Tuesday 23 November 2010
[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]
High Speed 2
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vara.)
I am grateful for the opportunity to open this Adjournment debate on the principal infrastructure project of our time: High Speed Rail 2. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir.
The railway system of Great Britain is the oldest in the world. It developed from a patchwork of private local rail links provided by entrepreneurs, and via amalgamations, temporary state control, nationalisation, highly regulated privatisation and part-renationalisation it became today’s system, which is, as one of my colleagues on the Transport Committee has said, “neither fish nor fowl”.
It seems that this country has tried every conceivable governance model for rail, yet the subject remains contentious. I should like to deal with three questions. First, should a high-speed rail route run through Buckinghamshire—specifically, the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty—against the wishes of local people? Secondly, should any area of the country be forced to accept high-speed rail? Thirdly, if transport resources and capital are scarce, what is the best approach to relieving that scarcity? I intend to demonstrate that High Speed 2 should not be run through Buckinghamshire or any area of the country and that a new, more classically Liberal and Conservative approach should be taken towards British transport policy.
I acknowledge the help and support of my Buckinghamshire parliamentary colleagues in preparing this speech. However, I have not sought their approval for this final version. My colleagues in the Government have emphasised that their opposition does not necessarily extend beyond the route. I also acknowledge the large number of high-quality submissions I have received from the people of Buckinghamshire. I am sorry that time has prevented me from including all their important points.
I should like to make clear my support for the Government’s intent. I am certain that the Government—the Transport team in particular—are fully committed to this country’s economic renewal and all-round success, and I applaud them for it. I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming that the public consultation will cover not just the route, but the strategic case for high-speed rail. I am relieved that the Government will make their arguments with an open mind. I shall try to do likewise.
First, on local issues, should a high-speed rail route run through Buckinghamshire, specifically the Chilterns AONB? The Chilterns AONB is a rare, precious landscape benefiting not just those who live there but the millions who visit every year from across the country, particularly, due to its proximity, from London. I have lived adjacent to the AONB for almost three years and can confirm that it is one of Britain’s most beautiful and ecologically rich landscapes.
The preferred route of HS 2 crosses the AONB at its widest point, in contradiction to the policy followed for HS 1. In Kent, the route of HS 1 was amended to avoid the North Downs AONB. By contrast, HS 2 appears to have been deliberately routed through the least spoilt, widest part of the Chilterns.
My hon. Friend mentioned High Speed 1. HS 1 was introduced in Gillingham and Rainham, in Kent, about a year ago and there are lessons to be learnt from that. Does he agree that a new fast service should not be introduced at the expense of the existing train lines? The number of services from Gillingham to Victoria and Cannon Street stations was cut. Lessons have to be learnt. The routes, services and timetable cannot be changed at the expense of HS 1. Another lesson has to be learnt in terms of cost and affordability: HS 1 fares in Kent have increased by 30%.
I agree. I shall return to the economics of HS 1 later.
Some 59 different protected species have been recorded within 1 km of the route of HS 2. The recommended route involves tunnelling directly through an aquifer, risking reducing the water table and exacerbating low flow in the Chess and Misbourne. It also risks possible contamination of the ground water. The environmental impact of the recommended route of HS 2 would be enormous. I am therefore calling for an official environmental impact assessment of the preferred route well in advance of the planned consultation, so that interested parties can fully digest its findings. In Kent, the route was altered to run beside the existing M20, a major strategic transport corridor, which reduced incremental noise pollution and landscape damage. I am surprised that a similar approach has not been adopted for HS 2. The M40 in my constituency is infamous for its proximity to housing and for its meandering path.
Opposition to high-speed rail is substantial in Buckinghamshire. On 7 November, an HS 2 rally took place in Great Missenden, where more than 2,000 people demonstrated their opposition. At the rally, the noise that HS 2 will make was played to the audience. Many were shocked by what they heard. The noise over the speakers may or may not accurately represent what HS 2 will sound like, but it reinforces the need for HS2 Ltd or the Department for Transport to provide noise maps and proper analysis of the noise impact that people will face. HS2 Ltd said, in a letter dated 8 October about noise assessment studies:
“On the subject of noise assessments, an Appraisal of Sustainability is currently being finalised and will be published ready for the launch of the consultation in the new year”.
We are impatient. It is now well over a month since then, but there is no sign of any further information. It is unacceptable for HS2 Ltd to keep delaying this important study.
Part of the planned preferred route slices through a corner of my neighbouring constituency at Denham in Buckinghamshire. The route enters the constituency through a site of special scientific interest in the Colne valley. There is no doubt that the railway line, which at that point would be on some type of viaduct, will have a seriously adverse impact on the environment. For example, the railway would culvert the River Colne along a several hundred yard stretch in an area where there has been a long struggle to maintain the rural aspect of a river valley that has significant environmental importance. With all this in mind, will the Minister please ensure publication of the environmental impact assessment at the earliest possible moment?
There is no benefit to Buckinghamshire from accepting high-speed rail. The project would have to be bullied through against the well-grounded wishes of those affected, causing not just the environmental damage described but also infringing the property rights of large numbers of people. Doing so would thoroughly undermine the Government’s commitment to increasing people’s power over their own lives. From Buckinghamshire’s perspective, the answer to whether HS 2 should run across the county is, of course, a resounding no. Buckinghamshire people are bound to object to a programme that would merely blight our beautiful county and trespass on local people’s businesses and the quiet enjoyment of their homes. I find myself asking, “Should any area of the country be forced to accept high-speed rail?”
Having had the privilege of living in many areas of the country throughout my adult life, it is my view that Buckinghamshire’s arguments would find parallels in most parts of the country, particularly those with designated areas of outstanding natural beauty. Why should anyone tolerate the demolition of their home or business? Why should anyone accept the ruination of a swathe of countryside? Why should anyone agree to so much noise and disruption? The answer, of course, lies in the national interest.
To justify so grotesque an intrusion into property rights and local collective enjoyment of the natural environment, the Government must be certain that the benefits of HS 2 to the whole nation would far outweigh the high costs that would be imposed along the route. Clearly, if a high-speed rail network will usher in a new age of incomparable prosperity for the whole country, regenerating the industrial north and reuniting it with the south, we must all support it.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He makes a strong case, as one would expect from a constituency MP working on behalf of his constituents. Does he accept that there may be some benefits for his constituents? The alternative to high-speed rail is that people do not travel or—more likely—that journeys are made by air or by road. That has an impact on the environment in the form of air pollution, for example, and noise nuisance, which might also affect his constituents.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention and I will return to some of those points, in particular how we make a judgment between road, rail and air travel.
If it is not true that high-speed rail is in the national interest, and if such a project will offer only marginal and uncertain benefits at vast expense, it would be in no one’s interest. I am delighted that the Government wish to ensure the prosperity of the whole nation, but it has not been demonstrated that HS 2 will deliver that. To justify such a grievous impact on the people and landscape of Buckinghamshire—and indeed along the entire length of the route, wherever it is located—the Government must place the economic and environmental case for the programme beyond all doubt. I do not believe they have yet done so.
High-speed rail is not commercially viable, so the expense is justified with a wider cost-benefit analysis. That analysis relies on assumptions, including excessive demand, generous benefits and a flawed analysis of the alternatives. I shall only touch on each point today, but I am sure that campaigners will furnish us with full details during the course of the inquiry.
The projected increase in demand is open to challenges that include demand saturation, a broken relationship with GDP, out-of-date data, neglect of new technology, and inadequate anticipation of competition from classic rail—a problem that blighted HS 1. The case for benefits neglects the fact that many of us work on the train, and it depends on implausible levels of crowding. The Department for Transport’s alternative, Rail Package 2, is paid too little attention, despite meeting demand with less crowding than would occur should the HS 2 programme go ahead. At £2 billion, the package is much less expensive. It is better value for money and capable of incremental delivery, setting it free from the risks associated with long-range economic forecasting. Rail companies could lengthen trains to nine, 10 or 11 cars. That would increase capacity from 294 to 444 seats—an increase of 51%. Unused first-class capacity could also be swapped for standard seats, thereby further increasing total capacity.
It is a myth that the UK lacks a fast national railway network; we have had one for a long time. We have routes capable of 125 mph, with quicker rail journey times between the capital and the five largest cities than in other major western European countries. For instance, the average journey time in the UK is 145 minutes. It is 151 minutes in Spain, 184 in Italy, 221 in France and 244 in Germany. In short, it appears that for £2 billion, the Government could have a complete, low-risk but unglamorous solution to the problem of rail capacity, and rather sooner than HS 2 could be delivered. Therefore, I am not convinced that £30 billion—or more—of taxpayers’ money would be wisely risked on HS 2.
Does my hon. Friend accept that every infrastructure investment and transport initiative imaginable could, in the short term, be done more cost-effectively with the sort of incremental approach he has just mentioned? That does not take away the need to think strategically, and occasionally to do things that are more than just incremental.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that we should explore at some length. In the final part of my speech I shall set out why I think we have been taking the wrong approach to infrastructure in this country.
Targeted investment in existing infrastructure would ultimately offer greater benefits to the whole country not served by HS 2, including the south-west, south Wales, East Anglia and the north-east. Such an approach would provide a visible demonstration of productive investment during a time of austerity. I am aware that the environmental case for HS 2 can be similarly attacked, but given the time, I shall simply quote Mr Steve Rodrick, chief officer of the Chilterns Conservation Board:
“The case for HS 2 is largely built on capturing the internal aviation market, but 80% of all journeys between Manchester and London already involve the train…These trains will use double, possibly triple, the energy of normal trains. Where’s that energy going to come from? You either have to bank on nuclear coming on stream or, more likely, power stations running on fossil fuels, which will involve significant carbon emissions.”
I also recommend Christian Wolmar’s 15 September article for RAIL magazine, which states that the arguments against HS 2 are mounting. His tour de force concludes by explaining that HS 2 would absorb money that would otherwise be spent on classic rail in an environment of reduced funding. He writes:
“We cannot have it all. Let’s work to protect what is essential, rather than trying to reach for the moon.”
Finally, I will turn to rail policy and transport strategy in the round. If transport resources and the necessary land and capital are scarce, what is the best approach to ensure optimal resource allocation? It has long been argued by the Conservative party, as it was once argued by Liberals, that unhampered social co-operation in the free market is the most efficient and effective way to allocate resources and relieve scarcity. With that in mind, I asked the House of Commons Library to prepare a summary entitled “Price controls and state intervention in the rail market.” It is not, of course, a simple statement that there are no price controls or state interventions in the rail market; it is six pages long and covers passenger franchise specification, the control of fares and rolling stock procurement. It also sketches the process of almost continuous organisational change that has dogged rail since nationalisation in 1948. Contemporary rail is not characterised by property rights, freedom to contract, open competition and unhampered prices.
My task today is not that of setting out a new free market transport strategy, and I will not pretend I am able to do so. However, I wish to emphasise that rail, and road transport in particular, are not capitalist systems in the conventional sense but hybrid systems of heavily regulated and subsidised public and private companies. We have inherited a rail system whose franchise agreements descend into such detail as specifying a “biennial talent management programme” and even “time with your manager sessions.” That is not freedom to contract, and clearly rail operators are not free to set market fares.
Of course, I do not want fares to rise any more than my colleagues do, but we should admit that the rail system does not operate in a free market and that therefore economic calculation is likely to be hampered, if not irrational. We simply cannot know whether today’s rail economics are optimal, but it seems likely that they are not.
The hon. Gentleman is making the point that the current rail network is not a truly free-market, capitalist system, but will he not accept that there is a role for the state to play in markets where there is market failure—for example, where there has to be a national network—as has been well documented by many economists? Will he also confirm that he stood on a manifesto platform at the election that promised to
“begin work immediately to create a high speed rail line connecting London and Heathrow with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds”
as the “first step” towards achieving a vision of a
“national high speed rail network to join up major cities across England, Scotland and Wales”?
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me an opportunity to deal with that point, in which I see she takes some pleasure. In the first place, I note that economists take a range of views on these matters, and mine are perhaps rather more free market than most. On the second point, about the manifesto, Conservative candidates across Buckinghamshire stood for election saying they would oppose HS 2 and knowing that that was in contradiction to the manifesto. I personally made it clear at the time that I would oppose HS 2.
If it is true that economic calculation is likely to be hampered, if not irrational, under the present system—I am certain that it is—we should not be surprised that there is so much disagreement about economics in respect of rail. We should not be surprised when the Institute of Economic Affairs estimates that the return on HS 1 is less than half of 1% of the Government’s investment per year. Nor should we be astounded that some markets for high-speed rail already show signs of saturation. For example, demand on the lines from Tokyo to Osaka and Brussels to Paris is not growing anywhere near as fast as forecast. According to the Financial Times, China is reviewing its high-speed rail plans for affordability and practicality. Its latest high-speed line is operating at less than half capacity, and it is projected that the lines will never make enough money to repay the large loans used to build them.
I shall leave the last word on the economics of high-speed rail to the IEA’s Dr Richard Wellings, who wrote in relation to High Speed 1:
“Perhaps an unsubsidised international service could just about cover maintenance costs, with the sunk capital effectively written off. But far better returns could almost certainly be achieved by shutting down the line and disposing of the assets—which include substantial plots of land, tunnels under London and the Thames, and large amounts of scrap metal.”
HS 2 should certainly not be driven through Buckinghamshire, where it would have an egregious effect on some of our finest countryside, but it is not clear at all that HS 2 should be driven through any part of our country. HS 2 appears economically irrational: it requires tens of billions of pounds to increase the UK’s transport capacity by about 1%. Less money could be better spent. Moreover, that economic irrationality is almost certainly attributable to the prevailing orthodoxy in rail policy. It is an orthodoxy of planning, not the free market. We are at the end of a wasteful century of socialisation. Today, the basis of transport and, more broadly, infrastructure economics presupposes planning. It should therefore be no surprise that transport is characterised by scarcity, excessive prices and political tension.
To return to where I began, I applaud sincerely the Government’s noble intent, but I note that rail has not been governed by the free market for a very long time. There is no doubt that this country needs good-quality infrastructure. We should create the conditions in which unsubsidised enterprise can deliver the optimal solution. That would be the classical Liberal and Conservative approach. In my view, the solution that would emerge is not likely to be high-speed rail. I believe that this programme should be cancelled.
When I first looked at the plans for High Speed 2, I was principally concerned with its immediate impact on my constituency where it comes into Euston station. Its effect there would be the demolition of 350 flats, about two thirds of a small park, St James’s gardens, being concreted over, a massive inhibition on the much-needed rebuilding of Maria Fidelis Catholic girls secondary school, and problems for people in the Primrose Hill area, whose homes would be tunnelled under in a big way. However, the more I looked at the proposal, the more I thought that it was not just a matter of the damage that it was likely to do in my constituency, but that the whole project of bringing the line into Euston station and other aspects of the proposal were daft and expensive.
In saying that the London terminal should be Euston station, the projectors had to come up with ways of coping with the fact that Euston station is not on the Heathrow Express line and is not intended to be on the Crossrail route, so it does not have major connections that would be important for High Speed 2. To cope with that, the projectors proposed building a sort of super-parkway station at Old Oak Common—more commonly known as Wormwood Scrubs—and then rebuilding Euston as well. Bringing the line into Euston would also involve the boring of a 5½ mile tunnel, which as we all know is a fairly expensive item.
If the projectors had instead proposed that the line came into Paddington station, that would have made sense, because Paddington is already the terminus for the Heathrow Express and will be on the Crossrail route. The idea of coming into Euston seems to spring entirely from the fact that trains from Birmingham have always come into Euston. There is no more justification for it than that.
When I looked at the plan more widely, it seemed to me that there were other major shortcomings with it. High Speed 1 has been a great success, and certainly the refurbishment of St Pancras station in my constituency—I think that I was the first person to suggest that St Pancras should be the High Speed 1 terminal—has been a great success. The idea that we shall have just one leg of a high-speed system coming into London but not connected to High Speed 1 seems simply stupid. If we are to have a high-speed rail system that is on the end of the high-speed system in the rest of Europe, it would not be a bad idea if it was connected to it, which is not the present proposition.
Similarly, if only one leg of the system from the north will come into London, that will mean that the system is vulnerable to a major crash or terrorist activity that would close down the whole system. I make no comment on where the line should run outside London, but it seems to me that rather than a Y-shape arrangement, there ought to be an H-shape arrangement, so that coming into London are two legs, at least one of which is directly connected to High Speed 1 and would allow trains to come from the east side of Scotland, and the north-east and Yorkshire, and, if they wanted to, come into Paddington. Other trains from, say, Glasgow or Manchester would be able to cross over and come into wherever the link to High Speed 1 was located.
The scheme is badly thought out and extremely expensive. It will be amazingly damaging for my constituency. It should be withdrawn and criteria should be established that set out what on earth it is supposed to achieve. We should then come up with proposals that go some way towards achieving that.
I will move on to the scheme’s affordability. I have, in theory, a degree in economics. I am convinced that economic forecasts for more than 18 months nearly always turn out to be total rubbish. I therefore do not give much weight to anybody’s economic forecasts or assessments of viability for or against the scheme. History shows that all the major railway engineering projects of the 19th century went bust, were involved deeply in fraud or, more commonly, both. I do not think that a major railway project has ever paid back the original investors, unless they have benefited from fraud, such as the huge Ponzi scheme of the line to the north-east. I think we must accept that such projects never will repay their investors and that there is no free-market solution. Apparently, the Institute of Economic Affairs wants to rip up High Speed 1.
On coming to this place, I did not think that I would find myself much in agreement with the right hon. Gentleman, but I am delighted to hear him speak against rail. Would it not have been good if the market had stopped the rail programmes that he has mentioned because insufficient people freely chose them to make them profitable? Money would then not have been wasted on such infrastructure.
I have never heard anybody suggest that the 19th-century railway boom in every industrialised country in the world did not contribute substantially to the economic development of those countries. Perhaps some people at the Institute of Economic Affairs are so stupid and reactionary that they believe that, but that is by the bye.
The impact of the scheme on my constituency will be dreadful and I reject it on a parochial basis. I also believe that it is ill thought out and will not achieve most of the things that are sought by people who are in favour of a high-speed system in this country.
Like the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), I will focus on the narrow impact of high-speed rail on my constituency. I will make the point that development might not always be good. Rugby sits on the west coast main line, which has recently received substantial investment to focus on the city-to-city times for London to Birmingham, London to Manchester and London to Glasgow. A side effect has been a reduction in the service for towns such as Rugby. The service to the north-west is much less frequent because the city-to-city times have been improved by the trains not stopping at intermediate stations. The Rugby rail users group is campaigning for the reinstatement of those services and sees the development of high-speed rail as an opportunity to recover them, because city-to-city traffic might move from the west coast main line to HS 2.
The effects of HS 2 might not be entirely beneficial. I will give anecdotal evidence from France. For many years, I travelled to visit friends in Épernay, which is the home of Champagne. Épernay is about the same distance from Paris as Rugby is from London. In the ’70s and ’80s, I enjoyed a regular service to Épernay from the main east line out of Paris towards Strasbourg. When one turned up at the Gare de l’Est, there were plenty of trains. On making the same journey last summer, I found that there were no trains throughout the day. There was one commuter train from Épernay to Paris in the morning and one from Paris to Épernay in the evening. The reason was that the new TGV line through eastern France heads towards the bigger city of Reims, taking all of the traffic from the existing railway line. My concern is that towns such as Rugby may suffer from the introduction of a new high-speed rail line and receive a worse service.
The rail service is critical to the economic development of Rugby. That is recognised by the chamber of commerce. At a recent event, 50 businesses heard the case for high-speed rail and I understand that many left the presentation unconvinced and unsatisfied as to its merits. There needs to be a good understanding of business so that the project delivers benefits for it.
