Mr Wright: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about services having been stripped to the bone: there is nothing left to cut. Local authorities can really only

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consider what they can manage to do and the minimum amount required of them in respect of statutory services.

Along with other local authorities, Hartlepool had a tough deal in the last Parliament, but it is going to get tougher in this one. Hartlepool Borough Council was established when unitary authority status was granted 20 years ago. The coming financial year is set to be the most difficult that the borough has ever faced, with a budget that is £8.274 million less than last year, representing a year-on-year reduction of 19.6%. That reflects the combined impact of a further £4.474 million cut in Government revenue support grant, which is a year-on-year reduction of 19.7%, and the permanent reduction in the rateable value of the nuclear power station—the Minister has heard me discuss this before—which reduces business rates income by £3.8 million year on year, in perpetuity, equating to a reduction of 19.4%. Over the lifetime of this Parliament, to the year 2019-20, Hartlepool faces a combined settlement funding assessment cut of 27%. Every single local authority in the north-east will experience cuts, from 35% in Northumberland to 25% in Sunderland. By the end of this Parliament, Hartlepool, and local authorities in the north-east in general, will have experienced nine consecutive years of funding cuts. That is unprecedented.

My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington mentioned further pressures on health and education, where we have challenges in our region. Will the Minister comment on public health funding budgets, to which further cuts will be made over the next four years? Additional cuts will be phased in at 2% in 2016-17, 2.5% in 2017-18, and 2.6% in 2018-19 and 2019-20. On top of that, from 2017-18 the Government will cut £600 million from the national education services grant, which equates to a cut of 74% over the lifetime of this Parliament. That will have enormous effects on how local authorities can help education provision in the north-east.

From 2017-18, the national schools funding formula will also affect the council’s revenue budget—perhaps not directly, but it will have a negative impact on Hartlepool’s schools and reduce the public funding available in my borough. That will mean that the local authority will have to step up to the plate and try to provide further help, which it cannot provide because it does not have the available resources.

Alex Cunningham: When I head towards my flat in the evening, I see all this tremendous building in London. One of these blocks of flats is 50 storeys high and is probably generating millions of pounds in additional council tax—certainly hundreds of thousands. We would have to build on almost every single square foot of land in Stockton to generate that sort of income, which is a further illustration of how the south has it good in being able to generate cash but we do not.

Mr Wright: My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour makes an important point about something that I was going to come to. The 100% retention of business rates does not help the north-east and will not help the finances of local authorities in the region. Whereas Westminster City Council, for example, could pave its pavements with gold, we in the north-east will suffer enormously as a result of the 100% retention of business rates.

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The switching off of the nuclear power station in my constituency for reasons of health and safety, which was quite right, means that my local authority is incredibly vulnerable to the loss of business rates. Given the make-up and structure of the north-east economy, large manufacturing businesses could end up putting local authority finance under further pressure as a result of the lack of help. Nowhere has that been exemplified more than in the closure of the SSI steelworks in Redcar.

Anna Turley: Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council has lost £10 million of business rates a year. On top of the impact of the cuts on services, we have lost a huge amount of business rates. If that is how the Government see the future, it is going to be deeply unfair for areas such as ours.

Mr Wright: My hon. Friend is right. Will the Minister respond by telling us how that will be addressed? In theory, the 100% retention of business rates is a good policy, but in practice it will further devastate local authority funding in the north-east. What sort of redistributions or transitionary arrangements will be put in place for areas such as Hartlepool or Redcar to prevent that from happening?

I want the Minister to answer directly one key point. In the previous Parliament, the coalition Government had a policy of council tax freezes. Hartlepool was the only authority in the Tees valley that implemented a frozen council tax regime for five years. Can the Minister confirm that, as a result of Government policy, that is now at an end? Is it now the Government’s formal position to ensure that council tax will go up by 1.9%? With the social care precept adding another 2%, that will mean that, starting from April, council tax payers in Hartlepool and elsewhere will face a rise of 3.9%, which they cannot afford to pay. Is the Government’s policy producing that?

In conclusion, my area has faced devastating cuts to local authority services in the past few years, but we ain’t seen nothing yet given what is going to happen during this Parliament. We are going to see the vulnerable become ever more vulnerable and our potential going unfulfilled and unrealised as a direct result of the gerrymandering in the Government’s policy on council tax funding and allocation. It is a disgrace and the Government should think again to make sure that our areas can thrive.

3.8 pm

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) on securing this important debate. She made an outstanding speech and has given her parliamentary colleagues from throughout the region the opportunity to make the case for our local authorities, which have been hardest hit by the Conservative Government’s spending cuts. She has also given us the chance to lobby the Minister and perhaps bring about the same outcome that we have heard was achieved by the Minister’s Conservative colleagues in Northumberland. If we can secure the same outcome as they did, this will have been a very productive debate indeed. I will not hold my breath, though.

The Prime Minister’s intentions for the north-east are well documented, going well back before the 2010 general election.

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Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the questions the Minister must answer is why none of Durham, Darlington, Hartlepool, Stockton, Sunderland or Newcastle benefited from any of the Government’s rural funding? My constituency covers 300 sq km and the neighbouring constituency in Durham is the same size, yet we got none of the extra rural funding. Given the levels of deprivation, we would like an explanation of why that is the case.

Mrs Hodgson: I hope the Minister will explain. Perhaps the special circumstances are that, unlike Durham, Northumberland has two Conservative MPs. The unfairness speaks for itself.

Alex Cunningham: I do not know whether my hon. Friend is correct in assuming that it is something to do with Tory MPs. We have a Tory MP in Stockton—the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton)—and we got nothing.

Mrs Hodgson: That says more about that Minister. His lobbying was obviously not as successful as that of his colleagues in Northumberland.

The Prime Minister is on the record saying, in an interview with Jeremy Paxman before the 2010 election, that the north-east and Northern Ireland are the two areas where his planned public sector cuts would have the greatest impact. True to his word, when he walked into Downing Street in 2010, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, he began implementing some of the deepest and most devastating cuts our region has ever seen. I would hazard that they are even worse than the cuts under Margaret Thatcher, which I never would have thought possible.

Here we are again: councils in some of the poorest parts of the country are having to cut services back to the bare bones. The fat went long ago. In most of our region, especially the coalfield communities, some of which I represent, there was for many years trepidation about what the Conservatives would do if they were ever in power again. It is with no surprise or pleasure that we gather here to point out that the Government have truly lived up to those dire expectations. After six years of belt-tightening, Opposition Members listened with disbelief as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government stood at the Dispatch Box last month and announced a local government settlement of £300 million of transitional funding, 85% of which will benefit Tory councils that have not faced anywhere near the funding cuts meted out to Labour councils. Labour councils are expected to tighten further and add a few notches to an already worn-out belt. If that were not already impossible, it certainly is now.

Not a penny of the funding that was announced is directed at the majority of councils in the north-east, where unemployment is the highest in the country at 8.1% and poverty remains a persistent issue. Some of the poorest communities in the country are paying for 36% of the Government’s austerity measures. Social care is a burgeoning issue for many of them, especially given that the people who use social care will bear 13% of the cuts.

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Tomorrow, my local council, Sunderland, will pass its budget for the 2016-17 financial year. It must find £46 million of savings this year and a total of £110 million by the end of this Parliament, on top of the £207 million that it had to find during the last Parliament. That means that the council has a total of £290 million to spend by 2020, compared with the £607 million it had in 2010, before the Conservatives came to power in 2010. That is less than 50% of its pre-2010 budget. That is not trimming, belt-tightening or streamlining; it is an attack—a full-scale assault. So much for the rhetoric of a northern powerhouse. Northern poorhouse, more like.

Of the £290 million of spending power that Sunderland has left, £182 million is reserved for statutory adult social care and children’s services. The remaining £108 million will have to pay for all other services, including waste collection and disposal, libraries, museums, housing, business investment, and sport and leisure. Those wide-ranging services need proper investment to be suitable for public access, but with such a small budget for those services, it is obvious that the council will struggle to maintain the high standard that our local communities deserve and expect.

Significant cuts will also have to be found within the needs-based funding elements, including children’s services. An 8% per annum cut is expected in the early intervention budget on top of the 50% cut to early intervention services since 2010. Children’s services and early intervention are such important areas. If funded correctly, they can mitigate greater costs further down the line by preventing children from becoming adults with multiple issues. The Government’s policy is so short-sighted.

No doubt the Minister will talk about devolving the collection of local business rates. Labour supports that policy in principle, but in practice it will further ingrain unfairness into an already unfair system. He may also talk about the 2% increase in council tax to fund social care as a means for councils to bring in additional funding. For low-tax councils such as Sunderland, such measures will not bring in the funding they require to continue to provide the local services that we rely on. It is estimated that the 2% for social care will bring in only £1.5 million for Sunderland, but our local social care demands are approximately £3 million. Where does the Minister think the additional funding should be found? This is one of the greatest public policy crises that we face in this country. For Sunderland, the prognosis remains bleak for the near future. There is no respite or support on the horizon from the Government.

Catherine McKinnell: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about the ingrained inequalities, which the Government’s policies will deepen. Is she aware that Newcastle City Council estimates that the 2% council tax precept will raise £1.4 million a year, whereas it faces a spending shortfall of £15 million? It is a simple mathematical calculation, and it does not add up.

Mrs Hodgson: I often wonder whether the Government’s calculators and experts stop functioning when it comes to some of these numbers. They seem to have dyscalculia—numerical dyslexia—when working out the sums for the north-east, but they are not troubled by it when working out the sums for the rest of the country.

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): I apologise for being late, Sir David. I have been chairing the Backbench Business Committee. The 2% rise for social care will raise about £1.4 million in my authority, yet of the £300 million cuts mitigation fund that the Secretary of State established, £300,000 is going to the north-east of England, all of which is going to Northumberland. Some £114 million is going to eight shire counties surrounding London, all of which are Conservative-controlled. No formula can explain the rationale for that.

Mrs Hodgson: The only rationale is political bias. That is what we are trying to highlight. It is obvious what has gone on; the figures speak for themselves. The Secretary of State’s brazen audacity in outlining the cuts at the Dispatch Box last month and the brass-necked nature of that announcement beggar belief. It shows how little the Government care. He knew that it would be seen through, but it did not bother him.

We have heard time and time again about the deep unfairness of the Government’s financing of local authorities in the north-east and other unitary councils across the country, but Ministers still do not understand the impact it will have on the most vulnerable in our communities. It cannot be ignored any longer. I hope that the Minister will heed our words. We are a strong, collective voice from the north-east arguing for fairer funding. I hope he will assure hon. Members present that he will take our concerns back to his Department and the Secretary of State to ensure that he reconsiders the devastating, short-sighted decisions of his Department on our region. I am sure that the Secretary of State will understand—as we have heard, he is a local lad from Middlesbrough. If he does not get it, what hope have we got? The Eton boys in Downing Street never will.

3.19 pm

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) on obtaining the debate.

