Tuesday 21 December 2010
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
Local High Streets
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Andrew Stunell.)
Thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me to introduce the debate. I am very grateful to the hon. Members who have turned up for braving the snow and ice to be here on the final day of the parliamentary term.
The debate is on an extremely important subject, which I believe hon. Members and the public will welcome the opportunity to discuss. There is barely a constituency in the country that does not contain a local high street of sorts, whether it be in a village, town or city, rural community or urban area. Our high streets are the beating hearts of our local communities. They are the vital hubs where essential services are located and where people meet for both business and recreation. The small shops based in those centres are often run by hard-working, small, independent businesses that employ local staff who provide a really personal service to their communities, and ensure at the same time that money is spent and therefore kept within the local economy.
In recent years, there has been a great deal of focus on the decline of local high streets. In many communities, independent retailers have come under threat. They have faced a rising burden of regulation and tax, a daily battle against crime and violence, and competition from the growth of out-of-town shopping centres. It has been estimated that in 2009 alone, 12,000 independent shops closed. Throughout the country, one does not have to look far to witness the sad sight of rows of empty high street stores, either boarded up or left vacant for months on end.
In Kingswood, my constituency, the situation is no different. For many years, local people—constituents whom I meet on the doorstep and at my surgeries—have been concerned that Kingswood high street, although still a great place to shop that features fantastic local stores, could be improved and given a better chance to stand up against out-of-town shopping centres to become once again the beacon of the Kingswood community. Local people have told me that for too long, Kingswood seemed to have been forgotten by politicians or those in authority, and that allowing local high streets to fall into disrepair sends a message that we do not care about our local community. I am determined that in Kingswood that will change. As the new local MP, I pledged that for the first time in 18 years, Kingswood would have its own MP’s office based in Kingswood, on the high street. That is not merely a token symbol; it is testament to my commitment to make Kingswood a better place to live and work, to invest in our local area.
That is one of the reasons why I called for the debate: I believe that many of the issues we face in Kingswood are exactly the same issues that need to be resolved at national level through Government action and legislation passed here in Parliament. It is here that we can give local people and local communities, in Kingswood and elsewhere, the opportunity to influence and shape the destiny of local high streets. Indeed, we must do so. After all, local high streets are the backbones of our local communities. A thriving high street points to a thriving community, but it must be the community that is at the centre of deciding the future of its local high street.
In discussing the regeneration of local high streets, I do not want to suggest that Kingswood high street is in a state of disrepair or that we are witnessing the so-called death of the local high street, left to rot, supposedly, by the increasing development of out-of-town shopping centres and malls. I merely want to discuss what we can do to make it a better place; I want us to discuss among ourselves what we can learn from one another’s experiences in different local areas about what works.
In many ways, Kingswood high street has all the ingredients to thrive and to restore its former glory. The Kings Chase shopping centre has done excellent work in restoring the fabric of the covered shopping area, while the introduction of a new Boswells café is a welcome move that will no doubt increase footfall. However, it is the recent establishment of the Kingswood Business Association that I believe gives greatest hope to the area. Working tirelessly to promote Kingswood, the business association is working with South Gloucestershire council to make Kingswood high street as vibrant a place as any.
The association is in the middle of carrying out a health checker exercise, asking what are the current and future needs of businesses in the local area in order to make Kingswood a sustainable place to work and shop. On the basis of that understanding of what is needed to maintain the vitality of Kingswood high street, the Kingswood Business Association is proactively seeking tenants to fill empty units—businesses that will particularly help to complement existing ones. Tackling the early symptoms of degeneration ensures that local businesses have an important steer on the future direction of their high street, taking responsibility for their local area. I welcome the recent launch of the “Healthy High Street?” guide by the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), to promote at a wider, national level the good practice that is already taking place in Kingswood.
The Kingswood Business Association has also recognised that there are many ways in which the high street can be promoted for little cost, by organising community events that can bring local people into the area to see what they are missing. This year, for instance, the Armed Forces day celebration, with veterans marching side by side down Kingswood high street, was a great success. Stalwart organisations such as the Friends of Kingswood Park and other leading champions of Kingswood such as Diane Block and George Kousouros should be given credit for all the hard work that they have put in over the years to make such events a success.
As the local MP, I am hoping next year to make Kingswood high street the focus for community celebrations once again. This time, I want to make Kingswood the place to celebrate St George’s day, and I am currently working to organise a parade along the high street to mark it. Local high streets can be the perfect place to celebrate such events—events that, although simple, are effective, helping to bring people together and getting local businesses talking to one another.
However, sustaining a local high street and a community cannot just be about organising events or shopping locally at independent small shops. We need to act as a Government to provide the breaks necessary for independent small businesses to thrive. Rate relief helps to keep financially afloat many small businesses on local high streets, yet at the same time many small businesses do not take up or even know about small business rate relief and consequently pay money that they do not need to pay to local authorities.
After the Federation of Small Businesses began a campaign for rate relief to be applied automatically, rather than businesses going through the bureaucratic process of applying for it, automatic small business rate relief was introduced in Northern Ireland. It has injected more than £8 million into the local economy and benefited 16,000 small businesses. It is to be welcomed that the Localism Bill now proposes to allow small business rate relief to be paid automatically to eligible small businesses. South Gloucestershire council made a submission under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 for automatic small business rate relief and is extremely pleased to see Ministers acting on that proposal.
I welcome the commitment in the local growth White Paper to double small business rate relief for one year from October; eligible ratepayers with rateable values below £6,000 will pay no rates at all for that year. It is also welcome that the Government are committed to taking legislation through the House to ensure that no new supplementary business rate can be imposed without the backing of local firms in a referendum. I particularly welcome the consideration of the possibility of giving local authorities wide-ranging discretionary powers to grant business rate discounts, so that they can respond to local circumstances by reducing business rate bills. In Kingswood, that might provide the opportunity for the high street to become an enterprise growth zone, offering local businesses and retail organisations the opportunity to invest in Kingswood with the reward of lower rates, creating our very own enterprise zone.
Does my hon. Friend agree that those ideas for rate discounts would be very interesting to food businesses, and particularly to traditional food businesses such as grocers, bakers and butchers, which often have quite tight margins and can struggle if they are in a particularly highly rated area?
That is an extremely interesting point. I had not considered it, but obviously there are many shops on the high street of that nature, so such a measure would indeed be extremely valuable.
Equally promising is the £1 billion of Government funding that has been set aside for councils that welcome new housing development. They will be able to spend it to benefit their local economy. In Kingswood, there are areas of brownfield land in need of development. At the same time, there is a great need for more affordable housing in the area. The new homes bonus—the Government’s proposal to match the council tax raised from the construction of new homes, supplemented by £350 per home for the first six years—will provide the opportunity for even greater investment in Kingswood, which might be spent on improving the local high street and its surrounding areas.
Increased investment and financial incentives are vital to protecting our local high streets, but we must also address the imbalance between our historic high streets and the growth of larger out-of-town retail centres or malls. It is there that we have the chance to learn the lessons of the past, and not to penalise small businesses in favour of larger retail outlets. I welcome the change in attitude displayed in the coalition’s programme for government, which states that it
“will seek to ensure a level playing field between small and large retailers by enabling councils to take competition”—
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the Mayor of London’s Great Outdoors programme has been particularly successful? My constituency has been lucky enough to benefit from the programme; Orpington was beset by structural decline for many years, with Bluewater a few miles down the road on one side and a great shopping centre in Bromley on the other. In July this year, Orpington was lucky enough to benefit from a £2.2 million regeneration programme.
Absolutely. I do not want to put across a message that we are anti-supermarket or anti-big business. This is about striking an appropriate balance between the two, and ensuring that small businesses are protected while at the same time ensuring that people in every constituency have choice—as they must.
I welcome the change in attitude displayed in the Government’s programme, which will seek to ensure a level playing field
“by enabling councils to take competition issues into account when drawing up their local plans to shape the direction and type of…retail development.”
In Kingswood, South Gloucestershire council has taken that message on board and made special provision for town centres and local high streets in its core strategy. It was also heartening to read the speech made by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 2 November at the Heart of the Community conference, when my right hon. Friend stated
“we continue to support the ‘town-centres first’ policy, after all, a Conservative Government introduced it in 1996.”
That is something that the Conservative party, for one, has long campaigned on, and I look forward to hearing how the coalition Government will ensure that it takes place.
Above all, I welcome the local growth White Paper, which sets out the Government‘s economic ambition to build a fairer and more balanced economy driven by private sector growth within local communities. Indeed, it set out their commitment and belief that viable town centres are also key drivers of our economy. That can only benefit our local high streets, in particular by reforming the planning system so that it is driven by communities who want growth, rather than applying the system we inherited, which stifles development and innovation, and acts as a barrier to economic recovery.
In my local authority, several years ago Crawley borough council and West Sussex county council worked closely together to regenerate the high street. There is another thoroughfare—The Boulevard—in my local authority area, which the local councils are now looking to redevelop. With the local growth White Paper, and the localisation of planning policies that the coalition Government are introducing, is it not the case that local councils will be even more successful in achieving such things?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who did a tremendous job during his tenure at West Sussex county council. I hope the Government can take forward some of that work and learn from what he implemented in West Sussex.
By introducing a presumption in favour of sustainable economic development—it must be sustainable—and introducing a new right for communities to shape their local areas through neighbourhood plans, we are providing the seedbed in which local businesses will be able to flourish and expand. It is about ensuring that the high street and the people who live in a community have a viable, sustainable economic future. Parking, transport, procurement, and the threat from supermarkets and out-of-town developments are all best dealt with by local authorities, local community groups, local businesses and local people working together. Allowing local people the chance to get involved in the planning process is crucial if we are to improve decision making. Local problems, I believe, are always best solved at local level.
Many planning decisions involve the introduction of new buildings, yet we must not forget that the nature of many local high streets—historic landmarks in our towns and cities—means that they contain historic buildings in need of constant preservation. All too often, the presentation of local high streets is judged on the condition of those buildings and their quality of repair. It is vital that such buildings—many grade listed— be maintained and kept in the best condition possible. On Kingswood high street, the local Royal British Legion club has recognised that, and spent tens of thousands of pounds on repairing and cleaning the outside of the building, which is one of Kingswood’s landmarks. That has restored the building to its former glory and done much to improve the look of Kingswood high street; the members of the Legion should be thanked for all their efforts, which have made a real difference.
Sadly, not all buildings in Kingswood are fortunate enough to have been looked after so well. Just off Kingswood high street is Whitfield’s tabernacle, a famous grade I listed building, which, together with its nearby chapel and grounds, has fallen into a tragic state of disrepair. For years, despite great public concern, the building has been allowed to crumble and its grounds become overgrown. As the new local MP, I am unwilling to allow this blight on the Kingswood landscape, so close to the high street, to be tolerated. Recently, I organised a joint meeting with South Gloucestershire council, English Heritage and the current owners to drive the restoration of the historic site. English Heritage has now committed £48,000 to urgent repair works on the tabernacle, and I will continue discussions with all relevant parties until we reach a workable solution.
Although the tabernacle project is once again moving, there are other derelict buildings near Kingswood high street or in its vicinity that I am campaigning to see restored or improved. The former Linden hotel is such a building, and I am determined to see it improved. Over the years, like the tabernacle, the building has fallen into disrepair. It is all too easy to sit back and allow that to happen, but much harder to stand up and do something about it. As local MPs, we must begin to tackle such problems if we are genuinely to stand up for our local areas. Such local buildings should never have been allowed to fall into such a state; but I am not here to challenge the past, only to champion the future.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the role of landlords, particularly those with premises in town centres? The level of dilapidation of some of the retail stock in town centres is such that market forces alone would struggle to regenerate some areas.
I agree that it is difficult, and landlords can often be recalcitrant in a difficult market when dealing with some of those problems. However, we need to push further to ensure that historic high streets and buildings in need of protection are regenerated where necessary. I am a strong champion of looking after those buildings.
We must have pride in our buildings and local areas if we are to have pride in our local communities. The Sun’s recent campaign to save the British high street has pointed out that sense of pride. We need to make our high streets more attractive places in which to shop. That can be achieved in a variety of ways, and often at low cost: planting trees or shrubs, installing hanging baskets, providing more bins and having dedicated teams to remove fly-posters, graffiti and chewing gum. All of that will make our high streets cleaner and more enjoyable to visit.
The Government need a strategy to tackle our empty and derelict shops, and to ensure that at local level, as is the case with the Kingswood Business Association, local communities can be empowered to get shops back into use, whether through local knowledge, sharing best practice or the introduction of lower rates set by the local authority. The Sun’s campaign has also pointed out the need to take a hard line on retail crime, for instance shoplifting and antisocial behaviour. I agree. Shoppers must feel safe in their local high street. If there is any chance that intimidation might take place, it must be tackled. Damaged or vandalised property must be repaired as soon as possible, and must never be tolerated. Equally, a business that is frequently the victim of crime is a business at risk of closing down. Tackling crime against small businesses can but assist urban regeneration.
We should recognise that the night life of local high streets is equally important to their reputation and long-term sustainability. In Kingswood, I found a mutual desire on the part of restaurant, pub and nightclub owners, the police and South Gloucestershire council to ensure that Kingswood high street is as safe a place as possible to enjoy a meal or a drink on a night out. The council has recently made a substantial investment in CCTV, at the same time as investing in taxi marshals to ensure that local people can get home safely.
Following the refurbishment of Kingswood civic centre—a huge investment by South Gloucestershire council, which signals its commitment to invest in Kingswood—I was delighted to see that local police will once again be based on Kingswood high street, enabling them to meet the local community’s immediate needs and provide for its safety. We should constantly be on the lookout for ways to make our local high streets as safe as possible, and as the local MP, I continue to work with every interested party to ensure that that happens.
We are already witnessing new changes and new beginnings in Kingswood. Since the election of a new council in 2007, the local community has witnessed record investment, but change must be matched by a commitment to the future. There is much more to do, and I am committed to doing the best I can for Kingswood and to standing up for our local high street.
As Members of Parliament, we should and must act as effective champions for our local areas, refusing merely to allow the status quo to continue and refusing to stand still and allow our local high streets to fall into disrepair. We, too, have a responsibility to stand up for our communities and high streets and to enable local people to discover how they can make their high streets better places to work, better places to shop and better places to enjoy.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me make a couple of general points that might help hon. Members. First, it is helpful if those who intend to speak in Westminster Hall write to Mr Speaker. A number of you have done so, but others have not.
Secondly, I mean no disrespect to my old colleague, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), for whom I was a special adviser, but normally the order of dress in this Chamber is the same as in the main Chamber. It being Christmas, however, a degree of latitude is probably perfectly in order.
I shall make an unashamedly parochial speech, but before I do, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate and on the way in which he introduced it.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that high streets are usually dominated by small businesses. Often these are innovative businesses, which, as he rightly said, work extremely hard. On occasion, they are run by one or two people with a great commitment to the service they offer local people. I also agree about the importance of the campaign that The Sun has been running.
The hon. Gentleman made a series of interesting points about the Localism Bill and the benefits that it will, in his view, offer down the line. I will be interested to hear what the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), thinks about that Bill.
I want to make two parochial points and one point about London. My first parochial point is about north Harrow, which is in my constituency. I have lived there for most of my life, and I should perhaps invite hon. Members to follow the example of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government by visiting north Harrow, which he did during the general election campaign—he was taking time out to support my campaign, or, at least, I think that was what was going on. On his visit, he would have had the chance, as will other hon. Members if they take time out to come to north Harrow to support my next election campaign, to see some great restaurants. Britain’s best fish and chip shop is probably in north Harrow, but there are also a series of superb cafés, delis and Indian restaurants. Other businesses include great newsagents and a fantastic shoe repairers.
I want to raise a concern about north Harrow, however, which came ninth out of nine in Harrow council’s annual look at the viability of district centres in our borough. Indeed, as most residents of north Harrow will recognise, it has had a series of problems attracting new businesses since the closure of the Safeway supermarket in 2002. Concerns about north Harrow’s viability as a district centre have been thrown into stark relief in recent days with the closure of north Harrow’s last major bank—Lloyds—on Friday. Lloyds management cited the decline in footfall in north Harrow as the reason for shutting the branch, which is the only one that they have shut in recent months in the whole of London.
The council and I, as the Member of Parliament, have been in touch with Lloyds bank and we have pressed it, albeit unsuccessfully, to reconsider its decision. However, we also asked it to do a number of other things. First, we have asked it to work with the local council to think about what it can put back into north Harrow to support businesses in the area. Secondly, we have asked the bank to look at how it can work with the post office in north Harrow to extend the range of services that Lloyds customers use. Many constituents are not aware that the post office provides a service for Lloyds bank customers. The concern is that many people who previously came to north Harrow to use the bank will not recognise that they can use the post office for their banking needs and will instead go to other areas, including, worst of all, neighbouring areas such as Hillingdon, Brent or Hertfordshire.
The last issue that I want to raise in regard to north Harrow relates to the space occupied by the former Safeway store, which has been closed since 2002. New flats have been built above the store to house key workers, but the space that Safeway occupied still has no businesses in it, which appears to be the result of a problem over the ownership of the lease. The local council is looking at the issue, but I hope that the owners of the lease and, indeed, the Genesis housing association, which built the flats above the space, will work much harder with the local council in the early part of 2011 to resolve the question of the lease once and for all. That will enable this crucial space to be promoted again so that we can have businesses in it.
The hon. Member for Kingswood made a crucial, albeit brief, point about the need to recognise early signs of concern about the viability of district centres, which brings me to my second parochial point. Harrow town centre remains extremely viable with a series of what would be classified as major high street areas running through it. However, it faces huge competition from the Harlequin centre in Watford, Brent Cross and the attractions of central London. Over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been no major development in Harrow town centre and no major consideration of what we need to do to maintain the viability and attractiveness of the borough’s premier high street area. The council is beginning to look at the issue, and I hope that all the businesses with an interest in Harrow will work extremely closely with the local council to make sure that there is no slippage in Harrow town centre’s competitiveness.
The only point at which the hon. Gentleman almost lost my interest and enthusiasm for what he was saying was when he described the Mayor of London as a great visionary, but as it is Christmas, I will skip over that. To be fair, however, there is one thing for which I should give the Mayor credit: introducing the bike hire scheme in central London. I worry, however, that he has not taken the same interest thus far in outer-London boroughs, and I hope that we will see early signs from him and from his successor in 18 months’ time of a new focus on outer-London areas such as Harrow.
I hope that there will be an extension of the bike hire scheme. It is interesting that the same country that provided the inspiration for the Mayor’s bike hire scheme now advocates considering a car hire scheme. If the occupants of the Mayor of London’s position in the coming years are interested in such a scheme—and they should certainly think about it—I hope they may be willing to explore whether they could work with Harrow council on it, or, indeed, on other schemes to promote economic regeneration. Outer London deserves more attention than it has traditionally had from those in City Hall. I hope that the Mayor of London will prioritise support for Harrow generally and, given the particular concern that I have raised about its viability, north Harrow.