I will conclude because many hon. Members want to contribute, but I make it clear that the existing rail network will be affected by HS 2, and it is important that there is an assessment of the impact on the communities that will be affected.
I will describe the context as I see it for such infrastructure improvements. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) spoke of economic forecasts. I start with the economic figure that the average gross value added per head in London is about £30,000, whereas in the English regions, it is about £17,000. Such a huge difference does not exist in any other country in Europe. One way in which that can be fixed is through infrastructure investment. Even now, there is massively more infrastructure investment in London, with 60% more infrastructure capital spend per head in London than in the regions. The high-speed rail project is fundamental to the regeneration of large parts of the north of England and the midlands.
We have discussed the business case so I will not spend much time on it, although we could argue more about it. The Department for Transport will have to publish the business case. The net benefit ratio in the preliminary publications was 2.7, which is pretty high. However, that figure includes assumptions about factors such as idle time and optimistic passenger projections—I think that the figure was 278%. That must all be worked through. The business case does not include anything about the economic regeneration of the north, the carbon savings from the modal shift from road and air to rail, or the freeing-up of airport capacity. It is not possible not to go ahead with the third runway without a project of this kind.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the project will benefit Yorkshire and the north-east, as it will the north-west. Does he agree that when the Y-shaped line is built—as I hope it will be—both legs should be built at the same time to ensure that the benefits that he rightly identifies are brought to the north-west and the north-east simultaneously so that one region does not suffer at the expense of the other?
I agree that the Y-shaped solution is the most sensible one, but I do not want to get into which part should be built first. I would like to quote a few numbers on the transformational impact of the potential scheme. We are generating, potentially, many tens of thousands of jobs. In January 2010 KPMG published a report which estimated an incremental increase in employment of between 29,000 and 42,000—not directly from constructing or operating the line but due to the economic and productivity impact on the regions of much closer links with London. In itself, 40,000 jobs would generate a huge bonus for the Exchequer, but none of that is currently in the business case that is being debated.
A lot—in fact, nearly all—of the comments up till now have been on the environmental issues surrounding the line. I do not want to minimise their impact, but the Government are the Government of the whole country, not just of the south-east of England and London. It is important that we properly weigh up some of the unpleasant environmental impacts against the greater good.
I am very much enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Does he accept that building high-speed rail with a Y shape going as far as the north-west will bring benefits to other parts of the country, including Scotland? Extending high-speed rail to Scotland would cut the journey time from four and a half hours to more like two hours. Even as it is being built, it will start to decrease the journey times because people will be able to change trains part way through, if they wish.
I certainly agree that, in time, the line needs to go to Scotland. I have very much bought in to the productivity improvements and the step change in how we do business in the country that could be achieved with such a line—so, yes, I agree.
Going back to the environmental impact, it is obviously right that compensation is paid and that we do the right thing by the people whose property rights are being impacted. However, that cannot be our pre-eminent concern.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the environmental impact is about more than landscape? I think he was making that point. Environment is about people, communities, jobs and productivity as much as it is about the landscape that we might enjoy through the window of a train or, indeed, of a car.
I accept that. Indeed, where we have areas of high unemployment, the ability of people who live there to enjoy their environment is much less than it would be otherwise. The Government also have a duty to take into account the impact on prosperity and employment throughout the country.
I want to make a couple of slightly more detailed points. It is important that whatever we build is linked to Heathrow. Those are probably the Government’s plans, but it seems to be absolute nonsense to build a high-speed rail link to the north and not to link properly Manchester airport and Heathrow, so as to see some of the traffic from Heathrow move.
I am of the view that the line needs to go to Euston and should not stop and link to Crossrail. I am not an expert, but Euston seems to be close to the business centres of London, so the impact of achieving that would be substantial.
I would like to see a spur to Warrington and Preston as soon as possibly, but I realise that the Minister might not think that that is her highest priority.
With reference to an earlier point, not linking High Speed 2 with High Speed 1 would be absurd. In my understanding of the initial business case for High Speed 1, the reason why we went into St Pancras in the first place was to allow that line, eventually, to go north. We are now building a High Speed 2 line to the north, so it ought to be linked.
Finally, it is very important that the Government maintain their commitment to the plan and realise that they are the Government for the entire country, and the entire country needs this.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this important debate.
I take a strong interest in the issue at two levels: strategically, as a member of the Select Committee on Transport and because High Speed 2 is a key component in the debate on our national transport infrastructure; and locally. Although the proposed route does not go through my constituency in Milton Keynes, it runs close by, just a couple of miles from my western border, which is close enough for me to have a say in the debate in a local context and to understand the justifiable concerns of many villagers along the proposed route.
I will put my cards on the table right at the start. From all the evidence that I have seen, there is a strong case for an additional north-south strategic rail route in the United Kingdom and for that route to be capable of running the latest generation of high-speed trains. However, I am far from convinced that the detail of the proposed route is correct.
We run the risk of an enormous and costly error in this country if we do not get the details right, which is why I warmly welcome the recent assurance by the Secretary of State and the Minister that the inquiry into High Speed 2 will examine both the strategic case and the specifics of the proposed route. Frankly, we get one shot at making the project work and, vitally, if it is to succeed, it must be done on the strongest evidence and commanding broad-based support in the country.
One strategic argument is that, instead of ploughing billions of pounds into constructing a High Speed 2 line, the money—smaller amounts even—could be better used upgrading what are known as the classic rail routes. I regard that as a false choice.
As any regular user of the west coast main line knows, it is already getting pretty close to capacity, even after the substantial investment and upgrades in recent years. If anyone doubts that, I invite them to go to Euston station at 7 o’clock on a weekday evening and try to board the Manchester train. Virgin has to employ people who are basically crowd-control managers to prevent ugly scenes. The line has other pinch points as well.
My hon. Friend tempts me down an interesting line of debate but, in the interests of brevity, I will resist that temptation.
At the moment, the classic network has pinch points. Yes, certain upgrades could be made—trains could be lengthened by a couple of coaches, there is room for one additional train movement in and out of Euston at peak times and the speed on the line could be increased a little. All those things can be done, but they would only buy time.
The choice, however, is not between doing those things and investing in High Speed 2. If we look at the time frame for High Speed 2, there is a gap between the existing capacity and what is needed in current years. I believe we have to do both—upgrade the classic rail routes and plan for the long term with High Speed 2. Simply, the forecast increase in the UK population and our increased willingness and desire to travel more and in comfort, mean that the extra capacity is required.
I accept the general case that there should be a route from London to Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and cities in the north of England and in Scotland. However, it is important that the business case is rigorously tested. From a common-sense layman’s perspective, we need to challenge why certain aspects of the current HS 2 case seem to be omitted or rejected. Time constraints prohibit me from going into those in detail, but let me flag up one or two of the issues, which other Members have raised.
Why does High Speed 2 not connect with HS1? It is crazy not to connect them, in my view. I had a meeting with the chief executive of Crossrail recently, and I asked him, “Has anyone considered using Crossrail as a link between High Speed 1 and High Speed 2?” He said, “You’re the first person who’s ever proposed that to me.” Such a link may not be the answer, but it is surely the sort of issue that we should look at as we consider a multi billion pound scheme over many years. Has High Speed 2 been considered in the context of broader UK aviation policy? Should we not look at connecting Birmingham airport, Heathrow and other airports in the midlands and the south as part of our total transport policy?
Why are we not looking more at intermediate stops along the line? I have enormous sympathy for the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, who said that Buckinghamshire would have all the pain but none of the gain because there would be no access point along the route. The French TGV system has intermediate stops at different points. This summer, I travelled on the line down to the Mediterranean, and there is a stop at Valence. It is constructed in such a way that it does not impede the fast trains that shoot through, but it gives access to many towns and cities in that part of France. If I may, I would like to put in an early bid for an Iain Stewart international gateway station to serve Milton Keynes and the surrounding areas.
There are justifiable environmental concerns, but I urge those who are concerned about the environmental impacts to look closely at other high-speed lines around the world. The use of proper cuttings and natural cuttings can minimise a lot of the noise and visual damage.
I want now to make a more strategic point. Everyone who objects to rail schemes believes that they will be ugly and unsightly, but they need not be. This country has a proud tradition of building infrastructure projects—particularly rail infrastructure projects—that enhance the environment. The Forth bridge, the Ribblehead viaduct and Brunel’s bridges and tunnels are things of beauty, and, done properly, the projects that we are talking about could actually enhance the countryside. I do not want to create some ghastly, ugly concrete jungle, but for goodness’ sake, if we are going to make High Speed 2 a national project, let us use it to showcase what we can do. I have mentioned examples of older infrastructure projects, but we could look at modern ones, such as the Millau viaduct in France, which enhances the environment.
It is absolutely right that we consider the strategic case to make sure that the numbers stack up. Equally, everyone along the route must have their say as to why the line should or should not go through a particular locale. However, let us do things with a positive attitude. We need High Speed 2 in this country and we get one shot at it. When we have the inquiry, which I strongly welcome, let us undertake it with a positive attitude.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate. He has put a strong case on behalf of his constituents, and it was also interesting, given his ideology of free market deregulation.
I want to make a couple of points before asking a few questions. The coalition agreement was absolutely right to commit to high-speed rail, which is a potentially incredibly important and transformational project. However, there is no either/or choice between high-speed rail and the conventional railway network. The Government have done extraordinarily well to protect almost the totality of the £14 billion of planned investment in the rest of the rail network during the battles over the comprehensive spending review. With the possible exception of my beloved redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble line, no rail project has been abandoned as a result of the CSR or the commitment to high-speed rail. The hon. Gentleman should be reassured by that.
The bigger picture is the UK’s ability to meet its long-term carbon emission targets, but we need more robust data. Some quite high numbers are being talked about, and we have heard about 23 million tonnes of carbon being saved over 60 years. However, there is a question mark over some of the numbers, given that about 77% of the journeys quoted by High Speed 2 Ltd apparently increase carbon emissions, as 50% of passengers shift from less energy-intensive railway journeys to high-speed rail and another 27% make new journeys. Of course, that probably underestimates the impact on the conventional rail network, given that other people might take up the capacity that is freed up there and we might see a parallel modal shift from car journeys to conventional rail journeys.
The figures also underestimate the impact of the long-term plan, which brings me to my first question. What is the Government’s latest thinking on the long-term commitment to connections to Scotland and the north-east? I might even add Wales and the west. There is clear evidence that there will be a profound impact on aviation over those longer distances—they are longer than the initial London to Birmingham stretch. A company called Travelport, which owns two of the four back-office systems that support airline and high-speed rail bookings around the world, has suggested to me that in the first month after the introduction of a high-speed rail link over such a distance, one third of the air travel on the same route vanishes, and that aviation drops by two thirds within three months. If that is true when we eventually have longer high-speed rail links in this country, it will have a profound impact on our carbon emissions.
I am not sure that that is right. I must confess past sins. I used to work for a marketing agency that had clients in Scotland and I am afraid that I regularly took the team on a flight up to Edinburgh. I am now very guilty about that, and it was probably very carbon-inefficient, but the truth is that high-speed rail could have a massive impact on such business journeys, on recreational travel and on other connections between Scotland and London. All the evidence from other parts of the world is that that impact is quite consistent.
Turning now to my questions, I want to ask first about the status of the Heathrow interchange in the Government’s plans. If one is trying to reduce carbon emissions, it seems illogical to make sure that people can get to airports even more efficiently, so I do not see the Heathrow interchange as particularly important. The fact that it is being retained even as a long-term objective or possibility might militate against the option pointed out by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), who spoke of the logic of a connection between High Speed 1 and High Speed 2.
Secondly, I would urge sensitivity to local issues. Caroline Pidgeon on the London assembly has raised the issue of houses in London that might be only a couple of metres above the tunnel when it is eventually built. Even though those houses are built on London clay and often do not have deep foundations, the householders do not appear to have access to the hardship fund. I would welcome the Minister’s latest thoughts on that.
Finally, there is the issue of planning. I have long been an advocate of a democratic planning system. I have made the case for such a system to people who propose nuclear power stations and, for consistency, even to my friends in the wind energy industry. However, it is a bit more difficult to take a site-by-site approach with a long railway route; we cannot just take out Berkshire and expect there to be no impact on the rest of the network.
In that respect, I commend to hon. Members and Ministers the words of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which has taken an enlightened approach to this issue. It points out that High Speed 1 runs through the Kent downs area of outstanding natural beauty, adding:
“Noise from trains is barely noticeable compared to the background noise of traffic, while earth mounds and wooden barriers help conceal the line itself…No stations are proposed for HS2 between London and Birmingham, so like the Central Railway proposal it would not offer local benefits. HS2’s trains are likely to whoosh past in seconds unlike noisy diesel freight trains proposed to trundle along the Central Railway, so the noise impacts should be less but this still would mean ‘something for nothing’ for the communities it would pass through.”
The “something for nothing” argument is important. The CPRE suggests that a number of benefits could be built into the long-term scheme. It says that “Electricity pylons” could
“run along much of the route including in the Chilterns AONB and these could be undergrounded next to the track…Low noise surfaces could be installed on local roads to improve tranquillity…New and improved Rights of Way and Open Access Land could improve outdoor opportunities around the path of the route”.
It makes many other suggestions for improvements that would benefit people along the route as this important project is put in place. There may be environmental consequences—there is no escaping that—but the bigger picture is important. As I said at the beginning, this could be a transformational project, very important for our long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions, and one I strongly support from the Liberal Democrat benches.
As we do not have much time, I will be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this important debate on a topic that is causing a great deal of concern up and down the route. We need to ensure that it causes more concern in the rest of the country, where people do not have the route coming through their back gardens and therefore do not realise how devastating it is going to be to communities and families.
The route will have a potentially devastating impact on my constituency of North Warwickshire. We face the prospect that the line as it runs in to Birmingham from the main line will branch off in my constituency, causing a huge amount of devastation to the villages of Gilson and Water Orton. The main line will continue further north, causing severe impact on the town of Coleshill and the village of Middleton. Potentially even more worrying, if the Y-shaped route happens, we might end up with the junction in my constituency, probably tripling the amount of blight and devastation in North Warwickshire. We do not know exactly where the Y-shaped junction is going to be, but there is a great deal of concern throughout my constituency. If the Y-shaped junction does end up in my constituency, it will probably be the single most affected in the country as a result of the route.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that we need to know as quickly as possible where the Y-shaped route is going to diverge, so that residents in our part of the world—I represent Tamworth, just up the road from North Warwickshire—can begin to make dispositions as they see fit?
I entirely agree and thank my hon. Friend. He and I have neighbouring constituencies and we are working closely together on this. We are watching closely, because if the Y-shaped junction is not in my constituency, it is likely to be in or close to his. People need to know about this issue. Knowing one is going to be devastated by something is one thing; believing one might be but not knowing is even worse. There are people on a route that appeared briefly on one map—with a dotted line that disappeared from subsequent maps—who were effectively blighted, but who were unable to take part in the exceptional hardship scheme or any other compensation scheme. They are blighted through uncertainty, not through an actual line on a map. It is important that that topic be addressed as quickly as possible.
However, I am going to be brief so that someone else can say a few words. I want to make two pleas to the Minister. The first concerns the exceptional hardship scheme. I ask her to look in detail at what has happened so far—at those who have been approved and those who have not—and satisfy herself that the current scheme is transparent and working properly. I have had constituents refused under the scheme, and who were given reasons that were not listed as factors on any previous document or in the frequently asked questions relating to the scheme. That suggests that the scheme is not transparent and that to a large degree, the panel is making it up as it goes along. It is fundamentally wrong for people, having looked at the published documentation and believed that they ticked all the boxes, to then be turned down on criteria they did not even know were to be considered.
I entirely agree that it is a rule-of-law issue, and it is also a moral point. People understand that Governments need to make difficult decisions such as this, but they have to make them within a framework that is open, transparent and understandable. If it looks as though decisions are being made in a murky way, that completely undermines what the Government are trying to do. By definition, people applying under the exceptional hardship scheme are going through a difficult time. I urge the Minister to look at how it is working and to point out to the panel that it is not there to be a hard-nosed gatekeeper, but to implement a clear and transparent process in a neutral and even-handed way.
Of course, there are many people who qualify for the exceptional hardship scheme but whose homes are blighted by the prospect of the railway, and by its actualité if it is built. Does he not think that the cost of that extra blight—which means that homes cannot be sold, so stamp duty is forgone by the Treasury, as is the spending power of the people who cannot sell their homes or who sell at a lower price—should be factored in to the business case?
I entirely agree. Getting the compensation right is every bit as important as getting the details of the route right. In many ways, it would be far cheaper. The sort of figures we are talking about for compensating people are dwarfed by the sums involved in building the railway scheme. I urge the Minister, do not be cheap when it comes to compensation. If we have to do this and blight people’s lives, compensate them adequately. That is really important.
My final plea to the Minister is, will she please bash some heads together at HS 2 Ltd and tell it to stop refusing requests from local councils to come and brief officers and members? The chief executive of the council in my constituency, North Warwickshire borough council, has just written an uncharacteristically strongly worded letter to HS 2 Ltd expressing his deep disappointment that before the general election, it had agreed to come and brief officers and members, but said running into the election that it was then in purdah and could not do it. It is now a long time since the general election and it is still refusing to brief the council. Local borough and county councils need to understand what is happening in their areas. They do not and they are not getting the help they need from HS 2 Ltd. It might be a little over-dominated by engineers; it needs some people who can explain, communicate and listen.
Those are my two pleas to the Minister. Will she please look at the exceptional hardship scheme and compensation, and satisfy herself on those matters, because I do not think the system is working fairly? Secondly, please tell HS 2 Ltd to engage more, particularly with local borough and county councils.
Thank you, Mr Weir. As people know, I represent the wonderful and beautiful constituency of the Calder Valley in west Yorkshire. Many would say, of course, that it rivals, or even exceeds, the beauty of Buckinghamshire. We live in an area that is rich in a history of industry, and more recently banking and financial services, as well as still being a major employer in manufacturing and distribution, with over 26% of our employees working in manufacturing. Imagine what economic benefits High Speed 2 would bring to those employees and manufacturers. Many of the 6,000 employees at the headquarters of Lloyds TSB and Halifax live in the Calder Valley, making our economy one of the most at-risk areas in Britain if we see a further slide in the banking and financial services industry.
I recently went to Paris on Eurostar from London. As we know, that line is Britain’s first high-speed rail link. It is incredibly useful to the economy of the south-east of England but not to Yorkshire’s, given that people can get a train and arrive at two different foreign capitals to do business more quickly than they can get a train in London and arrive in my constituency to do business. Pundits have spoken about the north-south divide in this country for many years. May I suggest that High Speed 1 to Paris has created not only a greater north-south divide, but also pushed the divide even further south? High Speed 2 would shorten that divide for Yorkshire.
The Calder Valley has a huge diversity of business.
I apologise for missing the earlier part of the debate; I was at another meeting. High Speed 2 will indeed provide benefits to Yorkshire. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those benefits will also extend in due course further north—for example, to Edinburgh where my constituency is located, and to other places in the north of England and Scotland?
Without question, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, let us get the first leg of the line into Yorkshire first.
As I said, the Calder Valley has a huge diversity of businesses—ranging from sole traders all the way up to some fantastic, world-leading businesses at the cutting edge—that contribute a gross value added average of £3.3 billion to our country. Our employees have the highest productivity rates in west Yorkshire and are among the highest in Britain, at £43,700 GVA per employee. Why should we not have access to our capital and other major cities at speeds equivalent to, or even better than, those available to the French or the Belgians?