There was a time when the Conservative party believed in local government, and it had a long tradition of supporting it. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) highlighted the effect that the Thatcher Administration had on our region, but one thing that Margaret Thatcher did not do was devastate local government as the present Government are doing. Many people in my constituency say “They are as bad as Thatcher”. No, they are worse than Thatcher. They do not believe in the state as we do. They take the view that local government should just deliver statutory services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington eloquently outlined, that is what the people of Darlington will end up with—an authority with the ability to deliver just statutory services. Everything else that we have for generations taken for granted that councils should deliver will go by the bye.

What makes it worse is that the Government are in the most blatant way allocating funding to pacify voices within their own party. I am not sure that it will pacify them for long, because I do not know how they will protect the areas in question in the long term, given the reductions that the Government still have in line—a cut of some 56% for the Department for Communities and Local Government. However, at the moment that is clearly what they are doing.

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Where, in the core spending and transitional arrangements, are the lowest reductions being made? What are those very deprived areas? They are Surrey, Hampshire, North Yorkshire and Devon. We have a ludicrous situation of North Yorkshire getting a 2.5% increase and Surrey a 1.5% increase in core spending. A 2.5% increase in our core spending in Durham would mean an additional £10 million of funding. On the figures for core spending powers and cuts in 2016-17, Durham will have minus 4.1%, Newcastle minus 4.4% and Sunderland minus 4.3%. Surrey will have a 1% reduction and my favourite place, Wokingham, a 0.4% reduction.

I think it has been the understanding of all Governments, irrespective of political make-up, since the second world war, that need has to be taken into account. The idea that it is possible to equate the health problems and social deprivation of the north-east and, I must say, inner-city areas in parts of some London boroughs and the north-west with pressures in Surrey and Wokingham, is nonsense. In the figures for the final settlement for 2016-17, the core spending per dwelling figure for Durham county council is £1,608; for Surrey it is £1,661. It may be thought that that is not much higher, but no account is taken of the demands of an ageing population in Durham, and its higher unemployment and social care needs. If the district councils in Surrey are taken into account, the core spending per dwelling figure goes up to more than £2,000. I am sorry, but it cannot be right that one of the wealthiest parts of the country is getting more expenditure than some of the most deprived communities.

The rural indicator was a measure that the Government brought in to try to compensate for rurality. There could not be a more rural county than County Durham; but what did it get out of it? Not one penny. I do not object to Northumberland, which includes the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell), getting some extra funding; but why did that county get it? It is because it has two Conservative Members of Parliament. We are now in a situation where funding is allocated on the basis of what the local electors decided. The Government are punishing electors in the north-east for voting Labour. We would expect that in a totalitarian dictatorship, not in a democracy such as ours.

Mr Campbell: Could we press the Communities and Local Government Committee to have an inquiry, covering the whole gamut of this issue?

Mr Jones: I would welcome that, but I remind my hon. Friend that this lot do not care. What they did in the previous Parliament shows that. They are small state Conservatives who frankly do not give a damn about the north-east, because it means nothing to them electorally.

One of the biggest needs of, and pressures on, most of our councils is social care. The Government have announced that councils can charge 2% extra on council tax. That will raise a lower amount in Durham than in Surrey, because about 55% of properties in County Durham are in band A. The idea that that is a panacea that will answer the social care issue is not true. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) demonstrated the problems that Newcastle City Council faces, and the situation will be duplicated in all north-east and inner-city councils, which have huge pressures on them.

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Ian Mearns: We have done the mapping in my local authority, and if we cut 100% of all the services by 2021—refuse collection, grounds maintenance and everything that councils do—we will still have to make cuts in adult social care and children’s services to balance the books, once revenue support grant has been totally removed and the impact of the localisation of business rates kicks in.

Sir David Amess (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, I remind the House that three hon. Ladies still want to speak, as well as the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister who will respond. The debate finishes at 4 o’clock, so I hope that colleagues will bear that in mind.

Mr Kevan Jones: My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) makes a pertinent point. We will end up with councils that deliver core statutory services, and even then they will be under pressure.

When the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) was Secretary of State, he argued that somehow we could make the savings by having fewer pot plants in council departments, or by cutting staff numbers. I must tell the Minister that every council in the north-east has made back-office efficiencies. That will not enable them to meet the figures. For example, from 2011 to 2020 Durham will have lost £288 million from its budget. It is ludicrous to think we can make that up. I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here; previously he has accused councils of hoarding large balances, but that is a way of diverting attention. I will explain the situation in Durham. It has £220 million in reserves. However, only £30 million of that is actual reserves, in the sense of the 5% that, when I was in local government, local councils needed. The rest is allocated for other things, such as redundancies and things that will take place against a budget of more than £865 million. Let us knock on the head the nonsense that northern councils are awash with large reserves. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington demonstrated, they are down to the bone. The other thing is that reserves can be used only once. The Government’s idea about a way of somehow mixing revenue and capital is economically illiterate.

I want to finish on devolution, because we will no doubt get a load of guff from the Minister about it. The devolution being put forward for the north-east is a devolution of responsibilities without the cash to go with it; £30 million is on offer for the north-east so-called mayoral model. If the cuts to public health funding go forward as predicted, Durham alone will lose £20 million a year.

I noticed last week that a Conservative, Mr Jeremy Middleton, announced his candidacy for mayor of the north-east. Strangely, he said:

“I won’t be asking people to vote for me because I’m a Conservative. I’ll be asking them to vote for me because I’m the right man for the job.”

I had a look at his website this morning, and he has also said that through negotiation with Whitehall he will deliver

“a fair financial settlement with similar public funding per head as Scotland”.

I challenge him to state why he has sat quietly for the past six years without saying a single thing about local government finance being butchered in the north-east.

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He is a friend of the Chancellor, a former Conservative candidate—he thankfully failed in the by-election against my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright)—and has been an apologist for this Government. I ask the people of the north-east to remember that when and if we actually get this ludicrous situation with a mayor.

I am fully supportive of the idea of devolution, but devolution of responsibility without the funding, which is what this is, is not the way forward. Councils in the north-east are facing a crisis and there is only one explanation. It lies with the Government who are protecting their own areas in a party political way while not giving a damn about Labour-voting areas in the north-east of England.

Sir David Amess (in the Chair): Order. I am having to impose a time limit of three minutes, which is unsatisfactory. I ask colleagues to resist making interventions.

3.31 pm

Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) not only on securing this debate, but on her moving speech that set the scene of the reality of life in north-east.

Due to the Chancellor’s cuts, local government funding will drop by a quarter in real terms by 2020. I will not go through all the figures again, but the Prime Minister’s area of Oxfordshire will see a funding increase, as will Hampshire and Surrey. The disparity in funding between southern Tory areas and northern Labour areas represents the most blatant political manoeuvring that I have seen or read about in the western world. In succeeding to buy off potential Tory rebels with the transitional pot of money for rural areas, the Government are hitting my constituents, and those of my hon. Friends, very hard. Sunderland has had to make savings and reductions totalling £207 million since 2010-11, and it is projected that it will be required to make further reductions totalling £115 million by 2020. That is a total of £322 million over a 10-year period. Given that the council’s gross budget was £784 million in 2010-11, the reductions equate to 26% to date and 41% by 2020 when compared with the starting budget.

The cuts will be exacerbated by two elements of the local government finance settlement. The first is business rates. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) outlined the reality of the difference in what business rates can raise, and I am still waiting for a Minister to explain to me and my constituents how that will be done in a fair and reasonable manner. The TUC’s Frances O’Grady said that

“by devolving business rates without any national safeguards, regional inequalities will get wider”.

They will. Adult social care is the other area, and it is a massive problem under this regime. Sunderland City Council has lost £207 million from its budget in the past six years and is braced for further cuts of £115 million by 2020.

I wonder what the Minister can say today. I wait with bated breath. The political shenanigans of the budget settlement will bear heavily on the people of the north-east, the people I am proud to represent as a Labour Member, and the people I care about. The Opposition will not let that happen without a fight and without exposing exactly what this Government are doing.

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3.34 pm

Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) on securing this important debate. Is it not about time that this Government admitted that plans for the so-called northern powerhouse are just empty rhetoric? A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that 10 of the UK’s most struggling cities are in the north. The Government are driving a greater wedge, not building the promised bridge, between the north and south. Not a single town from the south of England is among those struggling areas.

Council spending power per household has fallen by £74 in the South Tyneside Council area, which is significantly higher than the £43 average fall in spending power across English councils as whole. My council was also one of the eight authorities in the north-east to receive no transitional funding whatsoever, yet the Government have managed to find the money to offer a bribe to MPs representing wealthy southern shires. South Tyneside has suffered a 45% budget cut since 2010.

Many people will know that I was a councillor between 2010 and 2013 before coming to this place. I was a cabinet member on the council and cannot begin to stress how painful it was to sit surrounded by paperwork and job titles and agonise over who may be losing their job or what service might be axed next. I wonder whether the Minister has ever had to stand face-to-face with vulnerable and elderly people and their families and witness the total despair on their faces when they are told that their care package was being cut or that their care home was closing, because I have and I remember it well.

The chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy says that the next few years are going to be “so difficult” and “so tough” that councils will be in total deficit. Is the Government’s final aim to make councils bankrupt? That is the direction in which they are heading. It is the wrong direction. The 2015 index of multiple deprivation shows that South Tyneside’s overall deprivation score rose by just over 10% since 2010, the largest percentage increase of any single area. My constituents in South Shields are proud, competent, hard-working and skilled, but they have been let down by this Government, who just do not understand or care about the issues that the north faces.

The Tories are not devolving real power to our communities with the northern powerhouse initiative; they are delegating cuts. The Chancellor once said that a true powerhouse requires true power, but we know and he knows that if we take away the money, we take away that power.

3.37 pm

Anna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman). She made a passionate and eloquent speech in the Chamber during the previous debate on this subject, but I think she has excelled herself. I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate today.

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I was going to set out some of the context and background regarding the north-east but, due the fact that colleagues have done so far more eloquently than I, as well as the time limit, I will not. There are so many great things about the north-east, but I am fed up of having to stand up and wave bleeding stumps and plead about our poverty. People in the north-east have too much dignity and too much going for them for us to do that. The Government have put us in a situation where we have to explain things to them, but they do not understand the challenges we face.

Public services in the north-east should have faced far less substantial cuts than other areas of the country to enable us to tackle the disparities that colleagues have set out, but that is not what we have seen. Instead, the north-east has experienced disproportionately high cuts to local authority budgets. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) described, the impact is most keenly felt in non-statutory services such as young services provision. Redcar and Cleveland has levels of drug and alcohol problems that are higher than the national average and it has double the rate of self-harm. We need preventive services for older people, support for those with disabilities and special educational needs, smoking cessation programmes, enterprise support teams and transport subsidies. All those services are vital in supporting people to live healthy, active lives or to get into work or education.

One of the great things in the region is the strength of our community and voluntary sector, which delves deep into the most deprived communities and gets to the parts that the state so often cannot reach. However, cuts to council budgets have meant that their grants have been slashed—so much for the big society. More vital services are being cut to the bone in the areas of greatest need.