A debate of this kind inevitably has something of a Cook’s tour quality, so I want to take hon. Members from Harrow down either the A40 or the M40, or the Chiltern railway line, to Bicester and Banbury. The two main towns in my constituency are market towns, and their only real raison d’être has been as market towns.
Retail continues to change every decade. The Banbury in photographs taken in the 1930s looks very different from the Banbury of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s or ’70s. There is continuous evolution because retail is all about millions of people making decisions—thousands of decisions each day—about how they spend their money, and that evolution will continue.
In recent years, two substantive changes have affected town centres and high streets. One is shopping near the edge of town, or out of town. Banbury has excellent supermarkets: Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons. However, they are on the outskirts—on the edge of the town. People want to use them and they are much used. We must accept that part of the retail revolution as a given.
The other revolutionary change is the use of the internet. I understand that 10% of Christmas presents will be bought on the internet this year. I recently visited the Christmas sorting office of Banbury post office, as I have done practically every year for the past 30. I suspect that every other right hon. and hon. Member has also visited their sorting office. In previous years, I saw thousands and thousands of Christmas cards. Last year I started to notice some parcels, but this year the place is awash with parcels from Amazon and elsewhere. I shall take this opportunity to pay a compliment to all the postmen and women who have been getting out in grim conditions. In the villages of north Oxfordshire yesterday, the one constant sight was the Post Office van, which was getting through to deliver the huge number of parcels bought on the internet.
Nowadays the internet makes Christmas shopping easy. Both my children’s Christmas presents were bought on the internet. The situation with my wife is much simpler; she just tells me what she has bought for me to give her. I am not sure whether she bought it on the internet, but it is a very simple system. However, the internet revolution will not go away. People will buy more and more on the internet.
At any one moment about 12% of the retail properties in Banbury are voids. They change—some come and some go—but over the past three or four years, walking down the high street in Banbury or in the market square, one has seen those voids. I do not see where the speciality shops will come from to fill those voids. We have had—and do have—regeneration in Banbury. We have the fantastic Castle Quay shopping centre. We have just had a scheme, involving the Environment Agency, through which a private sector contribution is enabling Banbury to continue with some flood defences that will make town centre regeneration possible along the Oxford canal. Some really grotty existing light industrial areas will be redeveloped for affordable housing and new businesses. The area will be really exciting, but we will still be left with much empty retail space.
The question I want to put to my hon. Friend the Minister is about a conundrum with which we shall all have to get to grips. Much of the void retail property belongs to commercial developers. It is on their balance sheets as an asset. They do not particularly mind about the situation. They are not getting rent from the property, but they are happy to leave such capital assets where they are. It seems that there is no incentive for them to bring it back into useful existence. I have come to a conclusion about what we shall need to do in a town such as Banbury with much of that former retail space. That space is not being used, and the space above it, where shopkeepers would once have lived but which later became commercial space, is pretty grotty commercial space that is difficult to let, as much better commercial office space is being built on business parks around the town. Realistically, it will be difficult to let that space. I think that we need to bring it back into housing use as flats above shops to house young people, students, and key workers such as nurses.
To some extent that is already happening in Banbury, but I suspect that we shall need it to happen a lot more. What can we do to accelerate the process? What can be done to encourage commercial landlords to see that they will get better yields by seeking planning permission to convert some of the empty retail space into accommodation than they will by leaving it as retail voids? I am thinking of setting up a prize for the grottiest, longest-term void, and at present the award would undoubtedly go to a site that was the headquarters of Crest Hotels in Banbury, which is an abomination unto the Lord. That complete mess, which is within a cricket ball’s throw of the town hall, is now just used by roosting pigeons. There seems to be very little incentive for the owners or freeholders of the property to bring it back into use and turn it into offices or housing.
We need to provide some incentives—either carrots or sticks—to owners of empty retail space to get them to consider what uses they can put the buildings to, other than leaving them as retail voids. Of course, that means that the local planning authority must be supportive and encouraging about people returning to live in town centres and high streets. However, given the unmitigated pressure on new housing—particularly for young people, students, single people and key workers—I should have thought that that approach would produce an ideal relationship involving trying to find existing buildings to convert to flats and housing for such people.
The uncomfortable truth is that aspects of the retail revolution are such that we are never going to see our town centres or high streets revert to what they were in the 1950s or 1940s. The retail revolution has moved on. We must find other ways to secure the vitality and viability of town centres with the shops, retail experiences, banks and building societies that already exist. We must do all that we can, of course, to ensure that people want to come to the town centre and use it as a focus for the community. However, we must also accept that we shall never need all our town centres’ historical retail space for retail purposes. Some of it could better be converted to housing. However, the mechanisms for bringing that about—how to get the housing and how to get more people living in town centres—are a conundrum, and I should welcome the Minister’s thoughts.
I have to work it out for myself to decide when to stop speaking. Thank you, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate and refer hon. Members to a declaration of interest as part-owner of MarketNet, an e-commerce operation running since 1994.
I would like to follow on from the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), because he made key points. A lot of this is driven by financial realities. Supermarkets have two advantages: no wholesaling, so they keep the whole of the margin, and an oligopsony—that is, the buying power allows them to drive down the prices at which they buy goods, which therefore allows them to compete financially, more so with shops that have to take the wholesale-retail route.
We have been trying for 11 years in Yardley to redevelop the Tivoli centre, where there used to be a shopping centre built on the site of an old cinema. Although the Labour councillors decided to vote to stop it recently, after 11 years we are finally getting a redevelopment of the Swan centre, or Tivoli centre, which should see another 600 jobs for the constituency. That plan is underpinned by Tesco, which I have supported, because I want to see the redevelopment of the site. The finances are such that we cannot redevelop that site without money coming in from somewhere. The community right to buy—a very good project—has to be underpinned by finances. The difficulty for high streets is how to deal with the fact that there has been a movement away from retail on the high street. That raises a number of issues, one of which is the dereliction. Look at the issue from the commercial landlords’ perspective: if they accept a lower rent, one difficulty is that they then have to devalue the property in their accounts. They do not want to do that because it could derail them to a much greater extent. We need to find an incentive, as we have for empty homes, for empty commercial properties so as to encourage people to recognise the realities of life and develop that.
There is a distinction between high streets and shopping centres such as Bluewater, which was referred to earlier. High streets are public spaces. We can have marches up and down them; we have loads of parades in Birmingham, all over the place. We do not have those in shopping centres; we have little things, because shopping centres are private spaces. That issue needs to be looked at, with the owners of shopping centres, as it devalues the community aspects. The great advantage of Acocks Green, like other places in Birmingham, is that it was based on a market right in the centre, in Digbeth, but is in fact an urban area developed out of a number of villages. All the villages have centres and, oddly enough, places such as the Yew Tree are bypasses of the village of Old Yardley. Houses have grown up where fields used to be between the villages. They are village centres that were owned by the communities. The shopping centres that have developed do not have that same community ownership, which is rather sad. That is something that local government and national Government should work on—trying to develop more community involvement and a general feeling that it is all part of our wider community. I accept that they are private centres—there is no question about that—but it is sad to lose that communal element.
Farmers’ markets, for instance, can really add to an area. There are many places in Birmingham with farmers’ markets, which are good to have. Their element of disorder—the word we use at the moment is “chaos”—means that they are not structured, but are all different. We are never quite sure what we are going to find; it is not all Café Rouge and Pizza Hut. There is a children’s song about Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, which those who have young children will know. Though that is a national song, it is nice to have the variety created by different organisations. It is good if someone sets up a retail outlet, creates new ideas and develops them.
However, we do have to come down to the finances—that is where the Government need to study to what extent there is a level playing field. As the footfall moves into the shopping centres, as it has done, the value is clearly no longer in the land values in high streets. The effect of the commercial financing is such that people do not want to accept a lower rent because they would have to devalue the asset. That leads to the dereliction that is damaging to the community in the wider sense. To that extent, I support the hon. Member for Banbury, in that we need to look at incentives to ensure that we do not have dereliction. I think I have probably said enough.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on his excellent speech. I now know considerably more about Kingswood than I did about 45 minutes ago. He clearly has a great passion for the area he represents and has done a tremendous job. He made an interesting speech, which I hope other hon. Members will develop. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) has just left his seat. I know he did not wish to say too much about Boris Johnson, given that it is Christmas. I am not sure whether he meant that Boris Johnson was either the Messiah or a very wise man. No doubt he will have the opportunity to tell us at some later stage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made an interesting speech. He developed an issue to which I had not given much thought—dealing with long-term voids in high streets to boost the private rented sector. My experience as an inner-city MP is that nothing is more important than a vibrant and stable residential population to ensure a boost for such areas.
Many Members may wonder on what basis I am speaking. Are there any high streets in Cities of London and Westminster? There are many of the most traditional high streets, such as Cheapside, in the City of London, where one of the largest shopping developments in central London in recent years has opened. Oxford street was once Westminster’s high street, though it perhaps has more profound resonance now. Other residential shopping areas can be found in Marylebone high street and Elizabeth street. I accept that those two are in the relatively wealthy areas of Marylebone and Belgravia, but their vibrancy and success are due fundamentally to having a relatively stable, single landowner, which makes a big difference to the choice of shops available. To an extent, the Howard de Walden and the Grosvenor estates in each of those cases—the same applies to the Portman estate, which does a tremendous job around Edgware road—have realised the importance of variety in a local shopping centre. Although I do not know all the statistics, there is little doubt that there has been an element of having loss leaders, allowing particular shops to pay considerably lower rates or to get a rate rebate.
I accept that that is not necessarily a panacea that can apply throughout the country. I am lucky in that there are great pockets of wealth in my constituency. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the drab Marylebone high street that I first walked down only 25 years ago, when I worked in London between school and university, has been transformed. It has become much respected, with people coming from beyond London to shop there, even though it is less than half a mile from Oxford street. Having traditional, independent restaurants, bookstores and small specialist food stores such as bakeries and cheese shops, makes a tremendous difference.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one interesting idea in the Government’s Localism Bill and White Paper on local growth is whether councils around the country might take on the role of some of the big landlord estates in London? They could try to stimulate economic growth in their areas by supporting certain types of business, which might in turn lead to other business growth.
I agree. That would be a useful way forward. One difficulty is often the disparate freehold ownership on a lot of high streets. I certainly do not think that there is a need for a centralised plan, but there needs to be a vision that goes beyond simply ensuring that tenants are paying rent this year and next, and the one after. There needs to be a vision for 15 or 20 years. We always need to take into account what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury rightly said, which is that it is hard to put a finger on how high streets will look in 20 years’ time. They have certainly changed every decade since the 1940s, due to different shopping habits.
I am sorry that the two Members representing suburban London seats who were here earlier have gone. There are specific problems in suburban London, which I would not wish to put to one side. I have a great passion for London as a whole and recognise that there are certain advantages in representing a very central London seat. In Orpington, where my wife’s family came from, and in Harrow, there are some fundamental problems, partly as a result of out-of-town shopping centres. A slight irony of the recent snowfall is that many people have not been able to get out in their cars to do that sort of shop, and have therefore been forced back to see the offering in their own high street.
There are no easy solutions to all this. One possibility is to have a single landowner who can perhaps make an area special, look at flagship stores and, where possible, consider loss leaders.
I want to touch on business improvement districts. In fairness, they are greatly to the credit of the previous Labour Government, who introduced elements of the legislation, and they have been a great success. In my own constituency, the New West End Company, which operates around Regent street, Bond street and Oxford street, has been a great success. We have seen various other business improvement districts around the Paddington Basin area, and demand is increasing. However, the money that has been spent by business improvement districts tends to be focused on aesthetics and on increasing the number of policemen to ensure that shoppers feel safer and that shops are less subject to crime.
With local authorities facing difficult financial settlements not just for this year and next, but probably for the rest of this decade, I worry that this should not be seen just as a matter of substitution. I encourage town centres to consider going down the business improvement district route, although they will still see money being taken away by way of what should be the normal local authority responsibility. We need to bear that in mind, as we do supplementary business rates.
I want to mention supermarkets, which have been touched on by other hon. Members. It is easy to criticise supermarkets. I have stood up for them previously in this Chamber, and I think that they do a tremendous job in many ways. They provide phenomenal choice that was unseen a decade or two ago. None the less, I accept what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said—I think he referred to an oligarchy of sorts being adopted, although I cannot remember how he phrased it. I also worry that the grocery ombudsman route may not be an entirely sensible way forward.
If we are to have a vibrant shopping centre, a flagship supermarket is almost always needed. Waitrose is in Marylebone high street in my constituency; we also see various Sainsbury’s and Tesco stores, particularly some of the smaller ones. However, I would like to see newsagents playing a part in the high street, for example, and I would like supermarkets to show some responsibility by, for instance, not selling newspapers. That would ensure that newsagents within 50 or 100 yards of the supermarket had a chance to thrive. If there was a long-standing fishmonger nearby, let us hope that the local Sainsbury’s or Tesco would not sell fish. In other words, we need to ensure that people do not have to do all their shopping in a particular Sainsbury’s or Tesco—an all-singing, all-dancing supermarket—at the expense of the smaller stores. That would present the supermarkets, which do a tremendous job, with an opportunity to show a certain amount of self-restraint, rather than having to be bossed around by an all-powerful ombudsman. Thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me to speak. I look forward to other contributions to the debate.
I am grateful to have the pleasure of speaking in the debate, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing it. This is an important debate for a constituency such as mine, which has a collection of village high streets and three market towns. I think that I can still refer to them as market towns, as all three have markets, but I suspect that by the end of my term here, I will have to call them supermarket towns. One new supermarket opened in my first six months as an MP, and the threat of another couple in the other two towns is further damaging the high streets.
Perhaps one of the great pleasures of being an MP is supporting “shop local” campaigns. When my girlfriend says, with apologies to the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), “Can we go to the Westfield centre in Derby?” or, “How about Meadowhell?”—sorry, I think I am meant to say “Meadowhall”—I can say, “No, we need to shop local.” I had great pleasure taking her out to Ripley on Sunday to spend far too much money on jewellery. It seems that we have legalised product placement, and with the number of lists of shops that have been cited in this debate, perhaps some of us are having a try at that here.
To return to my point, I have three market towns in my constituency: Alfreton, Heanor and Ripley. I am giving nothing away when I say that they all have challenges to face. As other hon. Members have mentioned, we have empty shops, pubs and business premises, and bits of land that have been set aside for bypasses that will never happen. There is no magic easy fix for such problems. None the less, those towns now have glossy regeneration plans—the previous Government insisted upon them—with 100-page booklets full of glossy pictures. I am a little suspicious, because the plans are very similar for each town, with a slightly different road map to reflect the historic roads. Fundamentally, we are several tens of millions of pounds short of achieving those plans.
Perhaps we need to think a little more strategically about what a town should look like and how it should be changed and sorted out. There is a risk that everyone looks at a town and tries to do the same thing. We tend to think, “How do we get the shops back to where they were 30 years ago? How do we get independent shops to come back here when they have practically all left, and how do we reopen that pub?” We may need to go beyond that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned, and accept that things have changed and that we do want to shop at supermarkets. I suspect that we are all guilty of getting back at 9 o’clock at night and of doing our shopping when only the supermarket is open. It is much easier to do that than to go down the high street during opening hours. People exercise their right to choose, so we need to find a plan for our towns that lives in the real world and applies to the future world, and that does not try to take us back 30 or 40 years to what used to work then. There are things that national and local government can do to encourage the change. I am pleased with some of the things that the new Government are doing. We must ensure that planning control is actually about planning rather than development. We must look at what we want to have in each town, where we want it and how we get it.
When I look around at least one of my towns, all I see are rows of betting shops, takeaways and charity shops. They are not great for the vibrancy of a town. One of the ways in which we can reduce the number of betting shops in a row is to allow them to have more than four slot machines. The problem is we may then have two empty betting shops rather than two full units. Councils should have the planning power to say, “No, we have enough betting shops and takeaways; we want something different.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this debate. It is wonderful to see so many Members here despite the imminent recess. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) hit on a key point when he talked about practicalities, the reality and individual choice. In my constituency, this is such a hot topic that should I call such a debate, some 200 people would descend to try to talk about what they want to do about their closed shops and multiple shops of the same style. This issue is definitely about localism, and it cannot be about prescriptive ideas. We must ensure—I hope that the Minister will do this—that we empower local councils and individuals to do what is right for their area.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. One thing that councils should have the power to do is to say, “Right, we want this town to be a focus for restaurants or for small shops.” They should be able to choose whatever is right for that town and look at how they can encourage that. We have heard talk of granting business rate discounts, and that is certainly something that we can do. We can grant a holiday for the first year, or half rate for a few years, to give businesses a chance to establish themselves. We can try to streamline the planning system so that we can say, “If you want to convert this empty shop or that void into this kind of outlet, we will guarantee that you can get that planning permission.” That would speed up the process and take out some of the costs. Let us look at practical measures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) talked about trying to rig together freehold ownership. I know that towns have a problem with the numerous different owners in the high street—they might have banks owning closed branches, a few pub landlords owning pubs that are boarded up, individuals who own shops but cannot be found, and a couple of obscure trusts. We must try to find a way in which we can bring that together. Perhaps we could consider innovative land swaps. Councils might have valuable land outside the town that could be attractive for out-of-town parking, while someone’s land in the centre could be used to regenerate the town. We need to get a critical mass of ideas together so that we can do something rather than thinking, “I can fix two of these 27 outlets, but I still have a problem with the other 25.”
I shall now address car parking, which is probably a poisoned chalice. Anyone who talks to small shopkeepers or owners of small businesses will know that they say that they cannot compete with supermarkets because supermarkets can give free parking to all their shoppers, whereas the customers of small shops have to park half a mile away down a hill, and pay various rates for that privilege. They say that they just cannot compete with supermarket parking for either convenience or cost. The situation is difficult, because councils want the revenue from car parking, and it must be right that car parks be maintained—we want safe, clean, well-lit car parks, and the cost of such maintenance must be met from somewhere. However, one of the things that kills town centres is that people just do not want to pay the £1 or £2 they are charged to park in them. When people are spending £5 on petrol to get to a town centre, it is hard to believe that the 50p for parking will put them off, but if anyone looks at the cars along a free-parking residential street, it clearly does.
We need to take a strategic view. If we are going to save our town centres, we need to think, “What can we bring here that will be viable and self-perpetuating? What can we do to help people to come here, even if we cannot chuck millions of pounds at it? What do we need to do to get the infrastructure, parking and public transport access right, and the pavements well lit and attractive?” If we try to bring those things together and create the right conditions, we can make this plan work. I am afraid that the time for trying to find a one-size-fits-all approach and an attitude of saying, “Let’s go back to the 1960s high street”—great as that might be—has now passed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this important debate. I agree with much that has been said about the regeneration of local high streets, but I would like to make a couple of parochial points about Pendle.