We in Yorkshire do not advocate reducing access to our cities by foreign business with High Speed 1; we merely ask for a level playing field so that we can compete and play our part in our country’s economic growth. High Speed 2 will give Yorkshire just that—a level playing field, so that we can grow and continue to be the beating heart of England well into the next century. It is a place that we have earned, and deserve to have.
I thank the Government for consulting on the Y-shaped model for HS 2. I give the Minister the guarantee that we Yorkshire MPs will do all we can to ensure that it happens.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Weir. I am pleased to be able to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate. I was glad to have the opportunity to listen to the views, opinions and concerns of right hon. and hon. Members.
The Labour Government brought forward the original idea for High Speed 2, and I welcome the fact that the coalition Government will continue with that project through the next stages. However, I note from reports in The Daily Telegraph over the weekend that high-speed rail is causing the Conservative part of the coalition some local difficulty, with at least three Ministers being publically opposed—including, if reports are correct, a Cabinet Minister. Indeed, the paper quoted the Secretary of State for Wales as saying:
“I would defy the party whip—be very, very sure of that.”
We will have to see whether Cabinet Ministers are willing to vote against the Government on this issue. None the less, the Minister who is here today obviously enjoys the support of the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), who made a valid case for the economy of the north-west of England—as a north-west MP, I certainly agree with much of what he said—and she has the in-principle support of the hon. Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker).
A project of this size and scale will, of course, not be without controversy. Without doubt, good travel links between Britain’s major cities are central to our economy. We need a transport system that is high-capacity, efficient and sustainable.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in developing the eastern part of the Y, it is important that core cities such as Nottingham are included, so that they too can reap the benefits not only of faster routes to London but of better connectivity to Yorkshire and Birmingham?
When we go into the details of what is proposed, we certainly need to ensure that connectivity with the English regions—the hon. Lady makes a powerful case for the city of Nottingham—are included.
As the economy grows, people will travel for employment and leisure, and there will be more demand to move freight, something that is not sufficiently considered in relation to rail. The Labour Government rightly believed that improved transport capacity would be needed between our major cities from the 2020s, starting with the route from London to the west midlands, two of Britain’s largest conurbations. Projections show that by then the west coast main line will be at capacity. By 2033, the average long-distance west coast main line train is projected to be 80% full, and severe overcrowding will be routine for much of the time. There will also be a significant increase in traffic and congestion on the motorways between and around London, Birmingham and Manchester, far beyond the problems experienced at these locations today.
The Labour Government’s view was that high-speed rail would be one way to provide more capacity between the UK’s main conurbations in the long term. The extra boost provided by a high-speed line would substantially increase existing rail capacity. That would happen not only as a result of the new track but because the track and stations would make possible a far greater length of train, and because high-speed trains would be segregated from other passenger and freight services.
It is worth bearing it in mind that upgrading existing rail lines would yield much less capacity than a high-speed line and at greater cost in both money and disruption, but without most of the journey time savings. That is something that we saw with the recent £9 billion upgrade of the west coast main line; although the benefits were considerable, they were essentially incremental, coming after years of chronic disruption to passengers and businesses.
Journey time savings from high-speed rail will be significant. The journey time from London to the west midlands would be reduced to between 30 and 50 minutes, depending on the stations used. Manchester could be brought within approximately an hour of London, down from almost 2 hours and 10 minutes. Through-services from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London would be down to just three and a half hours.
The connectivity gains of high-speed rail will come not only from faster trains but from the new route alignments that comprise the proposed Y-shaped network of lines from London to Birmingham, and eventually north to Manchester and Leeds.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Labour party’s ultimate objective is that the high-speed line should go directly to Scotland, and that we should not rely on existing services for part of the line? Obviously, things cannot be done at the same time everywhere in the UK, but will he confirm that that is Labour’s objective?
When Labour was in Government it was always envisaged that the high-speed lines would eventually connect with Scotland. In the long term, that will be crucial to the economies of Scotland and the English regions.
The new network would overcome some of the limitations of the old network, which has three separate and poorly interconnected main lines, each with own its London terminus. An important factor is that the high-speed network would enable key local, national and international networks to be better integrated. In particular, including an interchange station with the new Crossrail line just west of Paddington on the approach of the high-speed line to central London would greatly enhance the benefits of both Crossrail and the high-speed line. A Crossrail interchange station could deliver a fast and frequent service to London’s west end, the City and docklands. The total journey time from central Birmingham to Canary Wharf could be just 70 minutes.
A boost to the west midlands economy is anticipated to the tune of £5.3 billion a year, and to that of the north-west of £10.6 billion a year at today’s rates.
The hon. Gentleman said that there would be a benefit to the west midlands. Is he aware that I asked a parliamentary question of the Department for Transport in order to ascertain what the benefits would be to Staffordshire? The Department responded that it had made no such analysis.
On that point, the figure cited by the hon. Gentleman of just over £5 billion came from the West Midlands chamber of commerce. The figure was generated in the region, and one would imagine that it is most unlikely that some of the money did not come from Staffordshire.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point.
If, in time, an extension of the network to Scotland was to proceed, there would be a benefit of nearly £20 billion to its economy. HS 2 believes that the benefits of high-speed rail far outweigh the estimated costs, with the project yielding more than £2 of benefit for every £1 of cost.
There are clearly several arguments in favour of high-speed rail. It is a possible solution to the expected increase in passenger numbers, it will undoubtedly slash journey times and it could allow a much better integration of existing rail services regionally, nationally and internationally. However, we have to take on board the fact that not everyone is in favour of high-speed rail. I accept that, as the hon. Members for Wycombe and for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) said, some communities will be impacted through the construction and operation of high-speed rail. The Labour Government were mindful of the fact that, in making proposals for a route, there has to be an attempt to minimise local impacts while achieving the wider objectives.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there would be merit in considering ways to give benefits to those communities impacted by the track—for example, by having spurs off the new tracks that offered interim stops on occasion?
That might be one solution to such concerns.
We need to ensure that people are fully consulted on changes that could affect their areas, and not only on the Chilterns or Buckinghamshire but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) said, on Euston and Primrose Hill. Indeed, my right hon. Friend made some powerful points.
The coalition Government must have meaningful, extensive and detailed consultation, particularly with the local communities affected, and they must be keen to listen and to balance the concerns of those communities, many of which we have heard about today in this debate. No route in a project of this significance will be without controversy, which is why there absolutely must be adequate consultation of the affected communities, together with consultation on the exceptional hardship scheme for those whose properties may be affected by proximity to the preferred route.
May I ask the Minister how detailed the consultation process about the plan for the new route will be? Will it give us a detailed account of the streets, properties and landholdings that will be directly affected by the planning process? Significant time will be needed to ensure that consultation is properly conducted and considered. I welcome the proposed exceptional hardship scheme for those whose properties may be directly affected. What time scales do the Government have to introduce provisions for owners of properties nearby the planned route that may not necessarily be directly affected by the construction? Finally, can the Minister tell me how many applications have been received so far for the exceptional hardship scheme?
The Labour Government proposed the high-speed rail that would link London to Birmingham and eventually to Manchester, Leeds and beyond, which is the widely backed “Y”-shaped network. I welcome the fact that the coalition Government, after a few wobbles, have come out and supported that network instead of their unworkable “S”- shape. That was perhaps not so much a U-turn as a “Y-turn”, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras has now thrown an “H”-shape into the mix.
I turn now to some specific issues. What consideration will be given to ensuring that the high-speed rail network is available to rail freight, which is an increasingly important part of the railway jigsaw? Does the Minister plan to have further talks with the Scottish Executive about possible network extension to Scotland in due course? Will she outline the time scale that the Government envisage for commencing construction of the first part of the network? Has her Department begun work on preparing the hybrid Bill that would have to be presented to Parliament to make the new network a reality in this Parliament?
The high-speed rail project could be of national strategic significance to this country, and I hope that we will be able to work across the House to secure a rail link that is worthy of a great country in the 21st century.
In the brief time that I have available, I will try to run through the points made by right hon. and hon. Members, and I will write to them about any points that time prevents me from covering now.
I am very grateful to have support for high-speed rail from across the House, across parties and across the country. That support is very welcome. There was a particularly vocal presence in the debate today from Yorkshire, which was particularly welcome.
However, we recognise that it is vitally important to think with great care about the local environmental impact of the project. Of course, we had some very comprehensive accounts of the potential impact, first from my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and then from my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles). It is important that they are here in Westminster Hall and able to put their constituents’ point of view.
I strongly believe that careful mitigation measures can eliminate the most intrusive local impacts of high-speed rail. Modern engineering techniques give us an expanding range of ways to use sensitive design to make transport infrastructure easier to live with and less intrusive; a number of Members have referred to the example of High Speed 1, where that mitigation work has been done with some success in many areas.
I believe that it is possible to find a solution that is balanced and fair; that generates the significant economic benefits of high-speed rail for the country as a whole, and that is fair to the local communities that are directly affected by whatever line of route is ultimately chosen. Hopefully, this debate will take us closer to finding a solution and choosing that route.
We intend the consultation to be inclusive, wide-ranging and comprehensive, providing a range of opportunities for Members and their constituents to go through these kinds of concerns about the impact on landscapes and communities. Our consultation is designed to run for about five months, which is longer than the statutory minimum. We take this process very seriously, because we know the gravity of the concern that is felt in some communities.
The business case for high-speed rail was discussed by a number of Members. We are absolutely confident about the very significant benefits that a line from London to Birmingham would generate and we believe that those economic benefits are even more significant when they are linked to a “Y”-shaped high-speed rail network that connects the capital with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
I welcome the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington South (David Mowat) and for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) about the importance of using transport infrastructure to try to remedy imbalances between economic prosperity in different parts of the country. There is strong local support in much of the country for high-speed rail.
In answer to the questions from a number of Members about Scotland, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne)—the shadow Rail Minister—has already pointed out, the “Y”-shaped network to deliver high-speed rail to Manchester and Leeds could enable us to deliver journey times to London from Edinburgh and Glasgow of about three and a half hours. There is also the issue of promoting the air-to-rail switch, which is so important to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). In due course, we certainly want to see a genuinely national network built, and that is why we are in regular dialogue with the Scottish Government. We are happy to work with them on establishing how we bring that network about in the future.
A number of Members have talked about the carbon impact of high-speed rail. I believe that high-speed rail can play an important role in our plans to develop a low-carbon economy, particularly by promoting the air-to-rail switch that a number of Members referred to. Even with our current energy generation mix, high-speed rail is a much lower-carbon option than flying.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe argued that the Government had overstated the expected increase in demand. He and a number of other Members sought to challenge the business case. However, there is no doubt that the benefits generated by the extension of high-speed rail to Birmingham will exceed the cost of building the line.
Furthermore, it is clear that there is already a significant crowding problem on our railways. The simple fact is that we need this new railway. Important parts of our rail network are already suffering from serious overcrowding problems. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) mentioned, one only needs to go to Euston on a Friday night to see how popular the railways have become. There is simply no realistic alternative that would give us the level of benefit that high-speed rail will generate.
It is always the case that, when efforts are made to construct these major transport projects, there are advantages to using existing transport corridors. However, sometimes using those existing corridors is simply not possible. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State for Transport asked High Speed 2 to look again at the route that it had proposed and at the environmental impact of that route. In a very short time, we will publish a package for consultation that will take on board a number of the concerns that have already been raised with the Government and with HS 2, to mitigate the environmental impact of the project.
I want to go back to the points that were made about using upgrades to the conventional rail network to relieve the capacity problem. It is simply not possible to relieve the capacity problem without a new line. Without delivering a further significant uplift in rail capacity, some of our key transport corridors will become even more overcrowded in the years to come. I strongly believe that high-speed rail is the best way to deliver that new capacity, not least because it would free up space on existing networks for more commuter, regional and freight services. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) mentioned that issue and I think that there is potential for his constituents to benefit from the extra space on the west coast main line that will be released by high-speed rail. Dramatically improving connectivity between a number of our most important cities has the potential to change the economic geography of the country.
As for the environmental impact, I recognise that our plans for high-speed rail are already having an impact on some communities, even in advance of the final decisions on the project. That is why we have launched an exceptional hardship scheme, to assist those with an urgent need to sell their properties and move home.
The Secretary of State has made it clear that, as and when any final route is chosen, we will put measures in place to address blight, and those measures will go well beyond the requirements of statute. I say that in response to a number of points that were made about the exceptional hardship scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire had some concerns about how the scheme was working. I was not aware of those difficulties, so if he wants to write to me about the specific issues I will be happy to look into them.
Earlier this year, the Secretary of State visited the line of route that has been recommended by HS 2 Ltd. He acknowledges the vital importance of designing a new high-speed rail line in a way that will reduce local impact where possible and that will take on board the types of points that we have heard this morning.
We fully recognise the need to balance the benefits of the high-speed rail project with the local impact on landscape and communities. In the summer, the Secretary of State instructed HS 2 to consider how best to improve its recommended route 3 to reduce any negative social and environmental impacts. An initial report has already been published that identifies a number of ways to reduce problems on the northern part of HS 2’s preferred route. That work is continuing in relation to a number of other areas of sensitivity—
Thank you, Mr Weir. It is with great pride, but also with sadness, that I open my first debate in Westminster Hall. I have a vested interest in this debate, in that I have spent almost all my working life as a youth and community worker, and Unite supported me in my election campaign. I am passionate about the sector. I have many important questions for the Minister, who I hope will address them all in his response.
I am proud to have been a full-time youth worker for many years in Nottingham, St Helens and Wigan. I loved my work, and I believe that my colleagues and I, who worked in a local authority-based youth service in partnership with voluntary organisations, made a difference to young people’s lives. Like all youth workers, we had a purely voluntary relationship with young people. They were not forced to come to our projects. The fact that they chose to relate to us without compulsion laid the basis for trusting relationships that enabled us to assist their informal learning and personal and social development. That is what youth work is. Youth workers are young people’s freely chosen and trusted adult supporters. They educate young people informally, support them, help amplify their voices and, critically, take their side when no one else does. It is part of society’s commitment to lifelong learning.
As official Government statements, academic reports and professional bodies recognise, youth workers enable young people to develop holistically, working with them to help them develop their voice, influence and place in society and reach their full potential. Youth workers recognise, respect and actively respond to the wider network of peers, communities, families and cultures that are important to young people, and seek through those networks to help young people achieve stronger relationships and collective identity by promoting inclusivity and equality.
Youth workers have long been experts in creating what is now called the big society. According to the Audit Commission, every £1 invested in youth work generates £8 worth of voluntary activity. Youth workers are trained to recruit and involve volunteers and to sustain their involvement. Some 500,000 volunteers work with established youth services, but volunteers do not come from thin air. They need to be encouraged and supported by professionally trained staff and, to be effective and happy, they need to volunteer in an organised environment. Youth and community work training equips practitioners to empower adults and young people in their communities.
In addition, youth workers are trained to raise funds to support their work. The state has never been the main provider in the sector. The last National Youth Agency audit of services showed that youth workers generated more than one third of the amount spent by local authorities on their youth services. I hope that the Minister will take careful note of the fact that cuts to local authority youth services also mean severe cuts to the voluntary sector and to the social enterprise and mutual organisations that provide youth services. For example, the current proposals to cut £2.6 million from Birmingham city council’s youth service mean about a £600,000 cut to the voluntary sector. He will no doubt be aware that the £2 million in cuts to the youth service in his county will practically wipe out voluntary sector funding as well. It is a fallacy to suggest that the voluntary sector can pick up the pieces left by a shattered local authority service.
On funding, incidentally, Lord Northbourne obtained an undertaking during the passage of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 that the Government would continue to collect youth service funding figures from local authorities. Will the Minister publish the figures for last year and tell me how they will be collected in future? The National Youth Agency used to do an annual audit of youth work, but I have been informed that now that its funding has been slashed, it will no longer be able to do so. I am also informed that Ofsted will no longer inspect youth work. Who will inspect it to ensure that standards are upheld?
I am proud to be introducing this debate almost exactly 50 years after Lady Albemarle produced her great report for the Conservative Government of the time. Her report introduced the modern youth service. In the 1950s, the early youth service had nearly disappeared as a result of cuts and general neglect. The voluntary sector and the early trade unionists who built the Community and Youth Workers’ Union, of which I am proud to have been president for nine years, campaigned hard for the Government to provide public resources and promote respect for youth work.
Lady Albemarle was asked to establish a committee in 1958 to consider those concerns. After two years of intense scrutiny, the committee recommended that specialist training for youth workers be developed, as it was a distinct educational profession. She and her committee recommended that youth centres be built throughout the country to provide places of warmth, free association, safety and fun, that national terms and conditions for youth workers and qualifications linked to those terms and conditions be introduced and that each local authority be funded to work in partnership with the voluntary sector to manage a youth service. The Conservative Government agreed with the recommendations of Lady Albemarle’s committee and laid a substantial foundation for the building of the modern youth service. A new public service depending largely on public investment was born.
Since that time, great progress has been achieved. In fact, Britain’s youth service—with its public funding and partnership with voluntary organisations, national professional standards and joint negotiating committee terms and conditions—has been admired throughout the world. It has pioneered many important developments in working with young people, including international exchanges between young people to help heal a war-torn Europe.
My sadness in presenting this debate comes from the recognition that those 50 years of progress could now come to an end. The youth service is likely to disappear shortly unless the Minister acts. Is he aware that the situation of the youth service is now so grave that the main professional journal in the field, Children & Young People Now, has organised a national campaign called “For Youth’s Sake”, and the main professional bodies and stakeholders have formed a campaign to save the service? The British Youth Council and the UK Youth Parliament, the recognised national bodies for young people, have formed similar campaigns and expressed concerns about rapidly deteriorating provision for the youth service. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) has also introduced early-day motion 1013 on the threat to youth services.
We need action now. Is the Minister aware that local councils value highly their ability to provide youth work directly, and are so concerned about the cuts, at least in England, that the Local Government Association recently published an excellent document, “Valuing Youth Work”? I am pleased to read in the foreword his quote that work with young people is not a “luxury add-on”. Has he read the powerful analysis of the cost-effectiveness of youth work by Unite and Lifelong Learning UK called “The Benefits of Youth Work”? If he has not considered those documents, I urge him to do so as a matter of urgency.
Does my hon. Friend agree that cutting the youth service is incredibly short-sighted? Not only does the service give young people the opportunity to enrich their lives by taking part in interesting activities but it often prevents them from being drawn into antisocial behaviour or drug and alcohol use.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, absolutely. I will talk more later about some of the studies that have shown that. If we destroy the infrastructure, it will take a long time and a lot of money to rebuild, as happened in Wigan in the 1990s when all the youth centres were closed. Wigan has not been able to regain the ground lost during that time.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate, but I remind her that the Labour Government planned to make 20% cuts. Does she feel that no cuts should have taken place in the youth service? Can she inform all those present where she would make the cuts?
I am not in the Government or even in the shadow Government, so I am not in a position to say where cuts should be made. However, making substantial cuts to a small pot of money—some £300 million is spent on the whole youth service throughout England and Wales, which is a very small pot of money nationally—does huge damage to the services provided.
It is with sadness that I report that Warwickshire county council is proposing to abandon its youth service all together, and it appears that Norfolk, Suffolk and Southampton city councils are planning to do the same. According to a recent survey of proposed cuts that was conducted prior to the comprehensive spending review by the National Youth Agency and the Confederation of Heads of Young People’s Services, 95% of services were predicting cuts during the current year, the majority of which would be in the region of more than 30%.