It was clear from the debate on the financial settlement that the Government are not interested in any form of redistributive approach to local government finance that sees money go to where it is most needed. They are not interested in the principle that historically disadvantaged areas need support or at least a level playing field or the principle to which they paid lip service in 2010 that the broadest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden. They are quite content to have a settlement that has seen the 10 most deprived areas facing cuts 18 times higher than the 10 least deprived. They are quite content to be totally shameless by acknowledging that transition money was basically a bung to Tory areas where MPs were threatening revolt—we heard that from the Government’s own MPs during the debate.

Some Government MPs were not quite so honest and tried to claim that some kind of formula lay behind the unfair and unequal distribution of funding, and some that it was because their areas had an ageing or rural population. Let me tell the House about age in the north-east: 17.1% of the north-east’s population is over 65 years old, compared with 16% in the rest of England, so we have a higher proportion of ageing people. The north-east is also well above the national average of people accessing social care: 29% more people access home care services, 41% more access day care and 100% more access short-term residential care. This is heartless, shameless, pork barrel politics, which does a disservice to the Government and this place.

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3.40 pm

Mr Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) on her brilliant, passionate and humane speech, which illustrated what the cuts decided by the Government mean to the people of her beautiful town, the rest of the north-east and, indeed, the rest of the country.

What is clear from the debate is that the Government have betrayed the north-east. The people of the north-east are decent folk. They are looking simply for fairness, not for favours, but the Government’s approach has been desperately unfair. The north-east has suffered some of the highest cuts in the country, but those communities were offered next to nothing from the transitional relief fund, which the Government made available a few weeks ago.

Here is what happened. A number of Tory MPs representing far wealthier areas than the north-east suddenly realised that their communities would start to feel the same pain that other parts of the country had been suffering for the last five years. People such as David Cameron’s mum got up and complained about what the Tory Government were doing, because they saw their services were at risk.

It is worth digging into the term “services”, because what it means is people’s quality of life. It means services such as Sure Start children’s centres, libraries, street cleaning, keeping the street lights on, filling in potholes, fixing pavements, giving young people things to do that keep them from getting into trouble, providing care for older and disabled people, and providing bus services to rural areas whose populations would otherwise be stuck where they live and unable to get out to enjoy their lives or to go to work. That is what services are—real things in real lives.

When some Tory MPs representing wealthier areas realised what was coming their way, the Government decided to buy them off. The Government set up a £300 million fund, but they did not give that money to the areas that had suffered the biggest cuts; they sent it to the areas that had suffered the fewest cuts. The only way the Government can justify their false claim to have helped the hardest hit with that money is to pretend that every single cut that happened before 2015 did not happen—but it did, and people throughout the country know that it did. Eighty-five per cent of the money went to areas run by the Conservatives; barely 5% went to areas run by the Labour party, despite the fact that the Labour areas have far higher levels of deprivation and have suffered far higher levels of cuts over the past five years.

My area of Croydon is, I grant, some way from the north-east. It has had 17 times more cuts than Surrey, but Croydon lost a further £44 million with barely any relief funding. I thought that was appalling, but the north-east has suffered even more. Durham, which had 27 times more cuts than Surrey, got nothing; Sunderland had 36 times more cuts and got nothing; South Tyneside had 37 times more cuts and got nothing; Newcastle had 41 times more cuts and got nothing; and Hartlepool had a swingeing 42 times more cuts than Surrey and got nothing at all. The whole of the north-east got next to nothing out of the settlement—nothing but cuts, cuts and more cuts.

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Only weeks before important council elections, the Tories gerrymandered millions of pounds to wealthy areas such as Surrey to buy off dissent from their Back-Bench MPs. I use “gerrymander” advisedly: for the avoidance of doubt, I mean the misuse of public funds to advantage the Tory party. It is as simple as that, and it is a disgrace to our democracy.

I will touch briefly on social care. The Government approach to underfunding social care is to underfund the services and then to localise the blame for the cuts that will inevitably follow for some of the most vulnerable people in our community. Here is how the Government do it: they underfund social care, they hand over responsibility for it to councils, and they tell them to put up council tax by 2% a year, partially to plug the funding gap. That still leaves a £1 billion funding black hole for those services. Earlier, we heard about the case of Newcastle: a 2% council tax rise raises £1.4 million, but the shortfall in funding for these services is £14 million. The Government hope that councils will get the blame for the cuts and council tax hikes that were designed in Downing Street.

Finally, I want to look at council tax rises, because the 2% Osborne tax is not the only thing that will happen. The figures that the Government sent out to councils last month in spreadsheets from the Treasury included the assumption that there would be not only a 2% rise for social care, but a further council tax rise of 1.75% on average every year for the next five years. By 2020 that adds up to a 20% council tax hike. That is the Government’s assumption and what they are planning.

The truth is that we get the worst of all worlds with the Tories: we get cuts in services that people rely on and we get hikes in council tax that hurt the low-paid the most. The Government are damaging every community in the country, but the north-east is among the hardest hit—£24 million of extra funding for Surrey; next to nothing for the north-east of England. Whatever happened to the one nation Tories? The Tories have been too ashamed to show their face in the debate this afternoon, and they should be too ashamed to show their faces anywhere in the north-east.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Marcus Jones): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) on securing the debate. It is my pleasure to be able to respond and I thank hon. Members for their valuable contributions.

I recognise that councils throughout the country have been fully dedicated to improving local services in a very challenging environment. It was absolutely right that we listened to local authorities and to Members of this House during the local government finance settlement consultation. We have done our utmost to ensure that the settlement is right and fair for all. The distribution of funding has recently been discussed at length in this House, alongside the overall level of resources available to local government. The hon. Lady called today’s debate to discuss local government funding for the north-east, but it is important to place that in the national context of what the Government are working to achieve.

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Local authorities account for a quarter of all public spending, so it has always been clear that they would have to play their part in reducing what was the largest deficit in post-war history. Last autumn, the Government’s spending review set out clearly how savings must be made over this Parliament to ensure that we finish the job of eliminating the remaining deficit and what that will mean in terms of overall council funding. In real terms, councils will be required to save 6.7% over the spending review period. At the 2010 spending review, a reduction of 14% was announced, so the pace of spending reductions has slowed significantly for this Parliament, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has acknowledged.

In cash terms, when we look at the overall core resources available to local government in the finance settlement, core spending power is virtually unchanged over the spending review period. Councils will receive £44.5 billion in 2015-16 and £44.3 billion in 2019-20. Furthermore, we have tried to be as fair in regard to distribution as possible, making reasonable assumptions that understate the maximum resources available to councils. For example, in line with the Office for Budget Responsibility, we assume that council tax will increase with inflation, not by the referendum threshold of 2%. If we had assumed the maximum figure, more than a quarter of a billion pounds extra in resources would have been available. We have been clear: yes, further savings are required, and councils have recognised that, but we have taken important steps to help councils make those savings.

Mr Kevan Jones: I do not know what colour the sky is in the Minister’s world. What is fair about north-east councils—Durham, Newcastle and others in the figures I read out—having 4% cuts in their budgets this year when Surrey has less than a 1% cut in Wokingham’s cut is even less than that? How can that be fair, given the demands on services faced by Durham compared with places such as Surrey? Is it just a coincidence that 85% of the councils who gain from his transitional arrangements happen to have Tory MPs?

Mr Marcus Jones: The average spending power per dwelling for the 10% most deprived authorities is about 23% more than for the 10% least deprived authorities in this coming year. Opposition Members have mentioned several times an assertion about the transitional grant. The grant was based firmly on the local government finance settlement, the consultation we undertook and the responses from the consultation. There were a significant number of responses and a call for some sort of transitional grant to support those areas that had lost the most central Government grant compared with the amount expected based on the old redistribution formula.

Anna Turley: The Minister has been generous with his time, but what does he say to his own MPs who stood up in the Chamber and admitted that they got the money because they threatened to revolt?

Mr Marcus Jones: There are MPs from my party who represent very wealthy areas and others who represent less well-off areas. I say to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that not all of our Members are from Surrey; my party would not have been able to win a general election based on a cohort of MPs from

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Surrey. MPs in my party come from a wide swathe of the country. The transitional grant was based not on where MPs come from but purely on the response to the local government settlement. It is intended purely to mitigate the most significant changes in funding for the authorities that had the greatest proportion of loss from the revenue support grant.

Ian Mearns: Does the Minister accept that even though the revenue support grant is due to be withdrawn completely, in the meantime the Government have written out any concept of addressing need? Local authorities such as mine in the north-east of England do not have the capacity to raise taxes locally because many of the properties in our area are in the lower bands, so the band D national median is meaningless.

Mr Marcus Jones: That is why generally, as I said, the areas that have been referred to in the debate that are receiving transitional grant generally had a higher reduction in revenue support grant than areas such as that represented by the hon. Gentleman. He and a number of his colleagues have taken a dim view of the north-east in relation to its ability to move forward as an economy and create business rate revenue and additional council tax.

To take the constituency of the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), for example, thanks to the business rate retention scheme during 2014-15 there was a 14.6% increase in revenue. To pick up on a point he made, we will move to full business rate retention in 2020, but before that there will be a consultation on how we deal with redistribution. We understand and accept that in some places significantly more business rates are collected than in others.

The approach we have taken in this historic settlement is aimed at supporting those areas with the greatest pressures and providing councils with the certainty they need as we move towards a system of greater devolution. The settlement allocates funding on the basis of the core resources available to local authorities, taking into account councils’ business rates and council tax as well as their revenue support grant. It ensures that councils that deliver the same set of services will receive the same changes in core funding for those services.

Mr Kevan Jones: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Marcus Jones: I will in a moment. That is fair and that fact was recognised by Middlesbrough Council in its response to the consultation on the settlement.

We have also provided councils with unprecedented levels of certainty. Our historic offer of a four-year settlement answers calls from councils to allow them to plan over the long term, giving them the certainty required to create greater efficiencies. That has been welcomed by councils across the country, including those in the north-east such as Durham County Council and Newcastle City Council.

Mr Kevan Jones: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Marcus Jones: I have already given way; I am going to make some progress.

Councils now have the opportunity to smooth their path over four years, using reserves where necessary and if they so wish. Even so, we have not made any assumptions that councils will use reserves in any published figures.

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Despite giving this opportunity, we have made no assumptions that councils will use their reserves in any published figures.

The settlement also responds to the clear call from all tiers of local Government and from many of my colleagues in the House to recognise the priority and increasing cost of caring for our elderly population. As such, we have made up to £3.5 billion available by 2019-20 for adult social care through a dedicated social care precept of up to 2% a year and the improved better care fund. That is significantly more than the amount asked for by the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. We have proposed that the additional better care fund money should be distributed to complement the new council tax flexibility, so more will go councils that can raise the least from that flexibility. We will, however, consult colleagues in local government on that in due course.

We have also prioritised housing. The new homes bonus was due to come to an end, but it has been a useful contributor to the increase in planning permissions being granted. Payments since its introduction in 2011 total just under £3.4 billion, reflecting more than 700,000 new homes and conversions and more than 100,000 empty properties brought back into use.

Jenny Chapman: On a point of order, Sir David. Is it not convention in Westminster Hall to allow time for the person who secured the debate to reply? I believe it is.

Sir David Amess (in the Chair): I was rather hoping that there might be at least 30 seconds for the hon. Lady to reply.