We in Pendle face the same issues as many town centres throughout the country due to people’s changing shopping patterns and competition from out-of-town retailers. However, different parts of the borough face different challenges. The pedestrianisation of the main high street in Nelson, which is the largest town that I represent, was a serious and expensive mistake which, if anything, accelerated the loss of local shops. I am pleased to say that a £2.3 million scheme to reopen Nelson’s main high street, with the hope of helping to revitalise the town centre, is nearing completion. That scheme, which began in June, will help to bring traffic back through the town centre and improve the street scene. Crucially—this is what my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) was just talking about—it will allow shoppers to park much closer to local stores so that those stores can compete more effectively with supermarkets and out-of-town stores that have free car parking immediately outside their doors.
The project is an essential step in helping us to breathe new life into Nelson town centre. Since the general election, I have held monthly meetings with the leader of Pendle borough council, Mike Blomeley, and its chief executive, Stephen Barnes, to talk about some of the challenges that we face, as well as specifically about how we can work together proactively to regenerate our local high street, which is something that concerns us all.
Several hon. Members have touched on the important fact that we still have some excellent local shops in our areas. We need to bring shoppers back to areas such as Nelson. However, far too many of my constituents who live outside Nelson town centre say to me, “There are no decent shops in Nelson.” If they visited the town centre, they would realise that many of the independent and family-run butchers, bakers, jewellers and gift shops are still there. We have far too many boarded-up shops, but there are still some real gems hidden on the high street. That is why my message about “shop local” campaigns, with which many Members in the Chamber today are involved, has always been, in regard to local shops, that we really need to encourage people to use them, or lose them. I was therefore delighted to be in Nelson last Friday to open the new post office. Given the number of post office closures in recent years, it seemed odd for a Member of Parliament to be opening a new one. However, I congratulate Mr Vali, who has invested in opening a new post office store in the old Woolworth building in the town centre. That new post office is one aspect of the ongoing regeneration of Nelson town centre.
In Colne, which is the town where I live, the situation is very different. We have a number of empty shops, but by and large the high street is doing very well. We have a number of shops, pubs and restaurants, and the town centre tends to be quite busy. However, one of the biggest problems facing Colne is something that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood: we have a number of significant buildings that have fallen into disuse and disrepair.
One of the biggest of those buildings in Colne is Shackleton Hall, a landmark building on the high street. Despite being grade II listed, it became an eyesore after years of neglect and was put on English Heritage’s at-risk register. I am therefore delighted to be able to tell hon. Members that renovation of that building began in July and is now well under way. There is a £2 million project to invest in the building. The main building is being converted into modern office space with a retail arcade below, while preserving the Victorian exterior. Once it is renovated, the building will become the new headquarters for Housing Pendle, which is currently located just a few doors away in Colne town hall, as well as providing additional retail space on the high street. After years of neglect, I am delighted to see this historic building transformed and brought back into use at long last. It will be a great boost to Colne town centre, both helping to brighten up the town and providing more jobs.
I cite the two examples in Nelson and Colne today because although, as a lot of Members have already mentioned, it is very important to remember the contribution that can be made by local chambers of commerce and business associations, and by automatic rate relief, it is also important to remember that intervention is needed in some areas to address the most challenging issues. I am therefore delighted by the Government’s launch of the regional growth fund, which I believe will help to fund the regeneration of many high streets across the north of England. I am also pleased about many of the provisions in the Localism Bill, which will make regeneration easier, along with the provisions in the White Paper on local growth. Given the time, I will end my speech, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate. One of the great strengths of the institution of the Westminster Hall debate is that it brings to the fore issues of great concern to the citizens we represent. The hon. Gentleman and others, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), have spoken with passion about why high streets matter.
The evidence is clear. High streets have a special place in the heart and the habits of the people of Britain. At its best, the British high street is not only where people go to shop but where they go to find services, access leisure facilities and meet friends in bars, pubs and restaurants. It is, therefore, a very important place in the make-up of our local communities. It deserves to be protected and promoted.
High streets vary in their nature from a row of shops on the one hand to complex city centres on the other, and it is not true that high streets are universally in decline. On the contrary, some are succeeding, in particular—but not exclusively—those in affluent areas. Evidence from the Town and Country Planning Association, Planning Aid and the Federation of Small Businesses shows that the high streets that succeed are accessible, cared for, invested in, clean and safe, and have an attractive environment.
In a typically thoughtful contribution, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) was right to point to the success of Marylebone high street. I, too, remember Marylebone high street 25 years ago; now it is the thriving heart of Marylebone. Evidence of the ability to turn around decline can be seen in some of the great city centres, ranging from Birmingham—after the bullring was bulldozed, we saw in its place a vibrant city centre high street—to Manchester, which has seen the remarkable repopulation and regeneration of its city centre.
Sadly, other high streets are slowly declining, often—but not exclusively—in poorer areas. That decline is characterised by empty shops, a poor environment, lack of investment, the growth of pound shops and charity shops, and the decreasing use of the high street as the quality of the offer is eroded, allied to the flight of the multiples—the household name shops—to shopping malls and out-of-town shopping centres. A vicious circle of decline is destroying communities’ social fabric and condemning too many citizens to shopping and socialising in inferior places.
Evidence from the Town and Country Planning Association, Planning Aid and the Federation of Small Businesses shows clearly what is needed to turn the tide. Public intervention is key, as are public investment and the public sector’s use of its powers, working in partnership with the private sector, to create the climate for private sector investment to regenerate the high street.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster rightly pointed to the success of many business improvement districts. Several things are key to such regeneration programmes, such as road access, good public transport, parking facilities, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, and a pleasant pedestrianised environment. High streets should also be well cleaned, as the evidence shows that citizens desert dirty high streets, and well policed, because citizens do not shop on unsafe high streets.
High streets should have toilets, as evidence from Age Concern and others is that senior citizens do not go to areas where they cannot spend a penny. High streets should have changing facilities for babies, as the evidence shows that young parents do not take their children to places without such facilities. Disabled access is also crucial. A remarkable young woman in my constituency with muscular dystrophy is waging an admirable campaign for household name Next to install a disabled lift so that young women such as she can shop there like anyone else.
High streets should also include public service front offices. The hon. Member for Kingswood was right—dare I say it? MPs should be based in their high street. I have moved to just off the high street, because I think it is right that MPs should be in the heart of our communities. It is impossible to achieve all those objectives and regenerate the high street without a combination of public intervention and public investment and the use of planning powers, including compulsory purchase.
I know from my experience in Birmingham and Erdington that there is a contrast. Erdington high street is in decline; I have been told hundreds of times that it is not what it once was. On the other hand, shopping malls such as the Fort and the Star City leisure complex have grown. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) was right to mention that trend. Yet some high streets have succeeded. The small high street in Castle Vale in Erdington is at the heart of a remarkable regeneration project in that estate. As the representative of Erdington, I place a high priority, as do all Members here today, on the regeneration of our local high streets. I welcome the fact that we have turned the tide on Erdington high street. Sainsbury’s has agreed to move back into the high street, and I hope that Mothercare will follow. It is right that we have public service facilities in our high streets, which is why I welcome the opening of the NHS health and well-being centre on Erdington high street.
The debate has focused on disturbing long-term trends that give rise to legitimate concerns on the part of the people we represent. However, I stress that the evidence is clear: the decline of that great British institution, the high street, is not inevitable. All over the country, decline is being arrested and high streets are now succeeding. If the public good is to be realised and we are to have high streets of which our communities can be proud, and if the private market is to flourish through investment in high streets, it is crucial that the public sector work in partnership with the private sector to the benefit of the communities that we represent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who gave a clear picture of both the good and the not-so-good aspects of the situation that he and Kingswood face. I thank other Members and hon. Friends, who have contributed thoughtfully to the debate, with considered contributions and positive ideas about how things can be put right while accepting, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) just said, that the country has many thriving local centres and high streets. We must not talk them down completely.
Town centres and local high streets are certainly extremely important. They are seen as being at the heart of the community. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) made the point that they are civic as well as retail spaces: places where people can meet and greet, set up charity stalls or have their petitions signed. That is clearly distinct from the rather regulated world of shopping malls and retail centres. It is vital that we create the right environment for local businesses to thrive and support economic growth and regeneration in our high streets.
The Government are taking a new approach to local growth, recognising that it must be driven locally. The hon. Member for Kingswood made the point clearly that we should seek local solutions to local problems. That is exactly the approach that this Government are taking through localism—putting residents, local businesses and civic leaders in the driving seat and providing them with new rights, powers, tools and incentives to drive local regeneration and growth. It is important to create a fairer and more balanced sustainable economy. Without it, UK businesses cannot succeed, including small retail businesses.
Will the Minister join me in urging Lloyds bank, which has had huge taxpayer support, to recognise even as it withdraws from north Harrow in my constituency that it has a responsibility to the people there, who have invested in their bank over years, to help in the regeneration of north Harrow? Lloyds has a continuing responsibility to work with the local council, perhaps by providing financial resources, to support the regeneration initiatives planned for that part of my constituency.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech earlier, which he described as unashamedly parochial and which set out the issues that he and the community of north Harrow face. At several points during the debate, I felt a strong temptation to give my own constituency-based speech about local centres and high streets, but I guess that I am not permitted to do so. However, I will tell him that I too have been trying to ensure that banks withdrawing from high streets and local centres in my constituency accept their corporate responsibility. I hope he understands that I stand with him on that issue. Large chains, whether banks or retailers, should show some responsibility by investing in local communities. In this case, they are disinvesting in local communities. Their role is important and should not be overlooked.
I will concentrate specifically on the Government’s role and that of public policy. Hopefully, we can discuss what large private sector organisations might best do in another forum. As the hon. Member for Kingswood said, we launched the “Healthy High Street?” guide in November, and we are working with the Development Trusts Association to promote the temporary use of empty shops for the benefit of the community.
I want to pick up on one of the points made by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) in his contribution, which was characteristically diagonal to the general line of the debate, but helpful none the less. He noted that the retail environment changes constantly, decade by decade, and that it is not a question of returning to some golden age, but of accepting the existing retail environment and working with it. There is no doubt that one of the problems we face is the fact that the capital asset value of a property underpins the financing that the developer or ultimate owner relies on, and that value is calculated brutally as a multiple of the rental available from the property, which means that if the owners give a discount, often their capital value is written down. In these difficult times, and even in less difficult times, that means that they can find their financers on their backs seeking to renegotiate loans. That is why we have worked with the Development Trusts Association on “meanwhile leases” for the temporary occupation of shops, which can prevent that counter-productive write-down and at the same time give some life and vibrancy to high streets.
The hon. Member for Banbury also suggested that there was a role for a switch to housing. I want to make it clear that a key aim of the Localism Bill is to change our planning system so that such decisions will be in the hands of neighbourhoods, local communities and local councils, which can draw up district, neighbourhood or—as in the case of Banbury, which I guess has a town council—town council plans, based on their communities’ needs and requirements, and signed off through a local referendum. That will give local communities much better control and a much better chance to find the kinds of solution that they believe are needed. If that includes a switch to housing, or particular planning controls, that is for them to decide.
I must enter a note of caution about planning controls. When I started my career in local government some 30 years ago, a key concern was to prevent banks and building societies from dominating the high street. Three decades later, we are fighting to retain them, which is a measure of the change there has been. We are now fighting to stop take-away food stores opening, but I expect that in a few years’ time we will be fighting to save them. That is one of the paradoxes of a rapidly changing business environment.
The Government are not only giving new rights and powers to local councils and communities; they are also looking at the future of the town centres first document—planning policy statement 4. We shall be announcing shortly how we intend to take that forward as part of the national planning policy framework.
The key is to shift powers right down to the level where they matter. Each place is unique and has the potential to progress, and localities themselves are best placed to understand both the barriers and drivers to local growth. I will keep my fingers out of the machinery and not talk about parking policy, but that is a classic case where the solution in one town or shopping centre might be quite different from the solution needed in another local or district centre just a couple of miles away. The idea that there should be a national prescription for the solution—even a council-wide prescription—is surely mistaken.
Members have drawn attention to the provisions of the Localism Bill, to the coalition Government’s announcement on small business rate relief and to the new homes bonus. All those moves have wider policy implications, but they can all benefit the local high street. We want to create at national level a framework—an environment—where local decision making can flourish and there are real, workable incentives for investment, growth and development.
A couple of the points made in the debate should be emphasised. Farmers’ markets and street markets were mentioned, but we must not forget traditional real markets, which act as important magnets to bring people into many of our towns and communities. One of my Department’s roles is to raise the profile of such markets, which are an important element in the retail mix that can attract consumers and increase the vibrancy of town centres and high streets. I recognise that a well-run and successful market is a valuable local asset. In an interesting development, which is being replicated in many village and town high streets across the country, street traders in Marple, in my constituency, have worked effectively with the council to introduce an intermittent food fair and market. It has brought life and traffic to a shopping centre and started a vibrant culture of participation in that community.
The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) noted that Lloyds bank business could be transacted in post offices, and the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) said that he had recently opened a post office in his constituency. Those are signs of the importance of post offices as part of the mix of retail business in our high streets. I draw the attention of Members to the steps that the coalition Government have taken to secure the future of our retail sub-post office network, which is an important component of our high streets that should be retained for the future.
I can unambiguously say yes to that. It is important that we encourage not only public services to make better use of post offices and make them a focal point in our communities, but also organisations such as Lloyds. If it is disinvesting in an area, it clearly has an obligation to provide suitable facilities not just to its customers but also to the community.
The Government are committed to a strong, sustainable post office network. We have put in £1.34 billion of funding over the spending review period to support the maintenance and modernisation of the network, and will be making a statement on plans for the future of the Post Office shortly.
We have had an interesting and thoughtful debate. I have been unable to respond to all the ideas produced, but I will certainly take them away for careful consideration.
Severe Weather (North Lincolnshire Rail Network)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Unfortunately, this debate is not about a pleasurable subject, because it is about something that has caused considerable hardship and inconvenience—to put it mildly—to my constituents.
Surprisingly, there are 11 railway stations in my constituency although, sadly, there were no trains running through them for between eight and 11 days earlier this month. There two stations in the constituency of Great Grimsby, and one in Brigg and Goole—or two if one counts the Saturday-only service through Brigg that serves that constituency and the feeder stations for routes into my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) told me that he hoped to attend the debate and raise some specific points with the Minister, and perhaps that will happen.
It might be helpful if I provide a brief outline of those rail services and put into context their importance to my constituency. None of the 11 stations are major junctions. People go to Cleethorpes because, as I have said in previous debates, it is the premier resort on the east coast. They go to Immingham because it is, by volume, the UK’s largest port. They visit Barton-upon-Humber to look at the magnificent nature reserves or to marvel at the Humber bridge, just as the Minister did this time last year when she heard what a big issue the level of tolls across the bridge had become.
First TransPennine Express operates an hourly service between Cleethorpes and Manchester airport, connecting with the east coast main line at Doncaster. In most circumstances it is a good service, and the company should be congratulated on succeeding in building up the number of passengers using that route. East Midlands Trains runs services between Newark North Gate station, which is also on the east coast main line, and Grimsby Town, some of which go to Cleethorpes. In addition, a service between Cleethorpes and Barton-upon-Humber links to a connecting bus service that crosses the Humber bridge to Hull. The Barton line is an excellent example of a community coming together to support and promote local services. The group Friends of the Barton Line works in partnership with the local authority and has made great strides.
All those services were affected for a period of up to 11 days. Who is responsible for the network? Network Rail has primary responsibility for the industry’s performance, including “seasonal preparedness.” I find that phrase rather quaint, but it comes from “The Resilience of England’s Transport Systems in Winter”, which was published just two months ago. I am sure that the Minister has become rather familiar with that document over the past few weeks.
Network Rail has badly let down my constituents and those in the neighbouring constituencies of Louth and Horncastle, Brigg and Goole, Gainsborough, Great Grimsby and Scunthorpe, all of whom use the lines that run from Newark North Gate and Doncaster to Cleethorpes. It seems, however, that Network Rail does not want to explain what went wrong. On 7 December, after a week in which there had been no trains, I faxed a letter to the acting chief executive of Network Rail and asked how many snow ploughs were available for use in northern Lincolnshire, and where the two routes to which I referred came in his company’s priorities. I advised him that I intended to raise the issue in the House and that, along with hon. Members from neighbouring constituencies, I would like to meet him or one of his senior executives to discuss the situation to consider how things could be improved, should the bad weather reoccur. I followed up that fax with a hard copy of my letter last week, but sadly I have received no reply. I am sure that the Minister has had more success obtaining such information, but that does not excuse the chief executive’s apparent contempt for his customers in Lincolnshire.
My constituents are asking what efforts Network Rail made to clear the line. They recognise that main lines will take priority and that essential freight routes must be cleared, especially when they are needed to get coal supply to power stations. What exasperates them, however, is that much of the country’s coal supply arrives at Immingham docks. If freight can get through, why not passenger trains?
I have some questions for the Minister. How many snow ploughs are available for use in northern Lincolnshire, and when were they utilised on the lines I have mentioned? Were offers from freight operators to use their locomotives with snow ploughs refused by Network Rail? Were coal and freight services maintained in and out of Immingham throughout the most difficult conditions, and if not, on what date did those services resume? Were points permanently set for Immingham at Brocklesby junction and, if so, was that because no point heaters were in use? Are there plans to install such heaters? Without the heaters, manual labour will be required, although presumably that did not happen—quite reasonably, passengers would like to know why.
Although Network Rail is chiefly responsible for the long period without trains, the train operators are not entirely innocent. If freight trains were running, why was First TransPennine Express operating only a shuttle service between Manchester and Sheffield? Northern Rail ran its stopping service between Sheffield and Scunthorpe, so why could First TransPennine Express not run services that far or, better still, to Barnetby? I acknowledge that three of its units were marooned at Cleethorpes, but a restricted service could, and should, have operated.
Why were there no alternative bus services? The M180 and A180 between Doncaster and Grimsby and Cleethorpes were open for all except part of the worst day or two. If the roads are open, are rail operators not duty bound to provide buses as an alternative? We accept that Network Rail must prioritise its efforts, but what are those priorities? Where does Cleethorpes sit in the priority list?
Until now, I have referred to the lines from Newark North Gate and Doncaster, but the worst affected service was that between Cleethorpes and Barton-upon-Humber, which was suspended on 1 December and did not resume until late afternoon on 11 December. Somewhat bizarrely, that service is operated by Northern Rail—I say bizarrely because a glance at the network map shows that that line is completely disconnected from the rest of the Northern Rail network.
Sadly, we have seen personal tragedies and inconveniences, to put it mildly. Perhaps the saddest case, as reported in the Grimsby Telegraph, was that of a pensioner who was found dead at Thorpe park caravan park in Cleethorpes. He had tried in vain to get home to Doncaster, but the icy weather had halted the trains and he was unable to make it back to his caravan. There is no definite evidence to link one situation with the other, but if that gentleman had made his way to Cleethorpes station and got on the train to Doncaster, clearly he would be alive and well.