Bolton council has already had to cut £200,000 this year and is predicting a cut of £415,000 next year. Am I right to assume that the Minister is concerned about a cut of £2 million to West Sussex county council youth service, which covers his constituency? Does he support the thousands of young people across West Sussex who have been petitioning and campaigning against the cuts? The portfolio holder for the area, Councillor Peter Bradbury, admitted that young people had not been properly consulted. Again, is the Minister aware that consultation with young people on service provision is fundamental to the Education and Inspections Act 2006?
There is an illusion that mutuals, social enterprises or even the private sector will take up youth work provision. Although there are some excellent voluntary sector projects, there is little evidence that many providers are ready to take on the role of providing youth services. In any case, they are dependent on adequate public funding for the work. The staffing and resources of some services are already so depleted that even a small cut of 10% will effectively end their ability to function meaningfully.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In my constituency, Bramley and Rodley Community Action Trust provides a youth bank in the area. The trust also runs a youth inclusion programme, which helps people who are at risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. Does she agree that cuts to Leeds city council of 27% will mean that those services are at risk and that, as a result, we risk building up future problems of antisocial behaviour and criminal activity? With just a bit of funding, we could ensure that such organisations were able to continue providing those excellent services.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I absolutely agree that it is a false economy to make such cuts to youth services. Historical evidence shows that youth services will be harder hit than other services. Local authorities will have to protect some of the services relating to safeguarding issues and the care provision for older people. However, youth services always get squeezed. They have always been Cinderella services and will have greater cuts imposed on them unless action is taken—in particular action to enforce the legislation that is in place, which I shall come on to.
Such cuts will mean the end of universal out-of-school services for young people. Since January 2007, through working in partnership with the voluntary and private sectors, local authorities have had a statutory duty to promote the well-being of young people aged 13 to 19 years—in fact, it is up to 25 years for those with learning difficulties—and to promote access to educational and recreational leisure time activities, which are referred to as positive activities. The legislation that supports youth work is described in detail in statutory guidance published in March 2008 under section 507B of the Education Act 1996. That statutory guidance sets out the requirement for local authorities to provide youth work in three areas: positive activities, decision making by young people and 14-to-19 learning. The guidance refers to the fact that educational leisure-time activities are explicitly linked to youth work methods and approaches. The purpose of both forms of positive activities—educational and recreational—is the improvement of well-being. The definition of well-being in the legislation reflects the five Every Child Matters outcomes: be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and achieve economic well-being.
The statutory guidance also refers to “Aiming High for Young People: A Ten Year Strategy for Positive Activities.” That strategy concludes with a very strong statement that recognises high-quality youth work. The Government’s view is that high-quality youth work delivered by third and statutory sectors is central to delivering our ambition of increasing the number of young people on the path to success. Is the Minister concerned about the ability of local authorities to fulfil their statutory responsibilities? If they do not fulfil their statutory responsibilities, will he intervene under sections 496, 497 or 497A of the Education Act 1996?
Would it not be helpful to revisit the recommendations of the “Resourcing Excellent Youth Services” document? Instead of aiming low for young people, as the Government appear to be doing, would it not be better to return to the recommendations of the “Aiming High for Young People” document? Does the Minister recognise that 70% of funding for the voluntary sector, particularly for youth services, comes from local authorities, and that decreasing that funding reduces the potential of what he might term big society organisations?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the big problem with the big society is that it is predicated on the belief that volunteers will do for free what paid youth workers do for a wage? Does she agree that the big society is something of a political convenience, given the huge cuts that will be made to local authorities during the next three years? The situation will be incredibly difficult for those voluntary and community groups that are providing excellent activities and outreach work—street-based youth work—for young people. It will be very hard for them—
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, I absolutely agree. It is a bit of a fallacy to think that volunteering is not already taking place, as 500,000 people already volunteer to work with young people. They are effective in volunteering activities only if they are supported in their work financially and by professionally qualified and trained staff. Those staff can assist them in developing their work and can ensure that their work is of good educational value to young people.
I want to be clear about this. All of us accept that the debt situation is difficult at the moment. The hon. Lady referred to some 70% coming from local authorities to pay for such services. Is she saying that she would maintain the grants for this type of work on an ongoing basis?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. Yes, absolutely. I am not simply saying that we should maintain the funding; I am saying that we should increase it. I will give some statistics at the end of my speech that will show how positive intervention and positive activities with young people saves the state a great deal of money. Such funding is an investment and, as I said, if the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I will provide some statistics later to show how when a small amount of money—it is a small amount—is put into services for young people, it saves the state thousands of pounds on much deeper interventional work.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Lady says, much of which seems to focus on the negative side of what is going on. Has she paid any attention to, for example, the plans for the national citizen service and the positive things that that can do for society cohesion?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. If he will bear with me, I will talk about the national citizen service in just a few moments.
In reply to a parliamentary question that I asked the Minister on 15 November, he did not respond to me about the rapidly declining fabric of the maintained youth service, but instead seemed to state that the national citizen service would compensate for the decline in other provision. I hope that I misunderstood him. However, if I did not, perhaps he can explain how allocating £370 million to the national citizen service for, in effect, short-term summer scheme opportunities for 16-year-olds will possibly compensate for the loss of the current youth service budget of less than £300 million per annum that runs for 365 days a year?
Does the Minister share my concern that many child protection and health and safety issues are raised by the fact that inspecting organisations with no track record in residential work and professional youth work delivery will be running the short-term national citizen service? I am deeply concerned that they do not have the capacity or the experience to operate outdoor activities and residential work according to the Department’s health and safety guidelines. Can he give me any assurances in that regard? Also, who will inspect the quality of the service? The youth service was previously inspected by Ofsted, which has commented on its rising standards over the past four years, when other services were often declining.
I welcome the fact that the Select Committee on Education is conducting an inquiry into youth services and that it will be examining the introduction of the national citizen service. Youth service professionals and many of us in this place are beginning to wonder whether the Minister actually understands what the youth service is. The youth service has been recognised in the different jurisdictions of the United Kingdom as an integral part of the education system. Does he agree with the Welsh Assembly Government, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and the Scottish Government that the youth service is an integral part of the education system?
Youth work is based on a voluntary professional relationship between skilled youth workers and young people, so it has a broad spectrum of influence and success. The various youth councils across the country and the UK Youth Parliament, which so successfully engages people in political education and civic involvement, simply would not exist without the support of local authority professional youth workers. At the other end of the spectrum, as the work of Professor John Pitts has clearly shown, the youth work method is the most effective means of reducing young people’s involvement in gang crime.
Absolutely. I could not have put it better. The youth service is important in encouraging social and political education, social interaction and decision making. There are far too many distinguished reports to mention that demonstrate conclusively that youth workers play a vital role for young people in re-engaging them in education; making their lives healthier; improving their access to learning; strengthening information, advice and guidance; supporting partnership working; participating in structured leisure-time activities; helping them to stay out of the youth justice system; and encouraging them to play an active and voluntary part in their local communities.
Such successful work is achieved by a relatively small cohort of 7,000 professionally qualified staff, working with 30,000 trained youth support workers and, as I have mentioned, an army of half a million volunteers. Those staff work for local authorities and voluntary organisations, but local authority funding is the key. The values, occupational standards and skilled training are the glue that holds the service together. It is therefore with great sadness that I report that youth and community work training courses may now face wholesale closure.
The sector is really proud of its training courses, which are offered by about 30 universities and other providers. The courses are themselves a product of a “big society” kind of effort. The standards of the courses are validated by the voluntary efforts of professional education and training standards committees, which rely on volunteers to create and monitor standards. Those committees have decided to apply an important set of criteria on training courses, one of which is the requirement that students are recruited after proven and committed experience as volunteers or part-time youth workers. As a result, youth work students are deeply committed to their profession and have all volunteered in it. That is a model of the big society ethos.
Most mature students enjoy a second chance to learn and do not come into higher education through the traditional academic routes. They are community activists and organisers who are concerned to become skilled in what they do. The qualification for youth workers relies on the successful completion of 50% of field work practice. Around 60% of the students are women, and more than 30% are from black and minority ethnic communities. The high demands of placement learning mean that they cannot easily supplement their student time with paid work.
Despite their strong virtues, youth and community training courses, which became degree-level courses in September, have never received funding equivalent to that for teachers or social workers. The students, who are by and large older and less well off than others, have had less resourcing in higher education, but now the situation is even worse. Is the Minister aware that the proposal to remove funding for bands B and C will hit youth and community work courses, and can he give me an assurance that he will look into that with a view to reversing the decision for those courses? I can assure him that failure to do so would be the final nail in the coffin of a valuable service that, ironically, his predecessors created at a time of much higher national debt.
Reducing the deficit and cutting public sector spending is the order of the Government’s day. Whatever we might think about the cuts, we all have an interest in cost-effective public services, so I will finish by highlighting the exceptional cost-effectiveness of the youth service and youth work. It is estimated that for just £350 a year for each young person, all young people could access a good youth work offer. Current spending is £100 a head per annum for 13 to 19-year-olds. More specifically, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation commissioned an exercise on the cost of detached youth work, which found that a project that provided a full range of services and was in contact with 125 young people a week would cost £75,000 a year, or £16 for each contact. It concluded that for disadvantaged neighbourhoods, a systematic street-based youth service would cost a fraction of the amount spent on other services targeting that group. It cited, in particular, the £450 million budget for the Connexions service.
Other research has highlighted the relative costs of the criminal justice system and other forms of intervention, including youth work. The Green Paper, “Every Child Matters” stated:
“Society as a whole benefits through reduced spending on problems that can be avoided and through maximising the contribution to society of all citizens. For instance, a child with a conduct disorder at age 10 will cost the public purse around £70,000 by age 28”.
The Audit Commission’s report on the benefits of sport and leisure activities in preventing anti-social behaviour among young people estimates that a young person in the criminal justice system will cost the taxpayer more than £200,000 by the age of 16. The young person who is given support to stay out of the system, however, costs less than £50,000. Other comparative costings include: £1,300 a year per person for an electronically-monitored curfew order; around £35,000 a year to keep one young person in a young offenders institution; an annual average of £3,800 a year for secondary education; and around £9,000 per person for the average resettlement package after custody. Against those, £350 a year for each young person would be a small price to pay to unlock the rich benefits of community-based provision for all and to provide extra opportunities for personal and social development for those young people who, by virtue of life experience and circumstance, are so disadvantaged that they cannot successfully make use of mainstream services.
I could speak about the young people I have worked with over the years and the difference that youth work and youth workers have made to their lives, but I have spoken for long enough. I will end with a plea. We are entering a period that will be even harder for young people. They will have to deal not only with the normal trials and tribulations of entering adulthood but with unemployment, cuts to local services and higher costs for everything. I plead with the Minister to take action now to protect and invest in a highly cost-effective service. I ask him to please take action to defend youth work and youth services before it is too late. Youth work has always been known as a Cinderella service, but please let Cinders go to the ball.
I thank the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) for securing this debate on what is undoubtedly an important issue. Young people deserve our support, and youth services are vital to all our communities. She is absolutely right that if young people get a better start in life, our communities are safer and more cohesive as a result. It is also correct to say that prevention—she gave us many figures on that—is better and much more cost-effective than simply waiting for the cure.
The number of young people who are not in education, employment or training—NEETs—is horrifying, and it is crucial that we engage those individuals in our communities. In my part of the world, Devon, 1,190 young people between 16 and 18—5.7% of the people in that age bracket—are unemployed, do not have training and, frankly, have very little hope. As the hon. Lady explained, that has a cost to society, and it is not insignificant. The figures vary, depending on how they are calculated, but those I have looked at show that each NEET costs around £97,000 over their lifetime. That figure could exceed £300,000, depending on the benefits they have to look for.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing the debate. On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) about NEETs, in Medway, 666 people in a population of 260,000 are NEET. Does she agree with me that we need to do all we can to support organisations such as the Medway Youth Trust, a charity that does excellent work in giving people who are NEET support and help to move into working life?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and endorse what he said. Such organisations should, undoubtedly, be encouraged.
We are missing one key piece: providing youth services must be about providing quality. It is not a matter of how much money is thrown at something but how it is spent to get the best possible result. I am lucky, because Teignbridge, which is my local area and a large part of my constituency, has an excellent youth services record. The portfolio holder described Mike Stevens, who is the leader of the unit in Teignbridge, as outstanding and said that, if she could, she would clone him. There are some extremely able people who deliver high-quality services.
There are two outstanding examples in Teignbridge district. In Newton Abbot, which is at the heart of my constituency, an organisation called Chances, which operates out of a building called The Junction, is responsible for giving many young people who are excluded from school hope and a future that they would otherwise not have. I have seen the kind of outward-bound courses that are offered and the engagement of the teachers who work there, and they are fantastic.
More recently, a new centre was opened in Dawlish, which is another key town in my constituency. It is called Red Rock, and what is special about it is that it is a fine example of the big society. I would take issue with the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who suggested that the big society was merely a convenient label. The centre evolved from the local business community, the local voluntary sector and the local authority working together.
The hon. Lady speaks about the big society. One imagines that that means that local voluntary and third sector groups will take over where public services are cut. In my constituency, we have had a meeting with a dozen local organisations that are fearful that their funding will be cut, and that they will be able to provide less, rather than more, in future.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I shall turn to funding in a minute, because clearly it is relevant, but let me stick with quality, which is key.
That project involves real engagement, and it is not the intention of anyone—certainly not the county council—that group A should take over from group B. What people see in the future is an integrated approach among different parts of our community, which we should commend.
I believe that there is a misunderstanding about funding. The hon. Member for Bolton West spoke about cuts. It is known across the House that this country is plagued with a huge national debt, and that the Government have to look at the measures to be taken. However, they have not cut youth services. They have taken away the barriers between individual prescribed funding streams that central Government used to pass money down to local government, but the amount of money going from central Government to local government remains unchanged.
May I finish? Local government has been given the opportunity to use money sensibly. Ninety funding streams will be reduced to 10, and that will substantially reduce the bureaucracy. It will also liberate £7 billion-worth of funds for local authorities to use appropriately. There is certainly no intention that this should be about cuts between between national and local government.
I will allow interventions in a moment. Let me just clarify my point on funding. What we will see in local government is a review of what quality and value for money should look like. In speaking to my county council, I have found no evidence that youth services per se will be any harder hit than any other part of the budget. On community engagement, we are looking for more, not less, but before I move on, I am more than happy to give way.
Can the hon. Lady clarify what she thinks the cuts to the Department for Education’s non-school budget and the cuts to the voluntary youth sector development grants will mean? That central Government funding for youth services has been cut—that is a national cut in funds for youth services. What does she think will be the impact of that?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am sure that in due course the Minister will clarify exactly how that will work, but my understanding is that it is not about reducing money but about taking away artificial barriers between individual pots of money.
To add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said, the cuts to the youth opportunity fund and youth capital fund were cuts in central Government funding, so this is not just about local authority cuts. In addition, money that was coming from the Department for Education specifically for youth work has been cut. That is a double whammy for local authority and area-based youth services.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Again, she is talking about structure rather than amount. As the Minister will explain, we absolutely will support youth services because they are important. The hon. Lady mentioned several new initiatives, including the national citizen service. Actually, there is a new group in the constituency adjoining her own. It is called the Bolton Lads and Girls Club, and I hope that she will welcome it. I am lucky, because the national citizen service, which provides an outward-bound social action experience for young people, will see 900 places created across the south-west by Young Devon and the South West Consortium. That must be a good thing for the future.
If I may, let me get back to the principle. We have been asked to keep contributions short, so I will not take any further interventions.
Quality is key. In conversations that I have had with my county council, I have found that people like Mike Stevens and what he contributes are highly valued. That kind of provision is not at risk. What any responsible council must do is look across their patch for the best way to provide best-quality services. Our young people deserve no less.
Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) for securing this debate. I am sure that we have all seen in our constituencies the excellent work that youth services do. In Leeds West, there are several vital services. Earlier, I mentioned one of them—Bramley and Rodley Community Action Trust—and now I would like to highlight the role of another one.
Armley Juniors is a small group in my constituency. It is run by just three people in a deprived part of a constituency that already has low incomes and low educational attainment. Armley Juniors took over an old post office in the constituency and has managed to turn it into a youth centre with a kitchen for cooking classes. It also offers computer lessons and a communal area for children on the estate, and runs sports teams and outdoor activities during term and school holidays. It benefits from funding from Leeds city council and a peppercorn rent on its site, but, like many youth services across the country, it operates on a shoestring budget.
Leeds city council faces 27% cuts across the board during this Parliament, and the people in the dedicated team running Armley Juniors, whom I visited recently, are extremely worried about their future. Such issues may not register on the national scale, where we are seeing significant job losses and cuts across the board following the comprehensive spending review—indeed, in Leeds alone, we are facing the loss of 3,000 council jobs—but on the Heights estate in Armley, where Armley Juniors operates, the removal of funding would deprive young people in the community of the only communal space in the area.
The estate is a densely populated inner-city area with no playing fields, no other youth clubs and no sports halls. To make matters worse, Government cuts mean that the council now has to charge local youth groups for their use of school playing fields and community areas, which is a double whammy for groups such as Armley Juniors that need to use those facilities if they are to provide activities, especially sports activities, for young people.
I agree with my hon. Friend. As well as having some excellent youth services in my constituency, we have Armley prison, and the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West about the long-term impacts of cuts to youth services rings true to me. A lot of people who provide youth services in my area say that their aim is to ensure that young people from very deprived backgrounds do not become the future inmates of Armley prison. During these difficult economic times, it is very worthwhile considering long-term impacts. Many hon. Members here today will recognise that this is an issue in their constituencies, and I fear that the cuts will cost us more in the long term.
Alongside the cuts to the police in Leeds, there are cuts to sports funding in schools, which we read about over the weekend and on which we will hopefully—although I fear not—hear some more positive news this week. There are also cuts to free swimming, and cutting services such as Armley Juniors on top of all that will have costly implications for both the community and for Government spending in the long run.
Most of us remember the 1980s and the generation of young people who were condemned to the scrap heap then. I was at school in that decade, and remember well the funding cuts that meant that sports clubs and after-school activities were available to children if their parents had money, but that children whose parents did not have money and who lived in inner-city areas without open spaces or playing fields, missed out. I urge the Minister not to allow us to go back to those bleak days. The value of organisations such as those that we are championing today cannot be measured, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West said, just by their cost on a balance sheet. They educate, engage and inspire young people and make a huge difference to their lives. Cuts on the scale envisaged by this Government will devastate youth services across the country, and I urge the Minister to think again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing this extremely important and interesting debate. I am not sure whether I will be able to share her passion, but I shall do my very best.
During my 10 years as a councillor before becoming the MP for North Swindon, this was one of the most important issues that came up in the residents surveys and in the public meetings that I held. Parents generally accepted that their children were well catered for during school hours, but there were often concerns about after-school hours and the weekends. I have very many happy memories of going to youth clubs in the 1980s, and I know that youth provision is essential. It channels energies, and provides support and opportunities to develop, and many hon. Members who have already spoken have gone into detail on that. I sympathise with those who highlight funding pressures, or even call for youth provision funding to be made statutory. However, I think that far more can be done without money, services and facilities, and so in my brief speech I shall touch on some positive suggestions based on my experience as a councillor and my work with the youth service.
Local authorities should do a lot more with their buildings. I recently secured a Westminster Hall debate on the future provision for libraries, and I think that councils could do a lot more to open up community buildings such as libraries to organisations for the provision of facilities. It does not cost much to put shelves on wheels and to push them to the side in the evenings. It is a great crime that we have many facilities that are open for only 10 hours for their primary function, with the community being locked out for the remainder of the week. More should be done also with schools. I was interested to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) about her experience in the ’80s. Today, we have huge swathes of private finance initiative schools, but the communities that I represent cannot afford to access those wonderful facilities and, therefore, far more should be done to open up the schools.