Mr Marcus Jones: I will certainly do that for the hon. Lady; I intended no discourtesy. Finally, in 2016-17 the core spending power per dwelling in the north-east region is £1,820, which is 3.9% higher than the £1,750 figure for the south-east.

3.59 pm

Jenny Chapman: When you said 30 seconds, Sir David, I did not think you meant that literally.

That was an obtuse, lacklustre, disembodied reply from a Minister who showed no interest in the concerns we raised. We need to ask the National Audit Office to take a look at this, because the political manoeuvring that has led us to where we are would frankly make even a Liberal Democrat blush. When that is combined with the cuts to fire, police, health and education that our region is experiencing, it is disgraceful.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

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Lambeth County Court

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

4 pm

Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the proposed closure of Lambeth County Court.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Lambeth county court serves residents across Lambeth and Southwark. I am pleased to be joined here today by hon. Friends whose constituents will also be deeply impacted by the planned closure of that court and to have the opportunity to raise our concerns about the impact on our constituents, on the staff who work at the court, on the lawyers who represent people there and on a wide range of other public sector staff who regularly attend the court, including housing officers and social workers.

Lambeth county court is the busiest housing court in the country, effectively making it a specialist court, and it is situated in an area with one of the highest concentrations of social housing in the country. In addition to housing possession claims, the other types of work undertaken at Lambeth county court are cases concerning children, domestic violence and money claims. The proposal on which the Government consulted was to close Lambeth county court and move all of its business to Wandsworth county court in Putney. That is almost five miles away as the crow flies, but it is a complicated journey on several buses for residents on low incomes who cannot afford the train or tube. East-west journeys in south London are invariably more difficult than journeys into and out of central London.

Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab): May I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and thank the Chair for chairing? For my constituents in Rotherhithe, it will take a minimum of two hours on three different buses just to get to court. The four-hour journey that is potentially being imposed will deter people from attending court and will result in higher appeals.

Helen Hayes: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I will make the point later in my speech that the impact of the court’s closure on travel time is, indeed, worse than the impact of court closures proposed in many rural areas of the country.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): I am proud that my hon. Friend and I both represent Lambeth. This is a very timely debate. On travel, does she agree that it is not just an issue of cost? Many of our young people are living in an environment where it is quite dangerous to travel great distances, with serious youth violence affecting a significant minority. There is often an issue of safety for young people when they are travelling about in our area.

Helen Hayes: Indeed; my hon. Friend makes a valid and valuable point. It is some of our most vulnerable residents across the spectrum, including our young people, who will be most significantly impacted by this decision.

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I took the opportunity during the consultation period to speak with lawyers from Lambeth and Southwark who represent residents at Lambeth county court about their concerns about the proposed closure. I am grateful to them for the time they took to do that and to the Minister for meeting me during the consultation to discuss those concerns.

The Minister has listened to some of the concerns raised during the consultation, and as a consequence, the proposed closure of Lambeth county court has changed somewhat, such that housing possession hearings will now move not to Putney but to Camberwell magistrates court. I have brought this matter to the House for debate today because that decision will not now be subject to further consultation; because there are important questions about the decision that need to be answered; and because, ultimately, I am not confident that the revised proposal will address all of the concerns raised about the closure of Lambeth county court.

The first area of concern is the impact of the closure on access to justice and the cost of justice for people who will now have to attend court in Putney rather than Kennington. Many people attending court will now be faced with a significantly longer journey, as my hon. Friends have said, and particularly those on low incomes who cannot afford to travel by train or tube. From parts of Lambeth and Southwark, residents will face a round trip of up to four hours on four different buses each way to get to Putney. That is worse than the impact on travel time of some of the court closures proposed in rural areas.

I know how difficult many of my constituents find it simply to get to other parts of Lambeth and Southwark to access services such as the citizens advice bureau. Indeed, I helped to arrange a CAB outreach service on one of my estates because it was so difficult for residents there to travel to other parts of the borough. My worry with a much longer, more complex journey to court is that many residents simply will not make it at all. The attrition in attendance experienced at family courts following a previous closure programme and the subsequent inefficiencies has been clearly documented and was raised with me only this morning by the borough commander in Lambeth. The consequence is that a theoretical cash saving on paper is translated in reality into either cases being delayed, causing additional expense to the public purse, or residents not having the opportunity to give evidence at their own hearing, therefore denying them access to justice.

The second area of concern is the loss of specialism at Lambeth county court. Lawyers who work in my constituency tell me that one reason the court works comparatively well is that it is effectively a specialist housing court. That specialism extends from the judges to the clerks, and means that cases are dealt with quickly and effectively, given the application of expertise built up over many years. The loss of that specialism at a time when the housing crisis is growing in London, the number of evictions in the private rented sector is growing and the Government are reducing the security of tenure of residents in social housing would, in my view, be a terrible shame.

A third area of concern is the potential impact of the closure on the duty solicitor scheme in Lambeth. The current duty solicitor service is staffed by dedicated

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legal aid lawyers who have chosen to stay in that area of law as legal aid has been cut, earning very modest pay, in order that they can represent the most vulnerable residents and ensure that those residents receive justice. The lawyers I have spoken to who work within that scheme tell me that the margins are so extremely narrow that the significant additional travel time associated with a move to Putney could easily mean the collapse of the current scheme because it will no longer be viable. I am extremely concerned about what that will mean for residents who have been able to rely on representation from trusted local law centres and legal aid firms for many years and, again, the impact on access to justice.

A fourth area of concern is the impact of the move on the public sector, and particularly the social work services of Lambeth and Southwark. If cases involving children are now to be heard in Putney, social workers who have to go to court will face a trebling of their current journey time. Those are the same social workers who have very heavy case loads and who work to support many vulnerable families who are already stretched and on whom the current cuts to council budgets are taking a heavy toll. I do not believe that the impact of the proposal on that area of the public sector has been considered at all, and I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that point.

A final area of concern about the move to Putney is the heavy reliance in the consultation document on the replacement of physical court facilities with digital services. Of course, there are ways in which new technology can aid the justice system and help to make it more efficient and more transparent. Of course, the use of technology to, for example, avoid the need for victims of crime to come into contact with perpetrators is a good thing.

The consultation document and the Government’s response to the consultation is, however, exceptionally light on detail in that respect. There is no indication of how much of the saving the Government will make from the sale of closed courts and tribunals will be reinvested in new technology. There is no articulation of the services that people should expect to see in their local court. There is no modelling of the anticipated impact of investment in new technology on the Courts and Tribunals Service, and there is no immediate action plan for urgent investment to ensure that technology is in place wherever possible to immediately mitigate the impacts of the closures. Without a detailed plan of action, the statements made about the use of technology are simply warm words.

I turn now to some of my questions about the proposal to move housing possession hearings to Camberwell magistrates court rather than to Putney, which was made in response to the representations made during the consultation process. Although I very much welcome the fact that the Minister has listened and responded to the concerns that have been raised, very little detail has been set out about how exactly the proposal will work. I recently met a number of lawyers from Lambeth Law Centre who confirmed my view that the devil will be in the detail on this proposal, so I ask the Minister today whether he can provide some of that detail.

Camberwell magistrates court is already very busy. It is on a constrained site, and it is not clear how Camberwell will physically be able to accommodate additional housing possession hearings on top of the current volume of cases that are heard there.

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Neil Coyle: I think the words I was looking for before were “It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship,” Mr Gray—I got that wrong earlier.

My hon. Friend is talking about the assessment that was made of Camberwell. In her discussions with the legal professionals in Southwark and Lambeth, did they also express concern that the assessment of Lambeth’s use was inaccurate? It was undertaken at a time when at least one judge was away and it did not take into account all the rooms that are used in preparation for court hearings.

Helen Hayes: Concerns have absolutely been raised that the figures used to underpin the consultation relating to usage levels at Lambeth county court were not, in fact, accurate at all.

On the move to Camberwell, it is not clear whether the administrative functions of Lambeth county court in relation to housing possession cases will now be based at Camberwell magistrates court, or whether they will move to Putney and only possession hearings will take place at Camberwell. If the administrative functions move to Putney, there is concern that some vulnerable residents facing eviction will still have to travel to Putney to initiate administrative processes that require attendance in person, such as applying for a stay of eviction. If the administrative functions move to Camberwell, it is imperative that Camberwell does not become overloaded. We know what overloaded courts look like: everyone I have met who has had any experience of the Central London county court since it moved to the royal courts of justice describes it as being like the Chancery Court in Dickens’ novel, “Bleak House”, such are the delays and inefficiencies there.

The detail is important here, and I ask the Minister to respond to the following points in his reply: how many judges will move to Camberwell? How many hearings will transfer to Camberwell? What physical space will be made available at Camberwell? Where will the judges at Camberwell be based when they are not sitting in hearings?

Finally, there is concern that even with housing possession hearings staying closer to the site of the current Lambeth county court, moving the remaining functions to Putney will mean that many vulnerable residents—victims of domestic violence, parents attending custody hearings, residents who are in financial difficulties—will have to travel a long distance on a complicated public transport route to access the justice that they deserve.

I come back to where I began. Lambeth county court is the busiest housing court in the country. Those who deal with it on a regular basis report that it works well in respect of housing and the other work that takes place there. Although there may be theoretical short-term savings to be achieved from its closure, there are very great risks that, as a consequence, justice will become less efficient and less easy to access, particularly for vulnerable residents on low incomes. The consequence of that will only be additional costs to the public sector in the long term.

I would be grateful for the Minister’s response to the concerns that I and my hon. Friends have raised. Fundamentally, I believe that this closure will have disastrous consequences for my constituents, and I urge him to reconsider it.

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4.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): May I say what a pleasure it is, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray? I commend the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate—we have met about the matter—and I take the opportunity to put on record that she is an extraordinarily diligent and conscientious Member of Parliament who has spoken up very effectively for her constituents in the short time that she has been an MP. I am pleased to see that we also have the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) here today, because both of them have written to me and we have corresponded on this issue.

It is absolutely clear from today’s debate that the hon. Lady cares deeply about our courts and the delivery of justice. I want to assure her that I do, too. Before I speak about Lambeth county court, I will mention some general points. The consultation that we have just concluded ran last year and had more than 2,100 responses, all of which were carefully reviewed and analysed. I care about reforming our courts—about moving from places that have changed little since Victorian times to a modern, responsive and flexible system fit for the 21st century.

Neil Coyle: I echo the Minister’s kind words about my colleagues. I am sure that many of those respondents contacted the Minister and the Department to demonstrate their commitment to justice and modernising justice, but how many of the 2,100 responses agreed that it was sensible to close the court?

Mr Vara: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise number regarding the 2,100 responses that we received, but it is fair to say that a number of them objected to closures. As I said, we carefully looked at all the responses that were given. If he gives me some time, I will say that we did actually listen to many of the points that were made—if he bears with me, I will come to that.

Despite the best efforts of our staff and the judiciary, the infrastructure that supports the administration of the courts and tribunals is inefficient and disjointed. It uses technology that is now decades old. We offer very few services online and rely on paper forms. We key in data and pass bundles of documents between agencies. When we need to take payment, we can often only accept cash or cheques. We convene physical hearings to discuss matters of process. We need to end the old-fashioned ways of working that create inefficiencies and which make it hard for the public to access justice.