I recognise that many individuals employed by the railway companies and Network Rail have worked hard to maintain services. However, my constituents and businesses in the area have been badly hit and let down by Network Rail. We expect better in the future, and I hope the Minister will provide us with reassurance about some of the points I have made. As I mentioned earlier, passengers are completely exasperated by the situation. Some can see trains passing from their homes but, for whatever reason, none of them are passenger trains.
Barnetby station is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole. It is a remote station on the edge of the Lincolnshire wolds, and everyone accepts that access is difficult. However, Network Rail has offices there, and it is a local centre for workmen. It cleared a pathway past the railway station to get the workmen to work yet, for no apparent reason, no effort was made to allow passengers along that stretch. Barnetby railway station serves Humberside airport, which was operating reasonably well most of the time, and greater efforts should have been made in respect of that vital connecting route.
I hope that the Minister responds to some of my points. Network Rail has let down my constituents, who deserve better, so I hope that she can provide some reassurance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, even if this is a rather melancholy subject for debate this morning. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing the debate. He shows his dedication by ensuring that his constituents’ concerns are raised right up until the last moment that Parliament is sitting before the Christmas recess. No sloping off home early for my hon. Friend, who made a powerful speech on the severe problems on the railways in northern Lincolnshire, which occurred as a result of the extreme weather conditions at the end of November and during the first days of December, including a distressing incident reported in his local papers.
I will attempt to answer as many of my hon. Friend’s questions as possible, but he will appreciate that these are primarily operational matters for Network Rail. I have been able to get some answers out of Network Rail in advance of the debate, but I will have to come back to him on some of the matters that he has raised, which are new and specific, having gone back to Network Rail.
I am concerned that my hon. Friend has not yet had a response from Network Rail to his own representations. I hope that it will remedy that in the near future.
Looking at the general picture, there can be no doubt that the severity of both the current weather episode and the one on which my hon. Friend primarily focused is highly unusual and outside the normal expected pattern for UK winters. The volume of snow and the extreme cold mean that these incidents are out of line with weather patterns that we have come to expect in UK winters over recent years. Much of northern Europe has been affected in a similar way to the UK. Even countries that are more used to dealing with extreme cold have experienced major disruption.
In Switzerland, for example, the same band of weather caused severe problems to the road and rail networks, and the international airport at Geneva was shut for 36 hours. Similar events occurred in parts of Germany and Scandinavia.
Although various parts of the UK experienced some significant disruption to transport networks, my hon. Friend is right to say that rail services in his constituency were particularly badly hit by the problems that occurred at the beginning of this month. I understand and share his concerns about the impact that this crisis had on his constituents, and on businesses and the economy in his constituency.
For the sake of passengers and our economic prosperity, we need to ensure that transport operators and the Government work as hard as they can to secure the best service that is practicable and deliverable in difficult circumstances caused by extreme weather.
In October, before the onslaught of the winter weather, an independent review was published, as my hon. Friend said, on resilience of transport services in winter conditions. The review, led by David Quarmby, set out a series of recommendations that the Government and transport operators agreed to act on. The review emphasised the importance of smoother introduction of emergency railway timetables. It also highlighted the fact that contacts between local authorities and the rail industry should be improved with regard to road access to stations.
As the bad weather set in, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked David Quarmby to conduct an urgent audit of transport operators’ performance in England and their compliance with his earlier recommendations. The audit, which was published this morning, emphasises the importance of improving the information given to passengers in the event of disruption. For example, David Quarmby concluded that the rail industry is over-dependent on electronic provision of information. He feels that such systems do not, on their own, provide passengers with sufficient advice and help, nor can they properly demonstrate to passengers that those running transport systems really care about their plight when serious problems occur. We intend to work closely with train operators and Network Rail to respond to the recommendations made in the audit.
I would like to look in a little more detail at how events unrolled in north Lincolnshire at the beginning of the month. During the week of 28 November, cumulative snowfalls of up to 2 or 3 feet over several days were experienced across much of north Lincolnshire and north-eastern England. That initially resulted in delays and cancellation of train services in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and then the closure of several rail routes, as we have heard.
Passenger and freight services were unable to operate for several days in the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area. North Lincolnshire is served by three passenger operators—East Midlands Trains, Northern Rail, and TransPennine Express—all of which were badly affected by the snow. Northern Rail services on the Barton-on-Humber branch were suspended from 1 to 11 December. East Midlands services between Lincoln, Cleethorpes and Grimsby were suspended between 1 and 8 December. The TransPennine Express route from Manchester to Cleethorpes was completely shut on 1 and 2 December, and from 3 to 7 December it operated only between Manchester and Sheffield. Three of TransPennine’s diesel units were stranded in their maintenance depots at Cleethorpes, which meant that, until the route and depot tracks were cleared of snow, TPE had insufficient resources to serve the Cleethorpes to Manchester route, with negative consequences for passengers across the Pennines.
My hon. Friend specifically raised concerns about the resilience of Brocklesby junction. This has been identified as an issue to be addressed and was flagged up as a concern before the period of severe weather. I understand that this important junction will be renewed at the next practicable opportunity. However, that is expected to be Christmas 2011, because a period of closure is obviously necessary to enable those works to be carried out. The works will include replacing the junction with modern track and fitting point heaters to the remaining unheated points, increasing the resilience of the junction.
I am advised that, throughout the period of disruption, the affected train operators remained closely in touch with Network Rail, working to clear routes as quickly as possible. However, their efforts were hampered by further falls of snow, freezing temperatures and reduced staff levels as their staff struggled to get to work on the disrupted road network.
Network Rail has access to a fleet of purpose-built, heavy-duty snow ploughs, together with a fleet of railway engines fitted with smaller ploughs. To respond to my hon. Friend’s questions, a number of locomotives fitted with snow ploughs were operating in the Lincolnshire area. However, in some places the snow was deeper than the snow ploughs were capable of clearing. Network Rail has a limited number of heavy-duty Beilhack snow ploughs, one of which was brought to the area on 3 December. It commenced snow clearance, but unfortunately became derailed that same evening because compacted ice had accumulated in the rail tracks at Garden Street level crossing due to council snow-clearing operations. The plough was put back on the rails, but from that point all level crossings unfortunately had to be cleared by hand.
I am afraid that I do not know the answer to my hon. Friend’s question about the offers from freight companies, but I will seek to find it out from Network Rail and will let him know.
The problems faced by those trying to get the railways operating again were compounded by the fact that many roads in the area were impassable during the period. That made it difficult to get teams of engineers and workers to the places they needed to be to clear snow and repair damaged infrastructure. I am told that, despite repeated requests, bus and coach operators were not willing to provide replacement bus services in such difficult conditions.
I acknowledge the obvious difficulties that bus operators faced at that time, but many out-of-town buses were operating. For example, the one from Cleethorpes and Grimsby to Hull, via the bridge, was operating. Clearly, there was adequate access, particularly to the A180/M180.
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. One of the lessons that we need to take away from this episode of severe weather is that we need to ask the train companies whether they are being rigorous enough in their efforts to provide rail replacement buses.
Another point to highlight is that some of the consequences of a severe freeze can be felt after the thaw sets in. Ice and snow in the quantities experienced at the beginning of December can damage rolling stock and electrical equipment, which can require time and resources to repair. That can heavily affect train availability for some time after a weather event. It can therefore be prudent in some situations temporarily to suspend a service to avoid ongoing problems with reliability after lines reopen.
With heavy snowfall in the north-east of England, south Yorkshire, Durham, Derbyshire, Humberside and Lincolnshire, the rail industry was stretched to its limit during this period of bad weather. In such situations, I am afraid, Network Rail and the train operators have some difficult decisions to make on the deployment of those limited resources.
In deciding which routes are reopened first, priority is generally given to the busiest and most strategically important. Network Rail’s decisions on prioritisation are made by implementing key route strategies, which are designed in advance of adverse weather. I certainly hope that my hon. Friend’s representations to Network Rail will be taken on board as it looks at and revises its key route strategies.
The aim of such strategies is to focus limited resources where they can produce the maximum benefit for the national economy and for overall transport imperatives. My hon. Friend acknowledged the importance of keeping vital freight routes open so that our power stations can generate the electricity we need to keep our homes warm as the winter bites. That requires a constant flow of fuel and other resources. As he has told us, the port of Immingham is crucial, and Network Rail placed a priority on keeping freight flows—particularly power station coal trains—moving through the snow.
To do that, some rail junctions, including Brocklesby, were set for a specific route and then not moved for several days. That helps to protect the integrity of the rail network and it can keep critical freight flows moving. Unfortunately, there is no getting away from the fact that one consequence of the decisions needed to protect freight supplies was that lesser used, conflicting routes were subject to longer closure periods. Unfortunately, that included the Grimsby and Cleethorpes routes.
It is a grave concern that severe weather can leave passengers without rail services for such a prolonged period, as my hon. Friend highlighted. I can assure him that the Government will keep up the pressure on the rail industry to ensure that all practical and reasonable steps are taken to ensure that lines remain open where possible and that services continue. To achieve that, it is vital for us to work closely with the industry to plan effectively for and cope with winter weather conditions on the railways.
Throughout the crisis, officials in the Department were in constant contact with Network Rail and the train operators—before, during and after the severe weather episode. The Secretary of State has written to all train operating companies about winter preparedness. Meetings and conference calls have been held between Ministers and the industry to assess the response and progress towards restoration of normal services. That close co-operation continues during the current harsh weather conditions.
We are on course for the coldest winter since 1910. Extreme weather events will always cause disruption to the transport system, no matter how well prepared we are. However, we have now had three successive years in which the winter has contained exceptionally harsh periods. The question we need to ask now is whether that indicates that there is a long-running trend that we can expect to become the norm for this country’s climate. If so, we need to reassess our approach and the resources we devote to winter preparedness. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, to assess whether the past three years indicate a long-term change in our climate.
I reassure my hon. Friend, however, that I and my officials at the Department for Transport will continue to work hard with the rail industry to try to minimise future disruptions to train services in north Lincolnshire, and indeed across the network as a whole. We are obviously gravely concerned about the disruption that we witnessed during the episode referred to in the debate and the disruption on the east coast main line today.
It is also important to acknowledge railway workers, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and congratulate them on their hard work and dedication during the recent severe weather. Track workers and other staff have had to struggle on through horrendous conditions to keep as much of the network running as possible. I gather that, in a number of cases, staff slept at their work location for up to three days to ensure that they were able to do their next shift. I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the efforts made by transport professionals across the nation to try to keep the country moving despite one of the toughest winters for 100 years.
2012 Olympics (Legacy)
[Miss Anne McIntosh in the Chair]
I am grateful to have secured this debate on the last possible occasion in 2010. I want to set out some concerns, on behalf of the community that I represent, about the legacy of the 2012 Olympics. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), in whose constituency the Olympic stadium is located, had wanted very much to attend the debate, but her Front-Bench commitments have kept her away. I am grateful that the Minister is here. I am conscious that I shall of necessity touch on some topics beyond his brief, and I am grateful for his willingness to respond.
The 2012 Olympics are a huge opportunity for London and for Britain—and in particular for the regeneration of east London. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) is in the Chamber. She led our effort to secure the games for London, and the impact of her success will be etched on the economic geography of London for generations to come.
We are already seeing important benefits in east London. When the economy has been in poor shape in the past—for example during the period of cuts under the last Conservative Government in the 1980s—east London has been hammered. I am fearful about the impact on rising unemployment of the Government’s programme of cuts during the next four years. Last week’s unemployment figures have, I fear, given us a foretaste of what is to come.
In east London, however, we shall be buttressed to some extent by the fact that £9.2 billion is being invested in the Olympic games. Today, more than 900 residents of Newham, my borough, are working on the construction of the Olympic park and Olympic village, and there are 2,300 from the five Olympic host boroughs as a whole. I am pleased that the great majority are being paid at least the London living wage, and I particularly commend efforts such as those of Bovis BeOnsite and Newham council’s Workplace initiative with Jobcentre Plus, which have successfully targeted local unemployed people to work on the project.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to Westfield Stratford—the stunning retail development alongside the Olympic park, which will be the largest urban shopping centre in Europe when it opens next September, providing jobs for 12,000 full and part-time staff. At the moment, there are 70,000 jobs in the borough of Newham, so 12,000 new ones will be an enormous boost. The idea of that centre was around before the decision to bring the games to London, but given the form in which it has been realised and the speed at which it has been implemented, it is a very important element of the Olympic legacy. I vividly remember the dismay locally when Marks & Spencer pulled out of Stratford in the 1980s—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) remembers as well, so the return of Marks & Spencer to Newham when Westfield Stratford opens will be a welcome boost.
During the next year or two, it will be very important to ensure that people who live in the Olympic host boroughs enjoy their full share of the employment and other opportunities that are created. I shall mention just one idea that I have been talking about to people. Newham is home to people with roots in every country of the world. In too many cases, people are unable to find work. During the games, we shall be hosting visitors from literally every country in the world, and I hope that we shall be able to establish a location where people living locally can set up stalls for modest restaurant businesses to provide cooked food from their home countries, which would help to make visitors to the games feel welcome and create new jobs for local residents. I hope that we can establish that food court in good time for the games and that it can become a permanent feature of the area. There are a number of locations where it might be established.
I want to refer to a particular issue that will be addressed early in the new year: the future of the Olympic stadium. I was present last night, together with the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood, at the ceremony to switch on the lights in the Olympic stadium for the first time. It was an opportunity to admire the splendour of the stadium now that all the seats have been fitted and to appreciate—it was certainly the first time that I had been able to do so—what an extremely impressive venue it is, even when it is covered in snow.
I support the proposal submitted by West Ham United football club, together with the London borough of Newham, for West Ham to take over the stadium after the games. For more than 100 years, since not long after the club was established—it emerged in 1900 from the Thames Ironworks football club—the club’s ground has been at Upton Park in East Ham, in my constituency, rather than in West Ham. Of course, if and when it moves, we in East Ham shall miss it, but I am convinced that that is the right solution. I appreciate that the Minister has no formal say in the matter, but I hope that he will agree that the West Ham solution is the right one for the Olympic stadium.
I shall suggest three reasons why the West Ham solution is right. First, it honours our obligations to the Olympic movement and fulfils the commitment to a strong sporting legacy, which was the basis on which the London bid was successful. Secondly, it offers the best opportunities to the community in east London in which the stadium is located. Thirdly, it is a financially robust bid based on a sound business case.
I shall start with our obligations to the Olympic movement. The Minister will have seen the recent open letter from Olympic and Paralympic medallists, with more than 40 games medals between them, calling for the retention of the athletics track in the stadium. West Ham is committed to retaining it to secure a national athletics centre; the alternative bidders, Spurs, would remove it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that although there has been some confusion about the athletics legacy, it clearly is the strong viewpoint of the athletics industry, the international Olympic movement and everyone associated with this venture that athletics will continue at the stadium?
My hon. Friend is right. That view is strongly held by the International Association of Athletics Federations and UK Athletics. Also, when the bid was submitted, a promise was made—it was a significant element of the bid—to retain athletics in the stadium beyond the games, and that promise will be broken if the track is removed. It is very important that we do not let that happen. My hon. Friend is right to underline how strong feelings about that subject are.
An open letter from the athletes sets out their position. They said:
“One of the most compelling aspects of our bid back in 2005 was the promise of an athletics legacy in the form of a world class stadium. This promise made the idea of legacy real. It showed that the Games would continue to touch the wider community long after the Olympics and Paralympic spectacular had left town.”
The letter was signed by a bevy of famous names, including Steve Cram, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Kelly Holmes and Daley Thompson. They are right—we should not break the promise that has been made. The provision of a world-class athletics track in the stadium after the games was one reason why the UK bid secured the crucial support ahead of the 2005 decision of Lamine Diack, the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, and it is why the West Ham-Newham bid has the support of UK Athletics as well.
The proposal offers additional sporting benefits. It has the support of Essex county cricket club, which wants to be able to use the stadium, too. It will also be used for rugby. The bid is also being supported by Live Nation, the world’s biggest live events company, which describes the stadium as
“a superb venue for hosting major concerts and other events”.
Secondly, the bid represents the right solution for the local community, which is why the local authority is supporting it. The stadium will inspire learning and achievement, with thousands of local young people visiting each year to make use of its facilities. The university of East London and Newham college of further education will also have a role. The stadium’s legacy will include a studio school focused on sport and leisure, and the West Ham Playing for Success centre will relocate there.
West Ham has a thriving community sports trust involving 3,700 local people a week, and that will be strengthened further by a move to the Olympic stadium. Its training and mentoring scheme has produced 36 fully qualified coaches, all of whom were recruited from the borough. It has delivered PE at key stage 2 of the national curriculum to more than 50,000 pupils at the club’s Beckton training centre. The Minister has visited the centre, after which he rightly praised it for
“empowering young Londoners to take responsibility through sport and education”.
West Ham’s Asians in Football project engages with more than 36,000 youngsters a year and has been recognised and acknowledged by the Football Association as a national example of effective integration practice. Its multi-sports project delivers 14 sports in addition to football across the borough, and multi-sports coaching is provided to a wide range of people with disabilities. The British Heart Foundation recognises the men’s health project at West Ham for its engagement of men in a fitness and exercise programme.
There are discussions about using the stadium to widen cultural activities in Newham—the CREATE festival, arts development for local residents, and concerts and community music events—and it potentially has rehearsal space for local groups such as East London Dance. Such a full link to the local community would strengthen the potential for the health element of the proposals on the Olympic polyclinic. The bid’s success will boost jobs locally. Half the 1,000 hospitality and safety staff at Upton Park on a match day are from the local area, and that number is likely to grow if the bid is successful.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the West Ham bid largely involves the use of much of the existing stadium, while the alternative bid from Tottenham Hotspur involves dismantling the stadium? I know that he has immense Treasury experience, so does he think that destroying £500 million of taxpayers’ money to set about something new can be good value for money at this time of fiscal austerity?
I think that it would be a tragic waste of the investment that has been made and of the superb facility that we saw last night. It would be tragic if the facility was there simply for the brief period of the games. My right hon. Friend is right to underline the importance of retaining what has been achieved, which is impressive.
One thing that struck me at last night’s ceremony was the strength of local support for, and engagement with, what is happening in the Olympic park. Tessa Sanderson was there with a group of local young people who are training at her academy to compete in the 2012 games, and other local interests were also present. I hope that that local commitment will be harnessed to make the most of the stadium’s future with the existing building. We should not tear it down and start again, and the West Ham bid is best placed to achieve that.
West Ham’s Upton Park ground is in my constituency, and, as a local resident, I will be sad to see it go after more than 100 years. However, access to the new venue will be much better, especially by public transport, and the existing site could be redeveloped in a way that would strengthen the local community and the neighbouring shopping centre in Green street. The site would be very restricted if the club envisaged further development.
Thirdly, the West Ham bid makes business sense. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) pointed out, it does not involve tearing down a structure built with substantial public investment. The capital costs that the project would entail would be met from a combination of the funding made available by the Olympic Delivery Authority, the receipts from the disposal of the current ground at Upton Park and a loan facility provided through Newham council—not a grant, as has been suggested in some quarters, but a loan. The club has been able to show how it will meet its continuing liabilities, even in the highly unlikely event that its recent run of poor results continues and it spends next season in the championship, which I hope will not happen. For all three reasons—honouring our Olympic commitments, achieving a local solution and because the bid makes business sense—I hope that the West Ham bid for the future use of the stadium is successful.