Our leisure facilities—sports facilities predominantly—should do a lot more with the youth service. The Twilight Football schemes target children from challenging circumstances and promote positive engagement, and that makes a big difference. Also, where there is funding to build new facilities, those facilities should be accessible. I have seen many facilities that in hindsight were built in the wrong place, and I am delighted that the new £1.2 million youth facility in my constituency was built in the town centre, which is easily the most accessible place.
Many hon. Members have also talked about the big society, and Labour Members often try to produce scare stories about that being a way to cover for potential funding cuts. The reality is, however, that it is about empowering local organisations, and the Government and local authorities can do more to support them.
I am president of the Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services and all the voluntary organisations involved are extremely keen to play a bigger role in the big society—there is no question about that. However, they all say to me, “We cannot do that if our grant aid from the public sector is being cut dramatically.” Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the things that he is talking about are almost incidental to the major cuts that will affect the voluntary sector over the next couple of years?
I was speaking at the Voluntary Action Swindon annual general meeting on Friday, and I got similar messages there. We cannot hide away from the current economic challenges, and I am trying to set out some areas in which we can make a positive difference. The shadow Minister will confirm whether it is the Labour party position to find some money—good luck if it can—and the Minister will set out the Government’s position. We cannot ignore the situation that we are in.
I have talked about making more of our buildings accessible. Many organisations have said to me, “We’ve got willing volunteers and enthusiasm. We can see a problem and we want to tackle it, but we don’t have access to facilities.” Whether as Government, local authorities or local businesses, we could do far more to provide those facilities, along with advice and support. One challenge in getting funding is the need to fill in extremely complicated forms. When I set up the sports forum in Swindon, a lot of effort was put into filling in forms. Volunteers are keen to make a difference on the front line, but not to lock themselves away in offices for many hours with complicated forms.
The youth service also needs to be a lot more proactive in matching with the times at which children or young people actually want to use its services. I am delighted that many authorities have changed their hours to match when children are outside school, and they should also go to where the children are. Too often, I have visited youth centres where a service is being provided to just a handful of children. In my constituency, we have an ice-skating disco on a Friday night. There are 650 children there, and the youth service should be parked outside providing help and support to those children who require it. Not every town has an ice-skating disco, but the same principle would apply to a cinema or bowling, or to teenage nightclubs, which I am assured are still very popular. In communities where there are open spaces, the leisure or youth teams could turn up with footballs and bibs, or rounders equipment, and organise impromptu games. I am sure that all hon. Members see when out in their constituencies that there are lots of kids hanging around, and they feel that someone should go along and positively engage with them.
On the point about reaching out to small groups and how it would be better to reach out to larger ones, some of the hardest-to-reach young people in some of the most difficult-to-reach communities need youth work outreach and support on a very small scale. I have seen youth workers in some of the most difficult parts of my constituency just hanging out with children on the streets of an evening, so that the children at least engage in positive dialogue while they hang out. That is the kind of youth outreach work that is in danger when we focus on big projects and on the big national citizen service, rather than on smaller initiatives directed at particular groups of young people.
I am not sure that I agree. My point was about going to the young people, but the hon. Lady has made a good point. Engaging with certain children is very challenging, and the youth service must be as proactive as possible. If that means that it parks itself right in the heart of communities and engages directly, that is only a good thing. The service can also be there through the leisure facilities—teenage discos for example—so I sort of agree with the hon. Lady.
Finally, the principle of the National Union of Students discount card, which applies to students, should be extended. A lot more could be done to get young people discounts so that they can make more of the leisure facilities that are accessible to them. As a consumer body, young people are huge in number. By being proactive, we can make those facilities more accessible, to tackle the problems of boredom.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing this important debate. There is no doubt that all hon. Members in this Chamber are concerned about the personal development of Britain’s young people and how best to secure that. As somebody with a background in the voluntary youth sector as well as local government, I recognise well the concerns expressed by many hon. Members today.
I want to make three points. First, the message that came through strongly in my hon. Friend’s speech is that early intervention is valuable. The benefits to society from working with young people accrue much later on, but that does not mean that we should not recognise them early on. It is about understanding the best way of intervening. One of the challenges—one thing that we Opposition Members see in some of the things the Government are doing—is that the ability to be flexible and work with young people in a range of different ways seems to be narrowing rather than broadening.
It is about not just spaces and places for young people, but the people who work with them and the purpose of that work. We need both generalist activities that help and support young people, many of which come from the voluntary youth sector, and specialist services. I have worked in setting up both kinds of activities in my local community in Walthamstow—working with young people at risk of joining gangs, and with young people to help them achieve their potential in a broader sense. I am concerned about the idea that the national citizen service can be mixed with those more integrated services.
I am glad to see the Minister shaking his head. Those two things cannot be comparable. We in the youth sector know that they are apples and pears. The national citizen service, which is interesting, should in no way be regarded as a compensation for the ability to integrate services and work with young people in their communities in the long term. In areas such as Walthamstow, it is important for people on the ground to build up trusting relationships over time with young people to help them make the right choices in their life. It is critical that we understand the need to intervene differently in respect of various age groups and children in differing circumstances. Youth services in local areas have been able to develop ways of working around young people, rather than around the service that is delivered. I accept that that differs in various places. There are issues about how youth services are delivered, but we Opposition Members are concerned that the cuts that are coming through now will hamper youth services’ ability to be more flexible in working with young people in different ways and producing the interventions that people need to get the outcomes we all want.
Secondly, the consequences of the public sector cuts, nationally and locally, are already clear. I urge the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) to look again at the impact of the cuts on the national and local youth sector, particularly the voluntary youth sector. We recognise the interconnectedness of the voluntary youth sector and local youth services; that is the challenge for us. The National Council for Voluntary Youth Services has said that already this year youth sector organisations have lost 20% of their budget, and that 80% of the programmes that are closing are those working with people who are not in education, employment or training—the very group we are especially concerned about. That is already happening as a result of the in-year cuts.
There is understanding about the relationship between the voluntary youth sector and youth services locally, and other public services. It is important to put on the record the great support that the police and health care services in my area provide to youth projects. However, before we can get to the great world in which the voluntary youth sector is more involved in running services, we will see it being cut off at the start, so that it will be unable to do some of the more innovate partnership work we all want to see happen.
I shall make my third and final point brief because I recognise that we are short of time. The challenge we are facing is not difficult economic circumstances but the question, “What are our priorities?” If our priority is to get best value for money, it is clear from the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West that investment in voluntary youth services and youth services locally reaps dividends well beyond the initial financial investment.
What is the best way to tap into the ability and interest in volunteering with young people locally, and how best to support it? I welcome some of the ideas the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) has come up with, but he did not say how he would get the youth services bus to the youth disco, or who would pay for the person who organises and manages that. That is our critique. The hon. Gentleman’s ideas are fantastic, but how will he make them happen? Delivery and implementation—
No one doubts the need to make the best use of resources, but cutting resources year in, year out with no alternative and asking the voluntary sector to pick up the slack does not add up. For example, it is explicit in the tender document for the national citizen service that the Government are already saying, “We will not fund this properly. We’re expecting the voluntary sector to pay for it.” Many voluntary sector organisations that might work with youth services in future to provide the more creative services that the hon. Gentleman was talking about are dependent on public sector funding, so they will be unable to do the work he wants to happen, let alone to provide services not just for 16-year-olds for three weeks over the summer, but for every age group at the point at which they need intervention.
I plead with all hon. Members to give the Minister the evidence and encouragement he needs to return to his colleagues and fight for the funding that youth services so desperately need to deliver services that we all want for young people in our communities. I am looking forward to welcoming the Minister to Walthamstow tomorrow, so that we can have a conversation about how he can fight for the funding he needs to deliver the services that all hon. Members in this Chamber want to see delivered.
I am grateful for the opportunity to say just a few words in this important debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) for securing it.
I am ashamed to admit that I have been involved in the youth service for nearly 40 years, since I was a teenager, particularly in detached youth work, which is, for me, one of the most important areas of youth work in urban Britain and many other places, too. I want to say a few words and join other hon. Members in pleading for the Government to ensure that they understand the importance of Government and local authority support for the youth service.
I have always believed that there ought to be a statutory youth service. That is my party’s policy, it is still my belief, and I hope that before long that can be the position. It has always been a Cinderella service, although it is the bit of support for young people that is needed to complement parental and family support, and school and educational support. Other role models who are not authority figures can often be far more influential in ensuring that young people have the development, security and safety they need.
I welcome the Education Committee’s inquiry. The Government are looking forward to introducing comprehensive proposals in the new year. I welcome that. The Minister has often been well received since taking on his job. I thank him for that. I am keen for him to be bold and ambitious, both in his Department and across Government, because this is not only the responsibility of the Department for Education.
The national citizen service is a good idea, but as colleagues have said it is a time-limited, specific activity for some people at some time. It will grow slowly. The reality of the youth service is that it can be found by and is accessible to everybody in every community. That is the difference. The youth service is there now. We have to ensure that we do not lose any of its validity or accessibility.
May I make a special plea to ensure that the funding for people to be qualified and trained as youth workers is increased, not decreased? Some of the best, most talented people, who may not have a great academic background, come through the youth service as volunteers, then realise that it is their vocation. They have just the sort of skills that are needed. Often, they are women or people from black and minority ethnic communities. They are really good role models who have been where the youngsters are now. They understand the score, because they have been in the front line and have come through. We need to ensure that they are given the educational support to go on and do practice-based qualifications.
I have said that my engagement has mainly been with detached youth work, but that is not to underestimate club-based or specialist youth work. The benefit that the hon. Member for Bolton West mentioned in being out on the street, engaging with youngsters where they are, not expecting them to come to where the service is, is fundamentally important. If people are to gain the confidence of young people, they do not say, “Come and do it my way”; they say, “We’re going to come alongside you and understand what you want.”
We know that local government will have a hard time, as will central Government, because the settlement is difficult. But local government does not have to find all its savings by cutting grants to the voluntary sector and does not have to cut equally across the board. I plead with every council, no matter who runs it, to make sure that they do not think that the implication of a severe spending cut means cutting the voluntary sector rather than reducing the in-house services. Often, the latter needs to be done, because money for the voluntary sector can multiply in terms of its benefits in the community.
I will not because I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak.
I am keen to ensure that evening and weekend work is supported. One of the problems with a lot of traditional youth services is that they were there—fantastically—on Monday to Thursday evenings, but not on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays. That is exactly when young people need places to go to.
A good example of a youth service was a place I went to in south Wales a few years ago. The kids wanted somewhere to hang around safely. They were given support locally in the valleys and they were able to build a shelter. It was a very simple shelter, but they built it and it was their place. It was a sort of glorified bus shelter, but it meant they had somewhere they could go, supported by individuals. Often, simple things that cost small amounts of money can transform people’s self worth and allow them to have a place they can call their own and build on.
Lastly, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) pointed out that there are often many unused buildings. In difficult financial circumstances there is an imperative for organisations to work together complementarily, to ensure that facilities are shared and that people do not just do their own thing. That is often a danger in the statutory youth sector if there are schools that do not stay open after school hours or youth clubs that open only in the evenings. Local authorities need to lead on that, and my plea is for the Minister to say to every council, “You lead with the voluntary and faith groups. Do the work on the ground.”
The Minister must also ensure that we have funding for youth workers whom we need to do their job, and that we do not lose them; we need them now more than ever. We must not lose key services, which are often the glue that keeps communities together as well as keeping young people and their communities safe.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on her excellent speech. She is clearly not just an expert but passionate about her working life before Parliament, and she probably knows more than anybody in the House about the youth service. I hope the Government will listen to her.
Luton North is an unusual constituency. When I was elected in 1997 it had the highest proportion of children aged under five in the whole country. In more recent years, it had the highest proportion of school-age children in the country, and those are now young people. There has been a surge of young people, and although Luton has wonderful educational and youth facilities, we have a considerable number of young people who are disaffected and perhaps not so successful in education, and they need much more support. We had a large number of people not in education, employment or training, and until recently, we did not quite know what was happening to them every year.
A number of community centres were built by Labour councils in the past. When I was a councillor in the 1970s, we built superb facilities that are still in operation today. However, facilities alone are not enough. We need staff to operate them. Some of that staffing is now being squeezed, and some of the services in those centres for young people are being trimmed at the edges, despite the fact that we have an excellent Labour council that is doing its best. There are problems now, and unless something is done it will get much worse once the serious cuts come through. To pretend that youth services do not need to be cut and that we can squeeze somewhere else is playing with words. The cuts will affect every service one way or another. The youth service has been underfunded in the past and it does not need less funding; it needs much more.
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
One factor is safety, which my hon. Friend mentioned. Young people are on the streets. It is not just those in gangs, but those not in gangs who do not feel safe. They need places to go and professional staff to organise activities in which they can participate. In a letter that I received this morning, Tracey Quinn, the integrated youth support team manager for Luton North and a senior youth worker, wrote,
“we are proud of the good youth work we do with young people in the north of Luton and any future cuts to this young people’s service will be detrimental to both youth work and young people as part of the North Luton community.”
There is serious concern at local level in Luton. I worked for Unison for many years as a researcher. It has said that Connexions will face cuts of up to 50% across the country. That has serious implications, especially for NEETs.
I must take issue with the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). He was talking about a national youth service and implying that the Government should take a central role in that. However, when asked to justify current cuts to youth services at a recent meeting with young people, he told them that the decision was not for central Government, but for local councils. That is saying, “We’ll cut your money, but you’ll get the blame.” We cannot blame local authorities when they are facing savage cuts.
My major point is that I do not accept the need for cuts. I have raised that point in the Commons and, before anybody intervenes, I also raised it with Ministers in the last Government before the election. We should be targeting employment creation to bring down unemployment. That will increase tax revenues and reduce the need for benefit payments. The by-product of that will be a reduction in the deficit.
Some countries have gone for savage cuts. I feel deeply sorry for the Irish; they have gone for savage cuts, but that makes their economy perform less well. Setting aside their massive debts, they have seen output decline, and going for deeper cuts will make the problem even worse. The developed world should be reflating not deflating, but we are moving towards deflation. Cutting expenditure on youth facilities will make the situation worse. Employment generation should be used in that area to bring down levels of unemployment and start to reduce the deficit. I could go on at greater length but I have probably said enough. I will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say.
Thank you, Mr Weir. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr Rosindell, you don’t even look like Mr Weir.
This has been an excellent and thought-provoking debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing the debate and on her contribution, and I will reflect on some of the other contributions.
One point that my hon. Friend made particularly powerfully was about the value that youth work provides in generating money into our communities. The fact that for every £1 spent on youth services, another £8 of voluntary activity is generated is a powerful statistic. She also reflected on the national citizen service, and whether it should be seen as an alternative to youth service provision. The general mood of the debate was that it should not.
I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments to the question raised by my hon. Friend during Education questions:
“As youth services nationally have already been cut by 30 to 40%...how will the Secretary of State ensure the quality of youth service provision in future?”
The Minister responded:
“The hon. Lady underlines the great importance of engaging the young people of this country as proper citizens, which is why we are carrying forward the national citizen service programme,”—[Official Report, 15 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 643-4.]
To an impartial observer, that sounds rather as if the national citizen service was the replacement for youth services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) said that cuts to the youth service are a false economy. That is a powerful and central point that we should all reflect on. Making such cuts to youth services will lead to additional costs in policing, social work, education, health services and fighting crime in our communities. If we do not get it right, we will be paying for the cuts to the youth service time and time again.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution in more detail. We had a Budget in 2010, and people could see from the direction of travel taken by the Labour Government over previous years just how much of a priority we placed on youth services. The improvement in youth services is clear as a result of that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West also said that she did not want us to return to the bleak days of the 1980s. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) talked about the big society as a political convenience. She is in good company because the Minister himself is completely unclear about what the big society means. He says:
“The trouble is that most people don’t know what the Big Society really means, least of all the unfortunate ministers who have to articulate it.”
We look forward to him attempting to do that in a moment. He says:
“What actually is the Big Society, let alone is it good or not? Exactly how big is it now or is it going to be?”
I can answer that question: it is getting smaller by the moment. However, I look forward to him perhaps attempting to articulate better in the future than he has been able to in the past what the big society is and what the contribution of youth services should be to the big society.
The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) made a thoughtful contribution, which started well when she said that prevention was better than cure. She focused on how important it was for us to take serious action on NEETs. She may be aware of the piece in The Times Educational Supplement with the sub-heading “Experts predict rise in Neets as young people are left without support following local authority raids”. It stated:
“Local authorities are slashing Connexions budgets”
and youth services,
“raising fears that young people out of work or education will be left without support.”
In raising the initial question, the hon. Lady was on exactly the right lines. It is just a shame that she did not follow that through, but decided instead to divert us to the line we heard a number of times that the issue is the quality of the service, rather than the money. It is deeply disingenuous for us as politicians and for those in government to talk about the level of cuts that local authorities will see and say that they must not cut safeguarding—the Minister has already told them that, and the Prime Minister said that they should not cut the voluntary sector—but that it is totally up to local authorities what decisions they make. Some responsibility must be taken at central Government level. If cuts of 27% in local authority funding are to be made, youth services in particular will be affected, but services will be affected across the board. We cannot keep saying to local authorities, “Well, it’s your decision what you choose to cut.” The Government have to take some responsibility for that.
The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) had obviously given youth services considerable thought and he reflected positively on his experiences as a councillor and the importance of youth services in that area, but he repeated the idea that the cut in funding should not necessarily lead to a cut in services. That is the elephant in the room that we need to be honest about. If youth service professionals are to take us seriously in this debate, we need to be honest about the fact that they will see very substantial cuts. I think that 95% of local authority youth services say that their budgets for providing services to young people in their area are being cut. That will make a real difference to the level of service provided.
The hon. Gentleman had some good ideas about how school and council buildings could be used more effectively, but we must be realistic. The big cost for youth services is actually for the people employed within them, so yes, we can use buildings more effectively, but there is still a cost attached. We ought to be realistic about the cost attached to improving those services. The hon. Gentleman’s ideas about taking people on trips and so on all have a cost attached to them.
Okay. Certainly the voluntary sector will play a very important role. As someone who has been involved in youth sport coaching for the last six or seven years, I know how important the role of the voluntary sector and sports organisations is and completely support that. That is why I have been so horrified by the cuts that the same Minister has been making to the school sports partnership. That was a very important way of engaging children in sport, which led to their involvement in sports clubs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) reflected on the interconnectivity of all these services. That is a central point that we need to consider. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) reflected on a lifetime dedicated to youth work and youth services and made a thoughtful contribution. When he reflected on the success of youth services in their contribution to the education of people who then go on to develop themselves further and become mature students, he made a very powerful point. He also reflected on the importance of street engagement in terms of youth services. That is another of the central areas in which the national citizen service will be no replacement for youth services, because the national citizen service is a universal service and the activity that it involves will take place over a very short period of a young person’s life, whereas youth services are there every single day of the year, providing a service, particularly to people from more deprived communities, out on the streets. It is a service that they have to engage with; they have to make that contribution.
When the hon. Gentleman said that councils do not have to cut the voluntary sector, he was repeating the line that we have been hearing, which does not take into account the serious level of cuts that there will be for local authorities. Inevitably, when so much of local authorities’ money is already tied up in contracts with external providers, the cost of redundancies and so on, the voluntary sector is an easy area for them to cut. The reality that we all recognise, and that the voluntary sector is very worried about, is the amount of cuts that there will be.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) focused on the fact that the cuts will not spare youth services. I put it to him that in fact the cuts will specifically focus more on an area such as youth services than on some of the statutory areas, such as safeguarding, which councils will be very sensitive about cutting.