That is why the Government have a significant reform programme in which there will be an investment of some £700 million over the next four years. That will transform the experience of everyone who comes into contact with the courts and tribunals. New services and new, more joined-up ways of working across the justice system will require a modern infrastructure to support them. The reforms will increase access to justice by making it swifter, easier and more efficient.

To achieve those benefits, however, we must make difficult decisions, and deciding to close a court is undoubtedly one of the most difficult. I want to emphasise that we have listened to the responses to the consultation.

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We have retained four courts and in one further case, we have retained one of the jurisdictions along with the building following the responses that we received. In 22 courts, we have modified the proposal in some way to reduce the impact of the closure on court users—indeed, Lambeth is one of those courts, and I will refer to specific points on that shortly.

In the case of Lambeth county court, the court is poorly used; it is only used for around 40% of its available sitting time. The building is in need of considerable maintenance, including the replacement of air conditioning, lighting and aspects of the heating and hot water system. In many respects, it is simply not fit for purpose as a modern and flexible court building.

As the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood mentioned in her speech, she and I had a meeting—I thought it was very productive—following which we were able to engage in conversation with my officials and she was able to liaise with the local council, Southwark council, and there was a very productive dialogue. Unfortunately, after Southwark council had carried out a feasibility study, it came to the conclusion that county court work could not be transferred to its premises, which we were open to considering. I am, however, pleased that following the representations that she and others made, and recognising the enormous number of housing possession cases that are at Lambeth county court, we have managed to shift the work two miles down the road to Camberwell Green magistrates court. I think that is not unreasonable, in that we have listened, and I would like to think that two miles is not a huge distance.

I understand that the closure of a court has a very real impact on the court’s users, staff and judiciary, but I want to make it clear that in England and Wales, the closure of 86 courts will only reduce the proportion of citizens who will be able to reach their nearest civil or family court within an hour by car by 1% and by public transport by 5%. It is also worth pointing out that the majority of the population will never have to attend a court, and for those who do, it is likely to be a rare occurrence.

The issue of access to justice featured prominently in the hon. Lady’s speech. Being able to access courts and tribunals when required is, of course, essential, but effective access to justice is not defined simply by the proximity to a court or tribunal building. It should be defined by how easy it is for court users to access the service they need, however they choose to do that. We want to take advantage of the choice and flexibility that digital technology offers. We will move towards a system in which face-to-face hearings are required only for sensitive and complex cases. Online plea, claims and evidence systems with much wider adoption of video conferencing into court will reduce the need for people to travel to court.

Helen Hayes: It is not clear to me what the timescale is for the investment of £700 million in new technology, or whether there will be a time lag following the closure of Lambeth county court, the move to Wandsworth and the introduction of the advantages that new technology may be able to bring. Will the Minister set out the timescale and process is a little more detail?

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Mr Vara: The hon. Lady raises a good point. She will appreciate that I cannot, off the cuff, give her the timetable for Lambeth court, but I can say that it is clearly very important that there is synchronisation between the closure, the transfer of work and the new digital process coming in. Otherwise, there will be an extraordinarily chaotic justice system, which is the last thing any of us want. I assure her that we will be working at pace to ensure the modernisation will work alongside any closures and transfers. She was right to raise the point and I hope I have given her some comfort.

It cannot be right that people are able to transact important aspects of their lives online—for example, completing their tax returns or doing bank transactions—but when interacting with the court having to revert to paper forms and photocopying evidence. I am keenly aware that many people who encounter our justice system do so when they are at their most vulnerable. They may be a victim or witness in a criminal case, or individuals, businesses and families trying to resolve disputes. They may have been recently bereaved or experienced family problems. Whatever the circumstances we need to make better use of technology to provide them with easier access to a more responsive system. This will benefit vulnerable users, with swifter processes and more proportionate services in many cases, which will reduce the need for potentially stressful attendances at court.

Indeed, we have a duty to offer more convenient, less intimidating ways for citizens to interact with the justice system while maintaining the authority of the court for serious cases.

Mr Umunna: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Vara: I am mindful that the hon. Member for Streatham spoke about security and if he wanted to intervene on that, I propose to deal with it now. He raised an important point. At present, we have a system whereby witnesses, victims and defendants can all end up on the same public transport going to the same court. Under the new and reformed court system that we envisage, we hope that evidence can be given from a video conferencing suite, perhaps in a civic building or a local police station. That would be done at an appointed time so the victim and the witness would turn up at a given time. It is likely that that suite would be much closer than the court that is dealing with the case. That must be a better and safer system.

Travel time is mentioned regularly, but given that we are moving to a system with video links, travel times will not be longer and in many cases may be shorter because people will be going to a civic centre or police station to give their evidence. That will reduce cost and time, and will be a lot more convenient.

Mr Umunna: One problem—there are several—is that the Minister cannot give my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) a timeframe for the introduction of the technologies. In his answer just now he used words such as “likely” and “may” do this or that. The problem is that the absence of the technology will create all sorts of problems for our constituents.

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My second point is about the data that were collected and formed the background to the consultation. Clearly, they were collected when one of the judges was absent so were not reflective of just how busy Lambeth county court is.

Mr Vara: On the data, I assure hon. Members that the decision was based on the correct information. I hope the hon. Gentleman appreciates that, with the best will in the world, consultation on 91 courts requires human beings to put a huge amount of data into documentation. I assure him that the decision was taken on the correct information.

On my use of the words “may” and “will”, the hon. Gentleman should look at our track record. During the consultation, I met the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood. Following our meeting, there was instant dialogue between my officials and Southwark council. While the consultation was still proceeding, the council came to the conclusion that it was unable to accommodate what we wanted.

It would be unreasonable for the hon. Gentleman to expect me to give a specific time, date or month. All I can say is that when we are putting in place a £700 million-plus programme of court reform throughout England and Wales, he must take it on trust that we will do our damnedest to make sure everything fits in and is timely and orderly because, if it is not, there will be one massive chaotic justice system, which is the last thing I want.

Neil Coyle: I note the absence of a specific timeframe, which is unfortunate. Perhaps the Minister will write to my hon. Friends about that. Where is the assessment of the new costs to the police and councils of providing space for the video conferencing that the Minister mentioned?

On journey times, can the Minister tell us what percentage of cases he expects members of the public will still have to attend? In my constituency, there is a growing number of controlled parking zones. Thousands of people are not allowed to own a car where they live so a massive number of people will still be expected to use public transport and, as I have said, a round trip from Rotherhithe in the rush hour will take around four hours.

Mr Vara: I am mindful that I have about two and a half minutes and I am keen for the hon. Lady to have a few minutes to sum up.

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In response to the hon. Gentleman, 20 years ago it was unthinkable that people would be accessing banking services from the comfort of their kitchen table or their sitting room. They did not know they would be able to access the Inland Revenue and file their tax return from the comfort of their home. It is important to recognise that proximity to justice does not mean being in a physical building called a court. We already have online transactions taking place. We will do our best to ensure that the £700 million-plus programme works apace and that we deliver the service that we want for a 21st-century justice system that is fit for purpose.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate and I hope I have given her some comfort. I conclude by saying that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform our court system and that is precisely what we seek to do.

Helen Hayes: I thank the Minister for his response and for taking the time to respond in detail. On video links, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) suggested, there is serious concern about the context in which police stations are closing. I met one of my borough commanders this morning who said Brixton police station is full and there is no capacity. I am not sure the Government have a plan for that. Southwark and Camberwell councils are rationalising a number of their premises, which is probably why they have difficulties in accommodating the Court Service. It is not clear that facilities for video links will be available.

Mr Vara: We have a video link in Wales that operates from a community centre. We can be broad in our thinking process.

Helen Hayes: My point is about the absence of a detailed plan in the context of a very big decision. The Minister has not responded to my detailed questions about the way in which provision will work at Camberwell and I would be grateful for a written response.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the justice system. At the moment, it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity without a plan.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): The hon. Lady may want a lifetime opportunity, but I am afraid she has run out of time.

Question put and agreed to.

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Road Routes to the South-West

4.30 pm

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the upgrading of road routes into the South West.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am very grateful that this Transport Minister is here today. Looking round the Chamber, I can say with confidence that many hon. Members will agree with me when I say that I do not believe that the south-west has had the greatest bite of the cherry and the greatest funding in relation to roads and infrastructure. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has travelled through the west country and shares our concerns. All I hope is that he has his chequebook with him this afternoon—we will see the colour of his money later, we hope.

The whole idea of this debate is to ensure that we deal with the roads going through the west country. There are particular roads that hon. Members will want to promote. I will be considering in particular the A303 from Ilminster through to Honiton. I very much welcome what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government have put forward for dualling the A303 right the way past Stonehenge—indeed, under Stonehenge—and right the way through to Ilminster, and then dualling the A358 from Ilminster to the M5. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) is not here, but she would want me to say how much she welcomes what is happening with the A358. I am not here to complain about any of the roads that the Government have in place; I am here to say that we need a second arterial route into the west country. Just as we need a second railway line, we need a second road. Taking all the traffic on to the M5 at Taunton may not be the best idea if we have a problem on the M5, so having a second arterial route to Exeter, to the airport, is essential.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): My hon. Friend makes the valid point that we need railways—we need two lines—and we certainly need a very strong route through. Does he agree that the Government should be in favour of that? We need economic growth in the south-west, and without that infrastructure we will not achieve it.

Neil Parish: I could not agree more. Doing the figures, we reckon that these infrastructure improvements could deliver about £40 billion to the west country, so we are talking about very big money. There are also a great number of visitors coming to see us, and we want to ensure that they can get there by rail, by road and even on their bicycles if they want to. We want them to come to the west country. There are many hon. Members present from Cornwall. To get to Cornwall, people need to travel through Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire, so that is key.

The west country is definitely a honeypot as far as tourism is concerned. If the A303/A30 through to Honiton and Exeter is dualled virtually all the way, most of the London traffic will come that way. Then there is the north and the northern powerhouse that the Chancellor is so keen to have and that I very much support. When

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people from the northern powerhouse and the midlands come down, they will naturally come down the M5 and into the west country from that direction. What I am talking about is a natural way of keeping that traffic going and keeping it separated. I go back to the point I made earlier. Let us say that we take all the traffic on to the M5 and there is a problem after Wellington. A caravan may tip over going down the hill, which is not an unforeseen happening. With what I am talking about, we will not only be able to get traffic on to the motorway. If there is a blockage on the motorway, then with the A358 dualled, we will get a lot more traffic back up the A358, going into Honiton. That is where I believe we need to do the second route in and have it dualled all the way through and upgraded through the Blackdown hills.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) will make a case for upgrading the north Devon link road, and I very much support that. I am not here to destroy other people’s ambitions; we want to ensure that we have as much investment for the west country as we possibly can.