Finally, I want to comment on the sporting legacy of the Olympic games, and the partial U-turn we saw from the Government yesterday when they reinstated at least some of the funding for school sport partnerships. We all agree that inspiring and supporting young people to be active in sport should be—must be—one of the biggest prizes from the 2012 games. It is welcome that the Government will not withdraw the funding entirely, following protests from schools and sports people, but it looks as though there will still be a drastic cut in funding for school sports—I have heard suggestions of an 80% cut.
If I get the opportunity to catch your eye, Miss McIntosh, I will comment on the right hon. Gentleman’s earlier remarks, but on the school sport partnerships, does he accept that he might be slightly misrepresenting the situation? He has failed to take into account that by removing the ring fence that was applied to school sport partnerships, some of the money that was originally there has gone into schools, and, therefore, will still be available for them to buy into the network. We all agree that it was right to preserve the funding in the form that it is now in.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point about the importance of retaining the partnerships, but I do not and cannot share his confidence that the funding will be used in the way he suggests. The Minister might be able to shed some light on this, but I gather that funding for some specialist sports, such as judo, boxing and fencing, may be removed altogether, which would substantially reduce the choice of sport available to young people. The concern that I put to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) is that confidence has been damaged because the funding is not secure. I am told by schools in my area that the confidence in the arrangements has been quite badly undermined, and it is not clear that yesterday’s announcement will repair it. I hope that it will, at least partially, but it is not clear that it has.
The co-ordination resource for the network of more than 1.5 million young people involved in sports leadership and volunteering appears also to be under threat. It is impressive that the number of sports volunteers almost doubled in the past three years, thanks to policies that my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood put in place, but it is hard to see how what has happened can do anything other than constrain that important element of the Olympic legacy.
I have been speaking to the head teacher of Langdon school in my constituency, which is a successful sports specialist college that my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood knows. Ten years ago, it was a pioneer for the school sport partnerships, and a large group of young people from that school was part of the London bid team at the meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Singapore in July 2005. My right hon. Friend will acknowledge that their youthful enthusiasm, showcasing the diversity of today’s young London, played an important part in winning the games for the United Kingdom. Today, Langdon is part of a thriving sport partnership of seven secondary schools and 30 primary schools. The benefits of the partnerships are not just sporting in nature; there is close work with feeder primary schools to support children in their academic work, particularly in the primary to secondary transition. The partnership also strengthens the ties between the schools and sports clubs in the community. It supports inter-school competitions. I have heard some criticisms that the partnership has not supported inter-school competitions. The partnership to which I am referring certainly has a large number of competitive inter-school events as part of it. It has coaching programmes to help senior students to gain skills and qualifications for future sports leadership roles.
The head teacher of Langdon, Dr Tabassum, wrote to the Prime Minister 10 days ago, making the point:
“As for the Olympic legacy, we can only fully realise the potential of London 2012 and the inspiration it offers by maximising the development systems that we have been creating and developing over the past decade through our established Schools Sports Partnerships.”
Of course, the school welcomes the reinstatement since that letter was written of some of the funding, although it is not yet clear to it how much of the activity can be retained. Dr Tabassum makes the point that announcing a complete withdrawal of funding was very damaging to the confidence in schools—primary and secondary—in what they had been doing and was damaging to their commitment.
The Olympic games, in 18 months’ time, present a huge opportunity for the UK. It is particularly important that their potential be harnessed to create new opportunities for people living close to the park in east London. In that light, I hope that the West Ham bid for the stadium is successful and that it will be possible for the school programmes, which can underpin the future sporting legacy for the UK, to be sustained after the raid on them over the past couple of months by the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Education.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing the debate. I am sure he is excited at the prospect of the Olympics being held in his backyard—a much-deprived part of east London that he has represented with great distinction over the past decade and a half.
Financial concerns were always at the heart of the issue for those of us who expressed some doubts, prior to 6 July 2005, about the wisdom of the London bid for the Olympics. Those doubts have not been entirely assuaged by the passage of time. We should face facts: we have the Olympics and we have to make the best of it. There is no doubt that, with all the planning in place, it will be a great, spectacular three-week festival in August 2012. However, that should not be at the expense of the legacy. When £9.2 billion of public money is being expended on the Olympics games, there ought to be a long-term physical legacy of interest. I shall touch on that in a moment.
The right hon. Gentleman understandably talked much about the future of the stadium. I very much share his views and concerns about what might happen. As vice-chairman of the all-party group on football, I believe that it would be right for West Ham to have the stadium, rather than it going further afield to Tottenham Hotspur. I understand many of the concerns expressed by the right hon. Gentleman and by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on this matter. In 1997, I was my party’s candidate in Enfield North, where I reckoned at least two-thirds of the football fans were Spurs, rather than Arsenal supporters. I remember that in the Lea Valley area of the constituency there was a great passion for and pride in Tottenham Hotspur. For many football fans across the country, the notion of Tottenham Hotspur moving 4 or 5 miles away might seem to involve a small distance, but in the context of the villages that make up London it is very important. People would quickly forget the long-term history based around White Hart Lane.
I am sure that, as an expert on postcodes, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, although one might ask, where does east turn to north? We will not go down that route, but he makes a good point. It would be encouraging for Twenty20 cricket in particular if Essex used that stadium. It is a tragedy that Essex have not regularly played cricket at either Valentine’s Park in Ilford or at Leyton, which still has a beautiful historic 1930s pavilion, for 20 or 30 years. It would be great to see the stadium being used for that purpose.
The right hon. Member for East Ham hit the nail right on the head in relation to the short-term issues that affect West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur. It would be a great shame to look at this matter just in the context of where the two clubs are at the moment. I fear that I may be less of an optimist about the Hammers’ chances over the next four or five months, as they might well end up a championship club with financial problems in the very short term by the time the season ends in May. Tottenham Hotspur are having one of their most successful seasons since 1960-61, when they won the double. They now understandably regard themselves as a champions league team: they are in the last 16 and may well qualify as of right for the champions league next season. Therefore, there would be great passion for the idea of having a big stadium, not just because the Olympic stadium has a capacity of 60,000—well above the 37,000 to 38,000 at White Hart Lane—but because it will be seen as iconic. However, I strongly believe that that would be a short-term decision made with the facts of December 2010 and 2011 in mind, rather than the long-term historical perspective pointed out by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes).
I want to say a few words in passing about the commitment we are making to the Olympic movement with our bid. The right hon. Members for East Ham and for Tottenham, and the Minister, will have seen the well-researched, quite provocative article in The Spectator of 11 December, “The true cost of the Olympics”. Following a number of freedom of information requests, Ed Howker and Andrew Gilligan went into some detail about the precise nature of the commitment that we have made to the International Olympic Committee. We are now in a very different era—an era of austerity—from that we were in five and half years ago when we won the Olympic bid. The article identified some ludicrous situations: the money to be spent on having some 40,000 hotel rooms booked for IOC flunkies over three weeks in August 2012; the somewhat absurd brand-protection rights that are being insisted upon, not just in the Olympic stadium, but within a large, well-defined curtilage in that part of London. As Mr Howker and Mr Gilligan put it, there will almost be a “state within a state” in London during that month in 2012.
I firmly believe that the very scarce financial resources that we have for the Olympic games must not be used simply to placate the desire of a vast International Olympic Committee quangocracy. I want to see a much bigger and a proper legacy for the locality, particularly in that part of east London.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the injection of £6.1 billion into the UK national economy at a time of downturn was valuable? More than 1,000 small and medium-sized businesses around the country have benefited from that. The costs in relation to Olympic hospitality that Mr Gilligan refers to will be borne not by the taxpayer, but by the organising committee, a private company whose funds are privately raised.
That is fair as far as it goes. As the right hon. Lady says, funds have been raised privately through a lot of Olympic sponsors, but there is still a defined amount that the sponsors will put into the Olympics. In the era of austerity in which we live, I have to question whether some boondoggle for the IOC is the right place to put this, rather than the long-term physical legacy for the east end. We have perhaps not discussed that in as much detail in this debate, although I know there will be other opportunities to do so during the next 18 months.
It would be a crying shame if we were not to have a strong physical legacy. We have looked at other Olympic games—whether it be Athens in 2004 or Sydney in 2000—where, I am afraid and whether we like it or not, the Olympic villages were built in relatively impoverished areas and ended up being something of a white elephant. If that happened in London it would be a tragic waste.
In fairness to the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), she made great steps forward, particularly to ensure that a proper transport infrastructure is in place, bringing the Docklands light railway right into the heart of the Olympic village. I hope that that will ensure that the same does not come to pass in this country in the aftermath of August 2012.
However, it is vital that we see a proper and fully fledged regeneration. The right hon. Member for East Ham knows that on many statistical analyses his borough of Newham is one of the poorest in the UK. He and I no doubt share the view that if one walks down East Ham high street or through bits of Upton Park, there is a sense of vibrancy with people wanting to sell things. The borough is not poor and impoverished in terms of ambition and aspiration, which is a positive way forward.
I hope that we will focus our attention—not just in the next 18 months, but, probably more importantly, in the few years after 2012—on ensuring that that area of London becomes very desirable. It will inevitably be a mixed area, with both private estates and social housing. I hope that it will become a tremendously successful area for the future. In my view, the real test of the success of the Olympics is where we will be in 10 years’ time, not in 18 months. If we can see that that area has been entirely regenerated, and is vibrant and thriving with a desirable residential sector, a retail park, which we will see with Westfield in Stratford, and many small thriving businesses—dare I say it, particularly in the high-tech area where there will be a knock-on effect from what we already have in Shoreditch—that will be the real success of the Olympic games, rather than just the short-term spectacle, which will, I am sure, be a tremendous success and a tremendous credit to this country and our city.
I welcome you, Miss McIntosh, on what I think is your first time in the Chair in Westminster Hall. It is good to see you. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for bringing this important debate to the Chamber today as we approach Christmas and for illustrating that what lies behind sport, whether it is athletics or football, is hugely important to some of the poorest areas of London and of this country. I also want to thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) for his remarks on the West Ham and Spurs bids.
Let me go back to 6 July 2005 when we won the bid to host the Olympics. I will never forget that weekend. As Minister for Culture, I was very fortunate to be in Trafalgar square as the results were announced. I had a wonderful few years working with my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), my very good friend, when she was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I saw the huge preparation that this country put into that bid and, I might say, fantastic leadership from my right hon. Friend. Many others provided leadership, too, but I was working closely with her at the time.
That weekend was a very poignant, because the day after the Olympics announcement London faced the most terrible atrocity—the London bombings—in which I lost a very dear friend. That weekend reminded us about the importance of multicultural London.
I remember also the Inspire video that was very much part of that bid. It was a wonderful production—I am sure it is still available on the web—that was directed by Daryl Goodrich. In that video, we see the fantastic sight of young people from across the world. Hon. Members will understand that, representing Tottenham, I felt very close to those young people because many of them make their way through different refugee channels or immigration routes to our great city, so somehow they were connected to that aspiration. We won that bid on a vision of very poor young people from across the world. I particularly remember the visions of Africa and Asia, dreaming and aspiring for something special in relation to the Olympics. We also won the bid because we were committed—particularly to young people in the east end and in communities such as mine—to setting a vision of what the Olympics and athletics could be about. It was on the back of those two things that we won this great prize. I remember when the word “London” was said and we secured the bid.
At the time, when I stood there feeling tremendous pride in the fact that sport brings opportunity to communities such as mine, I could not have imagined that, five years later, I would be participating in a debate about my constituency potentially being on the brink of losing one of its great beacons—our football club, Tottenham Hotspur. I say that as someone who grew up in Tottenham. I was always aware that when someone left the N17 postcode area and went much beyond it, either in this country or abroad, two things might be mentioned: the Tottenham riots—our shoulders sink at that and we feel a bit uneasy—and that wonderful vision of our football club.
I remember 1981, when Spurs won the FA Cup against Manchester City. Ricky Villa scored two goals and Garth Crooks scored another. I was a young nine-year-old born to West Indian parents from Guyana. Ricky Villa is from Argentina, so we adopted him as a South American, and Garth Crooks, one of our pioneering black footballers, scored a goal, so I felt tremendous pride. But that was against a backdrop in Tottenham of unemployment, serious grief, anguish and problems in relation to the police, and then, sadly, there unfolded some of the worst atrocities that we saw on the streets of London in our 20th-century history.
In our community, Spurs and football allow us to dream of what is possible. They bring us close to excellence and dedication. We see the commitment that young sportsmen and women put into becoming elite sports people, and that connects us with a standard that is not just local, but national and international. That is why it is so important that, when we consider the broader ecology of London, we do nothing that benefits one part of the city and, frankly, dumps on another part.
Northumberland Park is one of the very poorest wards in London. Unemployment there is just below 12%. Life expectancy is 10 years lower than it is 5 miles away in the other part of Haringey, Muswell Hill and Highgate. It is a ward with much deprivation. I am talking about not just Northumberland Park, but Edmonton, which borders it, and the London borough of Enfield. Hon. Members will understand that, because Tottenham rubs up close to that other, much smaller and less distinguished north London club, Arsenal, many Tottenham supporters hail from the London borough of Enfield.
Tottenham is not a club that one would greatly associate—I say this very gently—with some of the racism that has dogged other clubs in the premiership and in this country. The history of our bit of north London is very much a united history. The club includes West Indians who made their way to this country in the 1950s. There is a strong Jewish community, which is largely situated around Stamford Hill, although it stretches across to Golders Green, Finchley and parts of Enfield. There is also a strong Irish and white working-class community. All those groups have stood at White Hart Lane—very much in solidarity, always honouring and celebrating multiculturalism.
That is very special about Spurs, and probably about the north London tradition of football, which also includes teams such as Arsenal, Barnet and Enfield Town. We are very proud of that tradition, and it, too, is a symbol that we offer our young people. I think particularly of Northumberland Park school, which is just next door to Spurs on the site. The school has struggled with immense challenges. Some 40% of its young people get five good A to C grades. I also think of a school such as St Thomas More, just across the way in Wood Green. It has made sport its specialism, so how important it is to the school that Spurs is among the community.
It is important that I pay tribute to the work that Spurs have done while I have been the area’s Member of Parliament. The Tottenham Hotspur Foundation is a beacon in the premiership. The commitment that Spurs have shown to the wider community—not only in Haringey, but in Enfield, Barnet and Waltham Forest—is tremendous. The club is working not only with young people in our schools, but with pensioners and the disabled, and it is getting match funding. It is making a huge investment in local people and stretching the reach of elite sport deeper and further, so that we can lift up our deprived community.
The area represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham is identical to mine, so when he spoke of the Olympic stadium’s proximity to, and relationship with, his constituency and the schools within it, I completely understood how important the future of the stadium is to West Ham and to East Ham, up there in east London. I understood the vital role that it will play.
I have worked with Spurs; indeed, I worked on setting up the foundation. I have supported the club, as a constituency MP does, in the many immigration cases involving footballers coming into and going out of the country. The club also wanted to build a training ground in Enfield, and I was very supportive of that. In addition, it has exciting, truly exceptional plans to redevelop its stadium in Tottenham, and one can see those plans on the club’s website. The club put its planning application in to the local authority in May, it was approved in September and the Mayor has signed it off. We therefore have plans for an exciting new stadium in Tottenham, and those plans are supported by the local community. We have a new vision for a new period, building on 111 years of history.
Hon. Members will therefore understand how confused, upset and concerned my constituents were when they found out just a few weeks ago that the club was running a parallel track and also putting in for the Olympic stadium. I have spoken to the club’s chairman about that, and he has explained to me that it is important that he look at the Olympic stadium and consider its importance in relation to the club’s shareholder value. I have to recognise that, but it is my responsibility as the custodian of the community to remind the club and the politicians—in the end, they will make the decision, and here I look to the Minister—that sport does not come out of nowhere.
Tottenham folk have funded the club for 111 years. Also, it is always a great honour to bump into people who, although they may not have funded the club themselves, had grandparents who lived in Tottenham. Indeed, Lord Triesman’s grandparents lived in Tottenham, and there are always stories like that. Although someone might not live in Tottenham, they travel there because they have a connection to the area, and it would be a tremendous wrench if that were to be yanked from them.
When we look at the future regeneration and ecology of sport in London, it is our responsibility—I direct these comments also at the Mayor—to recognise that there is much to do in the east as regards the Olympic stadium and the West Ham bid. The future of athletics is also hugely important in that regard. However, we must also acknowledge that there is still a tremendous amount to do in my constituency and in the Enfield constituencies. That is why I have campaigned for many years with my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) for improved transport links. I wanted a Victoria line extension to link us up in a much bigger way—not only for the sake of the club, but for regeneration in my very poor part of London. I remind hon. Members that my constituency is the second poorest in London. That is hugely important.
What will be the prospects for Tottenham, Edmonton and Enfield if the club makes this drastic switch? Such a decision would also be a great shame for West Ham over the next decade, because it would clearly cause the club great financial harm. That would be a real tragedy for the ecology of the premiership.
The Government face a very big decision, and I hope that they will reflect very hard when they get the recommendation from the Olympic Legacy Trust. It does not make sense to spend taxpayers’ money on a stadium—obviously, as a Minister in the Department at the time, I know that the amount involved was in part disputed, although I suspect that it is not any longer—and then destroy it four weeks later. That would resurrect real concerns about value for money. I suspect that the National Audit Office would want to look into it, and colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee certainly would.
At this time, when MPs such as I are seeing cuts to education maintenance allowance for our young people, the extension of tuition fees, cuts to housing benefit, hikes in unemployment and cuts to the future jobs fund, it cannot make sense to dismantle a stadium in that way. I must put that in the strongest possible terms.
It is also important that the Minister listen to fans and not just the club’s current custodians. I have seen the club change hands twice in my period as an MP and four times in my lifetime. Tottenham fans are already concerned about what is happening, and well over 4,000 have signed a petition. It is true that most think this will not happen. Most Spurs fans think, “Oh, this is a try-on, it can’t be serious.” Well, if it is serious that would be a great travesty.
I want to ask the Minister two questions. First, will he say something about the timetable for the decision? I am informed that the Olympic Legacy Trust board will meet on 28 January and hopes to make a recommendation to him after that. Will he confirm that the decision will be his, alongside the Mayor and the appropriate Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government? Who else will make that decision? Will he also confirm that he would expect the club to pay a bond, deposit or guarantee in the event of it winning, so in that sense the decision would be final? For example, West Ham would not be able to win the bid and say a few weeks later, “We’ve changed our minds and we want to stay at Upton Park,” and Spurs could not win and say a few weeks later, “Oh, we changed our mind and we want to stay at White Hart Lane.” That would make this a moment of urgency for both clubs as they reflect on their future. I am grateful for the opportunity to put those remarks on the record.