I think that all of us, right across the House, would support the general ethos of a big society and the general principle behind it. The Minister is right to say that it still defies an exact description, but we all have an idea of what we think it ought to mean.
The lack of co-ordination between different organisations has implications for how we keep our children safe. Safeguarding is an area that many councils will be protecting, but safeguarding often applies after the problem has been identified. Youth workers play a central role in identifying children who are at risk and in making referrals. There are many cross-referrals from youth services, police services and adult social services to child social services. If those services are diminished, the number of referrals will reduce and many children will never be identified as having problems.
I would like the Minister to respond to the question about whether he agrees that youth services are an integral part of our education system. Does he still see a central role for youth services in our education system? Does he accept that local authority funding is the glue that holds a wide range of youth services together? We currently spend about £100 per year per young person. How much does the Minister think that we will spend in 2011-12? Does he see youth work as a professional role? Does he recognise the professional qualifications that youth workers have now and how important they are?
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the majority of youths in an area have no interaction whatever with youth services, and that within areas there is often tension between a number of voluntary organisations and the local authority? It would be much better if the local authorities worked much more closely with the youths and if the local voluntary organisations provided the activities and services that those young people wanted.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for expanding funding for youth services. I would certainly support him in that campaign, but at this time we are trying to protect what we have. The key point is that youth services work across our communities, but they work most closely with those in the most deprived areas, those most likely to drop out of school and those most likely to get involved in crime. The central role played by youth services in this country and their success has been recognised by people across the world.
Finally, the Minister must set at rest the minds of people involved in youth work and say that he values their work. If he does value it, he should say what he will do to ensure that the excellent youth services that are provided in this country are protected.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Rosindell. This is the worst kind of debate to which to respond. I have been left with 11 minutes to take on board the excellent contributions of seven Back Benchers in this worthwhile and informed debate. It has not been quite as well attended as the debate on high-speed rail, but this matter is of great importance to everybody who is present and to people in our constituencies.
I will discard most of my speech and respond to the points that have been raised by hon. Members. At the end, I will respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling). She provided some questions to the Department at 21 minutes past midnight last night. Unfortunately, I was not at my desk and have not had time to go into them in detail. [Interruption.] I was at my desk at 21 minutes past 11 last night, but not at 21 minutes past 12. I am happy to provide the hon. Lady with more detail and to have a meeting with her to take up the more substantive issues.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and recognise her great experience in this area as a former youth worker, a former president of the Community and Youth Workers Union and a committed campaigner for young people. I believe that services for young people are vital. I have had the pleasure of visiting the fantastic Bolton Lads and Girls Club, which has been mentioned no fewer than three times. The Prime Minister has been there at least twice and the Prime Minister’s wife has visited it. It is in the constituency neighbouring the hon. Lady’s. Recently, I was delighted to join a group of business leaders in Blackburn who are working with the founders of that club to establish a series of similar facilities across the north-west of England, which is tremendously exciting. The commitment shown to young people by the OnSide project and by local people and businesses in Bolton is second to none, so the hon. Lady can speak from great experience.
I will set out briefly the principles of the Government’s approach to youth services before responding to specific questions. We want to promote a culture of being positive about young people in this country, which engages with the media, central and local government and people of all generations. Intergenerational trust has taken a knock in recent years, and has been exacerbated by negative stories about young people and mixed messages from the previous Government. The good projects supported by the previous Government sat uneasily with the negative messages given by the respect agenda, antisocial behaviour orders, curfew orders and the proliferation of those ghastly Mosquito devices.
We want to promote the involvement of young people in decision making at the top table on matters that affect them, not just on specific youth budget issues. That is not tokenism. As money is tight, we are freeing local authorities to decide what money should be spent on in the light of local priorities. We have ended ring-fencing to give greater autonomy to local authorities. We want to introduce an early intervention grant to help disadvantaged young people get on track for success, using proven effective practices. That is the best use of public funds. The hon. Lady rightly catalogued the cost of failure in this area.
Yesterday, I visited Nottingham, the early intervention city, to see a series of projects that are being led by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who I am delighted to say is undertaking an early intervention review for the Government. That is where the hon. Lady has her roots as a youth worker. As many hon. Members have said, early intervention is key. It is important not just in the early years, but in identifying teenagers who are at risk of indulging in dangerous behaviour, before they get on a slippery slope.
We also want to promote new partnerships and sources of finance with the private sector and voluntary bodies. We want to enable voluntary bodies to challenge the monopoly provision of youth services departments. The big society bank is a particularly interesting way in which huge amounts of money might be leveraged into innovative and exciting youth projects.
I have talked to a huge number of people who are passionate about achieving excellent services for young people and I will be talking to young people, youth services representatives, businesses and the media over the coming months to develop our thinking. I have set up a youth forum of key players in the youth sector, which will meet again in two weeks. That is an important source of information, as are the various panels of young people that I have set up to inform the Government about how best to shape policy.
Young people contribute a massive amount to their communities, but the press they get is out of keeping with that and unduly negative. Antisocial behaviour must be tackled firmly, but one of my first responsibilities is to celebrate young people’s achievements, and to promote a culture in the country and in the media of doing so. I am sure that all hon. Members present will want to contribute to that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) made the strong point that prevention is better than waiting for the cure, hence our emphasis on early intervention through the early intervention grant. How that money is spent is important. We should not just throw money at projects. Their success should be determined not by the number of participants, but by whether they provide a life-changing experience for the young person, by the value added and by the quality of the experience. There has been too much concentration on how many people have participated, regardless of the outcomes.
My hon. Friend rightly said that the big society is not a political convenience, but something that has been going on in parts of the country beneath the radar for many years. We want to raise it on to the radar and to encourage more people to participate in it. The Opposition spokesman fell into the trap of lazy journalists. Occasionally, it is useful to let detail get in the way of a good headline. If he reads my speech at the Edith Kahn memorial lecture, he will see that the 17 pages subsequent to the initial setting out of the problems are rather good and set out what the big society is all about. I recommend that he reads it in full; it is available on the Department for Education website. It sounds as though Mike Stephens is something of a one-man big society in his own right.
The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) went on about the bleak days of the 1980s. She clearly got her headline because she has now legged it elsewhere. She mentioned Armley Juniors, which has set up a youth facility in a local post office—one of the few things to come from the previous Government’s wholesale closure of the post office network.
The Government’s policy is not about cuts, but about new and smarter ways of doing things. Just yesterday, we launched the voluntary and community sector grant scheme, which encourages youth services organisations to come forward with their good ideas to get funding from the Department for Education. There is a new £110 million education endowment fund that will allow schools, charities, local authorities, academy sponsors and other groups to bid for funding to boost the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. There is about £470 million to help fund key programmes, including the training of community organisers, the creation of a new neighbourhood grant programme and so on. We should look beyond the headlines.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) is right that we should use existing facilities in a smarter way. We want to use children’s centres more out of hours and at weekends for youth activities. We should make more use of schools and sports facilities that are lying idle for much of the time. In my constituency, I set up a midnight football project that runs from 10 o’clock to midnight on Saturdays at a leisure centre after it has closed. That is when it is not being used and when the problems happen.
I will come on to the points made by the hon. Member for Bolton West, but because I have so little time I think that we will have to have a meeting. She asked about collecting information on youth services and auditing them. The Government collect annual figures on local authority expenditure on youth work through what have become known as section 52 returns. We are reviewing all data requirements on local authorities, but we have no plans to discontinue the collection of that information. I hope that that answer is helpful.
It is important that youth services are scrutinised by local young people. Youth mayors—there is one in Worthing—youth cabinets and UK Youth Parliament members should scrutinise the quality of youth services. They should use their voice to challenge local authorities and the Government. I spend a lot of time with them.
The hon. Lady mentioned West Sussex and I am aware of the pressures on local authority budgets. In fact, West Sussex county council has changed the way in which it does things and the cuts will not be of the level that she mentioned.
I look forward to visiting the project tomorrow with the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). The national citizen service is not compensation for youth services. The funding will not come out of the Department for Education’s funding for youth services, but will be completely separate. However, it does bring lessons for new ways of doing things that can be applied to the youth sector—it is about inspiring young people. We are not discussing just a short summer camp, but an experience of a lifetime at the transition to adulthood that will engage and re-engage young people in their communities on an ongoing and lasting basis. Let us not confuse it with a glorified summer camp.
There are many more questions, but I am running out of time in which to answer them. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member for Bolton West.
Heritage Sites (Halesowen)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time today, Mr Rosindell.
At first glance, the debate seems specific to my constituency of Halesowen and Rowley Regis. However, potentially wider implications regarding the role of English Heritage should become clear and might well require further investigation.
People in Halesowen are proud of their cultural heritage and are concerned about one particular site of historic interest, which I want to talk about in some detail, as it illustrates some of the wider points that I want to make in the debate.
Halesowen abbey has been an intrinsic part of the heritage of Halesowen since it was founded nearly 800 years ago, in 1215. It was used as a monastery until the 16th century, when it was closed down by Henry VIII. The site was later granted to Sir John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, before being sold to the Lyttleton family in 1558. It later descended to Lord Cobham, who sold it to the current owner in 1993. A number of impressive tiles from the abbey are now held in the British Museum. The County Express, on Saturday 3 August 1938, reported a major archaeological find at the site. Many local people and the Halesowen Abbey Trust, which has been influential in looking after the site, are convinced that there are other archaeological deposits on the site of major historical significance.
The abbey is, under law, a scheduled ancient monument of national importance, which comes with certain implications that I will touch on later. The abbey was first classified with such significance in the early 20th century. Since 1950 it has also been a grade I listed building due to its special architectural and historic interest. The abbey is, evidently, not just another old building, but rather a demonstrably iconic piece in the Halesowen historical jigsaw.
Concern has been expressed on decisions about the site over a long period of time. Since 1993 many local people and groups have expressed concern that changes at the site have run roughshod over planning law and local opinion in Halesowen, even choosing to ignore and contradict the stipulations laid down by the Secretary of State in 1995, when giving scheduled monument consent. At that time, rather than knocking down an outbuilding, as approved by the Secretary of State, an extension was built on to an existing building.
I have no personal animus towards the current owner of the site, but several retrospective planning permissions have been applied for on multiple occasions, and the local group the Halesowen Abbey Trust argues that lasting damage has been caused, for example through repeated unauthorised tipping, to this site of national significance. As a consequence, there has been a substantial drop in the number of visitors to the site, from around 1,800 visitors in one weekend alone in 1989 to the temporary ending of public access in 2001. Furthermore, in spite of poor upkeep, when the site was opened for a three-day period earlier this year, more than 500 people visited, illustrating the importance of the site to local people and those from the surrounding area.
English Heritage itself has, on a number of occasions, observed the poor condition of the site, reporting
“broken glass, barbed wire, bricks, pieces of steel piping, fallen roof tiles and beer barrels”
among the reasons for a failure to open the site and as a general comment on its deterioration. English Heritage has also accepted that the unauthorised works that went on might have damaged buried archaeological artefacts.
As I said, I do not hold any personal animus towards the current owner, and it is up to the development control committee of the local authority to determine whether the current owner has the best intentions of Halesowen at heart when it considers his planning application. It will be for the committee to decide whether the conversion of a number of abbey outbuildings and barns into residential properties offers any improvement to the site—I understand that, last night, the most recent application for the barn conversion was accepted and passed by the development control committee.
As a result, it is absolutely imperative that English Heritage plays a proactive role in the future of the site, and that it answers some important questions about its role in the future preservation and development of this important historical site. What monitoring and level of active interest will English Heritage now exercise as a consequence of the decision? Will it oversee necessary archaeological work? Will it conduct impromptu site visits, to ensure that access is properly available? Will we be able to see a report of what was found during the development? What level of public visiting does English Heritage envisage in the future?
There are significant question marks over the role of English Heritage in the whole saga. Supposedly, its role is regularly to monitor scheduled monuments such as Halesowen abbey and to ensure that they are conserved or enhanced if conservation work is undertaken. However, I would question the ability of English Heritage properly and regularly to monitor the sites put into its care and its efforts to act upon any unauthorised material changes to historical sites such as Halesowen abbey.
At this point, Mr Rosindell, I should make you aware that Stonehenge has the same statutory protection as Halesowen abbey. Therefore, the role of English Heritage at Halesowen abbey, upon which I will expand, has potential implications for the heritage of ancient sites across the UK.
English Heritage has had unrivalled access to Halesowen abbey, through its statutory rights under law. In spite of that, it took a third party, the Halesowen Abbey Trust, to notice and report unauthorised works by the current owner. Indeed, the trust noticed that the works were of
“sufficient magnitude for them to be clearly visible from a considerable distance outside of the scheduled area, with the naked eye”.
The Halesowen Abbey Trust also helpfully informed me that English Heritage offices are based in Colmore row, Birmingham, which is just a 20-minute bus journey away from the site in Halesowen. Such material facts call into question the ability of English Heritage, in its current guise, effectively to operate and protect our national heritage, and illustrate an apparent lack of commitment and will to protect this particular site.
When the first instance of unauthorised work at the site occurred in 1996, English Heritage and the local council chose not to use the legal and practical means at their disposal to seek any meaningful move to restoring the site to its state before the unauthorised work. The local authority decision was made in a particular context, which involved an attempt to take the site forward in co-operation with the new owners. At the time, a number of assurances were made in good faith that there would be no repetition of such unauthorised works. As the Minister will understand, the Halesowen Abbey Trust was somewhat surprised in 2005 when English Heritage took the same position on further unauthorised work.
As far back as 1996, English Heritage wrote to the local press explaining that it had been unable to uphold its statutory functions because it lacked the necessary resources. If English Heritage is saying now that it has neither sufficient resources to protect our heritage from unauthorised works, nor the will to take appropriate action against those undertaking such works, there are some serious questions about its role and validity in this case. Although English Heritage survived the recent review of quangos by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, there is an argument for saying that that might, in some respects, have been slightly fortuitous.
English Heritage has made a number of decisions about the abbey that could be construed, at best, as very surprising and, at worst, as bizarre and lacking any credibility, and I want to give one illustration. The current owner built an unauthorised 2.3 metre high wall on the site, citing the need for a flood barrier. When the retrospective planning application was put before English Heritage and the Environment Agency in October 2002, it was noted that the constructed wall would
“not provide any flood defence to the buildings”,
and both bodies advised that the planning application should be refused. Yet just months later, in August 2003, both organisations decided to approve a retrospective planning application on the basis that the wall would be reduced from 2.3 to 1.5 metres. That change would not of course make any material difference to the flooding issue that was originally cited. However, the creation of the wall leaves the monument and its setting damaged in perpetuity.
Halesowen abbey is not the only heritage site that is being poorly maintained in my constituency. The Ice house, which was built in the late 18th century and which is located in close proximity to Halesowen abbey, was given grade II listed building status last year. However, it has been vandalised on a number of occasions, and little has been done to protect and maintain it. Although Halesowen has a long history of heritage, there are few sites, and residents in Halesowen and the surrounding area are rightly concerned and angry about the deterioration of a number of them and want action to be taken. Constituents have written to me, and others have spoken to me directly, to express their unhappiness. I am therefore grateful that the Minister is here to address some of my points, and I have some specific questions for him.
What ability and competence does English Heritage have in terms of upholding laws and regulations relating to ancient and historical monuments such as Halesowen abbey and surrounding sites? Would a significant change to an historic site, such as the conversion of nearby outbuildings to residential use, represent a material deterioration, conservation or an enhancement to such a site? Would the Minister support a decision by English Heritage not to take action against the owner of an historic site for breaking the law on the basis that it wanted to avoid upsetting the owner? Will the Minister consider introducing an independent review of the current legislation on, and role of, regulatory bodies in respect of heritage sites of national significance?
The people of Halesowen want the proper preservation and enhancement of their sites of historical interest. They are concerned by the ongoing deterioration of such sites and by the apparent lack of will on the part of public agencies to preserve them. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend, and I thank him once again for being here to engage in this important debate.
Let me echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) by saying that this is my first opportunity to serve under you on one of these occasions, Mr Rosindell, and I am sure that it will be a pleasure. I saw you running the previous debate with military efficiency, so I am sure that we will make good progress in this one, too.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on gaining this debate and on setting out his case so clearly. He has made it clear to everybody here that Halesowen has elected a doughty champion for local people, who is willing to fight for local issues and to take them right the way to debates in the Houses of Parliament, when necessary. Heritage is not everybody’s cup of tea, but my hon. Friend has shown that he is willing to engage with issues right across the breadth of political discourse, and I congratulate him.
I will endeavour to respond to my hon. Friend’s points one by one in order, because he asked some quite specific questions. Before I begin that detailed response, however, I should say that if my hon. Friend hears anything in my response that, on further reflection and after discussion with local constituents, he wants to come back to me on, I am of course at his disposal. He can write to me, or we can have a conversation, if there are any points to follow up after the debate.
It might be helpful if I give a small amount of background about the site. My hon. Friend rightly said that it is quite a complicated site. On frequent occasions, it has been quite messy, and all sorts of different layers of usage have built up during its long history. Most recently, it has been quite a hard-working agricultural area, so the site has been used as a farmyard and a working area for quite some time. He is therefore right that the site has been messy, but he will understand that although everyone would obviously like all parts of the country to be beautiful, gorgeous and well maintained, the important issue from the point of view of English Heritage and the Government is whether the heritage has been damaged for future generations and whether the public has access, albeit messy access. Those are the crucial points that he is driving at, and I shall try to confine my remarks to the thrust of his questions.
My hon. Friend asked some quite specific questions about the controls that English Heritage may or may not exercise with regard to the development process. As he said, the local authority, in its planning authority role, gave permission just yesterday for the proposed developments to go ahead. He is absolutely right that English Heritage will expect to maintain quite close scrutiny of the development process for a monument of this importance and seniority to make sure that it is not harmed and that the development goes as planned and does not depart from the original plans.
Where such developments take place, the requirements are very specific to each individual site, so I shall ask English Heritage to write my hon. Friend a letter detailing precisely how it plans to engage with the development process in this case. If I describe generalities, that might not necessarily do the trick for this specific site, which will have its own idiosyncrasies. However, if I ask English Heritage to write to my hon. Friend to lay out precisely how it plans to engage with this process, he will have something in black and white, and he will be able to check whether it is being done. Equally, constituents and the Halesowen Abbey Trust will know what to expect from English Heritage, so that they can make sure that the development process is being conducted sympathetically and in a controlled fashion. I am sure that my hon. Friend, his constituents and I would all agree that that will be essential over the coming weeks and months as the development process moves forward.
My hon. Friend asked whether the Government believe that a significant change to an historic site, such as the conversion of nearby outbuildings for residential use, represented a material deterioration, conservation or an enhancement to the site in question. That is a tremendously important question generally and in the specific case of this site. It is undoubtedly true that any change or development can constitute a risk to a site of heritage importance. However, it is also true that sympathetic development, when done correctly, can be the saving of an awful lot of such sites. In general, English Heritage, other heritage bodies up and down the country and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have found that it is far better to have a sympathetic site owner or manager, and a site that is in continuous use with a sustainable use going forward. That is simply because it then has a continuing purpose and is likely to be invested in as necessary, to ensure that the new and historical structures are well maintained.
I totally understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but in this case there has been a lot of evidence over a long time of a lack of confidence on the part of the local community and, in particular, the Halesowen Abbey Trust, in the will to make the necessary changes and ensure that, where there is controlled development, it is done in a way that is suitable for the site and preserves its potential archaeological interest.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I understand it, the plans that have just been approved were originally developed a couple of years ago, starting in 2008, in full consultation with English Heritage. It had extensive input into those plans and has indicated that it is comfortable with how the plans will treat the monument and the listed remains.