I agree with the Chancellor—the architect of our long-term economic plan. As he rightly says, the south-west has not enjoyed as much attention as the north of England, but that does not excuse any neglect of the south-west. I agree that his long-term economic plan for the south-west is good, but we want to see the colour of his money. In particular, I believe that transforming connections between the south-west and the rest of the country is the right thing to do, as well as improving connections within the south-west. From Somerset to Devon to Dorset, these infrastructure upgrades are essential.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend’s comments. Does he agree that the Kingskerswell bypass, which has just opened and connects my constituency to the rest of the road network by dual carriageway for the first time, is a perfect example of the benefits that can be delivered by investment in our infrastructure, with thousands of jobs and new homes predicted to be generated just by that investment?

Neil Parish: I could not agree more. The Kingskerswell bypass brings people into Torbay. It brings them from the A380, and if they go back on that road, they have the A380, the A38 and the A30 when they get to Exeter, so they have a choice of roads. It is ideal to keep the A303 going from Ilminster through to Honiton to ensure that they can make that connection, so I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend.

Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He mentioned Dorset, and Dorset in the south-west often feels unfairly left out. Does he agree that it is not just about individual counties such as Dorset and Wiltshire working together? We have to look across the whole of the south-west and then, as he says, into individual counties. For example, it is vital that we get north-south roads built out of the important port of Poole and put that infrastructure in place.

Neil Parish: I again agree, because in a previous life I had the terrible job of being one of the Members of the European Parliament for the whole of the south-west,

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which includes Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Dorset, as well as all the other counties in the west country. If we take the A350 and other roads, getting north to south through Dorset, from Poole to Bristol, is an absolute nightmare. It is about ensuring that we have roads from those ports through to our major cities and our major road links, so I am very supportive of what my hon. Friend says.

In the course of this Parliament, we have a real opportunity in the south-west to consolidate and invest in our infrastructure. A number of roads need upgrading, and I know that my hon. Friends here today will be talking about the various projects—we have heard some comments already, but there will be more—all of which will play an important part in upgrading and improving our local economy in the south-west and our long-term economic plan. I think at least one of those investments should be upgrading the A303/A30/A358. The A303/A30 is a vital arterial route into the west from London, as I have mentioned. Those upgrades will also help as traffic calming measures. Currently, the A303/A30/A358 is one of the most congested roads in the south-west, and in the summer months road usage increases by up to 50%. If the Minister ran down through the A30/A303 today, he would probably find little problem with it, but that bears no resemblance at all to what it is like in the height of summer. Do not forget that we want people to come to the west country to spend their money and enjoy the great scenery.

The A358 runs through the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, and acts as a link between the A303, the A30 and the M5. She has campaigned long and hard for the upgrade of the A358, which runs just outside the Blackdown hills area of outstanding natural beauty—an area that I share with her. About 80% of local residents and businesses in the Blackdown hills AONB believe that road congestion is an issue and 97% of all residents support road improvements in the hills. The Blackdown hills AONB has made it clear that it supports an upgrade to the A303/A30, but that those upgrades should be carried out with sensitivity and in ways that are compatible with conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the Blackdown hills.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that we need clarity about the timetable from the Minister, so that all our constituents across the south-west can be confident that the Government’s commitment will be delivered during the next few years before the next election?

Neil Parish: I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. We have talked about this for a great deal of time and we have put the money on the table, but people actually want the road built now.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): It is not just about the commitment to doing it; it is about physically seeing some of the work starting. We need some spades in the ground.

Neil Parish: We certainly do. Before I answer my hon. Friend, let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) that it is essential to get the tunnel built, but I want to ensure that we start building all parts of the A303/A30. We should not just hold up one part for another. We have to get on with it. To get

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down to Plymouth, we have to get through a number of counties. Plymouth is very much a driving force for the west country so it is essential that we get not only trains, but good roads to Plymouth.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On the subject of getting the choreography right, it is great to do Stonehenge, which is what grabs the national news. However, would my hon. Friend observe that if we fix Stonehenge and merely shunt traffic a little bit further west, into the village of Chicklade, for example—a very real possibility, particularly if the economy takes a nose dive, which economies tend to do from time to time—my constituents will find a whopping great traffic jam landed on their doorstep, which would be an extremely bad thing and do nothing to sort out the problem with the superhighway to the south-west?

Neil Parish: I agree with my hon. Friend. Roads are a little bit like tributaries. If one area is cleared, the water is taken faster into the next area, and the same applies with traffic. Therefore, if we are doing the road, we have to ensure that we dual the road all the way through.

Although the tunnel under Stonehenge is necessary, it is expensive and will take some time. We have other schemes through Chicklade and other places that are not so expensive and can go on at the same time. The previous Government made a mistake: the problem at Stonehenge stopped any help to the rest of the roads. We have to do Stonehenge but we have to do the other parts of the road as well. Should the Minister travel on the A303/A30 now, he will have the good fortune of congested roads so that he can safely admire the natural beauty of the area, but I want him to be able to travel through a little faster so that he can get to his destination when he decides he is going to and is not stuck in hours of traffic jams in the summer.

In the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we deal with air quality. There is no doubt that the more traffic is congested, the more vehicles stay ticking over, and as idling cars give out a lot of pollution, this a problem of pollution as well. If we get people through quicker, Roads Minister, we will improve the environment even more.

Unfortunately, many commuters are not that interested in the surrounding beauty and think that getting to work on time is important. Although a great many tourists come through the area in the summer, we must not forget that a lot of people are still working. They want to get to get to work and to get goods delivered in their vans and cars.

Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con): My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head of a historical problem, which is that the south-west—I include Dorset in that—has always been seen as a busy holiday destination that can just take the pressure for those months. It is often forgotten that we have a vital and viable series of businesses large and small, the agricultural sector and so on, which need high-quality roads so they can get their goods to and from market and their employees can get to and from work. If we are to see a real strengthening of our south-west economy, roads such as the A350 and the C13 in my constituency all need investment and attention.

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Neil Parish: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. When we improve the major roads, we must ensure that all the links work and get the heavy traffic through. We must ensure that we have good roads for tourists and for those who live in the west country all the time.

Some 58% of people think that road safety is an issue and 53% believe that reliability is an issue, which demonstrates the need for an upgrade due to the public perception of the lack of reliability of the road. That goes back to what I said at the beginning: if people choose a route into the west country and they are absolutely certain they can get along the A303, they will use it; if not, they will go on to the motorway, which will probably be highly congested.

This is not just about public perception. The A303, A30 and A358 have among the highest number of fatalities and personal injury accidents, which underlines that road safety is a clear issue. Of course, road safety is not just an issue along the A303, A30 and A358. I have been working hard with Highways England to come up with a solution for Hunters Lodge junction on the A35, because that route is a real problem. There have been serious accident and fatalities there next to the turning into Uplyme and Lyme Regis.

Anne Marie Morris: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a safety issue regarding the number of potholes? I remember that in a recent very bad winter, the potholes, even on the M5, were very significant. Given the number of roads we have in the west country—certainly in Devon—we need more money not just for new roads, but for ensuring that the existing roads are properly maintained.

Neil Parish: In fairness, I think that the Government gave a great deal of money for potholes, and the county councils, particularly Devon County Council, worked very hard on the problem. We have to deal with potholes because they cause accidents and damage cars. It is essential that we get that work done but, in fairness to the Government, they did give something like £8 million to Devon to solve the problem of potholes.

I am dealing with Highways England regarding the A35. We are looking for a solution to slow the traffic and make the Hunters Lodge junction safer—we must deal with that. Upgrading the whole corridor of the A303, A30 and A358 would create 21,400 jobs and boost the local economy by some £41.06 billion—a key delivery for the long-term economic plan for the south-west. Other benefits would include £1.9 billion of transport benefits due to reduced journey times and greater resilience.

James Heappey (Wells) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned the long-term economic plan for the south-west, with which the Minister will be familiar. It was delivered 13 months ago, almost to the day, and he very clearly pledged £7.2 billion for wider transport improvements in the south-west, £3 billion of which was for roads. I hope my hon. Friend would agree that today would be a good time to hear an update on how the spending of that £3 billion is going.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend raises a good point. We are keen to hear from the Minister exactly how the spending is going and when we are likely to see diggers

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arriving to construct the roads, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) said earlier. We look forward to that answer.

Additionally, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) reminded me, the A30 is a stretch of road that runs past Exeter airport and that by no means constitutes low noise. He is particularly keen for the concrete motorway to be quietened—I suspect he tried that when the Minister came down the A30. It is definitely dualled, of which I am jealous, but there is an argument about the noise caused by the road. The village of Clyst in the East Devon constituency is hit by the double whammy of noise from the airport and from the roads.

Furthermore, the A30 is the main carriageway for motorists travelling westwards towards the Exeter and East Devon growth point, which is also in the East Devon constituency. The growth point, as my right hon. Friend pointed out to me, includes the brand-new and fast-growing town of Cranbrook, the science park, the business park, Skypark and, as mentioned previously, Exeter airport. The Minister was in Cranbrook just last week for the opening of a new train station, and he will have seen at first hand that improvements to the A30 would be a big boost to the growth point and therefore the wider economic area. The only way to achieve those figures is to upgrade the whole A303/A30—I may possibly have mentioned that before. That second arterial route into the west country would create a natural flow of traffic, as much of the London traffic would be dealt with, thereby creating the sensible and logical division of traffic that we need.

I ask the Minister for assurances that all those projects will be given the go-ahead. Please show the same confidence in the south-west that all of us here today share and recognise. We have been given a brilliant opportunity to develop as part of the long-term economic plan not just for the west country but for the whole country. Will he encourage Highways England to work with Devon County Council on the design of the roads through Honiton and Monkton, all the way through the Blackdown hills to Ilminster? Devon County Council has done a lot of work on that. Finally, we say to the Chancellor: please may we have these funds? They have been promised, and we look forward to seeing them.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, I note that at least five hon. Members, perhaps more, are seeking to catch my eye. I intend to call the first Front Bench spokesperson at 10 minutes past 5, which gives 18 minutes between five speakers. An average of three or four minutes each would be courteous to each other.

4.52 pm

James Heappey (Wells) (Con): It is appropriate that a fellow south-west MP should be in the Chair for this important debate, Mr Gray.

Given the time available, I will move quickly to my shopping list for the Minister, but not without first saying that the unveiling of the long-term economic plan for the south-west last year was an important moment in the election campaign, because it clearly demonstrated that a Conservative Government would have the south-west at the heart of their thinking and would recognise that investment in south-west infrastructure

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had for too long lagged behind other parts of the country. Since the election, we have had an opportunity to debate at some length the problems with our broadband in the region, and the other night we had an excellent debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on the area’s rail infrastructure. Today’s debate on roads is similarly important.

I will briefly focus on two areas, the first being our region’s strategic connections. The M5 is closed too often. Traffic gets south of Bristol and is too often met with a traffic jam that closes the road, which has an impact on the visitor economy not just in Somerset but in Devon and Cornwall. On a Friday evening many restaurants and campsites are left without their Friday evening’s revenue because people are still stuck in and around Avonmouth on the M5. The A303 and the A358 are clearly important improvements for us to make to take some pressure off the M4-M5 interchange. Those improvements must be made as quickly as possible, but with them must come a traffic management system that goes all the way back to the eastern end of the M4 so that people are advised to take the A303 and A358, if that route is the clearest, when trying to access the south-west. We must also make more effort to connect our road network with our rail and air transport hubs. At the moment, too many of our railway stations and airports are too far removed from decent roads, which also stands in the way of economic development.