Order. I am going to try to give everyone who wants to speak an opportunity to do so. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) informed me in advance that he would like to speak, so I shall try to fit in the last two speakers in the 10 minutes after he has spoken.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing the debate and on introducing the important topic of the legacy of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. It is important to stress that both are included; often the Paralympics are overlooked.
The issue of the legacy is crucial because, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) said, the Olympics are not about a few exciting weeks of sporting and cultural extravaganza in London and a few other places. They are about the legacy that can come from the work that is being done and has been done; as the hon. Gentleman said, the real judgment about whether we have succeeded will be made in 10 years’ time. I was lucky enough to be in Singapore, and I saw the brilliant work that Seb Coe and his team did in inspiring the world to get behind us, support our bid and ensure our success, when Jacques Rogge pulled London’s name from the envelope—it took him an interminable time to do it. The fact that I and the Minister—who at that time was the Opposition spokesman—were there showed how from the very beginning support for the Olympics and Paralympics has been cross-party. It is important to recognise that although I may have disagreed with the previous Government in some matters, broadly speaking everyone has worked together.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), who in her role as Secretary of State and Olympics Minister did a huge amount of work to drive forward the preparation for the games and to build up the plans for a lasting legacy. The one area that rarely gets touched on, although it featured heavily in the bid—in the inspiring videos referred to by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)—is the issue of inspiring the world. Everyone will remember how we made a commitment to use the games to inspire the world to get involved in sporting activity and all the benefits that come from it. The right hon. Lady deserves huge credit for her work in establishing the International Inspiration scheme, which has been so successful, and which helps our work in the aid programme in many places around the world. I have been particularly impressed by something with the awful acronym ICES—the International community Coach Education Standards—which has brought people from all around the world together to share expertise in developing coaching skills. That is part of the legacy that is often forgotten.
The right hon. Member for East Ham put forward a powerful case for the West Ham solution for the future of the stadium. His arguments about the business case and the huge business benefits for his community and the surrounding area were very powerful. However, the most powerful argument of all is the simple one concerning the commitment made at the time of the bid, that there would continue to be an athletics track there, and opportunities for an athletics centre of excellence. The decision is with another body, not the Government, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be successful and that that is the solution that will be reached. It is interesting to hear two Members supporting major football clubs who have both reached the same conclusion, despite representing very different parts of London. The right hon. Gentleman’s case is powerful, but of course we shall have to wait and see. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say.
While we are inspiring people around the world, it is interesting to note that we are still inspiring people in this country. Tens of thousands of people have already given their names as potential volunteers to help during the Olympics and Paralympics. That is very encouraging. Two million people have already registered on the tickets website, which shows that there will be very significant take-up by people from within the UK, who want to come and enjoy the games. However, the legacy is about many things. Of course it is to do with the issue that the right hon. Member for East Ham raised about buildings and what is happening in the east end of London, but we must not forget that there has been regeneration elsewhere as well; for example, in Weymouth, the centre for sailing. That is very important. Also there will be a legacy from the significant improvements being made to transport systems in London. The right hon. Member for Tottenham may have wanted even more, but let us not forget that those improvements will produce a significant legacy.
There will be a real legacy in business and employment, as has already been mentioned. Huge numbers of contracts have gone out through the Olympic Delivery Authority for building the Olympic site and the Olympic village, which in turn will provide the legacy of more affordable housing—urgently needed in that part of London. There are opportunities still to come, even though the site is nearly complete. There will be opportunities in the contracts to be awarded through the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. In the next 12 months there will be £250 million of contracts, for everything from seating to whistles and DayGlo vests and there will be job opportunities from security to ticketing; the list goes on. There will be a large number of opportunities. What is pleasing is that well over 50% of the £450 million of LOCOG contracts that have already been awarded, or that are being finalised, have gone to small and medium-sized businesses, many of which are in London. That is of real benefit to those businesses. Very pleasingly, 95% of the contracts have gone to organisations, businesses and companies in the United Kingdom; it has been a real opportunity. I was interested to see that even the Royal Mint has got in on the act, with the contract to provide the 2,700 medals that will be needed for the games.
There are a couple of areas of concern. The first is to do with the legacy that we hope to get from tourism. We all understand that we are in financially difficult circumstances. I do not want to argue about who is responsible for that, but we all know the situation. It is understandable that budgets and funding, even to tourism organisations, have had to take their share of cuts. However, there is one thing I am particularly concerned about. The Government, rightly in my view, propose to end the regional development agencies and replace them with local enterprise partnerships. Those will in many cases—they will decide—have responsibility for tourism. Unfortunately, however, we will have a gap between the ending of the work that is being done by the RDAs and the work that will begin to be done by the local enterprise partnerships. In that gap of up to two years, tourism may lose out if action is not taken.
In my region, the South West of England RDA established South West Tourism, which did a lot of important work to promote tourism in our region. However, the contract for that work cannot be renewed and it comes to an end on 31 March 2011, even though the RDA does not end for another 12 months after that. Because the contract cannot be renewed, that work will finish. The South West RDA maintained one responsibility in-house, which was for marketing, including tourism marketing, but because all marketing by the RDA has already ceased, tourism marketing in the south-west has already ceased, too.
There is a real problem with the gap between the ending of the RDAs and the formation of the local enterprise partnerships. What will happen during that gap in respect of tourism, which seems to be crucial in the run-up to 2012?
The other area where I have some concern is the school sport partnerships, although I am delighted that there have been some recent announcements about them, which were referred to by the right hon. Member for East Ham. I am very supportive of the coalition Government, but I stood up in a debate on the Floor of the House to point out that I was deeply concerned that while money was to be transferred to schools through the ending of ring-fencing—something I very much welcome—there was still a problem, in that schools did not know what their budgets were. Therefore, they did not know whether they could use any of that money to support sporting activity, and we would have had a situation where the framework of support provided by the SSPs would have disappeared long before the schools could decide whether to put money into them.
As I said on the Floor of the House, it seemed absolutely critical that we maintained a framework that would enable schools, when they knew what their funding allocation was, to determine whether to put money into SSPs; if not, clearly we would have to look for other solutions anyway. I am pleased that a decision was made to find a way of maintaining that framework.
However, I put it to the Minister that we can still go further to make the network more secure; I genuinely believe that we can do that. The other organisations that are already operating very successfully indeed are the county sports partnerships. In some cases, the SSPs are already linked to the county sports partnerships and it seems to me that we could strengthen the framework for schools to bid into by examining ways of more effectively merging the activities of the county sports partnerships and the SSPs, to enable them to do their incredibly valuable work. More work needs to be done in that regard.
I want to be brief, so I shall end by saying just one more thing. Very often, when we talk about legacy, we do exactly what I have just done; we refer to “legacy” in different pots, whether it is building legacy, transport legacy, tourism legacy or sporting legacy, but very often, the truth is rather different—they are all interlinked. The work that we have been doing in the west of England, where I have the honour to be the co-chair of Team West of England, involves finding ways of integrating all the legacy issues. For example, we have got the British Paralympic Association to use the wonderful facilities at Bath university as their training ground. That has not just been good for Bath university; it has been good for local businesses, hotels and bed and breakfasts, and many other service industries in the area. That project is bringing all these things together.
In the same way, when the very first training camp deal was done by Bristol university to bring the Kenyan team in, the university had a 10-point plan, of which the Kenyan team coming to train in Bristol in the run-up to the 2012 games was the last item. The other items were much more about developing links between Bristol and places in Kenya, including schools links, business links, professional team links and so on. Those are the sorts of things that we can still do and that we need to do much more of. However, I am very optimistic that we shall have a great legacy from what will be a fantastic set of Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012.
Thank you, Miss McIntosh, and may I welcome you to the Chair?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing the debate. Unusually, I make a declaration. It is not in the register, but I have to declare an interest as a Tottenham fan, although my focus in this debate is on what is in the best interests of supporters.
I have only three minutes to speak, so I will restrict my remarks. I agreed with much of what has been said in the debate today, particularly that there needs to be a long-term legacy; it is not just about what happens in the short term.
As I see it, there are four issues in relation to the legacy of the Olympic stadium. First, we need a world-class stadium; secondly, the stadium needs to combine community use with athletics; thirdly, it needs to provide diversity, by staging other types of events, including concerts, and fourthly, of course, the issue of viability has come to the fore. We know what has happened in previous instances with other Olympic games. Indeed, I was interested to see that, at the short-listing for the bidding, the chair of the company said that the company was obviously looking for an anchor tenant, but that it was interested in mixed use and that there should be a legacy for athletics. Those will be important considerations.
First of all, we need a world-class stadium. The contentious issue is whether the track should be retained. We have arranged our bid on the basis of commitments to the International Olympic Committee; indeed, the athletes’ letter, which was mentioned earlier, talked about that issue. Of course, the legacy company reaffirmed that.
In relation to athletics events and community use, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham ticked all the boxes as far as West Ham is concerned. The real concern is the decision by Spurs to demolish the stadium and replace it with an exact replica of the one they intend to build in Northumberland Park. In order to address the issue of the athletics legacy, Spurs has come up with the idea of refurbishing Crystal Palace. I do not have time to go into the details, but the reality is that it is not in the most deprived part of London, where the original commitment was given. We need to continue to reaffirm that commitment. Currently the proposal does not match the criteria.
The importance of other sports and cultural uses goes without saying. How do we ensure that schools and others can use the stadium in the future? There are real difficulties. The Spurs bid is very commercially oriented and I worry about how that would fit with the other types of events that are being suggested for the stadium.
Finally, on viability, the Spurs bid is viable; that is clearly the case and I am sure that, as has been suggested, the West Ham bid is also viable. However, we need to take account of the fact that it is very much option B for Spurs. Option A is the new stadium in Tottenham. That proposal has been cleared by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Mayor of London and the planning authority. It is also supported by Spurs fans, not only the “We are N17” group but supporters in N18, N9, and EN3 in my constituency and indeed in the whole of Enfield. There are long-term historical ties; the club would not be Tottenham Hotspur if it was not in Tottenham. Those are important considerations for the club.
However, in the interests of time, let me end by saying that I hope the Minister will indicate how the committee responsible for choosing the successful bidder is looking upon the different bids.
I, too, begin by declaring an interest. I am desperate for West Ham to win at Fulham on Boxing day and then at home to Everton and at home to Wolves. I have been a season ticket-holder in the Bobby Moore stand for many years. I have supported the club for 50 years and I know that there is a long tradition of fans being attached to our current ground. Indeed, there are some West Ham fans who do not want West Ham to move to the Olympic stadium either.
However, the fact is that if West Ham moves to the Olympic stadium site, it will fulfil not only the commitment made to athletics, but for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has given, it will be a commitment to the regeneration of east London and to the priorities of the community there.
If Tottenham Hotspur moves, it will be like Milton Keynes Dons; presumably, the team will rebrand itself as the “Stratford Spurs”. It will become a peripatetic football team, losing its roots and traditions. By contrast, if West Ham moves, it will still be a team from the east end, a team in the borough of Newham and a team with roots in the community, proud to have the claret and blue flying over the Olympic stadium in Stratford and proud to serve the community of east London, including the community in Ilford, where I live and where my constituency is located.
There are a few Tottenham fans in Ilford—not many—but I have not found a single Tottenham fan who wishes to travel to Stratford to go to football matches. I believe that Spurs fans should continue to travel to N17 and West Ham fans should continue to travel to the east end, to grounds in the communities from which they come and which represent their values for the future. One real winner will come from the West Ham bid: the legacy. That is why it is important that West Ham and Newham council’s bid is successful.
I join others in welcoming you to the Chair for this debate, Miss McIntosh.
It was an enormous pleasure to be at the stadium yesterday as the lights were turned on and to see the spectacle of the virtually complete stadium. We saw the structural evidence of progress and had conversations with many of the work force who built the stadium. They took pride in having the opportunity to be part of it and to do something much more than just going to work. The Prime Minister made the point well yesterday that the whole country has built the stadium. The steel came from Bolton, the steel for the aquatic centre came from Newport, some of the planting came from Norfolk and the steel cabling came from Doncaster. Businesses all over the country will reflect with pride on their contribution to the Olympic park. Equally importantly, their order books have been kept busy during the downturn, and they have not had to lay off staff; in many cases, due to the mandate that supply chain contractors must build the skills of their work forces, they have hired apprentices whom they might not otherwise have hired.
The London that will greet the world in just over 18 months will perhaps be different from the stereotypes. It will not be a London of Beefeaters and well-recognised historic monuments but the London reflected in part in the Olympic bid that won us the games. Those young people from Langdon Park were the face of London, representing 20 nationalities and speaking 22 languages. The London that welcomes the world will be a creative London of diversity and tolerance. We will also be proud that businesses around the country have benefited from the investment.
I challenge the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field): I think that scepticism is always a good discipline in relation to such a big project. We won the bid because we said that these games would be the legacy games. We must be kept true to that ambition, which will continue to be realised long after the games are over. We will achieve things that we would never have achieved but for the Olympics and the scale of the ambition that has been unlocked: to be fourth in the Olympic medal table and second in the Paralympic medal table. Our two big legacy ambitions are to transform a generation of young people through sport, and to regenerate east London. Another is, through the Paralympics, to change for ever attitudes toward inclusion, the entitlement to a full place in our society and opportunities for disabled people.
The big and immediate challenge, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said clearly, is to reshape east London’s economy. This debate has been supported by many right hon. and hon. Members for whom that is a burning concern. I welcome the fact that the Olympic Park Legacy Company has taken a strong lead that can give us all confidence in the commercial future of the Olympic park. The ambition is that the Olympic boroughs, in which too many have been workless for too long, will become the digital equivalent of the square mile in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, and that the economic heart of London will broaden to incorporate the entrepreneurial and creative talent of Hoxton and Shoreditch and the new studios and workshops of Hackney Wick. It is encouraging that there is already commercial interest in investing in the park. It demonstrates the lasting impact of the Olympics: the hard legacy of the park and the soft legacy of a local population better skilled to take the new jobs brought by the new investment.
Two years before the games, the private sector is already responding, even at this difficult time. Canadian pension funds are investing in Westfield Stratford City, which would not have happened without the games investment. Nine world finance groups are bidding for the athletes’ village, and we have heard plenty about the two remaining contenders for the Olympic stadium.
The important point is that the OPLC will decide whether the eventual winner of the competition provides good value for money in the broadest possible sense. It is also important that whichever club wins the prize, it does not crowd out or put at risk the potential for other investment. It is important that the stadium be reopened rapidly after the games, that the proposal be financially credible and that the community will not be bystanders pressing their noses against the plate glass that excludes them. They are entitled to be full citizens enjoying the park’s facilities. If the OPLC approaches the decision in that way and builds on the commitment to the legacy of jobs, the promise of the legacy will continue to be realised.
Will the Minister reassure us that there will be a continued drive to develop skills and new jobs despite the Government’s proposal to abolish the London Development Agency? Will they realise, as hon. Members have mentioned, the full impact of the tourism legacy?
On school sport, we welcome the second major legacy promise. Will the Minister assure us that in the context of an 80% reduction, the number and range of sports offered will not be reduced, that competitive sport will continue to increase and that the Government will move towards the target that we set in government of 60% of young people participating in at least five hours of sport a week?
The challenges are great, and it is right that there is a clear cross-party commitment to running the Olympic games. I conclude by paying tribute to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who speaks for the other part of the Tory-led coalition, for the way they sought to ensure, certainly during my time as Secretary of State, that we maintained that spirit, because London deserves it.
I join other Members in congratulating you on your debut appearance in the Chair in this Chamber, Miss McIntosh. No one has mentioned it, but we all ought to congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) who has just been elevated to the Privy Council.
I add my personal thanks to the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) for the extraordinarily constructive and inclusive way she managed the process when she was in charge. The past six months must have been difficult for her; to start a project of that sort, be as closely involved as she was and then, for reasons beyond her control, see it pass to someone else must have been difficult. I simply say that I am grateful to her for everything she did and for the way she has conducted herself since. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing the debate and on the way he made his points.
Given that time is short, I will try to answer the various questions that have been asked as best I can, rather than read the prepared speech, which I suspect might be rather familiar to the right hon. Lady. The right hon. Member for East Ham should have no fear about the political aspect, if that was a worry behind anything he said. The Olympic Park Legacy Company, chaired by Baroness Ford, is doing a fantastic job. She was appointed by the Government in which the right hon. Gentleman served and is a Labour peer—I think she may be a Cross Bencher now—so he should have no worries on the political front.
The right hon. Gentleman asked some good questions about jobs on the site. There are currently 10,333 people working either on the park or the village, of whom 25% and 29% respectively come from the six host boroughs. Genuine employment opportunities have been created, even before the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games brings forward its opportunities, or Westfield starts to recruit for the Stratford City development, which I am told will bring another 20,000 jobs to the area. If those forecasts are correct, the position looks reasonably promising. I enjoyed his suggestion about local residents and a local food court, and hope that he will manage to persuade his borough to take that up.
I absolutely take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s points about school sport. I think that we are all much happier with the position we are in now than the one we were in a week ago. To be fair to the Secretary of State for Education, it was a difficult decision. He had a budget that was subject to a 10% cut and had decided to hand the budgets over to schools, as the hon. Member for Bath noted. Once he had done that and given the schools a 0.1% increase above inflation, he was left with a very small pot, out of which he had to make his 10% cross-departmental cut. At the same time, he was trying to fund the pupil premium, which I guess will benefit many young men and women growing up in the borough of the right hon. Member for East Ham. It was an extremely tight financial settlement, and although I take on board the many points that have been made by the sports lobby, not a single one of them came forward and said, “Save this and cut the other”; it was all, “Save this spending”. Anyone who has had to go through a major deficit reduction plan will know the difficulties involved.
The stadium was the major part of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. He made a powerful case for West Ham, but I hope that he will not be offended if I say that it was not the first time I have heard that speech, or indeed the counter-offer from north London. He is absolutely right to say that I visited the West Ham community scheme about a year and a half ago when I was in opposition. It is a powerful scheme that does fantastic work in the community, and I pay tribute to it again, as I did at the time.
We are currently in the middle of a legal process, so I am unable to say a great deal more about that now, but I will come on to the dates and who is making the decisions in a moment. Clearly, it is massively to the benefit of the public purse that two extremely good and competitive bids are going forward. If I were to comment in too much detail one way or the other, however, I would open myself up to judicial review. Having been a distinguished Minister in the previous Government, the right hon. Gentleman will know that landing the Government in the High Court is not normally a role for junior Ministers, so I will leave it at that and simply say that the process is ongoing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) talked about the financial aspects. On the village, I can assure him that there are nine high-quality bids, as the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood said. I do not think that I am breaking any confidences when I say that that was considerably more than we expected. There is a great deal of interest in what is being built on the park, and almost everyone who goes there is—to use a nasty, modern phrase—blown away by it. There is considerable investor interest in large parts of it, so I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured. The right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood is right about the hotel rooms; they are not being paid for from the public budget, and many of the bodies occupying them—the international federations and the rest—are simply billed for them. It is not some great state-sponsored beano in which people will be living at the Dorchester at huge public cost.