Of course, the question is not just whether the plans are sympathetically drawn up, and whether the intention is to use sensible materials that will frame the heritage parts of the site in an impressive and academically acceptable way, but whether those plans will genuinely be delivered, as the development process goes through. I take my hon. Friend’s point on that.
I shall come on to answer some of his questions about developments to the site that were made without planning permission and that needed retrospective planning permission. I hope that my answer to my hon. Friend’s question about controls over the development process and how English Heritage is planning to engage with those—and the fact that I am going to ask English Heritage to write to him with a list of how it is going to do that—will help to address both his concerns and those of local people. In the unlikely event that English Heritage does not live up to what it plans to do on that site during the development process, I am sure that he and the trust will be on its case and will contact me as necessary to ensure that there is no slippage or backsliding.
To pick up on the final point I was making in answer to the last question, it is better to have a living building that is being used in a sustainable fashion, provided that that is done sympathetically to the heritage asset concerned, than something that is unused and not cared for, that does not attract investment, and that is therefore unlikely to be maintained. That is something that we find across the country.
Last week I was lucky enough to visit some of the new developments taking place by King’s Cross station in north London, where a number of listed buildings are being incorporated into some stunning modern architecture. There is a wonderful juxtaposition of old and new; it is being done very carefully with a great deal of respect for the heritage assets. The future of those heritage assets will be hugely improved as a result of being brought back into use in a modern way. I hope that is a clear answer to my hon. Friend’s original question.
My hon. Friend asked whether the Government would support a decision by English Heritage not to prosecute the owner of an historic site for breaking the law, on the basis that it wanted to avoid upsetting the owner. He mentioned the case of the flood wall, but I understand that there have been other, smaller cases, too. I understand that English Heritage did consider prosecution and took the case to the Crown Prosecution Service, which indicated it would not be prepared to take forward the prosecution of Mr Tudor for the unauthorised works. That is not to say that it is never right to prosecute. In fact, English Heritage has prosecuted in the past, though not frequently because the cost is very high and, technically, achieving a positive result in court in these cases is hard. However, it has happened, and successfully. I do not think that there is any theoretical or practical obstacle to doing so, but it happens rarely.
Given that the CPS said it was reluctant to take the case forward because it felt that there was a low probability of success, I think English Heritage’s approach of saying that it needed to work constructively with the owner was probably the best opportunity in that specific option. That does not mean that it should not come down hard on examples of bad behaviour. On occasions, it is necessary, as the French said of the English Navy, to hang an admiral pour encourager les autres. It is important to make it clear that there is a line in the sand beyond which people should not go. The principle is clear and is as my hon. Friend describes.
My hon. Friend’s final question was whether we should introduce an independent review to check on the ability of English Heritage to uphold laws and regulations. I think that English Heritage is held in pretty high regard across the wider heritage community, if I can put it that way, although obviously no organisation is perfect. A lot of people, including within English Heritage, would say that they wanted it to improve in a number of ways. However, English Heritage, among others, also agrees that in the wake of the comprehensive spending review, like any other part of the public sector, it has to do more with less. At the moment it is busy re-organising in order to become more efficient and is cutting its cloth to fit, in the same way that everybody else has to. It is not pleasant or fun, but it has to make do, and is doing so professionally.
It is clear that, once the dust has settled, English Heritage will have to look at some of its current processes—for example, the listings process—to work out how to perform those statutory tasks in a way that is more efficient, faster and cheaper, while at the same time ensuring that it provides the important protection of heritage assets that my hon. Friend and I have been debating.
Again, I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. Will he emphasise to English Heritage the importance of sites in areas such as Halesowen? If one mentions Halesowen heritage outside of Halesowen, people do not realise the rich tapestry of culture and heritage that there is there and in other areas of the black country. English Heritage should prioritise and give thought to the importance of monuments in places that are not typically thought of as traditional areas of English heritage.
I am happy to do so. My hon. Friend has touched on an important point, because heritage assets are wrongly viewed as a crumbling piece of an awkward obstacle to development. In most communities, they are rightly seen as huge assets from which the community can benefit. They make each community distinct and different, and keep us in touch with our local past. In many cases they are great sources of tourism income, too. I agree completely that there are a lot of opportunities there.
To conclude, English Heritage knows that it has to react to the recent comprehensive spending review by becoming more efficient, in the same way as many other bodies in the public sector. It is starting that remodelling, and I expect it to go a great deal further over the next months. I hope it will do so in a way that will please my hon. Friend. In the meantime, I will ask it to write to him with the details of how it proposes to protect this site.
Education Policies (Warrington North)
It is a great pleasure, Mr Rosindell, to serve under your chairmanship. It is a pleasure, also, to see the Minister in his place; he and I used to serve on the Select Committee for Education and I know that he has a genuine interest in education. I hope that he will take seriously what I am about to say.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the impact that the Government’s education policies are having, and will continue to have, on my constituency. In truth, however, the Government’s decisions and their cuts to the education budget will seriously hamper the life chances of many young people in my constituency, especially the poorest.
The borough of Warrington does not rank high in the indices of deprivation. It contains some affluent areas, but it also contains areas of multiple deprivation. Many of the poorest wards in the borough are in my constituency—indeed, they are among the most deprived in Cheshire—and it is those areas that are now being hit.
The cuts began with the Government’s decision to cancel the Building Schools for the Future project. As a result, two schools in my constituency—William Beamont high school and Lysander high school—saw their hopes of new buildings disappear rapidly over the horizon.
We opened one new school in my constituency under the BSF project. It was Culcheth high school, and I went to the opening in the autumn. It is a fantastic building, and it will enhance the opportunity for teaching and learning in the area, as well as providing more facilities for the community. It is so good that Warrington’s cabinet executive member for education, Councillor Sheila Woodyatt, called it the best thing to happen to Culcheth in 100 years—and she is a Conservative. It is sad that some of the more deprived areas in my constituency will not have the same opportunities.
The BSF project was cancelled without properly assessing the need to rebuild in certain areas. Indeed, I asked the Department what assessment it had made of the need for rebuilding at a number of schools in my constituency, but it took a long time to answer. I asked the question in July; I received the answer on 26 October. The answer made it clear that no real assessment of need had been made before cancellation, yet BSF would have given us £80 million to rebuild Warrington’s schools. That sum would have enabled the rebuilding of William Beamont high school and modernised Lysander high school. Those schools serve some of the most deprived areas in the borough. They serve wards where many have low incomes, and where an increasing number of people are unemployed. Above all, they serve areas where many have no qualifications, yet those schools have done a fantastic job in increasing aspiration and improving educational outcomes.
William Beamont is a specialist sports college with a second specialism in IT. Lysander high school is another specialist school. William Beamont has increased the number of children getting five good GCSEs; it has cut its exclusion rate, and it has increased attendance. Lysander school has exceeded its targets for improving its GCSE results, and it has also exceeded the council’s targets. They did all those things in old and unsuitable buildings. I ask the Minister to imagine what could be done if they had decent, up-to-date facilities.
Facilities matter. Conservative members of Warrington borough council know that they matter. When the BSF project was announced, Councillor Woodyatt told the Warrington Guardian that she welcomed the difference that it would make not only to teachers and pupils but to the community. Her allies, the Liberal Democrats—Warrington, too, has a Conservative-Liberal coalition—trumpeted about the BSF money in their newsletter, saying that
“substantial sums of money have been secured to modernise our schools”.
They did not say then that it was not necessary, and they did not foresee any problems. They were glad of it. Now, however, those schools will have to bid again for money from a much-reduced capital spending pot.
The Government’s criteria in the Treasury’s Green Book for allocating that money are clear; they are population growth and modernisation. Deprivation is not mentioned anywhere. We know that population growth will lead to a bulge in primary school pupil numbers, which will necessitate the spending of more money. The Government also want to spend money on free schools and academies, thus depleting the pot even more. The Warrington schools will be bidding for money from a reduced pot, but experience shows that many of those that have already been given the go-ahead are receiving only 40% of what they expected. That is a huge slap in the face for the poorer communities in Warrington.
I am sorry, but I have limited time and the hon. Gentleman did not seek my permission to participate in the debate.
The BSF cuts are not the only problem faced by Warrington schools. As I said, those two schools are specialist schools, yet specialist funding has been stopped. William Beamont is part of the school sports partnership, which hugely increased the number of young people taking part in sport in Warrington. That funding, too, is to be axed.
As for the overall settlement, we foresee further problems. The Government are keen to tell us that they are to increase spending on schools by 0.1% each year. However, that takes no account of the fact that the pupil premium, which we were told would be extra, is included in that settlement. It is not extra money. It also fails to recognise that the growth in pupil numbers will mean a reduction in spending per pupil over the next four years.
Those schools will be left in unsuitable buildings, with a decreasing amount of money per pupil. They will also have to suffer the problems caused by council cuts. Services that they used to receive from local councils are gradually being reduced, and they will have to purchase them elsewhere. I give one example; the council is already considering withdrawing IT support for schools. That would give rise to further problems.
I turn to the Government’s decision on the education maintenance allowance. Almost 2,000 young people in Warrington receive the EMA. That money has made a real difference to participation rates in education; £10, £20 or £30 may not seem much to some, but it allows the poorer families in my constituency to pay bus fares to college, gives young people money to buy lunch and is has helped some to buy stationery and other things that they need for their courses. Those are all things that the poorer families find difficult to purchase.
Reducing that allowance will make a real difference to participation rates in education, because the money has worked during the past few years; it has increased the number of students staying on and the number of students in my constituency who go into higher education. The number of students in my constituency going into higher education rose by more than half in the 10 years from 1999 to 2009.
It seems that we will get in return a fund that will be used by head teachers and principals. I have tried asking the Government what the criteria will be for the allocation of that money and I cannot find out. In the last Education questions, I asked whether head teachers had been consulted about this change and the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning was terribly courteous, but he just did not answer my question. He also did not tell me whether there would be an appeals process. So we do not know how that money will be allocated and it seems that we are moving from a system in which people receive money according to their income—as of right—to a type of “Lady Bountiful” system, in which money will be dished out by head teachers. Actually, I doubt that many head teachers want to do that.
What we do know is that the Government will be saving more than £500 million on the EMA, but they will be allocating only £150 million to the new scheme. That means a huge reduction in the cash available to the poorest students. Although the Government tell us that they want to increase participation and staying-on rates, they will the ends without willing the means.
At Warrington Collegiate in my constituency, 61% of students aged between 16 and 18 are in receipt of EMA and a third of the intake is from areas of multiple deprivation. Warrington Collegiate strongly fears that removing EMA will mean fewer students coming through the college.
Warrington Collegiate also faces another cut in its budget. It is clear from the comprehensive spending review that the unit costs for 16 to 19-year-olds will be reduced. Warrington Collegiate does not yet know how that reduction will feed through into its budget. It expects a cut of at least 3%. May I repeat that those 16 to 19-year-olds are the very people whom the Government say they want to keep in education?
To add insult to injury, the university of Chester, which has a large campus in Warrington, has seen 88.5% of its teaching funding go. That is all the teaching funding for group C and group D courses, and probably half the funding for group B courses. The university estimates that to fill that gap it will have to charge fees of £7,000. The university is vital to Warrington and its economic development and to the development of the Omega site, which is a huge employment creation site in my constituency. The university of Chester has done tremendous work with schools to increase aspirations and to get more young people from families where no one has been to university before to enter higher education.
The results of this decision to cut funding could be very serious indeed for the courses that are provided at the Warrington campus such as courses in creative industries, business, media and sport. It is fashionable to sniff at those courses, but the Minister knows as well as I do that most of the graduates from those courses actually get jobs. It will be a very serious matter for young people in my constituency if they can no longer gain access to that facility.
In effect, what we are seeing is a triple whammy. I have no time today to go into the axing of the programmes for rebuilding special schools in my constituency, or what will happen with the reduction in school support staff, or the further reductions in council services. However, we have seen the building programme cut, we are seeing funding cut and we are seeing support for students cut. The impact of those cuts on the poorest wards and the poorest families in my constituency cannot be overestimated. The Government tell us that we are all “in this together”, but these are the very people who do not have the resources to replace that funding.
I say to the Minister that that is wrong on two counts. First, it is wrong economically. We all know that in the future unskilled jobs will start to disappear, and that the future of this country is in producing a skilled and educated population. We cannot underbid other countries in wages all the time; we have to gain on skills. Without education provision, however, our skills will not improve.
Secondly, it is wrong morally. “Morally” is not a word that we often use in Parliament, but I believe that these cuts are wrong morally. It is morally wrong to penalise our poorest communities and our poorest families in this way.
I know that the Minister is a decent man and that he has a real concern for underprivileged students in education. I hope that he will listen to the case that I—along with many others in their own communities—am making, because if we do not get changes in this policy what will happen is very simple. Fewer of our young people will stay on in education; fewer will go into higher education, and this country will suffer for many years ahead as a result. Young people are our most precious resource. We ought to be caring for and husbanding that resource, rather than chopping it off.
There used to be a slogan among the teaching unions—I think that it was used at the time of the last Tory Government—that, “If you think education’s expensive, try ignorance”. I think that we are in danger of trying ignorance. The people in my constituency whom I have talked about today will suffer hugely as a result, and I hope that the Minister will give the facts that I have outlined serious consideration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate. I know that she has been a tremendous champion of education, not only in Warrington but nationally, having served for many years on the Select Committee on Education. As she kindly said, for some of those years we served on the Committee together. I always enjoyed working with her on the various reports that the Committee produced and I have listened very carefully to her comments today.
In Warrington, the attainment of children and young people across each key stage is consistently above, or well above, the national average. For example, the proportion of 16-year-olds in Warrington achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C was 10% higher than the national level or the level in similar local authority areas.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister before he gets into his stride—he is very generous in giving way. However, does he accept that those figures mask huge disparities within the borough and that, although schools in deprived areas have taken tremendous strides, there is still a disparity between the more affluent areas and the poorer areas?
Yes—I was coming on to that point. I was not citing those figures as a reason not to take action; I merely wanted to point out what has been achieved in Warrington already.
In 2009, the proportion of 11-year-olds in Warrington achieving expected levels of attainment in both English and maths was 77%, compared to 72% in all schools in England. However, as the hon. Lady intimated, within Warrington, as in many other areas of the country, performance varies significantly from school to school. There are excellent schools in Warrington, as there are many excellent schools nationally, but it is also the case that too many schools are still struggling or coasting. The results at national level and the large gaps in performance between different groups of pupils are why we believe urgent reform is needed.
It is the Government’s ambition to raise academic standards in all this country’s schools to ensure a high-quality education for all children, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. The Government’s key objective is to close that attainment gap between those from the wealthiest backgrounds and those from the poorest backgrounds. We therefore share the hon. Lady’s aim that she set out in her remarks. Education is key to social mobility—indeed, in my opinion it is the only route to social mobility. That is why we announced yesterday our focus on ensuring that every child has mastered the basic skill of decoding and reading words by the end of the second year of primary school, through a light-touch screening check.
That is why we also sought to put onto the statute book the Academies Act 2010, to enable us to expand the academies programme, with 144 new academies having opened since the start of the academic year. That Act for the first time enables primary and special schools to become academies and to enjoy the greater freedoms that academy status brings.
I am interested in what the Minister is saying about social mobility. Does he recognise that in the past decade, we as a nation have slipped from fourth to 14th in science teaching and from eighth to 24th in mathematics teaching? The impact of that will have been felt in Warrington. Those statistics are a damning indictment of our ability to be socially mobile. Science, technology, engineering and maths, more than anything else, will provide jobs and skills for the future.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I know that he has been campaigning in Warrington for his schools, and I congratulate him on his work, as I congratulate the hon. Lady on hers. On his point, that is why we are considering the national curriculum with the intention of restoring it to its intended purpose of providing a minimum core entitlement built around subject discipline. It is also why we are enabling parents, teachers and other education providers to set up free schools, so parents have a real choice for their children.
Good school buildings, though, are part of that package. School buildings need continuing investment, but it is vital that future spending represents the best possible value for money. Building Schools for the Future was an important programme of the previous Administration, which aimed to rebuild or refurbish every one of our 3,500 secondary schools by 2023. That was a bold and impressive ambition, but unfortunately the programme has failed spectacularly to live up to the hype. During five years of the programme, just 263 schools have benefited. The number of schools completely rebuilt under the programme is even smaller: just 136. That is a very small number for such a grand ambition.
Where BSF has delivered, it has been at exorbitant cost. As has been pointed out, rebuilding a school under BSF has turned out to be three times more expensive than constructing a commercial building and twice as expensive as building a school in Ireland, while the BSF budget has grown from £45 billion to £55 billion and the time scale has increased from 10 years to a projected 18. Some of the reasons for the additional cost and delay are understandable, but the fact remains that BSF had become a vast and confusing morass of process and cost by the time it was ended, and it represented extremely poor value for money. Some £60 million of the £250 million spent on BSF was frittered away on consultants and advisory costs before a brick had even been laid.
The Minister might be aware that the average cost of bidding for a BSF project was about £1 million, which is approximately the cost of a new primary school. Does that not say all that there is to be said about the waste implicit in the programme? Everybody wants more and better schools. Two schools in my constituency, Sir Thomas Boteler and Penketh high schools, desperately need refurbishment, but that must be done cost-effectively, not while frittering away money as BSF did.
That is where we want the money to go: not on consultants, but on refurbishment and bricks.
Nobody comes into politics to cut funding, least of all a new Government who have inherited a school system that we are worried lets down too many of its pupils. However, we are faced with a £156 billion budget deficit, and it is our responsibility—difficult and painful though it might be—to tackle that problem. Although we have announced the end of the BSF programme, that does not mean the end of capital spending on schools.
The hon. Lady will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) has organised a meeting with my noble Friend Lord Hill at the Department for Education to make the case for Warrington schools. Also present will be the leader of the council and the head teachers of several schools that have been affected. I know that she is to attend that meeting as well, to represent the schools in her constituency.
In determining which projects would go ahead and which would cease, the Government developed a single set of criteria and applied it nationally. The three types of school project allowed to continue were: those projects that were part of their area’s initial BSF schemes and had reached financial close; the so-called sample projects that were part of their area’s initial BSF schemes, where financial close had not been reached but a preferred bidder had been appointed at close of dialogue; and some planned school projects in addition to a local authority’s initial scheme.
As the hon. Lady will know, Warrington formally entered the BSF programme in February 2010. As Warrington did not have any sample schemes or an outline business case approved before 1 January 2010, the Warrington scheme was stopped. I recognise that those areas close to the cut-off point for BSF, including the hon. Lady’s constituency, might find that extremely frustrating and upsetting, and I am acutely aware that stopping the BSF programmes for schools in her constituency has, understandably, caused dismay among students, teachers and parents. However, it is important to remember that the end of BSF does not mean the end of capital spending on schools. Money will still be spent on school buildings, but it is imperative, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that that money is spent on school infrastructure and buildings, not on the process, especially if we are to meet increasing demand for school places over the coming years as the birth rate rises.
To correct the hon. Lady, cash per pupil is per-pupil cash. Funding for schools will be maintained at the same amount of cash per pupil, so schools’ expanding pupil population will not affect it. On top of that, the pupil premium will come from outside the schools budget, meaning that over four years, spending on schools will rise in real terms.
Yes. The £2.5 billion is what enables us to deliver real-terms increases across the schools budget.
We appointed a review to consider how capital spending will be allocated in future. The hon. Lady discussed the Green Book allocation process; we will be considering the new basis on which scarce resources will be allocated. We appointed Sebastian James to conduct a root-and-branch review of all capital investment in schools, sixth-form colleges and other services for which the Department is responsible. The review is due to report back at the end of December. It will consider how best to meet parental demand, make design and procurement cost-effective and efficient, and overhaul the allocation and targeting of capital. That will give us the means to ensure that future decisions on capital spending are based on actual need and that all schools provide an environment that supports high-quality education.