My one entirely parochial plea, having spoken about the importance of the A303 and the A358—that is without doubt the most important improvement we must make to our region—is that, locally, there is a challenge in accessing the northern part of Somerset. There is an east-west connection on the M4 corridor. The next proper east-west trunk road is the A303 and the A358 in their current state; there is nothing in between, unless we accept the Bristol southern ring road, but that really serves Bristol’s suburbs, not the county of Somerset, north Somerset or north-east Somerset.

Although my hon. Friends the Members for Bath (Ben Howlett) and for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) are both encouraging improved access off the M4 beyond Bath and down into west Wiltshire and Somerset, we are also looking at improvements from junction 23 of the M5 along the A39 and the A361 to open up eastern Somerset and west Wiltshire from the M5 corridor, too. I plant that in the Minister’s mind, as I will be coming to speak to him about it in due course. It would make a significant difference to access for that part of Somerset, which at the moment runs the risk of becoming a rock in the stream as everything moves around it very quickly on the A303 or the M4/M5. That does no service to my constituency, where there are huge opportunities for a relatively small number of very short road improvements—probably an extra five miles of road. With that, I cede the floor so that others can put their shopping lists on the record, too.

4.56 pm

Derek Thomas (St Ives) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for securing this important debate.

The A30 is the only real route of access to Penzance, which is the best-known town in the UK. It is still a hugely popular tourist destination, and it looks after the whole of west Cornwall. It is the economic centre of

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my constituency. Although I want to address the concerns about roads and congestion, I do not want to discourage people from booking their holiday in west Cornwall this summer, so please do that.

People who have holidayed in west Cornwall will know that at peak times throughout the year, not just in the summertime, the roads are particularly congested. Good work has been done on the A30 by this Government. We have not seen a lot of investment, but the road is being dualled right down to the edge of my constituency. At the moment, the road continues as a single carriageway right through the last and only village on the A30, Crowlas, where the first set of traffic lights for those travelling from London can be found.

In my constituency I genuinely have the biggest challenge and deserve the greatest rewards, for which I am thankful. We have a single carriageway, and Cornwall Council’s estimate suggests that congestion just on that section of road costs my constituency some £1.3 million a year, so we have a problem. There was a solution, but in 1997, the Labour Government cancelled a shovel-ready project that would have brought the road comfortably into Penzance and would have resolved some of the issues that the present Government are now being forced to consider.

I want to see a solution, and I thank the Minister for coming down in August on a very wet day. It only rains one day in the summer, which is when people come on holiday, and it was that particular day. He stood on the edge of the road, and he met the local council and local campaigners. He could see for himself the challenge that we have before us to improve the situation.

I come here with a solution. Since the Minister came to my constituency, I have met Highways England, Cornwall Council and local parish councils, and together we discussed what can be achieved. Cornwall Council has put together a useful piece of work called “The Cornish Expressway,” which is excellent and talks about how the road could be opened up for free movement of traffic down to my neck of the woods. The Government are already doing significant amounts of work around Temple and near Truro to make that become a reality.

As the cars move more freely after the work is done, it will only create a new pinch point in my constituency, making it even more urgent to address the situation. The Cornish expressway will keep traffic moving freely, reduce pollution and boost our economy. As I said, I have met a number of people and brought them around the table. We will do whatever it takes—whatever the Government or Highways England need us to do—to make the case. Our intention is that a well thought out plan will be prepared and included in the road investment strategy 2, for which the Government are currently seeking ideas. I would welcome some indication that such a solution to the A30 in my neck of the woods, enabling it to meet current demand on that section of road, would be welcomed by the Minister. I want to be sure that he will support the hard work that we will put in to free up the economy, reduce pollution and keep traffic moving.

5 pm

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Mr Gray, I can feel you champing at the bit to get involved in this debate; as another Member rightly said, you are a Wiltshire Member of Parliament too. I have three straightforward points to make.

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First, the issue of transport connectivity in the south-west and down into the peninsula is absolutely and utterly vital. I have been campaigning on it for the last 15 years, both for 10 years as the candidate, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who was there in the early days, and in the past five years as the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport.

There are two vital issues. The first is the dualling of the A303. We must ensure, ideally, that it continues through the Black hills as well, because it can take up to four hours, if not five or six, to get all the way from London down to Plymouth. The second is that in 2020, we will commemorate the Mayflower 400, the anniversary of when the Mayflower left Plymouth to go found the American colonies. We have an opportunity to use that occasion to hold one of the best trade exhibitions in the country, not dissimilar to what happened during the Olympics. We need decent transport links—road, rail and airport. I urge the Government seriously to consider reopening Plymouth airport; I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that he will do so. If we do not have those links, we will lose an opportunity beyond all measure.

Finally, although we talk about dualling the A303, the A358 and potentially the road down into the Black hills, the M4-M5 interchange is a nightmare for those of us who come up to London on a Sunday evening or afternoon. Only too often, I find it difficult to work out in my mind’s eye which lane I should end up in, especially if England are playing cricket and I get somewhat taken away by what might be happening in the match. I get rather concerned. As often as not, I find myself going up to Gloucester on the M5, which is a big mistake. That also needs to be looked at and sorted out.

If we do not do something about the issue, we will pay the price. It is the south-west that has delivered the majority for this Government in the House of Commons. It is vital that we do not miss this chance to look after Somerset, Devon, Wiltshire, Dorset and Cornwall. If we do, we will lose an awful lot of opportunities, and will unfortunately leave the issue to the Opposition, who I do not believe are as committed to delivering for us in the west country.

5.3 pm

Peter Heaton-Jones (North Devon) (Con): I congratulate my parliamentary neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate. I will take three minutes to bang on unashamedly about the North Devon link road. It is a pleasure to be part of this cohort of south-west Conservative MPs. We all speak with one voice—

Simon Hoare: Where’s Exeter?

Peter Heaton-Jones: As my hon. Friend exclaims with some reason, where is the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw)? We are united on the vital need for the south-west to secure these major road improvements. The overriding reason is that we need that investment to secure the economic future of our region. It is not about getting tourists there more quickly on a Saturday afternoon in August; it is about the vital economic future of the whole south-west.

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Within that framework, the north Devon link road is vital. The A361 connects North Devon with the M5. It is our only viable link south and east to the rest of the country. We do not see it as North Devon’s only link to the outside world; we see it as the outside world’s only opportunity to visit us. We must ensure that it is fit for purpose, because at the moment it is not. It is a single carriageway for about 85% of the distance between Tiverton and Barnstaple, some 30 miles apart. Where it is not, it has short overtaking lanes that merge quickly into the main carriageway with little warning. That leads to risk-taking, speeding and, sadly, a high incidence of accidents in which people are killed and seriously injured, on my doorstep. It is hampering economic investment and harming the vital tourist industry. I want to be positive. I do not want to put people off: “Come to North Devon; it is a great place to visit and do business. You will get there eventually.” I want to change the “eventually”.

I have been campaigning for major improvements since well before my election to this place. I was delighted when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor came and made certain commitments; I say to the Minister that this is the time to deliver on them. Devon County Council is doing fantastic work, thanks to the £1.5 million that the Chancellor has given us to carry out detailed planning work, including putting together a comprehensive business case. I met Devon County Council three hours ago here, and I ensured that we are driving the matter forward so we can make a bid to the local majors fund, a nearly £500 million pot created by the Chancellor.

It is part of the wider picture. The North Devon link road is vital, but it is no good if we cannot get people to the south-west to start with. That is why the A303, the A30 and the A358, championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, are vital. They are the backbone of the region’s infrastructure. The North Devon link road is one of the vital arteries connecting it to the rest of the world. I say to the Minister that I know the Government are listening; I am not complaining that they are not. I am merely asking that we now deliver what we promised. Let us put boots on the ground and diggers on the tarmac, and let us have a yellow army of road workers to complement the blue army of Conservative MPs in the south-west.

5.7 pm

David Warburton (Somerton and Frome) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this important debate. It is ironic that Stonehenge, which has been around for quite some time, has until now caused a blockage to getting the work done. In fact, it has been standing for more than 5,000 years. I am sure that even then, as the stones were dragged down from Wales through my constituency, they caused an enormous queue of donkeys and carts. No doubt even then they were promised a dualling of the A303. Now, their descendants, my constituents, are at last poised on the edge of their seats as they sit in much the same queue, not daring to imagine that it will actually happen. However, I think it will this time, so I am happy to cast aside the memory of Governments committing to improve our roads and then backing down.

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Our optimism increased even further with last year’s publication of the road investment strategy, which set out the details of how the £2 billion—or £3 billion; I am not quite sure of the amount—will be deployed. As we have heard, the projected material benefits are vast. Dualling the A303 alone will bring 20,000 jobs and £40 billion over six years. Those are the kinds of number that mean it is a profitable investment in our future. As I have said many times before, if the west country is to compete, grow and even flourish, we must have the structure, framework and infrastructure to do so.

Given how critical the matter is, I, like my hon. Friend, would be grateful if the Minister could give us any indication when the work will begin. When will we see the cones and the contraflows on the ground? Highways England concluded its report in October by saying that the three road measures—that is, the work on the A303, the A358 and the M5—are

“the first steps in our aspiration to provide an expressway between the M3 and the South West”.

So, some 5,000 years after I am sure the plans were first scratched into the west country dust with a blunt stick, I hope that now we can work together to make that aspiration a 21st-century reality.

5.10 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate and indeed all the hon. Members who have contributed to it. They have demonstrated the widespread concern that exists about the need for improved road infrastructure in the south-west. That concern has existed for decades, including concern about a second route through from London to sort out the issue of the route through from the M5, and so on.

James Heappey: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has heard enough today to be impressed by the need for improvements to the road network in the south-west. Does he agree, therefore, that the commitment to abandon the A358 improvements that was made in the Labour party manifesto last April was deeply misguided, and will he reassure us that his party has already abandoned that commitment?

Richard Burden: I will come on to some of the history around this issue in a little while, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman can just be a little patient on that point.

I will just offer apologies for my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). I heard his name come up before. He takes his duties as a member of the Health Committee very seriously and it is meeting at this moment.

The A303 has occupied a lot of the discussion today. Clearly, it is a road that has tested the ability of successive Governments to deliver the kind of objectives that we have been talking about. I think that there was broad support for the road investment strategy that was announced in 2014. However, what I am concerned about and what I would like to press the Minister on today is that despite the Government’s commitment of £2 billion for seven road schemes in the south-west up to 2021, I am not sure that the numbers add up and I am not sure that the start dates are anything other than aspirational.

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What we know is that when the previous Labour Government left office, the Highways Agency had a costed and timetabled plan to improve the A303 and to dual the A358 from Ilminster to Taunton, to remove the need to create a new dual carriageway through the Blackdown hills. What we also know is that after 2010 there was a rowing back on capital investment that was worth around £4 billion in total. So when we hear now about this £2 billion coming back in to fund some of these projects, it is important that we interrogate the Government about it a little bit.