In a very good speech, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) spoke of his passion for the bid. I was lucky enough to be with the hon. Member for Bath and the right hon. Lady in Singapore at the time, and I thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham for the role he played. He made a powerful speech about Tottenham. I hope he will be impressed to know that I have also visited the Tottenham Hotspur community scheme; indeed, he will be doubly impressed to hear that I did so during black history week. There were many people in the stadium at Tottenham studying the very first black player to play for Tottenham.
The very man. They had all drawn him, were learning about him and putting that into context. Crucially, I was told that there was a reading skills course, which I think had been running for seven weeks when I visited, and the average literacy age increased by 18 months over that period. It is a fantastic scheme, and the right hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to it.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the time, but he will appreciate that the remarks I made earlier apply to what I can and cannot say about the process. He is absolutely right that the initial decision will be made by the OPLC board on 28 January. It will then be confirmed, and eventually due diligence will start. I am absolutely sure that some form of deposit or bond will be taken from whichever preferred bidder emerges from that stage, and the decision will then come back to the founder members of the OPLC board—the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Mayor of London. Those three bodies will take on that scheme, and that arrangement was set up under the previous Government. I hope that answers all the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about the process.
The current timetable, all being well—clearly that depends on due diligence and the various things that have to be gone through with the preferred bidder—is for the decision to be announced by the end of the financial year, so by the end of the first quarter of 2011. I would imagine that 1 April 2011 would be a good planning date. Like all decisions, it will be a balance; value for public money, the legacy and promises that we have made will all be considered.
The hon. Member for Bath made a customarily good speech. With regard to tourism, he is right to identify the gap between the ending of RDAs and the start of LEPs as a concern. We are looking at that process with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I absolutely take on board his remarks about county sports partnerships. One of the things that has come out of the slightly tortured process of the past three months is the question of whether we are making enough use of CSPs, which tend to vary in quality, depending on the area in which they are sited, who is in them and who is running them. There is certainly room to bring the two closer together.
The hon. Gentleman also touched on international inspiration, which has not formed part of the debate. I do not know how many Members picked it up, but we were able to confirm the full funding from the Department for International Development for the remainder of the International Inspiration scheme, which is a considerable step forward.
I thank the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) for his contribution. He made the case for Spurs to remain at White Hart Lane. I am probably in danger of overreaching my brief, but I am not sure that that is an option B, as all the information I have seen indicates that Spurs is pursuing that option very seriously indeed. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) made a powerful case in favour of West Ham, and I wish him well for the Boxing day fixture. Time is running out, so I thank all Members who have spoken in the debate for their contributions, particularly the right hon. Member for East Ham, and wish everyone a happy Christmas.
Local Government Funding (Hackney)
In these final hours of a momentous parliamentary year, I am grateful to be able to put on the record my concern about the consequences of local government funding cuts for my constituency. To make the case fully about what a hammer blow the cuts will be, I have to put those cuts into context.
Parents and young people in Hackney are still reeling from the consequences of the cuts in the education maintenance allowance. The east end of London, particularly Hackney, has one of the highest proportions of young people claiming the EMA of anywhere in the country. In one of the further education colleges in my constituency, BSix, more than 75% of the students claim the EMA. Yesterday, I heard the Secretary of State for Education claim that the EMA was tokenistic. I put it to the Minister that the sums involved—£10, £20 or £30—are not tokenistic in the east end of London. Those sums have made it possible for young people to stay on at school. Losing that money will be a blow to household budgets and will be a slap in the face for those young people and their aspirations.
We will also be hit by the health reorganisation, contrary to the claims of Ministers that the health budget is protected. Hundreds of redundancy notices will be issued by the primary care trust in my constituency, as in others throughout the country, as part of the reorganisation process. Ministers have promised that 45% of management jobs will be lost. Those are real jobs held by real people, some of whom live in my constituency and many of whom are women.
The context of the local government cuts also includes the figures this month on rising unemployment and the big cuts in the public sector generally. The Minister knows that the public sector is a major employer in Hackney, particularly of women.
As if all that was not enough, there will also be changes to housing benefit, which will affect claimants in Hackney, who numbered 7,829 as of November. Based on the current caseload, the average shortfall for a claimant in Hackney due to the caps will by £22.96, but the highest shortfall could be as much as £250 a week. Those calculations do not take into account the further shortfalls that will also arise from the 30th percentile rule, which will mean that people can only get housing benefit from the bottom percentile of private sector rents in their area.
We are not looking at local government cuts in isolation. In Hackney, one of the poorest boroughs in the country, local government cuts should be seen in the context of cuts in the EMA and housing benefit, job losses in the health sector and rising unemployment. On top of these things come the local government funding cuts.
I sought this debate because Government grants to Hackney are being cut by 14.9%, the equivalent of £44 million. That is the biggest cut in London and one of the highest in the UK, putting Hackney 26th out of 152, in percentage terms. If I put nothing else on the record, I wish to put on the record that the Government figure showing an 8.9% reduction was misleading, because it includes moneys that do not come from the Government, including council tax revenue, transitional grant funding, which is only available for the first year, and £3.7 million NHS funding for new activities. The real figure is 14.9%, which is more than £44 million.
In responding to the 8.9% figure, I must say that the Government have made much of the fact that funding per head for residents in Hackney in 2011-12 will be £1,043, compared with only £125 per head in Wokingham. That seems like a huge gap. Some, perhaps even the Minister, will say, “Clearly, Hackney is being treated generously and maybe with undue generosity.” But I am grateful to be able to put the truth about the cuts on the record. Hackney has more than £1,000 per head in local government funding because it has a very low tax base per head—the last major factory moved out of Hackney when I first became a Member of Parliament, more than 20 years ago—whereas Wokingham has a very high tax base.
The London borough of Hackney’s need assessment is one of the highest in England—I have worked in Hackney for 20 years and have personal understanding and knowledge of that—whereas Wokingham has one of the lowest. To illustrate that, in case the Minister is not persuaded, 33% of children, or more than 6,000 pupils, in the London borough of Hackney take free school meals, whereas in Wokingham only 3.9% of pupils—just 491 children—take free school meals. In Hackney, 44% of children are in out-of-work families in receipt of child tax credit, but in Wokingham the figure is only 6.7%. In Hackney, the proportion of older people on the income support element of pension credit is 53.7%, whereas in Wokingham it is only 9.2%.
I beg Ministers to stop making misleading comparisons between Hackney and shire counties, because the need in Hackney is so much greater than in the areas that they are referring to. It is misleading and unfair and it seems as though they do not take seriously the huge social need in the inner city.
The cut of 14.9% is being imposed on top of all the other cutbacks that Hackney is facing. What will be the consequences of such a cut in local government funding to Hackney, together with the changes in the apportionment of what used to be called neighbourhood renewal funds? Inevitably, because the local authority is such a huge employer, there is a threat to jobs and services.
We in Hackney—myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and our elected mayor, Jules Pipe—will be fighting to save jobs and services, but already we know that five youth clubs that we were promised under schemes promoted by the previous Government will not happen. There is concern that the Government are carelessly stopping that youth provision with the stroke of a pen, although Hackney faces so many issues to do with youth culture, gangs, antisocial behaviour and criminality.
We know, partly because of the nature of the schemes that we spend the neighbourhood renewal funds on, that youth offending work and youth work is threatened, as is work with young people not in education, employment or training and on child obesity.
Posts will be deleted. It will suit civil servants and even some council officers to claim that they are not making redundancies—some will be agency posts and others will be voluntary redundancies and I suspect that, at this stage, only a small proportion of posts deleted will be involuntary redundancies—but a post that is deleted is a job that is not there. Just because somebody is an agency worker does not mean that their need for employment is any less. They may not figure in a column headed “Redundancies”, but people who had jobs will lose them.
The hundreds of posts that are deleted, even if they are not officially regarded as redundancies, will mean fewer jobs for young people leaving Hackney schools and colleges who have worked hard and hope to make some sort of life for themselves. In the opening weeks and months, as Hackney local authority draws up its budgets, we will know exactly where the axe will fall. There is no question but that both jobs and services are threatened.
I have heard a number of Ministers in the Tory-led Government talk about local government bureaucracy. The mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, is aware of that issue and 36% of posts at tiers 1, 2 and 3 are being deleted—that is 20 positions altogether. In debates such as this, mention is often made of how much chief executive officers in local authorities are paid. Let me put on the record that I do not defend those salary levels, and I do not accept the argument that the salaries earned by some chief executive officers in London are due to the market; it is a cartel driven by recruitment agencies. I have discussed that issue with colleagues in local government who say that they cannot attract the people and that they need to bring people in. I argue, however, that it cannot be satisfactory to have so many leaders of inner-city local authorities who do not live in inner cities; some of them commute from far outside the M25. Local authorities need to invest in second and third-tier officers, so that it becomes more normal to recruit at the highest levels from within. Those authorities would then not have to pay inflated salaries via recruitment agencies, and they would be more likely to attract people who, instead of travelling hundreds of miles to their place of work, are local, have roots in the area and understand the authority.
I do not defend the high, inflated salaries that, in my view, have been paid to some chief executive officers over the recent decade. Such salaries would be more acceptable if those officers accepted what many of us in the House would consider to be proper accountability. Some seem to have difficulty with the notion that together with such a considerable salary—three times that of a Member of Parliament and more than that of the Prime Minister—comes accountability. Sadly, the case of Sharon Shoesmith is an example of that. I am not here to defend high salaries, but even if we got rid of every first, second and third-tier officer in Hackney, it still would not make up for the £44 million of cuts that we face.
In conclusion, we are all aware that savings have to be found in the aftermath of the credit crunch. However, the Labour party does not accept the argument put forward by Ministers and their supporters that the cuts are inevitable in their totality. The cuts are ideological, and the fact that boroughs such as Hackney will be hit so much harder than boroughs such as Richmond points to what is going on. It is wrong and distressing for Ministers to compare Hackney with Wokingham as if they were in any way comparable. It is wrong to mask the scale of the cuts by adding in council tax revenues as if those are given to Hackney from central Government, when in fact the money is raised. It is wrong for Ministers to turn away from the real need that exists in boroughs such as Hackney.
Over the past few decades, remarkable work has been done by community organisations, local authority leaders and the Government in the east end of London. In my local authority, there are five new academies; there is the brand new east London line, which is the brain child of a former Mayor of London. However, the east end still struggles with the legacy of Britain’s industrial past. It is no coincidence that some of the most historically significant local government leaders emerged out of the politics of the east end in the 19th century—George Lansbury, for example, and the councillors of Poplar. It has been clear for over a century that the issues and challenges that face communities in the east end of London cannot be solved by individual charity alone. They cannot be solved by, “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate”, or by charity at the appropriate time. Such problems can be solved by the aspirations and ingenuity of individuals, but only if there is a strong local state. Those of us who live in the east end of London and represent the area, look with apprehension at the clear intention of the Conservative-led Government to whittle away at the local state in the east end, to delete posts and services and leave families and children unprotected against the stormy economic times that we are passing through.
These are almost the final hours of 2010. It has been a momentous Parliament. For the first time in many years we have a coalition Government, and for the first time ever, I am on my party’s Front Bench. The year has ended in a way that many of us could not have foreseen. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am pleased to put my concerns about the cuts on the record, and I assure the Minister and the House that when it comes to fighting to defend the interests of the people of Hackney, I will stand side by side with my colleagues and we will give no quarter. We were elected to fight for people who have no voice and for a better, stronger community. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, the mayor of Hackney, and I believe that the wave of cuts that is coming towards the east end from all quarters poses a real threat to communities and to the changes made by recent generations.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for providing hon. Members with the opportunity for this debate. As she said, it has been a momentous year for her and also for me—I, too, did not expect to be where I am. However, that gives me the opportunity to address the concerns raised by the hon. Lady, and those in a wider context that relate to the economy and local government.
When the coalition Government took office, they had clear objectives. Right at the top of those objectives was the desire to shift power from Westminster—and more particularly from Whitehall—to people and communities at grass-roots level, and to promote decentralisation and democratic engagement. We are doing that by giving new powers to councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals.
The backdrop of the economic crisis that we inherited meant that we also needed to identify better ways of funding local government. The spending review and the provisional settlement provide opportunities to do that, and we are working hard to ensure that it happens. Managing the impact of the funding reductions requires tough choices.
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s view that the cuts are ideologically driven. I am sure that if someone comes to her surgery and says, “I am having difficulty paying my rent or my electricity bill but I’m going on holiday to Corfu next week”, her advice would be to cancel the holiday to Corfu and concentrate on delivering the essentials. That is what the Government are doing. Each day, £400 million must be borrowed—perhaps the figure is even larger. We are increasing income and we must reduce expenditure. We are doing that to the best of our ability by protecting the most vulnerable people. I understand the hon. Lady’s points; they are heartfelt and based on her experience as a vigorous and active constituency Member. However, we need to put that in a context where the revenue funding to local government from central Government must be reduced. The comprehensive spending review confirmed that the revenue would reduce by 26% in real terms during the CSR period, excluding expenditure on schools, the fire brigade and police. However, it is very important to understand—and I am sure that the hon. Lady does understand—that local government spending will reduce by far less than 26% because councils also get money from council tax. She is wrong to discount the contribution that council tax will make to the spending power of Hackney.
I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making, and I will come on to the detail of the sums in a minute or two, if I may. However, the Government, the Department and the Secretary of State have made it clear that we are talking about the spending power available to councils, which is what is crucial to the council’s delivery of services and its employment of staff, as I am sure she understands. It is about how much money the local authority has to spend. She is right: the contribution from central Government is reducing and will reduce further over the period of the CSR. However, the capacity of the council to spend money will not fall below the figures we announced.
Even in these difficult financial times, we have protected those in most need of support. We have provided £1 billion of NHS funding to support social care services, which will build up by 2014-15 and is front-loaded, with £800 million of it coming in the next financial year. That includes £650 million paid through PCTs next year, and Hackney will benefit from a share of that money—as will all social services authorities—by receiving approximately £3,700,000. In a throw-away remark, the hon. Lady said that that would be for new duties; it is for managing the junction between health and social services, which service deliverers on both sides understand can make real economies and add common sense to their joint budgets, as well as improve care. In addition, the Department of Health is rolling £2.4 billion of social care funding into the formula grant over the next three years. That is made up of existing social care grants, which will rise in line with inflation and reach £1.4 billion by 2014, and an additional £1 billion, which will come from the funding to the NHS to councils to support social care.
We have protected investment in the homelessness grant and are prioritising services with the Supporting People programme over the spending review period. We are also giving more flexibility to local authorities. We are ending the ring-fencing of all revenue grants from next year, except school grants, and there will be a new public health grant from 2013. We have simplified and streamlined grant funding, and have shifted a wide range of other budgets, including GP and police and crime commissioner budgets, to the local level where they can be pooled and aligned. An important further step will be the creation of community budgets starting in 16 pilot areas next year, but it is possible to extend that to all local authority areas by 2013.
Turning to Hackney, I welcome what the hon. Lady had to say about high-powered salaries in the local government sector. I think that she and I are of the same mind on that. I hope her words will be widely listened to across London and elsewhere. We have produced a settlement that ensures that no council will see its revenue spending power decrease by more than 8.9% either next year or the year after and is progressive in its impact—I will come to that in a moment. It also confirms the transfer of control of finances from Government to local authorities, giving local authorities discretion. It is in that context, and the context of the council tax freeze and next year’s supporting grant, that I want to assure the hon. Lady that we have responded to the pressures that undoubtedly exist in Hackney for public services and for strong local government.
Is there not a danger in the local government settlement that we are inadvertently penalising local councils that are already running a very tight ship? As the Minister may know, Bromley, which includes my constituency of Orpington, receives the second lowest local government formula grant—just £216. That is being cut by 14.3%, even though the council has very little to cut as it is.
I can if necessary fight a war on two fronts, but that intervention probably makes the point for me. The settlement that we have produced protects Hackney and, it perhaps could be said, at the expense of Bromley. We have subdivided local authorities, in relation to the allocation of grants, by what we have described as banded floors. There are four bands, based on their dependence on Government grant as a fraction of their total spending.
If the local government settlement is as benign as the Minister says, why have leading Liberal Democrat councillors and local government leaders and leading Conservative local government leaders attacked it? I believe that one Liberal Democrat local authority leader went so far as to refer to the Secretary of State and the Minister for Housing and Local Government as Laurel and Hardy. I would not dream of being so disrespectful, but those are not the words of people who are happy with the settlement.
The hon. Lady and I have been around for longer than probably either of us wants to admit. With every local government settlement, every council finds a reason to complain that it has not been dealt with fairly. I understand that. This is the local government settlement in which every local authority faces a reduction, so it is not unexpected that the pain is felt and sometimes expressed.
However, we are protecting Hackney through the introduction of the banded floors, which means that its proportion of grant reduction is less than the proportion of grant reduction for those in the most independent sector of the local government family. In fact, Hackney is 3% better off than it would have been if we had stuck to the previous Government’s grant formula system.
We have adjusted the distribution of grant to give greater weight to relative needs, raising the figure from 73% to 83%, so that the per capita element is reduced and the element dependent on the deprivation of the area is increased. We have also introduced the transitional fund. That directly benefits Hackney to the tune of about £5,800,000. The introduction of the transitional grant means that we have been able to limit the losses of the councils that would otherwise have been most severely hit. The transitional grant goes to Hackney; it goes to some 70 councils in all over the two-year period, ensuring that any council that in either year would go over the 8.9% threshold will receive transitional grant funding to bring it back to that level. We are currently consulting on that and, in making our final recommendation, we shall look with interest at the feedback that we get from councils.
I want to deal with the hon. Lady’s point about the comparison between Hackney and Wokingham. That is not to say that Wokingham is like Hackney. It is to point out to hon. Members that the Government understand that Hackney is more vulnerable than Wokingham, which is why for every pound of grant going to a person in Wokingham, £8.36 goes to a person in Hackney—a multiple of 8.36. That is the amount of Government grant going to Hackney compared with Wokingham. That is not because we are saying that they are the same, but because the Government freely acknowledge their differences and the need to respond differently and appropriately.
The hon. Lady suggested that there was some kind of conspiracy, perhaps at the expense of her party. The formula grant reduction for Conservative single-tier authorities is 11.9%. For Labour authorities, it is 10.9%. For Liberal Democrats, as she might think is appropriate, it is an 11.3% reduction. Therefore, there is no political conspiracy. Labour authorities have on average £1,092 spending power per head; Conservative ones £862; Liberal Democrat ones £929. Those figures come from the House of Commons Library.
I am grateful for the chance to hold this debate, which will be the last in Westminster Hall this year. I am indebted to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) for sparing time in the pre-Christmas rush to be here, as well as to the Minister for indulging my interest in the subject in a conversation in the Tea Room a fortnight ago, during which he suggested that I apply for this debate. I hope he is not now regretting that I was successful in the ballot.
