I would be happy to follow that up with her.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): When I was a councillor in the London borough of Barnet, I was responsible for allotments, and the big fear for many of the allotment holders was that the council wanted to sell off the allotments for development. The Minister said that under section 23 of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 local authorities have an obligation to provide allotments. If the Minister cannot answer me now, will she write to me later to confirm that that may not be the case in London, because of the London Government Act 1963, so the same obligations may not apply to the London borough of Barnet?

Penny Mordaunt: I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend on that issue. I will also write to the hon. Member for Bristol East about her ambitions for greater monitoring when the policy framework is revised, and about soil and further things that can be done to encourage local food production. I would be happy to look at that.

In conclusion, I encourage the hon. Lady to maintain dialogue with my Department and others to see whether we can do anything further if she is not successful in her campaign, and if those social enterprises need support in relocating or developing their business plans. I will follow up with a letter, and I encourage her to keep talking to my Department and others.

Question put and agreed to.

4.57 pm

Sitting adjourned.