According to the pages for the seven schemes on the Highways England website, only five of them have estimated costs and, if I have added up the figures for them correctly, their combined total comes to £2.15 billion. That is already more than £150 million over the £2 billion budget without the other two schemes being considered, and before scope creep and other inflationary pressures are considered.

In March 2015, the Government produced their “feasibility study” of solutions for an alternative road route to the south-west. However, I wonder what it all means, because it is about two years ago—in this very hall, actually—that I pressed the Minister’s predecessor to ensure that that study would lead to progress, but the future seems to be about as clear as mud at the moment.

The status quo pleases no one and it is necessary that we find a solution to the A303 and to Stonehenge. As far as I can see, however, the bottom end of the current cost estimates already seems to double the £410 million estimate that led Labour to review the costs back in 2005. So, can the Minister confirm when he expects a costed and timetabled set of options for the road? In the meantime, has he asked Highways England to evaluate short-term and medium-term options to improve traffic flow and alleviate congestion? Also, can he satisfy concerns that the current front-runner—a 2.9 km tunnel—would protect the integrity of the archaeological site, as required by article 4 of the world heritage convention? And in the event that the Government cannot satisfy the objective of providing a fully costed and timetabled proposal by 2017, what would he do? Would he consider, for instance, handing this work over to the National Infrastructure Commission to consider?

Neil Parish: I have a general question for the shadow Minister. In 1997, when the Labour Government came in, they cancelled the scheme to dual the road between Honiton and Ilminster, so I would just like to know whether there has been a change of policy by the Labour party.

Richard Burden: It is absolutely true—in fact, I think the hon. Gentleman said so in his opening remarks—that the history of these roads, across successive Governments, is riddled with changes of mind, delays, inquiries, and further delays and further inquiries. If I understood his opening remarks correctly, the important thing now is to interrogate the Government over the current plans, and that is where I have certain problems. I do not see a costed timetable; I do not see that the budget covers what already appears to have been committed to; and I would just like to know how the whole thing adds up. And the interest that hon. Members have shown today during this debate indicates that they share my concern that we know what the figures are and what they add up

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to, and that we know when—as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) said—there will be spades in the ground.

Before I finish, I will just raise a couple of other points with the Minister. As well as increasing road capacity, it is also important that we address the issues of, first, the quality of the roads and, secondly, the design of the roads, to ensure that they are as safe as possible. In its first piece of large-scale research as a watchdog, Transport Focus has identified that the top two priorities of road users in the south-west are those two things: improving the quality of roads; and ensuring that the roads have a safer design than they do now.

On the first issue—the quality of the roads—can the Minister put on the record that the Government will meet their pledge to resurface 80% of the network by 2021, as pledged in the Department for Transport’s Action for Roads 2013 document and repeated in the road investment strategy? If that is not going to be the case, perhaps he can explain what the current estimate is.

On the second issue—the safer design of roads—can the Minister offer me some assurances about what he is doing with Highways England to address the safety concerns that have been raised? In the last year, there has been an 8.4% increase in the total number of people being killed or seriously injured on the roads. And in the latest Highways England-financed road user satisfaction survey for May 2015 to October 2015, both the areas of the south-west that were surveyed saw steep drops, when compared with the figures for the previous six months, in the number of road users who said they felt safe. The surveys and the existing casualty figures seem to reveal that the Government are not doing enough to improve road safety in the south-west.

We should address these issues; I think the Minister has to address them. Perhaps it would help him to address them if the Government brought back national road safety targets, as we have often urged them to do.

In closing, I will say that Labour appreciates the infrastructure challenges in the south-west. No Government have been entirely consistent on this issue, and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has made that point. So it is essential that the current Government now bite the bullet and deliver genuine improvements to road routes.

However, if the Government are going to do that, there must be transparency and clarity. We need to know what the figures are. We need to know if it is £2 billion or £3 billion that is going to be spent; if it is £2 billion, then it already appears that that sum has been exceeded. And what will the Minister do on those other issues of road quality, including resurfacing roads to achieve the 80% target that the Government have committed to, and the serious concerns about road safety, which have already been revealed in surveys during the last year?

5.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Andrew Jones): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Gray.

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Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing today’s debate about upgrading road routes into the south-west. He has been a diligent campaigner on the issue for a considerable time. I was pleased to visit the area last August and to have him drive me down the A303, the A330 and the A30. There could not be a more stellar guided tour than the one he delivers. That visit brought home to me the importance of the lesson we learnt a few years ago: that the south-west needs resilience in its road network. Transport is a key driver of the economy, and an improved network will not only enable better journeys but boost growth. Last year the Chancellor noted that although the south-west accounts for 8.4% of the UK’s population, it accounts for only 7.5% of its economic output. A major reason for that is that the south-west has to put up with slow, unreliable journeys on congested roads, especially between the region and the south-east of England. If the south-west is not to fall further behind, major road investment is needed.

Many hon. Friends have highlighted clearly the importance of road investment in their areas. I was asked specifically about timing, and I will come on to that as I address some of the schemes. In December 2014, the Government launched the road investment strategy, outlining how £15.2 billion will be spent on our strategic roads between now and 2020-21. That is the biggest upgrade to our strategic roads in a generation. Within the strategy, the Government announced that they intend to upgrade the remaining sections of the A303 between the M3 and the A358 to dual carriageway standard. We are also creating a link from the M5 at Taunton to the A303, as part of the long-term commitment to create a new expressway to the south-west, connecting the M3 through to the M5 at expressway quality.

We intend to start the process with three major improvements as part of the A303-A30-A358-corridor package of commitments. The £2 billion budget, which is for only those commitments—it is not the overall budget for the south-west—will help to deliver much-needed resilience for the region. Part of that work has to address the iconic and historically important site of Stonehenge. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) has raised that issue with me many times, with his customary tenacity and command of detail. We will build a tunnel at least 1.8 miles in length, to preserve the world heritage site at Stonehenge.

John Glen: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. There seems to be some ambiguity concerning the process at this time, given that Highways England is examining alternative routes. Will the Minister clarify the purpose of that evaluation?

Andrew Jones: It is always appropriate to consider options broadly to ensure that the scheme is absolutely the right one, but there is no doubt whatsoever here; we are committed to delivering a 1.8-mile tunnel at Stonehenge. Our objective is to be able to stand at the stones and not see cars. The tunnel will transform the experience of that important part of our national heritage, and at the same time remove an environmental problem and a traffic problem. We should not, however, confuse the development consent order process requirement to show that different options have been exhausted with reneging

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upon our commitment. That commitment is strong, and we are working on it closely with environmental and heritage groups. The scheme has strong support from the National Trust and English Heritage; I have met with them at the stones and discussed the issue with them.

On timing, there will be a formal consultation on the scheme early next year. It will go through the development consent order process—part of the planning process—in 2018. We would expect to start works on the scheme in early 2020. We have to get that right, but I hope that that timing provides some comfort.

Dr Murrison: I listen to the Minister’s remarks with great interest. Does he agree that it would not be helpful if we sorted out the extraordinarily difficult conundrum of Stonehenge, which will be incredibly expensive, and yet did not deal with low-hanging fruit? I am thinking particularly of the village of Chicklade, since the problem will simply be shunted further west.

Andrew Jones: That is a valuable point. The scheme is not the only one we are considering for the area. When we consider schemes, they are in a network, and if one part of the network is changed there are consequential implications that we have to work through. I am conscious of time, so I need to press on rapidly.

We will dual the A303 from Sparkford to Ilchester and the A358 from Taunton to Southfields to deliver quicker, safer and more reliable journeys. Concerning the timing, we will begin the public consultation on the Sparkford to Ilchester section and on the A358 enhancements later this year, with Highways England set to make a recommendation to the Government in 2017.

Neil Parish: I very much welcome what has been said about upgrading the A303 all the way through to the A358, but one of the purposes of the debate was to talk about from Ilminster to Honiton, which the Minister seems to have failed to mention—

Andrew Jones: As yet.

Neil Parish: As yet. [Laughter.]

Andrew Jones: Much as I enjoy my hon. Friend’s speeches, I say to him, “Give me a chance here”. I am conscious of the time.

On the scheme for the A303, we expect to get a development consent order in 2018 and to start works in early 2020. The importance of that scheme was mentioned to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who highlighted its economic impact on her constituency.

Let us take the A303-A30 section between Southfield and Honiton, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton is particularly interested. I was very grateful for the guided tour he gave me in the summertime. I recognise that large-scale improvements are overdue, but this is a sensitive area. Highways England is working with Devon County Council—they are meeting later this week as part of their regular dialogue. We have not forgotten the route, but the topography and the protected landscape surrounding it in the Blackdown hills is sensitive. I also acknowledge the safety record on that stretch of single carriageway. All the points that my hon. Friend made about it are

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true and the matter is being considered. It is not part of our first round of schemes, but it is not off the agenda; it is being worked up, with local input, and I hope that he will continue to have an input into that.

I must mention some other schemes that we are undertaking in the area. We are investing in dualling the last single-carriageway gap on the A30 into Cornwall. We will have an expressway-standard road running all the way from Exeter to Camborne. On timing, we will have a public consultation this year. I anticipate that Highways England will make a recommendation to the Government in about a year’s time, and that there will be a development consent order in 2018, with works starting in early 2020.

Those are, however, not the only schemes that we are developing in the area. We have the new junction of the M49, to provide access to the enterprise zone at Avonmouth, and we will start works on that in 2017. There are other enhancements along the M5, particularly with a view to unlocking development sites at Hinckley Point. A significant amount of work is taking place. We are addressing pinch points, such as the Air Balloon roundabout.

It is not as if we are just starting work; work is already underway. It was great to come down to Devon only last Monday to open the south Devon highway, which connects Newton Abbot and Torbay. That marvellous and significant project had a great response from local councils and communities. We are also, of course, working on the A30 Temple to Higher Carblake section. When I visited last summer—my goodness, that was a properly wet day; perhaps Cornwall has more than one of them.

Scott Mann (North Cornwall) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Andrew Jones: I have about 30 seconds left, so perhaps my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not.

We are working with local partners throughout the schemes. The north Devon link road is an important project. The Government have provided £1.5 million to help develop the business case and we will continue to look at that. Members are right to champion that project. The north-south access from Dorset is clearly overdue. I have met with local enterprise partnerships and councils in the area and we have a further meeting planned to discuss the issue. We are already on the case, and Highways England, the Department for Transport and local authorities are working on it. We are not changing the road investment strategy’s content; our question now is about delivering it.

Road safety was mentioned. Road safety is at the heart of the road investment strategy and we published our road safety statement in December last year.

There might have been other points. I am not sure whether I have addressed all the points; if I have not, I will write to colleagues.

5.29 pm

Neil Parish: The blue army here today, comprising some 14 Members, shows how serious we are about getting great roads infrastructure in the south-west. We welcome the Minister’s words, but now we want to see delivery and we want it done quickly. I thank Members for the great support I have had today. Let us get on with the job. Let us get the roads moving in the south-west

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and let us ensure that the region becomes the land of milk and honey and a powerhouse for the west country, along with the north of England and all parts of the country. It is essential that we do that.

Question put and agreed to.

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That this House has considered the upgrading of road routes into the South West.

5.30 pm

Sitting adjourned.