The subject is undeniably topical. Anybody doubting the transformational impact of the internet on diplomacy need look only at how the dissemination of hundreds of thousands of sensitive US diplomatic cables through the WikiLeaks website is rocking Governments throughout the world. That was why I entered the ballot, because I wanted to see whether I could draw some preliminary lessons from the WikiLeaks affair. Before I turn to WikiLeaks directly, however, I want to point out that the internet presents opportunities for, as well as threats to, our diplomats. New internet tools have extended the reach of our ideas by circumventing politically motivated censorship and enabling citizens living in oppressive regimes to exercise their rights of free expression, if unfortunately only on a stop-go basis.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, like many other diplomatic services, has developed a substantial “digital diplomacy” initiative in recent years. A more web-savvy FCO has our diplomats blogging and tweeting away as they make Britain’s case in an informal way with audiences around the world. The FCO is also experimenting with intensive online campaigns, notably its Nuclear 2010 campaign in support of UK objectives for the review of the non-proliferation treaty, the campaign to secure the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the campaign to shape global opinion during the London G20 summit. However, there is no easy-to-download app for every diplomatic challenge the UK faces. Adapting to new technologies is never easy for big organisations.
Recent events have shown how easily the same internet technologies can usher in as many diplomatic disasters as breakthroughs. The fateful decision in June 2010 of a former US army intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, to give some 260,000 US diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, the website dedicated to publishing confidential material, has been a wake-up call to foreign services around the world. I would like to reflect on some of the lessons that we might learn from the recent experience, which I believe marks a watershed in the relationship between diplomacy and the internet.
It is three weeks since The Guardian, along with four other news organisations—The New York Times, El País, Le Monde and Der Spiegel—began publishing extracts from the cables that Julian Assange had directly or indirectly made available in the first instance just to them. As yet, they have neither dumped the entire dataset into the public domain, nor published names that would endanger innocent individuals. I believe they have so far acted in a responsible manner. I have spoken to other newspaper editors who said they would have behaved in exactly the same way. I fundamentally disagree with Senator Joseph Lieberman, who accused The New York Times of
“at the very least an act of bad citizenship”.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the language of both Senator Lieberman and my friend Vice-President Joe Biden, who described Assange as a terrorist. None the less, the names were given of three senior Thai officials animadverting on the sexual and other behaviours of the Crown Prince. If a courtier in Buckingham Palace did that, presumably not an awful lot would happen to him, but I am not so sure about Thailand, so I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right to say that all the revelations are harmless. In the Kremlin, Putin’s people have said that they now know the names of some of these people and they will be taking action. I would be quaking in my boots thanks to The Guardian and Assange because of some of the names put on the web.
It is regrettable if people have been put in a position that makes them vulnerable to reprisals. I was not aware of the instance to which the right hon. Gentleman refers or of the fact that Putin had said that he was in a position to take action. I suspect that part of that may be bluff. Perhaps he wishes that he knew who was responsible.
Foreign policy in this country and in many democracies that are otherwise healthy is fundamentally and woefully underscrutinised. In Britain, for example, a Prime Minister can sign international treaties and take a country to war without a vote in Parliament. Foreign Office questions in Parliament come round only once every five sitting weeks. The culture of bipartisanship and the parochial nature of domestic politics stifle scrutiny of foreign policy making, but WikiLeaks is starting to change some of that. We can see that millions of people around the world, many of them in countries that have been denied a free media, have glimpsed truths about their rulers and Governments that had previously been hidden from them or that they had merely suspected. The Guardian is right to claim that the cables have revealed
“wrongdoing, war crimes, corruption, hypocrisy, greed, espionage, double-dealing and the cynical exercise of power on a wondrous scale.”
The fact that there has been public interest in an airing of these documents—or a large majority of them—is beyond question. We have learned from the revelations, among thousands of other things, that Saudi Arabia and other Arab Governments sided with Israel in urging the US to stop Iran developing a nuclear bomb; that US officials have been instructed to spy on the UN leadership, demanding e-mail addresses, phone, fax and pager numbers, credit card details and frequent flyer numbers; that there could be a shift in relations between China and North Korea, with suggestions that Beijing might not intervene if the reclusive regime in Pyongyang collapsed; that there are concerns over Pakistan’s growing instability, the security of its nuclear weapons and suspicions that the Inter-Services Intelligence is backing the Taliban in the war in Afghanistan; that there are suspicions of corruption in the Afghan Government, with one cable alleging that Vice-President Zia Massoud was carrying $52 million in cash when he was stopped during a visit to the UAE; that Russia and its intelligence agencies are using mafia bosses to carry out criminal operations, with one cable describing the country as a “virtual mafia state”; that there is a close relationship between Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, which is causing intense US suspicion; and that US commanders, the Afghan President and local officials in Helmand have privately been critical of the UK’s military operations in Afghanistan.
Those are just a few of the highlights that have been picked up and re-published by thousands of newspapers and all other forms of media organisations all over the world. There will be more to come, but what is clear is that there is massive global interest in this extraordinary deluge of information. That is not because Assange and the “information-must-be-free” brigade at WikiLeaks have given these documents a global circulation, but because thousands of editors at hundreds of media organisations in dozens of countries throughout the world have all judged that there is a compelling public interest justifying publication.
It is possible to start drawing some lessons from the WikiLeaks saga. Just as the Supreme Court ruled in the Pentagon papers case more than three decades ago, it is, first and foremost, for Governments to protect their own secrets. It is not the job of the media to do so, unless there is a compelling national security reason to hold back from publication. The WikiLeaks affair has reignited the debate about where the line should be drawn between the right to a free press and freedom of speech, and the interests of national security. It has intensified what is an eternal and essentially unresolvable conflict. On the one hand, we defend and demand freedom of expression and the ideal of a free press but, on the other hand, we accept the limits to those freedoms in the interests of national security.
Those at the freedom-of-expression end of the debate have hailed Assange as a hero for revealing double-dealing and hypocrisy around the world. He is called the new Jason Bourne by Jemima Khan, the Ned Kelly of the cyber age by members of the press in Australia, and a libertine 007 by those who note his fondness for martinis. They point out that people living in countries with repressive Governments who lack a free media have a great hunger to read what their rulers have been saying and that we deny them that right at our peril.
To such people, it must appear hypocritical for the US to argue that the internet can be a force for transparent and democratic Government, and for accountability and democracy around the world, and then to condemn as “nihilists” those who use internet technology to allow greater scrutiny of US foreign policy making. I have considerable sympathy for that line of argument—what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
I have not been persuaded by those on the national security side of the argument who have accused the WikiLeaks founder of being an information or info-tech “terrorist”, to use the word cited by Vice-President Biden, which was mentioned earlier by the right hon. Member for Rotherham, and of putting the lives of civilians and troops in danger. Thus far, as I said earlier, I think that the redaction of names and other sensitive information by The Guardian and the four other media organisations entrusted with the cables has been extremely diligent and painstaking. Of course, any broader distribution of the cables beyond this core group of responsible media organisations might considerably increase the risks to individuals named, especially if standards of care drop. For the moment, however, I am yet to be convinced that the release of the cables will increase the vulnerability of the US to attack, as has been rather melodramatically suggested.
I also take with a pinch of salt the way in which US diplomats have been touring TV studios invoking the sanctity of diplomatic communications, as per the Vienna convention on consular relations. That international treaty was signed in 1963 by 172 countries. Among other things, it guarantees the inviolability of the diplomatic bag and other communications from embassies back to their home countries. I am sceptical, first, because it is states that are signatories to that convention, rather than media organisations, and, secondly, because of the revelation in the leaked cables that the US seems to use staff in some of its embassies as part of a global espionage network tasked with obtaining not only information from the people whom those staff meet, but a wealth of personal details, including even DNA material.
A second lesson is that it would be dismaying if there were now to be an attempt in the US to prosecute Julian Assange for his role in publishing the documents. I say that because I think that such an attempt would conflate the role of the media with that of espionage, which in turn would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism, the purpose of which is to unearth “what they don’t want you to know”. It would be one thing if Julian Assange had encouraged, helped or conspired with Bradley Manning to leak the material, but Assange claims—and there is no reason at this point to disbelieve him—never to have even heard the informant’s name until he read it in an article in Wired magazine that mentioned Manning’s arrest. I am no lawyer, but unless it can be established that there is a bona fide ground for Assange to be charged under the US Espionage Act, he surely deserves to be regarded as a publisher and a journalist, which in a US court of law would entitle him to protection under the first amendment to the US constitution. From the limited information that is publicly available, I see little substantive difference between Assange’s role and that of The Guardian, The New York Times and others in running the story contained in the cables that he passed on to them. Neither he nor they were the original leakers.
Thirdly, the WikiLeaks affair shows us that technology is making it much more difficult to keep information confidential. It has exposed the extent to which internet technology makes possible security breaches on a scale that was unimaginable in an era of paper-based communication. As Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador to the US in the Blair years, has pointed out, paper would have been impossible to steal in such quantities. The cables themselves came from a huge secret internet protocol router network—a database that was kept separate from the ordinary civilian internet and run by the Department of Defence in Washington. Since the attacks of September 2001, there has been a move in the US to link up archives of Government information in the hope that key intelligence no longer gets trapped in information silos or “stovepipes”. This database can be accessed not only by anyone in the State Department, but by anyone in the US military who has security clearance up to the secret level, a password and a computer connected to the database, which astonishingly covers more than 3 million people, including Private Bradley Manning.
The US Government have now announced a thorough review of the principles on which they share the information that they collect—I am sure that the Saudi King, for example, will be relieved to hear that. Safeguarding sources is critical to any information-gathering exercise and after such a breach, rebuilding the trust of many thousands of sources will be a painstaking exercise. The US’s experience is therefore a salutary lesson for all other diplomatic services around the world. I will be interested to know whether the Foreign Office proposes a similar review.
We are at a watershed in relations between the Government and the new internet media. The UK Government have a clear choice as to whether to promote a transparency agenda or to seek the false comfort of the old culture of secrecy and repression. I would prefer Britain to choose to become a more open and less secretive society, rather than to leave it to the likes of Julian Assange to force openness upon us. Rather than tightening further our draconian Official Secrets Act and threatening to prosecute journalists and whistleblowers, Governments should focus on making more information available and protecting only that which can cause substantive harm.
It is worth noting that none of the released documents was classified as top secret and much of the information in the 6% of documents classified as secret was already publicly known. Furthermore, these documents were likely to be released anyway in the course of freedom of information requests.
Of course, media organisations must exercise caution when revealing possibly sensitive information that could endanger lives, and this country should respect defence advisory notices when they are reasonably issued. However, new technologies have the potential to transform diplomacy and foreign policy making for the better in the long run. Studies of the effects of right-to-information legislation in numerous countries have found that there has been little impact on the amount of information recorded and that opinions have not been blunted following an increase in transparency. There is no chilling effect. In fact, according to Article 19, an independent human rights organisation that works globally to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression, the quality of some documents has improved, because the people writing them know that they will become public one day. They therefore focus on the provision of real political analysis rather than tittle-tattle and colour.
Officials have a duty to pass on important information, and that is not lifted because of fears that it one day may become public. By forcing greater transparency in foreign policy making, I believe that WikiLeaks will ultimately have a beneficial effect on the conduct of diplomacy. Let us continue to embrace the new technologies, not smother them at birth.
I have consulted the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) on this debate, both in the House and by e-mail. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, a distinguished former correspondent of the Financial Times, on raising this issue. One of the most thoughtful Foreign Office Ministers is here with us. His colleague, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), mentioned in the main Chamber the concept of a private realm of information, which was new “dip speak” to me. I do not know whether the Minister will expand a bit on that.
I agree in part with the argument made by the hon. Member for Orpington: the victimisation and the turning of Mr Assange into some kind of hero are wrong. He is quite a squalid customer who is lapping up all the publicity that he is getting at the moment. The quicker we can forget about him, the better.
I do not agree that private communications should be made readily available, for the simple reason that the British diplomatic service is understaffed and one of the smallest, although of the highest quality, in the world. It works on complete frankness in paper communication. If that becomes impossible because people think that their real-time thoughts—which may be relevant on the day but perhaps not so accurate with the hindsight of longer reflection—cannot be transmitted because they can end up on the front page of a paper, the decision-making process here in our nation’s capital will suffer.
Most of the material that I saw as a Minister could have been put straight on to the web. In that sense, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but equally, he comes from a paper that takes foreign affairs seriously. It is extraordinary that we now learn that the International Committee of the Red Cross provided concrete evidence—
Miss McIntosh, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship— [Interruption.]
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) for his considered words on this issue, for raising topical and challenging questions, and for his immense courtesy in letting me have sight of his remarks before the debate so that I did not have to take them unwittingly from his computer.
There is no doubt that our information world has changed. The internet can be accessed from most homes in the UK and can be used as a force for mass communication and mobilisation. Much more information is published by the media, and government is more transparent than it has ever been. The internet has changed how we all communicate, the audiences that we can reach and the manner in which we speak to them. All that has happened at the same time as, although it is unconnected with, a loss of trust in those in authority and those who govern, and a deepening scepticism about what is kept private or secret by Governments, or indeed anyone.
I do not intend to comment on specific information released into the public realm in recent weeks, or on any legal issues affecting Julian Assange. What I want to discuss, and what I believe is essentially at issue in this debate, is the question of how much privacy there should be in the public realm—if I may gently correct the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), for whose presence at such an important debate I am grateful.
I think that my hon. Friend and I agree that there is a need and a place for some privacy in the public realm and other areas of life. Otherwise, it would be impossible for lawyers, doctors, journalists, scientists and other professionals to keep confidentiality in their work and before they reach conclusions that are ready to be made public. Premature exposure could threaten the integrity of such conclusions or prevent them from being reached at all. “Work in progress” is not a term to discard lightly.
An important distinction must be drawn between journalism and history. It is essential for information to be published and made accessible in due course to complete the historical record, uphold accountability and contribute to our understanding of the past. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office considers many documents ready for release after 30 years of storage, and most are, but journalism is not yet history, although perhaps it is history in progress. Live journalism shapes and influences events as they develop. When journalism breaches the confidentiality of diplomacy, it can threaten the ends that that diplomacy seeks to achieve. In diplomacy, the ability to negotiate in private confers freedom to broker agreement, and it is essential that that space remain. The basis of effective diplomacy continues to be trust between individuals and between states. There is thus space and reason for privacy.
The importance of free, frank and strictly confidential communication between Governments, and between Ministers and their diplomats, has been proved many times in history, from the formation of NATO to the western response to the Soviet Union, recent events such as climate change, peace and security debates at the UN, and the future of NATO. Diplomatic confidentiality has been severely strained by the release of sensitive diplomatic cables through WikiLeaks. The Government unequivocally condemn the unauthorised release of classified information. The leaks and their publication are damaging to national security in the United States, Britain and elsewhere. They are reckless, because they compromise the vital ability of Governments and diplomats to operate on the basis of confidentiality of information.
WikiLeaks confuses transparency and accountability with irresponsible attempts to undermine Government. The leaks undermine the trust and relationships that allow us to gather sensitive information as we pursue objectives in the UK’s national interest on such issues as one might expect—Iran, the middle east peace process, counter-terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation—and as individuals put their jobs, livelihoods and lives at stake to give us honest accounts of what is happening on human rights, politics and governance. Simply removing names from documents does not put that right. Sometimes, in a context unknown to an unsighted editor, the source of a comment is instantly recognisable, even with no name, to the parties involved. Security is thus unwittingly but recklessly compromised.
As my hon. Friend said at the beginning of his speech, it is those who bravely and candidly tell us what is happening under repressive regimes—those who offer insights that enrich our understanding and improve our policy, and without which we would be poorer—who are betrayed by WikiLeaks. I do not think that he is arguing with me about the need to keep some things private; the issue is what is kept private. To respond to his question, we are alert to the threat of unauthorised access, and we are doing all we can.
When WikiLeaks gives newspaper editors the power to choose which cables to release, what stories to write and how to spin them, it transfers a crucial power away from a democratically elected Government into the hands of an opaque elite. Governments are elected with a mandate to keep everyone’s interests at heart; editors are employed with a mandate to sell news. The internet may be democratic at the point of download, but it does not have to be democratic at the point of upload.
We must also consider the unintended consequences for the conduct of diplomacy of the leaking of sensitive and secret diplomatic cables. The inability to hold conversations in private, in the confidence that they will remain private, will mean diplomats are more guarded about what they say to each other. That point has been made. They will inevitably commit fewer of these exchanges to paper, and our historical record will be severely damaged as a result. Transparency is therefore not well served.
It is also important to emphasise that WikiLeaks must be judged quite separately from the internet. My hon. Friend is right: the internet has in many ways empowered the individual and provided otherwise impossible insights into closed societies. There is no doubt that in many ways diplomacy has benefited from the internet age. Our ambassadors tweet, our Ministers blog and our main web pages are viewed, on average, more than 4.2 million times a month. Thousands of British citizens rely on our website for up-to-the-minute travel advice and foreign policy news. During the ash crisis in April this year, the FCO’s social media profiles on Facebook and Twitter enabled us to listen to stories as they developed and to dismiss inaccuracies. Digital tools offer us the means to take diplomacy further into the public arena and reach audiences—in the blogosphere, in social media—with whom we could otherwise make no connection.
The job of diplomacy is to influence, explain and facilitate the delivery of our foreign policy goals. Increasingly that is not done state to state. Multiple global organisations that are not part of a Government impact constantly on our lives, whether they are multinational corporations or terrorist groups. Such digital conversations—often taking place in the local languages, from Vietnamese to Tagalog—open up new opportunities for diplomacy and enable us to talk about our work in new ways and in new places. Look, for example, at the Foreign Office blogs on human rights day, when members of staff around the world described their human rights work. Look, too, at the work of Ambassador John Duncan in bringing the mysterious world of the negotiations on the non-proliferation of nuclear arms into the light. That digital commentary explained, enlightened and ultimately strengthened wider support for our position in the negotiations.
The best of the web is where one engages and listens, not just where one broadcasts. Through blogging and social media, we can listen to how people view our work and monitor how the world views us, giving us the ability to adjust our behaviour accordingly. The internet age will continue to open up new possibilities and we will change the way we work as the world changes around us.
Our Government are open. We are committed to the principle and practice of freedom of information, and we handle the release of information routinely. In contrast to leaked documents, those releases are governed by a transparent system—a system of balanced judgment and careful consideration, which takes into account the interests of all, by the elected and not by the self-chosen. The positive and negative consequences of releasing information into the public realm are weighed against each other, and if it is in the public interest to release information, that information is released. If we as politicians and civil servants are accountable for those judgments about the public interest and the release of information, that helps to ensure that, for the public, the system is open, fair and democratic.
It has become fashionable but lazy to assume that anything done behind the curtain of democratic government is done against, not for, the common interest, and that there is only self-interest, not public interest. The work of thousands of people on behalf of this country demonstrates that that is simply not true, and it is time for elected Members and democratic Governments to say so.