Given the fact that the review is still in progress, I am sure that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot make any specific commitments today on how much money will be allocated or exactly when. However, I assure them that the Department will continue to make capital allocations on the basis of need, in particular on dilapidation and deprivation, and that the end of BSF does not therefore mean the end of school building.
Does the Minister agree that this week’s announcement by Councillor Woodyatt, who has been mentioned extensively in this debate, of a new primary school in Warrington North, Oakwood avenue, is an example of the fact that capital spending is continuing? Not everything has been stopped by the hiatus in BSF.
Again, my hon. Friend makes a worthwhile intervention, for which I am grateful. Capital spending is being conducted, and several hundred schools are continuing work under the BSF programme.
The hon. Lady spoke about the education maintenance allowance. I acknowledge that evidence from the pilots shows that the EMA was successful, in its early days, in encouraging young people to stay in education. The decision to end the scheme will be disappointing to many young people, but I do not believe that anyone will have to drop out of education as a consequence. Already, 96% of 16-year-olds and 94% of 17-year-olds participate in education, employment or training. Attitudes to staying in education post-16 have changed. We are committed to going further still and attaining full participation by all young people up to the age of 18 by 2015.
However, a payment designed as an incentive to stay on is no longer the right way to ensure that those facing real financial barriers to continuing their education get the support that they need. We must reconsider the most effective way to support the most vulnerable young people to stay on in education. There is evidence that the EMA has helped a small number of young people stay on, but the same evidence suggests that the scheme has a significant dead-weight cost. Pilot evidence throughout the scheme and more recent research from the National Foundation for Educational Research found that almost 90% of young people receiving the EMA believe that they still would have participated in their courses if they had not received it.
The EMA is a hugely expensive programme, costing more than £560 million a year, £36 million of which is administration. Of course we do not want any young person to drop out of education due to financial difficulty, but we cannot justify continuing to fund a programme so expensive and poorly targeted. Currently, a discretionary learner support fund gives £25 million a year to schools, colleges and training providers to enable payments to be made to young people to help them meet the cost of their education. Colleges value the fund and are happy to play Lady Bountiful, as the hon. Lady said, by handing out the money to the young people whom they consider to be most in need. They can also respond to changes in students’ household income during the year. After the EMA is abolished, the fund will be increased significantly over the spending review period. The detail of future arrangements is still being considered.
Dartford Crossing (Congestion)
I am pleased to open the debate and to have secured a discussion on the biggest local issue facing Dartford. As the time allowed for the debate is short, I will try to cover as many points as I can and, with your leave, Mr Rosindell, I will take interventions, about which I have spoken to the Minister. Of course, I will also leave time for the Minister to respond.
Hon. Members will know that the Dartford crossing is probably the most congested part of the country’s motorway network. Tailbacks regularly stretch for miles on both the Kent and Essex sides of the crossing and cause delay and misery for motorists. The crossing is a scar on the face of Dartford. When a problem exists by the crossing, local roads in Dartford also become congested with motorists trying to find alternative routes. The crossing should open up Dartford and encourage businesses to base themselves in the area; instead, it holds it back and strangles commerce. A continuation of the status quo is not an option for the Dartford crossing.
I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on securing the debate, but on the passionate way he has fought for the issue with different agencies over the years. I applaud his commitment to that. He mentioned Dartford being affected by the crossing, but does he also agree that it affects constituencies around Dartford in terms of businesses, people travelling and holiday makers? It is absolutely vital for the whole of the south-east that we get this right.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I totally agree with him. The issue affects the whole of the Thames Gateway area—not least Gillingham and Rainham, which are particularly pertinent to him. It is essential that we tackle congestion on the Dartford crossing in order to open up the whole area and allow business to flourish across the Thames Gateway network.
I am pleased that the Minister shares my view that a continuation of the status quo is not an option for the Dartford crossing. Although we may disagree on some issues regarding the crossing, I pay tribute to his work on tackling the problem. His positive, can-do attitude to dealing with the problem has led to more progress on the issue during the six months he has been the relevant Minister than in the whole of the last 13 years. His determination to remove the toll booths, which ultimately cause the congestion, is to be welcomed. I have noticed that each time a difficulty with removing the toll booths has been presented to him, he has not simply thrown the papers away and given up on the notion of removing the booths; instead, he has sought to find a solution that tackles that problem.
I want to make it clear that the tolls on the Dartford crossing should be scrapped in their entirety. That is what was promised to the residents of Dartford by the previous Government. We were told that the tolls would be scrapped when the bridge had been paid for. That happened in 2003, yet the tolls remain. Today, I call on the Minister to scrap the tolls completely.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He and the Minister will be well aware that I am also in favour of scrapping the tolls on the crossing. There has been a betrayal of what we were initially told about the bridge being free when it has paid for itself. However, I appreciate that we are currently in a tough financial and economic situation. Congestion is a real issue in my borough of Bexley and for my constituents of Bexleyheath and Crayford, as well for businesses and residents of other constituencies. I therefore endorse what my hon. Friend says. Does he agree that we should pursue more radical solutions with the Minister, such as removing the toll booths, and that we should also consider the more effective use of free-flow technology by promoting and developing the DART-Tag scheme further?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. I am fully aware of the problems that Bexleyheath and Crayford suffer as a result of the congestion at the Dartford crossing. The No. 1 challenge is to remove the booths themselves, because they are the cause of congestion on the crossing. The tailbacks emanate from the booths and, without them, there would be a dramatic improvement in—and perhaps even the eradication of—the congestion on the Dartford crossing that causes problems in Bexleyheath, Crayford and, of course, Dartford, Thurrock and the surrounding areas.
My understanding is that by introducing free-flow technology, of course, there would be an increase in capacity on the crossing. However, that would give only a one-off increase of approximately 20%. In recent years, the volume of traffic using the crossing has increased exponentially. Does my hon. Friend agree that ultimately we need an additional crossing somewhere else on the Thames to enable traffic to be diverted from the M25 on to another crossing?
I am grateful for that intervention. In principle, I accept that there should be a further crossing over the Thames. The big issue is, of course, where that crossing should be. It is a classic case of nimbyism. I do not think anyone here would hold their hand up and ask for a further crossing to be placed in their constituency. Doing so would add further congestion and difficulties to the particular areas that we represent. Finding a location for an extra crossing over the Thames area is problematic and will be the biggest challenge of all in trying to ensure that we have greater capacity for vehicles to get across the Thames.
We have recently had an announcement that the price of the tolls should be increased. I cannot accept that extra levy on the motorist, who is feeling fairly beleaguered in this particular part of the country. At the general election, I said that unlike my predecessor I would never vote to keep the tolls on the Dartford crossing and that I would only vote to scrap them. I meant that. The Transport Act 2000 was supported by Labour MPs and opposed by Conservative MPs. That piece of legislation allowed the tolls to continue and, ironically, changed them from a toll to a form of congestion charge. I say “ironically” because the tolls actually cause the congestion on the crossing. In this case, the congestion charge itself is responsible for causing the congestion.
I welcome the Department for Transport’s confirmation that the previous Government’s announcement of the privatisation of the crossing will not take place. We have overturned the previous Labour Government’s policy of selling off the Dartford crossing. If the Labour party had won the last general election, the crossing would have been sold to a private company and we would have lost control over the levying of charges on the motorist. Perhaps that is why there are not too many Labour MPs in this Chamber championing this cause. The local resident discount scheme has financially helped some local residents who are frequent users of the crossing, but the initial outlay for the DART-Tag has put off local residents who use the crossing only occasionally.
My hon. Friend knows that I share his long-term desire for the removal of tolls on the Dartford crossing. However, he will also be aware of the enormous sense of unfairness felt by many people in north Kent, who do not qualify for the resident discount scheme. Does he not agree that if the tolls are to stay in the foreseeable future, the local discount scheme should be extended to neighbouring authorities, such as Medway?
My hon. Friend has championed that cause for the residents of Chatham and Aylesford for a considerable time, and I pay tribute to the work that she put into the issue. I am pleased that she shares my view that, ultimately, the solution to the problem is the removal of the tolls.
I hope that there is some scope to expand the local persons discount scheme. I am pleased to note that, although the scheme has some limitations, it is likely to apply to the proposed increases in the tolls. The introduction of the scheme coincided with an increase in the toll from £1 to £1.50, which left many more motorists needing change. The highways authority has informed me that it has had to remove some of the automated toll booths to allow for that, which of course has increased the length of the queues and led to the dreadful congestion we see today. It is no advantage to a local person who receives a discount if they have to wait in a queue for three hours to get it.
Removing the booths and replacing them with modern technology to levy a charge on motorists would remove the two worst aspects of the crossing, the congestion and the pollution, but it would not remove the costs. Local businesses have told me that the congestion is the worst problem for them. They can budget for the cost of using the crossing, but they cannot budget for the unpredictable nature of the congestion.
I endorse that point on behalf of businesses in my constituency. The cost of congestion is really adding to the cost of doing business, and at a time when we want to see expansion in south Essex, that is unacceptable. We really need to grip that problem.
Members will be aware that the area of Thurrock that is closest to the crossing is an industrial area, and the same is true in some parts of Dartford. We have the Crossways boulevard, which is as area of industrial strength, but it could be so much better were it not for the congestion. For the reasons to which my hon. Friend alluded and the potential benefit for businesses in Dartford, I believe that local businesses will welcome the Minister’s proposals and the removal of the booths themselves, which should lead ultimately to the removal of the congestion.
The congestion at the Dartford crossing has united Dartford against the current toll booths system. Local people despise the impact that it has had on the area, as we have had nothing but misery, congestion and pollution as a result. The local media have played their part in lobbying for the congestion to be tackled. The Dartford Times has had a “Stop the Toll” campaign, the Dartford Messenger has had the “Axe the Tax” campaign, and the News Shopper has also campaigned hard on the matter. They are all correct to do so, because I believe that the only complete solution to the enormous problem is for the tolls to be scrapped entirely.
The Minister’s proposals are a vast improvement on the current situation. They will ensure that there need be no more congestion at the Dartford crossing than anywhere else on the M25. The previous Government did absolutely nothing about the congestion at the Dartford crossing. We had 13 years of inaction. They introduced a local discount scheme, but although it lowered costs, it increased congestion. They announced a plan to sell off the whole crossing. It is yet another mess that we have inherited and that we are trying to resolve. It is a problem that has been ignored for the past 13 years, a problem with which I am pleased that we are now beginning to get to grips.
It is a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Rosindell. What an ironic coincidence it is that you are chairing a debate on a matter that is so important in your constituency, a part of the world that I know well. I know that the correct protocol for Ministers, quite rightly, is to address the Chamber when speaking on behalf of the Government, but it will be quite difficult to do so as the Opposition Benches are completely empty. I apologise if I have to turn my back to Members who are present for this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on being so persistent about the matter, and on securing the debate. It is a shame that it is only a half-hour debate, as I know that colleagues on this side of the Chamber would have liked to spend more time debating the issues that are so relevant to their constituents.
In the short time I have been a Minister, I have encountered few issues that raise as much local and national concern as has the Thames crossing between Thurrock and Dartford. As a former fireman, I have on too many occasions attended incidents on the Essex side of the crossing where road traffic accidents—road traffic collisions, or whatever modern term we use today—have taken place because people were so frustrated that they took risks. I would ask the drivers and passengers what the cause of the accident was, and all too often they replied that it was anger, frustration and concern that they were being delayed in going about their business or doing their personal duties. Whether they were going north or south, they were usually delayed for one reason: the toll booths on the Kent side of the river.
I am determined, with the Secretary of State’s permission, to do everything we can to alleviate that congestion and pollution. We have not had enough time to debate the pollution, but on both sides of the river it is blighting the lives of many constituents. Visitors to the country are also affected, as 20% of all heavy goods vehicles travelling north through both bores are foreign. The crossing is the lifeblood of the country’s economy. It is invariably how traffic gets from the south to the north.
We have looked carefully at the situation in these difficult times. I fully respect the position of hon. Members who have campaigned over the years to have the previous Government’s promise to remove the tolls honoured. However, we are in really difficult economic times, and the £70 million a year gross revenue that the tolls take in is an important part of the money available for the infrastructure and transport network for the whole country. I know that the matter is really personal for those in that part of the world, but it is a piece of national infrastructure, and the Transport Act 2000 specifically states that the net value of the tolls should be used in transport infrastructure. It is one of the few hypothecated sources of revenue that we have.
I will outline quickly what we have done in the short time we have been able to address a situation that has been going on for years. The first thing we asked was whether it is right in the 21st century to delay people, sometimes for hours, when we expect them to pay a fee to use a crossing. When the tolls are causing the problem and the resulting tailbacks become unacceptably long, we have been releasing the toll charge. In other words, we have lifted the barriers at those times and people are not being charged. There is currently no guidance on how long the tailbacks have to be before we do that, so we hope to have a protocol in place in the new year so that people will know exactly what that distance will be.
That is just an interim measure, because we all know that the way to address the congestion and pollution is to have free flow charging. For the foreseeable future we will have to impose a toll, so how do we minimise the effect on the user while recouping the income? Fantastically, the congestion charge uses vehicle number plate recognition, and it works well. We intend to use that technology to remove the barriers at the north and south of the crossing.
The toll booths are what is really holding up the traffic. As we heard earlier in the debate, the delays are actually being caused by people trying to find change, not realising that they have to pay, or losing their DART-Tag. If we remove the toll booths altogether so that people can drive across the bridge or through the bores, that delay will be removed. Although we are looking at whether we can enhance the number of vehicles that can use the bridge, and 20% seems to be the figure we are looking at, particularly for the bridge—I will come back to the bores in a moment—it is surely fair to the user, whether local or national, that there is free flow.
A considerable amount of construction work is required to realign the road so that there is a straight run, particularly when vehicles come off the bridge. Otherwise, at junction 1A, as those of us who are familiar with that part of the world know, they would be dog-legging to the right at that optimal speed of 50 mph, which will be the speed at which they will be allowed to come down. There will be a great deal of work and cost involved in doing that, and a great deal of technology needs to be put in place as well. Some of that technology is already there. The average-speed cameras will be commissioned soon, and we intend to start commissioning beyond the bridge and back towards junction 2 as the public get used to the 50 mph speed that we want them to use to come across the bridge safely and go towards the bores.
The money will come specifically from the increase in the toll. I would love to have informed the House today that we do not need the 50p from 2011 and 2012, because, obviously, I do not like taxing the British public. However, we need that money, which will be hypothecated for the work we need to do and to pay not only for the non-charging, which we will implement as a short-term measure, but for the free-flow tolling and then—this was touched on by colleagues—to look at a business plan for a new lower Thames crossing.
We all know that the capacity and growth that this country needs will mean that we will struggle, particularly going north. Why will there be such a problem going north? It is because the two bores are not the same size. The inside bore is smaller, so we will struggle to keep a free flow going while oversize vehicles move into the outside lane to go through the larger bore. That is a big technical issue. We still intend to remove the barriers, but we will have to use the matrix signs to slow the traffic going north or halt it so that those vehicles can move across. That will always be a problem.
Secondly, where there is congestion—for example, on the M25 in the Essex section—we cannot legally allow traffic to sit in the tunnel for any length of time. It is not safe, and we have no intention of doing that. Therefore, as we look forward to developing different plans, we have to start to ask whether we will invest some of the money that we are recouping from the region—the net income at the moment is £45 million—in a business plan. As we develop the concept, we must ask, first, whether we should build a bridge or a tunnel, and, secondly, where it will go. Of course, there will be investment not just in the crossing but in the infrastructure on the Essex and Kent sides, which must be linked in.
That was brought home to me starkly when I visited some of my old stomping grounds in Essex recently and, as the Minister with responsibility for shipping, was taken on to the river by the Port of London Authority. I have a dual role when it comes to that part of the country. I spoke to business people who told me that they owned land on the Kent side but had no intention of using it because they could not guarantee that they would be able to get their vehicles across the bridge and back. That is stifling the economy and growth. I freely admit that not one of them has said to me, “We can’t afford to do this; we think that the 50p is going to be a problem for us.” I am sure that there are businesses that will be affected by it, but what they were looking at was the ability to have a business plan that worked. In other words, if they need to get from A to B, and that happens to be from the Kent coast up through the midlands, how can they plan for that when they know, for instance, that they will be queuing at peak times—and sometimes not at peak times?
Several colleagues have written to me in the past couple of days to ask why we did not suspend the toll charges when the winds were bad the other day. The reason was that it was not the barriers that were causing the problem; we had to close the bridge because of the wind. The bridge was not designed brilliantly well—hindsight is a wonderful thing—and does not have the kind of protection from winds exceeding 50 mph that we would expect from a modern bridge. That meant that use of the bridge had to be suspended, and we reverted to using the two bores in the two tunnels—that almost took me back to my youth. I accept that that caused a great deal of trouble. Was the problem caused by the infrastructure or by the tolling? It was caused by the infrastructure not being fit for purpose.
As we work together—I hope that we can—on this project in the next couple of months, I hope to be able to bring in colleagues from all parties who represent constituencies in and around the Dartford river crossing area. I always wonder why we call it the Dartford river crossing area when Thurrock is on the other side. We should call it the Thurrock-Dartford river crossing. I stood as a parliamentary candidate in Thurrock in 2001, and I know only too well that it could be a fantastic growth area if there were confidence in the bridge.
I understand that there may be disappointment that the tolls were not removed when the previous agreement was in place, but I have to stand here as the Minister and say what will be the best outcome for the country as a whole, and for the constituents of hon. Friends who are here today. There are two things that I can do: I can give them confidence in the future that, by removing the barriers so that traffic will have free flow, local people will be able to cross regularly, whether they are going to work or moving socially from north to south and south to north.
The other thing that I need to come back to is the effect on the environment when that free flow comes in. It is of paramount importance that we look after not only the economy of this country but our constituents. We know that the levels of pollution are unacceptably high—particularly when there are problems going north, and because of how close residential properties are to the roads—and are likely to increase. Even though we are driving down emissions, we know from the sheer number of HGVs that come through that we will have issues with that.
We can move as fast as we can for free flow to take place, but we must ensure that the technology works and that local residents have confidence in the local discount schemes. I hope you will not mind my saying this, Mr Rosindell: the take-up of the schemes was as high as we all expected. However, if there are complications—I know that local residents find the schemes complicated—perhaps hon. Members could drop me a line about their concerns.
We are spreading the scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) was looking at that, and it has been put forward many times. The problem is where to stop. I fully understand that the people who live nearby get a discount and that others just down the road do not, but we have to draw the line somewhere.
They are certainly included in my thoughts—my hon. Friend uses a good piece of terminology. I am more than willing to look at that, but if I take the discount away from some and give it to others, I will get just as many complaints from the other side. I have to look at the revenue. The key at present is not to have a cash cow but to use the money to make the environment better for my hon. Friend’s constituents in the future.
I hope that this will not be the last debate on the subject. This is not a bid for being here every day, or on a regular basis, but I hope that colleagues will engage with my officials, my Department and me to get the best option. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said earlier that we may not agree on everything, but let us work together on those things we do agree on. Let us use this opportunity to develop the economy and the environment, and to make the area a much better place for everyone to live and work in.
There will be full consultation on that, just as there will be consultation now on the toll increases. Of course consultation will take place, but we must ensure that whatever is built is fit for purpose not just for us today, but for future generations.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford on securing this debate, and I hope we can work with other colleagues on this project.
Question put and agreed to.